California celebrates new music
Thursday, October 26, 2023
James Jolly previews the first state-wide celebration of the music of today that will be taking place in November
I have a couple of special – but very different – memories of wonderful music-making in California. Thirty-one years ago, I flew to San Francisco to interview Herbert Blomstedt and on my first evening in the city went to the Opera to see Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was in an enchanting production by John Copley (it originated, I think, in Ottawa) that set the work absolutely in the setting Shakespeare would have recognised – all leafy and green, as if in a real forest. John Mauceri conducted with a lovely feel for the score’s fantasy, but it was the regal fairy couple that won my heart that evening. Brian Asawa, who would die far too young in 2016 aged only 49, was a perfect Oberon, but the star of the evening was the silver-voiced Sylvia McNair – the ideal embodiment of the Fairy Queen with singing of a truly ethereal quality. Then, in 2005 I was in Los Angeles and witnessed the acoustic beauty of Walt Disney Hall for the first time. The programme – Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the LA Phil – couldn’t have been better chosen to show off the hall’s acoustics: Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question (fun fact: its LA premiere in the Hollywood Bowl in 1959 was conducted by none other than Herbert von Karajan – who probably never went near Ives ever again!), John Adams’s The Dharma at Big Sur with Tracy Silverman the electric violin soloist, and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé. The Ives started with the musicians out of sight, high up on a balcony at the back, in a magical coup de théâtre, the Adams used the amplified electric violin to soar around the hall while the Ravel was positively embraced by the space, the chorus adding to the lusciousness of the sound. (I could also add a couple of concerts where California came to London – Giulini and the LAPO in perhaps the greatest Eroica I’ll ever hear, and a pretty stunning Pathétique at the Royal Festival Hall in 1980).
All of that was by way of an introduction to a trip I’m about to undertake to sample the California Festival, a new state-wide two-week celebration of ‘classical music’ (in the broadest sense) that carries the mission statement ‘A Celebration of New Music’. We, in the UK, can be a bit blasé about the BBC Proms, and in sheer quantity it trumps most other festivals, but it’s very much dominated by orchestral music, and despite outreach concerts around the country is still associated with London’s Royal Albert Hall. This festival, spearheaded by the State’s three major orchestras – the LA Phil, San Francisco Symphony and San Diego Symphony and their three Music Directors, Gustavo Dudamel, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Rafael Payare – has a very specific aim (in the press release’s words): to ‘spotlight works written in the last five years that resonate with the curiosity and joyful experimentation that permeate the history of music in California’. It’s a noble aim, and given the State’s reputation for creativity and innovation (after all, Silicon Valley and the film, TV and music industries have helped give California an economy that, were it a separate country, would be fifth on the world stage after Germany and ahead of India) is entirely achievable. One hundred organisations, both professional and amateur, are involved, and will be treating audiences to some 191 works composed since 2018, including 36 world premieres of works by 34 composers – representing 24 nationalities and ranging in age from 27 (Kevin Day and Quinn Mason) to 97 (Betsy Jolas). The spread of musicians participating in the event is impressive, too, with 14 youth orchestras appearing. California is a cultural melting pot that draws on so many different ethnicities to create one of the most vibrant corners of the United States.
I’m pretty familiar with the work of the San Francisco and Los Angeles orchestras, albeit mainly from their tours and recordings, though I’ve not sampled the SF orchestra conducted by Salonen (who is surely the perfect musician, a major composer as well as conductor, to build on the astounding work of Michael Tilson Thomas in his 25 years at its helm), but the orchestra I’m particularly looking forward to hearing 'at home' is the San Diego Symphony under a conductor I’ve long admired, Rafael Payare. Another eagerly anticipated stop-off will be the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, an institution that has shown a remarkable dynamism recently, and has already created its own musical galaxy by forming partnerships with a record label (Pentatone) and two artist management companies (Askonas-Holt and Opus3).
That a State, the most populous in the US and in size larger than Germany and Switzerland combined, should put on a 'joined-up' celebration of music is remarkable, but to focus it (though not slavishly) on music of the past five years is something to impress. I’m looking forward to reporting back on what's the Californian spirit that can unify so many very different musical offerings.
Updated on October 27 to take in latest statistics of the festival's participants