Orango: Concert Review

Esa-Pekka Salonen.
  Better late than never, a lively world premiere of a Shostakovich piece after a 75-year wait.

Esa-Pekka Salonen and Peter Sellars returned to the LA Philharmonic to present the world premiere of Shostakovich's prologue for the otherwise unfinished opera "Orango."

Esa-Pekka Salonen bid his official farewell as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in April, 2009 teaming with Peter Sellars on Stravinsky's somber and cerebral Oedipus Rex and Symphony of Psalms. Over the past weekend, the pair returned in far more rambunctious mode to present the world premiere of Shostakovich's prologue for the otherwise unfinished opera Orango. It was one of those evenings when, not knowing just what to expect, being open to anything was the only proper posture, and the result was a bracing surprise.

Running 32 minutes as played by a platform-bulging 107-piece ensemble, not including 10 singers in various locations around the room and members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale in seats behind the orchestra, the performance undoubtedly marked the first time in Disney Hall history that a toy piano was placed — and played — directly in front of the conductor's podium, as well as the first time Salonen, or any other conductor, has been pawed, draped upon and otherwise molested while continuing to lead the orchestra — all as part of the performance, to be sure.

Percussive, impudent and darting from one stylistic motif to another with mad energy, the prologue was written in 1932, the 15th anniversary of the October Revolution, while Shostakovich was in the midst of composing his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk DistrictOrango was conceived as a satiric, anti-bourgeois piece about a French biologist who, by mating with a female ape, creates a half-human, half-ape “son” he names Orango. The composer and his librettists, Count Alexei Tolstoy and Alexander Starchakov, mapped out three acts that would take Orango through World War I, spells as a journalist, newspaper owner and stock speculator in Paris, on a disapproving visit to the USSR and finally into a downward spiral that ends a cage at the Moscow circus.

The prologue was all that was ever written and, at that, Shostakovich only wrote out a piano and voice score, which was filed away and forgotten; political prudence, spurred by fear, can be the only reason. Only in 2004 was it discovered in the archives of a Moscow museum and, finally, orchestrated by Gerard McBurney.

The Orango prologue incorporates the overture and ending of the composer's ballet The Bolt and that title lends an idea of what this half-hour of music sounds like, as it dashes from idea to idea, from inspirational revolutionary bursts to accelerated dances to mock beer garden oom-pahs, with the shade of Brecht and Weill lingering in the background. The human-ape hybrid, initially contained in an orange-rimmed glass box, is presented by a master of ceremonies to the public with eventual disruptive effect, as the creature molests a woman (seated in the front row of the audience) as a set-up to the detailed telling of his story in the form of a musical entertainment. Supertitles supplied translations of the often nutty, sometimes inflammatory lyrics.

Sellars' most pronounced contribution came in the form of dominant photo projections on a large screen behind the orchestra (as well on a a much smaller one above the top balcony in back). The first images were of the Occupy movement, the Los Angeles component of which had been based just a block or two away from Disney Hall. These were joined in quick rotation by shots of other international protest gatherings, advanced American war planes, a lab monkey, a vintage black-and-white clip of a ballet dancer, and other generally confrontational shots cut together in a repetitive and random way that seemed hastily done. The photographs themselves were, for the most part, quite ordinary, their political relevance to the apparent content of Orango arguable. They were certainly not up to the vibrant and vigorous level of the music and playing they accompanied.

After intermission, Salonen followed with rousing rendition of Shostakovich's eclectic, eruptive, hour-long Symphony No. 4 n C minor, Op. 43another long-delayed creation by the composer. Finished and set for its premiere in 1936, it was pulled at the last minute after Pravda, at the direction of Stalin, attacked Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District for “formalism,” thus placing Shostakovich under a heavy political cloud. The symphony didn't receive its first performance until 1961. It's a grand, grandiose and convulsive work, one that gives the entire orchestra a major workout.

Shostakovich's widow Irinia, present in the audience, was introduced and profusely thanked by the conductor from the podium.

Venue: Disney Hall (December 2-4)
Orchestra: Los Angeles Philharmonic
Music: Dmitri Shostakovich
Libretto: Count Alexei Tolstoy, Alexander Starchakov
Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen
Director: Peter Sellars
Lighting director: Ben Zamora
Orchestrator: Gerald McBurney