For any company to present Diavolo’s L’Espace du Temps, an ambitious trilogy of dance works, is a challenge. First there’s the need for physical space to accommodate choreographer Jacques Heim’s vision. Second, there’s the music. In the first piece, Foreign Bodies, composer Esa-Pekka Salonen wrote a score for 150 musicians. The space at the Valley Performing Arts Center, where the North American premiere of the full trilogy will take place this weekend, doesn’t have that kind of space. So the task of reworking Salonen’s score fell on the shoulders of Christopher Rountree.
Rountree is best known for his company wild Up, an L.A.-based group of musicians who present music in unique ways and venues. In addition to being the company’s Director and Conductor, Rountree is also a composer. Here he talks about the challenges of reworking Salonen, his collaboration with the composer, and his thoughts about the future of classical music.
When it comes to music, you’ve said that you “want to get rid of restraint” and that you “want to tear the thing’s guts out.” How does that goal mesh with your task of reducing Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Foreign Bodies for this event?
A reduction is like the opposite. If you don’t do it right, you take the guts out the wrong way. It’s a logistical necessity, not an artistic choice. If we could have a pit with 150 people, we would. But it only takes 60. The piece is incredibly virtuosic. It’s like a concerto for every player. But if you reduce it, it means it is twice as virtuosic. Everybody is shredding the whole time. That’s the level of commitment needed from each player. I took something incredibly difficult and made it incredibly hard.
What were the challenges of reducing the score while maintaining the integrity of Salonen’s work?
This type of piece feels like it’s one giant being—a person who is 500-feet-tall made up of all these little parts. When you are reducing, you want to keep as much specific material and detail as possible. All that detail is creating the purpose of the whole sound. Just when you thought the first challenge was over, the next one comes. Looking at the choreography for the first time, everything has such an intense level of physicality that I think it’s going to match pretty well. The challenge is, how far can I push each musician? In one of Esa-Pekka’s notes he wrote, ‘does this violate a health code?’ If we’re going to do it, let’s try to really do it.
How much rehearsal time do you have with the orchestra to handle the demands of this piece?\
Usually the orchestral rehearsal schedule is somewhere between 9 and 12 hours for a concert for one project. We have just over that, about 16 hours of rehearsals. It might seem fast, but for an orchestral musician, they know what to do. Orchestral music always feels like a shotgun wedding. We’re in the convertible going 120 miles-per-hour to the chapel, but we’re all used to it.
How does working with scores by Salonen, John Adams, and Philip Glass inspire you both as a conductor and composer?
The level of brilliance in their choices is overwhelming. There’s a reason they have had careers like they are having. It’s not an anomaly; it’s incredibly intentional. As conductors we sit with a score and try to create an aural image as loudly as possible without hearing [the composition]. I play the piece in my head but also impose my own ideas on it. You listen to the score in your head they way they intend, but then you go ‘what if?’ and imagine a lot of possibilities.
With wild Up you are trying to reimagine the paradigm of classical music and how it is presented. What is your view of the future of this music?
I think the LA Philharmonic is the vanguard in the world, which is a boom for our city. There needs to be more new music, not only the Green Umbrella. Beethoven becomes better when the context around Beethoven is relevant for people today—when you put new music with Beethoven. The people who only want Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, they are actually dying. It’s slowly changing, but it’s been very frustrating. These are major corporations looking at the bottom line only. If the bottom line is only 200 people who are funding the whole thing, we have to work on that model.
I went to Walt Disney Concert Hall and saw the orchestra play all Tchaikovsky. What if one of those pieces was Mozart instead? And one of those pieces was incredibly complex music that is referencing Mozart, and someone told a story about how Tchaikovsky was overwhelmed by Mozart? And [composer/pianist] Anthony Cheung plays a piece influenced by Mozart and shreds it? They all win. My sense in programming is this will become more common.