Program Note: The Play of Water
About this Piece
In ancient traditions around the world, water is the element associated with intuition and imagination, with emotion and feelings. It can be still or in motion, anad with its ability to shift shapes from liquid to solid or gas, water is also identified with change and variation.
Gustavo Dudamel has put all of these aspects into play in his curation of this gala program, designed to mark the 20th anniversary of Walt Disney Concert Hall. Not coincidentally, they also characterize the Hall itself and the work of its architect, Frank O. Gehry, whose creations at any scale can seem restless and serene at the same time.
Gehry has a long-standing fascination with fish, which has found literal expression in designs ranging from table lamps to monumental sculptures. But the water-defined form and function of fish can be manifested more metaphorically as well, as in the undulating curves of Walt Disney Concert Hall, clad in shimmering scales. Gehry is also an avid sailor, and he found inspiration for the elegantly dynamic view of the Hall from the corner of Grand Avenue and First Street in the “wing on wing” formation of two sails at a 180-degree angle. That sailing term became the title of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s symphonic fantasy composed for the LA Phil’s first season in the Hall as “an homage to an extraordinary building by an extraordinary man.”
Whatever its inspiration, architectural eloquence does not guarantee that music will speak in it with equal clarity and power. As the new building was nearing completion, Gehry called Salonen (then the LA Phil’s Music Director) with the desire to hear actual music in the room. Salonen asked Principal Concertmaster Martin Chalifour to join them on site. There, Gehry and Salonen in hard hats stood in the balcony area while Chalifour found a place in front of the gaping hole still waiting for its stage.
“We were incredibly nervous because obviously that was the first critical moment—how does music sound in this place?” Salonen later recalled. “And then Martin started playing the E-major Prelude, and all these beautiful sounds floated in the air. We were so happy. It was a tearful moment for both of us.”
That Prelude from Bach’s E-major Partita for solo violin is very fish-like in its own way, all flashing scales and darting patterns. Bach’s distillation of contrapuntal techniques into basically single lines in the three sonatas and three partitas he wrote for solo violin in 1720 is astonishing for its expressive vigor even more than for the sheer technical mastery displayed.
The memory of that Prelude, the first music heard in Walt Disney Concert Hall, returned to Salonen 16 years later as the inspiration for Fog, a 90th-birthday tribute to Gehry. “It is a fantasy around the Bach E-major Prelude (from the Partita in E, BWV 1006), whose harmonic and melodic structure is almost omnipresent, sometimes clearly identifiable, sometimes veiled or completely hidden,” the composer writes. The architect is well-represented symbolically in the work. “FOG” are the initials of his name, of course, but Foggy is the name of his sailboat and Salonen also found the pitches for much of the harmony in the letters of Gehry’s name.
A number of Salonen’s works have been choreographed, and tonight Fog gets its first dance treatment, courtesy of Lucinda Childs, a legend of American modern and postmodern dance noted for her investigations of space through patterned movement. Forty years ago, she collaborated with Gehry and composer John Adams in Available Light, a large-scale performance piece for which Gehry designed the set. When the work was revived at Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2015, Gehry recalled the day he watched Childs in her studio. “I sat quietly in a corner, and she danced privately for me for an hour or so. It was probably one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life.”
Jazz is another area of intense interest and joy for Gehry, and Herbie Hancock, the LA Phil’s Creative Chair for Jazz, has been part of the Walt Disney Concert Hall family since its inaugural season. “Maiden Voyage,” the title track from Hancock’s 1965 Blue Note album, continues the aquatic theme. “The sea has often stirred the imagination of creative minds involved in all spheres of art,” Hancock wrote. “This music attempts to capture its vastness and majesty, the splendor of a sea-going vessel on its maiden voyage, the graceful beauty of the playful dolphins, the constant struggle for survival of even the tiniest sea creatures, and the awesome destructive power of the hurricane, nemesis of seamen.”
A much newer member of this circle of artistic collaborators is H.E.R., the Grammy- and Oscar-winning Bay Area R&B singer-songwriter. She made her Hollywood Bowl debut in 2019, and in 2021 she joined Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil there for her first concerts ever with full orchestra. Her work is noted for its emotional power and social consciousness, which makes it a natural fit for this company of icons of inspiration.
The play of water has seldom been expressed more, well, fluidly than in Debussy’s La mer. Indeed, the second of these three symphonic sketches is titled “Play of the Waves.” Not that Debussy tried any literal depiction of the sea through sound. It was the generalized character or spirit of the sea and the perception of it that interested him. “I have countless reminiscences,” Debussy wrote to a friend. “This matters more, in my opinion, than a reality.”
Debussy composed the piece between August 1903 and March 1905. This was relatively quick work by his usual painstaking standards, and at a time of great personal turmoil. Debussy was very responsive to the mutability of the sea, to the quick changes of light and wind and the tensions between the bright surface and the deeper colors and currents beneath. Debussy evokes both the broad sway and the flickering spatter of the sea with original techniques that owe little or nothing to pictorial Romantic stereotypes. Instead, he shows that the characteristic tools we often associate in his music with sensuous exoticism—the whole-tone scale and chords built on fourths and fifths, for example—can also create a sense of elemental space.