Let There Be Light

These words are being typed by a foie gras-based life form.  At this time of year in Lyon, where I just spent a week with Leonard Slatkin and his phenomenal orchestra, you simply cannot escape the delicacy.  Maybe you go with quibbles about the fattiness or dodgy production methods offoie gras, but once there, your resistance collapses.  It’s a nice collapse, deep into the world of duck, and not necessarily as expensive as elsewhere because the Lyonnais present even the finest food quite casually.  (Also, Leonard paid.)  But while the capital of French cuisine certainly is the place for eating, I was even more impressed by its stunning cultural fabric – and most of all, its orchestra.

The Orchestra National de Lyon, which was famously once led by Hector Berlioz,  did a stunning job with The B-Sides, Mothership, and Digital Loom.  The concerts were a composer’s fantasy, combining superb playing, outstanding production and sound design, and houses packed with young audiences night after night.  They are a model of what provocative programming and vibrant production can do for the symphonic experience.

The musicians shred.  For example, the tricky opening of The B-Sides, with its ticking of a “future clock” in the electronics and a mischievous chimney-sweep rhythm in the percussion, has never sounded so tight on a first run-through.  For Mothership, the orchestra put out a call for young improvisers, and the four we chose all brought something new to the piece.  And for Digital Loom, a piece for organ and electronics, they lowered the back wall to reveal the stunning assemblage of pipes (below) that were once played by Saint-Saëns.  This time they were played by Mathias Lecomte, an unbelievably gifted organist who brought both color and precision to this showpiece.

And the lighting.  Oh yeah, the lighting.  This week Lyon celebrates the Fête des Lumières, when buildings all over the city are illuminated by hugely elaborate lighting effects and magical projections.  Facades ripple with the brushstrokes of Monet, a giant Ferris wheel made to look like an antique clock, beams of light wash across the sky. The orchestra wanted to bring some of that into the hall, so the concert was enhanced with immersive and responsive visual design.  With the Chicago Symphony’s MusicNOW concerts and my Mercury Soul club shows, I have come to really appreciate dramatic and tasteful production – and Yves Caizergues knew how to do it.

This highly meticulous lighting designer carefully programmed the lights to run in sync with each piece : from a dreamy blue for the “Broom of the System” that opens The B-Sides to a pulsing rave during its finale “Warehouse Medicine.”  Mothership was illuminated as spectacularly as it was at its premiere at the Sydney Opera House, but this time I was actually given a MIDI controller by the lighting designer so I could trigger lighting effects while playing.  I’m pretty sure heaven’s special room for control freaks will have a MIDI lighting controller.  (The only thing that ever topped that was once being given a haze-machine button at a Mercury Soul club show – yes, I overused it.)Great audiences in Lyon too.  I will admit to some advance anxiety about how the French would react to my music.  It can be hard for to connect with a different culture, and let’s face it, the Continental new music scene still worships at the alter of post-serialism.  But I knew I had a fighting chance with a town that loves Berlioz, a composer whose unusual sounds and imaginative forms I greatly admire.The crowd was pretty explosive, clapping between movements (I have zero problem with that) and at one point doing the let’s-all-clap-in-rhy-thm ­thing during “Warehouse Medicine.”  That turned into an fun little challenge for us onstage, with the audience’s rhythm inevitably phasing out Reich-like and everyone onstage having to stay intensely focused end.  This gracious audience response could have been as much a response to my music as a Southern thing : the Lyonnais are warmer than the Parisians.

Could this happen in the US – imaginative programming, creative production, and hip audiences?  It does happen – I think of the CSO Beyond the Score series, or some of the Mavericks concerts at the SF Symphony.  But it would be cool for more regular subscription concerts to have a higher quotient of new and unusual music.  Lighting and production is not cheap, so starting subtle is a good plan.  Get rid of the “house half-lit” vibe and make things dark; add rich lighting that enhances but does not interfere; and don’t promote it – let it be an added-value surprise that is put on the right night of the week.

What Leonard has built in Lyon is as impressive and audacious as what he’s done with the Detroit Symphony, which has the market cornered on symphonic webcasting – which includes a great deal of new and recent music.  He is not only a stunning maestro, but a uniquely gifted communicator who knows how to present provocative ideas in fresh ways.

And, yes, he fattens me up.  Quack.