Experience the infinite possibilities of symphonic music with these boundary-defying composers and some of their most revelatory works. These masterworks, as performed by the greatest orchestras and performers in the world, create provocations of the heart and mind, and endless enjoyment through repeated viewings.
In 2003, the Walt Disney Concert Hall opened its doors to the public for the very first time. After sixteen long years, the acclaimed architect and visionary behind this landmark, Frank Gehry, had succeeded in constructing one of Los Angeles’ most emblematic landmarks in honour of one of the USA’s greatest contributors to the arts.
For this special occasion, esteemed film composer John Williams was asked to compose a piece marking a fresh chapter for the Los Angeles Philharmonic at their new home. The fruit of this commission, ‘Soundings’, is a rousing sonic landscape divided into five movements. In the composer’s words: ‘In writing Soundings, I've tended to think of it as an experimental piece for Walt Disney Concert Hall in which a collection of colorful sonorities could be sampled in the Los Angeles Philharmonic's new environment.’ The piece aims to foster the hall's acoustic potential and embrace its cultural significance. In this performance from 2014, musical director of the LA Phil and loyal fan of Williams, Gustavo Dudamel, conducts the piece in an evening dedicated to the composer’s body of work.
The work of German composer Steffen Schleiermacher forms a rich contribution to the sound of the 21st century avant-garde.
The Relief for Orchestra, premiered in 2018 as part of Andris Nelsons’ inaugural concert as the Gewandhausorchester’s 21st musical director is a glowing example of this. The work is composed as a single movement, balancing tremendous tension and sharp timbres with vivid and eloquent orchestration.
Petrushka, originally composed in 1911, is one of Stravinsky’s most famous works; his second foray into ballet after the immense success of 1910’s The Firebird. Though the composer initially conceived the piece as a concert work, its theatrical potential was acknowledged by artistic impresario and founder of Ballet Ruses Sergei Diaghilev, who convinced Stravinsky to forge ahead in turning Petrushka into a ballet. The story centres around its titular character, a living puppet whose tragic fate lies in his response to the new and confusing human feelings of love, jealousy, and loss. Petrushka is, in Stravinsky’s words, ‘the immortal and unhappy hero of every fair in all countries.
The ballet carries many direct musical and cultural references to the Russian tradition. It is alive with traditional Russian melodies whilst representing a divergence from the late-romantic orchestral sound. Though implementing a range of distinctly motivic elements, not least the eponymous ‘Petrushka chord’ that follows the character throughout, Stravinsky also experiments broadly with the capabilities of the orchestra using bold, bright washes of sound. This replacement of distinct musical phrases with a focus on sonic colours and textures later became a hallmark of the modernist approach.
This performance by Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra features a revision of Petrushka that Stravinsky completed in 1947, featuring sparser orchestration that speaks to the composer’s original intentions for the work.
The sheer originality of Bohuslav Martinů shines through his unique stylistic approach. Early in his career, the composer actively divorced himself from the Romantic idiom in which he had be taught, becoming one of the most significant representatives of the neoclassical movement. Martinů’s primary idiosyncrasy lies in his integration of rhythmic and melodic traits of Czech and Moldavian folk music with a more modernist approach that shows a clarity and precision characteristic of early 20th century French music.
His Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano, and Timpani was composed in 1938, the year of Kristallnacht, the Czech Crisis, and the Munich Agreement, events that collectively had an enormous effect on the composer. As someone who spent a significant portion of his life escaping Nazism and German invasion, Martinů’s feelings of anxiety and desperation are noticeable throughout the piece. He quotes: ‘With anguish we listened every day to the news bulletins on the radio, trying to find encouragement and hope that did not come. The clouds were quickly gathering and becoming steadily more threatening. During this time, I was at work on the Double Concerto, but all my thoughts and longings were constantly with my endangered country’.
This interpretation is taken from a concert celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of Czechoslovakia, performed by the Czech Philharmonic under the baton of the great Semyon Bychkov.
The music of Dmitri Shostakovich tells an insightful tale about life in Soviet Russia during the first half of the 20th century. His first violin concerto was written for the renowned Soviet violinist David Oistrakh, and though Shostakovich began work on this piece in 1947, it was not premiered until several years later in 1955 by the Leningrad Philharmonic.
The composer was initially denounced by the Soviet government in 1936 after an embarrassing media reception to his opera ‘Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District’. This was followed by a second denunciation in 1948, when Shostakovich’s music, alongside that of several his contemporaries, was declared as ‘inappropriate and formalist’ as part of the Zhdanov decree. The death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 was a significant contributor to the Shostakovich’s eventual recovery as a composer, and led to the premiere of many previously unpublished works including the first violin concerto. Here it is masterfully conducted by the Italian maestro Gianandrea Noseda alongside the great Nicola Benedetti and the world-renowned London Symphony Orchestra.