What do Richard Wagner and Frank Zappa have in common? This year, the Los Angeles Philharmonic will feature their work.
Touring in the classical world is a different ballgame than the pop music world. The venues are smaller, the bands are larger, and the profit--well, that happens only in select situations.
In fact, taking a symphonic orchestra on the road is a logistical behemoth of almost comic proportions. When the Los Angeles Philharmonic, with Gustavo Dudamel in his fourth season as music director, heads to Europe and New York in March, it will require 545 plane tickets and 133 trunks with instruments and cases (that's 28,855 pounds, or more than 14 tons). So why do it?
To establish and promote an identity, and perhaps an agenda. With a 2013 program that will have the L.A. Phil--recently dubbed "the most important orchestra in the country" by the New York Times--touring 21st-century American compositions abroad and premiering 20th-century work by Frank Zappa at home, both are clear.
"This orchestra is a symbol of the future-in the way we program and in the way we play," says Dudamel, the 32-year-old Venezuelan whose charisma has captivated the classical world and mainstream media and whose work in 2012 earned him the classical field's highest honor, Musical America's musician of the year designation. "I see this as an orchestra of new traditions."
A flurry of activity surrounds Dudamel and the Philharmonic this month. Besides the international tour, their first recording together, the Mahler Ninth Symphony, was released by Deutsche Grammophon; 13 commissioned pieces will receive their premieres during the 2013-14 season; the orchestra will tour the United States and Canada a year from now; and the L.A. Phil is in talks to travel to Asia in 2015.
Gail Samuel, who was promoted to COO after two decades as VP/GM of the orchestra, says touring has both value-oriented and intangible effects.
"We start from the position that tours are important for branding of the organization, awareness on the national and international level," she says. "Internally, there is something that happens with an orchestra when they go on tour that doesn't happen at other times. It has to do with doing the same program several times so you're getting different audiences' responses rather than the home audience. The orchestra jumps a level artistically. You see it on every tour and it carries on when we come back."
The L.A. Phil hits the road for two weeks a year annually, limited generally by the number of concerts it has booked during the summer at the Hollywood Bowl. Other orchestras leave home for as much as 10 weeks. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, for example, might do five weeks or it might do two.
The key for the L.A. Phil, eventually, is to reinforce the idea that the New York Times praised.
"We find it very important to be true to who we are: contemporary music," Samuel says. "We will take a two-and-a-half-hour piece with staging--something you don't see a lot--because we know we can do that with our audiences here. We have found that we have great partners like the Barbican [in London], Lincoln Center [in New York], who have embraced who we are and what we want to do."
Los Angeles has blossomed significantly in the 16 years since a monthlong residency in Paris made the classical world take notice of the orchestra from the City of Angels. Rave reviews led to revived fund-raising efforts back home to build a dedicated concert hall that would allow the Philharmonic to leave the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, a multipurpose hall it shared with the L.A. Opera and others. At a cost of $272 million, Walt Disney Concert Hall opened in October 2003.
In the decade since, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn. has become the largest presenter of orchestral concerts in America, with at least two per week during the summer at the Bowl. ASCAP presented Dudamel and the Phil with the Morton Gould Award for Innovative Programming in 2011 and first place for Programming of Contemporary Music.
The L.A. Phil makes more money than any other orchestra in the United States, according to tax filings. For the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 2011, the Philharmonic had total revenue of $110 million. It also spent heavily: $103.9 million went to expenses; this season, the 105 full-time members of the orchestra are paid $148,720 annually. Dudamel, signed through 2019, earns about $1 million.
Two years ago, in his third season as music director, Dudamel embarked on a Mahler project that included his L.A. musicians and his hometown crew in Caracas, the Simon Bolivar Orchestra. After performing all nine of Mahler's symphonies in Los Angeles and then Caracas, the orchestra performed the Ninth Symphony in Vienna, where it premiered 100 years earlier.
"That was a big moment artistically in terms of establishing, worldwide, the relationship between Gustavo and this orchestra and what we could do," Samuel says.
In Dudamel's office at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, his coffee table is covered in scores he will be performing in Los Angeles the last week of February and early March before heading to London, Paris, New York and Lucerne, Switzerland: a section of Wagner's "Gotterdammerung" (from 1876), Debussy's "La Mer" (from 1905) and, most important, John Adams' "The Gospel According to the Other Mary," which Dudamel and the L.A. Phil world-premiered last year.
"Look at the repertoire," Dudamel says, waving his hands above the scattered books of musical notation, a gesture one half expects to be accompanied by a sudden surge of strings. "We are traveling with a complete 20th-, 21st-century repertoire. No romantic music. We are traveling with a piece from the '80s [Claude Vivier's "Zipangu"], 'La Mer,' Stravinsky's 'Firebird' from 1910 and John Adams' 'Gospel' [from] 2012. It's an orchestra really connected to the new world. Look what we are doing [in Los Angeles] just before we leave--Schumann, Wagner and Brahms--and it's very romantic and traditional."
Samuel says the upcoming tour is unusual in that it was specifically designed to showcase the Adams work. The last L.A. Phil tour that was repertoire-based was the Stravinsky festival that former L.A. Phil conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen led in Paris in 1997.
The Adams work points to the Philharmonic's commitment to commissioning new works and sticking with them after they premiere. "The Gospel" had its premiere in May in concert form, was fully staged in Los Angeles March 7-10 and will receive four performances on the tour.
Adams-the Pulitzer Prize-winning 66-year-old American post-minimalist known for the groundbreaking operas "Nixon in China" and "The Death of Klinghoffer," as well as "On the Transmigration of Souls," his work honoring those killed in the World Trade Center attacks-is among the contemporary composers that Salonen enlisted who have remained associated with the L.A. Phil after Dudamel's arrival.
"Esa-Pekka, as a composer, was writing for the orchestra, bringing in great composers," Dudamel recalls. "I met John in Venezuela and we were so connected from the first moment, and now I have the pleasure and honor to conduct the oratorio of the 21st century.
"I can see a huge development in his way of writing because I have conducted his pieces [since I began]. It's like being in the 19th century, premiering Brahms or Mahler symphonies."
Adams and Salonen will play key roles in the Philharmonic's 2013-14 season, which was announced the last week of February. Salonen will return to the Frank Gerry-designed building to conduct the world-premiere performance of Frank Zappa's 1970 piece for rock band and orchestra, "200 Motels." Adams will return to oversee the "minimalist jukebox," a series the Philharmonic created in 2005. Dudamel will bring in the Simon Bolivar Orchestra to join the L.A. Phil in a Tchaikovsky festival and continue to stage Mozart operas.
"We enjoy creating festivals," Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn. president/CEO Deborah Borda says. "They create little explosions [in the calendar]."
Playing opera, Dudamel notes, is yet another way for the orchestra to stretch. He finds that forcing the band members to not only listen to each other but singers as well brings out a "different sense of teamwork." For him, it makes the orchestra better, which remains his top priority.
"When I came here I received a great orchestra," he says, "one of the great orchestras in the world. I've created a body, a very solid body, in the way to think, how to interpret, the approach to the sound and how we interact with each other.
"To create the best music-or to re-create the best music-you have to be really well-connected with the people with whom you are playing. That is my main goal, this connection in the approach to the music. We are at a great point, and we still have six or seven years to go until the contract ends."