Los Angeles Music Review: THE PLANETS—AN HD ODYSSEY / ERSKINE—A TURNAGE U.S. PREMIERE (Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl)

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by Tony Frankel on September 11, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles

THE UNIVERSAL AND THE INCOMPREHENSIBLE

Holst’s The Planets and the U.S. premiere of English composer Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Erskine, a Concerto for Drumset & Orchestra: This very odd pairing arrived courtesy of the LA Phil on Tuesday, and while one was out of this world, the other was decidedly earthbound.

Scene from The Planets—An HD Odyssey

The eponymous instrumentalist of Turnage’s four-movement work is one of the world’s best drummers. Peter Erskine was on hand upstage center behind the orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl to introduce this LA Phil co-commission. Conductor and raconteur Bramwell Tovey drolly commented before the performance, “With drums, sometimes, distance lends enchantment.” Peculiarly, this forgettable concerto was neither enchanting nor did it truly highlight the skills of, per Tovey, “one of the greatest drummers in history.”

Bramwell Tovey

As my mind wandered during this minimalistic, atonal, classical/jazz fusion, I was reminded of Tan Dun’s masterful The Tears of Nature, which had its U.S. premiere at Disney Hall last year. Not only did the fusion of Western and Eastern instruments successfully validate Dun’s ability to generate a wholly accessible work that expanded the boundaries of conventional music, but the use of no fewer than 25 percussive implements served as a showcase for one of the world’s preeminent percussionists, Martin Grubinger.

PETER ERSKIN

The three percussionists (Perry Dreiman, James Babor, Raynor Carroll) who joined Erskine for a few minutes during the final movement of the work (written for Erskine) were just as impressive as the headliner himself. Nowhere in the previous three movements (all named after Erskine and members of his family) did we witness drum solos which elucidate Erskine’s consummate skills. What we did get was the master of the skins switching from sticks to mallets.

Summer Nights at Hollywood Bowl - POSTER

This is not to say that Turnage’s work is wholly inaccessible: It’s fascinating to hear bluesy, improvisational riffs only to discover they are actually notated, and the entire concerto is awash with playful whimsy, feeling like a cool, melody-free soundtrack from a detective movie. But all four movements feel experimental and derivative of film scores. “Maya and Taichi’s Stomp,” is reminiscent of 70s Blaxploitation funk; the tipsy, shifting rhythms of “Mutsy’s Habanera” smacks of a 60s Mancini-esque track; and the slithery “Erskine’s Blues” is like a 50s Ellington-esque film noir, but it’s dull with no impetus—all atmosphere and no character. At least the be-bop of “Fugal Frenzy” had a magnificent section for the woodwinds and brass three-quarters of the way into it, but then it was back to background music, all minimalist blather—played magnificently I should add.

Jupiter and Io from The Planets—An HD OdysseyWhile Erskine comes in like a rip-off of classic scores, hundreds of other movie scores are ripped-off versions of Gustav Holst’s The Planets. Yet the evening went full-circle (or should I say “full-orb?”) as this seminal 7-movement work was accompanied by high-definition photographs, grainy video, and computer-generated images of the solar system, thanks to the Houston Symphony, which commissioned film director Duncan Copp in 2009 to create The Planets—An HD Odyssey. The spectacular, vivid, and often impressionistic visuals, culled mostly from 35 years’ worth of NASA projects, was a perfect accompaniment to Tovey’s vibrant and commanding approach to the music. While Vassily Sinaisky’s in-your-face rendering with LA Phil last year blew the roof off of Disney Hall, the Bowl needed a roof to contain the music better. Still, the Bowl’s new sound system is stratospheric, and the offstage Women of Pacific Chorale sounded as though they sang from another world.

photos courtesy of LA Phil
space images and poster from Houston Symphony

The Planets—An HD Odyssey
Erskine, a Concerto for Drumset & Orchestra
Los Angeles Philharmonic
The Hollywood Bowl
played Tuesday September 9, 2014
for future events, call or visit www.hollywoodbowl.com and www.laphil.com

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