Esa-Pekka Salonen composed LA Variations in 1996 on commission from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, with a dedication to Ernest Fleischmann, then Executive Vice President and Managing Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association. Salonen and the Philharmonic premiered the piece in January 1997 at subscription concerts at the Music Center and have since performed it in New York (May 1997), at the Hollywood Bowl (August 1998), and on their subsequent European tour that August and September, in London, Brussels, Lucerne, Cologne, and Frankfurt. The work was performed on a special Green Umbrella concert at UCLA’s Royce Hall in January 2000, and in 2003 it was encored at the Hollywood Bowl prior to an Edinburgh Festival concert and the second of three Opening Galas for the new Walt Disney Concert Hall. At each performance, audience reaction has been extremely enthusiastic, beginning with standing ovations at the Los Angeles premiere. Press comments have been consistently favorable, e.g., “It is music of immediate appeal and relevance that doesn’t need to overthrow Minimalism to get there. This is an important step in musical culture at the end of the century…” (Los Angeles Times). “Intoxicatingly varied and imaginative…lots of humor.” (USA Today). “Splashy and stylish debut, calculated to impress.” (Newsday). “This Dionysian hymn to the orchestra is a work of pure enjoyment of sonority, elaborated by a mind as free as it is rigorous. The seductiveness and dynamism of this music have an immediate effect, and are clad in a language whose originality is far above scholastic squabbles.” (Le Soir).
The composer has provided the following note:
LA Variations is essentially variations on two chords, each consisting of six notes. Together they cover all twelve notes of a chromatic scale. Therefore the basic material of LA Variations has an ambiguous character: sometimes (most of the time, actually) it is modal (hexatonic), sometimes chromatic, when the two hexachords are used together as a twelve-tone structure.
This ambiguity, combining serial and non-serial thinking, is characteristic of all my work since the mid-eighties, but LA Variations tilts the balance drastically towards the non-serial.
This piece, some nineteen minutes of music scored for a large orchestra, including a contrabass clarinet and a synthesizer, is very clear in its form and direct in its expression.
The two hexachords are introduced in the opening measures of the piece together in the chromatic phenotype. Alto flute, English horn, bass clarinet, and two bassoons, shadowed by three solo violas, play a melody which sounds like a kind of synthetic folk music, but in fact is a horizontal representation of the two hexachords transposed to the same pitch.
Some of the variations that follow are based on this melody, others are the deeper, invisible (or inaudible) aspects of the material. There are also elements that never change, like the dactyl rhythm first heard in the timpani and percussion halfway through the piece.
This is a short description of the geography of LA Variations:
1)The two hexachords together as an ascending scale. Movement slows down to
2)Quasi folk-music episode (which I described before).
3)First Chorale (winds only).
4)Big Chord I. The two hexachords are interpreted three times in three different ways in a very large chord.
6)A machine that prepares the even semi-quaver movement of
7)Variation of the melody in trumpets and Violin I.
8)Fastest section of the piece, q = 150. First woodwinds in the highest register, then bass instruments in the lowest register. An acrobatic double bass solo leads to
9)Variation for winds, percussion, harp, celesta.
10)Canon in three different tempos. Scored for a chamber ensemble.
11)A tutti string passage leads to
Big Machine I. Percussion prepares the mantra rhythm: q q q ‰ q q q ‰
Brass chords in the Big Machine are my hommage to Sibelius.
13)A new aspect of the melody in unison strings.
14)Tempo q =125. Canon à 3.
15)Big Machine II. Probably the most joyful music I’ve ever written.
16)Big Chord II. This time two different interpretations of the hexachords.
Repeated mantra rhythm in timpani, roto-toms, and log drums grows to maximum power.
17)Coda. Two hexachords together as in the beginning. Scored for eight muted cellos, eight muted violins, and piccolo.
I wrote LA Variations specifically for the players of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I’m very proud of the virtuosity and power of my orchestra.
— Esa-Pekka Salonen