Culminating a year-long celebration of its 100th anniversary, the Los Angeles Philharmonic invited the two immediate past conductors, Zubin Mehta and Esa-Pekka Salonen, to join Gustavo Dudamel to lead the orchestra on Thursday at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. The Phil also asked members of Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, its music education and outreach program, to perform as a light show played over City Hall, bridging its past and future in the present.
The conductors each conducted one piece — Salonen started the evening with Lutoslawski’s Symphony No. 4, Mehta with shorter pieces from Wagner and Ravel, Dudamel did Stravinsky’s “The Firebird” suite, and then all three jointly conducted Daniel Bjarnason’s “From Space I Saw Earth,” which was a world premiere and commissioned by the Phil.
At the after-party at the newly refinished Music Center Plaza on the next block, L.A. Phil CEO Chad Smith gave a tip of the hat to those who had helped establish the LA Phil from Dorothy Chandler to then-exec director Ernest Fleischmann and his immediate predecessor, Deborah Borda, who was present.
Smith interviewed the three conductors, who between them have 103 years of experience with the orchestra. He asked them about the moment that defined their relationship with the orchestra. Zubin replied, “I was as young as my two colleagues, a guest conductor, and everything I conducted was for the first time. The orchestra so supported me. I told them, ‘I am new at this so come talk to me anytime.’” The next day he noticed a long line of musicians outside his door, he said, to laughter from the audience.
Similarly, Salonen talked about two moments: his first rehearsal, when he received “support, curiosity and warmth” after which he knew he’d fit in; and when he “watched Gustavo conduct and I thought this is the way to leave. I know everything is going to be all right.”
“I am between two of my conducting heroes,” Dudamel said when his turn came. “It’s a privilege. I came almost as a teen to my first rehearsal and went into concert. This is a generous orchestra, we see the generosity and the heart that they have.”
Discussing memorable moments during his time, Mehta also talked about how when he came to L.A. from Mumbai, he was told the city was a “cultural desert.” But he heard “great music being made” at a Baptist church where Otto Klemperer conducted.
“I was a very uptight, modern Finnish guy,” Salonen said. “All of a sudden I find myself in this chill world. People would ask, ‘how does it make me feel.’ And I was like, ‘feel? What do you mean, this is intellectual.’ I figured out that music is an emotional thing. It’s a silly thing to say here tonight, but I thought it was math on a higher level, and I figured it out.”
Dudamel, who led a toast to Los Angeles at the end, said getting to the soul of the people connected him. “Now I feel ultra muy Angelino.”