Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond
This is how it goes
April 27, 2008
Salonen at the podium Photo : mine 2008
I must keep reminding myself that separation is a process. It will hurt less over time and things do get easier as life goes on. So it is with me, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the L.A. Philharmonic. With a little over a year to go until his departure, I find that I now believe myself about 4 times out of 10 when I tell myself that everything is going to be all right when he is gone. Every day things get a little better.
Of course, nights like yesterday's don’t necessarily help. Salonen was back in town for a series of concerts that will wrap up the 07/08 season in May. This weekend’s main event was an absolutely kick-ass rendition of Bruckner’s 6th Symphony. Clear, cool, and lyrical, it was a performance with insight and Salonen's own brand of detail we’ve come to love here in L.A. Those ringing, solid final notes of each movement were a wonder to hear. Is it crazy to say I'd have paid to hear Salonen lead this excellent group of musicians for those three or four notes alone? It’s like they’re a machine that can stop and turn in a new direction in a split second with no sign of effort. Mozart's clarinet concerto was also on the bill with the L.A. Phil's Michele Zukovsky as soloist. It was thoroughly enjoyable and a nice warm up for the Bruckner. These performances will conclude with a visit to the Segerstrom concert hall tomorrow afternoon.
I am usually not someone who cares much about the whole clapping between movements issue, but I must admit I have my limits. This Thursday was one such example with an appearance from the eminent Takács Quartet at the Segerstrom Concert Hall in Orange County. It’s funny how much time insincere, mechanical, social clapping can add to an evening of chamber music. This may be especially true at the Segerstrom, which is too large for this kind of program, though I will admit has started to sound better to me than on the last few visits I have had there in terms of its acoustics. (Or at least it is from where I was sitting.)
The Takáks Quartet is currently on tour around the U.S., and it is always a special treat to hear them play. This is my first opportunity to see the Takács ensemble play live since violist Geraldine Walther took over for the retiring Roger Tapping in 2005, and, I would say, little about their former sound and approach have been lost. They are still remarkably of the same mind and make no bones about playing music with passion and commitment. There is nothing lazy or half-hearted about anything they do, and my memories of their Beethoven performances several years back are quite positive.
Of course, not every piece benefits from the same treatment. The program began with Haydn’s Quartet is G-minor Op.74 No. 3 and followed with the Brahms’ Quartet No.3 in G major. To conclude the program they were joined on stage by Jean-Yves Thibaudet, apparently still in town from last week’s L.A. Phil performances, in Cesar Franck’s Piano Quintet in F minor. The Haydn seemed a tad overplayed at times with more murky tones and dark brooding than one might normally associate with the composer. A lighter touch might not have hurt, but again this is a big room that requires big gestures. The Brahm’s faired better and all should be congratulated on such a strong performance.
Franck’s rather melodramatic work for the piano and the quartet was hard to like despite the very detailed and earnest rendition it was given here. All melodramatic zeal, the piece bordered at times on the gothic as opposed to the purely romantic. It was disquieting in a way and left me feeling rather peevish and disturbed. I guess that's an accomplishment in its own right, though. Still, it was good to see the group in such good shape and playing so well. Hopefully we'll see them out this way before not so long next time.
Brandon McDonald and Craig Biesecker in Dido and Aeneas Photo : Alex Gallardo/LAT 2008
It seems I’ve heard a lot of anticipation around town in the last few weeks over this week's performances of Dido and Aeneas with the Mark Morris Dance Group at the Irvine Barclay Theater in Orange County. With so many people I know driving down south in the next few days, I was surprised to see such a sedate and rather less-than-capacity crowd on Tuesday when the show opened. In some ways, though, maybe this was appropriate considering that the whole affair seemed surprisingly staid and reserved overall.
Morris created this production nearly 20 years ago for La Monnaie and while it was a sensation at the time, it clearly does not have the impact that it once did. It might be argued that this is in part due to the absence of Morris himself in the lead roles of Dido and the Sorceress, though he is conducting the Pacific Symphony throughout all of the shows in this run. But time has had its way with all of us in the last 20 years, and I suspect even if Morris were still dancing, Dido and Aeneas would seem a little…well, dull.
Not that it isn’t pretty. Morris has created a modern piece that does perpetuate a type of classicism in its movements. The minimal staging and striking lighting keep the focus appropriately on the dancers who are without exception excellent. Tuesday night’s cast recreates the gender role-play Morris instilled in the original production by casting Craig Biesecker as Aeneas and another man, Brandon McDonald, in the double role of Dido and the Sorceress. McDonald will alternate with Amber Darragh in this role during the week. But two decades on, while visually pleasing, none of this seems particularly shocking. What’s worse, the lack of gender tension exposes the more slapstick and comedic elements of the piece creating something of a tone problem. Not that it can’t be funny, but there is little pathos in this particular tragedy. Dido’s death seemed more the last item on a brief checklist than anything that might actually make you feel sad.
The musical performances were reasonable, but not overwhelming for either the performers or the audience. All of the vocalists are stationed in the pit, but the Barclay is quite tiny overall and everyone seemed to carry without too much stress. I particularly liked Jamie Van Eyck signing the part of Dido. Morris keeps everyone on task in the service of the dancing, which I suppose is as it should be, but this is no period practices performance and a little zing could have gone a long way. At just under an hour, all of this passes by rather quickly. Morris' Dido seems more like a faded photograph—it induces pleasant memories without necessarily creating new ones. Performances continue through Sunday, and it appears there are still plenty of tickets available.
Elijah Alexander as Don Juan and Libby West as Donna Elvira Photo : Craig Schwartz 2008
I’ve been meaning to write about the very good production of Molière’s Don Juan now on stage at A Noise Within over in Glendale for a couple of weeks. Shame on me for not doing so sooner because it’s the best show there yet this season. Funny without being over-the-top, it’s a sharp production that milks the episodic nature of the tale for every last drop of wit. I choose to lay most of this at the feet of Michael Michetti, probably the strongest director working in the local LA theater scene today. His work at the Theater at Boston Court is always worthwhile and the set designs and guidance he gives the Noise Within troupe is remarkable.
Molière’s tale of this particular rake’s progress is disjointed and typically the real challenge is providing some sort of unifying vision for the production. Michetti achieves this by using a strong visual motif that incorporates modern dress, a bright color scheme, and certain print-inspired design elements to create a production that makes reference to the period of the action but is not beholden to it. Michetti is also wise to keep the focus on J.D. Cullum whose comic turn as Sganarelle drives the show. However, these visual elements are never allowed to overwhelm the production with cynicism or sly self-parody. Of the women in the cast Abby Craden nearly steals the show and Libby West again delivers a strong performance. Elijah Alexander is quite good as Don Juan and is well cast here. He is attractive enough to be the lothario, but not so much so as to upset the comic balance of the cast. His soap opera training serves him well in this poly-amorous context and he comes off as believable throughout.
Now there are some rough spots. The damnation scene is a good idea but carried off too clumsily here. This is, of course, partly Molière’s fault given how little time he leaves between a rather rapid series of events in the final act. Still there is plenty of reason to see this very strong production and lucky for you, even though I’m slow in getting this comment on-line, there are nine performances left through the end of May.
There was another Los Angeles Opera event this weekend besides the Placido Domingo gala benefit – a recital from baritone par excellence Bryn Terfel. As much respect as I have for Mr. Domingo, I did not attend the former given that I typically need a better reason for such a plus-sized ticket price than the usual collection of arias in concert format. (Even if they are delivered in part by Patricia Racette.) However, I did attend Mr. Terfel’s latest visit to town on his current North American concert tour. Overall, it wasn’t bad, though it wasn’t particularly overwhelming either.
Terfel is a consummate musician. His wonderful rich baritone can perform circles around most of his competition. So, though it may be a little unfair, it’s hard to get excited when someone with such a gift plays it so safe. Terfel’s program with pianist Malcolm Martineau was pretty much what you would expect – an hour or so of English songs from John Ireland, Warlock, Quilter, and Vaughn Williams and an hour with Schubert Lieder, 3 songs from Fauré, and a single aria each from Mozart and Handel. Things wrapped up with “Songs from the Celtic Isles.” You guessed it, “Passing By,” “Molly Malone,” and of course, “Danny Boy.” The audience was asked to sing and hum along at times here in the home stretch. Everything was well sung, though I felt his lieder technique a bit wanting. The Vaughn Williams' settings of "The Roadside Fire" and "Silent Noon" were clear standouts amongst his impeccable English songs. Best of all, Terfel kept the sotto voce histrionics to a minimum even in the most tempting places. I most appreciated his restrained and serious interpretations of material that can easily get away from lesser vocalists.
As is Terfel's trademark, the entire show is wrapped up in his warm sense of humor and gregarious stage presence. He does rely on a bit of a shtick at this point, particularly that brand of comic inept suitor stuff that spills over from his patented Falstaff performances. But it works for him. In a way he is the male equivalent of Cecilia Bartoli whose amazing talent always seems to come along with that “Are-you-really-that-excited-to-see-little-ol’-me?” jazz. It is a good show, though. And let’s face it. There aren’t a whole lot of people around these days selling the familiar brand of vocal performance as Terfel does. He’s got it down, and it’s still very much worth seeing.
Let us not forget that the L.A. Philharmonic aims to please. It can’t play Saariaho, Adams, Salonen, and Knussen every night. And while they never pander quite as much or consistently as L.A. Opera, the Philharmonic programs its fair share of greatest hits for the set who aren’t exactly sure when they’re supposed to clap. (Yes, I’m personally trying to destroy classical music with my elitist attitude. If only it were that easy.) Thus tonight began four performances under Charles Dutoit with Ravel’s Ma mère l’oye, Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, and Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No 3 because when else are you gonna use that big French-fry organ when the Philharmonic's around. The guest soloist was L.A. favorite and frequent visitor Jean-Yves Thibaudet, who again brought his admirable and sophisticated playing to these shores. His seemingly endless appearances here suggest he has a true affinity for this city and since he doesn’t really strike me as the Silverlake type, I assume he must be fraternizing in other parts of our fair metropolis. But while no one gets any gold stars for original programming this weekend, the playing met the typical high-standard and Dutoit is no slouch with this repertory. A good time was had by all.
But the orchestra is not the only group at Walt Disney Concert Hall that seemed to be very open and welcoming this weekend. Is it just me or has there been some new major charm initiative from the ushers at the Music Center? For those of you not familiar with our local system. The LA Music Center is the organization that supports the facilities of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the WDCH/REDCAT, the Ahmanson Theater and the Mark Taper Forum downtown. Unlike some arts organizations around the country, they have their own professional “house staff” ushers who work the four theaters instead of volunteers. With significant exceptions, these folks, though often sweet and well-intentioned, are frequently slack-jawed youths who are often likely to be more confused about the seating than you are. (I suppose that not unlike flight attendants this is only an ancillary part of their job and that the ushers are mainly there for our safety.) But lately the blank stares and half-frightened offers of assistance with seating have been joined by something new – unsolicited pleasantries. Over the last few weeks I have been met with “I hope you enjoyed the performance” and “Have a safe trip home” on more than one occasion. While I suppose this generates the illusion of consideration, I’m from the Midwest where we firmly believe that if people are friendly with you, it means they want something and you are best advised to be wary. But hey, what’s the harm – L.A.’s a friendly town right?
Even though it has nothing to do with the previous commentary, I have two other brief WDCH and L.A. Phil notes I want to mention. First, a word of advice for newcomers to the hall: when you are exiting the building from the upper floors, do not be fooled that the management has both escalators running in the down direction in an apparent attempt to aid egress from the building. Stick with your instincts and stay to the right side. The escalators that normally go up and are now running in reverse find this new state abhorrent and unnatural and are highly likely to seize up in protest jolting everyone traveling down on the left-side to a sudden stop. I see this happen on average once a month and, entertaining as it may be, I do fear someone may get hurt.
On a second unrelated note, the Philharmonic has done another of their stealth programming changes. The upcoming performances by Esa-Pekka Salonen over the weekend of May 1 will still include the Brahms second piano concerto with Leif Ove Andsnes. However, the originally scheduled orchestral selections from Wagner’s Ring scheduled to open the evening have now been replaced by Götterdämmerung excerpts which will apparently require the assistance of soprano Lisa Gasteen and will now conclude the program. Curiouser and curiouser.
Lachenmann and the Argento Chamber Ensemble under Michel Galante Photo : mine 2008
One of the first “classical” music CDs I ever bought featured a recording of a Bach flute concerto and I was convinced there was something wrong with it. From the first listen I could detect this prominent and irritating clicking noise throughout the piece. At first I thought the disc was damaged, but then realized this was actually part of the recording. I then couldn’t believe that someone would have left this awful extraneous noise in the recording until I realized that the clicking was actually the sound of the flautist hitting and releasing the keys on her flute. Here was music supposedly marred, in my mind at the time, by the very sound of it's own production. It is exactly this tension between the sound that is "intended" and the sound that is ostensibly not that lies at the heart of the work of Helmut Lachenmann.
Tonight the composer appeared with two different contemporary music ensembles in a magnificent concert tonight as part of the Monday Evening Concerts series at Zipper Hall that will likely end up being one of the best things I see this year. At 73, Lachenmann is nothing if not an unique composer with an idiosyncratic take on music. He has spent his life creating a sound world as apart from the familiar as imaginable using various sounds, or parts of sounds that lie at the periphery of what most listeners are trained to pay attention to. His works are quiet, dynamic and filled with instruments used in unconventional ways to explore the broad range of sound they can make from stimuli not usually employed with them. Lachenmann’s works are as likely to rely on the sound of a piano foot pedal being released as it is to feature notes played on the keys. The matter of a bow’s angle becomes an issue of great concern as bridges and the tops of music stands are stroked back and forth. Wind instruments rustle as air passes through without the benefit of reed or mouthpiece. Think this is silly or unimportant? The entire career of popular artists such as Bjork could be traced to the ideas and techniques Lachenmann has advocated for decades.
Helmut Lachenmann Photo : mine 2008
This evening's performance is alluring stuff, and the nearly sold out audience tonight was held rapt for two hours with music as high in drama as it is sparse. The evening began with Lachenmann himself playing his solo piano piece Ein Kinderspiel that set the tone for the very musical games some of his techniques seem to suggest. This was followed by much weightier matters including Mouvement (von der Erstarrung) played by the Argento Chamber Ensemble under the leadership of Michel Galante. This work was a wonder and expertly played by this very talented group of young musicians who made every rushing breath count. After the break came Allegro Sostenuto played by Frieburg's own illustrious Ensemble Recherche. Again, the piano in this trio, which included clarinet and cello, functioned in more than it’s typical way acting both as several different percussion instruments and a sounding board for the clarinet. Simply put, it was stunning and each piece received a standing ovation from the enthusiastic crowd.
This is not “easy” music and it eschews melody and traditional forms. And while it is inventive, there is much more to it than a gimmick of using instruments in non-traditional ways. It may be as Betty Freeman said during her cameo in Bettina Ehrhardt’s Lachenmann documentary MEC presented on Sunday morning – this is music that doesn’t tell you how to feel. Instead it challenges you to make up your own mind and form a response on your own without being told what the correct one is in advance. That is no small task and it is a testament to any composer who can pull it off. Lachenmann has spent his career, as he describes it, trying to discover something new without having a preconceived notion of what "new" actually means in advance. It was a great show and here's the good news - if you missed the show check out the MEC site, which may include video excerpts from the program in the coming days.
Concord Ensemble prepare to beam up Photo : mine 2008
Sometimes music is about that do-it-yourself attitude. Here in Los Angeles, one of the up and coming proprietors of just such a vision are the good folks who run the Jacaranda concert series out in Santa Monica. If there is something they want to hear and they don’t see enough of it around, by golly, they are going to do it for themselves and everyone else in the vicinity. Under-programmed 20th century composer? It’s yours. Atonal, jarring, or “difficult to listen to? At your service. Music too difficult to be played by mortals? You got it. They’re in the middle of two years of programming honoring the centenary of Olivier Messiaen under the moniker “The OM Century,” and on Saturday they presented a show entitled “Vortex Nebula” featuring works by two of Messiaen’s students – Iannis Xenakis and Karlheinz Stockhausen. And, while it may not have been perfect, it was a huge amount of fun and more interesting than anything else out there this weekend.
Things started off with Xenakis’ legendary Nomos Alpha for solo cello. Technically and intentionally unplayable, the work is more about the choices artists make in striving for an ideal than it is anything else. It is a wonder of 20th century technique, and Jacaranda called on the daring Timothy Loo to take on the challenge. And that he did in spades. He is human, though, and when faced with this task who you gonna call? Why Erika Duke-Kirkpatrick, of course, who helped out with the impossible note or two over the course of the otherwise solo piece. It was amazing playing to watch and a real treat to hear.
Following this feat of daring-do – the Jacaranda percussion ensemble amassed to perform the “Metal” movement from Xenakis’ Pleiades. Here all six musicians play the “sixxen” a marimba-like instrument designed specifically for this work consisting of large metal slabs and wood. The players hammered away at various and contrasting rhythms that built to a cacophony of gleaming vibration. It was an intense sound for the space and overwhelming in a pleasant way. I can’t recall the last time I saw people covering their ears due to the volume of sound at this sort of show before. It was seriously messed-up (in the good sense of the word) and fantastic.
What do you follow with on a program such as this? Stockhausen’s Stimmung, of course. The six member Concord Ensemble delivered a very high-quality and appropriately free-spirited version of this ‘60s psychedelic classic. The detail and clarity were phenomenal. If I had any criticism, it is that the piece is a somewhat delicate affair, given that it is in many ways still a product of its time, and rests on a feeling of communal and spiritual elements. While one would think the First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica would be ideal for this in its natural state, the performance here was hampered with a make shift Doctor Who set that was more distracting than helpful. The six singers, dressed in white dashiki-style clothing, were seated in a circle of chairs covered with a white parachute around a sort of large globe containing a bowl-shaped lamp that changed colors throughout. It reinforced the retro aspects of the piece, making it seem like some kind of relic. Being brave sometimes means you go a little over the line. But, all-in-all, Jacaranda can’t be faulted for sticking its neck out, and once again delivered goods that may be hard to come by, at least in this neck of the woods.
I’m finally getting around to updating some of my blog stuff and thought I’d point out some events on the horizon that are worth looking into. One highlight is this coming Monday when the Monday Evening Concert Series at Zipper Hall downtown will feature the music of German composer Helmut Lachenmann who will be in attendance for the performance, which will include Ein Kinderspiel, Allegro Sostenuto, and the West Coast premiere of Mouvement. My first exposure to Lachenmann was through the excellent ECM recording of his opera Das Mädchen mit dem Schwefelhölzern which you can read more about here. He’s been in the U.S. where he is a visiting professor at Harvard this semester, and getting a chance to see him here in L.A. is definitely a special and rare opportunity. In preparation for the concert, the Goethe-Institut on Wilshire will host a screening of Bettina Ehrhadt’s documentary ”Where I have never been before:” the Composer Helmut Lachenmann on Sunday Morning at 11AM complete with a bonus live performance of his Das Niente by Shizuyo Oka. For those of who can’t make Sunday check out the clip above.
Meanwhile, there is important new and contemporary opera on DVD over the last two months, many of which I’ve highlighted over in the Top 5 column. Most exciting among these is the release of Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland filmed live at the Bayerische Staatsoper in 2007 with Sally Matthews, Piia Komsi, Gwyneth Jones and Dietrich Henschel under the baton of Kent Nagano. It was one of my highlights of last year featuring several great performances, and this is an excellent opportunity to see Achim Freyer’s wild and woolly production. Freyer is a favorite here in L.A. and as you may remember he will be directing L.A.’s new Ring cycle starting in 2009. The DVD comes out (I detest the use of the word “drops” in this context ever) on April 29th but in the meantime you can check out the second clip. So get out there. You snooze, you lose.
It was a lovely Friday evening. I, like many others in Los Angeles, spend a lot of time in my car getting to and from work and a variety of things. This is a benefit in some circumstances, one of which is the Metropolitan Opera live radio broadcasts on Sirius, which usually air around 5PM on the West Coast just as drive time begins. Tonight started out with a real treat – the beautiful waves of sound from Philip Glass’ Satyagraha emanating from the last place you’d expect it. Richard Croft and the orchestra sounded great over the radio and my excitement to see the production in a few weeks is very high. I wasn’t even irritated to listen to Margaret Juntwait and critic Tim Page talk about how important the opera was in changing people’s perception of 20th century opera without a hint of irony as they spoke from the bully pulpit of an organization that has all but ignored contemporary music for the last half century. How many minds can a work change when virtually no one has heard it previously? It's only taken thirty years to get here, but hey, who's counting - and better late than never.
Still, the blissful waves carried me across town to Royce Hall where I was reminded that composers had proven that highly repetitive music could have an intense beauty long before the 20th century. Baroque performance masters the Akademie for Alte Musik Berlin were in Los Angeles for a concert appearance. There was nothing new here, just Vivaldi, Bach, Marcello and some comparative rarities. Played with impeccable skill and seemingly effortlessly, the ensemble is doing what it does best and enjoying every moment. As usual there was no lack of first rate soloists tonight with Xenia Löffler on oboe and Jan Freiheit on viola da gamba. Although Royce Hall was probably only at half capacity, it was an inspired performance from one ot the world's best period ensembles. The Akademie has a new Vivaldi Double Concertos recording and their recent release of Handel’s Solomon with Mark Padmore and Sarah Connolly both on Harmonia Mundi should not be missed. And so another day ends in the city of angels. Until tomorrow.
Thursday saw Laurie Anderson’s return to Los Angeles and to Royce Hall with her latest work Homeland on her current tour of the work throughout Europe and the U.S., prior to a run at this summer’s Lincoln Center Festival. Anderson has achieved a legendary status at this point in her career, so it is no surprise that the new piece draws on familiar elements from her previous works. At the heart of it all, Anderson has always first been a chronicler of the American experience. She may well be the Mark Twain of her generation in a way. So to find her entering her 60s profoundly unhappy with what she sees around her may come as no surprise. While it's hard not to sympathize with her concern, the current show is not one of her best.
Much of this anger and frustration seeps through the pores of Homeland as she talks about a veritable laundry list of flash points from the Iraq War, to global warming, to gun control, to the current elections. Anderson is no stranger to topical material in her work, but I found this perhaps some of her most politically direct material ever. It’s a fair departure from some of the more esoteric and aesthetic pieces of recent years and, like all such topical material, rises and falls based on its relevance and relationship to other such texts around it. Some of her rejoinders about the complacency of silence work, while her warnings about the “bad guys” in the world sometimes seem too obvious.
Genre-wise, Anderson is back in music mode playing very formally structured songs from her forthcoming Nonesuch release of the same name. Songs flow together from one to another, and, at times, Anderson seemed more like Neil Young or Patti Smith on stage amongst the votive candles and her three piece band. I’ve always found that the real power of Anderson’s songs isn’t necessarily right at the surface and require repeated exposure to do their work, so this first experience with the new material seemed uneven. There are one or two witty upbeat numbers about how “only experts can deal with the problem” but more of the songs were darker and brooding in theme.
While I can’t say I disagree with Anderson’s politics or concerns about the world, I must admit that this isn’t the work I love her for. This is not the subtle, aesthetic Anderson looking at humankind’s relationship to nature and technology, but Anderson the American looking around at what she sees with a note of despair and more than a little rage.
Anne-Sophie Mutter and Lambert Orkis Photo : mine 2008
It’s official. There is no longer any reason to bother reading the LA Weekly.
Here’s hoping we get to read the last redeeming asset of that woe begotten periodical: the music critic Alan Rich, in a smarter, and more practical, on-line format soon.
But, no matter how, by whom, or in what format it is written about, the music in Los Angeles continues. Take last night. Anne-Sophie Mutter and pianist Lambert Orkis arrived in town on her current U.S. Tour for a rather amazing performance of the Brahms’ Violin Sonatas. She arrived in perhaps the most fetching frock I’ve seen on any classical music performer in awhile. You know the one. It’s on the multitude of Mozart recordings she’s released recently. It’s even more impressive live, neither overly slinky or ridiculously frumpy. She looked like one gorgeous woman easily in control of her audience.
I talk about the dress, but it’s her playing that was the true wonder. I found her phrasing particularly lovely, and even if her attack seemed a tad murky in a few spots in the first piece, she was a force to be reckoned with. Her playing was neither overly dramatic nor needlessly showy, maintaining the perfect amount of restraint throughout. The Brahms became surprisingly touching at times. But, just in case one thought she couldn’t deliver the drama when needed, she performed – count ‘em – four encores, including three of the Hungarian Dances.
Lest I forget, I must say something about Sunday night’s Los Angeles Master Chorale performance at Walt Disney Concert Hall. I had a big weekend with many shows including Dudamel’s outing with the LA Phil, Piotr Anderszewski’s debonair Beethoven Piano Concerto with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra in the OC, and even the Metropolitan Opera’s HD broadcast of hopefully soon-to-be-retired root rot that is the Zeffirelli La Bohéme in Burbank. None of this, though, compared to the quality and sheer joy of the LAMC’s performance on Sunday.
It was woefully under attended, and, admittedly, the program was not filled with the kind of staples the choral crowd seems to thrive on, but it was a winner. I've come to believe that as great as the LAMC's performances are in conjunction with the LA Philharmonic, to really appreciate their many strengths, they are best savored without accompaniment. The first half of the evening was just such an experience structured around Henryk Górecki’s Five Marian Songs - beautiful Eastern European works from the mid-eighties that are filled with as much suffering and perseverance as they are joy and reverence. Gorecki's choral music may have, in the words of Gershon, "launched a thousand pledge drives" but this is exactly the kind of contemporary choral music the LAMC thrives on, and it was superb. After a pair of Schumann works thrown in for good measure, the program concluded with Haydn’s Theresienmesse as part of the LAMC's Haydn mass cycle. It was a good pairing and charming in its own admittedly 18th-century way. The soloists included Risa Larson, Leslie Inman, Jon Lee Keenan, and Steve Pence, and the group was accompanied by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. And, while the Mass was nobody's idea of a period performance, it was quite well done.
The other issue of note that evening was the announcement of the LAMC 08/09 season, which apparently will feature a badly needed new logo design, featured here in my not so great photo since it isn't up on-line yet. (Now, if they can just get rid of Victoria Looseleaf's inane program notes, they'd be in business in the PR department.)
The new season is a typical blend of the adventurous and thoughtful programming Gerson and the group have made their name on, including several world premieres, 20th century works, and the requisite holiday fare. Of particular interest are a performance of Mendelssohn's Elijah featuring Eric Owens and the West Coast premiere of Sierra's Missa Latina with Heidi Grant Murphy and Nathaniel Webster. All this and Pärt, Messiaen, and Lou Harrison. What's not to love?
Dudamel, Josefowicz and the LA Phil Photo : mine 2008
It was better. Not great, but better. Over these last few months I have increasingly felt (for no reason other than my own delusions of grandeur) that I alone am carrying the “con” banner when it comes to discussions of Gustavo Dudamel and his veritable beatification by the media here in Los Angeles and around the world. If you don’t believe me, just look at the cover of yesterday’s LA Times. Now I’m no stranger to gushing, but, as I have made the case on manyprioroccasions, Dudamel is overrated as a conductor at this point in his career.
Now all that being said, I am also aware that mantels can be heavy to bear, so let me put mine down for a moment to talk about the fact that I actually do think the LA Phil’s music-director-to-be is very talented. He exudes a warmth and clearly is well-liked by the orchestra and other musicians. Twice in the last two weeks, he seated himself amongst the orchestra members in order to watch encore performances from celebrity soloists. He appears to care deeply about what he is doing and arguably does bring excitement to the proceedings. Although his approach seems overly enthusiastic a little too often, he is not dull to watch. And frankly dull may be a bigger crime than overstated.
This weekend the Philharmonic was again in his hands with a largely French program including Debussy's Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and Ravel’s complete ballet music for Daphnis and Chloé. And, while neither was perfect, there was a clear sense of dynamics, particularly in the Ravel. I’m usually not a fan of ballet music (with a few exceptions) and the Ravel is not a favorite. I thought Dudamel’s account was engaging and worthwhile. The Pacific Chorale sounded great as did the Philharmonic players. The Debussy seemed unfocused, but was not bombastic or inappropriate at all. Of course I was sitting in the Balcony due to the high demand for tickets for all these sold-out shows this weekend, which may have tempered things for me, but I still felt this was a significant improvement over his last few appearances with the LA Phil, and certainly the best since his debut at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
The other big item on the menu was the second Bartòk violin concerto with Leila Josefowicz, which I admired more in concept than in actual execution. Josefowicz seemed distant to me at times, but this is not an easily digestible work, and to feature it is the first sign that Dudamel won’t completely be timid about the 20th century (or at least the first half of it). It seemed to me that conductor and soloist were attentive to one another even though it didn’t quite come together all the way. So, admittedly, I for one left Sunday’s matinée pleased. Despite my recent doom and gloom on the topic, I think the Dudamel era may well be a remarkable one. There may be a lot of PR crap to cut through to get to it, but it may be there. And maybe I can begin to believe that NY didn’t get the better bargain with Alan Gilbert after all.
I was reading about some of this music blog ranking stuff lately and all of the arguments about the different ways to measure how many people are seeing a blog either by hits or links or whatever. I’ve never really cared much myself about how big or small Out West Arts is or how it “ranks” compared to other blogs. And while I will admit that I do keep track of visitors and hits and all that stuff, if you ask me for data about Out West Arts since its inception two years ago, I’d give you the following –
Number of people I have met in person due to OWA that I didn’t know otherwise – 10
Number of people that have told me that they appreciated or enjoyed something I've written– 25
Number of people who have told me that they listened to something or saw something that they wouldn’t have otherwise because of something I wrote – 6
Number of performers who’ve told me I’m an ass-hole for something I’ve written about them – 1
Number of times that I’ve been offered free tickets to something because of OWA – 12
Number of times I’ve accepted them – 0
Average number of hours a week I’ve spent working on OWA – 2.5
Number of other music blogs I think should link to OWA that don’t – 10
Number of other music blogs I don’t link to because I think they suck - 3
Number of times I’ve gotten laid due to OWA – 0
The bottom line is I write OWA because I enjoy it when I have the time. If someone else enjoys it as well, that’s great too. And as far as any ranking goes, all I can say is I hope other people who write blogs get as much enjoyment out of theirs as I do.
Tuesday was another of those wonderful evenings at Walt Disney Concert Hall where those present got to bask in the glow of the adroit and meticulous Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante. Biondi and his colleagues have been on this stage before and it’s a joy to see them return with a program like Tuesday’s, which is not only entertaining but cleverly makes a number of points about contemporary music by focusing on works from the 18th century.
The pieces on offer for this Baroque program were in no way unusual – Vivaldi, Purcell, Leclair and the like. The playing was of the highest quality, which is also not a surprise. But the program was also centered around a worthwhile concept under the subtitle "France, Italy, and England - Connections and Exchanges." Specifically, the idea is that 18th century composers would often use musical elements from other not-so-far-away regions in order to inject their compositions with an “exotic” flair. Of course the shocking nature of “the Italian style” throughout Europe in the period is well known. But Biondi broadened the program with a series of works that attempted to give a taste of what were considered to be regional sounds in the 18th-century. The evening ended with a suite arranged by Biondi entitled “Les Nations” with brief snippets of pieces by Telemann, Biber, Muffat, Galuppi, Campra, and Destouches, intended to represent various ethnic groups such as the Danish, English, Spanish and Chinese. Of course given that this is 18th-century music, none of it sounds like what modern ears would expect and associate with musical elements from these cultural traditions, and often the sounds are far more similar to one another than different.
Which raises the question, what does it mean to have a foreign sound anyway? Biondi raises the question of what it means to refer to something as German or French-sounding by pointing out that these notions in and of themselves are cultural constructs tied to specific periods and traditions. For instance, to note that something has an "Italianate" quality, in fact, has very little meaning in a technically musical sense and may have more to do with one culture's perception of a series of signs and symbols embedded in a musical artifact that is viewed as being outside that culture itself. These Baroque pieces demonstrate that what sounding English was is no longer true today thus calling the whole construct of sounding English into question in the first place. In some ways a rather radical suggestion from such pretty and apparently straightforward music, but such is the wonder of the Baroque. Here’s to Europa Galante, and, hopefully, may it be a short time before they grace this coast again.
Jenna Russell as Dot and Daniel Evans as George Photo : Joan Marcus 2008
Probably the most heartening thing about the Broadway shows I took in last week was how much, and simultaneously how little, technological advancement has reshaped the face of the American theater. Examples given: two major revivals that opened this season, the Roundabout Theater Company’s imported production of Sunday in the Park with George and the arguably evergreen Gypsy starring Patti LuPone.
Sunday in the Park with George arrives at Studio 54 in the midst of the most recent wave of Sondheim revivals. It is another British import, but notably does not involve the cast playing its own instruments. Directed by Sam Buntrock, this amazingly acted and sung production may be as far from the proto-minimalist John Doyle excursions of recent years as one can imagine. It is a testament to how effective high-end visual effects can add to a staging without it involving fire-breathing dragons or earth-shattering explosions. Instead, in a subtle but clever way, the entire set for this Sunday consists of a white canvas, or more appropriately projection screen, for video that provides both set elements and at times, additional cast. Imagery is painted and wiped away as quickly as George changes his mind but never to the point that it overwhelms the action or the incredible performances. Daniel Evans (George) and Jenna Russell (Dot/Marie) have no trouble demonstrating exactly why they won Olivier awards last year for these performances in a magnificent and often quite touching revival of an arguably thorny work.
Ms. LuPone's big moment Photo : Joan Marcus 2008
But gee whiz, technology has its limits and cannot substitute for the bare bones writing, acting, singing and directing on a stage. While there are plenty of bad examples that make this point all over Broadway right now, let me turn to the latest revival of Gypsy which makes the case in the exact opposite way at the St. James Theater. This production, mounted almost exclusively for Patti LuPone, is traditional and old-fashioned almost to a fault. It is hard to believe that Arthur Laurents, the original author and now director of this piece, could have fashioned a performance more respectful of the original. Yet, despite this, the whole thing is so winning and well-acted, it is impossible to not be sucked in by its charms. Of course, much of the success must be laid at the feet of LuPone, whose Momma Rose is one for the ages. Without a hint of cheese, she hammers through this part, taking no prisoners and creating a totally believable stage moment. I, for one, forgot it was LuPone throughout the evening and that is a huge accomplishment for a star of this magnitude. The supporting cast is no less impressive with Boyd Gaines as Herbie and Laura Benanti as Gyspy Rose Lee. The "Gotta have a Gimmick" number is sheer perfection. These are well-worn paths to be trodden these days, but it is still an unforgettable three or so hours not to be missed. Plus all this is done with little more than costumes and some great lighting. Go figure.