Four works composed from 1937 to 2003 made up this second program in a series of three “galas”: a colorful pop classic, a recent work fast becoming a classic (at least for Los Angeles audiences), a craggy virtuoso showpiece and a spanking new work in its world premiere, by a composer as much-admired as any of his generation. John Adams’ “The Dharma at Big Sur,” the new work, is his first voyage into exotic musical scales and tunes, and the music may have ground on a minute or two longer than its 25-minute length warranted. For the most part, judging from the cramped front row of the top balcony, it fell graciously on the ear.
Co-commissioned by the Los Angeles and Orange County Philharmonics, “Dharma’s” harmonies stem from tuning systems similar to those of Pacific Rim composers, a style known (if not accurately) as “just intonation”; to the outside ear, this imparts a certain dusky quality, mysterious and often insidious, to the music. As soloist on an electronically adapted, six-string violin, Tracy Silverman produced a seemingly endless, rhapsodic thread of melody, his instrument spanning the range from deepest cello to ecstatic violin.
The composition is Adams’ tribute to California itself, a sort of self-congratulation at his having given up East Coast realities for the carefree life among the redwoods. Jack Kerouac’s road-runner fiction is the obvious inspiration, but the music stems as well from West Coast composers who have adopted the musical byways of the Pacific Rim into their music: ardent individualists Terry Riley and the late Lou Harrison.
Esa-Pekka Salonen’s wonderfully propulsive “LA Variations” flourishes — it has even made its way to the Hollywood Bowl, and it made a prideful opener to this challenging, rewarding event. Less known was the Cello Concerto of Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski, a tense, tough-minded discourse (not always friendly) between Yo-Yo Ma’s insistent cello and the fierce, argumentative orchestra. For all its grit, the work drew cheers from the clearly delighted audience. So, at the evening’s happy end, did that brief splash of color, the “Sensemaya” by Silvestre Revueltas, another Salonen specialty, often performed, always cheered.