Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

In the Wings - July 09

June 30, 2009

 
Pavol Breslik and chorus in Lucrezia Borgia
Photo: Wifried Hösl/Bayerische Staatsoper 2009

It’s July and I’m getting out of Dodge for awhile. But never fear, Out West Arts always take you along for the ride. In the broadest sense of “West”, Out West Arts and I will be off to London and Munich for a couple of weeks in the first half of the month and will be bringing you reports from the road. First up is London which will be jam-packed with events. On the theater side will be revivals of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia at the Duke of Yorks Theater, Stafford’s War Horse at the New London Theater, and the National Theater’s new production of All’s Well That Ends Well directed by Marianne Elliott who gave us 2007's fantastic revival of Saint Joan. I can't ignore all of the big celebrities on London stages right now, however, so we'll also thrown in Helen Mirren in the new Nicholas Hynter-directed production of Phédre. Then, I’ll get down to some opera. Perhaps the performance I’m most looking forward to will be English National Opera’s UK premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin at the London Coliseum, which will be staged by Cirque du Soleil's own Daniele Finzi Pasca. And not to leave out the Royal Opera, I’ll catch their upcoming revival of Un Ballo in Maschera with Ramon Vargas and the incredibly star-studded Il Barbiere di Siviglia with JDF, DiDonato, Alessandro Corbelli and Ferruccio Furlanetto as Don Basilio of all things.

With not a moment to spare, it;s off to one of my favorite opera cities, München, for a whole week of shows from the Bayerische Staatsoper. Included in this run: a revival of Werther with Kassarova and Beczala, Jenufa with Eva-Marie Westbroek, an Edita Gruberova-headlining Lucrezia Borgia, and a new Nagano-conducted Lohengrin with Anja Harteros and über-hot Jonas Kaufmann. And to top it off, how about Pfitzner’s Palestrina because, like, where else am I ever going to see it?.

Juho Pohjonen
Photo: Marco Borggreve 2009

Of course, all good things must come to an end, and the second half of the month will mean back to work and back to L.A. where summer will finally really be getting under way. Of course, summer in L.A. is all about the Hollywood Bowl, and I’ll be contending with the crappy acoustics and stack parking for a number of shows including Marin Alsop leading the L.A. Philharmonic in Mahler’s 5th Symphony on the 28th. The Philip Glass ensemble will appear on the 23rd for an all Glass program including the soundtrack to Koyaanisquatsi. And intriguingly, Lionel Bringuier will lead the L.A. Philharmonic in a program that includes Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Piano Concerto, to be played by someone other than Yefim Bronfman, specifically Juho Pohjonen, on the 21st. All this and Tori Amos on the 17th at the Greek theater and Grace Jones on a bill with Of Montreal on the 26th. What’s not to love?

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The Big Sleep

June 29, 2009

 
Charles Castronovo and Anna Netrebko
Photo: Cory Weaver/SFO 2009

Perhaps one of the worst seasons in recent memory is wrapping up for the San Francisco Opera right now. My last visit for the 08/09 schedule was on Sunday for one of the handful of performances from Anna Netrebko in La Traviata. It was small consolation though, after a year of fairly well cast, but mostly bland, uninteresting productions. Sadly, it appears that we’re in for only more of the same in coming years, in a house now aggressively devoted to bringing the biggest stars to San Francisco, no matter what the cost, in an effort to fill seats and inspire the most uninspired donors. Now I’ve got nothing against big opera stars, but when their recruitment becomes the specific expressed focus of development campaigns, I start to wonder where the “art” went, not to mention the sort of sad desperation of it all. No, I do not want to donate money just to bring famous singers in to San Francisco.

This cash-for–flash strategy (or perhaps cash-for-trash depending on your feelings about the specific star the house has on offer) appears in full bloom in this La Traviata. So here is what you get for those extra donation dollars. You get Netrebko as Violetta - and make no doubt about it, she is totally amazing. All you Netrebko haters can go on all you want about her weight and darker tone, she jumps head first into roles with abandon and is always fascinating to watch. She performs with attitude to spare and can sing better than most, which I guess is why she has the career she does. Of course, you only got to see her in San Francisco if you had tickets for one of her five performances in the series of nine shows this summer. And in addition to any ticket price and/or donation, you probably ended up paying for her in other ways. You got a rather crappy, unimaginative roaring 20s staging from Los Angeles Opera and Marta Domingo. It’s fine if you like the color orange, but it never really ignites. Plus there are only so many tiaras one gal can wear in an evening, isn't there. You got a lower-tier supporting cast that Netrebko often outran by a mile. Don’t get me wrong I love Dwayne Croft and Charles Castronovo as much as the next guy, but Castronovo in particular was too underpowered here vocally and otherwise. Still, the house did sell out all five shows Netrebko starred in. So was it worth it? Does this inspire you to donate more money so SFO can do more of the same? I’m certain that for some people it does, but I’m not so sure it’s the best approach overall. Time, of course, will tell.

This run of La Traviata is also maestro Donald Runnicles last appearance as music director with the company. He’ll be back for some of his specialties in the near future, including an upcoming Ring cycle, but this is the last of his in-house duties before the new guy, Nicola Luisotti, shows up. It wasn’t Runnicles strongest moment either in an overly controlled performance from the orchestra, lacking in any feeling of spontaneity. Everyone seems to be expecting a revolution of Italianate conducting with Luisotti’s arrival. Maybe so, but I hope they come up with productions that are a little more engaging than some of what we’ve seen this year. The current La Traviata continues with Elizabeth Futral and Allyn Perez through the rest of this week.

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Hey Young Lovers!

June 28, 2009

 
Eric Owens and Laquita Mitchell
Photo: Cory Weaver/SFO 2009

It’s Pride Weekend in San Francisco (if that's what they’re still calling it these days), and what better way to spend it than listening to a straight couple make out behind me for over three hours during the course of a performance of Porgy and Bess? (Cooing and giggling aside, here’s a tip for you young lovers out there – if you’re going to put out for as little as dinner and a rear orchestra seat, you may want to aim a little higher.) And I suppose if one must view opera as something inherently romantic and suitable for date night, Gershwin’s tale of murder, drug dealing, and the failure of the redemptive power of love is no less appropriate than anything Verdi wrote. Plus it’s in English, allowing you to easily sing along at parts when you need a break from making out. Annoyances aside, Porgy and Bess is an odd duck of the opera canon. Popular to be sure because of its many familiar tunes, but not immediately related to much of what opera houses, in the U.S. at least, stage on a regular basis. It's a uniquely American object, on American themes.

It is also one of those operas like Die tote Stadt that seems to exist in only one production at a time, which travels around until everyone is tired of it and then a new one surfaces somewhere, which again travels around the country and world for years and years. Porgy and Bess arrives in San Francisco in the same Francesca Zambello staging seen everywhere including L.A. a few years back. It’s updated to the 1950s, and can be attractive with its dilapidated corrugated steel scaffolding. It’s still pretty static, but it’s far from Zambello’s most irritating work. The curtain with its Rauschenberg-inspired clippings of the New York skyline and parts of faces is brilliant. Luckily, the audience on the final performance in the run, which I saw last night, got a bonus 10 minutes or so to look at it when Porgy, played by Eric Owens, became “indisposed” for heath reasons and the show was stalled during Act I. He returned, though, after being treated by a doctor, we were told, and frankly from my seat seemed no worse for the wear.

Owens sounds fantastic. He’s big and clear in voice. If you want evidence that he’s ready to headline bigger fare around the world, here it is – come and get him. Laquita Mitchell sang a touching Bess with marked athleticism. She was into it and could provide the physicality to carry off the show. I was also particularly enamored with Chauncey Packer's portrayal of Sportin’ Life. He had a real magnetism on the stage and was solid vocally. An old hand at this work, John DeMain was in the pit and the orchestra sounded strong. The chorus also sounded good tonight even if they could have used a bit more stage direction at times. But this was a final performance, and things can lose their edge at this point in many runs. I think the show could take a bit more of an aggressive stance towards its material, however. As it is, this Porgy and Bess is watchable, but nothing that would make you sit up and take notice of the strife and drama on stage. Or at least do so long enough to break up the conversation and romance between you and your date.

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Follies

June 27, 2009

 
Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin
Photo: Brigitte Lacombe 2009

I’m not even going to get into what a week this has been, but suffice it to say that it’s about time to get back to (blogging) business. Los Angeles was visited by two of the great stars of the American stage this week. Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin arrived in their two person musical revue that’s on stage at the Ahmanson as the first show of the 09/10 season. Given there are only a week’s worth of shows, it has been very well attended and may have indirectly benefited from all the press LuPone has received this week for standing up to disrespectful audience members. There’s not much fuss in An Evening with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin. The two performers are accompanied by Paul Ford, who conceived the show with Patinkin, on piano and John Beal on bass. Throw in some dramatic lighting and arrange some of the best music written for the stage in the 20th century from Rodgers and Hammerstein and Stephen Sondheim and you’ve got a show. And with these performers that’s pretty much all you need.

There were extended medley segments from South Pacific, Carousel, and Merrily We Roll Along as well as big hits from LuPone including “Don’t Cry for me Argentina” and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” Excellent material to be sure, and here presented in hands that know what they’re doing on stage. It was a master class in performing theater songs. The acting alone was worth seeing even if neither had ended up singing a note. And in some ways, that might have been preferable since the vocal quality overall was not what it might have been 20 years ago. Patinkin sounded threadbare throughout. I won’t hazard a guess as to whether it’s a product of age or illness or whatever, but his singing was nearly non-existent. Still, he was riveting to watch with his prodigious other talents in a number like "The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me Blues" from Follies. LuPone is faring much better these days. Her voice has changed over the years to the point now where I think it sounds best in numbers where there’s a little belting involved. She excels in this Merman territory as evidenced by her triumphant Mama Rose recently in New York, and “Roses” here was a highlight. But more delicate numbers can come off flat and/or warbled like “In Buddy’s Eyes” from Follies. But make no mistake, Patinkin and LuPone generate plenty of emotional content in this evening including a witty pairing of “April in Paris” with Murray Grand’s “April in Fairbanks” that the two stars delivered in a dance routine while seated in rolling office chairs. The show is fun and an excellent chance to see part of what exactly makes these legends great. It’s at the Ahmanson through June 29th.

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Eastern Promises

June 21, 2009

 
Goran Bregovic and his Wedding and Funeral Orchestra

UCLA Live completed its 08/09 season this weekend with a much hyped performance from Goran Bregovic and his Wedding and Funeral Orchestra direct from the former Yugoslavia and surrounding areas. The hype machine rolled right up until the band walked on stage as David Sefton, UCLA Live’s Artistic Director, arrived with pre-concert comments proclaiming the band the best live show he’s seen in 25 years when he first encountered them in London. And, while I certainly wouldn’t go that far, Bregovic and his fellow musicians do have one energetic, arch, and enticing show. On the surface this ensemble, which varies in size from location to location, is a conglomerate of eastern European forces that play driving Romani-inspired folk music. This weekend in L.A., the 19 players included Bergovic, his long time collaborator Alen Ademovic, a five-member brass band, two female Bulgarian vocalists, a six-member male vocal group and a string quartet. Songs about drinking, love, and death populated the rotation.

But, while the music is undoubtedly influenced by folk influences, things are not exactly what they seem on the surface. This orchestra is many things, but not one that plays at weddings or funerals. Bergovic has a long history in music and performance, having fronted a rock band for over a decade in the former Yugoslavia and for many years worked as a composer for films, including several from fellow countryman Emir Kusturica. He’s also worked as an actor, and it’s clear from the activity that his Wedding and Funeral Orchestra is much more than a folk ensemble acting as cultural ambassador abroad. The show is often a bit of an act. Both the brass band and the Bulgarian singers appear in folk costumes, with the male vocalists in tuxedos and Bregovic himself in a shiny suit. As the maestro entered the stage, he paid the members of the brass band with cash, giving each a single apparently large denomination note. Certainly these may simply be cultural traditions appropriate for the setting, but considering Bregovic's pedigree, I suspect they are also played for effect. Which is really part of the fun of the show. It's sly and in a way slightly menacing with a kind of self-awareness that isn't about self-deprecation.

As the band played its often quick and rhythmic mix of Bregovic’s music from films and other sources, there were clearly other elements than simple songs of drinking and love. “Kalashnikov” concerns the evils of militarism in his own native land, and later Bregovic soups up Lee Dorsey’s “Ya Ya” with an Eastern European flair. It’s all very danceable, but there’s something deeper and more deliberate beneath the surface.

Of course, the crowd responded to the rhythm with large numbers dancing in the aisles at Royce Hall. A bevy of thin women in tight clothes rushed to the front of the stage in the throws of cross-cultural ecstasy. And while there were undoubtedly several of Bregovic’s fellow countrymen and women in the audience, the overall response was closer to what my friend Christina would refer to as Au fait. Now I’m not sure exactly how I ended up in the front row, but the disturbed, and I might argue leering, glances of the male brass players and others on stage towards some of the female revelers had me wondering how much revulsion may have been mixed in with all of the bon temps roulez. Still, it was a unique evening, and one can’t argue with an ensemble that is this tight and musically strong. No matter how you measure it, the evening was a big treat in a rare L.A. appearance for this group.

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My Antonia

June 18, 2009

 
James Westman as Beaumarchais and Maria Kanyova as Marie Antoinette
Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL 2009

Remember what I was saying about Opera Theater of Saint Louis being at the forefront of American Opera? Well my second night in Saint Louis gave more supporting evidence for this contention with a new production of John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles with a libretto by William Hoffman. It’s a huge, beguiling, and ambitious opera and even in its smaller, leaner “new revised edition” a mammoth undertaking. Saint Louis, in conjunction with Vancouver Opera and the Wexford Festival, have an excellent and amazing spectacle on their hands and they should be commended for it. Corigliano and Hoffman have put together an opera so demanding in its resources that it seemed uncertain when the score would again see the light of day. After two successful runs at the Metropolitan Opera and one at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in the 90s, the work had gone into hibernation. The Met abandoned plans to revive it this season in light of the economy, and after my first exposure to it I can see why. Even here the show seems to swell the Browning Theater stage with so many people and so much activity that it’s hard not to watch it all with a sense of amazement. But here is Opera Theater of Saint Louis proving that you don't have to be big to move the art forward. Corigliano and Hoffman's work may in fact be better served in a scaled down more direct approach.

The story is truly a postmodern one. It employs the play-within-a-play format, but not as a matter of arch interpretation, rather one that is actually called for in the libretto. The setting is Marie Antoinette’s court theater at Versailles and prior to curtain, the scaffolding and tarps that surround the free standing proscenium and back stage of the court theater set are overrun by a modern day construction crew managing some ongoing renovations. As the orchestra tuning slides directly into the first notes of the score, they depart and are replaced by the ghosts of Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI, and members of their court. Marie, or as she is more familiarly referred to as Antonia, has spent two hundred years not getting over her assassination. The ghost of playwright Beaumarchais is also on hand, however, and is enlisted to cheer her up with a play that he hopes will also serve to reflect his love for Antonia and provide her with a rewrite of the history that vexes her so. The play he presents is a broadly adapted version of the real third play in Beaumarchais’ Figaro trilogy, La Mère Coupable. Enter some of opera’s most familiar faces, Figaro, Susannah, Count Almaviva, Rosina, Cherubino, and so on. Soon there are two parallel narratives that slowly merge into one. It’s complex, but never overly so. The point is whether or not Antonia can escape another decapitation at the hands of the revolution and how this plays out in the context of her relationship with the playwright.

Sean Panikkar as Almaviva and Christopher Feigum as Figaro
Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL 2009

And The Ghosts of Versailes is also often very funny. Figaro is up to his usual scheming ways and there are some great bits including a scene where he poses as a belly dancer to thwart a couple of plots simultaneously. I can’t recall the last time I heard real laughter in an opera. And I mean more than a pleasant chuckle of acknowledgment, but outright guffaws. But there it was, and credit should be given to Christopher Feigum who plays this pivotal role. It’s not the biggest role, of course, and vocally he could be a bit more adroit, but it's still a winner. However, in the end this is really an opera about the relationship between Beaumarchais, played by James Westman, and Marie Antoinette, played here by Maria Kanyova. Kanyova in particular gave an excellent vocal performance and made it clear why Angela Gheoghiu had agreed to play the role in the now-abandoned Met revival. She has the best music in the show and a part with some real acting meat to it.

The staging, directed by James Robinson, is very, very smart, making a big deal out of rather modest elements. The tarps at the rear of the largely empty set are often filled with video projections to flesh out scenes and give them context. Granted, not a new idea, but one that works quite well here creating a real variety and mutability in the gray space. Color is used very effectively with the ghosts in gray plus one red accessory highlighting their manner of death and the Figaro characters in bright popping neon hues. It creates a sort of through-the-looking-glass feel to the evening, and I never found the activity on stage dull to look at.

Maria Kanyova as Marie Antoinette
Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL 2009

If there are weaknesses in the opera, they stem mostly from the source material. The Ghosts of Versailles is intriguing and fun, but it may not be a great opera even by late 20th-century standards. The music can be dark and very modern at times in the ghost scenes, but the Figaro scenes are filled with an amalgam of styles and at times the big arias can sound like something right out of Andrew Lloyd Weber. Make of it what you will, but it doesn’t have a uniformity of style that would immediately recommend it as the product of a sole artisan's voice, though it may in fact be that. The libretto is far from rock solid either. Hoffman sets out with a great premise and can oscillate between comic and dramatic elements. The "inner" opera of the storyline provides for a number a expected cracks about the art form itself with ghosts proclaiming their boredom and crying out "this is not opera!" However, as the stories merge, logic begins to lose its grip, and the trial and subsequent jail scenes in Act II can drag and seem forced at times. But on balance this production's charms carry the day, and if you’re in Saint Louis and have even a passing interest in opera, you should see this production before it closes on the 27th of June. And thinks to Opera theater of Saint Louis for proving that American Opera lives on and it needn't be in the grandest of all settings to continue to exist.

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Table Manners

June 17, 2009

 
l - r: Alek Shrader, Maureen McKay, Daniela Mack, and Paul Appleby
Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL 2009

It’s muggy and stormy here in St. Louis this week. I forget that I live in a “dry heat” area now, and a trip back to my old stomping grounds has brought back all kinds of associations. One of the most positive of those is a return visit to the summer season of Opera Theater Saint Louis which is in the middle of a very strong series of shows through the end of this month. Entering its fourth decade, this regional opera company has quickly risen to the forefront, along with Santa Fe Opera, in providing first-rate productions featuring the best North American talents in both vocal and instrumental music, stagecraft, and composition. It’s a mantle that New York City Opera lost about two decades ago, and luckily for the rest of the country, the highest quality home grown opera is readily available in places outside of New York City.

Take as exhibit A, a new production of Mozart’s Il re pastore which I saw on Tuesday. Who needs international superstars when you have a largely American cast as good as this one? Heidi Stober plays Aminta with real wit and grace. I loved her as La Follie in the revival of Laurent Pelly’s production of Platée a few years back in Santa Fe, and she was just as exciting to watch here. Opposite her was Alek Shrader, a young tenor who is certainly on the rise after being featured this year in the heavily promoted documentary about the Metropolitan Opera’s 2007 National Council Auditions. His future seems certain on an opera stage given that he has a clear and well-controlled voice that is both strong and bright. And the fact that he’s totally hot doesn’t hurt either I suppose. The rest of the cast including Paul Appleby, Daniela Mack, and Maureen McKay all proved themselves as more than capable Mozart singers under the baton of Jean-Marie Zeitouni.

Heidi Stober as Aminta
Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL 2009

It’s a testament to the cast that they were so watchable in a production that could be divisive among audiences. The production stems from the minds of Chas Rader-Shieber and David Zinn, two well-known and capable opera stagers who have long associations with numerous American houses including NYCO. It’s an update and a transposition in story that uses the old play-within-a-play device, not unlike Mary Zimmerman’s recent controversial La Sonnambula for the Metropolitan Opera. And while this is a much lower profile gambit here, the results can be somewhat similar. In fact this particular version of Il re pastore seems to almost directly refer to Jean Anouilh’s The Rehearsal, but without the Freudian overtones.

Alek Shrader as Alessandro
Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL 2009

Il re pastore
is a standard Baroque opera seria plot with two sets of lovers being inadvertantly separated and later reunited by a benevolent king. Aminta, a shepherd, is recognized by Alexander the Great and his adviser as the true king of Sidon whose illegitimate ruler his forces have just dispatched. While Aminta's unsuspecting elevation to the throne might be good news, it creates havoc between him and his love, Elisa, who wants to keep things simple. The action in this production is updated to the late 19th century in an upscale British drawing room where a young couple have just been engaged and their friends have come to celebrate. While there, they prepare a performance of Il re pastore with the young woman singing Aminta, her maid singing Elisa, and the woman’s fiancée performing the Alexander the Great role. Early on, it seems the the young woman singing Aminta is celebrating her engagement, but begins irritating her future groom when she begins to take the Mozart role she is in the midst of performing too seriously, directing her attention toward her maid in a mock bridal ceremony. Confused yet? The conceit works at first, but as things move along, the sense of it all breaks down as the characters become more involved in the opera story line than whatever the implied meta-narrative is. On some level, the staging wants to emphasize the themes of stepping outside of one’s class role apparent in Mozart’s opera. The maid abandons her servile position in the Victorian household as she becomes involved in the rehearsal only to be thrust back into it by the end of the show. But admittedly, despite the fact that the sets and costumes look great and I was very entertained throughout, it could get a bit frustrating to try to think through it all. But with a musical performance and singing this good it’s easy to overlook a lovely if misguided staging. Il re pastore runs through June 26.

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Community Meeting

June 15, 2009

 
eighth blackbird and company after Music for 18 Musicians
Photo: Jeff 2009

If there was a take home message from this year’s Ojai Music Festival, it was clearly about the primacy of collaboration between a community of musicians in making contemporary music. Not that this is a radically new or different idea, but even here in Ojai over the last several decades, the history of the festival has often been a history of auteurs or individuals who shepherded players and resources to make their points. From Stravinsky and Boulez, to Salonen, Nagano, and MTT, celebrity conductors, composers, and performers have left their mark guiding a range of ensembles. This year’s festival was somewhat unique in that it was curated by a group of musicians, who selected material that never once made use of a conductor of any kind, even for works that commonly involve one. But this was much more than a simple gesture of solidarity, it was about a different way of making music.

eighth blackbird
Photo: Jeff 2009

The case was made best by two substantial works that opened and closed Sunday’s activities on the Libby Bowl stage. Sunday morning started out with Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians in all its hypnotic oscillating glory. Reich’s music is commonplace in Ojai, but as Matthew Duvall of eighth blackbird noted from the stage before the performance, the work has special meaning to all the players involved in that individually, their parts are meaningless. Rarely does any one musician have more than a short series of endlessly repeating sequences of notes. However, when put together by a group of players interacting with one another, they grow into something much more profound. It's synergy in action. The crowd seemed extremely excited, and the performance, which was clear-headed and well-organized, was likely the best show in the whole festival for many in the audience.

Musicians from the Ojai Festival 2009 following Andriessen's Workers Union
Photo: mine 2009

The afternoon brought a much different program – a musical marathon that took place over five hours involving 12 sets of music from 11 composers in various chamber arrangements. The marathon started with Reich's recent Pulitzer Prize winning Double Sextet. There were Russian songs from Stravinsky, a recorder quartet performed by the QNG ensemble, two works from Stephen Hartke, and David Rakowski's Études which called for pianist Amy Briggs to use her face to play some of the keys in the third study entitled "Schnozzage". Some of this was funny, some interesting, and some nearly awful. But as the evening wore on the camaraderie of the ever changing ensembles was clear. They were having fun experimenting in nearly every direction you could think of. Even guest composer/sculptor Trimpin got into the act providing assistance on Nathan Davis' Sounder. Half of the six or so musicians on stage played proxy instruments emitting no sound of their own, but sending electric signals via computer that controlled a variety of rigged cymbals, drums, and a toy piano in a nearby "tree sculpture" that soon developed a life of its own like some mad robot. It was a total hoot.

In the end, however, it was all about this group of individuals taken as an artistic whole. All of the players from the last two days gathered together at the end of the marathon for a performance of Louis Andriessen’s Workers Union, a piece with no specific ensemble in mind. Andriessen does specify the rhythm of the work, but also leaves matters of pitch largely to the decision of the players. Here, the members of eighth blackbird started out the piece in its broad pounding arches and were slowly joined in twos and threes by the other musicians until the staged was filled with over 30 players on everything from a bass recorder to maracas. Driving and forceful, the crowd drew together in a near frenzy. It was a joyful celebration and a wonderful reminder of the importance of the collective experience among musicians in performance. And it was a great end to this year's Ojai Music Festival.

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The Black Butterfly

June 14, 2009

 
Lucy Shelton, Elyssa Doyle, and members of eighth blackbird
Photo: Jeff 2009

The highlight of Saturday’s schedule at Ojai, was a largely staged performance of Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire that closed out that evening’s concert. The musical forces assembled included festival music directors eighth blackbird and soprano Lucy Shelton in a staging directed by Mark DeChiazza. I’ve always had mixed feelings about eighth blackbird. Certainly their musicianship is excellent, but there was something about the hipster marketing of the ensemble that made them too easily interchangeable with outfits like Pink Martini or the Decemberists in my mind. I know, I know - it's all about breaking down barriers between genres. But does everybody have to look the same?

However, last night addressed many of my reservations and I have a new found respect for eighth balckbird on all levels after observing the six players on Saturday night. Throughout Pierrot lunaire the six musicians not only played their instruments, but also actively performed the movement, the acting, and other feats asked of them in this largely abstract and evocative staging. Of special note was percussionist Matthew Duvall. Schoenberg doesn’t call for any percussion in Pierrot lunaire so Duvall was cast in the part of Pierrot and he was often engaged in movement with a dancer, Elyssa Dole. He was very game and very committed as were all the players who were required to frequently travel around the stage, not only sorting and resorting themselves into the small ensembles called for in the piece, but also to conduct various amounts of stage business including moving chairs and lights and interacting with others in the cast by dancing or various other activities.

The production made the most of the cabaret feel of the piece in 20s-inspired costumes on a stage populated only with a few chairs and a variety of hanging lights. It was not a narrative-oriented staging, but one meant to play out in a more abstract sense, a point made at length in a program note projected onto the supertitle screens as the audience sat in the dark waiting for the music to begin. The message induced laughter in the crowd and did seem a bit bizarre for an audience steeped in decades of avant-garde music. I suspect that most folks in this crowd could handle the idea of a non-literal staging and from their applause, it seems they did. It worked well overall, paying respect to the fact that the piece was intended to incorporate staged elements while enhancing the dreamlike quality of the work with soprano Lucy Shelton and the players simultaneously performing in a real and imagined band perhaps in the soprano’s own mind.

Shelton was quite good. The vocal part of Pierrot lunaire can often be marked with a sort of detachment from the text, but Shelton avoided this and wholeheartedly sunk her teeth into the evening with a wink and a smile, unabashedly putting the melodrama right up front where it belongs. Before the Schoenberg was another piece, a west coast premiere from David Michael Gordon entitled Quasi Sinfonia orchestrated for a small chamber orchestra. It was pleasant at times and ended in a rather nice cascade of chimes and gongs. I didn't have a particularly strong take on it after just one listening of the four involved movements, but it didn't distract from the rest of the evening, which I guess is a good thing when you're up against something as showy as this particular Schoenberg work. Overall, it was a pretty good evening.

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(Re)Think Denk

June 13, 2009

 
Jeremy Denk on stage in Ojai
Photo: Jeff 2009

I arrived in Ojai on Saturday for this year’s installment of the legendary music festival with too little sleep and too much work to do, but it’s hard to feel pressured in this beautiful setting and around so many people interested in new(er) music. My festival kicked off with the afternoon solo performance from pianist, blogger, and über-cutey Jeremy Denk. He fits in well this year with a festival organized by contemporary ensemble eighth blackbird. And, while much of the music in this year’s programs is familiar to the festival audience, there is definitely a younger hipster flair to the proceedings when compared to recent seasons, although the festival clearly maintains its casual California vibe. So, while the song remains the same, the performers may represent a newer generation for a digital era. Denk himself, for example, comes off as less studied and more laid back than, say, Pierre-Laurent Aimard who graced these same stages just two years ago.

Denk started his program with Ives’ Piano Sonata No. 1 and gave a significant introduction to the piece from the stage beforehand, joking that he hoped his morning coffee would kick in while he was talking. It must have, considering how muscular and energetic the Ives came off. Denk cast the work as semi-programmatic evoking a young man who has left the rural New England farm of his childhood for wild city life while the old folks at home pine over memories of the past. It’s Ives at his iconoclastic best, wheeling through melodies and structures as if on a bender until reaching a discordant and unresolved ending. It was thoughtful and energetic playing from Denk, and warmly received by the audience. The best thing about Ives is how shocking his music still seems after all these decades. He's the musical equivalent of Walf Whitman, and Denk left no question as to the importance of this work.

I was less taken with the performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations that filled the second half of the show. Denk started off still in full-bore Ives mode seemingly flying from pillar to post with somewhat aggressive strokes and almost caricaturish flourishes. I never sensed the inner measured workings of the piece or the fleet but light spirited turn of phrase that should permeate throughout. It was big and bold, but not necessarily great. Still, Denk can’t be faulted for not having a point of view. It was never lazy playing. But as anyone who has ever read his blog can testify, Denk is not one to do anything without some thought, be it serious or not.

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There is nothing like a Dame

June 09, 2009

 
Barry Humphries as Dame Edna
Photo: Greg Gorman 2009

This week, I caught Barry Humphries' return to Los Angeles in another of his wonderful raucous Dame Edna revues at the Ahmanson Theater. At 75, Humphries has made a comic career out of a wide variety of performances, books, and other projects. But nothing quite compares to the unique achievement of having created and channeled Dame Edna Everage on and off in many places for nearly half a century. The comic and his feisty satirical alter ego seem to grow bigger and bigger over time and their seemingly effortless conquering of the American Theater in the last decade has been hard won and continues to produce more laughs in a single evening than you’re likely to find anywhere else.

The current show travels under the name Dame Edna: My First Last Tour though there’s really no further mention of it being a farewell of any kind. It’s a meaner and leaner show than previous outings with only a pianist, an on-stage assistant, and a single costume change. There are two short video segments, but otherwise this is about a one-on-one interaction with Dame Edna and her public. Anyone who has had any prior exposure to Dame Edna's madness will recognize all the elements easily. She arrives in a gaudy sequined gown and shocking purple hair to sing a couple of songs and delivers 2 hours worth of the most biting backhanded compliments one could imagine. Of course, it’s all quite genteel with copious amounts of good humor and kind spirit. Not to say that everything is clean and safe. Humphries can push all the right satirical buttons on topics from international adoption to class distinction. To be honest, though, if you’ve seen Dame Edna’s prior visits to LA or NY, there are more than a few bits that you’ll recognize a second time around. Good bits, mind you, but nonetheless familiar ones.

So why should you go? Well, besides the fact that the whole thing is quite funny, the real thrill is Humphries’ very quick wit and his superior skill at improvising with an audience. Sure there is a road map with questions about certain up front audience members’ jobs and homes. And Dame Edna drags some of these same marks up on stage for a manufactured skit – this time a prototype talk show with her questioning them about various topics while they are seated on a large couch. But it’s the quick reactions and ability to catch openings with such deft wit and skill that make the show. As always, everything ends with Dame Edna tossing gladiolas into the audience and encouraging them to wave their stems high in the air. It’s familiar stuff but undoubtedly two hours of laughter and an escape from everything else you wouldn’t have otherwise. It runs through the 21st of June.

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Bloodless

June 07, 2009

 
l -r: Carey Peters, Maya Lawson, and Bo Foxworth
Photo: Ed Krieger/Boston Court 2009

It’s been catch-up time for me this weekend, but I did squeeze in a play on Sunday. Unfortunately, it was the wrong one. Courting Vampires, a world premiere by Laura Schellhardt, finished its run at The Boston Court Theater Sunday with a sizable crowd for a last performance matinee. Despite its billing, the play is neither sexy nor very edgy in any way. In fact, it’s a rather straight-forward revenge play desperately in need of some substantial editing. It’s the tale of two sisters – one uptight, Rill played by Carey Peters, and the other a dancing hyperactive free-spirit, Nina played by Maya Lawson. Nina contracts a terminal blood disease that Rill interprets as a sort of vampirism in her inner world and goes on a course to avenge her. Along the way are a number of stock and sometimes amusing scenes with Rill and Nina’s frustration with the world around them in achieving their ends of justice or something like it. A third actor, Bo Foxworth, plays all the men in their lives including the sisters’ father. And, while Schellhardt‘s play does not succumb to the modern theatrical dictum against plot, it is successful at little else.

The biggest drawback is the verbose and lengthy scenes, which carry on well past the point of dramatic necessity or character development. Little is left to the imagination of the audience on either of these points throughout two and a half hours. Worse yet, the material seems incredibly dated. Despite the vampire overlay, there is clearly a reference to a terminal sexually transmitted blood disease, which even in 2009 is hard to see as something other than HIV. It’s this dramatic tweaking of a story about HIV by any other name that gives the play a feeling of being ripped directly from the headlines of 1991. And while there may be a big theater audience just looking for something to tear them away from A Different World reruns, I somehow doubt it. Even Edward Albee realized that HIV as a dramatic source of motivation and angst had been totally played out by the time he finished The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? in 2002. I suppose there could be something more intense in Courting Vampires somewhere, but it needs to be quite a bit darker and more bloody to get there. The production design was excellent, however. Kurt Boetcher, under the direction of Jessica Kubzansky, has put together a very sharp looking production that appears to hide many secrets. In traditional Boston Court style, the set was clever with a floor covered in a matrix of trap doors that mimicked file drawers, which the cast often opened to uncover all sorts of props and escapes. As a representation of the overly structured and regimented world of Rill’s inner life, it works very well. Sadly little else about the production did.

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I Cram to Understand You

June 04, 2009

 
Julia Stiles and Bill Pullman in Oleanna
Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2009

If the fact that a play can produce a visceral emotional reaction is the primary marker of its success, then the revival of David Mamet’s Oleanna now on stage at the Mark Taper Forum is a big one. Of course those emotions are likely to be anger and disgust, but this is a Mamet play, so its not exactly unexpected territory. The paranoid set-up is now overly familiar. John, a college professor who is about to be given tenure and buy a new house, provides guidance to a student failing his class, Carol. However, the many ambiguities of this meeting are taken in radically different ways by the two involved parties as John, and the audience, later discover amidst accusations of sexual harassment and far worse. It’s a very one-sided argument in Mamet’s play with no veneer of balance for the audience's sake. Instead, the rather sympathetic and far more developed professor, is challenged by the much more ambiguous and two dimensional student. And while it's effective in eliciting an emotional response, it can also feel overwhelmingly manipulative at the same time.

The real question in my mind is how does a play that is so essentially unpleasant at its core and one so wrapped up in highly stilted and rather academic ideological discourse become so popularly produced on so many occasions since its 1993 debut. One reason of course is money- the same reason that likely led Oleanna to the Taper stage this year. A two-hander with one act in less than 90 minutes is always a good idea for companies in a pinch. It was likely a no-brainer for Center Theater Group after the cancellation of Uncle Vanya which was originally slated for June this year. But probably more important to the play's success than its economical production requirements, is that for some mysterious reason Oleanna fills seats. Especially when you put two very good and famous actors in it such as Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles. Stiles is a veteran of the play, having appeared in a London production as recently as 2004. She handles the vulnerable and the angry with ease. Pullman has played down the professors negative attributes for maximum effect in a way I think Mamet would approve of.

Still, Oleanna is dryly ideological almost to a fault. Given the academic setting, most of what the characters spew is in a sort of academic jargon with its own internal rules and logic. In fact it often seems that the characters are speaking the lines of another play than the one they're in. Imagine someone reading A Midsummer Night's Dream while performing an autopsy and I think you about have the effect. (Of course we lovers of opera are already accustomed to this modus operandi.) It’s quintessential Mamet with not so much dialog, but an amalgamation of interrupted sentence fragments. Yet, the crowds seem to love it. And while you can't underestimate the joy elicited from seeing a legitimate star on stage, my suspicion is that most audiences like the play in spite of its more sophisticated ideas in favor of reveling in a sort of Fatal Attraction, student-from-hell exploitation narrative. As purely a play of ideas, Oleanna does score some points on both political and philosophical levels. It’s about power and communication and totalitarianism. In some ways the sexual harassment aspects of the piece seem little more than window dressing for this treatise on how some ideas and beliefs win out over others. As to whether or not this makes an enjoyable evening of theater, I suppose depends on your own tastes. Or at least on how much bile you can stomach.

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California's Gold

June 01, 2009

 
Partch in action

It’s easy to dislike California. Especially now, considering it’s a state mired in financial and political problems largely as a direct result of the fear and idiocy of its own populace. (Vote all you want, you still have to pay for your kids to go to school.) So it was nice to have a weekend of quintessential California originals to remind me of the good things and good folks to come out of this golden state. Saturday night brought this year’s performance from Partch, the ensemble named after the California composer and iconoclast, Harry Partch. These shows, which take place annually at REDCAT downtown, are highly regarded events honoring Partch’s musical life and works, and this year’s installment was sold out. Part of the draw, of course, is getting to see the idiosyncratic instruments designed by the composer to create the microtonal landscapes he imagined. From the giant diamond marimba to the modified guitars and chromelodeon, Partch’s instruments can appear as strange as the music itself.

This year’s show entitled “Partch Dark/Partch Light” included what might be described as songs and song cycles divided into more and less somber groups. I mean “songs” to the extent that the works were mostly short and involved vocal passages. Although not always sung, the pieces reflected on a variety of literary texts including James Joyce and Lewis Carroll, as well as mid-20th century American experiences. They reminded me mostly of Charles Ives, but with less of a New England flair. The first half of the program, “Partch Dark” included Eleven Intrusions a conglomerate of pieces on Greek scales, war, and other topics. The second, lighter half, was more literary in focus, but both groups of songs contained elements of humor. The final cycle Barstow: Eight Hitchhiker Inscriptions reflected the composer’s own itinerant days in a setting of material about hard scrabble characters and life on the margins. Not only did it involve spoken passages, but some opportunities for the players to act and move.

Unfortunately, the show was plagued with technical problems. There were two pieces of video, the first of which Windsong featured a soundtrack by Partch. The non-sync sound art film on Greek mythological themes kept breaking up and eventually after several pauses had to be completely stopped and restarted from the end point. It broke the tension in an already choppy program of short works. I never seemed to be able to get back into the show after this point. The second short piece, Rose Petal Jam, was a brief outtake of documentary footage of Partch himself explaining the recipe for the title foodstuff and railing against music writing in the popular media. It was perhaps the most cogent reminder all evening of the spirit and personality behind this unique art.

Meanwhile, last Thursday brought us a very different group of California-based, if not native, musicians in the latest local show from Fleetwood Mac. The group defined a late 70s California aesthetic that would be repackaged for mass consumption and eaten up until this very day. The group returned with their most famous line-up minus the now retired Christine McVie. This current tour, which is wrapping up here in the Southwest, was not in support of a new recording but focused instead on the wealth of expertly-written popular songs this collaboration produced over several decades. It was fun, which it was supposed to be. It was also plagued by poor acoustics and over-amplification in the Staples center downtown. When the band played simply, things were good. During the last half-hour of the two-and-a-half hour set, though, things did descend dangerously into self-parody. Ribbons and lace are one thing, but when Stevie Nicks pulls out a top hat you know your in trouble. Later in the first encore, Mick Fleetwood descended into an extended drum solo marked with failed attempts at a call and response with the audience who at this point were beyond deciphering any of the barking coming from his head mic. But it was a reminder of a sunny golden past and of a California, which, as Lindsay Buckingham noted from the stage has a way of “pulling you in on its own terms.” It’s still true now 30 years later despite all the bad news.


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1/18/13
Kodály Háry János Suite
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