At first hearing the idea of the music of Witold Lutosławski as the centerpiece of a Los Angeles Philharmonic “Green Umbrella” concert made a strangely incongruous impression. Music new or difficult is the usual fare of such a program. Lutosławski, who would have turned 100 next year (consider that the late Elliott Carter was composing up until his 104th year!), is neither new nor very “difficult” – whatever that may mean – for the most part. With nearly 20 years passing since the composer’s death, it would be difficult to argue a case for the “newness” of his music. A tougher sell still is pushing the music’s “difficulty” to a listener aware and appreciative of modern and contemporary idioms. The sheer beauty of his soundworld – with textures that cut across the sky of the listener’s imagination like brilliant meteorite shards; an opulent, but always elegant orchestral touch that would have made Ravel envious – is among the most captivating of 20th-century music.

Lionel Bringuier © Jonathan Grimbert-Barré
Lionel Bringuier © Jonathan Grimbert-Barré

But “newness” was there at this LA Phil New Music Group concert, not from the material itself. Rather, from context and the continuing evolution of the reception of Lutosławski’s music; the freshness that makes itself felt by the influence the Polish master continues to wield over younger generations. As for “difficulty”, that was up to individual taste. But there was nothing on that Tuesday night program that could be construed as such, at least to these ears.

Aside from Lutosławski’s music was the work of Steven Stucky and Esa-Pekka Salonen, both of whom were deeply influenced by the composer as man and musician. Stucky’s Ad Parnassum for septet, like his Symphony that was premièred earlier this year by the Philharmonic, wears the Lutosławski influence on its sleeves. Not only by using certain gestures and figures that recall the older composer, but also by Stucky’s own rarefied sense of elegance – albeit one leavened by a kind of energy one can only vaguely describe as “uniquely American”.

An influence, perhaps more subtle, was also palpable in the work by the Philharmonic’s conductor laureate Salonen. His four-movement Homunculus for string quartet gave the impression of an Impressionist painting glazed with a thin patina of frost. The title of the piece was inspired, according to the composer, by “[an] arcane spermists’ theory [of the 17th century] which held that the sperm was in fact a “little man” (homunculus) that was placed inside a woman for growth into a child”. Something of this could be heard on the piece; a kind of life-giving energy that burst – or is that birthed? – into sometimes dizzying, always dazzling sonorities that whirled and turned, carrying away its string quartet along a whimsical tornadic polyphony.

Standing as the nexus of all this music was Lutosławski himself; his music the center of gravity around which the rest of the program turned.

Baroque form was shattered and reshuffled in modern guise in the composer’s 1984 Partita for violin and piano. It was a surprise to encounter the work in its original chamber version as opposed to its later version for soloist and orchestra. But with Philharmonic concertmaster Martin Chalifour and the superb pianism of Joanne Pearce Martin, a whole world of sounds and expressions was conjured from their duo. They also were able to elucidate the wispy melancholy that breezes through the music, though, treading smartly along that Lutosławski tightrope, never breaking the work’s ambiguous mystery.

That sense of the elusive, of a world teetering between dream and consciousness, characterized the mood of Lutosławski’s Chantefleurs et Chantefables (literally “Songflowers and Songfables”), a late-period song cycle for soprano and orchestra. Lutosławski’s Ravelian ability to imbue mature artistic expression with a child-like wonder in many respects finds its apogee in this work. Like his earlier Les espaces de sommeil, the work utilizes texts by French Surrealist Robert Desnos. They are evocations of the world of the child – and sometimes evoke parallels with the absurdity of the adult. Lutosławski sets his text with great sensitivity and sharp wit, but steers clear of lachrymose or sentimental nostalgia for childhood.

Soprano Laura Claycomb, who was the soloist, invested her part with a sharply honed expression and a rich ability for word-painting. The Philharmonic’s resident conductor, Lionel Bringuier, led the orchestra, reprising the fine impression he made at a Hollywood Bowl concert over the summer. The music emerged from the score unforced yet brimming with vitality. The orchestra, as ever, played with mastery and suppleness of tone; bettering their mid-1990s recording of the work under Salonen – itself capturing the orchestra in splendid form.

“Vital” – that, better than “new”, “modern”, or “difficult”, is the apt word to describe Lutosławski’s music. Vitality abounds in his work. As the first concert in the “Lutosławski Centenary” series proved, it is a trait that he shares with the greats of the past. Maybe simply “great” is an even better description of his music.