Composer Carolyn Chen was supposed to be an electrical engineer. Her father is an electrical engineer. Her mother was trained as a nurse. When her parents immigrated to the United States from Taiwan before she was born, they entered the country under the Hart-Cellar Act of 1965, which gave priority to skilled workers like doctors and scientists. While she was growing up in New Jersey and, after age 11, in San Jose, California, it felt to Chen like everyone she knew was a doctor or an engineer. “The idea of doing something else was very abstract, quasi-fictional even,” she says.
As a college student at Stanford, Chen was enrolled primarily in science courses when she began attending contemporary music concerts on campus. The music she heard was abstract and experimental, less traditionally tonal than the classical repertoire she’d studied as a young piano student. “It poked a part of my brain,” she says. She decided to go back for more, to follow this curious sonic rabbit down its meandering hole.
“Growing up, composing music always seemed totally unapproachable. It never would have occurred to me that somebody like me could write music,” Chen says. But at Stanford, she had the time and freedom to explore, so she joined an improv ensemble and started experimenting. “That’s how I got hooked,” she says.
Chen went on to study composition at UC San Diego, where she earned a PhD in music. After school, she moved to Los Angeles and began working as a freelance piano teacher and composer. In the fall of 2017, she received a commission from the Los Angeles Philharmonic to write a flute concerto for its centennial season. It marked her first commission from a major symphony orchestra.
Chen’s “The Sleeper and the Drinker,” a small, delicate, intricately crafted piece, received its world premiere at Walt Disney Concert Hall in October 2018 with music director Gustavo Dudamel conducting. The piece is inspired by a passage from Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby that depicts moths drinking the tears of sleeping birds. Performed by L.A. Phil principal flutist Denis Bouriakov and other members of the orchestra, Chen’s music floated lightly through the expanses of Disney Hall, its melodies seemingly transported by tiny, fluttering insect wings.
“It all went by very quickly,” Chen says of that night. After months of working on the piece, the performance was over in less than 20 minutes. Chen’s parents were in town from the Bay Area and were meeting her fiancé’s parents for the first time at the concert. Preoccupied with family and overwhelmed by the experience of the premiere, Chen forgot to document her big night with photos.
“I am really thankful that Denis, the flutist, had the idea to take a picture with me and Gustavo before the concert,” she says. Thanks to him, “there is a picture that I can look back at and say, wow, that really happened.”
Chen is one of 55 composers commissioned to write new works for the Los Angeles Philharmonic in honor of its 100th anniversary. Her inclusion in this program is an example of the L.A. Phil’s openness, one of the orchestra’s greatest strengths. While symphony orchestra audiences in several other major U.S. cities will not have a single opportunity to hear a piece of music composed by a woman or a non-white person during the 2018–19 season, the L.A. Phil’s centennial programming celebrates and advances diversity: Of those 55 commissioned composers, 22 are women and 22 are people of color.
The L.A. Phil has long been recognized for being experimental and boundary pushing, for fearlessly and regularly showcasing contemporary music alongside classics from the canon by Beethoven or Mahler. Leading up to its centennial, the orchestra was already riding a high, with critics across the country effusively praising its adventurous programming in articles featuring dramatic punctuation and superlative-laden headlines.
In 2017, the New Yorker’s classical music critic, Alex Ross, argued that “the ascendancy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic is the salient event in American orchestral life of the past twenty-five years.” A few weeks later, the New York Times’ classical music editor, Zachary Woolfe, gushed with envy over the L.A. Phil’s programming in a piece proclaiming that “Los Angeles Has America’s Most Important Orchestra. Period.” “No orchestra has been this ambitious, ever,” Mark Swed boasted in the L.A. Times in February 2018.
It all starts to sound like hyperbole. But the reality, as the orchestra’s expansive centennial season reveals week after jam-packed week of relentlessly spectacular music making, is that it lives up to—possibly even exceeds—the preseason hype. If a typical L.A. Phil season is adventurous, the centennial one is pioneering, revelatory. Welcome to the L.A. Phil turned up to 11.
The birthday party started last September, over a year before the orchestra’s actual 100th anniversary. Eight miles of city streets between Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Hollywood Bowl were closed to cars and opened to pedestrians and cyclists for a free daylong musical extravaganza that ended in a star-studded Hollywood Bowl show. Disney Hall’s iconic silver, sloping exterior was illuminated nightly by artist Refik Anadol’s fluid animated projections. The season-opening gala concert featured music by John Adams and Frank Zappa and performances by Corinne Bailey Rae and Coldplay’s Chris Martin. And the first few weeks of the season—dedicated to an “LA Fest”—offered an onslaught of world premieres, including Chen’s piece.
Even with the gaze of the L.A. Phil fixed on the future, time has been set aside in the centennial celebration to reminisce. Zubin Mehta, the philharmonic’s music director from 1962 to 1978, returned to the podium in December and January for a complete cycle of Brahms symphonies. At 82 and recovering from a recent hip surgery, he conducted while seated, drawing waves of lush, emotion-laden chords from the orchestra with the slightest gesture of his hand. During one performance, it was announced that Mehta was being named the L.A. Phil’s conductor emeritus. As he accepted the appointment, Mehta choked back tears, telling stories about his days as music director.
From 1992 to 2009, Esa-Pekka Salonen, who would become the L.A. Phil’s first conductor laureate, molded the orchestra into the adventurous organization it is today. His era will be celebrated during a Stravinsky festival this spring. In November and December 2018, former principal guest conductor Michael Tilson Thomas led a performance of his own composition alongside works by Tchaikovsky. Former music director André Previn is composing a commemorative work that will be premiered in October 2019.
There’s more. So much more. Far too much to list. This orchestra offers its community around 250 concerts a year. Beyond the hall, its educational and community-engagement initiatives are thriving, drawing younger, more diverse audiences into the concert hall and changing the lives of countless young musicians across Los Angeles. As part of the centennial season, it was announced that Frank Gehry is designing a new performance space for the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, the L.A. Phil’s signature educational program.
At the center of all this year’s offerings, though, is the commissioning program, which will seed diversity in the L.A. Phil’s repertoire.
During the 2018–19 season, the orchestras of Chicago, Dallas, Pittsburgh, and Houston did not program a single piece of music composed by a woman, according to the organization Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy. The WPA also found that music composed by women makes up only 12.8 percent of the pieces being performed this season by the United States’ top 21 orchestras (defined by operating budget).
Perhaps it is unsurprising that the world of classical music, often conservative, has remained stubbornly white and male even as other art forms have diversified. Beginning in the 1970s, that homogeneity began to shift for players thanks to the introduction of blind auditions for new orchestral hires. In 2000, a study in the American Economic Review found that between 1970 and 1990 the incorporation of blind auditions led to a 25 percent increase in the number of female orchestra members.
Still, while orchestra gender ratios have improved, racial and other inequalities remain entrenched. Female conductors are still vastly outnumbered by male ones. Blind auditions have not solved the problem of pay discrimination in symphony orchestras, an issue that received national press last year when Boston Symphony Orchestra principal flutist Elizabeth Rowe filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against her employer, seeking $200,000 in back pay. And in a year in which the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements continued to spark national conversations, classical music faced its own series of high-profile reckonings, leading to the ousting of several prominent professors, performers, and maestros.
Among American symphony orchestras, however, the L.A. Phil is light-years ahead of its peers in terms of actively pursuing gender equity and racial diversity onstage, at the podium, and in programming.
L.A. Phil chief operating officer Chad Smith says that as the organization heads into its next 100 years, a defining goal for the legacy institution is to serve its community, and it can do that best when the music onstage at Disney Hall and the Hollywood Bowl is as diverse as Los Angeles itself.
“Some time ago, we said, ‘All right, where are we not reflective of this diverse creative community around us?’ We started looking at the populations of Los Angeles and really doing our job, which is to discover, cultivate, and commission new works by composers from many, many different backgrounds.”
Smith is white and male, and he is quick to point out that one of the most effective ways to expand the demographics onstage is to diversify the decision-making process, starting at the top. The fact that charismatic music director Dudamel is Venezuelan and Susanna Mälkki, the L.A. Phil’s principal guest conductor, is female exemplifies the orchestra’s aesthetics and values, he says.
“[Hiring] Gustavo was a big thing. You’ll see that there are more Latino composers and Latin American composers on our programs,” Smith notes, adding that Dudamel’s warm and inclusive attitude is the fountain from which the organization’s welcoming spirit flows.
DIVERSITY AT DISNEY HALL
Among the young female composers benefiting from the philharmonic’s centennial commissioning program is L.A.-based composer Julia Adolphe, whose commissioned work “Underneath the Sheen” received its world premiere during last fall’s season-opening gala concert.
“I think what the L.A. Phil is doing is a model for the rest of the country,” she says. “Look at that gala concert for an example. What an eclectic mix! This is an orchestra that is really representing the diversity of the city in their season. They don’t sideline jazz and new music and world music. They bring those things to the main stage.”
Adolphe grew up in New York but moved to Los Angeles in 2010 to study composition at the University of Southern California. She says one reason she was drawn to USC was that it was the only school she visited where the student body of composers was 50-50 male-female. “I don’t think that’s true anymore,” she clarifies. “But it was true when I applied and during the years I was there. I was pretty floored by that, because during my undergrad at Cornell I was used to being the only woman.”
Adolphe thought she would come to L.A., then turn around and go right back to New York. But she fell in love with her adopted city. “What I’ve found is that there is just more openness and excitement for new ideas here,” she says.
“Underneath the Sheen” is a reflective, picturesque love letter to California. Adolphe drew inspiration for the piece from redwood trees—the look of the dappled light that filters down through their tall canopies, the sense of awe they elicit. Romantic and soaring, the piece also sparkled with Hollywood magic as it resonated through Disney Hall. It is simple and majestic, filled with grandeur as well as intimacy.
Adolphe had the rare opportunity last fall of having her piece performed in two separate L.A. Phil concert series. It was a learning experience, the composer says, one that gave her the chance to tweak her work so that it could shine a little more brilliantly.
“It becomes very clear very quickly what you need to improve, what you want to do differently next time,” she explains. “For example, there were certain crescendos in the brass that covered up music in the winds and strings during the gala concert. So I took those out. I even changed a couple of tempo markings based on Dudamel’s interpretation. I felt like he found a rhythm of the piece that I hadn’t quite heard, so I made adjustments based on his feedback.”
For a relatively young composer, this learning experience coupled with being commissioned by a major organization like the L.A. Phil was magical. Adolphe calls the experience “transformative artistically, creatively, and career-wise.”
“I’ve been going to Disney Hall ever since I moved to L.A.,” she says. “It is an incredible place. To work with Dudamel, you’re kind of pinching yourself, because you’re working with your heroes. My music was performed on a program alongside John Adams’s music. He was at the rehearsal. He gave me feedback, and I got to ask him questions.”
Smith says that there have long been remarkable, interesting female composers like Adolphe. “Unfortunately, they were ignored. I’m happy, on behalf of the L.A. Phil, to own that in whatever way we need to as a big arts institution. Finally, our perspective has changed in the right way. For a while now, there has been gender equity in training young composers. The equity part has not always come through on the performance side or the commissioning side. That is changing now. It is not changing fast enough, but it is changing.”
OPEN HEARTS, OPEN EARS
Carolyn Chen isn’t sure how the decision makers at the L.A. Phil came across her work, or why they decided to commission her. She didn’t have any direct relationships with curators at the orchestra, and she was a little surprised when they contacted her.
“It does seem like the L.A. Phil made a decision to think about the balance of where people were coming from and what they were representing,” she says. “I feel like so often people just do the easy thing, choose their students or someone they know. I thought it was pretty adventurous, or just generous, of them to invite me.”
Even as younger, more diverse voices are increasingly welcomed onto the stage at Disney Hall, much—though not all—of the media coverage surrounding the L.A. Phil’s centennial commissioning program has still focused on the work of famous white male composers: a new symphony by Philip Glass, a new piano concerto from John Adams, a new orchestral piece by Thomas Adès.
The season would impress if it stopped there. Instead it offers that and more. At every corner there are surprises, small and large, from people unexpected and previously unheard. As the press begins to take note of these new voices, so do other orchestras that are beginning to follow the L.A. Phil’s lead. During the summer of 2018, the Philadelphia Orchestra amended its programming to include music by female composers. And in February of this year, the New York Philharmonic—now under the leadership of longtime L.A. Phil CEO Deborah Borda—announced the commissioning of 19 new works by female composers as part of the Project 19 initiative, which celebrates the centennial of the 19th Amendment.
The L.A. Philharmonic is bighearted and welcoming, an orchestra without borders or boundaries. As it expands its palette and its audience, it leads its field toward a more inclusive, rich future, opening ears, hearts, and minds along the way.
Pianist turned writer Catherine Womack covers classical music and the arts for Alta. She most recently wrote about musician and philanthropist Herb Alpert (”Advocating for Art”).