New music was the main and sole dish that last Tuesday’s Green Umbrella Concert at Disney Hall laid out, but for some audience members their encounter with these works might not be their first. To paraphrase NBC’s late 1990s marketing for its prime-time TV summer reruns: “If you haven’t heard it, it’s new to you.” John Adams’ Son of Chamber Symphony was heard last December performed by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, while Joseph Pereira’s Concerto for Percussion and Chamber Orchestra had its world première at Disney Hall just a little over a year ago. Unsuk Chin’s Graffiti, which had its world première on this program, was brand new, though a few people in the hall might have heard Southwest Chamber Music’s performance of her Cosmigimmicks earlier that month across the street at Zipper Hall.

Unsuk Chin © EricRichmond/ArenaPAL
Unsuk Chin
© EricRichmond/ArenaPAL

The forces for the first two works were a little different this time around, with the composers themselves present and performing; Gustavo Dudamel conducting the pieces by Pereira and Unsuk Chin.

Adams, who serves as the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Creative Chair, directed a Son of Chamber Symphony that was punchier than Jeffrey Kahane’s approach at the Alex Theatre in Glendale; a bit more loose. Kahane was smoother with a hint of Viennese sweetness to take the tang out of the composer’s peppery Stravinskian rhythms. Taking the opposite tack, Adams pushed the piece’s jerky syncopations front and center, at times creating a mood that edged on the frenetic. The composer was perhaps best in the outer movements; Kahane’s sensitivity to songful nuances heard to better effect in the central movement. But one felt fortunate to enjoy a score that could inspire such differing – and equally valid – approaches.

On shakier ground was Pereira’s Concerto for Percussion and Chamber Orchestra. The composer’s program notes explaining the work as an exploration between pitched and unpitched notes and the “oscillation between both directions” was more fascinating than the actual work itself.

Not that it lacked intriguing ideas. The work’s first five minutes teemed with ideas; beginning with an unpitched “theme” which the pitched orchestra later seizes; traversing the musical expanse from avant-garde to salsa. Backing the solo percussion was also an enormous battery of percussion in the orchestra, split up left to right and often used very effectively for antiphonal effects. Multiphonics in the winds as well as rasping effects in the strings that sought to emulate the sounds of percussion burst, dissipated, and rose again. But the sheer abundance of ideas in the beginning was the problem. Because as the concerto wore on the feeling that the composer had expended all his best ideas at the very start grew ever more so; casting a shadow that by the coda was difficult to dispel. The work could have benefited, perhaps, had the composer dispatched his ideas with restraint. Instead, by the time one reached the end of the first movement, there was little elsewhere for him or the listener to go.

Unsuk Chin’s Graffiti, the composer insisted in her program notes, had only a very loose connection to its eponymous street art form. Its first movement, “Palimpsest”, whizzes past the listener like so many broken shards of glass carried aloft by the winds of a cyclone, shimmering all the while as they blur into one another. Chin’s soundworld tends towards the delicate; gives the impression of fragility. Her ethereal textures and structures, however, are firmly grounded and held tightly in place by an iron grip.

Lucky Londoners next week will have a chance to hear the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s New Music Group repeat the same program. I wish I were there to hear it again.

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