Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

In The Wings - December '10

November 30, 2010

 
Scott Shepherd and Ari Fliakos in The Wooster Group's Vieux Carré Photo: Franck Beloncle/The Wooster Group 2010

December is a quieter than usual month around these parts, although there are a handful of new events coming up that are worth noting in addition to continuing runs of others that you can still catch while they're around. Probably the biggest ticket this month is over at REDCAT where The Wooster Group will return for their second visit in their ongoing residency at the black box theater in the basement of Walt Disney Concert Hall. This time out they’ll present the U.S. Premiere of their take on Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carré. The show opens on Wednesday the 1st and runs until the 12th.

Curt Hansen, Alice Ripley, and Asa Somers in Next to Normal Photo: Criagn Schwartz 2010

The Los Angeles Philharmonic will host much of the rest of the recommended shows this month including appearances from Nicholas Angelich playing Beethoven’s 5th Piano Concerto under the baton of Stéphane Denève the weekend of the 3rd followed the next weekend by Hilary Hahn playing Tchaikovsky under Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos who will also lead Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique. Nicholas McGegan leads an evening of Haydn and Mozart the weekend before Christmas as well. Probably my most anticipated night at WDCH this month though is the Pierre-Laurent Aimard recital on Dec 1 which will feature Messiaen, Chopin, and Ravel. For hose looking for Holiday music there’s a variety of other shows in the last two weeks of the month including Kristen Chenoweth on New Year’s Eve.

Marina Poplavskaya in Don Carlo Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2010

There are a number of continuing shows worth considering as well. The Ahmanson will continue its just opened performances of Kitt and Yorkey's Next to Normal in its first national tour with Tony-winner Alice Ripley throughout the entire month and the new Randy Newman revue, Harps and Angels continues at the Mark Taper Forum through the 22nd. (My review) L.A. Opera will have several more performances of its two latest productions as well including Wagner’s Lohengrin with Ben Heppner and Dolora Zajick (My review) playing in rep with Verdi’s Rigoletto. (My review) My opera highlights for the month will mostly be in New York where I’ll be the weekend of the 17th for the final performance in the current run of Verdi’s Don Carlo at the Metropolitan Opera where a revival of Debussy’s Pélleas et Mélisande will also kick off under the musical direction of Simon Rattle. Also on tap for that weekend with be Seji Ozawa leading the Saito Kinen Orchestra in Britten’s War Requiem at Carnegie Hall, Charles Busch’s The Divine Sister at SoHo Playhouse, and the star studded musical version of Almodóvar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown up at Lincoln Center. Which should pretty much take care of the rest of the year. Happy Holidays.

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Newman's Own

November 29, 2010

 
The Cast of Harps and Angels Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2010

I suppose that composer Randy Newman is as good a candidate as anyone to receive the jukebox musical treatment. Certainly his work has undergone the treatment before. There have been at least two prior attempts at theatrical pieces using his preexisting work not to mention Randy Newman’s Faust, which featured original material. But apparently Los Angeles’ Center Theater Group thought it was time for another go at this, so they greenlighted Harps and Angels, Jack Viertel’s new Newman revue, which arrived recently at the Mark Taper Forum under the direction of Jerry Zaks. To clarify, this is less of a jukebox musical than a straight-forward revue. A collection of Newman’s songs are performed over two hours with no real plot line linking them and only intermittent allusions to vignettes the songs might describe. There’s no dialog, although Newman himself makes a few cameo appearances in video that is projected onto a number of screens that fly on and off of the stage. It’s not unlike a less ambitious version of the most recent Sondheim revue to grace the New York stage, Sondheim on Sondheim, except without the Sondheim.

Newman’s songs are filled with biting and sometimes caustic irony. They are not musically groundbreaking, but at their core is humor with a pessimistic streak that is part of their charm. And while the largely capable cast of Harps and Angels gives the songs splendid vocal attention, there seems to be a hesitation to embrace some of the edgier aspects of the work. The laughs come a bit too easily all throughout the show, but nothing here is going to make anyone wince, although it should sometimes. I was rather taken with the women in the cast, including Katey Sagal, Adriane Lenox, and Storm Large, all of whom have substantial vocal and song performance skills. I particularly enjoyed “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” and “God’s Song.” But whether or not these individual performances gel seem entirely random and are as likely to go bust as not. The men in the cast, Michael McKean, Ryder Bach, and Matthew Saldivar seem to function more as comic foils than vocalists, although they do speak and/or sing about half of the show’s numbers. The comic numbers, like "Big Hat, No Cattle," seem genteel and funny, while Newman's ironic heart of darkness, like "Sail Away," seem out-of-place and off tone. (Both of these numbers are performed by McKean in the show.

Of course, "I Love L.A." gets lots of attention here at the end of both Act I and Act II, and the crowd is encouraged to clap along on both occasions. The song, with its discreet ambivalence about the city that has whole-heartedly adopted it as an unofficial anthem without a thought to its darker side, may in fact be the perfect theme song for Los Angeles. And it may be the perfect closing number for a show with an uncertain relationship and understanding of the irony that makes up its component parts. Harps and Angels runs at the Mark Taper Forum through the 22nd of December.

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Any Tom, Duke, or Harry

November 27, 2010

 
Sarah Coburn and George Gagnidze in Rigoletto Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2010

Saturday brought a change of pace to Los Angeles Opera. It was the opening performance of the company’s new to L.A. production of Verdi’s Rigoletto, which marks the first Italian opera the company has mounted in nearly a year, since Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia. (Mozart’s Italian-language Le Nozze di Figaro did appear earlier this fall, but is arguably more of a German/Austrian opera than an Italianate one.) What’s more, the company has been on a tear artistically for well over two years with one artistically substantial production after the next. (And I would include among those the current overly-maligned production of Wagner's Lohengrin, which is far, far better than you may have read elsewhere.) However, even a perfect batting record is not a guarantee of success on every outing, and this current Rigoletto, despite some very worthwhile elements, is decidedly earth-bound. That's not to say bad, just exceedingly ordinary.

George Gagnidze in Rigoletto Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2010

Let’s start with the good news, shall we? James Conlon is in the pit with a spirited and very dramatic take on the score with the increasingly excellent L.A. Opera orchestra. He’s given us some wonderful Verdi during his time in L.A. including a still-talked-about Don Carlo and a La Traviata that lives on DVD. He’s joined by a cast with some strong voices. Foremost among these is George Gagnidze in the title role. Gagnidze is one of the world’s foremost Rigoletto’s at this time and has appeared at the Metropolitan Opera in this role as well as many other stages. His expertise in the part shows, and his performance has weight and a significant edge to it. He's a fine and very watchable actor. He meshes well with American Sarah Coburn who sang Gilda. Coburn is a company favorite, and while I could have wished for a little more warmth and a little less vibrato along the way from her, it was a strong performance.


Unfortunately, none of this was enough to raise the proceedings much above average. The Duke in this run is Gianluca Terranova, who has the requisite swagger, tended to bark a little in his delivery at times and his Act II duet with Gilda seemed a little one sided. The somewhat prosaic staging from director Mark Lamos with sets by Michael Yeargen is admittedly not a favorite of mine. It is borrowed from San Francisco, where it was last seen in 2006. Time has not changed much about its cartoonish, brightly colored look which is supposed to evoke the Italian surrealist paintings of Giorgio di Chirico (1888-1978). More often than not though, I’m reminded of the sets for the 1953 MGM film version of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate. From the moment the curtain rises you expect folks to break out into “From This Moment On.” It’s not a completely static show, but its visually dull and the geometric shapes and candy colors can cut against the more tragic elements of this most depraved of operas. However, this is a Rigoletto not without its charms, and it does provide a reason to look at some of those Ann Miller classics on You Tube.

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Keep It Light

 
Bryn Terfel

The Los Angeles Philharmonic presented the city with an early Christmas gift this weekend in the form of a second show under the guidance of “Conductor Laureate” Esa-Pekka Salonen. Friday’s performance played to a near capacity crowd and featured the assistance of superstar bass-baritone Bryn Terfel. It was the kind of program not typically associated with Salonen, although he has conducted the works of both Hindemith and Wagner before both in Los Angeles and elsewhere. Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Weber and the arias and overtures from Wagner’s operas were big, rich, Romantic works known more for their sweep and grandeur than their subtlety. Salonen produced wonderful playing from the orchestra across the entire night, letting his love of clarity and precision take a bit of a back seat to big dramatic gestures in those scenes that called for it.

The night started with Hindemith’s reworking of themes from Carl Maria von Weber. This orchestral oddity fit well with the evening’s proceedings by providing a 20th-century vision of one of Wagner’s major operatic predecessors. Hindemith culled together disparate themes and melodies into four movements that retain much of their Romantic air despite clearly breaking from Weber’s original intentions. It was admirably played, though I didn't know quite what to make of it. Then came the main course, three Wagner preludes paired with three arias to be sung by Terfel including “Was duftet doch der Flieder so mild” from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, “O du mein holden Abendstern” from Tannhäuser and Wotan’s final scene from Die Walküre. The preludes from Act I of Die Meistersinger, Act III of Die Walküre, and Act III of Lohengrin were all crowd-pleasers that Salonen attacked with a mobile, almost galloping pace. Salonen had distinguished himself in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in Los Angeles during his time as music director, and these brief snippets clearly implied he has much more to say about the composer’s other operas.

Of course, Terfel was the other center of attention this week. He also appeared with pianist Malcom Martineau in a solo recital on Monday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall in a program featuring works of Schumann, Finzi, and Ibert. Terfel is a natural born showman, a talent he used to full advantage on Monday in a set of familiar songs popularized by early 20th-century baritone John Charles Thomas. Terfel’s charming and funny narration about songs like “All Through the Night” and “Home on the Range” which also featured an audience sing-a-long, was endearing. Yet overall he took the recital program with more sobriety than I've seen him show in the past, which is a good thing. Terfel has not been above crooning and schmoozing, but the Schumann was given the respect and attention it deserves. Terfel's Wagner excerpts on Friday were more of a mixed affair. He has a supremely beautiful and warm voice that can float soft notes high above the audience and orchestra. His Hans Sachs aria from Meistersinger and the Wolfram von Eschenbach aria from Tannhäuser were striking and easily the highlights of the night. Interestingly, though, his take on Wotan’s farewell to his daughter Brünnhilde was less convincing. I had been somewhat underwhelmed with Terfel’s Das Rheingold Wotan at the Metropolitan Opera earlier this Fall, and here in L.A. I got a bit of a better sense why. While Terfel can do tender and loving and brokenhearted better than anyone, he is not nearly so successful when a dark, stentorian voice of God is called for. His Act III Die Walküre is clearly heartbroken, but not very commanding. Still, it is a great chance to hear the L.A. Philharmonic play beautifully under Salonen, which you can do two more times this weekend.

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Many Thanks

November 24, 2010

 

This is a bit of the unparalleled operatic greatness I'm partaking of tonight. If you haven't, you should do whatever you can to see San Francisco Opera's current production of The Makropulos Case before it ends its run on Sunday. This year I'm thankful for Karita Mattila and Leos Janacek. Happy Thanksgiving.

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10 Questions for...
Mark Lamos

November 23, 2010

 
Mark Lamos Photo: Westport Co Playhouse

Thanksgiving weekend in Los Angeles isn’t downtime for the performing arts, and that is especially true over at Los Angeles Opera who will follow up a very worthwhile Lohengrin with an imported production of Verdi’s Rigoletto staring George Gagnidze and Sarah Coburn. The show will also mark the local debut of one of the best known American theater and opera directors, Mark Lamos. A multiple Tony nominee and winner for his regional work at the Hartford Stage in the 80s, Lamos is a frequent collaborator at nearly all of the country's leading opera companies. He’s also an actor and may be recognizable to many as one of the stars in 1990’s Longtime Companion. Here in Los Angeles he’ll be guiding audiences through the depravity that imbues Verdi’s masterpiece at every turn. But before things get too serious in Mantua, he was nice enough to take a turn at 10 Questions for you and Out West Arts. Which went something like this:

1. What opera would you most like to direct, but haven’t yet?
Oh there's a list. Lear by Aribert Reimann, King Priam by Tippett, The Rake's Progress by Stravinsky, La Rondine by Puccini, and anything by Handel.

2. What opera would you never want to direct, even if you had the opportunity to?
Parsifal

3. What’s the best thing about working with singing-actors as opposed to the non-operatic variety?
They come to the first rehearsal knowing all the music and consequently a lot of the motivations behind the characters and their objectives, etc. Actors pride themselves on beginning the process as a sort of 'blank page', carrying their scripts around for weeks-- waiting for actors' memories can be intense and debilitating. Rehearsals with singers are completely revivifying in contrast-- and quick. Of course, when they show no instinct for acting, there are deeper frustrations. Opera is theater, after all.

4. Your debut assignment at L.A. Opera will be Verdi’s Rigoletto. What exactly is his problem?
Well, he's physically deformed; he hates himself; the one woman on earth who was kind to him has left him a widower, and he is insanely attempting-- like a father in a Molière farce-- to keep his teenage daughter pure by locking her up. He is essentially a dysfunctional obsessive, enjoying his corrupting work with his scary, sexually obsessed boss. Because of his flaws, however, we identify with him. This is one reason we go to the theater. The 'other' becomes the 'self'.

5. Which music made you want to direct opera?
An aunt and uncle gave me the Risë Stevens/Fritz Reiner recording of Carmen one Christmas when I was little. I had studied violin for years, but Carmen -- and Bizet!-- had her way with me. Then came, in quick succession: Don Giovanni, Boris Godunov. I picked them out in record stores because of their covers and played them until they were memorized!

6. You’ve long been associated with American opera companies such as Glimmerglass, Santa Fe, and New York City Opera as well as new works from American composers. Which American composer have you not worked with yet that you would most like to?
John Corigliano. I think he should make an opera of Rocco and His Brothers. His Red Violin Concerto is a particular favorite of mine.

7. And while we’re on the topic of past successes...What, no Wagner?
After Chereau? You must be kidding. No production has so far topped his "Ring" in my opinion. Brilliantly conceived. I enjoy listening to the "Ring", and possess numerous recordings of it. And i would certainly jump at the chance to conceive and direct it if offered-- but I have to confess that so far in my lifetime I have not been able to sit through live productions of Lohengrin (Vienna), Parsifal and Götterdämmerung (Met). However Tristan und Isolde (Met)-- I managed, and happily, despite the fat woman playing the title part. In this day and age of surtitles, I want to scream and flee when Wagner's carefully crafted libretto cannot be acted out in front of us because the singers are too fat or too lazy or too worried about their music. Wagner's operas are "singing dramas", and should be held to the highest standards. Birgit Nilsson and Wolfgang Windgassen could ACT.

8. Your iPod is destroyed by a vengeful mezzo. Which lost tracks would you miss most?
I don't have an ipod because I only listen to music if I can give it my undivided attention. Music is not the soundtrack of quotidian existence. I listen to music at home without distraction from great big speakers-- or live, which is a real passion of mine, especially concert-going. But, that said-- the "lost tracks" I would miss most? Ligeti chamber music, Britten solo piano music, the recordings of Nathan Milstein, Eileen Farrell, Leontyne Price, Shirley Verrett, Krystian Zimerman, Olga Kern, and the Tebaldi-Del Monaco-Bruscantini Forza. Worst of all would be the loss of an Arena di Verona concert-- 2 disks-- starring Freni and Pavarotti. Or Tony Bennett and Bill Evans' rendition of 'When in Rome'.

9. What's your current obsession?
"Current", such an interesting word. Though we've never met, obviously you know me well. OK: Positano. My husband of 31 years and I just got back from a magical stay there. We dream of living there someday-- or spending as much time there as possible. Though Berlusconi and the pope are awful, and though we love Obama, we are increasingly exhausted by American politics and culture wars and the U.S. obsession with religion and the insane and destructive media.

10. With which opera character do you have the most in common?
Werther

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The Lazarus Effect

November 21, 2010

 
Act I finale of Lohengrin Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2010

Wagner’s Lohengrin rode back into town on his swan this weekend at Los Angeles Opera in a largely successful and very attractive, unexpectedly new production. Unexpected in the sense that the show was originally announced as a revival of the company’s 2001 production, but on further contemplation, the company and director Lydia Steier elected to completely “repurpose” the materials from that last production to create something brand spanking new. And after seeing the premiere on Saturday, I can attest that no one would mistake this Lohengrin for the old one. In fact no one would mistake it for any of the other Wagner operas the company has mounted in recent years. L.A. Opera and music director James Conlon have invested a lot of time and money in staging most of Wagner’s operas over the last decade and has succeeded beautifully on nearly every occasion with a series of colorful, abstract, and sometimes symbolic productions from the Robert Wilson Parsifal, to Ian Judge’s rotating Tannhäuser, and, of course, the recently completed Achim Freyer Ring Cycle.

The Act III finale of Lohengrin Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2010

In contrast, the company’s second go at Lohengrin is as naturalistic as they come. But that is not to say that Ms. Steier doesn’t take any liberties with elements of the staging and story, but the visual sense of the show is accessible in a way that audience members who may have been alienated before are more comfortable with. Or at least one might assume this, given the polite reception she received on stage at the end of the show. In my opinion she deserved a far more enthusiastic response for this intelligent and very good looking production. The action is updated to the tail end of WWI on the border of France and Germany. The Saxon troops arrive in Brabant, whose population has been largely displaced into the three remaining walls of a bombed out cathedral, which dominate the stage and rotates throughout the opera to create different spaces. A field hospital has been set up among the ruins, and injured civilians are tended to by nurses. As the curtain rises, the entire cast and chorus is on stage frozen in position as a living tableau. Slowly the lights begin to rise as a light snow begins to fall that continues more or less throughout the entire rest of the opera. Soon, a small tent at the rear of the set lights up and shadowy figures are revealed: a surgeon, later revealed to be Telramund, is amputating the leg of a soldier who unfortunately does not survive the procedure.

Dolora Zajick as Ortrud Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2010

This detail in the opening minutes is critical, because much of the evening hangs on it. The Saxons arrive and when the accused Elsa prays for the arrival of her knight/savior no swan appears. Instead the projected images of war torn countryside on the giant backdrops are replaced by rippling water as seen from below while surfacing. The dead soldier from the overture comes back to life and exits the tent with a steel plated leg replacing his amputated one. The conceit is clever in that it emphasizes one of the most difficult aspects of this opera to pull off - that Lohengrin is seen as a miraculous and magical being by Elsa and the people of Brabant. He is connected to the Divine which is crucial in understanding him in opposition to Telramund, Ortrud, and everyone else in the opera. Steier takes this set up one step further by emphasizing the human qualities, both good and bad, of the rest of the characters. Telramund, one of the bad guys, is repeatedly put in positions where he is doing good both as a surgeon and later by tending to an abused soldier. Meanwhile the Saxons, whom Lohengrin and the citizens of Brabant intend to go into battle with, exhibit some not so nice behavior including assaulting the local men and women, injured or not. Steier is muddying the waters about who is good and who is evil unifying all of the characters in a more humanistic way and highlighting the contrast with a divine and healing Lohengrin.

Solie Isokoski and Ben Heppner Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2010

The sets, though crowded at times, are lovely and the rotating cathedral ruins keep things visually interesting particularly after a rather static first act. There's a cinematic quality to the war torn European countryside tableau and the video backdrops are really quite amazing. But all the visual wonders of the world can't completely make up for any musical deficiencies and luckily in terms of Conlon and the orchestra, those are nearly non-existent. The orchestra's playing has grown exponentially after its many months in the throws of the Ring and their Wagner has never sounded better. Conlon who took athletic and brisk pacing throughout the Ring seems to have taken a more reflective and luxurious pacing here, but it never drags. This is unquestionably some of Wagner's most beautiful music and the players of the orchestra and the chorus under director Grant Gershon have done admirably by it. The men in the chorus deserve particular mention considering how much time they spend on stage in this opera. They have a lot of stage business to do in this and their vocal performances came off quite well despite it.

James Johnson and Kristinn Sigmundsson with chorus Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2010

As for the principal stars of the productions, the success rate was a little more variable. Let me start by saying how impressive James Johnson's Telramund and Kristinn Sigmundsson's King Heinrich are. Both have made prior appearances here and their important contributions to the evening shouldn't be overlooked. Solie Isokoski sang the role of Elsa with a beautiful bright tone throughout. Her voice was warm and the sound rounded, smooth, and easily heard, which fit well with the character, though at times I might have wished for more of a piercing quality. Probably one of the most anticipated debuts of the evening was Dolora Zajick's Ortrud, her first turn at this role or any Wagner role. (That is if you don't count her handful of performances as a Valkyrie during her time as an Adler fellow in San Francisco in the 80s as a commenter points out.) Zajick is the world's leading Verdi mezzo and her Amneris, Azucena, and Eboli fill houses around the world. As would be expected her voice is big and powerful and never harsh. However, for me it lacked a certain Germanic quality with the consonants gone missing. Her acting was certainly good, though, and I imagine with more time in this area of the opera rep she'll be formidable in this role as well. Of course, the biggest name associated with the production is Ben Heppner in the title role, which initially brought him to international fame. He's been singing the role for two decades now and it would be unreasonable to expect his performance now to be equivalent to that of even a decade a go. He had a difficult evening even compared to the final dress rehearsal performance I'd heard earlier in the week. There are still large portions of his performance that are brilliant with a heroic ease that is unparalleled. But on Saturday, there were also plenty of moments dominated by snap, crackle, and pop.

On balance thought, this is undoubtedly a very successful and satisfying Lohengrin and as likely good of one as you might see on any world-class opera stage these days. It comes recommended and runs through December 12.

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A Moment of Clarity

November 20, 2010

 
Esa-Pekka Salonen returns to the L.A. Philharmonic with Willard White and Anne Sofie von Otter Photo: mine 2010

In the middle of Bartók’s opera, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle there is a giant C-major chord played full force by the orchestra as Judith opens the fifth of seven locked doors to reveal the great expanse of all Bluebeard’s kingdom. In comments he made before Friday night’s concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, maestro Esa-Pekka Salonen remarked that this was one of those top ten great moments in music. It was his first appearance here since departing the orchestra leadership position in the Spring of 2009, and when the orchestra got around to that chord in Friday’s concert performance of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle it was indeed a very big moment. The orchestra roared as the darkly lit Walt Disney Concert Hall was suddenly flooded with bright white light from every direction as if the Hall and the orchestra were the very kingdom Judith was observing for the first time.

And it couldn’t have been a more telling moment. Salonen’s return to the Los Angeles Philharmonic came much like that C-major chord for an audience and orchestra that at times has been stumbling around in the dark for over a year. He was greeted with a long and enthusiastic ovation from the crowd upon entering the stage. The music began, and suddenly, it was all back - the musical clarity and precision the orchestra had made its reputation on in two works from the last hundred years. Salonen was at the podium in control and the players were with him every step of the way. They all knew where he, and they, were going and exactly how to get there. The concert performance of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle which took up the majority of the program was gorgeous and foreboding. Actually written in 1911, it sounded urgent and fresh like Bartók could have completed it just weeks ago. In fact Salonen allowed for a little digital updating using internet-derived samples of actual sighs to take the place of the wind gusts that mark the opening of castle doors in the score. It wasn't all technological wizardry, though. The brass outdid themselves as did all of the Los Angeles Philharmonic players who played in support of the vocalists for the evening, Willard White and Anne Sofie von Otter. White is the ideal Duke musically with his rich, deep, and commanding tone. The heartbreak in the inevitability of his new wife’s fate was palpable. Von Otter didn’t fare nearly as well in this context, struggling to be heard above the orchestra throughout. And while I didn't feel she managed the clarity one would have hoped for in her role, there were some lovely quiet moments in her part.

But this was primarily Salonen and the orchestra’s night, and they made the most of it. Before the break was another much more recent but equally impressive work, Magnus Lindberg’s Graffiti. Lindberg and Salonen have long been kindred souls, and Salonen brought the U.S. premiere of this 2009 composition to Los Angeles with all of its easy flowing music and moments of surprising beauty. Lindberg has stated that Graffiti, a work for chorus and orchestra, grew out of his desire to experiment with operatic forms. And while Graffiti is not an opera, it was superbly sung by the Los Angeles Master Chorale. The work is a setting of a Latin text. Somewhat unusually, it is no mass or requiem, but instead a collection of graffiti culled from the ruins of Pompeii. There is no narrative, but the short, sometimes repeated phrases containing all of the vulgarity, bravado, and sentiment one would find on any urban wall today. Salonen drew parallels between the purpose of this writing and the kind of information that predominates much of on-line social networking today. And while there may be some irony to setting Roman graffiti to music, it works in a surprisingly way as if to loudly proclaim "I am here." As the piece unfolds, the vocal lines go from feeling odd and disconnected to sounding somehow primal and unifying. Graffiti is the most humanistic of works in its attempts to find a common lived experience between thousands of years in the most unusual places.

And while I’m not always the biggest fan of humanism, I will admit I was taken with Lindberg’s Graffiti and was seduced by Salonen’s suggestion that it is truly a contemporary masterpiece. But whether it is or not, it made for a stirring companion with Bartók’s opera. Undoubtedly, this weekend’s L.A. Philharmonic performances are the best they’ve had in well over a year and missing it would definitely be an error of the greatest magnitude.

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Spoiler Alert

November 19, 2010

 
Paul McCarthy's "Santa Claus" as seen in Wunderbaum's Looking for Paul

Just when I thought 2010 would end without me seeing a naked man in a pirate mask have the pickle he’s penetrating himself with bitten in two by another actor covered in ketchup and hay, I am reminded of life's little surprises. For a show about the politics of public art and social conflict that starts out with a statue of a gnome holding a butt plug, I guess the former scenario seems like a natural place to go. The most audacious occasion of the year in theater may well be a performance entitled Looking for Paul presented by the Dutch theater collective called Wunderbaum who are completing a three-week residency in Los Angeles with these performances at REDCAT downtown. The troop is known for challenging works that don’t shy away form confrontation or politics and often arise from a chaotic collective process. They've been here before in 2006 with a decidedly tamer show called Lost Chord Radio about the American West. This weekend's performance is quite a step up from that on just about every level.

Looking for Paul starts innocently enough with a woman who looks very much like Wunderbaum troop member Maartje Remmers but whom the audience is told is actually an everyday Dutch bookstore and cat owner, Inez van Dam. Ms. van Dam has a bone to pick with legendary Los Angeles-based artist Paul McCarthy. During a rather tongue in cheek slide show presentation on her beloved hometown of Rotterdam, Ms. van Dam eventually arrives at the source of her conflict and purported desire for revenge: a 20 foot bronze sculpture by McCarthy purchased with public monies by the city and placed directly outside her home and business. The catch is that McCarthy’s creation, entitled “Santa Claus” features a whimsical gnome holding a bell in one hand, and a giant butt plug in the other. It’s hard to miss and Inez van Dam tells us that this avant-garde artwork by a highly regarded international artist is pretty much a constant buzz kill. In the story that follows, Ms. van Dam befriends the members of Wunderbaum and is then brought to Los Angeles with them as part of a three week residency, paid for in part by public funding here in L.A., where she and the troupe have decided to forgo the performance originally planned for their REDCAT appearance, Venlo in favor of a new work, Looking for Paul in which issues about public art, funding, social justice, celebrity, and the world of international art are all taken on simultaneously.

As is probably apparent by now, Looking for Paul thrives on blurring the line between the nugget of truth and a huge amount of arch put-on to flesh out their tale. It's a play about the creation of the play itself. The four actors in Wunderbaum plus local actor/activist John Malpede whom they recruit for the project on their arrival, proceed to read a script we are told is culled from e-mails sent to one another over this three week period describing the development of Looking for Paul. This extended dialog, delivered by the five performers seated in lawn chairs at the foot of the stage, is often riotously funny in its broad swipes at just about everyone including McCarthy, the art world, Los Angeles politicians, the culture of celebrity, and Lady Gaga. The troupe describes its research process by which they interview several Los Angeles theater players to learn more about arts funding in the U.S. and to obtain material for the show itself. This self-referential comedy escalates as Inez aligns with the actors for a commando PR “revenge” campaign against McCarthy while wildly struggling for something, anything to do for their upcoming performance at REDCAT. Arguments ensue, dreams of Hollywood stardom rise and fade, the politics of art are debated, and delicious food is consumed all over town.

In the end, the troupe agrees to reenact a purported performance from one of McCarthy’s own recent video works as the conclusion of Looking for Paul. The five actors reappear in trademark McCarthy masks for a version of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with all of the scatological, consumerist critique associated with McCarthy’s video work. Chocolate, ketchup and (what I assume is fake) feces are smeared everywhere and over everyone as mostly naked actors copulate with haystacks and each other screaming out for "room service" with just a little bit of Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” thrown in for good measure. And this is where we came in. It’s simultaneously homage and parody and one that both upends and recapitulates the very debate over public funding of potentially offensive art laid out at the start of the piece. The piece undeniably looks and smells like McCarthy's work, but it is simultaneously peppered with references to the L.A. story just spun out before the audience. And just as an added layer of irony for the evening, Mr. McCarthy was in attendance at REDCAT on Thursday when I saw the show. What he made of all this, I don't know since he himself is a character in the L.A. narrative part of the evening as member's of Wunderbaum actually contact and meet the artist as part of their preparations.

Wunderbum’s Looking for Paul is a meta-theatrical experience that revels in its ambiguity and gleefully blurs the line between the real and theatrical artifice. It raises intelligent questions in an unexpected way and wisely never takes itself too seriously. But it is undoubtedly a serious performance and for anyone with an interest in contemporary art it should be required viewing. There are two more chances to see Looking for Paul: Friday, November 19, and Saturday, November 20.

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Ashes of American Flags

November 18, 2010

 
Avery Roberts, Tony Arnold and members of the L.A. Philharmonic New Music Groups with Jean-Michaël Lavoie Photo: mine 2010

The music of American iconoclast George Crumb was the focus of this week’s “Green Umbrella” contemporary music program hosted by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Tuesday. More specifically, the evening consisted of two of the composer’s song cycles, perhaps some of his best-known and most-appreciated music. Crumb, of course, is a 20th-century musical deconstructionist par excellence from the extended playing techniques of his scoring to the spiraling visual artworks of the printed scores themselves. The evening was led by French-Canadian conductor Jean-Michaël Lavoie, and the primary vocalist for the evening was soprano Tony Arnold, an expert in this corner of the musical world.

The first half of the show consisted of The River of Life (Songs of Joy and Sorrow) the first volume of an extended project originally conceived on a much smaller scale for his daughter Ann. (Another volume of the series will feature prominently in next year’s Ojai Festival in a performance with this year’s music director, Dawn Upshaw.) The American Songbook series is one that wears Crumb’s love of Charles Ives on his sleeve. Crumb takes traditional American songs, largely preserving their vocal lines and melodies, and tosses the rest out the window scoring them for piano and a huge array of percussion instruments, creating dark, brooding, discordant and sometimes jarring music underneath the surface. The principle drama in these songs stems from the contrast between the pretty and often simple vocal lines placed against markedly dissimilar music. The arrangements can be brilliant at times, especially when Crumb’s music changes the context of the song as it does with “Give Me That Old Time Religion.” The unquestioning faith of the original takes an ironic tone in a somewhat menacing setting complete with a skipping and repeating segment of lyrics at the end taken from Crumb’s own memory of a scratched recording of the song familiar to him from his childhood. Arnold was equally able to turn other songs into the most spiritual meditations. Although she occasionally got lost in the sound, she provided needed ballast throughout the set. And though many of the other songs in The River of Life were equally beautiful, at just around an hour, these 9 songs did run the risk of seeming just a bit gimmicky by the end.

After a break, Arnold returned with a few more players including a prepared guitar and harp for Ancient Voices of Children, a song cycle from 1970 that also calls for a child soprano who in this instance was the impressive Avery Roberts. The young man availed himself splendidly in a high-pressure situation singing both off stage and then later directly into the strings of a prepared piano. Unlike the American Songbook Series, Ancient Voices is entirely original music set to the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca. It is also more of a unified work expounding on Lorca’s themes of innocence, both lost and found, in the human soul. Crumb punctuates some of the most pointed moments in the text about the metaphorical death of children with the sound of a toy piano. Again Ancient Voices has a dark, sonorous feel to it and, like the other songs on the program, has a rather concrete, almost didactic approach to its lyrical content. Despite the thirty years separating the two cycles, Crumb's ability to create a surprisingly meditative sound from the most unexpected instruments remained in tact and made for a solid Tuesday evening.

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10 Questions for...
Ben Heppner

November 17, 2010

 
Ben Heppner Photo: Sebastian Hanel

It’s a big couple of weeks for fans of Wagner’s music in Los Angeles as L.A. Opera welcomes Lohengrin back to the stage this Saturday. And perhaps the main source of the excitement is the local debut of Canadian tenor Ben Heppner who’ll be singing the title role. He faces virtually no serious competition for the title of world’s leading Wagnerian tenor, and though his performances as Tristan are legendary, his Lohengrin is perhaps the role he has been most closely associated with for nearly two decades. With this kind of reputation, it might be easy to overlook the varied Italian, French, and Russian roles he has excelled at all over the world. He’ll be singing Lohengrin and Tristan in Munich later this season and will also be in London next summer as Peter Grimes at The Royal Opera House. After that, if you believe the gossip you read on the internets, he may be bringing his Siegfried to the Metropolitan Opera in 2011. His appearances in Los Angeles are long overdue and it’s a great opportunity for local audiences to hear one of the world’s great living voices right here in our own backyard.

Out West Arts posed its "10 Questions” to Mr. Heppner this week:

1. What role would you most like to perform, but haven’t yet?
I sing most of the operas that are of the greatest interest to me already. However, there are a few titles that would be interesting to me. I have always thought that my voice and musical feeling would suit French repertoire. So Le Cid seems like a good choice. Also, to sing Paul in Die tote Stadt.

2. What role would you never perform, even if you could?
Nothing comes to my mind except perhaps Pelléas. Someone once said it is like Parsifal without the laughs! I have referred to it as ”Vocal Novocain” :)

3. What’s the best thing about singing Wagner?
I love the feeling of being in the middle of the musical texture. With Wagner, there are very few times when the orchestra acts as the accompanying instrument, so the singer is part of the orchestra most of the time. Also, I love the challenge of strategizing my way through a role, and each time you sing a Wagner opera there is a new challenge. Nothing is guaranteed.

4. What’s the best thing about singing something other than Wagner?
I get to go home much earlier!

5. You’ve been singing Lohengrin for more than two decades. How has your relationship to the role changed over time?
Lohengrin does seem much easier now. It is one of Wagner's shorter operas and I find that Act 2 is not as intense as it once was. I can go more places with the character of Lohengrin than I once did. I see more humanity in him than at first. There is great hurt for Lohengrin in having to reveal his name and origin. He loves Elsa and saw things finishing in a much better way.

6. Which music made you want to sing opera?
Country and western music. I hate country and western music...

7. Earlier this year, you had a big success with the role of Captain Ahab in Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick. The next role written especially for you should be...
I think that I would like to do a world figure like De Gaulle or Churchill.

8. Your iPod is destroyed by a vengeful mezzo. Which lost tracks would you miss most?
You’re expecting me to obsess about opera here? I would miss the great jazz and gospel music that I have put on the iPod.

9. What's your current obsession?
I suppose the easy answer would be motorcycles. However, I have recently started doing some radio shows in both classical music and jazz. I'm hoping that I can do more of that down the road.

10. With which of your operatic roles do you have the most in common?
Early on in my career I got to sing Walther von Stolzing in Die Meistersinger. From the moment I got to know that character, I felt a kinship. Like Walther, I didn't have the inside knowledge of most of the up and coming opera stars or a pedigree with elite teachers and institutions. I knew that I had a great love—singing. It was this love of singing that helped me hang on when things didn't always go my way.

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All By Myself

November 16, 2010

 
Alexei Lubimov at MEC Photo: mine 2010

On Monday, Los Angeles’ home for contemporary classical music, Monday Evening Concerts, returned to Zipper Concert Hall downtown for its new season. The occasion was marked with a piano recital from Alexei Lubimov and was dedicated to the recently-passed legendary promoter of all things musical in L.A. (including MEC), Ernest Fleischmann. Lubimov, who made his name bucking authority in the former Soviet Union by playing frowned upon Western contemporaries like Cage and Ligeti, was the ideal choice for a show honoring a man who certainly went his own way advocating for the future of music here in L.A. The program was a thoughtful and intelligent one entitled “The Messenger” that Lubimov had also performed in New York last week as part of the Lincoln Center’s “White Light Festival.” The nine short solo works on the bill covered three centuries of music from C.P.E. Bach and Chopin to Cage, Galina Ustvolskaya, and Valentin Silvestrov. Lubimov has made wonderful recordings of these 20th-century composers as well as the likes of Arvo Pärt on the ECM label, and are all worthy of a listen.

Lubimov’s playing is crisp and clean and above all else quite meditative in this context. But what I admired most about the program was his intention to go beyond simply pointing out musical similarities between the works from different centuries. Instead, as he noted in his own translated program notes, he was looking for something different that unfurled or played out across the 9 pieces, played without an intermission. Central to this was the concept that all of the selections were written in the most personal way, solely for the satisfaction of the composer him or herself. He invited the audience to think of them as “a diary not meant for publication, in which you note down only what is most personal.” The point, however, is not to learn something about each composer’s inner psychology, but instead to examine the process of self-exploration itself.

Some of the short works like C.P.E. Bach’s Fantasia in F-sharp minor sound as if they could have been written sometime in the last two decades, while others, such as Georgs Pelecis’ Suite No. 3 from 1985 could sound particularly Classical in manner. But there was always another layer in the works and their performance that addressed the idea of communication with the past. This could be quite literal at times as with the intensely beautiful Nostalgia of Tigan Mansurian from 1976. Not all of the personal musical reflections were wistful, though. Galina Ustvolskaya’s Sonata No. 6 consists primarily of chords and notes played with forearms and open hands pounding on the keyboard at ffff. This rageful cry was broken by the veritable church bells of Arvo Pärt’s Für Alina. The cycle ended with Valentin Sivestrov’s The Messenger, a set of Mozart-inspired vignettes played on a completely closed piano like some mammoth, sad music box. The music is both familiar but distant at the same time and represents what Lubimov argues in his notes a refutation of oblivion stating “it is enough to fling a window open, to strike a match, to look at a cloud, to hear a triad, for memories…to start working a miracle.” Hearing Lubimov play these works was a kind of miracle, one that reinforced how even the most jarring and discordant of contemporary sounds, ones that are often ascribed to modern malaise and dysphoria, have just as much to say to us about hope and the possible. And it was a wonderful start to another season of Monday Evening Concerts.

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Keeping Your Options Open

November 15, 2010

 
Susanna Mälkki and members of the L.A. Philharmonic Photo: mine 2010

Recently, a fellow blog reader and writer asked me whom I might like to see as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic other than Gustavo Dudamel. As regular (or even occasional) readers may know, I am no great fan of Dudamel here in Los Angeles. My efforts to offer his services in an amicable trade for other music directors around the country have been routinely rebuffed by friends and fellow music lovers. I was able to generate a significant number of names for a possible L.A. replacement featuring a wide range of people. But this weekend I realize I forgot one – Susanna Mälkki. A young woman on the rise, Mälkki has proven herself with numerous contemporary music assignments as well as on podiums of the world’s biggest orchestras in recent years. She has been the music director of the Ensemble Intercontemporain since 2006. The Finnish conductor made her local debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic this weekend in a varied program that showcased both her affinity and acumen with contemporary music as well as her ability to martial a steady hand and firm control of a big Romantic masterwork.

The new music on the program was a U.S. Premiere of a Los Angeles Philharmonic co-commission from composer Mark-Anthony Turnage. Hammered Out received its first performance earlier this year at the Proms in London and like much of Turnage’s work, it shows an interest in popular American musical idioms. While jazz influences are common for him, Hammered Out is particularly infatuated with the kind of rhythmic devices used in contemporary popular R&B. Turnage himself mentions the influence of artists such as James Brown in a work like this and the intersecting percussion and horn parts made for an energetic cacophony if not one usually associated with the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Mälkki rose to the occasion here keeping everything together. Tight playing is one thing for a 5 to 20-piece ensemble backing up a singer like James Brown. Doing the same thing with nearly 100 orchestra musicians is quite another, and Mälkki exercised great control.

At the other end of Sunday’s program was another large scale work, Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra. Certainly, it’s a familiar piece for the audience, and Mälkki kept the tone poem firmly rooted in its Romantic heritage. Again there was a controlled clarity and even-handedness that has been desperately lacking this season at Walt Disney Concert Hall. It was a lovely energy and a lovely performance. The rest of the show belonged to the first Mozart Violin Concerto with soloist and concertmaster Martin Chalifour. He played with an energetic and appropriately light touch for a work that rested comfortable in the middle of two much bigger endeavors. Let’s hope Susanna Mälkki is one name we see back on programs here soon.

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Siempre Viva

November 14, 2010

 
Miro Dvorsky and Karita Mattila Photo: Cory Weaver/SF Opera 2010

One of the joys of opera is that any single performance can strive for perfection, but only rarely is it achieved due to a very long list of artistic variables. When it does happen, it is an absolute thrill. So I'm happy to report that the new production of Leoš Janáček’s The Makropulos Case that opened in San Francisco this week is about as close as one can hope to get to operatic perfection. It’s a dense tale of a woman who had something close to perpetual youth forced upon her only to discover over three hundred years later that maybe immortality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Yet despite this weighty material and a fair amount of depravity, The Makropulos Case makes for one riveting evening in the theater.

The starring role of Emilia Marty, an opera singer of many more years than she would readily admit, is sung by soprano Karita Mattila with such searing clarity and ease that it cuts right through you like a cold North wind. Mattila's beautiful voice is only that much more remarkable considering the high level of physicality she puts into this part, frequently moving about the stage in an almost athletic way. Mattila is taking on this Janáček role for the first time after hugely successful turns as both Jenufa and Kátya Kabanová. With an Emilia Marty this significant under her belt, it can now be said she has done more for the 20th-century operatic masterpieces of Leoš Janáček than anyone since Elisabeth Söderström. Of course, San Francisco has a history of excellent Janáček productions due in no small part to the work of Sir Charles Mackerras who was the company’s principal guest conductor from 1993 to 1999 and to whose memory this run of The Makropulos Case is dedicated. I for one can not think of a finer tribute.

Mattila is surrounded by a wonderful cast including Gerd Grochowski as Baron Prus and Miro Dvorsky as Albert Gregor. But her best companions in this tour de force are director Olivier Tambosi and conductor Jiří Bělohlávek. Tambosi, who has directed Mattila in Janáček operas with great success in the past has placed the action amongst a set of large curved walls that rotate, revealing the various interiors described in the libretto, including the massive law office of the first Act. When the curtain first rises, these partitions rapidly spin around one another highlighting only the large glowing clock faces that dominate the wall of each set piece. The color scheme is largely balck and white with a gray scale gradient dominating the walls and set decoration. Soon Mattila enters the picture looking every bit like a young Kim Novac. When she sings her final aria she is draped in a floor-length white gown and her short blond hair is set off in the intense glow of white lighting from above. It is a striking image like so many in this production.

Jiří Bělohlávek is known for his interpretations of Janáček and he is the clear heir to the Mackerras legacy. The orchestra played beautifully in a score that calls for their musical contribution to almost act as an entirely separate character in the drama. Much like the staging, everything in the pit worked beautifully well with the other elements of the production. The show leaves you exhilarated and is undoubtedly one of the best productions seen on the San Francisco stage in the last five years. There are four more performances of The Makropulos Case through November 28. If I could, I’d see every one of them. You should make an effort to at least see one.

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The Power of One

November 13, 2010

 
Ainhoa Arteta and Plácido Domingo Photo: Cory Weaver/SF Opera 2010

I’m in San Francisco this weekend for a number of reasons. None of them are to hear Rufus Wainwright perform his new Five Shakespeare Sonnets with the San Francisco Symphony. Instead, I felt my time was much better spent catching Placido Domingo in Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac. I know, this is old news. In fact on Friday’s closing performance I did feel a bit like I was the last opera fan who hasn’t seen the world’s most well-known opera performer in this role he's taken everywhere in recent years. And I can confirm that virtually everything that you’ve heard about Cyrano is true. Alfano’s opera in and of itself is rather dreadful. The libretto, by Henri Cain, is fine as is Rostand’s original source material. But the music is sadly insubstantial, never really building to anything or unifying the action on stage.

But the opera has had its champions and you could not ask for a bigger one than Placido Domingo who is making his first San Francisco Opera appearance in over a decade. He is the show here. And what a show it is. I could go on about the high quality of his vocal performance, but instead lets talk about his masterful acting skills. He is a performer who knows how to draw the crowd into him using more than just his voice. He fills the stage with his presence even when he is playing a character that often struggles to stay on the romantic sidelines. Watching him made me think how lucky we are in Los Angeles where Domingo’s role as General Director of the Los Angeles Opera has brought him to the stage there in so many roles over the last decades. Getting bodies in seats is a priority for every opera company right now and the power of Domingo in this respect is on full display in San Francisco. A little-known opera with no stars would mean empty seats anywhere right now, and yet the entire run has been nearly sold-out on Domingo's name alone. And watching him as Cyrano de Bergerac makes that all seem perfectly logical.

Interestingly, the other elements in this production were all quite good. Petrika Ionesco’s direction and set design were detailed, grand and lively. Imported from Paris’ Théatre du Chatelet, it’s a pointed reminder that a true-to-period production does not need to be static or boring. There’s tons of movement and a huge cast who are managed impressively throughout. The rest of the cast sounded solid even up against an opera superstar. Ainhoa Arteta sang the part of Roxane and Chrstian by Thiago Arancam, both of who made the most of sometimes meager-sounding vocal lines. Patrick Fournillier conducted an orchestra that was committed and clean sounding in music that was typically neither. On balance though, I’ve seen far worse star-vehicles (Fleming in Rossini’s Armida anyone?) And while I don’t know how many more Cyranos Domingo may or may not have on his schedule, wherever he appears, I’m sure there will be long lines of people still wanting to hear him.

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The Agony and the Ecstasy

November 11, 2010

 
From Ralph Lemon's How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere? at REDCAT Photo: Ralph Lemon

Los Angeles is extremely lucky to have the work of artist Ralph Lemon in performance at REDCAT this week. His latest piece, How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere?, opened with the first of four performances on Wednesday at the black box theater downtown. It is fresh, exciting, and perhaps one of the best dance pieces seen in L.A. this year. Of course, to call How Can You Stay a dance work woefully misses the point. Lemon has always worked in a wide variety of forms, both performance based and otherwise, and while his six member dance troupe does occupy the largest part of this evening there is a lot more going on.

In fact there are almost too many things going on to wrap your head around. Lemon and his troupe, Cross Performance, are addressing themes of personal loss, death, and the limits of art in expressing these things. In fact Lemon, who appears in the first and last segments of the show, makes no secret of the specifics of how he personally fits into this conversation. Two central figures in Lemon’s life, his partner Asako Takami and collaborator/subject/muse Walter Carter, both died in the interim between his last major work, 2004’s Come Home Charley Patton, and the debut of How Can You Stay this year. Lemon details some of the personal and artistic details of this period in live commentary to the film “Sunshine Room” that represents the first part of How Can You Stay. In addition to these personal recollections, Lemon also discusses elements of Charley Patton and how the new work developed from it. “Sunshine Room” also includes footage of Walter Carter, a former Mississippi sharecropper born in 1908, and his wife Edna who are enlisted to re-enact scenes from Tarkovsky’s 1972 science fiction film Solaris, another seminal work about death and what follows it for the living.

If you’re getting the impression this is heady stuff, you’re right. But it’s provoking, challenging, and suggests far more questions than it answers. As "Sunshine Room" ends, the dancers appear live on stage and delve into a somewhat formless flailing that has the appearance of an improvisation. This uncoordinated lunging picks up where Charley Patton left off with Lemon and his troupe looking for a new language of movement. It would be fair to argue they may have achieved one. The choreography feels exciting and unpredictable. Lemon describes the movement at one point as intending to mimic ecstasy, and he has a point. It can be physically exhausting to watch, but the energy is unique. At one point a dancer wails into a piece of clothing held to his mouth. Later, another stands on stage alone and wails with body-wrenching sobs, her back to the audience until she reaches for a tambourine which goes unplayed. In the conclusion to How Can You Stay, video projections of Lemon in a hare costume (another of the work’s central motifs) intermingles with the white ghostly images of animals until they all disappear only to be replaced by Lemon in the flesh. He and a female dancer enact a series of slow, more methodical stances until he lies on the floor. The final spoken words of the evening include Lemon proposing answers to the very questions he has spent the prior 90-minutes asking – Yes, Yes, Whoa, and Yes. In the face of the endlessly unbelievable arrival of death, there is little else but to go on living, Lemon seems to suggest. How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere? is complex and fascinating to watch mostly because it so artfully poses the questions that often serve as their own answers. I highly recommend it, and runs through Sunday the 14th.


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Black and White and Read All Over

November 10, 2010

 
Bonita Friedericy in futura Photo: Ed Krieger/Boston Court 2010

The Theater at Boston Court in Pasadena is wrapping up a notable year this weekend with the final performances of Jordan Harrison’s new play, futura. It’s the fourth premiere in a row for Pasadena’s most adventurous theater company who seems to be expanding under the artistic direction of Michael Michetti and Jessica Kubzansky as quickly as other companies are shrinking in today’s rocky waters. And while I’ve not been completely sold on every minute of every show from this year, there is no lack of ambition in anything this company puts on and everything that hits this Pasadena stage looks like a million bucks.

Harrison’s futura is no exception and for my money it’s probably the best of the plays Boston Court has mounted this year. That’s not to say it’s without problems, but it starts with an engaging and good idea and manages to build on it. The title is a reference to the type font designed by Paul Renner in 1927. The play starts with a long monologue in the form of a course lecture delivered by the professor, the play’s main character, played by Bonita Friedericy. I know it sounds like a non-starter. But it’s a surprisingly effective device thanks to Friedericy’s on target vision of academia and a script that manages to be suggestive enough of a larger narrative without becoming more than it should be. It’s through this introduction that the audience learns what it needs to know about the history of typography and what has led up to this point in the somewhat distant future where books are banned on environmental grounds and an evil corporation is making a play for the control of all collective knowledge. It’s a dystopian vision that plays on the bourgeois fears that printed material is disappearing in favor of a shared, changeable digital experience. True, Harrison may be making a mountain out of a molehill, but the professor sucks you in just like the other students in her class with a tale of the politics of how we write with physical pen to physical paper.

From here the play gets a little dicier over a number of scenes where terrorists and subterfuge raise their heads in a rather compressed and convoluted sequence of events. It’s the kind of thing that gets a little hard to accept even within the context of a futuristic science fiction storyline. Things change fast and you’re at the conclusion of this quick 90 minutes wondering how all of it came together. Still despite the rapid jumps in narrative and logic, there are a lot of interesting ideas running around in the subtext of futura and under director Jessica Kubzansky, the cast plunges into them headfirst with an amazing clarity and economy. Even at its most paranoid, futura manages to keep you interested and thinking. The current run has been extended for another weekend in Pasadena through the 14th and is worth seeing.

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Everyone Else is Doing It, So Why Can't We

November 09, 2010

 

Of course, the big news today is that the Los Angeles Philharmonic is jumping into the live broadcast business that so many other performing arts organizations have hurled themselves into in recent years. Ever since the Metropolitan Opera’s “Live in HD” series first brought complete opera broadcasts to one’s local Cineplex, opera and theater organizations around the world have been quick to follow suit in equal or lesser ways. Now the L.A. Philharmonic intends to jump into the fray with "L.A. Phil Live" to take a “major step in establishing a national brand for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel” as L.A. Philharmonic president Deborah Borda was quoted in the Los Angeles Times. Funny, and here I thought it was about playing great music superbly. I suspect the brand they have in mind is something like Rolls Royce, but these days with Dudamel in charge it runs the risk of being Dodge.

The three Dudamel-led shows will all be Sunday matinees and will include perhaps the most banal programming on this season’s L.A. Phil schedule. The January 9 show includes John Adams’ Slonimsky’s Earbox, Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1 and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. March 13 will bring an all-Tchaikovsky program of works based on Shakespeare and the final broadcast on June 5 will be Brahms and more Brahms, with a double concerto for violin and cello and his Symphony No. 4. This last program was originally scheduled to include the world premiere of Gorecki’s Symphony No. 4 that has been postponed due to reports that the work will not be ready on time. Tickets for the theater broadcasts will range between 18 and 22 dollars depending on where you live and the L.A. Philharmonic organization reports the shows will feature extras including behind the scenes access and rehearsal footage.

I suppose the good news given the underwhelming musical track record Dudamel has established here in L.A. so far, is that there will apparently be enough rehearsal to actually get some footage to begin with. As the Orange County Register’s Tim Mangan recently pointed out, Dudamel hasn’t really been around enough yet to develop much of a sound with the orchestra and performances under his guidance this season, like last, have been wanting in the rehearsal time department. But who knows? Maybe people across America are eagerly awaiting this opportunity for “establishing a national brand” on a late Sunday afternoon. Or as Deborah Borda notes in her video on the L.A. Phil website for the broadcasts, Dudamel “has somehow set a fire throughout the United States, and, of course, in Los Angeles, about the meaning of music and the message of its humanity and what it can bring.” And if you have any idea how run-of-the-mill and likely under-rehearsed Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and Brahms will achieve that, please don't keep it a secret. Godspeed to the L.A. Phil on their theater broadcast venture. I suspect they’ll need it. But by all means, don't take my word for it, check out the broadcasts yourself and come back sometime and tell me what you think.

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Trois Couleurs

November 08, 2010

 
Grant Gershon and members of the LA Master Chorale Photo: mine 2010

The Los Angeles Master Chorale continued its current season, the tenth under music director Grant Gershon, on Sunday night. This season’s programs have been packaged around a “nations of the world” theme, and last night the focus was on French composers. The performance was dominated by composers from the 16th Century, well before the invention of the Tricolor flag featured on the cover of the evening’s program. Gershon has aggressively and rightly pushed the Chorale to form more contemporary music and new commissions and this evening was a reminder of how well they manage some core choral repertory works. Best of all it was an a capella evening where the chorale is able to soar without the weight of an ad hoc orchestra ensemble.

The evening started with Josquin’s Missa de Beata Virgine whose movements were interlaced with Duruflé’s Quatre Motets sur des Thèmes Gréforiens. Gershon noted from the stage that movements in a mass are rarely performed in a continuous sequence as they are in most secular settings, so interspersing Josquin’s 16th-century music with Duruflé’s 20th-century take on music from the same period made sense. The change between the two composers’ works was in fact less pronounced than one might think. And while the chorus perhaps could have used a little more fine tuning in rehearsal, the diction was good and the sound was beautiful.

After the break came a grab bag of 16th-century chanson, both sacred and profane. The works ranged from the familiar, Passereau’s Il est bel et bon, to the poignant, Phinot’s pleurez mes yeux, to the ribald and comic, Sermisy’s Martin menait son pourceau. (The last number here concerns the problems two young country lovers encounter securing a piglet so they can sneak off for a quick roll in the hay.) The set ended with feats of technical wizardry from the chorale with Janequin’s Le Chant des Oiseaux in which the vocalists weave and intermingle through a series of various bird sounds. This great fun was followed by Ravel’s Trois Chansons, which were a little less picturesque and a bit more pointed, considering the time of their composition during WWI. It’s evenings like these that continues to make the Los Angeles Master Chorale one of the best Sunday nights in town.

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My 20th Century

November 07, 2010

 
Pablo Heras-Casado, Peter Serkin, and members of the L.A. Philharmonic Photo: mine 2010

As I’ve noted here already, November promises the return of Esa-Pekka Salonen to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the orchestra he transformed into one of the best in the world, for two weeks of programming. And while those concerts are two weeks off, you’d think he was already here given this weekend’s program of 20th century works with a focus on Debussy and Stravinsky. Instead, the conductor was Pablo Heras-Casado, a young conductor increasingly in demand here. And while the show was not a recreation of the one from only a few years past, it was very well played and highly satisfying.

Debussy’s Jeux set an impressionistic tone to the evening. The strings in particular produced such a lovely sound for this more suggestive than formally structured work. Following this were two concertos for piano with guest soloist Peter Serkin. The first was Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments which provided a nice contrast to the Debussy with its neo-classical references. Serkin’s playing was fleet and grand when it most needed to be. After the intermission, the players offered Takemitsu’s riverrun from 1984. Takemitsu takes up the impressionism of Debussy and infuses it with his own cultural perspective. The theme here is water, and the slow quiet dripping of notes from Serkin’s piano was mesmerizing. It was clearly the high point of the whole night and reason enough to see the show.

Heras-Casado closed the program with Stravinsky’s 1919 Firebird Suite. It’s the third time this year the work has made it into an Los Angeles Philharmonic program, which would be something to complain about if it weren’t such a great piece of music to begin with. I didn’t find Heras-Casado’s take the most convincing of the three. (The other two belonged to Lionel Bringuier in May and Bramwell Tovey at the Hollywood Bowl in September.) Although it still stirred up plenty of excitement, the entrances were often sloppy, a problem that is increasingly chronic across shows and conductors this season in Los Angeles. The horns sounded hesitant and unsettled at times and Heras-Casado could have made much more dramatically out of the last movement. On balance, though, it was a satisfying evening and perhaps one of the most rewarding from the L.A. Philharmonic yet this fall.

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Under Water

November 06, 2010

 
Rodrick Covington, Erich Bergen, and Javier Munoz in Venice Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2010

I’ve got nothing against updating a classic work in order to increase its relevance and/or appeal to a modern audience. In fact, I don’t have a problem with substantially changing a revered standard for effect either, most times. But like everything in life, you can go too far, and exhibit A this week is Venice the new musical from Matt Sax and Eric Rosen now playing at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City. The source material is Shakespeare’s Othello, which is just as likely as anything to make a good musical in today’s theater world. (I mean if someone is willing to commit Chekhov’s The Seagull to the musical stage why not Othello?) It doesn’t make a good one in this instance, but you can’t blame anyone for not trying.

Sax and Rosen take Othello and transport it to the de rigeur unspecified future dystopia. If you ever though Shakespeare was too stingy with characters, sub-plots, and narrative turns, Venice might be the show you’ve been waiting for. It’s crammed to the rafters with a war between unspecified parties, refugees, terrorist bombings, vengeful half-brothers, and peace movements to top off all the standard elements of the original. Did I mention musically it comes from the hip-hop vernacular? Oh yes it does - complete with dancing drill teams in fatigues like in an 80s music video and even a Lil’ Kim-inspired character. It’s not that any individual element in the show is a bad idea; it’s just that all of them at the same time definitely are. Worse yet, the dialog is often fleshed out with clichés from 20 years ago – “Print that in your papers” challenges Markos, the Iago character in Venice, to a group of journalists in a press conference scene. Even stranger, with virtually nothing removed from the basic Othello storyline, the authors did manage to remove perhaps the most critical element in the original play’s theme, the role of jealousy in the downfall of the title character and his family. Venice’s hero, Venice, seems almost entirely a victim of circumstance and his jealousy is inserted as almost an afterthought in the final scenes.

I wish I could say that the show was musically more satisfying. It is not wince inducing, but with so much ready-made excellent hip hop available virtually on demand, the watered-down theater version needs to be quite a bit tighter to deliver the goods. Plus with lyrics like “The wind cries Willow, Willow, Willow/Get your head above the pillow, pillow, pillow” one begins to wonder who exactly this is supposed to appeal to. Not that the performances of the cast aren’t good. I was especially taken with Rodrick Covington’s Markos who had a quick mastery of the verbiage in his part and really connected the music to the feelings underneath. Matt Sax makes an appearance in the show himself as an almost completely superfluous narrator, Clown MC. It’s his show, so more power to him, but I’d suggest taking a lesson from Verdi at this point and revisiting Venice with a keen eye and a sharp pair of shears. It’s onstage through the 14th in Culver City.

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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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