The year was 1919. The world was recovering from the just-ended World War I, and the new music of the era reflected the turbulence of the times: Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin.
But while Europe was dealing with the aftermath of a hugely destructive conflict, Southern California was staking its claim to cultural significance. On October 24, the Los Angeles Philharmonic played its inaugural concert, featuring Dvořák’s New World Symphony (written only 26 years earlier). The following March, the ensemble played its first program in Santa Barbara, sponsored by the new Community Arts Music Association.
So 2018-19 is the centennial season of both the symphony, which has matured into a world-renowned ensemble, and CAMA, which ultimately expanded its mission to bring a variety of classical artists to Santa Barbara. The double celebration will kick off Sunday, October 28, at The Granada Theatre, when Paolo Bortolameolli conducts the Philharmonic in music of Beethoven and Saint-Saens. It will culminate on March 6, 2020, when music director Gustavo Dudamel and the orchestra will take that same stage, 100 years to the day from its first Santa Barbara performance.
The L.A. Phil, which is widely seen as America’s most progressive major orchestra, is spending this landmark year looking forward rather than backward.
In a recent interview, Chad Smith, the orchestra’s chief operating officer (and recently named artistic director of the Ojai Music Festival), discussed how he and his colleagues view the role of the orchestra in the 21st century.
The L.A. Phil is doubling down on its commitment to new music for its anniversary season. Why engage in what many orchestras would consider a risky strategy? We knew that commissioning was a big part of what we wanted to do for our centennial season. New music is important to us; it’s one of the things we hang our hat on. We commissioned 50 new works as a pillar of the season. We have a very adventurous audience. We have normalized “the new.” Our audience is okay with a little uncertainty about what’s coming. We’ve been doing this for some time.
If an organization tends to be conservative in the repertoire it plays, it’s going to represent the values of the people who came before them. That’s not to take anything away from the greatness of Beethoven and Mozart. But as an arts organization today, we have to focus on our current generation of creators and reflect that vitality on our stage.
One thing I have noticed over the decade Dudamel has been music director is his insistence on sharing the spotlight. As the audience is applauding after a performance, he moves down from the podium and stands with the orchestra — just another member of the ensemble. What larger ethos does that reflect? Orchestras tend to be top-down in their artistic decision making. We’ve had a realization that we have to let go of that. It can’t be the same group of people making those decisions. We have to open up the decision-making process to a much wider field. We’ve been creating positions within the Philharmonic that allow for diverse creative personalities to essentially curate their own musical experience for artists.
That includes bringing back the principal guest conductor position and having Susanna Mälkki hold it, and creating an “artist collaborator” position and hiring [opera and theater director] Yuval Sharon. We have to allow people to come into this big organization and make those decision-making walls more porous so we’re able to see a different set of possibilities. The landscape of L.A. is changing so quickly. We have to stay out in front of this.
CAMA presents the Los Angeles Philharmonic Sunday, October 28, 4 p.m., at The Granada Theatre (1214 State St.). Call 899-2222 or see granadasb.org.