Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Back On Our Feet Again

November 29, 2009

 
Juan Diego Florez, Nathan Gunn, and Joyce DiDoanto
Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2009

All things considered, it’s amazing what a great season Los Angeles Opera is having. Money is tight, and the company has not been immune to the problems faced by other arts organizations. And yet, on Sunday, the company opened its fourth excellent production in as many months. Say what you will, but L.A. Opera has certainly maintained the quality of their productions in an adverse environment and even continued to take some artistic risks. Their latest should-be hit is Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia, an opera not mounted here in some years. And while it is certainly a people-pleasing comedy, the attributes of the show make it much more than simply family-friendly holiday fare.

The biggest draw is an international-level all-star cast that does not disappoint in either the vocal or acting department. Joyce DiDonato sings Rosina with all the beauty and ease she did in London (and New York) earlier this year without breaking anything this time around. She may well be the most important Rosina since Teresa Berganza and she is reason enough to see the show. But you also get Juan Diego Florez whose light, but agile tenor seems custom made for Rossini’s Count. Together, Florez and DiDonato have performed together in these parts so many times in so many places their chemistry and comic timing are marvelous. No couple of singers have created this much onstage excitement here since the Anna Netrebko/Rolando Villazon collaborations a few years back. The rest of the cast is equally strong. Nathan Gunn delivers a suave Figaro who outfoxes Bruno Pratico’s very funny Doctor Bartolo at every turn. The extremely robust Andrea Silvestrelli sings Don Basilio with energy and magnetism. Even Kerri Marcinko’s Bertha nearly steals the show without barely singing a note.

Juan Diego Florez, Nathan Gunn, and Joyce DiDoanto with cast
Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2009

Not everything is perfect. though, and Emilio Sagi’s whimsical and exceedingly busy production imported from Madrid often comes dangerously close to upstaging the actors in a not so good way. The production is often outright funny, which is an important thing for a comedy. But virtually every scene is filled with so much business and side-line activity from the chorus and a large corps of dancers that things can get distracting. What’s more strange is that the activity often seems to be taking place at the most inappropriate times. While segments like the Act I finale that cry out for a lot of physical action are surprisingly static and dull, other moments including most of the major arias are filled with so much for the vocalists to do that it becomes difficult to follow. Sagi is also very wedded to this heavy-handed black-and-white/color schematic that’s a bit precious. The opera opens with a corps of Rossini look-a-likes assembling the components of the entirely black and white set. Later as hilarity ensues, the struggle between this world and Rosina’s more vibrant and eventually hot pink one becomes more evident. There are numerous charming bits here, but there are just as many that don’t work.

The conductor was Michele Mariotti in his L.A. debut and while the tempos seemed reasonable with everyone staying up to speed, the playing often seemed a little sloppy and lifeless. This should improve throughout the run, however, and thankfully there are nine more performances between now and December 19. Three of these will feature a second cast with a number of very good up and coming singers including Sarah Coburn and Ryan McKinny (who are currently appearing in Tamerlano with Placido Domingo), and Lucas Meachem. So despite its imperfections, this is a Barbiere to savor with a class of singers you will not get to see everyday so here’s your chance L.A.

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A City of Two Tales

November 28, 2009

 
Dudamel hugs Marino Formenti under the watchful eye of the Los Angeles Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2009

This weekend brings one of those programs that the Los Angeles Philharmonic has built its reputation on over the last decade. And while it was a close approximation of the glory of the not too distant past, it paled in comparison to what many of us had come to love about our hometown orchestra. The program consisted of three works all composed within the last thirty years, two by living composers and all three written in California. The occasion was the Philharmonic’s “West Coast, Left Coast” festival which examines the influence of California on classical music and is curated by composer, and LA Philharmonic “creative chair," John Adams. And while it's debatable whether the planned programs over the next three weeks will come anywhere close to doing what it aspires to, it is a great excuse to program some wonderful if not commonly performed works.

The highlight of the evening was the Lou Harrison piano concerto, which incorporates alternate tuning methods for the piano into its performance. It can be both jarring and quite lovely as it careens through four movements sometimes with intricate finesse and at others with forearms and palms slapping against the piano keys. The soloist was the superb Marino Formenti who has become a favorite with L.A. audiences for his particular mastery of difficult contemporary fare. His performances of Messiaen here were one of the highlights of last year and he was equally good on this occasion. Surrounding the Harrison piece were two competing attractions both concerning Los Angeles. The more substantial of the two was Esa-Pekka Salonen’s LA Variations and the lesser was the recent commission from John Adams, City Noir which first appeared at the gala season opener for the L.A. Philharmonic this fall. When I first heard the Adams work I wasn’t terribly impressed and little has changed. It is still very reminiscent of mid-Century Hollywood kitsch. Worst of all, it views L.A. in some quaint notion of the past complete with lonely trumpets and jazzy saxophones. Salonen’s work, while not explicitly about the city itself, makes reference to a much more complicated and changing landscape.

But both works were mostly burdened with the anti-Rumpelstiltskin touch of Gustavo Dud-amel busily spinning gold into straw. Given the many, many performances Salonen himself led of LA Variations, arguably one of his most regarded pieces to date, it would be unrealistic to think that Dudamel could deliver than kind of performance. And he didn’t. He did give his patented one size fits all approach of big, loud climaxes and overly slow quiet movements, and the whole thing sounded sloppy with little control or insight. The rest of the program fared little better under Dudamel’s glancing blow to the festival which begins and ends this weekend. In fact even worse than his marginal conducting in a program like this was his total lack of advocacy for the idea of the program overall. Luckily this was a crowd already sold on much of this music so there wasn't a lot of selling to do. However, I continue to worry about the future of more contemporary music in the L.A. Philharmonic's programming. It's on the schedule for now and involving John Adams is not a bad idea.

But so far there is little evidence that our music director has any interest or aptitude for newer music. What contemporary composers does Dudamel favor, for instance? Where does he see the art form going? How does the musical past relate to what he's conducting now? If he has any ideas on these and other topics, he sure hasn't let on much about it yet. In fairness, he has only just started the job, and he is leading one of the "Green Umbrella" new music programs in May, so perhaps he'll have more to say on such subjects by then. So far he's been willing to conduct the new commissions that the L.A. Philharmonic's programming folks have laid out for him like a good soldier, but he appears to be much more about the long dead than the living. The good news is that the audience is about to get time off for good behavior in that we'll be free of Dudamel and his "ideas" until April of next year. Enjoy the silence.

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Star Vehicle

November 27, 2009

 
Placido Domingo, Bejun Mehta, and Sarah Coburn
Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2009

After being out of town last weekend and somewhat ill earlier in the week, I finally did get around to seeing L.A. Opera’s imported production of Handel’s Tamerlano. It’s being staged here, as it has pretty much all over the world, largely to feature the formidable talent of its star Placido Domingo. “Formidable talent” may be an understatement considering the accuracy of the moniker bestowed to him on the back cover of his latest DVD, Placido Domingo, My Greatest Roles, which proclaims him to be “the most important person alive in opera.” And so it is that both of the U.S. companies for which Domingo acts as General Director, Los Angeles and Washington National, have benefited from Domingo’s performance of the role of Bajazet, the humiliated king whose daughter is the center of a heated love triangle in Tamerlano. He not going down in any history book as a remarkable singer of Handel, but it is true that his performances continue to be of remarkable quality. His ability to command the stage with his singing and acting are largely unparalleled and its still something to watch younger singers, still in their vocal prime struggle to hold a candle to his presence.

And there are plenty of those here. Much of the Washington cast was brought to L.A. including Sarah Coburn as Bajazet’s daughter Asteria, and Patricia Bardon as Andronico, here paramour and assistant to Tamerlano. Bardon is still wonderful and still underrated in this country. The biggest substitution in the cast was Bejun Mehta for David Daniels in the title role. In some ways, Mehta is preferable. He has an agile and somewhat more flexible approach as a countertenor and projected the required menace with ease and no campiness. The smaller parts went to Ryan McKinney as Leone and Jennifer Holloway as Irene. I was sad that I didn’t get to hear more of either of these young stars here. McKinny has sung with the L.A. Philharmonic on past occasions and I’ve always rather liked him, but this brief single aria in Tamerlano suggested he’s got much more star-quality than he’s been given opportunity for.

Otherwise, the production didn’t strike me as much more involving than it had when I saw it in 2008. It’s still modern dress with a good visual sense. But it is still filled with silly gestures and stage business that make it more laughable than emotionally connecting. Still, there’s enough going on to recommend it and there are two more performances before it closes shop on December 1.

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The Culture War at Home

November 25, 2009

 
Act II of Turandot
Photo: Met Opera 2009

I failed to mention that while I was in New York last weekend I did see the revival of Zeffirelli’s Turandot production starring Maria Guleghina and Franck Porretta. I wasn’t going to say much about it, but since I’m sparing the other audience members at tonight’s Berlin Philharmonic concert in Los Angeles from having to listen to my cough, I thought I might mention a few things. As for the show itself, what can you say at this point? It’s beyond camp. And the funniest bits are in the small gestures like Guleghina’s karate chop “Off with his head” maneuver. But my personal favorite is in Act III when Ping threatens to give Liu a big fat knuckle sandwich in order to get her to reveal Calaf’s name. Nothing forbears impending grizzly torture like a sternly shaken fist. Guleghina still seems a better idea of a vocalist than an actual one to my ear. Porretta seemed to be laying back vocally throughout the whole evening until he suddenly went all commando on us in “Nessun Dorma”. You certainly couldn’t fault him for playing his chips when they mattered most. A little less ham in the acting department would have been helpful; though, as I mentioned, he hardly stood out considering how over-the-top giggle-inducing everything else was. The orchestra sounded great and I was rather fond of Andris Nelsons’ conducting overall.

But perhaps the most interesting part of that Saturday afternoon was not the matinee performance, but the 2 and a half hour backstage tour I got of the Met beforehand. I’m by no means an insider to the artistic operation of any company much less the Met, and I was excited to get a look around the business end of the big house. Our guide, a 20 plus year veteran of the company took us to many of the usual sights - star dressing rooms, costume department, set shop, etc. It was a whirlwind of activity this particular Saturday with the upcoming first dress rehearsal of the new Les Contes d’Hoffman production the following Monday as well as several other shows currently running or about to kick off. I wasn’t aware of just how far in advance the company works on projects still in the planning stage, and was surprised to see numerous set elements for the next season's production of Adams’ Nixon in China that were assembled and waiting for an upcoming technical rehearsal.

The tour really got interesting, though, when our guide ran into a 40 plus year company colleague of the technical stagehand variety. We got to walk out onto the legendary stage in front of the mammoth Turandot set that was being assembled at the time for a look at the house. There were questions from the small group about the general ins and outs of running such a large operation. Everyone was nice and very forthcoming as we discussed the aspects of putting Zeffirelli's Turandot together and taking it apart so many times in a single week. And then the topic turned as it always does to trouble and strife. Namely the stress created by the many changes implemented since general director Peter Gelb has come to town including ever so subtle pressure to move the company into the post-WWII era artistically. The stagehand and tour guide began to lament certain changes and before you know it the word "Eurotrash" starts to get thrown around. The complaints could be broken down into two categories. The first concerned the realistic changes faced by a workforce accustomed to a handful of new productions a year to one that now sees 7 or 8. With the company always working on something new and unfamiliar, so they noted, it becomes hard to catch one's breath. Less and less is familiar and everyday is about solving new and unexpected problems.

The second line of concern seemed to focus on (what else) messing with the tried and true. "You don't mess with the Ring. You don't mess with Bohème. You don't mess with Turandot" was the refrain amongst the guides and the denture wearers in the group. "That's what New York City Opera is for" quickly followed. However, the house staff seemed sure that all favorites would soon be on the chopping block, "if Gelb is still here in a few years." The tsk-tsking continued for several more minutes, but the tone was clear. It should come as no surprise that the changes which have been so difficult for some segments of the audience to accept have been just as difficult for some of the staff to accept as well. Which I can understand. Change is hard in any organization. But change, more often than not, is also a necessary fact of life.

Now I'm from the Midwest and come from a line of people who sincerely believe that it's uncouth to get in an argument with someone when you're a guest in their home. So at the time, I kept my mouth shut and nodded politely. However, as an audience member, and a donor, I continue to think that this particular opera company is on exactly the right track artistically and hopefully financially as well. There is nothing more boring than seeing opera as a museum piece. The Metropolitan Opera, like any arts or other organization, can't just keep doing the same things over and over and expect to remain relevant or financially viable. Playing to the lowest common denominator of audiences and donors is only going to get you so far in the long run. And while the thought of staff no longer having the opportunity to lovingly restore an ersatz Chinese pagoda may bring a tear to some eyes, it fills me with joy. The same day as this tour and performance of Turandot I also got to see From the House of the Dead. And there is no doubt in my mind which one I'd rather spend money on to see again. So, if in fact a war of sorts is on in America's biggest opera house—whether or not I'm supporting the winning side in the end—I think Peter Gelb is fighting the good fight.

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Let's Make a Pact

November 24, 2009

 
Boaz Daniel, Sondra Radvanovsky, and Salvatore Licitra in Ernani
Photo: Dan Rest/LOC 2009

I couldn’t resist hanging out in Chicago for one more day to catch Lyric Opera’s production of Ernani, which concluded its run on Monday. My main interest in this was Sondra Radvanovsky’s Elvira, whom I saw a couple of years ago at the Metropolitan Opera and had lost none of her luster since that prior outing. She’s still dynamite and undoubtedly one of the leading Verdi sopranos around today. Sadly she ended up having to pretty much carry the show on her own and while she may be a wonderful artist, Ernani is too much of a burden for any one artist to carry on his or her shoulders.

You see, there is the matter of the tenor, bass, and baritone. And not only do they have to sing well, they’ve got to deal with Piave’s crazy libretto. The tenor Ernani, in this case Salvatore Licitra, promises to kill himself on the command of his enemy, Silva, in recognition for having saved Ernani's life from the king's wrath. Licitra still sounds vocally unstable to me. He hits the notes more often than not but it would help if he had some mutual understanding of tempo with the conductor or the rest of the cast. Meanwhile, the bass Silva, sung here by Giacomo Prestia, is the kind of guy who so blindly enforces rules that he ends up promising even to protect his enemy, Ernani, when he arrives disguised as an unknown pilgrim at Silva's estate. Just come on in and make yourself at home, no questions asked. Prestia was competent if not entirely exciting here. Finally there is the baritone king himself, who alternately condemns everyone to death and then pardons them all on a couple of different occasions usually for political reasons he keeps forgetting about. Sadly, this was the most problematic performance, which came from Boaz Daniel, whose King Carlo was all over the place vocally and otherwise.

Probably the biggest disappointment, though, was the new production Lyric Opera had put together under the direction of Jose Maria Condemi. Blandly period without being richly detailed, the show was little more than a series of empty rooms with highly decorated walls and floors. In fact there was so little distinction between those walls and floors you couldn't be blamed for mistaking them as more or less the same room again and again. There was lots of standing, lots of delivering and then they called it a day. It’s bad news when you start thinking "Where's the Grand Inquisitor when you need him?" It was a somewhat underpopulated audience given that it was the Monday before Thanksgiving. However, I did sit across the aisle from San Francisco Opera’s General manager David Gockley. And while I have no idea what business brought him to San Francisco, I certainly hope Monday’s performance didn’t give him any ideas. If he was scouting productions or singers, let’s hope he saw what I did, or San Francisco is in for some more rough opera days ahead.

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Big River

November 23, 2009

 
Karita Mattila and cast in Katya Kabanova
Photo: Dan Rest/LOC 2009

After a quick 36 hours in New York it was onward to Chicago for the other half of my Janacek opera weekend. The Lyric Opera of Chicago opened up a production of Katya Kabanova, which I saw on Sunday (at their invitation). And while it may not be a first for the company, cast members, or this particular production like the Met’s From the House of the Dead, it’s pretty fantastic on its own terms. The primary reason for this is the phenomenal Karita Mattila who appears in the title role. Mattila has become the most significant performer of Janacek’s operas since Elisabeth Söderström, and seeing her should be a high priority. Given Söderström's recent passing, it makes this performance even more poignant considering that it's pretty clear that due to her work with Mackerras on a number of seminal recordings, Janacek's operas have pretty much arrived at the international repertory by now. Mattila is well suited to the frustrated Katya, trapped in a claustrophobic family home and pushed beyond the brink in the wake of her affair with the young and handsome Boris. Mattila is a performer who never leaves a question in anyone’s mind about the level of her immersion in a role. The clarity and intensity of her voice throughout this opera is just one example of what great singing is all about.

To make matters even better, Mattila is paired with the young and alluring Brandon Jovanovich. As Boris, he cuts a physically and vocally exciting figure of the young man Katya has fallen in love with. The rest of the cast is convincing. Judith Forst plays the evil step-mother Kabanicha. It’s a tough role that easily becomes cartoonish, which she was not entirely successful at avoiding here. Of course, Jonathan Miller’s rather plain-jane 1991 production imported from the Metropolitan Opera doesn’t leave the cast many places to turn on the large , empty stage. Why they dry-docked an opera soaking in the waters of the Volga with little more than a slit at the rear of the stage in Act III is somewhat bewildering. Katya Kabanova contains frequent musical and spoken allusions to the power of the river but Miller's staging would have worked equally well as Oklahoma!. On the plus side, Miller's approach does invite you to see Kabanicha, who constantly berates Katya for her shortcomings as a wife, and the younger Varvara, who encourages Katya's affair with Boris, as two sides of Katya's own personality. It's not some metaphorical overlay, but the troika of these women are tightly bound in this most straight-forward of approaches.

The orchestra was led by Markus Stenz, the music director of the Cologne Opera, and no stranger to Janacek. It was a richly textured and lively performance from the orchestra. So even if you're not going to be in New York over the next couple of weeks, there is a great Janacek opera to be seen right here in Chicago, so don't let it pass you by. Katya Kabanova runs through December 12th.

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Come On-A My House

November 22, 2009

 
Kurt Streit and cast
Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2009

This trip out of town is really all about Leos Janacek. Or at least his operas, which are probably some of the most important of the 20th century. Of course, they were largely under recognized in Europe for decades outside of his native country until Sir Charles Mackerras, among others, began to advocate for them more seriously as early as the 1950s. Janacek’s works are still somewhat under appreciated in the U.S. The relatively few existing productions of the operas are shared between American houses on the occasions they do pop up in the schedule. So, when any house puts on a production of one of his operas, it's still an event of sorts. When that house is the Metropolitan Opera and it’s a work like From the House of the Dead, it is most definitely an event. Of course, what’s onstage now is not really a new production in that Patrice Chéreau’s poetic, theatrical staging has been seen in many other cities throughout Europe on its co-production course. It’s even available on DVD already making a high profile HD broadcast to theaters redundant. But the Met's Peter Gelb was wise enough to sign on as a co-producer of the show, which has arrived in New York where it is a bracing tonic in a house still plagued with more than a little kitsch rot still to be excised. (I’ll comment more on this and Saturday’s performance of Turandot later next week)

House of the Dead is about the tragedy of prison life. It can be bleak, though there is an undeniable thread of hope in it. It is an ensemble piece without big arias or set pieces. However, it is starkly beautiful with some of Janacek's most stirring music. Although Pierre Boulez conducted Chéreau's production throughout Europe, here at the Met, the job fell to Esa-Pekka Salonen. It nearly brought tears to my eyes hearing such a wonderful rich sound coming from this world-class orchestra under his guidance especially when you consider how much we have lost in Los Angeles with his resignation as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. People should be lining up around the block to hear this opera played regardless of anything going on onstage.

But that would certainly be missing half of an excellent evening. The major vocalists are impressive, including Kurt Streit and Willard White. Petter Matei delivers a rich and warm-toned extended passage in Act III that will sell you on his star quality if that hasn't happened already. I’m also especially fond of Stefan Margita who appeared as Luka. I’ve previously seen him steal whole operas as both Loge and Laca so his intense presence here was no surprise. He’s a superb actor who will hopefully be back on this and other American stages soon. The staging requires an immense amount of physical movement among the prisoners that never crosses over into dance, but is otherwise just about there. It was no surprise that some of the heartiest applause was reserved for the chorus and actors appearing as the prison inmates and guards considering the amount of action, some of it in various states of undress, that the staging calls for. Chéreau's staging makes no bones about the homerotic qualities os Janacek's opera, though it is admittedly not a primary focus.

The other highlight of the evening for me was seeing a kindred spirit on my exit from the theater. Composer Kaija Saariaho, who is no stranger to bleak operas about hope was in attendance on Saturday. She’s a good friend of Salonen’s and with the exciting leadership that Peter Gelb has brought to the Met, I couldn’t help but fantasize that she’d arrived in town to meet with him and Salonen to discuss a production of L’Amour de Loin or perhaps something new for the company. Probably not, but a boy can dream, can’t he? From the House of the Dead is superb and it runs now through the 5th of December.

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The Music of the Spheres

November 21, 2009

 
Dennis Russell Davies conducts the Bruckner Orchestra Linz with Martin Achrainer as Kepler
Photo: Jack Vartoogian / BAM 2009

Philip Glass, not unlike myself, is back in New York this week. He's been at BAM with the U.S premiere of his latest opera Kepler. You guessed it, we’re back in legendary intellectual territory, as far as subject matter goes. And as for the music, it’s quintessential Glass, which I suppose could be good or bad depending on how you feel about him. I’ve always rather liked Glass’ approach. It’s certainly preferable to Steve Reich’s as far as other “minimalist” composers go. (I can only take so much of the relentless happy-happy of Reich’s music before I need to run.) Glass does have a flair for the dramatic in his music, which may explain how he’s come to compose over thirty operas, though few of them strictly follow a traditional opera format.

Kepler is no exception to this trend. The work deals mainly with the tension between scientific and religious concepts. And while the issues at hand stem directly from the 17h-century, they are sadly resonant to too many people in this country today. There is a very small amount of biographical information here, but not enough to approach anything you might call a narrative. There is only one character, Kepler, played by a wonderful sounding baritone, Martin Achrainer, and six other unnamed soloists all of whom, like the chorus, originate from the Upper Austrian State Theater. For two hours they intone passages about orbits, stars, faith, and the horrors humankind brings upon itself. All of it was quite lovely and it could be stirring at times, but honestly, it was rather difficult to get much of a hold on any of it without a little more narrative meat.

Glass' advocate, Dennis Russell Davies, led the combined forces of the Bruckner Orchestra Linz in a performance that was surprisingly organic. Glass’ music can sound overly polished and machine like in some hands, but nothing could have been more human-sounding with these forces. Glass has experimented more with percussion elements in the Kepler score, which contributes to much of this feeling. It may not be his biggest or best opera, but Kepler has a lot of music worth hearing and hopefully will surface again in the U.S. in the not too distant future.

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Absolute Zero

November 20, 2009

 
Dudamel hugs Gil Shaham under the watchful eye of the Los Angeles Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2009

Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Dud-amel pulls out the Mozart. Yikes. This weekend’s show, which included Mozart’s Symphonies number 38 and 41, was probably the worst so far this season. It was certainly the most torturous. To put it in the simplest terms that’s about 75 minutes worth of music and with an intermission, the evening took 150 minutes. And that wasn’t due to an unusually delayed starting time or surprisingly lengthy ovations. It was old-fashioned go-slower-than-molasses pacing. It’s not that Dudamel has no ideas. It’s just the ones he has are typically bad. Both Mozart pieces strained from an effort to maximize their lyrical lines as if they had been composed in the 19th century. There was nothing light or fleet about either performance and the tempos were often so ponderously slow that one movement was nearly indistinguishable from the next. Apparently without the score our young maestro gets a little confused about when they are playing Mahler and when they are not. And while our local print media dinosaur would like to convince you that such conducting nonsense is an expression of adoration or a Viennese flair, the reality is that it's just unpleasant. What I wouldn’t give for just a little variety of approach right now over at the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Sandwiched between the tortures, was the Berg violin concerto with Gil Shaham playing the solo part. And through no fault of his own, the piece came off studied and deliberate. Shaham is no slouch and, though he often got run over by the orchestra, there were some beautiful moments here. The concluding movement was especially touching. But it almost seemed that the orchestra stumbled into it. The piece was not what it could have been in more experienced conducting hands and only rarely approached the brilliance one usually associates with the work. If there’s any consolation here, it’s that there are only three remaining Dudamel led concerts for the entire 09/10 season by my count. It’s a sick and twisted world when you start looking forward to visits from Lorin Maazel as relief from the everyday. But so it goes.

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All In The Family

November 19, 2009

 
Cast members from TR Warszawa
Photo: Stefan Okolowicz/UCLA Live 2009

With the ever tightening relationship between motion pictures and the stage, it’s becoming more and more realistic for fans of certain films to hope to see their favorites make it to the flesh and blood world of the theater. From any number of Disney musicals to the upcoming Spider-Man extravaganza, the possibilities may seem endless. But if your taste in film runs less toward The Little Mermaid and more toward Pier Paolo Pasolini, you might find the wait for Salo! 120 Days of Showtunes insurmountable. However, in Los Angeles this week, you’ll be thrilled to know that Polish theater collective TR Warszawa have brought their version of Pasolini’s 1968 film Teorema, now entitled T.E.O.R.E.M.A.T., to the Freud Playhouse as part of UCLA Live’s International Theater Festival.

The play is a largely faithful adaptation of the film. It concerns a bourgeois family that is disrupted, seduced, and abandoned by a handsome drifter. In the wake of the loss of his sexual charms, father, mother, son and daughter find their lives nearly destroyed with only the family maid rising above the loss to reach a state of near sainthood. All of this is book-ended by two fake press conferences with the father where planted audience members ask him questions about capitalism and morality in his role as manager of a local factory. It's psychoanalytic stuff and not completely free of the 1960s cultural trappings from which it springs. But it is often funny and still rather provoking after all this time. What's better, director Grzegorz Jarzyna and his design team have a remarkably strong and lyrical visual sense producing stage images that are in fact more cinematic than Pasolini's original. The narrow empty plywood set that acts as all of the rooms in the bourgeois family abode soaks up light and dark in a brilliant way.

There's little dialog throughout most of the show and the production relies heavily on a troupe of actors who are experts of the telling small gesture, but are brave enough to deal with nudity and any number of other challenges presented by Pasolini's text. Even with only two performances, T.E.O.R.E.M.A.T. continues what is turning out to be one of UCLA Live's strongest Theater Festivals in a number of years. There are two more productions left including Enda Walsh's The New Electric Ballroom before things wrap-up in December.

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Grandpa, Tell Me 'Bout
The Good Old Days

November 17, 2009

 

Night And The City

November 16, 2009

 
Morlan Higgins and William Dennis Hurley
Photo: Ed Krieger/Fountain Theater 2009

The plays of Conor McPherson are fragile things. They are filled with characters living everyday lives under the shadow of the most common kinds of traumas and infidelities. They often reach out to one another, telling their stories, in an earnest attempt to connect to one another. The otherwise unassuming scenarios are often filled with magical elements including such creatures as ghosts or the devil. It’s a combination that can spell deadly boring sentimentality in the wrong hands. Los Angeles has seen its fair share of that with a dreadful production of The Seafarer earlier this year at the Geffen Playhouse. But when it’s done with a more sobering eye, like McPherson’s own, these plays can be devastatingly touching. Currently, Los Angeles’ Fountain Theater is mounting just such a good production of Shining City, McPherson’s 2004 ghost story set in a therapist’s office where the personal revelations of a bereaved middle-aged man, John, mimic the unspoken upheavals in the therapist’s own life. I don't mean to be too vague, but this is a play that benefits from not knowing too much about it going in so I'll leave it at that.

The good news is that director Stephen Sachs gets it mostly right. The production remains uncluttered with a focus on the personal monologues that make up the majority of the play’s text. The supernatural elements are a little botched with too much obvious suspenseful lighting and music diminishing their power to integrate with the more pedestrian nature of the character’s lives. But at the center of the show is a great performance from Fountain favorite Morlan Higgins as the patient John seeking help in the wake of his wife’s death. Higgins delivers John’s lengthy third scene monologue with such hand-wringing anxiety and honesty that time seems to telescope. Everyone in the audience is hanging on his every word by the finish of his tale. It’s a masterful piece of acting and worth seeing regardless of the play’s other strength and weaknesses. The rest of the cast is solid with William Dennis Hurley creating a very believable therapist. Shining City runs through December 19 in Hollywood and, if you're not familiar with McPherson's work, this would be a great place to start.

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Extrapolation

November 15, 2009

 
Dudamel, Dawn Upshaw, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2009

Another weekend, another sold-out crowd, another evening of mangled music from Gustavo Dudamel leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic. If we learned anything new this weekend, it was that the Dud knows more than one way to make perfectly enjoyable music much less so. Yes, his mastery of the loud and oversized may soon be matched by his aptitude for the deliberately and tortuously paced. This weekend’s program was smart enough. It started off with Luciano Berio’s Rendering, a composition from 1990 in which the composer “finishes” the sketches of a proposed 10th symphony Schubert left unfinished at his death. Unlike a traditional completion for an unfinished work, though, Berio is uninterested in mimicking Schubert’s style. Instead he fleshes things out and fills gaps with his own ideas and music creating a hybrid piece that spans over a century of time with a dynamic dialog about structure. It’s an idea he’s explored elsewhere and most notably in his brilliant completion of Puccini’s Turandot, the same version that was performed here in Los Angeles a few years ago and is also featured on a 2002 DVD recording of the opera from the Salzburg Festival. Rendering establishes a fascinating conversation between two very different musical traditions that are working together as one.

Of course, you’d never know it from Dudamel’s performance. Clearly he had a perspective and concern for shaping the Romantic phrases in the piece directly taken from Schubert. When things begin to veer into a modern idiom, the work became mushy and uncertain. Clearly Dudamel felt one side already had the upper hand in this debate. This symphonic work was paired with the two movements that exist of Schubert’s unfinished Symphony No. 8, which closed the show. The phrasing here was so slow and deliberate that life and air seem sucked out of the room. Some of the musicians struggled to find cues in the slow-motion wreckage, which only added to the problems. Saturday's crowd was significantly less enthused than any I'd seen after a Dudamel-led program since the season began - two quick rounds of applause and we're out. Sandwiched between these losing battles was the evening’s single consolation, the soprano Dawn Upshaw. She performed Berio’s Folk Songs which he originally wrote for then wife Cathy Berberian and that Upshaw recently recorded for DG. The songs fit well here offering another take on the idea of "finishing" music from another format and it's always a pleasure to see Upshaw even in the midst of such a messy program.

She, like the rest of us, will have to continue through this rough period of the Dud's growing pains. As to whether or not he's picking up anything over the course of these seemingly endless weeks of his conducting, though, is debatable. He certainly has little outside critical input. For instance, LA's most prominent music writer, the Los Angeles Times' Mark Swed, is increasingly becoming little more than a shill for the L.A. Philharmonic's press department when it comes to Dudamel. Every juvenile excess is cooed over or brushed aside with rose-perfumed praise. This gets us nowhere. If you want to get your kid off the crack pipe, you're going to have to stop forgiving every misstep and praising every charming foible. At least it's good to know that the organization is getting its three-quarters of a million dollars worth in extra PR spending. How much any of this will eventually benefit the orchestra or the audience remains to be seen.

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Necessary Farce

November 13, 2009

 
Tadhg Murphy and Raymond Scannell in The Walworth Farce
Photo: Druid Ireland 2009

I’m a firm believer that anytime you can sit in a play for 30 minutes totally caught up in what’s going on onstage and still think to yourself “What the hell is going on?” is time well spent. Such is the case with Enda Walsh’s The Walworth Farce which is currently in a run of five performances from the Druid Ireland company who are presenting it as part of this year’s UCLA International Theater Festival. It’s a superb play that has an awful lot going on that I don’t want to say too much about and spoil the fun.

Suffice it to say that it’s a family drama concerning a father and two sons set in a decrepit apartment that tweaks the play-within-a-play strategy to harrowing and humorous effect. The Walworth Farce is also perhaps the most psychoanalytic play I’ve seen written in the last twenty years. What’s more, Walsh is taking on much bigger targets than just the usual family secrets and destructive subjectivities. No, he’s even mining the dark psychological underpinnings of the Irish/British relationship as well, asking hard questions about the internalized self-hatred within a culture. It’s a play that owes as much to Pinter as James Joyce and Walsh repeatedly turns the stereotypical Irish love of storytelling on its head in a work that features more repeating, conflicting, and deconstructed stories than you may want to get through in one setting.

There are four actors involved here, including Michael Glenn Murphy, Tadhg Murphy, Raymond Scannell, and Mercy Ojelade all of whom are excellent with truckloads of dialog that doesn’t always flow logically from events onstage. Mike Murfi’s direction is both taut without being overly serious. And while the second act does run on just a tick longer than might be ideal, The Walworth Farce is consistently engaging and thoughtful. It has many humorous moments, but can also be chilling with little warning, calling for an approach that is loose enough to make these shifts believable. Despite its strangeness, it has an assurance and certainty that make the play familiar, although it is not. The show runs through Sunday and is highly recommended.

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Total Recall

November 12, 2009

 
Nicholas McGegan, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and guests
Photo: mine 2009

Purcell is one of those composers who can be at turns exhilarating or deadly boring to listen to, sometimes from moment to moment. What’s survived of his work does include a few brilliant operas including Dido and Aeneas, which the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra under the direction of Nicholas McGegan presented in a program alongside some of Purcell’s less compelling material Wednesday night. After a series of glowingly-reviewed performances in the bay area last week with the same program, I was greatly anticipating their arrival in Los Angeles, and the performance of Dido and Aeneas lived up to its billing.

Even beyond PBO’s crisp and dexterous period-instrument technique, McGegan scored a coup with some incredible casting. Last weekend, Dudamel and the L.A. Philharmonic could barely assemble a cast for Verdi’s massive Requiem while McGegan was able to bring along Susan Graham, Cyndia Seiden, Jill Grove, and Celine Ricci. In fact it was Graham's first appearance at the Walt Disney Concert Hall and, even though it may have been a rather low-key debut, her presence couldn't have been more auspicious. Standing what seemed a foot taller than everyone, Graham in a gorgeous sequined gown projected an assured and regal aura that I'll likely still be feeling next week. And then there was her singing. Dido's lament, a showstopper to be sure, was exactly that - rich and devastatingly beautiful. But this was a cast with no weak links and the Philharmonia chorus provided equally excellent support.

McGegan took a broad and lusty approach to the libretto playing up the witches for maximum comic potential right down to the chorus members. It was admittedly a little over the top, but considering the period and source of the material, it worked well, keeping the piece from getting too boring or aloof. This unfortunately was not always the case in the first half of the show where a handful of shorter choral works and suites suffered from a decidedly more pedestrian approach. It was a small price to pay considering the real treat that followed.

In All Honesty

November 09, 2009

 
from DV8 Physical Theater's To Be Straight With You
Photo: Tristram Kenton 2009

Lloyd Newson’s DV8 Physical Theater company appeared at UCLA’s Royce Hall over the weekend with a dance piece intended to push buttons. To Be Straight With You concerns the intersection between homosexuality, race, and ethnicity in a particularly British context. Growing out of Newson’s own brushes with homophobia, he set about constructing a dance work that he soon felt needed more narrative structure than he was accustomed to. In response, he conducted interviews and focus groups in numerous locales around the UK and collected several first-hand accounts from activists, bigots, those living their lives out and proud, and those living in secret and fear. The resulting monologues became the source for the copious amounts of spoken text in Straight With You, which does two things very well. It captures the real conflicts inherent in constructing a personal identity. First, it’s filled with stories of people living their lives half-submerged in fear and those who have sacrificed everything to be out in the open in a new world. The other major success of the piece for an American audience is to act as a reminder that while we in this country are caught up in a myopic debate about gay marriage, half of the world’s population resides in places where there continues to be penalties ranging from years in jail to death for any kind of homosexual activity. And, although the focus is undoubtedly on the UK, the question is just as relevant here. Are we really worrying about the right things when people elsewhere are dying for what we take for granted?

Not that Newson doesn’t get bogged down by the seemingly trivial at times. There’s a lengthy section regarding the hate lyrics popularized by many dance hall reggae performers that have enjoyed much greater attention abroad than in the U.S. However, the biggest shortcoming of the evening is that Straight With You gets sidelined by its own wordiness. The dancing, though remarkable at times, often seems like an afterthought. The work is divided into short segments usually performed by a single member of the 8-dancer troupe with occasional group numbers. The miked dancers speak quotations taken from the interviews while they perform, often behind a scrim in the midst of a nondescript three-walled office-like set. There is ample augmentation with interactive video and graphics to emphasize certain elements of the spoken text. For about the first 30 minutes or so, there’s so much AV going on that it almost appears that there’s no dance involved at all. Later more movement is incorporated into the action, but it often seems unrelated to the spoken text. In one scene a dancer recounts the tale of a young man leaving his home after being stabbed by his father in response to the disclosure of his homosexuality. All of this is done during intense and rapid rope jumping that is amazing to watch for its physical dexterity. What the physical action and the text have to do with each other, though, in this context is unclear.

Still, there are many physically interesting moments and well-taken points over the course of the lecture. And, even though some of the truths it speaks may not be shocking, To Be Straight With You sheds light on our sadly lacking global perspective just as we think we are somewhat ahead of the curve on social issues.

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The End is Near

November 08, 2009

 
Dudamel with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Master Chorale
Photo: mine 2009

I’ll admit I was not optimistic about the prospect of Verdi’s Requiem this weekend at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Given the Dud’s (aka Gustavo Dudamel’s) penchant for fumble-fingered overwrought interpretation, Verdi’s grand operatic treatment of the mass promised to be unbearable. Plus, without any specific reason or honoree for the performance, the idea of the Requiem seemed a little free-floating. So, while it may have benefited in my mind from lowered expectations, I must say the combined forces of the L.A. Philharmonic and Master Chorale weren’t at all bad by the time Sunday’s matinee performance rolled around. In fact, there were several moments that were very,very good.

There was a calm and controlled center to the performance that was surprising given what we’ve seen from this conductor on this stage. The big drama was still there with a Dies Irae that shook the hall’s wooden rafters and a Libera Me that was reverent and a little sad. The orchestra sounded less scrappy than in recent weeks with attacks that were cleaner and stops that were more like what one remembers from performances not so long ago. Though there was a certain operatic quality missing from the work, it was a robust and solid performance. The Los Angeles Master Chorale was phenomenal. This may be one of the most adept and memorable performances in a recent memory from a group with a track record for superiority. There seemed an incredible unity of purpose at times creating the sensation of one giant voice booming from the beyond. It was hugely satisfying.

On the down side, the strength in numbers on stage didn’t apply to the grossly outnumbered soloists. With the exception of the great John Relyea who brought his clear and powerful bass back to Los Angeles, the soloists were young artists still within clear sight of the start of their careers. The soprano, Leah Crocetto, is a current Adler Fellow with the San Francisco Opera while Ekaterina Gubanova and David Lomeli have been busy in programs and competitions elsewhere in recent years. They were all serviceable and competent in this setting, but none delivered the dazzle or star-power that have graced recent performances of Verdi’s Requiem elsewhere in California in the last few years with the likes of Rene Pape, Adrianne Pieczonka, Stephanie Blythe and so on. Why the Dud and the LA Philharmonic elected to under-cast such a big ticket performance isn't entirely clear even if the soloists were reasonable overall.

But it was nice to have a performance that suggested for at least one moment that Dudamel might actually be able to partially live up to some of the hype that has plagued his tenure here in Los Angeles so far. As usual he avoided the solo spotlight on stage both before and after the performance, burying himself within the mass of musicians during the final bows. Still a potent reminder that with all the hyperbole flung his way this year, it was not necessarily of his design or choosing. He’s got bigger fish to fry. And he may just do that in time.

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Smells Like Teen Spirit

November 06, 2009

 
The Kids Are All Right
Photo: Phile Deprez/Ontroerend Goed 2009

The thorniest thing about art that deals with the topic of adolescence is that it rarely does the thing it always purports it will do – present a daring, myth-busting insight into the real lives of teenagers. Instead, one usually gets more of the same - the struggle for individuation in the context of a stressful modern world. And, while the current performance in UCLA Live’s International Theater Festival does little to break that mold, it is nonetheless interesting to watch. The work is entitled Once and For All We’re Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up and Listen and it is presented under the auspices of Ontroerend Goed, a Belgian Theater company whose name loosely translates as “Feel Estate”. The hour long piece is unique in that it is written and performed by a group of 13 teenagers who cavort, extol, and amuse their way through a physical and structurally adept performance. The topic is adolescence and like all good theater about the young, its main asset is its energy and exuberance.

The performance begins with a row of chairs and the performers, entering one at a time, taking their place. They begin to interact with one another, goofing off, arguing, and generally horsing around in various combinations for about 10 minutes or so as music plays in the background. There's a lot to see; though, none of it necessarily amounts to anything out of the ordinary. Just as you begin to think that this is all there is, an alarm sounds and the actors rearrange their chairs and clean up their mess. Then the cycle repeats itself. However, with each repetition some organizing principle of the production is changed as the actors wander through sobering ballet inspired versions, or comic histrionic versions, or simply a dancing frenzy version of the same actions. The scene is deconstructed and then put back together in various ways that make the pointless activities of the scene appear bigger and more meaningful. In the final sequence, the scene is reenacted with everyone carrying giant versions of their props on the stage and eventually concludes with an exuberant mosh pit of activity. It's funny and visually interesting throughout.

But it never really breaks out of the mold. The repetition appears to be intended to represent the western conceptualization of adolescence that all of these real teens find themselves trapped in. They rebel, as teens are so often purported to do, in an effort to create a new world separate from that of their parents. But this hardly seems daring. Adolescents have really only existed since the Victorian age when the bourgeoisie decided there was a need to reclassify a whole group of people who had previously been considered adults mostly for reasons of political economy. But the show basically gives you little more intellectually than you might get from watching The Breakfast Club on video. Despite it's protestations, Once and for All... is still mining the ore of the mythical rebellious teen at the expense of the everyday mundane and well-adjusted lives that most of them live. It does make attractive theater, though. The show runs through Saturday at the Freud Playhouse on the UCLA campus.

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Making The Most Of It

November 04, 2009

 
Juan Diego Flórez
Photo: Trevor Leighton 2009

Juan Diego Flórez may be the ideal tenor for our times. In an era of recession and environmental awareness, everyone is trying to make the most out of what they already have in a way that frowns on copious consumption and excessive waste. And, as if on cue, Flórez arrives with a voice that may seem meager and prosaic by comparison to others, but that he has used to amazing international star-making effect in spite of its limitations. On Tuesday, he appeared in a solo recital at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica for a brief California stop wedged between performances of La Fille du Regiment in San Francisco and Il Barbiere de Siviglia, which will open in Los Angeles later this month. It was a sold-out show and Flórez seemed relaxed and almost casual in a program that wasn’t organized around a specific PR campaign or marketing agenda. Instead it was filled with the carefully chosen and expertly developed material the tenor has made his name on. Flórez’ voice can be thin and lacking of a certain warmth and richness but the agility and control, not to mention spectacular high notes, he can produce effortlessly have rightly made him a hot commodity and an ideal bel canto tenor particularly in the works of Rossini.

Staying true to form, the first half of the Santa Monica program focused exclusively on Rossini, including three concert arias, as well as big ticket numbers from La Cenerentola and Semiramide. His vocal dexterity throughout all of this was impressive and more than a bit endearing. He’s a charming and handsome man to boot, which makes some of this material absolutely killer. But to be honest, it was when he took the smallest steps outside his comfort zone in the second half that things got really interesting. First up were two French arias, “Pourquoi me reveiller” from Massenet’s Werther and “Ah, leve-toi soleil” from Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette. This is territory more traveled by the likes of Ramon Vargas, Roberto Alagna, and Rolando Villazon on international stages in recent years, but Flórez managed these works well making a convincing argument for a passionate but more compact approach. Following this were three Zarzuela numbers, which proved that there is still truth to the old chestnut that vocalists sound best singing in their native language. Although Flórez’ French is quite good, hearing him sing in Spanish was like hearing a whole different performer who was suddenly unbound from the careful and methodical preparation behind the Italian repertory that has made him famous.

He concluded the main body of the evening with Donizetti’s "Ah mes amis", an aria that has become his calling card of late. While it may have been a bit obvious to put this in the prime spot in the show, it’s hard to blame him for giving the people what they want. If it gets you on the cover of the New York Times, you probably want to repeat it as often as you can. While the performance runs the risk of becoming a parlor trick, it’s one hell of a trick. The encores were what you’d expect – “La donna è mobile”, “Una Furtiva Lacrima”, and “Ah, più lieto”. All were done with real care and sounded wonderful. So, say what you will about the innate quality of his voice, he is an exciting performer who, like the best vocalists, is able to thoughtfully assess his strengths and limitations and build a magnificent career around them.

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I Knew The Bride When She Used To Rock'n'Roll

November 03, 2009

 
Jill Van Velzer in God Save Gertrude
Photo: Ed Krieger/Theater at Boston Court 2009

Shakespeare is always a good place to start. The thorny bit is where do you go from there. Such is the dilemma over at the Theater at Boston Court where Deborah Stein’s latest play God Save Gerturde is receiving its world premiere. Hamlet’s mother has been a popular source of speculation for artists like John Updike and Tom Stoppard for years so Stein’s more feminist and less Freudian take is welcome. It starts with an interesting idea - what if Gertrude were a punk rock diva looking back on her younger days and regretting the decisions she’s made on her way up the ladder. The revolution is over and what does she have to show for it other than the latest war and a son with stepfather issues. The modes is equal parts Patti Smith, who Gertrude herself invokes more times than is necessary, and Evita Peron. Set it all in an abandoned, war torn theater and you might be on to something.

However, this isn’t horseshoes and all of this doesn’t quite make it into a cohesive afternoon at the theater. While Gertrude, played here by Jill Van Velzer, is interesting, she has too little to do but repeat herself and wax nostalgic about events that aren’t familiar or detailed enough to generate a narrative. Technically, the work is a musical with punky pop songs from David Hanbury. But none of the songs really move the story forward and only rarely offer a glimpse of the characters internal lives. They make Green Day’s music in American Idiot sound like Verdi by comparison. And for all the punk posturing, the show lacks much edge. While the copious amounts of grey hair in the audience might have appreciated the reference to MTV as a bastion of youth culture, it hardly screams rock and roll. But, of course, the Shakespeare angle always provides some level of interest and at least creates some tension around the question of how God Save Gertrude parallels or ignores Hamlet. But even that will only get you so far.

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Keeping Score

November 02, 2009

 
The first page of the autograph score of Dvorak's Symphony No 9

Following a recent review of the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Christoph Eschenbach, I received the following comment about conductors’ use of scores during performances that I though deserved a fuller response in the body of the blog.

"Since when has it become remarkable that a conductor doesn't lead with a score? I ask because yours is the third or fourth mention of scoreless conducting I've read in the past several weeks, by different reviewers/commentators. There have been conductors who performed with or without scores practically since the time conductors had become the rule and not the exception, i.e. a very long time ago. It is more a matter of preference than a demonstration of anything significant about an individual conductor's capabilities. Sometimes (often, actually) it's easier to conduct from memory, and there can be closer interrelation with the players as a performance unfolds. Perhaps it's just a coincidence that has struck me oddly. I wonder, though, and am curious to know what if anything is up?"

While I agree that there is nothing unique or new about a conductor leading a performance without a score, I think it's worth mentioning in a review because something is most definitely up. What that is may not be clear, but that's part of why its interesting. Conducting without a score is still less common than using one at least in the current cultural practice. Historically, I wager there have always been conductors who've practiced one approach or another at various times to various degrees. I agree that the use of a score probably doesn't tell us much about a conductor's abilities, or even perhaps familiarity, with a particular score. And as the comment suggests, one's choice to do so or not may serve other artistic purposes.

The idea of performers relying on written material during the course of a performance is not new in any way. However, there are certainly trends in perceived cultural norms over time about what is acceptable and what isn't. And by acceptable, what I mean is what an audience expects from the performers as a sign of professionalism and preparation. For instance, conductors may or may not use scores, but for most orchestras, it would be unusual, though not unheard of, for all the musicians in an ensemble to have committed their parts to memory in their entirety. Prompters are still standard practice at most opera performances around the world even in light of the comparatively limited repertory of most opera companies and vocalists. And yet, currently, the idea of feeding an actor lines in a straight play is apparently anathema despite a long history of such practices in the theater. At least that is if you believe the recent reports in the New York Times of audience members demanding refunds for preview performances recently where Matthew Broderick was fed lines from an off-stage prompter while learning rapidly changing material. Certainly nothing is new under the sun and the cultural preferences about these kinds of practices in performance change over time.

But I tend to think there is a lot more to the choice to use a score or not than simply personal preference or artistic intent. I’m a psychologically-minded person, which means deep down I don’t believe anything anyone does is capricious or random, or just a matter of personal preference. Using a score or not during a performance is a public act - one that will be observed by both fellow musicians and audience members and electing one approach over another is an act of communication. Not only does the conductor send a message to his or her fellow performers, but more importantly refutes or validates personal beliefs. If you're taking the road less traveled, even if you're not the first one to go down it, what are you trying to say to others about yourself and more importantly what does your desire to communicate this tell us about you. Could not conducting with a score be used to buttress one's own sense of competence or perhaps to compensate for being disliked by colleagues? Maybe such a choice could be used to reaffirm ones worth against rivals that are either older or younger. There are probably as many underlying motivations for making this kind of a choice as there are people who make it, but it undoubtedly says something and making that choice is certainly one worth commenting on. Conducting without a score may say less about a maestro's capabilities or artistic approach than it does about their perception of those capabilities or preferences.

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In the Wings - November 09

November 01, 2009

 
Pianist and Conductor Marino Formenti

November is the month where Los Angeles finally works itself into a frothy lather of live performance excitement. The world-class vocal music alone is reason to stay in town this month. Los Angeles Opera will offer two highly anticipated events. Placido Domingo himself will return to star in five performances of Handel’s Tamerlano starting on the 21st in a production borrowed from Washington National Opera with an excellent supporting cast. (One admittedly I was not too enamored with myself two years ago.) And quickly following on those heels will be a revival of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia on the 29th. I know, I know. It’s not the most exciting piece of music, but its got just about the best cast in the world with Juan Diego Florez, Joyce DiDonato, and Nathan Gunn. The two former stars have appeared all over the world in these roles and if their appearances in London in this opera in July are any indication, this may be the best opera to grace the West Coast all year. Speaking of JDF, he’ll be doing a solo recital at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica on the 3rd as well.

Juan Diego Florez in Barbiere
Photo: Javier del Real

As for less operatic vocal works there are four other high priorities here in L.A. this month. Two involve the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the direction of Gustavo Dudamel, who will have his way with Verdi’s Requiem for four performances starting on the 5th and then will hopefully stay out of the way of the unparalleled Dawn Upshaw in Berio’s Folk Songs at the Walt Disney Concert Hall the next weekend. Perhaps the most stealth event of the month, though, will be a performance by the USC Thornton School’s Symphony and Choir of Bach’s Mass in B Minor under none other than Helmuth Rilling on the 13th. Get this - it’s FREE for students, staff, and faculty and under 20 dollars for everyone else at USC’s Bovard Auditorium. Need more Baroque? (And who doesn’t.) Don’t forget the all Purcell evening from San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra on the 11th at WDCH with Susan Graham, Cyndia Sieden, and Jill Grove.


The other major “classical” music event this month will be the kick off of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “West Coast, Left Coast” Festival on the 21st at WDCH. The program, which runs for a little over two weeks, is under the guidance of composer John Adams and will look at California’s influence on contemporary classical music. Included in the programming will be worthwhile shows from other organizations around town starting as early as the 11th with a "re-interpretation" of Parades and Changes from Anna Halprin, Anne Collod, and Morton Subotnick at REDCAT downtown. The festival will also include offerings from the Los Angeles Master Chorale on the 22nd and Jacaranda on the 14th. Over the Thanksgiving weekend, Dudamel will lead the über-hot Marino Formenti in Lou Harrison’s Piano Concerto on a program with Esa-Pekka Salonen’s LA Variations and Adams’ own City Noir. Then on the 30th the stars of L.A.’s own Piano Spheres, including Vicki Ray, Gloria Cheng, Susan Svrcek, and Mark Robson, will cross the street from the Zipper Auditorium to WDCH for their own brand of limit-pushing keyboard performance. Outside of the festival, the L.A. Philharmonic will also host Gil Shaham under Dudamel in the Berg Violin Concerto the weekend of the 19th, and, if you can tolerate all the Brahms, the Berlin Philharmonic and Sir Simon Rattle will appear on the 24th and 25th.

from DV8 Physical Theater's To Be Straight With You
Photo: Tristram Kenton 2009

On the theater scene there are plenty of great local offerings from The Fountain Theater’s production of Conor McPherson’s Shining City to the Blank Theater’s new production of David Sedaris’ Santaland Diaries, which opens on the 20th. But there are many highly anticipated visitors in town this month as well. UCLA Live’s International Theater Festival will bring Ontroerend Goed to town with the lengthy titled Once and For All We're Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up and Listen on the 4th, and Ireland’s Druid Theater performing Enda Walsh’s The Walworth Farce on the 11th. The following week on the 18th they’ll also host Poland’s TR Warszawa troupe in a performance of T.E.O.R.E.M.A.T. Not to be outdone, the Broad Stage will also enter the theater racket this month by hosting the Globe Theater on the 19th in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost. There's also a notable dance event on the 6th and 7th at UCLA from DV8 Physical Theater entitled To Be Straight With You. And lest you forget, New York's own diva extraordinaire, Joey Arias, will bring his fabulous collaboration with puppeteer Basil Twist, Arias with a Twist across the country to REDCAT starting on the 18th.

Scene from Patrice Chereau's production of From the House of the Dead
Photo: Rob Ribas

That’s probably more than enough, but I must admit that I’m most excited about my New York and Chicago jaunt just prior to Thanksgiving that will include two opera masterpieces from Leos Janacek - From the House of the Dead at the Metropolitan Opera and Katya Kabanova in Chicago with none other than Karita Mattila. The weekend will also include a hopefully gaudy/fabulous Turandot, Chicago’s current run of Ernani with Sondra Radvanovsky, and the U.S. premiere of a concert version of Philip Glass’ latest theater work Kepler at BAM. I’ll also take a look at the fortunes of the coming Broadway musical adaptation of The Addams Family with Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth while I’m in the windy city as well. That should cover it. Unless of course you want to do some slumming, and there’s always Kathy Griffin at the Gibson Amphitheater on the 28th.

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Calendar

1/18/13
Kodály Háry János Suite
Eötvös DoReMi
Bartók Concerto for Orchestra
Los Angeles Philharmonic
Heras-Casado, dond
w/ Midori
Walt Disney Concert Hall
Los Angeles, CA

1/19/13
Reneé Fleming and Susan Graham
recital
Walt Disney Concert Hall
Los Angeles, CA

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