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One Pen, Three Batons

Watch & Listen

Too many cooks spoil the stew, but what about conductors? Conductors normally stand alone, charged to be the single decision maker for the innumerable artistic adjustments in a concert that shape an entire orchestra. For the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Centennial Gala Concert there will be three podiums, three batons, and three conductors on stage directed the orchestra at the same time.

Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason is the mind behind the work that features three LA Phil Music Directors past and present: Zubin Mehta, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Gustavo Dudamel. From Space I saw Earth is the third work by Bjarnason inspired by the Apollo 11 moon landing and space race. In it, Bjarnason contemplates a moment both American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts have spoken of when they look down on the earth from above and are forever changed by its beauty and seeming fragility. In his program note, he quotes Yuri Gagarin who said, “Circling the Earth in my orbital spaceship, I marveled at the beauty of our planet. people of the world, let us safeguard and enhance this beauty – not destroy it!”

Ahead of rehearsals, Bjarnason talked about the unique challenges of writing a work to be shared by three conductors.

The basic idea is that this is really one piece of music which is running on parallel timelines that are constantly diverting, coming together and diverting again.
Daníel Bjarnason

What were your first thoughts about the idea of writing a piece of music for three conductors?

I think my first thought was “how incredibly exciting!” – immediately followed by a second thought which was “what have I gotten myself into?!?”. 

How did you choose to build the piece to make use of the three music directors?

Many of the questions when starting to think of this piece were practical; how to organize the layout of the orchestra, where should the conductors be placed, do they need to see each other etc. The answer to each of these questions was crucial for how the piece could function musically.

I knew from the start that splitting the orchestra into three groups that would be separated by a distance (for example in different corners of the hall) was not an option. I came up with a way of dividing them into groups while still more or less on the stage. I decided on a triangular set-up where all conductors are on stage, two of them placed within the orchestra and one in front, all conducting separate parts of the orchestra but with their sightlines crossing so they can see each other while also facing their own part of the orchestra. 

Ending up with this solution (I went through several other options on the way to this one) was in part dictated by my realization that for the piece to work musically, the conductors would have to see each other.  

The unusual structure of the ensemble likely presented you some challenges. But challenges sometimes provide inspiration for artists coming up with creative ways to solve them. Did you find the logistical challenges inspired the musical direction you took? 

The basic idea is that this is really one piece of music which is running on parallel timelines that are constantly diverting, coming together and diverting again. Similar to the idea of the same event taking place in parallel universes - the same, but different. 

What are you most excited or even nervous about seeing when the orchestra rehearses this for the first time?

To see if the piece functions as I intended. There is quite a bit of freedom involved and I can’t foresee exactly how everything will come together. But that is all part of the fun.