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Review: A Sublime New Direction for Andrew Norman in Los Angeles

Category: Entertainment,Music

LOS ANGELES — Until now, it has been possible to talk about “the Andrew Norman style” as though that were some settled thing. Several of this young composer’s major pieces — bearing active titles like “Play,” “Try” and “Switch” — have hurtled, from their opening minutes, with volleys of intensity that rival the kinetic climaxes of other artists. And then, with that established, he can really go to town.

Given this creative profile, the title of Mr. Norman’s latest orchestral work, “Sustain,” hinted at an intriguing about-face. Steadiness and stasis have not been his calling cards. And in a recent interview with Joshua Barone of The New York Times, Mr. Norman described a desire to “relearn my language” when fulfilling this Los Angeles Philharmonic co-commission.

That was not idle talk. Saturday night’s performance by the Philharmonic and its music director, Gustavo Dudamel, here at their Walt Disney Concert Hall home underlined just how willingly Mr. Norman has inverted his established practices. Instead of quickly fostering a riot of competing rhythms and motifs, this composition deals in repetitive material for long stretches over its approximately 45-minute length. Percussive interjections and unpredictable collisions of melody are the exception, rather than the rule.

During the opening minutes, the composer asks individual strings to play select tones from attractively mystic modes — and then hold each one for a spell. (This “sustain” is one aspect of the title.) The staggered approach made the steady ascents and descents through the pitches seem less like composer-directed themes and more like seesawing laws of nature, perfectly in balance. Initially, the effect was sublime, in addition to being a compelling realization of the ecological concerns the composer detailed in his program note. (Ideas regarding environmental sustainability — and its all-too-probable opposite — give the title additional weight.)

Still, during the first third of “Sustain,” the lack of much rhythmic thrust occasionally threatened to make the work seem aimless. At one point, I noticed myself breathing a sigh of relief when an exciting new dance for flute and vibraphone rose up from the well-trod ground. (It was the first time I’d ever been anxious for the next change when listening to Mr. Norman’s music.)

Yet gradually, I came to love the consequences of this pacing. Whereas many of his past works have been all about focusing on each new improbable element as it stomps to the fore, here, Mr. Norman’s complexity has a lighter footprint. As the strings are painting with those long tones, a smaller group of wind instruments might divebomb through the frame, without causing a commotion. Minimalist motors can possess the trumpets, for a few moments, without scrambling the overall narrative.

Over the final third of “Sustain,” this unusual merger between restraint and hyperactivity could hypnotize. When reading that the score calls for two pianos, tuned a quarter-tone apart, you might reasonably expect some microtonal fireworks. But the dissonances between the pianos are only ever highlighted gently, at hinge points when both are clearly audible. At other junctures, the pianos seemed content to let their collective resonance slip mysteriously into the background. Even when the dynamic level increases to an undeniable roar, there is a smoothness to the piece.

Bringing all this across requires an orchestra of considerable dexterity (and patience). The Los Angeles players seemed to savor the material, even when it did not seem obviously virtuosic in nature. Mr. Dudamel succeeded in channeling the slyness of Mr. Norman’s writing, too. Taking the transitions in too showy a manner might prove deadly to its overall designs; wisely, Mr. Dudamel built to the passages of pandemonium with a gratifying steeliness of purpose.

Perhaps the musicians felt secure in these choices, thanks to the inclusion of another piece on the program (which was to repeat on Sunday) that allowed them to strut more ecstatically. The 1996 composition “LA Variations,” by the former Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Esa-Pekka Salonen, was designed as a showcase for this orchestra, and it continues to sound marvelous in its hands. The work’s varied instrumental colors are still Technicolor in their projected brilliance. The balance — even in thickly orchestrated passages — still has a punchy vibrancy worthy of a surround-sound theater mix. And its final minutes may have gained some rhythmic buoyancy under Mr. Dudamel’s watch.

Somewhat less dazzling was the orchestra’s trip through Beethoven’s Op. 56 (known as the “Triple Concerto”). The piano, violin and cello soloists — all drawn from the Philharmonic’s regular cast — carried a brisk energy throughout the demanding work. Yet they could also sound taxed during some of its toughest slaloms. Mr. Dudamel pushed out some effervescent, courtly pulses, though this sometimes necessitated speeding past the work’s most captivating harmonic turns.

Though as it happens, this orchestra has not planned or marketed its centennial season around the standard repertory. With more than 50 commissions planned for this year — and mini-festivals devoted both to the Harlem Renaissance and to the composers associated with the Fluxus movement — the Los Angeles Philharmonic is going big on modern and contemporary items. During this first weekend of its season, the orchestra’s skill in works written over the past three decades amounted to a thrilling omen for the coming year.

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Through Sunday at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles

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