Whales and world class music in LA


Los Angeles

Los Angeles at night

In January I made a trip to Los Angeles as a musical pilgrimage of sorts. I am a big fan of Henryk Górecki, a contemporary Polish composer best known for his haunting Third Symphony, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. He wrote this piece in 1976 and initially it wasn’t well received. It didn’t become famous until a 1991 recording with the London Sinfonietta, featuring the soloist soprano Dawn Upshaw. This recording to date has sold more than a million copies – more than any other contemporary classical record – making it a rare commercial success in the world of classical music. Górecki commented on this unexpected success,“Perhaps people find something they need in this piece of music […] somehow I hit the right note, something they were missing. Something somewhere had been lost to them. I feel that I instinctively knew what they needed.”

The world has been waiting a long time for Górecki’s next symphony – an undertaking he was reluctant to pursue perhaps due to the Third’s hard-to-top fame. When he finally started working on the Fourth, he didn’t manage to finish the piece before his death in 2010. It was completed only in short score – a composer’s shorthand. However, to the delight of Górecki’s followers his son Mikołaj, also a composer, finished his father’s work and orchestrated the Fourth Symphony titled Tansman Episodes. When I read last year that it was going to premier in London and then in LA, I knew I had to see it live in one of these locations, and the timing and logistics for LA worked out. On January 17, my husband and I entered the gorgeous, futuristic-looking Disney Hall in downtown LA, home to Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Disney Hall

Stunning Disney Hall in LA

What an amazing space, both the exterior structure and the actual concert hall with its flawless acoustics!

LA Philharmonic

LA Philharmonic orchestra in Walt Disney Hall

Conducted by Andrey Boreyko, the symphony soared through and permeated the concert space. It shook me, it disturbed me, but ultimately delighted. Dedicated to another Polish composer, Alexandre Tansman, the symphony’s opening thunders with a theme using some of the frequent letters in Tansman’s name, A & E. It closes with A major chord that resolves the entire piece’s musical tension. Here is how one reviewer described the experience:

Górecki’s Fourth is no feel good bliss-out, but a strenuous exercise in massive contrasts and mechanistic repetition. A kind of folk tune in a heavy gait is composed using the letters in Polish composer Alexandre Tasman’s name. The orchestra lumbers through it over and over, fortissimo, bass drums punctuating. The A-minor harmony is obliterated by dissonant clusters from the organ and piano. Single chords blast, silence interrupts, low strings murmur.

And so the apocalyptic Fourth goes, a battle between major and minor, loud and soft, lyrical and brutal. The repetition goes beyond a listener’s comfort, but creates a thrum, an atmosphere that will, at some point, end. The piece is easy to follow; the materials are simple, though used with sophistication. The sheer power of the orchestra is explored – the work is physical in effect – and dramatic anticipation is a big part of the listening experience. What outrageous/beautiful thing will happen next?

Because of how physical the Fourth feels, it really needs to be experienced in a live performance. But before you can catch it wherever it’s played going forward, here is the next best thing: a recording of the London world premiere in April 2014 I found on YouTube. Take a listen:

Filled to the brim with the power of the Fourth Symphony with its thunderous notes seared in our brains, the next day we longed for open spaces and another “big” experience of a different kind… so we decided to go whale watching. I tried that last year in San Diego but a tad too early in the season, only to end up with frustrating 3 hours on a cold boat and no whales in sight. This time started with a similar frustration (sorry dolphins, you can’t fully compensate) but then this made up for all the waiting:

Los Angeles It is rather hard to take good whale photos since the only come up for short moments but I tried my best – and even managed to catch one mid-jump!

Los Angeles whalesLos Angeles whalesLos Angeles whales What a marvelous, eclectic time we had! Farewell, the City of Angels, until next time…

Los Angeles

Listen on:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s