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A Very, Very Long Night

March 12, 2009

The Los Angeles Philharmonic's drive to bring in new audiences through a series of concerts involving artists from different musical backgrounds appears to be paying off. At least, if last Saturday evening's soiree at Disney Hall devoted to the music of the French electronica artist, M83 (real name: Anthony Gonzalez, pictured) is anything to go by, Los Angeles concert goers are thrilled at the unusual collaborations and are packing the concert hall in droves.

The venue was almost completely full with young hipster types -- skinny men sporting drainpipe jeans, spiky hairdos, pertly buttoned-down shirts, jackets and neckties, and women in thick hose, 80s-style dresses and high heels. I've never encountered such an audience at a classical concert before. The closest I've come, I think, was San Francisco Performances' Philip Glass Ensemble gig a few weeks ago at Davies Symphony Hall -- and that audience was much more eclectic, being split between Glass' old fans and his new followers.

While I applaud the orchestra's outreach efforts, M83's appearance with the LA Phil left much to be desired. If nothing else, the orchestra, led by Julian Kuerti, did a wonderful -- albeit unintended -- job of showing up the weaknesses of M83's abilities as a musician.

Though by no means an expert on the genre, I've long enjoyed the work of many electronic artists from Depeche Mode and Goldfrapp to Amon Tobin and Underworld. But by far the best parts of last weekend's concert were the pieces performed by the orchestra alone. Arvo Part's Fratres and Debussy's La Mer strike me as two works that not only perfectly complement the electronic music of M83 because of their wide ranging, shifting timbres and rhythms, but also hint at the diversity and beauty of the classical music terrain for the benefit of the many people sitting in the audience that evening who might have thought that classical music was nothing but Beethoven, Mozart and Bach.

La Mer could at times be mistaken for an ambient track by a French electronica artist, in fact. And the rumbling-sinister bassline and percussion accents in Fratres is reminiscent of a drum n bass song. The orchestra drew out smooth, spiraling renditions of both pieces and the crowd deservedly went wild.

They also went wild -- though in my opinion less deservedly so -- for the opening set which M83 did solo and the finale, in which the orchestra, a small, amplified women's choir and two of M83's close colleagues (drummer Loic Maurin and a female vocalist whose name isn't listed on the program) joined the DJ in performing arrangements of five of his songs. I didn't share the rest of the crowd's enthusiasm for these sections of the program, unfortunately.

For one thing, M83 isn't very interesting to watch. The program describes him as playing "keyboards, guitars, vocals and electronics." But as far as I could tell, all that the artist did on stage that night was "play" the final "instrument" on the list. He more or less ignores the audience. He stands before his laptops and bleeping lights and keyboards, and barring the couple of occasions when he gets so involved with the music that he practically starts humping one of his sound consoles, he looks for all the world like he's checking his email or updating his Facebook profile.

For another, M83's music isn't very interesting to listen to in a concert hall (though it's pretty atmospheric via headphones on an iPod). Sean O'Loughlin's orchestral arrangements of the M83 numbers are, in the main, pedantic. With its sostenuto strings and assorted helicopter noises, the song In the Cold Standing sounds like the sort of music that might be composed for the tragic finale of a cheesy Hollywood Vietnam war movie. Meanwhile, anthem-like numbers like The Pioneers, featuring a solo female vocalist who can barely be heard despite the amplification, and Highest Journey, with its rock-style drums and ambient, breathy choral lines, are repetitive to the point of numbness.

I guess I remain to be impressed by M83, who looked as bored by the proceedings as I did by the end of the concert. The LA Phil's musicians didn't exactly register bliss on their faces at the end of the gig either. Taking their bows on cue to rapturous applause, they all gave the impression that it had been a very, very long night.

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