Crossing borders, physical, metaphysical or musical, is always a tricky thing to do. And as far as music in concerned, it is all too easy to be cynical about it, given all those crossover projects devised by various marketing departments over the years.
Yet, with an orchestra like the Los Angeles Philharmonic, it is quite different matter. Rooted in the Californian cultural mixture, encompassing Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Hollywood, not to mention jazz, pop and myriad of folk styles, so many of those old borders have become obsolete in the everyday activities of a West Coast orchestra.
As a part of their 2019 Barbican Residency, LA Phil and Music Director Gustavo Dudamel provided their London audiences with a glimpse into the realm of crossing musical borders. Sharing the stage with Herbie Hancock, a jazz-funk-electro legend and the orchestra’s Creative Chair for Jazz.
Hancock and his quartet joined the orchestra and Dudamel for the second half of the evening, followed by a session for the band alone.
With LA Phil and Dudamel onstage, three Hancock classics, Chameleon (1973), Butterfly (1974) and Rockit (1983) were performed, all newly arranged for the quartet and orchestra. Of these three appealing settings, Rockit was the most intriguing one, fusing together the Hancock quartet, the LA Phil and a DJ, with turntables, resulting in something delightfully organic.
In Rockit, the orchestra was engaged in rousing string groove, with winds and brass providing marvellous harmonic colours, enhanced by percussion and turntables. Of the three songs featured, Rockit was also best served by sound engineering, with nice balance between the quartet, the turntables and the orchestra.
Dudamel and Hancock teamed well as bandleaders, both seemingly enjoying the collaboration.
As for Chameleon and Butterfly, the arrangements were equally solid, though more on the traditional side. Still, both of them were quite enjoyable, although in terms of sound design, I would have preferred a more focused emphasis on the orchestral part of Chameleon, especially in the opening minutes.
With Butterfly, the sound design fared way better, with the orchestra and the quartet more naturally balanced.
All things considered, these performances demonstated the strengts of a fruitful collaboration. Maybe the most profound effect was due to the naturalness of the whole business on both sides. A case in point of crossing borders with style and commitment.
On the first half of the evening, two European premieres were heard. Paul Desenne’s Guasamacabra (2018) derives from Venezuelan guasa tradition, where funny rhymes are set to very simple music, with a limping five-beat rhytmic twist.
In his new piece, Desenne takes the guasa tradition to the next level, combining the playful with the macabre. The result is, in a way, a contemporary Latin American La Valse, an orchestral tableau dancing on the verge of a catastrophe.
In musical terms Guasamacabra begins with innocent playfulness that quickly picks up a darker tone. The music hovers from delightful nostalgia to sonic menace, with the musical material often brought close to collapse. Yet, unlike Ravel’s 1919-20 choreographic poem, Guasamacabra does not conclude with self-annihilation, but something more ambivalent and empowering.
Dedicated to the children and youth suffering and struggling in Venezuela today, Guasamacabra is a compelling orchestral canvas, one dazzlingly orchestrated. The orchestra and Dudamel were at home with Desenne’s tricky rhythms and ever evolving textures. With a successful European premiere for an inspiring, communicative piece, the evening was given a wonderful start.
Guasamacabra was followed by the other new piece in the programme, Gabriela Ortiz’ Téenek – Invenciones de Territorio (2017). Conceived as a series of orchestral images, the music celebrates our human coexistence, a sense of belonging, emerging from the recognition of otherness.
In Téenek, a series of musical character pieces unravels in the form of a suite, with seemingly unrelated musical ideas worked into a continuum. With each section, different musical idioms are examined, to a fascinating effect.
For an orchestra, Téenek provides a formidable challenge with its variety of textures, rhythms and melodic universes. With Dudamel and the LA Phil, Téenek was ever in good hands, as demonstrated by the upliftting European premiere performance, one with ravishing colours, dexterous rhytms and excellent transparency.
As a whole, the evening was a refreshing reminder of the wonderful diversity of our contenporary music cultures, joined together by creative collaboration and artistry.
Los Angeles Philharmonic
Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Herbie Hancock, keyboards
Paul Desenne: Guasamacabra (2018) European premiere
Gabriela Ortiz: Téenek – Invenciones de Territorio (2017) European premiere
Herbie Hancock: Chameleon (1973)
Herbie Hancock: Butterfly (1974)
Herbie Hancock: Rockit (1983)
Barbican Centre (LA Phil 2019 Residency)
Tuesday 19 November 2019, 7.30 pm
© Jari Kallio
Photos © Mark Allan / Barbican