Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond
A River Runs Through It
April 14, 2015
The Los Angeles Master Chorale has always had a flair for the theatrical. Never outstripping their core musicianship, they aren’t afraid to stretch in terms of performance technique. It’s a quality that’s been central to some of their most memorable and talked-about performances, and this weekend the LAMC revisited one of those moments with a re-examination of Tan Dun’s Water Passion after St Matthew. It’s a work that caused quite a stir when they first performed it in 2005 and it’s arguably one of the pieces they’ve become most identified with over the last decade. It’s probably the most important of Tan Dun’s works as well. There is something magical and elemental about this piece, which fuses the passion with ritual, symbolism and a sound world springing from water and everyday percussion. Tan Dun has made much of the clicks and whirls of everyday sound often in the past, and the Water Passion takes a plunge into the splash and pop of water. The work was composed in response to Bach’s St Matthew Passion, and Tan Dun manages quite a feat maintaining a reverence and sense of ritual for the passage of time in a setting that evokes both baptism and rebirth, punctuating the libretto.
The chorus revels as much in Tan Dun’s towering vocal climaxes as they do in the many minute percussion chores they are asked to take on. The colorfully lit water basins around the stage form a sort-of cross of their own. The amplified splashing intertwines with the mix of voices and Chinese percussion instruments for an effect that is both profoundly solemn and organically spiritual not unlike the work of John Luther Adams at its best moments. There were two soloists. Baritone Stephen Bryant was both flexible and warm while soprano Delaram Kamareh made a visually arresting presence sometimes in contrast to the proceedings around her. But the performance, under the guidance of Music Director Grant Gershon was seamlessly integrated and just as mysterious and thrilling as it was when the group introduced the work to the region nearly a decade ago. It’s always great to see the LAMC succeed, and this weekend they again proved their aptitude and excellence in the sometimes thorny pathways of contemporary compositions.
Easter came a little early to the Walt Disney Concert Hall last weekend. Of course with music like Bach’s St Matthew Passion and an ensemble like the LA Master Chorale the calendar becomes a secondary issue. While the LAMC is widely celebrated for their work with contemporary composers, the depth and magnitude of the ensemble's interpretations of large masterworks of the choral repertory are world class as well. Saturday was no exception when Grant Gershon led his choristers through a performance that was at turns reverent, harrowing, and achingly beautiful. The LAMC is blessed with their ongoing relationship with the Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra who again provided period performance support. And as it has been in several other cases, the LAMC shines most brightly when paired with an orchestral ensemble who lives up to their musical quality. Gershon managed to maintain a clarity and visceral excitement from the Musica Angelica players throughout in a relationship everyone here continues to reap the benefits from.
The St Matthew Passion is rife with chances for various choristers to take solo star turns over the course of the afternoon. This time around it was a superb Jon Lee Keenan who sang the role of the Evangelist. There was an earnestness to his approach and a youthful eagerness that gave the performance a sense of urgency that can easily go missing at times in lesser hands. Bass Chung Uk Lee sang the role of Jesus with a particular lightness the complimented the other major role in the work. But it was the grand chorus passages that made this a Passion to remember and one that made the listener eager to hear the group’s latest return to another Passion later this season, the Tan Dun, Water Passion which will take the stage on April 11 and 12. The performance also served to whet the appetite for some exciting events to come from the Chorale in coming seasons, which were announced at the time. Perhaps most enticing is a multi-year project revisiting some of Handel’s less well known oratorios, many of which will include starry soloists from various corners of the opera world. There’s much, much more ahead so be sure to stay tuned.
You should see the double bill that LA Opera just opened on Saturday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. It’s not just that it is one of the best productions the company has mounted in the last four years. It’s also evidence that the company has without question transitioned into a new artistic era. The evening pairs two short works that couldn’t be much further apart historically in the opera repertory. The heroines of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and Bartok’s 20th-century masterpiece Duke Bluebeard’s Castle may be centuries apart musically but love doesn’t fare much better for either of them in stories where life is the cost of love whether hearts are broken or not. What makes this production more than the sum of its parts, though, is the direction of Australian Barry Kosky. Kosky’s clever, edgy vision—that has been very successful throughout Europe in his role as intendant at Komische Oper Berlin—has been seen here before in the company’s wildly popular staging of Mozart’s The Magic Flute last Fall. He has again created a sharp, attractive, and thoughtful staging that presses buttons and is impossible to ignore. But more than that, this second big success for Kosky here in Los Angeles makes him something of a house provocateur. It was a role that Achim Freyer played for the company throughout the 2000s during the tenure of former company Artistic Director and Chief Operating Officer Edgar Baitzel. Freyer produced some of the most beautiful and thought provoking stagings over that decade—productions that are still discussed years later with great passion among the opera-going faithful.
But a lot has changed in the last five years since Baitzel’s untimely death in the national art scene, and LA Opera has been in transition on many fronts. Economic realities have made the company leaner and meaner but things under current President and CEO Christopher Koelsch are clearly no less ambitious and inventive than they were a decade ago under Baitzel. In some ways, Kosky might be considered Koelsch’s Freyer, bringing the edgiest of opera visions to LA Opera. Of course, that’s an unfair comparison, but Kosky’s work and relationship with the company does signal the fact that LA Opera continues to be a spirited, inventive and risk-taking organization. It’s survived recent "fires" and is roaring full steam ahead.
That steam is quite literal in Kosky’s double bill. Duke Bluebeard’s Castle makes good use of it as Judith opens the fifth door to reveal her new husband’s great estate. As the orchestra swells into Bartok’s giant C major chord, Bluebeard, sung here by Robert Hayward, and his three doppelgangers are engulfed in huge jets of steam onstage. There are no physical doors here for Judith to open or keys to wrangle. However, these mirror-Bluebeards in their contemporary dress suits spout gold dust, water and flowers from their hands to represent the treasures and horrors Judith finds. All of this takes place on a slanted circular starkly white turntable that leaves both vocalists completely exposed for the entire course of the piece. It’s a very physical performance—one that focuses on the emotional relationship between the two lovers. Claudia Mahnke’s Judith is no wilting flower. Kosky has envisioned her as a more forceful, self-possessed woman who will immerse herself totally in Bluebeard’s world no matter the cost and often despite her husband’s palpable physical discomfort as he contorts and falls in response to her repeated treaties. This is a Bluebeard that is sure to leave a bruise.
Love claims other victims in this staging. Dido doesn’t fare much better and, as he does with Judith, Kosky takes a very different approach to this Queen of Carthage. Here Dido is more rash and impulsive giving up on Aeneas and declaring his betrayal before he’s even had a chance to act on his divine orders. She is less the victim of Aeneas or fate, but actively hurtling to her doom nonetheless. Kosky places the action at the foot of the stage, the entire cast seated at times along the length of a huge bench. The chorus in their hodgepodge of period costumes (or in two specific instances just G-strings and hats) occasionally abandon the stage for the pit joining the smaller Baroque size orchestra. Kosky mines the work for some quirky laughs, particularly through the unusual sexually inappropriate boundaries of the three witches who anticipate the lovers’ downfall. The three countertenors in these roles—G. Thomas Allen, Darryl Taylor, and Brenton Ryan—almost run away with the evening with their drag shenanigans. But that isn’t about to happen under Kosky’s eye. Dido and Aeneas is given a slowly burning intro and denouement to parallel the orchestra writing of Bartok’s opera, creating another parallel between the two short works on the bill. In the end, Dido is left alone onstage gasping for air for nearly 10 minutes as choristers and orchestra exit one by one leaving her truly alone to finally expire in silence. It’s a haunting image; just one of many that populate the evening.
Musically there is much to recommend the evening. Many of the soloists are first rate including Mahnke and Paula Murrihy whose Dido sears when needs to. Kateryna Kasper is a spirited, forceful Belinda as well. Steven Sloane conducts the orchestra, who were surely suffering whiplash from the hundreds of years of musical history separating these works. The period techniques and instruments that were used to augment Dido and Aeneas were a tough fit overall and it wasn’t until the Bartok that the players got their full chance to shine. Overall, though, this evening of lovers lost was a reason to rejoice. It was a great performance from a company that has a lot on its mind and is heading in the right direction. They’ve weathered the storms of recent years beautifully, unbowed and looking to the future. Now is the time to see where they are heading. Dido and Aeneas and Duke Bluebeard’s Castle are onstage for five more performances through November 15.
The Los Angeles Master Chorale kicked off its 51st season under Artistic Director Grant Gershon last Sunday night and wasted no time setting the tone for the next 50 years with an ambitious piece of newer music on the program that involved a multi-media presentation alongside the ensembles’ world-class musicianship. A sub theme this season are passion stories. Two LAMC favorites – Bach’s St Matthew Passion and Tan Dun’s Water Passion will feature prominently later on next year. But in another twist on the topic, the Chorale performed Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light to start fall on Sunday. This very popular work has become Einhorn’s calling card since its premiere and has been heard all over the world in a variety of formats. While Einhorn has produced a wide variety of compositions over his career, he is particularly known for his music for films, and Voices of Light honors that relationship beautifully. The piece draws direct inspiration from Carl Dreyer’s film, The Passion of Joan of Arc. And while the choral work can serve as a sort-of soundtrack, it just as easily stands alone as either an oratorio or operatic endeavor.
On Sunday, Gershon and his choristers stuck closely to the soundtrack interpretation with Voices being performed in conjunction with a screening of Dreyer’s masterpiece. However, this isn’t to say that presenting the choral work alongside the film is necessarily a perfect fit. Despite a wonderful, rich, and textured interpretation of the score last Sunday, the simultaneous screening of the film with the choral performance created issues. First, there are elements and passages from the libretto that do not coincide with the ongoing action in Dreyer’s film. The text, an assemblage of Latin and French sources including some of Joan’s own writing, is arranged artfully if not in a directly narrative way. With the film running, the musical score often lost out with the visual images dominating the audience's consciousness in the moment. This was especially true of the admirable performances turned in by all of the Master Chorale's soloists. Though their splendid voices could be heard, focusing on them in the wake of the giant face of Dreyer's star, Falconetti, was frustratingly difficult.
At the same time, Einhorn’s musical experience with film was clearly on display throughout. The score is both modern and minimal and it effectively underscores the emotional elements of the film. The score references several significant periods in the history of chorale music, shifting gears with ease. But this season opener despite its beauty and simplicity too often got left on the side lines. Nevertheless, it certainly left the audience looking forward to more in this new season with promises of great work around every corner.
Last fall, the Los Angeles Master Chorale kicked off its 50th season with a loving look back. It’s a stance the ensemble has maintained much of this season with shows revisiting high points of the group's repertoire and history. But when the season came to a close this Sunday, the tone was decidedly different. The LAMC, and particularly the LAMC under Music Director Grant Gershon, has a great commitment to contemporary music and this was the focus of the final program. The show consisted entirely of recent works from living composers with close relationships to the ensemble, three of which were world premieres. And if there was any doubt about where the LAMC is headed, the evening put an emphatic exclamation mark on the season with two premieres that may be among the ensemble's greatest moments. Yes, it was that good.
Sunday started well with a new commission from the LAMC’s composer-in-residence Shawn Kirchner who set four poems from Gerard Manley Hopkins to evocative and worthwhile music. There was also a recognition of the Chorale’s longstanding commitment to working with youth when the choristers were joined by local students for a recetnly performed commission from Francisco Nunez. But as appropriate as these moments were, thre was something much more remarkable waiting in the wings. The evening ended with a one-two punch of mammoth proportions.
David Lang has a long history with the Chorale and his latest gift to the group was an absolute stunner. the national anthems is exactly what it portends to be – a collection of phrases and words Lang collected from the English translations of national anthems from current UN member states. It sounds bookish and overly clever on the surface but the practical effect was shattering. Over five movements, Lang goes from a sort of tongue-in-cheek ribbing of the paranoid and bombastic undercurrent in the genre to something deeper. The blood, honor, and victory soon give way to something more humanistic. Lang is able to find the love and hope in these texts as well. The fragmented musical style that marked his award-wining the little match girl passion returns in the national anthems. But the effect this time is grander, taking on all of humanity in a touching emotionally unifying way. The blood bursts into flower and water falls from the sky. This is some of Lang’s best work. It’s a surprising blast of hope and beauty in an unlikely place and it's achingly gorgeous music to boot.
How do you follow such a momentous premiere? How about with another one. The final work on the program was a world premiere commission supported by the vocalists of the LAMC themselves. It was fitting that they received the last word in this auspicious season and they chose to do that through the music of long-time frined and colleague Esa-Pekka Salonen. Salonen has been on a musical roll in the last few years and Iri da iri continued in the trend of an every increasing body of profoundly ambitious and darkly substantive work. Salonen chose the closing lines from Dante’s Paradiso for the single movement. The author’s eyes look out on a phantasmagorical universe and all its mechanics. And what he sees is a system of faith founded in and driven by love. The vocal layering of the piece is a challenge and Salonen gave the ensemble a work worthy of their world-class talents with its complex harmonics. The grandeur of the conclusion resonated through everyone in the room. It was one of those great Disney Hall moments that sadly don’t come around as much as they used to but are still achievable. The LAMC has always been about looking forward and the new music they offered on Sunday at the end of their big anniversary season suggested that the mot exciting moments may be yet to come.
While a less-informed observer might be tempted to think that the youth orchestra movement in Los Angeles began following the arrival of Los Angeles Philharmonic Music Director Gustavo Dudamel, nothing could be further from the truth. Perhaps the first and foremost exhibit against this fallacy would be the American Youth Symphony, which will be celebrating its 50th Anniversary season this fall. AYS, which culls its members from a variety of schools and conservatories around town, continues to be one of the absolute best values in classical music anywhere. The concerts, though ticketed, are free for attendees providing a top notch concert experience to an audience that might not be able to afford to attend an orchestra performance of this caliber otherwise. AYS’ Music Director and Conductor, Alexander Treger, has been helming the orchestra since 1998, and his tradition of exciting, exuberant performances will continue into this coming anniversary season.
Two weeks ago AYS concluded its most recent season with an excellent performance designed to highlight it ensemble’s history and mission. The show was part of the orchestra’s Alumni Project where one of the group’s illustrious former members returns to celebrate AYS's legacy to the musical world. That is no small matter. AYS alumni populate major American orchestras of all stripes and make up significant percentages of most of the major performing ensemble here in Los Angeles.
This evening’s featured alumnus was violinist Nigel Armstrong who won 4th prize at the 2011 Tchaikovsky Competition. Armstrong was featured in the first half of the evening, which focused heavily on French works including Chausson’s Poeme and Saint-Saens’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. There’s nothing quite as enjoyable as seeing a soloist who is as well loved by the hosting ensemble as he is so technically skilled, and Armstrong quickly won over the audience with an articulate spirited performance. The rest of the night was devoted to Strauss’ An Alpine Symphony. Treger elicited a solid well-structured performance of this Romantic landmark work. It played to the orchestra’s strengths and most of all allowed the spirited excitement of the players to shine through. There will be more of these wonderful performances starting this fall when the ensemble returns for its anniversary season.
Sometimes context and surrounding circumstances can change a single performance into something much larger than the sum of its parts. Such was the case Sunday as the Los Angeles Master Chorale continued it’s 50th anniversary season with a show highlighting the ensemble’s fervent commitment to contemporary music under music director Grant Gershon. The evening was structured around two large works by living composers – David Lang’s the little match girl passion and Steve Reich’s You Are (Variations). Both are works the chorale is very familiar with, the latter a commission for the chorale, which they have recorded and performed around the world. But what informed the evening more than any of this was another event. Earlier in the week came news of the passing of the chorale’s music director emeritus, the great Paul Salamunovich. It cannot be understated how critical Salamunovich was in making the Chorale into the world-class ensemble it is today, and the evening started appropriately with an understated and powerful tribute to him. The tribute took the form of a performance of one of the former conductor’s favorite choral works, Ave Maria by Tomas Luis da Vittoria. It was a searing moment with Gershon conducting from the first row of vocalists and leaving the conductor’s spot vacant in memory of Salamunovich. The Amen was followed by silence, the Chorale leaving the stage without a sound. It was perhaps one of the most profound and appropriately stirring tributes to the passing of an artistic colleague I’ve yet seen on the stage.
The rest of the evening proceeded as planned, but the spirit of the former Music Director and grief and joy in his wake permeated everything in the rest of the show. Lang’s passion is well known and its twist on the story of humanity’s redemption is one of the darker and most emotionally fraught moments in contemporary music. The sparse rhythmic retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Match Girl and her lonely death in the New Year’s Eve cold can be shockingly warm and beautiful. It can also be hard to listen to given the bleakness of its subject matter. But I’ve never quite heard the soaring spirit of the work’s redemptive core as much as I did on Sunday. The Chorale managed the tricky rhythmic aspects of the piece with ease, and Lang received a well-deserved and very enthusiastic reception following the performance.
After the break, by contrast, was the more celebratory You Are (Variations). Admittedly, I’ve not always been the biggest fan of Reich’s incessantly bubbly and seemingly vacuous sound. Even this piece, which is so closely associated with the LAMC, can come off as unchangingly bright. But tonight it provided the perfect counterpoint to Lang’s sad reflection. Here was the celebration of life and art that the Chorale moves on with. The effusive warmth and glow of the work filled the hall with an oscillating movement of happy pulsing music that was both reassuring and in its own way, liberating. Reich, like Lang, was present at the performance and received an enthusiastic ovation. And even if everyone had not come to the performance planning on paying their respects to Salamunovich, by the end of the night, the unity of feeling and purpose was there. This was the Master Chorale he built: one that looks forward and engages today’s world.
The Los Angeles Master Chorale’s 50th Anniversary season continued its victory lap this past weekend. The Chorale has been revisiting cornerstones of their repertory and no anniversary would be complete without one of the grand scale works of the choral cannon. And while the LAMC has been very close to contemporary music, the works or Morten Lauridsen will be featured in the upcoming Mar 16 program, they have never slacked off on staples either. Take last weekend’s glowing performances of Bach’s Mass in B Minor. The Chorale and music director Grant Gershon pulled off the tricky feat of delivering the best of both worlds. On the one hand, Gershon went for a mid-20th century large ensemble approach to the piece relying on an orchestra populated with contemporary instruments and big sound. On the other he managed an often delicate and spritely performance that never bogged down. The approach seemed perfectly fit for the occasion, a big anniversary, and the space, the Walt Disney Concert Hall, with its secular worldview and grand design. The surety of the performance only grew more formidable as the evening drew on and the "Dona nobis pacem" hit home with full a profound quiet force. This is not always the case for performances of the Mass even with the most experienced of ensembles, but once again Gershon displayed his world-class conducting gifts.
As always the chorale offered up an array of exciting soloists throughout the night. I hesitate to single anyone out with such a large group of fine soloists so suffice it to say the Chorale’s team players were on top of their game all night from beginning to end. It was an exciting and hearty reminder that the LAMC has grown to a point and has such a rich depth that musically, not much phases them from Bach to brand new music. The season roles on and given the quality of performances so far, the remaining shows this season all come highly recommended.
It's the season for round numbers here in Los Angeles. The one you surely know about is the 10th anniversary of the Walt Disney Concert Hall the LA Philharmonic has been promoting. But there’s a more important big anniversary downtown. That one is a 50th and it’s the number of seasons now being celebrated by the Los Angeles Master Chorale now under Music Director Grant Gershon. On Sunday the chorale kicked off their big season with a mega show. A nostalgic look back on the first fifty years of the ensemble through the musical eyes of its four former and current music directors. A hodge-podge of pieces by dozens of composers was presented to provide an overview of the musical interests and temperments that have helped shape the group's repertory. And while it may not have always been the most cohesive performance musically with such a scope, the show did provide a great sense of the LAMC’s history and direction and had a lot to say about where the group is right now.
It’s worth remembering that at its inception, the LAMC was an oddity – a resident performing chorale ensemble in a major Americna arts organization that not only collaborated with the local orchestra, but also provided a season of independent chorale performances. Founding Music Director Roger Wagner managed to put choral music front and center in the genesis of LA's Music Center giving it a place in the city's largest arts organization unrivaled elsewhere in the U.S. His vision paid off grandly and much of Sunday's anniversary program focused on the cornerstone pieces that made the company's reputation in the first two decades under his leadership. The evening moved on revisiting the Scottish works and influences that were a hallmark under John Currie's tenure with the organization complete with bagpipes and drums. Some of the strongest musical moments followed a long break when the chorale performed pieces from favorite composers of former Music Director Paul Salamunovich. Associate Conductor Lesley Leighton led works of Maruice Durufle and Gershon presented Morten Lauridsen's O Magnum Mysterium. It is precisely these sorts of performances that established the chorale's international reputation in the 90s and they continue to be a high water mark in the artistic life of the company.
But all of these works still had a rough hewn quality in their performance Sunday. There was a disjointed feeling to this large and diverse program until the audience and the many vocal artists of the chorale turned the corner and dove into the last decade or so of the organiztions history. These, of course, are the years under current Music Director Grant Gershon. And if there was any lesson to be taken away from this anniversary concert Sunday it was that while the history of the LAMC is indeed formidable, today, this chorale is musically Grant Gershon's in its very heart and soul. The emphasis on newer music and on an increasingly diverse world of chorale music traditions has been a hallmark of this last decade. And Gershon has shaped an ensemble that thrives on the unexpected. Reeling from Nyowon Woo's ME-NA-RI to fragments from Rachmaninoff's All-Night Vigil to Ellington's setting of The Lord's Prayer and finally to Gaspar Fernandes' Dame albricia mano Anton, the chorale sounded seemless and natural. The warmth and energy the chorale projected in such rapidly shifting and diverse settings was astounding. In fact the vocalists seemed to thrive on it. Almost as if to say "now watch me" the chorale swelled with its own light and a sense of power. Everything clicked suddenly and the evening climzxed with a performance of Randall Thompson's Alleluia which provided an opportunity for the chorlae memebers to be joined by the many LAMC alumni present who joined the current members on stage. It was an exciting moment and one that was undoubtedly special for everyone involved. And it was a brillinat start to a season that encapsulates everything this single evening was trying to achieve with performances of the Carmina Burana and Bach's B Minor Mass to work from Lauridsen, Recih, Lang and Salonen. Gershon and his LA Master Chorale aren't about to forget where they've been. But don't think for a second that they are about to take a rest.
The Los Angeles Master Chorale wrapped up its 49th season on Sunday with a program of American works. And while eyes were increasingly focused on the 50th anniversary season that lies just a few months ahead, this closing performance captured the Chorale at the height of their powers. It was a show that took a broad swipe at an immensely large body of choral music and it captured much spirit and artistry of the group where they are right now in time under the musical direction of Grant Gershon. All of the works on the program outside of four traditional spirituals that closed the evening were from the 20th Century. And while that designation sends some music fans running, there was little discordant modernism to be found here. The evening opened with Samuel Barber’s Sure on This Shining Night which set the tone with majesty and beautiful sound. Barber’s choral setting of his own Adagio for Strings, Agnues Dei also surfaced on the program. There was an early work from Elliott Carter and a puckish work from the iconoclastic Charles Ives, General William Booth Enters Into Heaven. Accompanied only by piano, The chorale showed off its way with difficult scores here to exciting effect.
But there was plenty of contemporary music on the bill as well. And while some of it was not the most intellectually challenging material, it did highlight the chorale’s interest in new commissions and advocating living artists. There were Three Songs of Faith from Eric Whitacre that came off as somewhat maudlin. Perhaps more notable though was the world premiere Plath Songs, a new cycle from the LAMC’s own composer-in-residence and member, Shawn Kirchner. Kirchner is well known for his arrangements that have been performed by the chorale, but in his recently adopted role of composer-in-residence he is flexing his artistic muscles in new ways. These settings of Sylvia Plath’s poems benefit from superb texts. Kirchenr’s music can actively avoid the darker streaks in these six poems that were heard on Sunday. However, the works are well orchestrated for the chorus and Kirchner has an excellent feel for writing for a vocal ensemble of this size. It’s a collaboration worth continued watching.
The evening closed with four more off-the-beaten-path spirituals including “Hold On!”, “Keep Your Lamps!”, and “The Battle of Jericho.” This material can be touch and go with some ensembles although it is a huge part of the American choral tradition. These numbers were well done and enthusiastically received by the audience to a greater extent than anything else all evening. This eclectic mix of new and older music and programming that hits a wide variety of buttons is part of what makes the LAMC so great and this closing season certainly promises a lot to celebrate in the 50th anniversary year starting this fall.
Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic wrapped up two weeks worth of concerts this weekend at Disney Concert Hall – shows they’ll soon take on the road to Lincoln Center in New York later this month. The shows were an encapsulation of all the things that are working, and most certainly those that aren’t, with today’s LA Phil. And they come on the heels of the orchestra’s announcement of its 2013/2014 season, the eleventh in the Walt Disney Concert Hall which will celebrate its 10th Anniversary in October and has rapidly set the standard for musical venues in the U.S. if not around the world.
The good news is that the LA Phil has maintained its commitment to contemporary music through a robust and active commissioning program and aggressive programming of a variety of 20th and 21st century sounds. This season and next suggest that the orchestra may be developing a stronger taste for young Americans than European modernists in the targets of their commissioning dollars, ruffling some feathers about the seriousness of it all, but this is really splitting hairs for the most part. Dudamel continues to seem like an ancillary figure in this part of the organization’s programming. He’s by no means absent from it, but his heart is more readily on display elsewhere with the tried and true such as Mahler and next year’s Tchaikovsky cycle, which will again feature contributions from the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. (“I love Tchaikovsky music like crazy’” says the maestro during the press conference announcing the season.) And while he won’t be on the podium for the LA Phil’s performance of Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels, which will mark the exact 10th Anniversary of the opening of WDCH, this past weekend he again helmed perhaps the biggest premiere of the orchestra’s tenure since the departure of former music director Esa-Pekka Salonen, John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary.
Mary premiered in a concert version in the spring of 2012 to a surprised and somewhat bewildered audience. Another opera-cum-oratorio riffing on cornerstone genres of the Western Musical tradition, Mary was bigger than anticipated and much different from what one might expect from Adams, suggesting a new direction in his career and musical production. The sound was thornier, more dissonant, diffuse and far less eager to please. It built on the burgeoning fractured narratives in Adams’ larger vocal works developed alongside director Peter Sellars filling the Passion story with the struggle of mid-Century California farm workers and the incarcerated. Texts and language shift through a myriad of sources constructing a narrative that relies on the audience’s familiarity with the story in order to re-tell the tale.
This weekend, the LA Phil presented the work again with the same soloists from last year, Kelley O’Connor as the eponymous Mary, Tamara Mumford as her sister Martha, Russell Thomas as Lazarus and others, and a mini-chorus of countertenors – Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, and Nathan Medley. The forces here are similar to those in El Nino but the music is markedly different relying less on percolating structures that repeat and blossom into grand gestures. Mary is still startling for what it is not and this time seemed more concentrated and directed in its goals. When Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardener at the conclusion, it is both simultaneously heartbreaking and wonderful. It’s undoubtedly a landmark in the career of one of America’s most important living composers. If there was anything that wasn’t fresh and new in the performance, it was Sellars’ overly familiar semi-staging of events that took place at the foot of the stage. The vocalists were joined by three dancers who sometimes acted as doppelgangers and at others represented characters in their own right. Sellars is eager to draw connections between the characters and contemporary people, dressing everyone in various shades of faux denim and giving the chorus, in street clothes, a wee bit of their own choreography, adding to the shenanigans occurring in front of them. This is all highly familiar stuff from Sellars a this point in the game, particularly alongside his work with Adams, and tended to undercut the surprising innovation elsewhere in the performance.
But while the LA Phil showed off its newer music chops this weekend, the other program on their upcoming out-of-town bill was a far more mixed affair with several soft spots. The highlight of the prior weekend was a performance of Stravinsky’s complete music for The Firebird. This, of course, is the kind of thing Dudamel revels in, with lots of places for big, overstated gestures both in terms of noisy flourish and histrionic pacing. The slower sections dragged, but there was an unmistakably satisfying big finish to drive things home. Even if the finale felt disconnected from what preceded it, Dudamel managed to leave the audience believing they’d heard something, certainly with all the flash and fire. But pull out the show-stoppers and he continues to struggle under the weight of over-processed and mannered musicality. Debussy’s La mer, which closed the first half of the first program, was nothing short of a mess. Splashing about here and there left the musicians drowning in this rocky sea, and an overall lack of line and connection between component parts made the performance hollow and empty. Vivier’s Zipangu opened the first evening with its eerie overtones meant to evoke the Japanese music the title alludes to in 15 minutes of shifting colors. The piece felt dead in Dudamel’s hands less colorful and more disjointed and academic. Like the Debussy the overall picture and feel of the work was lost in a series of overworked and disconnected moments. Of course, all of this may sound more worked out when the orchestra hits the road, but it still suggests that despite the many great things about the LA Phil under Dudamel, few of them stem from his own musicality.
Fresh from seeing the Metropolitan Opera’s visually-stunning new production of Wagner’s Parsifal, I decided to check out the company’s other big new production currently on stage, Verdi’s Rigoletto directed by one of Broadway’s current favorites Michael Mayer. As you might expect, eye-popping visuals are again at the hear of what makes Mayer’s Rigoletto tick. But while François Girard’s Parsifal is somber and reaches for mystery, this Rigoletto is bright, aggressive, and never lets you forget where your at even for one neon-drenched second. Which I suppose is to be expected in that Mayer updates the opera’s action to a 1960’s Las Vegas casino where Rigoletto now serves as a comedic performer in the establishment run by the lounge-lizard of a Duke. The court here is composed of Mayer’s own version of the Rat Pack. This all works well in a set built with wall to wall neon that can both offend and amaze especially when it bursts from a dark neon blue to a brilliant flashing white during Act III’s thunderstorm.
Garish it may be, but it is also appropriate. A royal palace from 16th Century Mantua may rarely look it on contemporary opera stages, but garish isn’t far off the mark relative to its own time. And the sort of hollow-souled menace legendary in Vegas of the 60s fits right in with the Duke’s court. So what’s not to love? Well with all the glitz and dark undertones, there was remarkable little tension in the performance of the opera on Saturday which was broadcast to theaters around the world as part of the Met Opera’s Live in HD series. And it may have been the pressure of those cameras and lights that led to some less than top drawer performances from the otherwise stellar cast in the show. Diana Damrau sang Gilda and while she provided plenty of bright, agile sound, she seemed somewhat reserved as if holding back a bit. Piotr Beczala was the Duke and he exhibited fun high spirits wrapping up his “La donna è mobile” with a spin on a stripper pole featured prominently in Act III. (The stripper had long since left the stage at the beginning of the act after some clear uncertainty of response to her bare breasts from the audience.) But Beczala for all his good humor strained a bit at times in this off afternoon despite his believability overall.
Željko Lucic has no substantial competition when it comes to the title role which he has sung just about everywhere, and his nebbishy Vegas comic still managed all the broken heart he’s famous for delivering. His scenes with Damrau's Gilda were a highlight of the whole show. Michele Mariotti led the orchestra with brio and certainty. This is a solid and enjoyable staging overall, and given the very patchy results of the Met's home-grown new productions in recent seasons, it must be chalked up as a success. Not hat it is going to make everyone happy. But it is fun to watch, always interesting to look at and does something with the material that does delve into the interpretive if in a very tentative fashion that so many of the recent premieres haven't.