We don’t have to dig deeply into LA Phil history to find meaningful parallels. For nearly 30 years, Salonen and Sellars have been interpreting Stravinsky’s work in Los Angeles – the city that the composer called home for the latter part of his life. While in Los Angeles, Stravinsky became a frequent conductor of the LA Phil both downtown and at the Hollywood Bowl. Read below about the orchestra’s unique relationship to one of the most significant composers of the 20th century.
The Rite of Spring Becomes a Summer Favorite
Like many artist émigrés, at age 58, Igor Stravinsky fled the tumult of the Old World for the new in the 1940s. Born in Russia and established in French and European concert halls, it was temperate and open West Hollywood – adjacent to a nascent, composer-hunger film industry – that would become Stravinsky’s longest home.
Even before Stravinsky the man arrived in Los Angeles, his work found a home in LA’s music landscape. In 1928, Eugene Goossens conducted the LA Phil (billed as the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra) in the West Coast premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Rare test recordings of a rehearsal before that performance – fortuitously re-discovered at a garage sale in the 1990s – reveal Goossens as a capable conductor, encouraging an orchestra that was deciphering the piece for the first time.
Seven years later, Stravinsky would first conduct his own music in Los Angeles. John Orlando Northcutt – the LA Phil's long-serving publicity director – wrote about Stravinsky’s introduction to the orchestra's principal players:
"The first time Igor Stravinsky appeared with the Philharmonic [in 1935], he called the first chair men to his dressing room after the performance. He gave each a kiss and a red rose. The Philharmonic’s American-born musicians – not as accustomed to European manners – were more than a little surprised.”
The Rite returned to the Hollywood Bowl in 1937, staged by Lester Horton in the first time that Stravinsky’s music was utilized by an American-born choreographer. The ballet featured Bella Lewitzky, who went on to become an internationally famous choreographer herself.
Stravinsky had permanently relocated to Los Angeles by the 1940s, purchasing his home in West Hollywood and becoming a frequent guest conductor of the LA Phil. Former LA Phil Principal Clarinet Michele Zukovsky – who played in the orchestra from 1961 to 2015 – remembered playing under Stravinsky:
"We did Petrushka live, and he was the most, had the most amazing rhythm. It was just in his bones. Going from 5/8 to 7/8, it was like nothing for him. We’re going one two, one two three, one two, one two, one two, one two three, and it would be in his body. It was phenomenal.”
It was just in his bones. Going from 5/8 to 7/8, it was like nothing for him. We’re going one two, one two three, one two, one two, one two, one two three, and it would be in his body.
Esa-Pekka Salonen Signals a New Era
Strong-willed, often eccentric personalities guided the LA Phil through most of its history. That culminated in the 1980s – a tumultuous decade that saw music directors arrive and depart and the surprise announcement and then confusion over the Walt Disney Concert Hall project.
Enter Esa-Pekka Salonen, a composer/conductor (in that order) who had never managed a major orchestra. The quiet, unassuming Finn with a dry wit became the orchestra’s tenth music director in 1992 and, over the next 17 years, ushered in the modern LA Phil.
Salonen was keenly aware of the European artists who like him had found a new musical home in Los Angeles. He knew the neighborhoods where Sergei Rachmaninoff or Arnold Schoenberg lived, and at one point considered buying the former house of Stravinsky on North Wetherly Drive, but as The New York Times wrote:
"The conductor [Salonen] noted carpet indentations where the great man’s pianos had stood, the hook where a goat had been tethered (Stravinsky liked the milk) and the built-in couch where [the poet Dylan] Thomas had slept off more than a few over indulgences. An aspiring composer himself, Mr. Salonen wisely feared the presence of ghosts.”
Salonen transformed the Los Angeles Philharmonic from an orchestra that was beginning to play more new music into one internationally recognized for its commissioning program and artistic adventurousness. As The New Yorker’s Alex Ross put it, “Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring became the center of the repertory, not the outer limit.”
Salonen showed off this new LA Phil to the world at a four-week Paris residency in the summer of 1996 that focused on Stravinsky’s music. Sellars and Salonen reimagined The Rake’s Progress set in a California prison. The production was an unsubtle polemic against California’s “three strikes” sentencing laws and its record prison population.
Pierre Boulez assisted Salonen in conducting more than 15 concert programs, which included many major works of Stravinsky and consisted almost entirely of repertoire from 20th or living composers: John Adams, Salonen, Steven Stucky, Witold Lutosławski, Paul Hindemith, and others.
The concerts impressed music critics from around the world and helped reignite the spark of the stalled Walt Disney Concert Hall project. Mark Swed wrote in the Los Angeles Times:
"It is notable that the voice the Philharmonic did finally find was a voice the hometown crowd at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion never hears. In the live, intimate acoustic of the Théâtre du Châtelet, the Philharmonic sound has an arresting immediacy … And the word around Paris, at the moment, is that if more Angelenos could hear sound like this, they would be just as ecstatic as the Parisians were Tuesday, and there would be no stopping the building of the new Disney Concert Hall … With this residency, one Philharmonic supporter announced, ice cream bar in hand during an intermission, everything is changed.”
If more Angelenos could hear sound like this, they would be just as ecstatic as the Parisians were Tuesday, and there would be no stopping the building of the new Disney Concert Hall.