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Esa-Pekka Salonen

Publisher: Chester Music

LA Variations (1996)
Chester Music Ltd
Sub Category
Large Orchestra
Year Composed
20 Minutes
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Programme Note
Esa-Pekka Salonen LA Variations (1996)
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LA Variations is essentially variations on two chords, each consisting of six notes. Together they cover all twelve notes of a chromatic scale. Therefore the basic material of LA Variations has an ambiguous character: sometimes (most of the time, actually) it is modal (hexatonic), sometimes chromatic, when the two hexachords are sued together as a twelve-tone structure.

This ambiguity, combining serial and non-serial thinking, is characteristic of my work since the mid-eighties, but LA Variations tilts the balance drastically towards the non-serial.

This piece, some nineteen minutes of music scored for a large orchestra, including a contrabass clarinet and a synthesizer, is very clear in its form and direct in its expression.

The two hexachords are introduced in the opening measures of the piece together in the chromatic phenotype. Alto flute, English horn, bass clarinet, and two bassoons, shadowed by three solo violas, play a melody which sound slike a kind of synthetic folk music, but in fact is a horizontal representation of the two hexachords transposed to the same pitch.

Some of the variations that follow are based on this melody, others are the deeper, invisible (or inaudible) aspects of the material. There are also elements that never change, like the dactyl rhythm first heard on the timpani and percussion halfway through the piece.

This is a short description of the geography of LA Variations:
1) The two hexachords together as an ascending scale. Movement slows down to
2) Quasi folk-music episode (which I described before).
3) First Chorale (winds only)
4) Big Chord I. The two hexachords are interpreted three times in three different ways in a very large chord.
5) Scherzando, leggiero.
6) A machine that prepares the even semi-quaver movement of
7) Variation of the melody in trumpets and Violin I.
8) Fastest section of the piece,[quarter-note = 150]. First woodwinds in the highest register, then bass instruments in the lowest register. An acrobatic double bass solo leads to
9) Variation for winds, percussion, harp, celesta.
10) Canon in three different tempos. Scored for chamber ensemble.
11) A tutti string passage leads to
Big Machine I. Percussion prepares the mantra rhythm: [eighth-note, two sixteenth-notes, eighth-rest, eighth-note, two sixteenth-notes, eighth-rest]
12) Second Chorale.
13) A new aspect of the melody in unison strings.
14) Tempo [quarter-note=125]. Canon à 3.
15) Big Machine II. Probably the most joyful music I've ever written.
16) Big Chord II. This time two different interpretations of the hexachords.
Repeated mantra rhythm in timpani, roto-toms, and log drums grow to maximum power.
17) Coda. Two hexachords together as in the beginning. Scored for eight muted cellos, eight muted violins, and piccolo.

I wrote LA Variations specifically for the player of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I'm very proud of the virtuosity and power of my orchestra.

© Esa-Pekka Salonen

  • Ensemble
    LA Philharmonic Orchestra / London Sinfonietta
    Dawn Upshaw, soprano / Anssi Karttunen, cello
    Esa-Pekka Salonen
  • Ensemble
    UBS Verbier Festival Orchestra
    Esa-Pekka Salonen
    Ideale Audience:
..."L.A. Variations" reflects the urban hubbub of Salonen's adopted home, Los Angeles... As with Sibelius, there's a poetic magic and an intense clarity underneath it all that keeps you on the edge of your seat...Kahane should be commended for keeping contemporary music before the public, not just as short curtain-raisers but major works before intermission. It's time for classical music to face forward rather than backward.
Diane Peterson, Press Democrat,16/02/2004
…the piece was written for Salonen's own Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the music exuberantly highlights the different departments of the orchestra, from noisy percussion writing to a cartoonish double-bass solo. If Lindberg hides his compositional techniques under a veil of complexity, Salonen makes his inventiveness as transparent as possible. It is the difference between intensity and flamboyance.
Tom Service, The Guardian,31/05/2003
The new release adds another dimension to our view of Salonen's achievement, for in his 20-minutes-long La Variations he offers a large-scale showpiece meant to exploit the full range of grand gestures, opulent sonorities, and intricate textures now available to the orchestral composer. As the notes point out, this is not a traditional theme-and-variations; rather it consists of over 20 short sections, seamlessly connected, that present varying ways of arraying two hexachords comprising the full chromatic scale. This description hardly prepares one for the music itself - the magniloquent, exotic-sounding opening tune is surely modal - and at other times billowy, scurrying, radiant, joyous, mysterious, even triumphant. The overall impression is of vital energy and sheer pleasure in gorgeous timbral combinations. I found the work thrilling, especially as brought to life by the stellar playing of Salonen's own orchestra and Sony's vivid engeneering.
Lehman, American Record Guide,02/02/2002
The unequivocal success of the three pieces was Salonen's own virile 'LA Variations', composed specially for this orchestra and exploitative of its skills. Intricate mosaics of different rhythmic patterns permeate the dense, active textures. The fusion of accuracy and verve was fearless.
Geoffrey Norris, The Daily Telegraph,01/09/1998
LA VARIATIONS begins with a couple of [those] complex six-note chords but instead of making stern 12-tone music out of them, jumps up and down. The chords themselves are introduced in wonderful upward sweeps and arrive with a big lush noise. They fragment into sprightly themes that have a folk-music quality. And the piece takes off as a kind of concerto for orchestra. LA VARIATIONS sounds original in great part because of the brilliant orchestration. Salonen knows what his concertmaster and first trumpet can do and then puts them together in ways other composers without such players on hand would likely never imagine...There is a rhythm of activity and a love for acrobatic complexities that are his hallmark. And there is the sheer exhilaration of providing at least a thrill a minute during the 19-minute piece from a virtuoso orchestra that he knows intimately.
Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times,01/01/1997
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