Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

One horse town

March 23, 2008

Janine Jansen and Edo de Waart with the LA Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2008

Before I took off for New York this week, the LA Philharmonic treated me (and everyone else fortunate enough to be in attendance) to a surprise. This came in the form of 30-year-old virtuoso violinist Janine Jansen who visited in a series of performances this weekend. It seems these days that young, attractive musicians with glossy marketing campaigns are a dime a dozen and Jansen is no exception. The surprise however is that not only is she talented, but she projects a sense of earnestness without a note of the arrogance or histrionics that plagues so many of her peers. And what's more – she did this playing Tchaikovsky of all things. On Friday, Jansen joined members of the LA Philharmonic in a chamber music program where she led an amazing performance of Souvenir de Florence. Certainly nothing radical here but the sheer spirit of the work shone through without an ounce of cheap sentiment. And for a follow-up, Jansen performed the very tried and very true Tchaikovsky violin concerto with the entire Philharmonic under the leadership of Edo de Waart. Again Jansen played the mustiest of numbers with a remarkable freshness. LA tends to be a town quick on the standing ovation, but these were two evenings where they were well deserved.

Speaking of LA audiences and our local arts institutions, the LA Times published a rather lengthy and at times interesting round-table discussion between the leaders of LA’s five major arts organizations – LACMA’s Michael Govan, the Getty Foundation’s James N Wood, Center Theater Group’s Michael Ritchie, the LA Philharmonic’s Deborah Borda, and LA Opera’s Placido Domingo. The questions generally concerned LA’s development as a major cultural center and the challenges local organizations face particularly compared to other major US cities. The group raises many important points about the need for improved arts education in developing future audiences and the city’s need for a richer and more sustained practice of arts philanthropy. The most interesting point, however, comes at the very end of this long discussion when our hero, Placido Domingo, brings up the issue of the local media.

After literally pages of the Times hemming and hawing over the role “Hollywood” does or doesn’t play in the city’s cultural organizations, Domingo boldly, but also politically, notes that an actual problem may be the relative lack of an involved, local media culture that is engaged in a critical way with these institutions. He notes that cities such as Chicago and New York have much richer and varied media outlets that engage the work of their local institutions whereas LA is almost exclusively reliant on the Times. LA is certainly lucky to have the many wonderful arts critics it does have at the Times including Mark Swed, Charles McNulty, Lewis Segal, and Christopher Knight. However, outside of the LA Weekly’s staff including Alan Rich, this is about it. When there is a big arts event in LA, you can bet that more will be written about those events by out-of-town media than anyone local that should have an investment in the community as a whole.

And what’s worse, the Times continues to run under the control of out-of-towners whose vision of LA, its role in the world, and its people, seems more informed by the movies made in Hollywood than any familiarity with reality. A constant call to cut back through reduced staff reporting in many areas threatens virtually the only major source of coverage of local arts as well as other news. While Mr. Domingo is wise to be politic in his comments, the truth is that the Times is not sufficient to cover the arts in a city as diverse and alive as Los Angeles, and it itself is threatened by the short-sighted desire to improve its bottom line in an industry under pressure.

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