Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Waking Up With the House on Fire

June 23, 2018

 

Iréne Theorin as Brünnhilde and Daniel Brenna as Siegfried Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera 2018

It’s an unusual distinction, but after its third outing in a decade Francesca Zambello’s staging of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen remains consistent - Siegfried is the strongest of the four operas in her vision of the cycle. I was reminded of this on Friday (my third time seeing this particular staging), where I reflected how sad it is that, of all the Ring operas, Siegfried is the most likely to be skipped or overlooked by a general audience. It easily has some of the most beautiful music in the entire work and Zambello’s environmentalist slant fits most nicely here in the deep dark woods. The gods' corruption under Wotan is paralleled by the encroaching forces of a polluted, mechanical world. Zambello's most striking images tie into the coming revolution and rise of the natural world championed by the hero Siegfried and Brunnhilde. In Act II Fafner, now a dragon, is less a prehistoric lizard and more a faceless tank, whom Siegfried destroys by removing crucial circuitry. It’s also oddly perhaps the best take on the dragon I’ve seen. It’s both threatening and a little scary which is saying quite a lot, given the difficulty in staging some of Wagner’s most fairy tale-inspired moments.

American tenor, Daniel Brenna again takes on the role of Siegfried as he did two years ago in Washington, DC. His youthful energy is a natural fit for this most challenging of operatic parts. Siegfried is often criticized as bland and dopey, but Brenna fills him with enough youthful fervor that those criticisms seems less applicable here. Greer Grimsley had a particularly good night as Wotan and David Congelosi’s Mime continues to be a centerpiece to the whole evening. Iréne Theorin’s Brünnhilde awakens after nearly two decades asleep with a questionable blond wig that proves an unfortunate distraction to her remarkably satisfying performance. Apparently one’s hair grows while they are asleep, even if their nails do not. Lucky for this Brünnhilde, the Veronica Lake look still seals the deal with Siegfried, and the love duet that closes Act III is as enthralling as ever.

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Hunting Grounds

June 22, 2018

 

Brandon Jovanovich as Siegmund and Karita Mattila as Sieglinde Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera 2018

Opera often seems like a miracle. It’s really just an incredible feat of the hard work of hundreds of artists from different disciplines all working together toward a common goal. But sometimes it still takes some amazing acts of divine intervention for everything to happen when it does.  And much was miraculous about Die Walküre, the second night of Wagner’s Das Ring des Nibelungen as seen in the San Francisco Opera’s current production now on stage. Perhaps the biggest miracle was the substitution of the originally scheduled soprano Evelyn Herlitzius who cancelled just weeks before the opening with the much lauded Iréne Theorin in the central role of Brünnhilde. Finding an artist of Theorin’s stature at the last minute for perhaps the most difficult role in all of opera is one thing; getting her here though was another entirely. Apparently when the current morally bankrupt US administration isn’t busy keeping the county safe from brown-skinned toddlers, opera singers are a close second on their watch list. I’m told every favor imaginable was called in and strings enough for a dozen harps were pulled to get Theorin's visa approved in time under the sad conditions that are increasingly the case in the decline of this once-great nation.

Luckily she did make it and whatever strings were pulled, they were well worth pulling. Theorin was a blazing presence Tuesday, vocally and theatrically. She bounds into Act II with limitless energy clearly pushing all involved from the orchestra and conductor, Donald Runnicles to her Wotan, Greer Grimsley to dig deep. She was thrilling to watch throughout and her fierce, confident tone bore an ease enviable for any vocalist at these echelons of Wagnerian performance. The next miracle was how expertly matched she was with a superb cast across the board. Karita Mattila, an artist with few equals on today’s stage, brought her Sieglinde to town opposite Brandon Jovanovich who reprised his Siegmund from the Ring’s last outing here. Mattila manages frailty, passion, and a growing conviction in her performance that commands everything around her. Jovanovich is noble and warm-toned throughout. Jamie Barton, as Fricka, takes one of the thorniest challenges in all of the Ring's demands. In Act II she manages a mesmerizing, searing turn in straightening out her wayward husband without a decent into caricature. 
These kinds of performances can often go far in making up for a multitude of sins when it comes to a production’s overall quality. But Zambello’s diffuse shifting vision holds steady on this outing. There continues to be enough visual flash and atmosphere to keep things interesting and her parachuting Valkyries excite the crowd as much as they have at any time during the life of this production. The emotional range feels far less telegraphed than it often did during the productions initial run as a confidence and certainty have taken its place. Given that Zambello’s Siegfried has long been a calling care of her Ring production, there is a lot to look forward to this week.

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Always Believe in Gold

June 20, 2018

 

Falk Struckmann as Alberich as Greer Grimsley as Wotan Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera 2018
Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen has returned to San Francisco this June. It’s a welcome return with an excellent cast that I got the chance to catch this week during the second cycle which started last night with Das Rheingold. Wagner is always timely of course so there’s never really a wrong time to reconsider any of his work. And as director Francesca Zambello argues with all the negative going on in the world right now this cornerstone experience of Western art is particularly inviting with its themes of rebirth and redemption. For those of you just now joining the story, Zambello’s Ring was originally a co-production between Washington National Opera and San Francisco Opera and was dubbed the “American Ring” in its early development. Of course the original roll out hit a sizable bump in the road following the economic crash of 2008, which nearly finished off WNO, leaving SFO to complete the developmental process on its own halfway through the four premieres. When the completed full version of the work hit the stage in 2011, much had changed and the original American theme had been abandoned half-way through for a more environmentally conscious and concerned one. Still somewhat of a thematic hybrid, the show was a success and eventually arrived in Washington in 2016 to positive reviews and eventually Zambello herself took the artistic helm of that company.

Now, two years later, Zambello’s Ring returns of San Francisco with some tweaking for another run. Das Rheingold more than any other of the operas in this production, still clings to that original “American” conceit. The gods are still dressed like robber barons of the late 19th and early 20th century in contrast to the giants who are clearly denim clad steelworkers invoking a sort of industrial age class warfare. It’s not a radically new concept of course and Zambello does try to even out the thematic issues by crafting some new water and fire video imagery this time around for Rheingold to display during the overture. There are still some issues, however, with overly broad acting and busy stage business between the gods that makes too little of their dignified and regal nature. Still this creakiness doesn’t overwhelm the many great things this Rheingold has going for it and the overall effect still works.

Perhaps the biggest of these is the return of Stefan Margita as Loge. Margita has made this role his all over the world and he has again returned to San Francisco for it. He has mastered the perfect combination of menace, craftiness, and humor to make Loge the central character in this ensemble. Perhaps the other most welcomed return was that of former SFO Music director, Donald Runnicles who conducted the SFO orchestra with real warmth and palpable excitement. Meanwhile familiar faces and voices abounded in the cast with Andrea Silvestrelli, David Cangelosi, Ronnita Miller, Raymond Aceto, Stacey Tappan, Lauren McNeese and Renee Tatum all returning from eight years ago.

Of the relative newcomers, the Alberich here, Falk Struckmann was a little slow hitting his vocal stride out of the gate, but by the time he and the others arrived in Nibelheim, he was creepy and powerfully on target. Greer Grimsley, as Wotan, and Jamie Barton, as Fricka, have also joined the cast and did an excellent job of laying the necessary groundwork for the heavy lifting awaiting them in Die Walkure. In the end it was a promising kick off to a reassuringly good production. And isn’t it nice to have something to count on these days?

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Come. Again.

March 20, 2018

 
The Los Angeles Master Chorale performs Lagrime di San Pietro Photo: Patrick Brown 2018

The Los Angeles Master Chorale is having a moment. They’ve had many before but this past weekend was clearly another. It was the Chorale’s annual Gala and there was feeling of anticipation in the air. Not only over the encore performance of Orlando di Lasso’s Lagrime di San Pietro, which garnered critically ecstatic reviews for the ensemble in 2016, but also because of the coming world tour they will head out for next fall and spring. The LAMC is no stranger to touring, but it has often been in conjunction with other groups like the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But this tour, which will take them to London, Paris, and other points around the globe is a solo, a cappella endeavor that will feature the performance of Lagrime.

And from the looks of things this past weekend, the Chorale is in for even more accolades. Lagrime, with a staging by Peter Sellars and conducted by Artistic Director Grant Gershon, is even stronger and more natural than before. The 75-minute work consists of 20 madrigals and one Latin motet performed in this instance by 21 choristers. The text concerns the stages of grief experienced by St. Peter after his denial of Jesus and the work has an intriguing shifting perspective over the course of its sections. Sellars casts the work as one not only about regret but of forgiveness, with the choristers constantly in motion having memorized the text. It’s vintage Sellars mining the most human aspects of the work by joining them to basic, clearly expressed emotional states and interactions of the performers. The sacred becomes fleshy and earthbound in bodies pleading, reaching and touching. There is an immediacy to it that draws the audience in and never quite lets go. It is undoubtedly a huge challenge for the Chorale who are often operating well outside their comfort zone. The choristers at times sing in prone positions or supine on the floor. All of it looks very natural. But this time around compared to 2016, the piece seemed even more fluid and intense. But it is perhaps the final motet that packs the strongest punch. In this last stanza the voice of the text shifts to that of Jesus himself commenting on Peter’s betrayal and the sinfulness of the world. It’s an angry and accusatory Jesus, but Sellars has placed these words in the voices of two rows of vocalists slowly approaching each other from opposite sides of the stage only to meet in the warmest of embraces at the end. It’s a profound and stirring image of love in the face of betrayal and conflict. Simply put, the LAMC has a new calling card. So watch out world; it’s coming your way.

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Parting the Waters

February 12, 2018

 

The Los Angeles Master Chorale performs Israel in Egypt Photo: Patrick Brown 2018

Like many music organizations, the Los Angeles Master Chorale has increasingly ventured into artistic collaborations with artists in other genre and media in recent years looking for new and compelling way to interact with their audiences. Last year the group presented a staged version of Orlando di Lasso’s Lagrime di San Pietro under the direction of Peter Sellars that received rave reviews and is about to become the ensemble’s calling card around the world. They’ll be taking it on the road all on their own around the country and around the world in their first ever international solo tour. Needless to say, these are exciting times for the LAMC and Kiki and David Gindler Artistic Director Grant Gershon, who also just announced an exciting 2018/2019 season filled with new work to rival their colleagues at the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

However before those events, the Chorale this weekend presented another major collaboration. This time out it was the complete version of Handel’s Israel in Egypt, which was accompanied by a large scale real-time painting and video installation from Kevork Mourad. The pairing couldn’t have been more appropriate as Mourad has often returned to themes of immigration, displacement, and refugees in his work in other contexts, which he did again Sunday night. Handel’s oratorio is similar to his Messiah in that it is primarily written for full chorus with few solo interjections. There are no individual characters per se and much of the dramatic action is described as opposed to acted out. And though the material is somber, the interaction between these artists produced a work of astounding beauty much of the time. Mourad’s process is a fascinating combination of pre-existing animated elements combined with projections of real-time painting he does with ink on paper. The two different image feeds are then mixed and projected together in different combinations in the moment not unlike a DJ might do with audio tracks. The largely monochromatic images clearly contained figurative elements suggesting refugees wandering through evocative unspecified cityscapes that recalled Egypt. But at the same time, ink unfurled on the page like plumes of smoke.

The net effect was profound and the chorus sounded assured. Admittedly the tone was also unrelenting and methodical at times giving the proceedings an unmistakably dire tone that, while appropriate, ran the risk of monotony as the performance went on. Still the quality of the musicianship overcame any of these concerns and the LAMC delivered another winning evening of incredibly moving and reflective music. This intensity is going to serve them well very soon on the road.

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A Rush and a Push

November 25, 2017

 

Hye Jung Lee in Girls of the Golden West Photo: Cory Weaver 2017

John Adams’ latest opera, Girls of the Golden West with a libretto by his frequent collaborator, stage director Peter Sellars, has arrived in San Francisco. Make no mistake, it is a major event. One so demanding it requires time to sink in so that it brought me back to the opera house twice for performances before I could even get a real sense of how to approach it. Now that’s not to say it’s a great opera. It’s certainly not Adams’ best. But that being said, it is not to be ignored. It is filled with enough musical and ideological ambition to launch a thousand other much lesser works. Girls of the Golden West will undoubtedly ruffle many feathers. It is non-narrative and has little in the way of character development. It is neither dramatically urgent nor meditative. It is an opera of ideas – big ideas that rarely make it into opera and for that alone it is commendable. Adams was present at the premiere and was awarded with the San Francisco Opera Medal by the company in recognition of his long association with the company. In his remarks from the stage he noted that he now sees how prescient this opera is in light of the current political climate. Girls of the Golden West is a look inside the poisoned and dark events that are inextricably bound up in Californian and American history but are often excised or removed for the sake of a noble narrative of young men invading and dominating the brutal land of the west.

The manner in which Adams and Sellars go about achieving these goals involves using original source materials including the diaries of one Louise Clappe, a writer and pioneer of 19th-century California who recorded much about life during the Gold Rush. Her characterization in the opera, as Dame Shirley, is one of the three “girls” of the title who also include a Chinese-born prostitute named Ah Sing and a saloon worker by the name of Josefa Segovia. None of the their stories actually intertwine in any meaningful way, although each contributes to the didactic flow of the piece. Against their recasting of commonly misconstrued history is a narrator figure, Clarence, who provides the whitewashed narrative about the golden coast and the hardy, spirited men who immigrated here searching for fortune. Of course, it was a much bloodier affair with lynchings and racial strife not uncommon in other parts of the country at that time. The three women, and some of the men in their lives including the former slave Ned Peters, quickly run up against this blunt reality even in the newfound West. Much of this strife plays out in the dreamlike second Act which harkens to the final act of Nixon in China where the reality of scenario seems to evaporate in service to the larger project in a manner that is both heady and alluring.

But what the show lacks in dramatic tension, it more than makes up for with some of the most stirring music Adams has written. He is plumbing American popular song idioms of the late 19th century with abandon here including direct references ot Stephen Foster and others. The several male courses can often bite and seduce at the same time. The closing aria sung by Julia Bullock regarding the beautiful sunset sky of California descending into night is completely gripping and awe inspiring. Both J’Nai Bridges as Josefa and Davione Tines and Ned Peters deliver arias touching on the searing nature of racial and social injustice that could be sung at any time in American history. Girls of the Golden West can grab you by the throat and will without hesitation. All of this is beautifully held together by conductor Grant Gershon who led the work premiere in his continued ascendency as an important figure in the opera world. This complicated, often shifting score was well served in his hands. So while this new opera may not make everyone happy, it would certainly make them think. And form Adams and Sellars, that is more than enough reason to celebrate.

Love De-Lux

June 25, 2017

 




Eric Whitacre
What a wonderful end to the Los Angels Master Chorale 16/17 season. The program was almost entirely familiar works, but nothing could have said more about who this group is and where they stand in the musical world. None of the pieces on the program dated to before 1997 and all of them were from composers affiliated with the Chorale – most with strong connections to Los Angeles itself. The occasion was the 20th anniversary of the world premiere of Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna, a piece completed for the Chorale during his tenure as their composer-in-residence and arguably the work that the LAMC is most identified with. That kind of familiarity with a work gives an ensemble like the LAMC a unique perspective and this past week’s performances of these five a cappella motets were rich, warm, and holy as anything you can think of. Lux Aeterna is both profound and welcoming, and Artistic Director Grant Gershon leads the chorale to really penetrating heights with this piece.

The LAMC was wise to use Lux Aeterna as the starting point for programming for the first half of the evening which included works largely commissioned by or for the Chorale with locally affiliated composers, including Billy Childs, Moira Smiley, Shawn Kirchner, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Eric Whitacre. All of the works touched on the same themes of light, gratitude, and time in different ways  representing a great cross-section of musical styles. Perhaps the most pointed and poignant contrast to Lauridsen’s masterpiece was the opening Iri da iri, a setting of the concluding stanza of Dante’s Paradiso, which the choristers of the LAMC commissioned directly from Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Conductor Laureate Esa-Pekka Salonen. It was as haunting now as it was at its 2014 premiere. Salonen’s mystery of the spheres is as equally full of mystery as Lauridsen’s, but where Lux Aeterna is bright and inviting, Iri da iri is dark and foreboding. It’s a universe that is awe-inspiring but may not always be a friendly one even with salvation possible in its vast folds. Perhaps the other breath-taking moment of the night stood immediately half-way in between these works. Eric Whitacre’s I Fall received its West Coast Premiere with the LAMC’s Artist-in-residence conducting his own work. The piece is just a snippet of a larger work Whitacre is developing with his long-time collaborator, poet Charles Anthony Silvestri. In this instance the darkness and light of salvation take a far more personal and immediate turn. Silvestri has set the most personal and cutting of subjects in this excerpt – the moment of his wife’s passing nearly a decade ago from cancer. It’s one of those moments that feels beyond any sort of analysis or reproach given the depth and extreme intimacy of its subject matter. But to be certain, this collaboration was a stunner. A moment where gratitude and loss and failure all meld into one dizzying mix. Whitacre is a choral superstar for a reason, and his masterly work, which slides up and down in tone almost imperceptibly at times was a winning moment. It couldn’t have been a better show for looking back and taking in what’s gone before.

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Never Can Say Goodbye

May 24, 2017

 

Jeffrey Kahane Photo: EF Marton Productions
It couldn’t have been a more fitting ending; though, in fact, it wasn’t really an ending at all. It was actually one of those nights where we sit up and notice the little way the world changes around us. We take that moment to think about what and who we love and respect and take a moment to note it before moving on. The moment was the end of Jeffrey Kahane’s 20-year tenure as Music Director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in a pair of concerts that closed LACO’s 2016/2017 season. Kahane isn’t really moving on, of course, and will continue to be a fixture in future seasons with the ensemble who named him Conductor Laureate. Nevertheless, he is stepping down from his former position, and LACO continues their search for a new Music Director. There were many lovely commemorations from the musicians, board members, and administrators. What came through most clearly was the deep love and respect these artists all have for one another. Kahane has not only been a superb artist but a noble, moral human being in his time with the orchestra, using his artistry to do more than entertain but also to do what is right and good. He’s demonstrated that keenly in this past season when he’s spoke passionately from the stage about the times weʼre living in as well as in his moving performances of the recent Lift Every Voice Festival.

As for the program this weekend, the tone was perhaps less grand, but certainly no less moving. It was an evening that encapsulated so much of the great things of Kahane’s time with LACO. He began by conducting Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 from the keyboard. Kahane has made a specialty out of these concertos during his time at LACO, presenting cycles of all of them during his tenure here. It’s clearly some of the most touching moments to his artistic collaborators and it couldn’t have been more warmly received. This segued into the world premiere of a new piece from composer Christopher Cerrone, Will There Be Singing. LACO has been a force for commissioning new music in a town that thrives on new music and it was fitting that this transitional evening was no different from so many of the last 20 years. Cerrone has garnered much attention recently including a Pulizter nomination for his opera Invisible Cities which will see a DVD release this year. Will There Be Singing features waves of tinkling, chiming sound that is left hanging in the air as it slowly degrades before the next wave crashes. Cerrone described the work as being focused on this aural degradation of tones. Despite this dark sounding premise, however, the atmosphere is bright and sparkling in the piece. All of this led to a rousing turn through Schubert’s Symphony No. 9. It was a big week for the Schubert symphonies as the Los Angeles Philharmonic also closed its Schubert symphony cycle on Sunday. But here the feeling was different. LACO and Kahane gave the work a warm, connected, and intimate feeling. The kind you might have with the closest of colleagues and friends. It couldn’t have come at a better time.

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Cheers!

March 29, 2017

 
John Adams

Composer birthday celebrations are an unavoidable trope of concert programming. Even when the composer is a living one, the urge to revisit works in an anniversary is an irresistible temptation for too many arts organizations. But when the composer is John Adams, celebrating his 70th year, and the ensemble is the Los Angeles Master Chorale, objections fade in the wake of some great music performed under optimal circumstances. LAMC Artistic Director Grant Gershon and his vocal artists are no strangers to Adams’ music and have a working relationship reaching back for decades. In fact, later this year Gershon will lead the world premiere of Adams’ latest opera, Girls of the Golden West for San Francisco Opera. So a program honoring Adams last Sunday may be expected but this evening had a decided twist.

The first half of the night was devoted to choruses from Adams’ operas and oratorios. The beauty and complexity of these choruses is perhaps the best kept open secret of Adams’ oeuvre. Not to LAMC listeners, though, who have heard the four profound and richly textured ensembles from The Death of Klinghoffer in prior concerts here. They were again beautifully rendered in new piano transcriptions that Gershon had prepared for Adams’ publisher, which he noted should be out later this year. Joining the Klinghoffer sections were choruses from The Gospel According to the Other Mary, A Flowering Tree, and Doctor Atomic. Perhaps most ecstatic of these performances, though, was the toast chorus from Nixon in China. Close on the heels of the masterful LA Philharmonic performances of this opera last month, this closer for the first part of the evening left no doubt about Adams’ enduring musical legacy regardless of what yet lays ahead.

In the second half of the evening, Gershon and the Chorale diverged from the standard tribute show blueprint by instead presenting a work not composed by Adams but one of his own favorite composers. Starvinsky’s Les Noces was a perfect counterpoint and suggested much about what Adams has built his entire artistic career on. Les Noces continues to sound as bold now as it likely ever has, and the Chorale with soloists Elissa Johnston, Todd Strange, Nicholas Brownlee, and Niké St. Clair emphasized the rhythmic folk music elements of the piece tapping in to the dramatic and narrative elements of the work. Like everything else that night, it was jubilant and fittingly so for the composer who has been a friend to so many here in his native California.

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Starry Night

January 30, 2017

 

Lauren Michelle as Irina in Lost in the Stars. Photo: Reed Hutchinson
For a second weekend, protests raged across America and for a second weekend the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s serendipitously timed “Left Every Voice” festival promoting peace and reconciliation carried on to its ambitious, poignant conclusion. LACO, in collaboration with UCLA’s CAP program, director Anne Bogart, and members of the SITI Company revived Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s Lost in the Stars for two performances at Royce Hall. The musical has been revived periodically since its 1949 debut on Broadway, but it has never been the most familiar of Weil’s works - which is a shame considering the richness of the score and material. The show is a stage adaptation of Alan Baton’s apartheid era novel Cry, The Beloved Country. It concerns a black Anglican priest who has gone to find his son in the city of Johannesburg only to find he has fallen into a variety of sins including the eventual murder of a white friend of another family from the priest’s village. It’s stirring stuff and the themes are ones dear to Weill’s heart. But the music harkens to other influences including what Weill identified as Zulu tribal music.



The cast of Lost in the Starts Photo: Reed Hutchinson
The story covers a lot of ground even if it does go to predictable places for a contemporary audience. But it was hard not to admire the sheer ambition and effort that all parties had put into the production. Jeffrey Kahane and the LACO players were forceful and gave a real edge to the score. It was a similar approach to their performances of Weill from last week and it provided a counterweight to Bogart’s sometimes slow and often ritualistic staging. The large cast operated in a sparsely decorated space that relied heavily on lighting to evoke its sense of place. Anchoring the cast were two excellent performances from Justin Hopkins as the priest, Steven Kumalo, and Lauren Michelle as Irina, his son’s now pregnant partner. Michelle appeared alone on stage for her big solo numbers but she easily carried those moments that were by far the most riveting of the entire evening.

The eventual reconciliation of the story may seem comparatively easy to an audience facing the current political climate that Sunday night’s was. But it was a message of hope that is sorely needed right now. And LACO should be commended for the ambition of the endeavor, perhaps one of the biggest undertakings the orchestra has made in years.

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Hand to God

January 25, 2017

 
Storm Large. Photo: Laura Dormela
The topic of how the arts should respond to political upheaval has unsurprisingly been in the news again. And given the events of last weekend, how could it not be? But regardless of what the arts can or should do, Los Angeles audiences were reminded this weekend of some of what they already have done for centuries in very pointed and dramatic ways – build community and provide a space to dream of a better world. Take the Los Angeles Master Chorale for instance. The performances of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis this weekend had been scheduled for months and months. But here the large chorus, orchestra and Artistic Director Grant Gershon were playing grand music about the deepest questions mere feet from some of the largest protest crowds this city has ever seen streaming past their doors on Saturday afternoon. And if the challenges humanity presents weren’t enough food for thought, nature itself stepped in on Sunday night challenging everyone in attendance with one of the largest winter storms the region has seen in quite a while. The LAMC and the near capacity crowd responded superbly. Gershon addressed the audience from the stage noting the connection between recent events and Beethoven’s massive final meditation on the nature of the world to come and meeting suffering and tyranny with belief in something better. It was a gutsy and heartfelt performance that focused less on the very good soloists recruited for the evening (including a very welcomed local return of Rod Gilfry) and more on the chorus and ensemble as a whole. Gershon was looking for the universally human in this performance and while polish and finesse sometimes took a back seat, no one could argue with how heartfelt and sincere the evening was.

Meanwhile, across town, The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra found itself in the midst of a major programming initiative for this season concerning similar themes. “Lift Every Voice” is a series of programs designed to encourage understanding and promote peace inspired by the lives of Rabbi Joachim Prinz, Kurt Weill and Martin Luther King, Jr. The concerts and lectures in the series have featured contributions from a number of guest performers including violinist David Hope who was on hand to perform Bruce Adolphe’s Violin Concerto “I Will Not Remain Silent” and arrangements of several Weill songs by Paul Bateman for violin and orchestra. These were paired on Saturday with Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins which were headed by vocalist Storm Large. Weill’s song cycle, like all of his work, bursts with theatricality and Ms. Large has made it her specialty in recent years. She‘s undoubtedly charismatic and versatile enough to make these songs sing with a weariness and trepidation that echo these current times so closely — they have an extra punch right now. The LACO musicians were no less dramatic with their taut performance of the score.

But perhaps the highlight of the evening was Jeffrey Kahane’s own comments from the stage at the start of the evening. He too noted how unexpectedly poignant this programming series had become in the wake of the disastrous scenario our country now faces. By tying in themes from Mozart’s operas he built an argument for these works that remind us of the good we are capable of making together, speaking out, and standing up to tyranny. He touched many in the audience including myself. Better yet is the fact that there are more performances for LACO next weekend when they will bring a staged performance of Weill’s Lost in the Stars to UCLA on Saturday and Sunday in collaboration with SITI Company and director Anne Bogart. It’s a rare opportunity to hear Weill’s late Broadway gem and is a must see for local audiences.

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Coming and Going

June 06, 2016

 
Artist-in-Residence Eric Whitacre conducts the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Photo: Marie Noorbergen & Tao Ruspoli
It was a busy Sunday evening. The Los Angeles Master Chorale performed their final show of the season this weekend, and, though it was an a cappella performance with the full chorale, it was packed with activity. Not to mention some incredibly beautiful music. The variety of selections on the program was no surprise – diversity has always been a staple of the LAMC’s repertory. The evening careened from Allegri’s 17th Century Miserere to an arrangement of Depeche Mode’s Enjoy the Silence. But the real news of the night was all the comings and goings for the ensemble. While Artistic Director Grant Gershon remains at the helm, Sunday marked the end of Associate Conductor Leslie Leighton’s six-year tenure with the ensemble. She choked back tears as she paid tribute to her musical family and then she led them in a thoughtful performance of the late Steven Stucky’s Three New Motets.

This lovely so-long was followed by a hotly anticipated hello in the form of the newly appointed inaugural LAMC Swan Family Artist-in-Residence, Eric Whitacre. Whitacre has cultivated a choir geek rock star persona that at times has cleverly masked his immense talent as a composer and conductor. He led two pieces after the intermission in the evening’s program that said much about what he may bring to the LAMC in coming seasons. First was that arrangement of Depeche Mode’s 1990 hit Enjoy the Silence. He explained the choice as a tribute to his love of pop music from his adolescence and certainly paid tribute to the geek in many of his audience. But the arrangement was much more than a gimmick. His arrangement was skillful and haunting in a way that sincerely added to the source material. Following this was Anders Hillborg’s Mouyayoum, a wordless percolating postmodern piece with dozens and dozens of parts melding in an elaborate aural tapestry. Whitacre has many tricks up his sleeve, and it’s as much an exciting time to be listening to the Chorale now as it ever has been. And if one needed further evidence of that, there wasn’t any need to look any further than the sparse glow of Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna. Gershon and his vocalists know how to fill a room with spirit and they did so over and over again at the end of the season.

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