Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Best of Both Worlds

October 31, 2009

 
Christoph Eschenbach, Christian Tetzlaff and the LA Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2009

Christoph Eschenbach may be many things, including a bit unpredictable on the podium. But given the overall quality of his performances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic over the last few years and you might wonder why he isn’t leading the orchestra as the new music director. (Not that I think that would be a good idea, I’m just saying….) This weekend is another one of those incredibly strong outings from Eschenbach sans score and avec some pretty wonderful playing from our favorite hundred or so musicians. And lucky for us, it was being recorded for iTunes. The evening was book-ended by Dvorak – the Carnival Overture for starters, and Symphony No 9 for the main course.

Things got off to a big start. Often, those 10-minute intro pieces on a program often seem like little more than an excuse to give latecomers a few more minutes to show before the main course. But not here. The Carnival Overture was a wallop upside the head for an audience who gave a deservedly big ovation at a point in the evening when some of that same crowd would have usually just fallen asleep. This energy was carried throughout and Dvorak's big-ticket Symphony No 9 was very engaging. I think this work is often presented on these shores in a way that's a bit too aware of its purported American influence at the expense of Dvorak's own history. But not here. Eshenbach gave the piece a fresh and rather modern sound like some latter day European work.

In between all this Czech music was Karol Szymanowski's decidedly less overtly Romantic first Violin Concerto played by Christian Tetzlaff. He handled it with ease and no histrionics. But maybe that wasn't totally a good thing. Eshenbach took a dryer, less mystical approach to the score in a nod to its 20th-century leanings. There was still plenty of sweep but this is definitely music that can sound like some strange voice from beyond. It was just a little more earthbound than I would have liked. But nonetheless it was quite enjoyable and one can't argue with Tetzlaff's virtuosity. The program repeats in two matinees this weekend.

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Hell Is For Children

October 29, 2009

 
A scene from Castellucci's Purgatorio

If you think you’ve seen it all on stage, you may want to catch the current offering from UCLA Live’s International Theater Festival, Purgatorio. The piece is from the mind of the Italian theater impresario Romeo Castellucci and his troupe, Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio. And while it is presented on its own here in Los Angeles, Purgatorio has two brethren, Paradiso and Inferno. While all three are inspired by Dante, there’s little about the single work on stage at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse that would tie it to that Italian masterpiece. It’s a complicated, highly psychoanalytic, and often visually gorgeous 100 minutes that may leave you feeling many ways, but certainly not bored in the end. Castellucci addresses themes of sin and redemption on a most primal level and that is bound not to be pretty.

I don't want to give too much away, but it should be noted that Purgatorio is not for children or the faint of heart. The show opens with a gauzy lit and highly-detailed domestic kitchen where a mother, known as “The First Star”, and son, “The Second Star”, go about typical redundant daily life. It’s pretty and so polished and reserved that the mise-en-scene just as easily suggests cinema as it does theater. Soon the father, “The Third Star”, arrives home and the banal expands with text projected on the scrim in front of the stage reinforcing the mundane non-events. And then things start to scream. In one of those David Lynch moments, things get dark really fast and you just know that some of the audience is going to walk out, which they do on cue. That’s not a judgment by the way, but for me it is one of those exciting things where people leave not because they’re bored, but more likely offended or upset. Which, all things considered, is pretty remarkable for a play to be so harrowing that people leave because a nerve has been touched.

And then gears shift again into a third act where the screaming stops and things really get loud. The final scenes go through the looking glass complete with floral video, an art installation, two new actors recast in roles from the first half, and loud industrial music. There’s a lot to look at and think about. Honestly, I’m not sure what it all means, but it has to be seen to be believed. In all fairness, there are some frankly manipulative bits to Purgatorio, but isn’t that what all theater is to begin with anyway? This is an evening with some bite to it, and it's worth your consideration on Friday or Saturday night in the last two performances at UCLA this weekend.

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Some Great Reward

October 27, 2009

 
Diana Damrau and JDF vs. the world
Photo: Terrence McCarthy/SF Opera 2009

If there was anything that could possibly wash the bad taste of San Francisco Opera’s Salome out of my mouth after Saturday, it would have to be Laurent Pelly’s magnificent staging of La Fille du Régiment. After seeing the world, the production arrived with its tenor, Juan Diego Flórez, still attached to an opera company hell-bent on being an artistic also-ran. But sometimes just wanting to fill your big brother’s shoes as best you can works out, and it certainly did on Sunday. Although I’d seen the production in New York in 2008 and on DVD at least once since, it still induced big smiles and laughs. It also inspired awe not only in Flórez’ well-documented vocalism, but equally so from German soprano Diana Damrau. Damrau is taking over the role of Marie from Natalie Dessay for these San Francisco performances, which are a dry run for the revival of the show at the Metropolitan Opera this spring. Damrau does not quite have the sheer wild pixie energy Dessay has cornered the market on and paraded all over the world. However, Damrau's voice is warmer and richer, giving Marie a more innocent and girlish flair. She is also quite funny in the part and does manage to keep the energy level high in Pelly’s near-maniacal version of events. Damrau and Flórez are an operatic dream delivering a technically challenging performance with seeming effortlessness. I’ll admit that in New York Flórez seemed to have a sharp edge at times especially in the big showpiece, “Ah mes amis”. But here, away from the spotlight of the big New York opening, he sounded more natural and easy. Both stars are amazingly pleasing to hear.

And, even though the rest of the artistic team may not have had quite such celebrated names, the quality was just as good. I was especially thrilled to see Meredith Arwady in such a meaty comic role as the Marquise of Berkenfeld. She was superior throughout and clearly was having a good time doing it. Bruno Praticò sang Sulpice with great timing and energy. In the pit was Andriy Yurkevych making his U.S. conducting debut with a lively and well-paced turn. I did feel the chorus could have used a little more rehearsal time, but, frankly, given the overall quality of the show, it’s just quibbling. This is a radiant staging that matches Donizetti’s tone almost to perfection. Of course, there continue to be complaints from some quarters about the aggressively fervent approach Pelly takes towards comedy. But this is La Fille, not Götterdämmerung, and if you can’t get a little wound up and have some fun here, where can you? Bringing in this production may not have required any thought outside of connecting the dots for San Francisco Opera, but it was a very good move and the show is rightfully a huge success. There are two more performances this week.

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Wie grausam ist die Prinzessin Salome heute Nacht!

October 25, 2009

 
Nadja Michael as Salome
Photo: Terrence McCarthy/SF Opera 2009

Richard Strauss’ Salome is a landmark opera taking off from Wagner’s Tristan chord and throwing open the door to Twentieth Century music. Of course, you’d never know that from San Francisco Opera’s disastrous production of the work now on stage. In fact given Nicola Luisotti’s perplexing leadership in the pit, you might think the opera had been composed a half-century earlier than it was. It was no surprise these were Luisotti's first performances of the score - it sounded like it with all the drama leeched out of the music in favor of bland romantic smoothness. His unique achievement of the evening is to somehow make Strauss sound cliché.

But it’s not all Luisotti's fault, virtually nothing works in this short but seemingly endless train wreck. In the words of the immortal Jay-Z, it’s got 99 problems. But this time, the "bitch" is one. Needless to say, Salome doesn't work too well without a decent Salome. And while she may look the part, Nadja Michael isn't one. What she’s doing in this role is beyond me. She gulps down phrases before bounding into high notes that seem acquainted with pitch if not always the closest of friends. However, she’s can play with her and others' hair in that I'm-a-crazy-person way. She can be a commanding presence at times, it's just not a pleasant thing to listen to.

The production, directed by Sean Curran and imported from Opera Theater St. Louis, is minimal. Another gray box with a giant circular black cover to the cistern at the rear of the stage. When the cap is removed, a circular lens is revealed allowing Jokanaan to arrive in 007 fashion for his big scene. The set seems to be left over from the cheaper looking bits of the company's recent Il Trittico which I suppose is a thrifty maneuver if that's the case. It’s not very visually engaging and creates more questions than it can answer when combined with some banal, unsuccessfully updated costumes. What kind of killer land rodent are these soldiers with gold shin protectors worried about? Where is this opera set such that the all-around convenient sleeveless black hoodie is appropriate soldier attire? Heaven knows that I've got nothing against anachronism, but this really looks funny in a bad way. And don't get me started on Salome's dance. I know there is somebody for everybody in this world, but somebody is going to need some heavy duty dousing with Axe body spray to give off any sexy in this particular staging. On the plus side, Strauss only left us with the single act so if you make it through to the end, you're free to leave, which was undoubtedly the highlight of the evening.

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Dance, Dance, Dance

October 24, 2009

 
Andrey Boreyko makes nice with Martin Chalifour and the LA Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2009

The Los Angeles Philharmonic cruised into its regular programming this weekend following twelve days of the Gustavo Dudamel circus and one of those film music shows under John Williams. Our great orchestra was under the leadership of the young Russian up and comer Andrey Boreyko this time around in a program of this and that from Stravinsky, Ravel, Tchaikovsky and Lutoslawski. And while Boreyko may not have all of the “fire and music” of the Dud, he delivered a solid show. The varied program was billed as consisting of works where composers overcame challenges imposed by those who commission new works. It’s a bit of a thin concept, and much of the work could just as easily be classified as dance music in that two of the pieces, Tchaikovsky’s music from Sleeping Beauty and Stravinsky’s Divertimento from La Baiser de la Fée were for ballets and Ravel’s La Valse is, well…you know.

Probably the best thing amongst these bits and pieces, though, was Lutoslawski’s Chain 2, a four movement violin concerto originally written for Anne-Sophie Mutter. Played here by concertmaster, Martin Chalifour, the work has a sort of outer spacey beauty as if stars are talking to each other in the nighttime sky. While it is clearly of the 20th century, it is still connected to a more romantic tradition of virtuosity with a nimble and difficult solo part that doesn’t rely on big dramatic flourishes as it does fleet-footed interchange with the orchestra. It was a lovely performance from Chalifour, and Boreyko managed to keep the orchestra on the same level and active in the interchange.

While the rest of the evening wasn’t bad, nothing really lived up to this earlier moment. The Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky sounded somewhat non-committal and uncertain. Ravel’s maniacal spin through the early years of the Twentieth century sounded quite pointed and political in Boreyko’s hands. There was no mistaking his belief that Ravel had something much, much more in mind than an homage to a dance and cultural tradition. So even if it wasn't a perfect concert, it had more than a few worthwhile moments to recommend it.

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Bad Boys

October 23, 2009

 
L to R: Robertson Dean, Michael Newcomer, Holly Hawkins
Photo: Craig Schwartz/ANW 2009

Any week that I find myself in Glendale on more than one occasion is an unusual one. But so it was with the opening of what will hopefully be one of the last seasons for A Noise Within in their current, not so attractive digs in the Masonic Temple Building on Brand Avenue. On Sunday, company co-founder Julia Rodriguez-Elliott informed the crowd that the company hoped to break ground on a bigger and better new Pasadena site this year though they still have a little way to go with their fundraising before the project is fully underway. It’s a good cause, especially considering the amount of educational activities the company is involved in, so here’s hoping they reach their goal soon. Plus the Glendale location just looks more and more gloomy as the years go by.

In the meantime, the company has opened this Fall with two productions that make the most of the current space’s limitations. On Sunday I caught the company’s new 90-minute grand condensation of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. It’s a gutsy and good idea if not entirely successful. The cast is reduced to just three players. Robertson Dean and Holly Hawkins handle a variety of male and female roles while a third, Michael Newcomer, carries the whole production as Raskolnikov. Major renovations are enacted on the text including the wholesale removal of story lines and characters, which helps to keep things moving in a taught and suspenseful way. However, the play is also missing the novel's view of the inner life of Raskolnikov. Without the ability to know what he’s thinking, the audience can only rely on what he has to say and in Marilyn Campbell and Curt Colombus’s adaptation, more often than not he comes off as a cipher. Furthermore, Dostoevsky's writing is filled with that particular Russian blend of the funny and the morbid that never seems to happen in this staged Crime and Punishment. The production, directed by Craig Belknap, takes place in a single claustrophobic room with doors and a small stairwell at the rear. Creative lighting helps to maintain a claustrophobic feel, but despite these good looks, its not quite enough to keep the piece alive.

Steve Weingartner (Richard III) and Deborah Strang (Margaret)
Photo: Craig Schwartz/ANW 2009

All in all though, this literary adaptation still fared better than A Noise Within's other new production, Shakespeare's Richard III, which, I will admit, I didn’t make it all the way through. It’s a straight-forward period production directed by Geoff Elliott. It started promisingly with an eerie dark and craggy set, again with attractive lighting. But what transpires on these darkened steps is nowhere near as foreboding as it could be. The evening’s Richard III, Steve Weingartner, seems a little too user-friendly in this role, though he's a talented and likable actor in many of the prior productions I've seen him in. He mugged at times and his Gloucester comes off as more irritating than dangerous or evil. There were some strong contributions in Act I from Deborah Strang and Susan Angelo but with Project Runway beckoning at intermission, it wasn't enough to hold me through the rest of the evening.

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I Keep Meaning To Tell You ...

October 20, 2009

 

exactly how great Bob Dylan is, but I keep forgetting. Of course you probably already know this, but it bears repeating. I have this thing about trying to see living legends before they die. And while I hope Dylan is with us for years to come, I must admit I hadn’t been exposed to him in a live setting before. When an opportunity arose to see him last week at the newly remodeled Hollywood Palladium, I figured now was my chance. Now I’m no connoisseur of Dylan’s music from any of the many phases of his career, but I can tell you that the shows here last week were sensational. Truly. His band is so tight they border on the unfathomable. But Dylan is undoubtedly the ring leader and his emphasis on a variety of material from different periods in the set made the evening all the more poignant when it came to thinking about age, time, and faith. All of which are things Dylan has done again and again. The songs and vocals have taken on a quality at this point that remind me of Messiaen in a way. Granted Messiaen was not one for traditional rock and blues rhythms, but Dylan’s vocal performance is very reminiscent of the composer’s favored vocal approach with the voice existing almost independently of the music; only surfacing in unwavering bursts of words in between the islands of gorgeous sound. Or maybe I was just having a religious experience. Either way if you want to hear one of the best rock shows this year, Dylan’s is the one to see.


And while I’m talking about great musicianship, why don’t I draw attention to Kent Nagano. I went to update my “favorites” list of recent recordings to consider in the right-hand column only to discover that my first four choices all featured Nagano although it was not my intention necessarily to focus on him. Savoir faire is everywhere. Nagano is great at many things and as far as commercially available recordings, he appears to be on a role this year. I highly recommend all of the featured items, but the Bruckner is especially good. And although I love what James Conlon is doing for music and opera here in Los Angeles, I must admit I miss Maestro Nagano’s appearances here in LA greatly. Luckily there’s plenty to enjoy from him otherwise.

Life After Death

October 19, 2009

 
The Los Angeles Master Chorale
Photo: mine 2009

After a week of fewer posts than I intended and less exciting performances than I’d hoped, I arrived Sunday night at the very well attended season opener for the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Following the ridiculously overblown Los Angeles Philharmonic gala last weekend, it was refreshing to see L.A.’s world-class chorale without Mylar confetti, television cameras, or overrated maestros. Instead we got the L.A. Master Chorale making great music without too much unnecessary hype. And that wasn’t the only novelty. Music director Grant Gershon chose to start the season with a smart program featuring several choruses from the John Adams' opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, paired with Mozart’s Requiem. As Gershon noted from the stage, the two pieces have more in common than meets the eye, inviting the audience to think of the choruses as a Requiem of sorts as well.

Klinghoffer, even in these tiny portions, is a rarity in a world highly polarized around issues of Middle Eastern politics and race relations. Few companies will touch the work despite the relative success of Adams' other operas and, in my experience, even people who like contemporary music find themselves pressed to enjoy any part of the work without viewing it as a looking glass for their own beliefs about the Middle East. But the controversy of twenty years ago has faded somewhat, and to hear the segments on Sunday was a real treat by any measure. They were performed expertly by a chorus much larger than one would likely ever see on an opera stage for this work in a glowing and often moving setting. There was rage and beauty and regret like any Requiem, and Gershon's comparison was easy to appreciate. And while Alice Goodman’s poetic libretto may not be to everyone's taste, it can be alternately direct and poetic and I found it rather insightful at times.

Sadly, the Mozart didn’t go quite as smoothly as the Adams piece. Or maybe it went too smoothly. The Requiem had so much polish that it could be soporific at times, sliding by not so much as a funeral mass but more as a lullaby. The soloists were lost in the mix, even if the overall sound of the chorus was still lovely. But even an hour of undercooked Mozart was a small price to pay for the lovely Klinghoffer choruses.

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Heads Up

October 14, 2009

 
Georg Friedrich Haas
Photo: Philippe Gontier 2009

There were some promising program announcements recently here in Los Angeles that deserve some mention. First and foremost is the return of the Monday Evening Concert series at Zipper Hall beginning in December for five concerts focusing, as usual, nearly exclusively on contemporary and late 20th-century music. The programs range from an evening of Californian composers on January 11 to nights devoted to Salvatore Sciarrino, Mauricio Kagel and later Frank Denyer. The event I’m most looking forward to, however, will come at the end of their season on April 19 when the JACK Quartet will perform Georg Friedrich Haas’ Third String Quartet, “In iij. Noct.”, a work that the composer dictates should be performed in total darkness. Haas is not well known in this country and I'm eager to hear a little more live music from him following my encounter with his opera Melancholia in Paris a couple of years back. It should be another interesting season. MEC’s role in the forefront of contemporary music in Los Angeles grows ever more important especially now that the new music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic has yet to demonstrate much of his own interests in this area.

Meanwhile the Blank Theater in Hollywood announced a series that includes a number of worthwhile productions. David Sedaris’ work will return to Los Angeles in a staged version of his “Santaland Diaries” in November. To follow this, the company plans for the West Coast premiere of the recent Christopher Durang hit from the Public Theater in New York, Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them. All this and another musical offering from Michael John LaChiusa provides sufficient reasons to get over to Hollywood. So you’ve been warned. Act appropriately.

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How He Got In My Pajamas, I'll Never Know

October 13, 2009

 
Joey Slotnick as Groucho in Animal Crackers
Photo: Eric Y. Exit/Goodman Theater 2009

Before leaving Chicago this weekend, I was fortunate to catch one of those shows you don’t expect to be as entertaining as it is. The show in question is a revival of George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind’s musical star vehicle for the Marx Brothers, Animal Crackers, now on stage at the Goodman Theater. It’s probably about the last musical you would think would warrant a revival, but strangely enough has had several around the country over the last 25 years. But it’s the presumed rarity, combined with how funny and simply joyful the production actually is that makes it so winning. The original show, from 1928, was the third production featuring the Marx Brothers on Broadway and it came at the end of the Vaudeville era. Like other musicals at the time, it contained only the thinnest wisp of a plot as an excuse to feature not only the comic talents of the Marx Brothers, but a variety of other singers and dancers in various combinations. Despite an overarching setting, it's more of a genteel variety show than anything else.

Animal Crackers was also nearly completely dependent on the talents of Groucho, Chico, and Harpo again leading one to assume there would be no reason to revive the original without its stars. But the Marx Brothers, of course, were characters in their own right for the three men who played these parts in numerous movies and plays of the period. And in the intervening century it has become a little easier to see these three characters as what they were, fictions used for comic purposes. To this extent its easy to watch Animal Crackers and the performances of Jonathan Brody as Chico, Molly Brennan as Harpo, and Joey Slotnick as Groucho and see them more than simply clever imitations. The casting of Brennan as the skirt chasing Harpo is an especially funny modern twist on the proceedings. Of course, may of the topical one-liners are a bit beyond the grasp of a contemporary audience, including myself, but Slotnick makes the most of it with seemingly spontaneous asides in character riffing on the show itself as well as Eugene O'Neil and the Goodman Theater. There's no cynical anachronism and the most political humor you're going to get is about Calvin Coolidge.

But that is part of the charm. Animal Crackers may be old-fashioned, but it's hugely successful in that its able to revive the most important qualities that made the original popular, a sense of glee and playfulness that the audience experiences first hand. The show has been extended through November 1, and if you're in Chicago, I'd highly recommend it.

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Pretty On the Inside

October 11, 2009

 
Rene Pape, Piotr Beczala, and Ana Maria Martinez
Photo: Dan Rest/LOC 2009

I love visiting Chicago. Among its many attributes is the most beautiful opera house in America. (Santa Fe may compete but they had unfair help from mother nature.) So I never turn down an opportunity to check out what the Lyric Opera has to offer and popped out to see how the season has started off here in the Midwest when press tickets came my way. In short, it’s a split decision. The good news is the revival of Gounod's Faust, which has one of those strong world-class casts Chicago seems to put together with ease. Not that other houses don’t, it just that in Chicago the vocalists are appreciated by an audience not determined to cut them down because they aren’t already dead, a favorite spectator sport for many in New York. In Chicago's excellent revival you have Piotr Beczala who for better or worse is rapidly filling the hot young tenor shoes left open by the absence of Rolando Villazon for months on end. He’s not the actor you’d hope at times, but Beczala can sing with great passion and strength and I grow more fond of him with each outing. His Faust is touching and believable across the board. Which makes him a great foil for the best Mephistopheles going, Rene Pape, how returns to Chicago in a commanding and menacing performance. Pape did seem a little off balance after dropping the violin he was supposed to pretend to play in Act II but regained his composure and carried on without further flubs. And if these two don’t provide enough male hotness for you, how about Lucas Meachem as Valentin. The trio between the three men in Act IV is pretty much opera heaven.

Marguerite was sung by Ana Maria Martinez who really deserves some of the attention Patricia Racette regularly receives. She is vocally engaging and could easily take over the Renee Fleming territory in a few years. She’s fun to watch and I was thrilled to see her here again. Sir Andrew Davis led an appropriately light, but driven, performance from the excellent Lyric Opera orchestra. The production directed by Frank Corsaro is a bit on the staid and sorry side. It’s been around the country and was seen here in Chicago six years ago. But it does have its charms and it is effective in maintaining some actual magic and darkness in the piece. There are many clever bits around Mephistopheles' appearances and “miracles” that give the opera the feel that the whole thing is a dream he’s orchestrated with the other characters serving only as players in the big game. The inverting crucifix in Act IV is actually pretty creepy. The starry night he conjures in Marguerite’s garden is romantic and with the two singers charged with filling it, it’s a show very much worth seeing.

James Morris and an uncertain Deborah Voigt
Photo: Dan Rest/LOC 2009


The same cannot be said, however, for the rather worn out Zeffirelli Tosca that opened the season and is finishing up a string of fall performances before a hiatus that will last until January, when it will return with a different cast including Violeta Urmana and Marco Berti. The production is static, dull and badly in need of something to bring it to life. Unfortunately, this cast, though filled with celebrities, is not the one to do it. Deborah Voigt finally stopped avoiding me and showed up to a performance of something she was scheduled to appear in that I had a ticket for. But this is not her strong suit and I thought she could be rather shrill at times, although she did have the benefit of easily being heard above the orchestra. She can act, though, and her murder of Scarpia was probably the highlight of the evening. James Morris sang Scarpia and was stiff as a board. More regal than menacing, his worst was a lecherous kiss on Tosca’s bare shoulder. My favorite was Vladimir Galouzine’s Cavaradossi. He does not have an Italian sound, but he was in it to win it even with a not-so-convincing wig.

But probably the worst things about the evening were the moments the production descends into self-parody. The Sacristan’s nearly slapstick mop and bucket routine in Act I is not only unfunny, but makes the rest of the show look dated. It’s ironic that with all the bitching and moaning over the new Luc Bondy Tosca at the Met this fall, that Chicago opens up their season with the same opera with a star-filled cast in a traditional production by the same director whose old production was displaced in New York, yet nobody seems to say a word about it. It makes you wonder who got the better bargain: the Met with a production that audiences and critics dislike and everyone is talking about; or Chicago with the alternative that apparently makes some people happy yet met with comparably little buzz or excitement. So wat'cha want? In any event, go see the Faust. You probably need to see more French opera anyway.

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The Bearable Lightness of Being

October 10, 2009

 
Unsuk Chin, Gustavo Dudamel and Wu Wei with the LA Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2009

After the well-dressed melée of Thursday’s Los Angeles Philharmonic gala season opener, Friday’s first regular concert of the season felt far less agitated and pressured. Which was a good thing. With the excitement level down a couple of notches, new music director Gustavo Dudamel relaxed a little in the performance of Mahler’s First Symphony, which he and the orchestra are reprising throughout the weekend. While still lacking a sense of maturity and cohesiveness, the performance was less arduous to listen to. The playing could still be a little too scrappy at times, but it was far more palatable.

Frankly, though, the Mahler was secondary in more than just a programming sense considering the evening also featured the American premiere of a Los Angeles Philharmonic co-commission from Unsuk Chin, entitled Su (pronounced shu). It’s a concerto in one movement for orchestra and sheng, a Chinese mouth organ, played here by a modern master of the instrument, Wu Wei. This was one of those quintessential moments for the Los Angeles Philhamonic – a premiere from a major contemporary composer of Korean descent featuring the skills and musical traditions of China joined by the most European of musical institutions, the symphony. Add to this the Venezuelan-born conductor at the head of the orchestra and you pretty much have the definition of multicultural.

It was a very exciting piece that dealt with space and sound produced over a distance. Su refers to an Egyptian symbol denoting air and the piece can be fragile in many ways. The initially continuous rumble of the sheng is met by similar sustained tones in the orchestra both on stage and in a smaller ensemble placed in the rear terrace of the hall. Over the twenty some minutes this pattern is repeatedly broken down and reconstituted amidst percussive elements. Wu Wei became a flurry at times producing sounds as equally percussive as anything from the rear of the stage. It was fascinating to watch and one of those eerily beautiful things. However, Chin, who has not traditionally highlighted non-Western musical elements in her compositions as compared to someone like Tan Dun or Osvaldo Golijov, strictly avoids making the piece an “exotic” showcase of the musical Other. The sheng is the centerpiece of the work, but not in a way that marginalizes it. Instead Chin treats it as a contemporary equal in the dialog of sounds.

Su was the best thing the Philharmonic has played in the last two weeks of Dudamel-led concerts, but I'm not sure how much its success belonged to Chin and Wu Wei over any involvement from the conductor. I did have some underlying unease about the performance in that I often felt that the orchestra, who is the best in the world at working with contemporary music, was often doing the heavy lifting in the conductor/orchestra dynamic here. Dudamel seemed to dutifully follow along as if the L.A. Philharmonic had whipped up this dish for his plate on this opening weekend, which he ate because it was expected of him. He certainly didn't meet the task with the enthusiasm he brought to the Mahler. Which is certainly his right. But I can’t help to wonder what things may come. The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s international reputation so assiduously developed over the last two decades has been based in large part on their unparalleled stance as the leading performance organization of 20th-century and contemporary music. Outlets like The Gramophone don’t lavish praise on our local band for their touring performances of Mahler, Strauss, and Beethoven.

And who knows? That may change. While I think it’s completely reasonable for the focus of the orchestra's programming to change under new leadership, it would seem that losing their strong-suit may not best serve the orchestra overall. If the L.A. Philharmonic intends to maintain a focus on and reputation for contemporary music, it's going to need a stronger advocate for the work than Dudamel appears to be at this point. He is picking up on it, though, by bringing aboard John Adams in a new advisory role. The big question mark is how much of what's working very well do you have to lose to grow in other areas. We're about to find out.

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Here We Go. Again.

October 09, 2009

 
Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic at the end of the 2009 Opening Night Gala
Photo: mine 2009

At last, the highly anticipated night was here. Gustavo Dudamel made his debut as Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the Walt Disney Concert Hall on Thursday after months of ridiculous and escalating hype. The press has been so out of control that it led a friend of mine to develop concerns that Dudamel has been horribly constipated considering his bowel movements have been the only facts about him not breathlessly covered in the pages of the Los Angeles Times since his arrival in town a mere eight days ago. But he was clearly in good enough shape to lead the Gala concert as throngs of the tuxedoed and well-heeled including the likes of the Mayor and, if my eyes didn’t deceive me, William Shatner arriving champagne in hand. The inaugural concert program was filled with well-wishes from big money donors and the governator. Even the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors included a resolution they had painstakingly cut-and-pasted from the L.A. Philharmonic’s own press materials, which were also cleverly reproduced word-for-word elsewhere in the program, welcoming the 28-year-old as “one of the most exciting and compelling conductors of our time.” Rolex sponsored the evening, which included posters around the hall of a recent ad with the new maestro air-brushed into a younger, tanner Harry Connick, Jr.


But it was finally time to get down to actually making some music with the world-class orchestra now under Dudamel’s charge, and the young maestro arrived on stage clearly a little nervous from my vantage point, diving right into the world premiere of John Adams’ new commission for the Philharmonic, City Noir, without hardly a pause. It was a rather anti-climactic start, but on the bright side, for those still wondering whether or not Adams could write movie music if he wanted, you finally have you’re affirmative answer. City Noir is the third in a series of orchestral works Adams describes as being based on various periods in California’s history. As the name suggests, Adams took his inspiration from post-WWII Los Angeles and the film noir aura associated with the period. The work also references the American tradition of Jazz-influenced orchestral writing and, while the composer notes he didn’t intend to reference any specific film scores of the period, City Noir ends up sounding like what you’d expect from a classic film noir more than any of Adams’ other recent work. It’s not poorly done. But it’s kind of appalling that in 2009 in a big new commission for the orchestra’s new music director Adams’ can’t come up with anything more to say musically about Los Angeles than what you’d get from watching Chinatown. Is this really all there is to say about L.A. right now?

Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic at the 2009 Opening Night Gala
Photo: mine 2009

Dudamel and the orchestra seemed terribly uncertain and under-rehearsed throughout the Adams’ piece. (I guess eight days isn't quite enough to rehearse two major symphonies and two world premieres. Who knew?) And possible reasons why became clearer once he had started the other work on the evening’s program, Mahler’s First Symphony. Clearly Dudamel and the players had spent a lot of time over the last eight days not devoted to press conferences and photo shoots working very hard on the Mahler. And by that I mean it sounded immensely laborious. Dudamel went out of his way to milk every moment and sound out of the symphony draining it of any sense of whimsy or effortlessness. He can produced exciting crescendos, but he’s going to bust your ass through every moment to get there. This isn’t really a surprise in that Dudamel has already proven his penchant for histrionic, overwrought Mahler here in the past, and the Gala was no different. More bruising than exciting, this was Mahler for those who don’t like much subtlety interfering with their music. But maybe I'm wrong. The performance was videotaped so watch it yourself when the Gala airs on PBS October 21st and judge for yourself.

The evening concluded with a big standing ovation and quite a bit of large silver and purple confetti raining down on the audience. It was not a spectacular concert by any measure. But Dudamel is young and any relationship between a great orchestra and a conductor is going to take time to develop. It was true of Salonen, and such is likely the case with his predecessor. For now, the aisles have been swept and the leftover champagne has been boxed up. Hopefully some of the unnecessary focus on L.A.’s new maestro will cool off and maybe he’ll get the chance to actually develop into what the LA Philharmonic’s own press materials claim that he already is. And that will only take place over many evenings where Dudamel and the orchestra get to do what they do best - just make music.

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You Don't Have To Be Rich...

October 06, 2009

 
T.R. Knight and Lara Pulver in Parade
Photo: Craing Schwartz/CTG 2009

The first thing you should know about the musical Parade, which opened over the weekend at the Mark Taper Forum, is that it is not a stage version of Under the Cherry Moon. I know. I, too, was disappointed to discover that the musical theater world is still not ready for Prince, and Kristin Scott Thomas won’t be reprising her star role anywhere anytime soon. No, this Parade is Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown’s Tony-winning 1999 musical about the Leo Frank trial that played out in Atlanta in the early 20th century. Frank was a Jewish man who’d moved from his native Brooklyn around 1913 to manage a pencil factory in Atlanta. In that fateful year, on Confederate Memorial Day no less, a thirteen year-old employee of the factory, Mary Phagan was murdered and later found on the factory’s premises. Frank was framed for the crime and convicted on spurious circumstantial evidence. He was given the death penalty, but later had his sentence commuted after a national outcry from business leaders as well as prominent national figures, many of them Jewish, from the North and the East. Despite this, Frank was later abducted from prison and lynched.

Granted this is not your typical musical fare unless you’re Sondheim. And while Brown and Uhry aren’t, they are more than capable of coming up with a lyrically engaging and thoughtful piece. The sparse, dark, and dreary staging at the Taper probably won’t convince you of this, but it is true. In fact, this Parade paints such a dreary beige picture that it’s almost unfair. Between this and the Real Housewives, it’s amazing that anyone would ever want to visit Atlanta again. True, this is a period piece so the absence of neon lighting is no surprise. But I could have used more than the few spotlights that were the primary source of light throughout the whole show. It’s so dull looking that at times you might catch yourself praying for a ladder or a chair to break the monotony.

The star of the show is TV’s T.R. Knight and he has a confidence and believability about him even if he doesn’t have the upper vocal range to really bring home any of the numbers in the show. Of course, he’s still better than about half the cast. This was vocally one of the strangest cast shows I’ve seen in a while. A number of folks had serious pitch problems. Luckily the balance between the miked singers and the orchestra was so poor, that you typically couldn’t hear them against the other vocal artists. There are exceptions to this rule. Lara Pulver, who plays Leo's wife Lucille becomes the center of the show as it moves along and, given the strength of her vocal powers, does rescue the evening from getting too cartoonish, which it does risk doing at more than a couple of moments. Still, it can be seen as an antidote to the big-budget Broadway movie/rock star/child's toy-inspired fare. It's just a bit on the meager side. Parade runs through the 15th of November at the Mark Taper Forum.

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Heroes. Just For One Day.

October 05, 2009

 
John Treleaven and Linda Watson in LA Opera's Siegfried
Photo: Monika Rittershaus/LA Opera 2009

It was a evening of heroes at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion last night. And not just because the opera on offer was Siegfried. John Treleaven, the tenor entrusted with the Herculean task of bringing Wagner’s nature boy to life got to prove his own personal mettle onstage as well. In an incident reminiscent of Joyce DiDonato’s own foot fracture at the Royal Opera House this summer, Treleaven's foot got caught somewhere along the line on the highly raked stage used in Achim Freyer’s Ring cycle production causing him to trip during Act III. While the stumble looked somewhat small to the audience, Treleaven was clearly hurt as he continued to limp throughout the final hour of the performance before being assisted off stage at the end by Linda Watson, the evening's Brünnhilde. His final bows were restricted to one of the set's few small horizontal platforms and, I imagine, he was in a fair bit of pain from the looks of things. While I have no idea of his status beyond that, I certainly hope he didn’t suffer the kind of fracture DiDonato did earlier this year and I wish him a speedy recovery. However, like DiDonato, Treleaven did exhibit the same kind of artistic commitment and sacrifice, never missing a beat and bravely carrying on with an hour of daunting singing at the end of an already lengthy performance in what must be extremely challenging conditions. Ironically, even with the injury, Treleaven seemed to bloom vocally in the final moments of Act III apparently coming to new life in the face of adversity. While he may have been somewhat underpowered earlier in the afternoon, there was no doubt that this Act III Siegfried was one caught up in the sweep of love and fear. While I would never wish that kind of accident or injury on any performer, I must admit that seeing someone persevere in this kind of situation does make for some exciting opera.

Of course, as I mentioned in my preview last week, this is a Siegfried production packed with lots of thrills. It’s gorgeous, insightful, and thought provoking. I don't necessarily have a lot more to add to my comments about the dress rehearsal except to say that the rough edges of that evening have clearly been worked out as one would expect. Best of all, three operas into Freyer’s version of the Ring, everything is beginning to come together. The visual logic of the piece has begun to take over and I’ve noticed that friends who’ve been critical of the first two installments of this Ring from earlier this year have discovered a new found pleasure from Freyer’s own system of symbols and images. The cast is really quite good with a superb Mime in Graham Clark and Vitalij Kowaljow' Wotan. Linda Watson was both passionate and regal, which works well in this particular staging.

What's clear at this point is that Los Angeles Opera has a one-of-a-kind Ring cycle on its hands. It's darkly beautiful and unlike anything you've seen before. It's a testament to Freyer's artistry that he's come up with a Ring that rejects much of what is thought to be necessary in a contemporary context to put on Wagner's masterpiece. He turns our desire for the familiarity of predictable places and character relationships on its head while creating something that is funny and moving in many ways. We're so lucky to have this Ring and I can't recommend it highly enough. In fact, as L.A. Opera begins to look beyond the Ring cycle, maybe its time to revisit some of the other works Freyer has provided for the company like Berlioz' La Damnation de Faust or better yet, his staged version of Bach's Mass in B Minor. Just a thought.

UPDATE at 4:15 PST: Sources at L.A. Opera tell me that Treleaven received treatment backstage after yesterday's performance and is on the mend. Word is he'll be back at the next performance on Wednesday 10/7. There are two more performances after that as well on the 11th and 17th. It's great to hear he wasn't more injured and that he'll be back this week.

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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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In the Wings - October 09

October 02, 2009

 
Composer Unsuk Chin will have a U.S. Premiere with the L.A. Philharmonic

October’s performing arts calendar is packed full with all kinds of interesting tidbits. But before we get started I should note two shows that opened in September, which are still running and should be high on your priority list if you haven’t seen them yet. The first is Los Angeles Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Siegfried, everything an opera should be. Which is a miracle considering that it’s Siegfried, but there you have it. The other highly recommended hold-over is Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County, which will continue at the Ahmanson Theater downtown through the 18th. It’s a great play with deep levels below its broad humor. Brush up on your T.S. Eliot and go see it.

But if you are ready to move on, then do so with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which will open its season with its new music director Gustavo Dudamel at Walt Disney concert Hall on the 8th when he will lead Mahler’s First Symphony and the World Premiere of John Adams City Noir. The show will be simulcast outdoors at the Music Center Downtown for free with a ticket and can be heard live on KUSC. For those of you who can’t get over not sitting outdoors to hear Beethoven’s 9th Symphony on Saturday the 3rd, you’ll also be able to hear the Hollywood Bowl PR festival with Dudamel and the orchestra on the radio as well. Not on the radio, but perhaps far more interesting will be the Dudamel-led shows on the 9th and 10th when he will again lead the Mahler, but this time paired with a new commission from Unsuk Chin for orchestra and sheng entitled Su. Don’t get too excited, though, because that’s about all you’re going to hear from Dudamel for now as our very fine orchestra gets right back to doing what they do best with visiting conductors including Andrey Boreyko the weekend of the 23rd and Christoph Eschenbach leading Christian Tetzlaff in Szymanowski’s 1st Violin Concerto the 29th through the end of the month. And while you're at it, don't forget the WDCH's other resident world class ensemble, the Los Angeles Master Chorale, which will kick their year off with choruses for John Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer and Mozrt's Requiem on Sunday the 18th.

From Cloud Eye Control's Under Polaris

On the theater side of things, L.A.'s Center Theater Group will continued to offer the recently opened productions of Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry's musical Parade at the Mark Taper Forum and Danai Gurira's Eclipsed at the Kirk Douglas Theater. Meanwhile, UCLA Live's International Theater Festival will continue with a visit from Italy's Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio with the U.S. Premiere of Purgatorio, which runs from the 28th through the end of the month. Glendale's A Noise Within will be opening up production of both Richard III and a 90-minute stage version of Crime and Punishment. And, although it hasn't made it to my personal calendar just yet, the Fountain Theater is currently putting on Conor McPherson's Shining City, which is L.A.'s first chance to see this play if you haven't before. If you're looking for more experimental fair, REDCAT downtown has two substantial offerings. This coming weekend on the 1st through the 3rd is the Belarus Free Theater presenting Discover Love to be followed on the 14th with a return engagement from Cloud Eye Control with Under Polaris for four performances.

On the opera front, I'll be out of town for Lyric Opera of Chicago's season openers, Tosca and Faust on the 10th and San Francisco Opera's next two offerings, Donizetti's La Fille du Regiment and Salome on the 24th. Interesting casting abounds in all of these productions, which might be worth seeing if you're in the area. Outside of Siegfried, L.A. Opera's other big October event is a recital from Thomas Hampson on the 3rd. There's plenty more around town to take in from Bob Dylan at the Palladium to a visit from Hofesh Shecter Company at UCLA. But don't take my word for it, get out and check them out for yourself.

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Wrong. A Left Coast Perspective.

October 01, 2009

 
John Treleaven in LA Opera's Siegfried
Photo: Monika Rittershaus/LA Opera 2009

Is Anthony Tommasini the most ridiculously out of touch writer working for a major media outlet today? I’ve often felt the New York Times critic has gotten a bad wrap on the internets and such, especially from the kind of opera goers that populate the comment sections of Parterre Box. But when you read the kind of garbage he's got in this week’s NY Times on the ups and downs of updating opera productions (“Updating Opera? Halfway Won’t Do”), I begin to have second thoughts about my deference to well-trained professional journalists and their academic backgrounds.

Tommasini’s argument basically runs along the lines that if one is going to rework an opera for a new production, it’s best to go whole hog with a thought out, fully realized concept as opposed to taking half-measures resulting in a work that often pleases no one. It’s a fair point that Tommasini supports with some of the most wrong-headed arguments you’ll find. I won’t get in to his ridiculousness about Luc Bondy’s Tosca, which is the major target of the piece. However, Tommasini returns for another swipe in print at Achim Freyer’s staging of Wagner’s Ring now being rolled out at Los Angeles Opera. On a positive note, he does cite Freyer’s work for LA Opera as an example of a company’s complete commitment to an idea that is “unabashedly avant-garde.”

Of course, he can’t let it go at that without taking further jabs at a production he apparently hasn’t quite wrapped his brain around yet. He refers to it as a “sci-fi Ring” noting that the characters wield “neon spears that look like Jedi light sabers.” Nothing could be further removed from the truth in a production that has more of a rough-hewn primitive look than anything futuristic or high-tech. Freyer maintains a cheap and intentionally artificial visual sense throughout often in the service of laughs. This is Tommasini's third mention of the presumed likeness between neon lights and light sabers in the NY Times, but it tells us more about Tommasini’s own misconceptions about Los Angeles and it’s No. 1 industry than it does about Freyer’s Ring production. I suppose that all neon lights do look like light sabers except for the fact that Freyer’s lights have no hilts, are frequently handled in the center as opposed to their ends, and are used for many other elements in the staging besides just spears and swords. It is also true that L.A. Opera originally approached George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic during initial plans to produce a Ring cycle years ago. But none of this has anything to do with Freyer’s Ring. Yes, movies are made in Los Angeles. But, believe it or not, that does not mean that everything associated with Los Angeles intentionally references film. It's not that the similarity doesn't exist. But calling Freyer's production a "sci-fi Ring" is perhaps the least informative and insightful observation one could make about it.

But that's not all. Tommasini then continues to rehash his main criticism of LA Opera's Die Walküre from earlier this year in that it doesn’t deal with the “human dimensions of the characters.” Considering that Act III of Freyer’s Ring packs more emotional impact with its bizarre stage-length outstretched arms and primitive costume changes than anything that’s appeared in the same opera on a New York stage for decades seems to be lost on him. Why must humanism permeate everything that's worthwhile? Tommasini continues, “Wagner meant for us to see ourselves in this story of a tormented, overreaching god and his dysfunctional family.” So there you have it, folks. When all else fails, you can always fall back on the fallacy of authorial intent to justify your argument. Who cares what Wagner intended? Freyer's staging is enthralling precisely because it isn't always what you would expect and doesn't always demand that we see ourselves in every last thing. So remind me again, why again are we so worried about the demise of arts criticism in the print media?

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