Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

The Voice of America

October 04, 2009

Thomas Hampson
Photo: Bühne/2005

In response to your queries, no, I was not at the Gustavo Dudamel (or as I like to think of him, The Dud) PR-fest at the Hollywood Bowl on Saturday night. If you want to read more on that topic look elsewhere. It shouldn’t be hard to find considering that the Los Angeles Times has abandoned what little arts journalistic integrity it had left a couple of weeks ago to be wholly consumed as little more than a branch of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s public relations division. The poor young man has been overrated, over-hyped, and overexposed to the point that the inevitable backlash seems right around the corner. Hopefully, he’ll actually get around to making some consistently decent music with the orchestra before this is all over. But I for one am still waiting.

Instead, on Saturday I was over at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion taking in the second of two song recitals this week from important American voices currently on tour around the U.S. The L.A. Opera presented Thomas Hampson who is out supporting his "Song of America" project in conjunction with the Library of Congress to increase awareness of the history of American song over the last two centuries. It was a heartfelt and intellectually interesting program if not always the most engaging one. The first half of the evening was dedicated to Schubert, Liszt, and Richard Strauss. The lieder were clunky and dry, but Hampson fared better the more flowery the material got. His selection from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt was very lovely. After the intermission, Hampson spoke eloquently for several minutes about the importance of preservation and performance of American song. He sped through two centuries of material from Stephen Foster to Charles Ives. And he's right, hearing these songs together is a profound experience that can tell Americans something about their own cultural identity. I still thought his performance was a little on the dry and cursory side, though. Hampson's accompanist, Vlad Iftinca, was excellent, however. Hampson did recognize how fortunate we in Los Angeles are these days in terms of classical performance with Domingo and James Conlon at LA Opera, and the arrival of Gustavo Dudamel. He joked that he hoped none of us were there simply because we couldn't get tickets to the Hollywood Bowl. I don't think he had to worry. I doubt his program was second choice to anyone with much sense.

Christine Brewer

Perhaps less ambitious, though far more exciting vocally, was a local appearance from soprano Christine Brewer in Cerritos on Wednesday. Brewer's voice is beautiful and powerful. She leaves little question that she's amongst the top tier of Wagner sopranos working today and her performances of Berg's Sieben frühe Lieder and selections from Richard Strauss made that abundantly clear. Crystalline and easy, the sound washed over the audience like the sun. Of course, the problem for Brewer, as with all vocalists with an instrument of her size, is to find material outside of Strauss and Wagner that can live up to her voice. She spent the second half of the program with English-language material. Benjamin Britten's cabaret songs seemed somewhat frivolous here, though Brewer got more play out of John Carter's Cantata. To deal with the material issue in the home stretch, Brewer performed several American songs from the early to mid 20th century. Although many of these songs are largely forgotten now, they were popular material for encores and recital programs for a generation of sopranos prior to Brewer blessed with similar vocal capabilities including Helen Traubel, Eleanor Steber, Eileen Farrell and Kirsten Flagstad. Songs like Sidney Homer's "Sing to Me, Sing" and Edwin MacArthur's "Night" were lovely and fit Brewer like a glove. Not Wagner or Strauss to be sure, but a well fitting garment can be much more attractive that a more fashionable poorly fitting one just about any time. Brewer shouldn't be missed, and Los Angeles will be lucky to see her again at the very end of the L.A. Philharmonic season next year in a recital on June 1.


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