Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

In The Wings - January '11

December 30, 2010

 
Christina Pluhar of L'Arpeggiata

It’s been a wet and rather poky December here in L.A., and I for one am ready for the New Year and a new start. Luckily, many of the city’s performing arts groups will be jumping right back into it as well so you may want to mark your calendars for some of the following events. Leading the way in the music department is the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which will present two weekends of programming under music director Gustavo Dudamel before heading out on a European tour later in the month. The first of these programs running Jan 6 through the 9th will include Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, along with Leonard Bernstein’s 1st and John Adams’ Slonimsky’s Earbox. As you probably know by now, this is also the program that will kick off the orchestra’s foray into live broadcasts into theaters on Jan 9 à la the Metropolitan Opera. The following week is all about Mahler’s 9th Symphony. Perhaps somewhat more interesting programs will crop up later in the month from other acts in Walt Disney Concert Hall as the Los Angeles Master Chorale presents an evening of English choral music on the 30th and Baroque ensemble L’Arpeggiata will arrive on the 19th. Outside of Walt Disney Concert Hall are two other recommended events. Monday Evening Concerts will welcome back the Argento Chamber Ensemble under Michele Galante for an evening built around Fausto Romitelli’s psychedelic Professor Bad Trip on Jan 10. And not to be outdone, the many musicians from CalArts will arrive en masse at REDCAT starting January 28 for three nights of the music of Iannis Xenakis.

The cast of Hair Photo: Joan Marcus

There’s also plenty of fresh theater around town as well. The Pantages Theater in Hollywood will host the national tour of Hair starting on Jan 5 after its well-received Broadway run. Meanwhile downtown, Center Theater Group will continue to put its faith and money behind big celebrity projects including a solo show from John Lithgow, Stories by Heart, starting on the 4th and Jane Fonda reprising her starring role in Moises Kaufman’s 33 Variations beginning on Jan 30. And not to be forgotten, South Coast Repertory will offer one of the month’s most exciting offerings with the West Coast premiere of Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation starting on Jan 9. There’s also the more off-the-beaten-track offering from the folks at REDCAT who will welcome Betontanc and Umka.lv for several performances of their puppetry-based Show Your Face! starting on Jan 19.

Rene Pape Photo: Lenny's Studio

On the opera front, L.A. Opera will be offering a recital from Rene Pape on the 15th while the region's other local companies gear up for their own Winter/Spring seasons. San Diego Opera will kick off this year with Puccini’s Turandot on Jan 29 starring Lise Lindstrom in the wake of her own success in New York in this title role. And on the same night, the always adventurous Long Beach Opera will offer the first of two performances of Luigi Cherubini’s Medea. As for me, I’m off to kick start 2011 in New York this weekend with Debussy’s Pélleas et Mélisande and the premiere of Willy Decker’s new production of Verdi’s La Traviata at The Metropolitan Opera this weekend. Around this will be some theater as well, hopefully including The Merchant of Venice and Charles Busch’s The Divine Sister. So stay tuned.

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My Ten and Only - Best of Theater '10

December 27, 2010

 
Scott Shepherd in Gatz Photo: Paula Court

If there was any theme to the best less-musically-oriented theatrical performances this year, it was that more is more. Many of the year’s highlights proved that scope and stamina can prove to be the deciding factor between success and failure on stage, and that numerous soft spots can often be outshone by a larger, greater project. But whether short or long, here’s a look back at my favorites in theater from 2010.

1) Gatz from Elevator Repair Service at The Public Theater, New York (10/10) A daylong marathon word-for-word reading of The Great Gatsby doesn’t sound like a great theater event, but a good book turned out to be the best thing I saw on stage all year. The ERS managed to make this transposition of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby from New England in the 20s to a modern day shabby office a sublime live experience. At the heart of this show is a magnificent performance from Scott Shepherd that provides both an everyman link to the narrative about the darker side of the American dream. So simple and yet so profound.

Members of Wunderbaum recreate the work of Paul McCarthy in Looking for Paul Photo: REDCAT/Wunderbaum

2) Looking for Paul from Wunderbaum at REDCAT (11/10) The return visit from this experimental Dutch theater collective was easily the funniest and most audacious thing I saw all year. In a broadly tongue-in-cheek exploration of issues related to public art and performance, the troupe took on the work of Los Angeles art legend Paul McCarthy both as a source of conflict and wellspring of inspiration. The recreation of McCarty’s take on Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that closed the evening was disgusting (in a good way) and unforgettable.

Zachary Quinto and Billy Porter Photo: Joan Marcus/Signature Theater 2010

3) Angles in America by Tony Kushner at The Signature Theater in New York (10/10) While it may not have lived up to everyone’s biggest expectations of a high-profile Broadway transfer, this intimate, stripped down revival proved undoubtedly that Kushner’s play is as important now as ever. And that there is a public very eager to experience all seven hours of it. A wonderful revival by any measure.

Judith Ivey and Patch Darragh Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2010

4) The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams at The Mark Taper Forum (9/10) This imported revival from New York included one of the best individual performances of the year from Judith Ivey who took a role known for its lack of histrionics and inviting the audience to identify directly with her, warts and all. The beautiful lighting, at times with nothing more than candles, created theatrical magic in the darkest and shabbiest of settings.

5) How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere? from Ralph Lemon/Cross Performance at REDCAT (10/10) Lemon and his troupe brought their cutting edge movement of freedom to Los Angeles in a multi-layered evening that covered loss, love and Tarkovsky’s Solaris. Undoubtedly the most thoughtful, complex, and amazing dance performance of the year.

Olga Wehrly and Tadhg Murphy in Penelope Photo: Robert Day

6) Penelope by Enda Walsh from the Druid Theater Company, St. Ann's Warehouse, New York (11/10) Homer's Odyssey gets the Walsh treatment with his characters' surreal gift of gab in this spectacular new play receiving its U.S. Premiere. Walsh loves to go for the biggest of issues, and this meditation on why we pursue love at all was hugely successful in a very good looking production.

7) American Night by Culture Clash at Oregon Shakespeare Festival (8/10) Los Angeles’ own comedy and theater collective traveled up to Oregon for the debut of a new work that kicked off the Festival’s “American Revolutions” initiative with the first in a series of play commissions on topics pertinent to American History. The show was one of many signs this year of the significant stamp that artistic director Bill Rauch is making on the festival. This hysterical and unabashedly political view of American history set a high standard for what’s to follow. It should be noted, as well, that OSF presented a superb version of Lynn Nottage’s Ruined this season.

Cloudia Swann and Tom McKay in Canopy of Stars from The Great Game: Afghanistan Photo: John Haynes

8) The Great Game: Afghanistan by various authors for the Tricycle Theater Company at Berkeley Repertory Theater (10/10) Another day long adventure that was equal parts teach-in, policy paper, and theatrical drama. This British import compiled of 12 brief one-acts by various authors reviewing the wide scope of Afghan history succeeded largely because of its perseverance and intensity, covering a topic in a huge amount of detail. It was unabashedly opinionated and certainly not what all audiences wanted to hear, but it was incredibly engrossing theater.

9) Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo by Rajiv Joseph at The Mark Taper Forum (4/10) The return of Joseph’s masterful tale of the Iraq war to Los Angeles the year after its local premiere proved that the play was in fact deserving of the Pulitzer Prize that it was passed over for this year. It will travel to Broadway in the Spring and will hopefully survive the requisite star casting of Robin Williams in the title role. Luckily, the rest of the original cast will stay intact, including the great Arian Moayed. So if you haven’t seen it yet, this should be one of your picks for 2011.

from Truth, Revised Histories, Wishful Thinking, and Flat Out Lies
Photo: Steven Gunther/John Jasperse Company 2010

10) Truth, Revised Histories, Wishful Thinking, and Flat Out Lies by John Jasperse Company at REDCAT (4/10) A vibrant, visually witty evening of dance from Jasperse and his troupe with more wry visual gags than most comedies can muster with pages of dialog. All that and sexy to boot. Another feather in REDCAT's cap this year.

Honorable Mentions: I'd be remiss not to mention The Wooster Group's important contributions to the theater scene here in L.A. this year with two visits at REDCAT. Elizabeth LeCompte and her troupe had two offerings this year, a revival of one of the group's oldest works, North Atlantic, and, in the Fall, the U.S. Premiere of their take on Tennessee Williams' Vieux Carré. Both shows were visually interesting and thoughtful. And while I found Vieux Carre´ surprisingly straight-forward compared to prior outings, the technologically savvy performances are always worth seeing.

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My Ten and Only - Best of Music '10

December 21, 2010

 
Linda Watson and Vitalij Kowaljow Photo: Monika Rittershaus/LAO

Oh it’s that time of year again. And, although my performance schedule for the last two weeks is in significant flux, I feel it’s time to make the call for this year’s top ten primarily music-related events. 2010’s denominator included 236 complete live performances of which 163 were either operas or musical concerts, be they “classic” or otherwise. (That’s 72 operas, and 91 concerts) Here’s what I thought was worth remembering this year:

1. Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen at L.A. Opera. 7/10 A monumental production from the mind of Achim Freyer that was so much more than an opera production. Not everything in the course of these many hours was perfect (Linda Watson and John Treleaven to name two), but Freyer managed to produce a work of art of his own that changed the way you thought about Wagner’s Ring. That is if you were willing to listen and think about something new. Like much great art, it was met with divisive opinions and sadly was not committed to video. But the company stuck its neck out in virtually every way for a huge artistic success. The only question now is how long we’ll have to wait for the show to return.

Karita Mattila and Gerd Grochowski Photo: Cory Weaver

2. Janáček’s The Makropulos Case at San Francisco Opera. 11/10 Operatic perfection - pure and simple. What’s more, Karita Mattila gave a definitive performance of Emilia Marty and further cemented her stature as an operatic legend with perhaps one of the most vocally and physically comprehensive performances you’ll ever see. Watch out New York, she’s on her way back with this achievement in tow.

Nina Stemme and Mark Delavan
Photo: Terrence McCarthy/SFO 2010

3. Nina Stemme’s Brünnhilde in Die Walküre at San Francisco Opera. 6/10 Talk about comprehensively great performances. Stemme made it clear that with Christine Brewer on the sidelines, no one currently singing this Mt. Everest of roles can even come close to her. Stemme manages so much beauty, ease, and outright lightness in this part that it actually sounded like the proverbial bel canto music Wagner thought he was writing. Sadly, New York, you’ll be missing out on this one for the foreseeable future. Get your San Francisco Opera Ring Cycle tickets now.

4. Georg Friedrich Haas’ String Quartet No. 3, subtitled In Iij. Noct performed by the JACK Quartet at Monday Evening Concerts. 4/10 The daring young men of the JACK Quartet let it all go for this hour long adventure played in total darkness. The MEC team spared no expense in creating an environment that was more than completely darkened, but one where it didn’t matter if your eyes were open or closed, it all looked the same. The audience, like the players were forced to listen in new ways and I was astonished to discover how dependent I am on visual cues even when listening to music.

Paulo Szot in The Nose
Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2010

5. Shostakovich’s The Nose at The Metropolitan Opera in New York. 3/10 William Kentridge’s irreverent, marauding production of this neglected masterpiece proved a perfect environment for the talents of baritone Paulo Szot in the leading role. Another opera where the art of the stage craft rivaled the art of the opera itself.

6. Purcell’s The Fairy Queen at BAM in New York. 3/10 William Christie and Les Arts Florissants returned to New York with the hit of the 2009 Glyndebourne Festival in the spring. A visually stunning, often outright hysterical staging of a sometimes ungainly work, Christie was in his element with Baroque music that sounded as lovely as one imagines it did hundreds of years ago.

Mojca Erdmann and Johannes Martin Kränzle Photo: Ruth Walz

7. Wolfgang Rhim’s Dionysus and String Quartets at the Salzburg Festival. 8/10 Rhim got the attention he deserves at a festival not nearly large enough to contain the music of this most prolific of living composers. Even the small fractions I was able to see left me desiring much more, though. His world premiere opera based on Nietzsche and his writings in a productions from Jonathan Meese was a hallucinatory shot in the arm. This was the life of the mind and easily the year's best new opera. The Arditti Quartet's take on his middle period String Quartets, also performed at the festival, was equally remarkable.

8. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings at the Wiltern Theater. 6/10 No one does it quite like Ms. Jones and the tightest band in America. The players returned to Los Angeles for an evening of their incomparable soul stylings that easily surpassed any other popular music I saw this year. (Though the xx on their first U.S. tour weren’t too shabby either.)


9. Louis Andriessen’s La Commedia with the ASKO/Schönberg Ensemble. 4/10 I know this is a bit of cheating considering this piece made the list in 2008 with the same soloists and conductor Reinbert De Leeuw. But this major recent operatic work, receiving its U.S. Premiere in a concert version without Hal Hartley’s companion video installation, was an event to remember. One of the great operas of the new century thus far. And if you don't believe me, just ask the folks who gave the Grawemeyer Award to Andriessen for this very piece this year.

10. Either Adams’ Nixon in China at Long Beach Opera 3/10 or Berg’s Lulu at the Metropolitan Opera. 5/10 You can choose between the two – I can’t. Long Beach Opera continued to thumb its nose at a bad economy with a big, good-looking production of a major 20th-century work on a shoe-sting budget managing to outclass 95% of everything put on stage by more comfortably funded organizations. Meanwhile, the Met used its formidable resources to dust off a relic of a production which was then lavished with musical qualities beyond compare, including the conducting of Fabio Luisi.

Most Overrated: I had a hard time with Anne Sofie von Otter nearly everywhere I saw her this year. Despite a reasonable Countess Geschwitz in that Met Opera Lulu, she was the weakest link in a number of concert performances including a French program from the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France with Myung-Whun Chung and then got drowned out by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Esa-Pekka Salonen as Judith in an otherwise superb version of Bartok’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. Here’s wishing her a better 2011.

Dudamel high point of the year: Leading Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs in 4/10 with Kelley O’Connor. Gustavo Dudamel continued to struggle in the first full calendar year in his tenure as music director with the L.A. Philharmonic. He and the orchestra were critically drubbed just about everywhere they went on a U.S. tour in the spring after an essentially free ride in the press here at home. Other writers have begun to question the effect of the allegedly small amounts of time he’s spent with the orchestra so far. The PR machine rolls on uninterrupted, however, with a plan for live concert broadcasts to theaters around the country next year and more DVDs than you can shake a stick at. Dudamel does have moments every now and then, though, and Lieberson’s Neruda Songs, which was featured as part of the “Americas and Americans” festival was one of those moments where you were tempted to think that there still might be some way he can make his tenure here something really worth hearing. His conducting during a concert performance of Bizet’s Carmen at the Hollywood Bowl this summer wasn’t half-bad either.

Honorable mentions: Riccardo Muti leading Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice and Claus Guth’s take on a start-studded Don Giovanni in Salzburg. The magnificent Lieder recital of Anja Harteros also in Salzburg. The Metropolitan Opera’s Der Rosenkavalier from way back in 1/10 and the Met Opera orchestra's two appearances at Carnegie Hall this year with Diana Damrau and later Pierre Boulez conducting Schoenberg’s Erwartung. Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten and Catan’s Il Postino, also helped to round out one of L.A. Opera's strongest years ever. San Francisco Opera’s production of Werther from 9/10. Messiaen’s Harawi presented by Piano Spheres with Vicki Ray and Elissa Johnston in 4/10. Oh, and the sound of bicycles swooshing by on Grand Avenue downtown in Mauricio Kagels’s Eine Brise in one of the many fun moments brought to us courtesy of Monday Evening Concerts.

Next up – the theater.


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2010 - The Good Parts 4

December 20, 2010

 

When you’re talking about good parts, it’s hard to avoid the topic of Jonas Kaufmann. At least in the world of opera these days. One of opera’s hottest commodities has only made a handful of U. S. appearances as his star has been on the rise with only a few Don Josés and Cavaradossis at the Met Opera this year. In 2011, his stateside schedule includes Siegmund in that same house’s new Die Walküre in the spring as well as a recital tour that will bring him to the West Coast at Cal Performances in Berkeley and Los Angeles Opera. But in the meantime, the fantastic Mr. Kaufmann appears as a feast for both eyes and ears in not one, but two new 2010 DVDs. First is Massenet’s Werther from Paris under the baton of Michel Plasson, a production that produced rave reviews and minted countless more Kaufmann fans. (There's a sample of this below.)


What's more, everything Kaufmann puts his voice to seems to become his. In fact, his excellence in the above mentioned French and Italian roles makes it almost easy to overlook his superiority in roles in his native tongue. This year it was all about his currently best-in-the-world Lohengrin that he sang at Bayreuth this summer after many rave reviews the prior year in Munich. The Munich production with the fantastic Anja Harteros in a Richard Jones production conducted by Kent Nagano was perhaps the best DVD release of the year.

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2010 - The Good Parts 3

December 19, 2010

 

The mystique around Christine Brewer seemed to cement itself in the collective mind of classical music listeners this year. Even The New York Times’ Anthony Tommasini lamented this year how the most important Wagnerian soprano of her generation has made only rare appearances in Wagner’s great roles and has yet to sing a complete Brünnhilde anywhere. We on the West Coast have been spoiled in the number and frequency of her appearances among friends like Donald Runnicles and the folks at Santa Fe Opera. Her Isolde, which she performed with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the L.A. Philharmonic on two separate occasions in 2006 and 2007 remain all-time high water marks in my history listening to music. (She also sang the role in 2006 in San Francisco under Runnicles.) This year she gave a searing performance of Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder in June in L.A. and appeared in Britten’s Albert Herring in Santa Fe over the summer. But perhaps her biggest gift to us this year was her fantastic disc of Strauss scenes on Telarc with Donald Runnicles conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Definitely among the year’s best. (The disc also features a cameo from Eric Owens, a bass-baritone who proved in the Metropolitan Opera's new Das Rheingold in September that he has an amazing career in Wagner ahead of him.) And if you need more evidence, below is a sample of Brewer from an appearance as The Dyer's Wife in Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten from the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2007.

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2010 - The Good Parts 2

December 18, 2010

 

Perhaps my favorite recording of the year, came from none other than the Los Angeles Philharmonic under former music director Esa-Pekka Salonen. It’s a live performance and world premiere recording of Arvo Pärt’s Symphony No.4 (on the ever impressive ECM label) commissioned by the L.A. Philharmonic and first performed here in early 2009. It’s a major work that is quiet, subtle, and meditative at turns. At the premiere, Pärt cast the work as a statement about freedom, dedicating it to Mikhail Khodorkovsky and using the occasion to point out the ways in which rights are abrogated in even the most supposedly civilized parts of the world. The symphony is both elegant and filled with the spiritual overtones Pärt’s work is best known for. And somehow, it even got a well-deserved Grammy nomination this year for Best Classical Contemporary Composition from an organization not known for its foresight and judgment in this corner of the music world. It should be a shoo-in for the prize, but even if it is not, you don’t need to be left out. There's a sample of the second movement from the Philharmonia Orchestra under EPS below.

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2010 - The Good Parts 1

December 17, 2010

 

As you may have noticed, I’ve been out of commission a lot over the last two weeks for reasons I am certain that you really do not want to hear about. The worst of these tribulations, however, has resulted in my eighty-sixing my New York sojourn this December, so I will not have the originally promised coverage of a number of items including the Met Opera’s revival of Pelléas et Mélisande under the guidance of Simon Rattle. So instead, over the next few weeks I’m going to highlight some of the best and worst of 2010 leading up to the Out West Arts top ten music and theater events of the year. To kick things off, I’d like to highlight two of the more notable DVD releases of this past year, both from Los Angeles Opera. The company has had a huge year artistically, although admittedly not without its controversies. One of the more notable fruits of their recent labors are a pair of DVD’s produced as part of music director James Conlon’s “Recovered Voices” series. Conlon has helmed several productions of operas from composers adversely affected by Germany’s Third Reic,h and two of these shows have made it to video for those of you who may have missed them.


First is a 2008 double bill featuring Viktor Ullmann’s brief comedy Der zerbrochene Krug and Alexander Zemlinsky’s far more substantial Der Zwerg. The latter features outstanding performances from Rodrick Dixon and Mary Dunleavy in a striking and quite affecting production inspired by Diego Velazquez’ Las Meninas. Conlon’s advocacy for Zemlinsky’s score is evident, and this is an excellent addition to the available recordings of the composer’s work. The other “Recovered Voices” project now out on DVD is a 2009 production of Walter Braunfels’ Die Vögel. Another operatic rarity, Braunfels’ fable proves to be musically substantial under Conlon’s attention, and the performance features a rising-star in Brandon Jovanovich. Like Der Zwerg, the production is directed by Darko Tresnjak, but this time around he is markedly less successful. Hampered by the steeply raked set for the concurrently running production of Achim Freyer’s vision of Wagner’s Ring cycle, Tresnjak creates a rather cloying, kitschy world for his mythological characters. Still, this is beautifully played and such a rarity is worth owning even if not in an ideal staging.

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A Life Less Ordinary

December 09, 2010

 
l-r: Jeremy Kushnier, Alice Ripley and Asa Somers Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2010

Next to Normal is a show that I’ve taken my sweet time to get around to seeing. Not unlike a Pulitzer Prize voter, I’ve put it off always feeling that there were better or more pressing options available to me at the times I was free to go. Maybe the subject matter was a little too close to home or my professional life. Well, the show with music by Tom Kitt and a book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey opened up its national tour in Los Angeles recently and with the show at my doorstep, I went. And while I won’t be casting a write in vote against more deserving works the next day, I will say I regret not seeing Next to Normal sooner. It’s a fascinating and frankly brave show that pushes forward even in a theater world long used to dark and unusual material at the center of its musical theater.

The story concerns an American family in its latest state of unraveling over the long-standing mental illness of its matriarch, Diana, who is played here by the actor who originated the role on Broadway, Alice Ripley. She’s excellent right down to the fractured quality of her voice and manages to stand out in a good way in the midst of a show with strength after strength. It’s best to go into this show with as little information as possible since many of its twists involve the revelations of the family’s shared history, which is known to all the show’s characters from square one but the audience is only made privy to bit by bit. The rest of the cast in this touring production is quite good and no one comes off as hammy or phony. I was particularly fond of Curt Hansen as Gabe, the son, and Asa Somers as Dan, Diana’s husband.

But perhaps the most rewarding aspects of the evening are the look and sound of it all. The scenic design by Mark Wendland under the direction of Michael Greif is sharp, attractive, and ultimately very powerful. The three story scaffolding set initially looks like not much of anything, but Kevin Adam’s lighting design and the judicious use of half-tone graphics create constantly changing and visually arresting images. But all of this would mean nothing without an extremely strong score. Kitt and Yorkey managed a largely sung-through evening that is both catchy and fresh. It’s never precious or cute, but can be very affecting at times. Most remarkable of al,l though, is how the show stares right into the heart of mental illness in an American family and doesn’t flinch. There’s no witty cynicism or easy platitudes here. Instead these are lives that are recognizable as ones we might know ourselves. The portrayal of people suffering with mental illness, their families, and the professionals they work with has a truer ring than most people would like to admit. But Next to Normal is eminently watchable and one very satisfying evening of musical theater. It may not sound like holiday fare, but it’s probably the best show you can see in Los Angeles over the holidays. Next to Normal runs at the Ahmanson Theater through January 2.

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Light at the End of the Universe

December 05, 2010

 
Stéphane Denève Photo: Drew Farrell/RSNO

It was another very good weekend at the Los Angeles Phiharmonic. I don’t know if everyone is feeling inspired after Esa-Pekka Salonen’s two week visit or if it's just the holiday spirit, but Saturday’s concert with guest conductor Stéphane Denève was often outright exciting. Denéve is currently the music director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and will soon take over the reigns at the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra. His tenure is Scotland has been hugely successful with marked increase in subscription rates and revitalized programming with contemporary works around every corner. Given Los Angeles audiences familiarity with this mix, he has been a perennial favorite visitor here. And this weekend's visit was one of his best. Oh sure we’ve got more of his curly, floppy page-boy hair thing here than we know what to do with on an average week, but Denéve brings much more to the table than those who share his coiffure.

He kicked off this program by talking to the audience from the stage about Guillaume Connesson’s Une lueur dans l’âge sombe, the first selection on that afternoon's program. Denève recounted how the idea for the composition grew out of a discussion he had with the composer about an article in a science magazine regarding the light astronomers have seen from one of the most distant stars known to them. This light at the edge of the darkness became an inspiration for 20-minutes of impressionistic music that contained many familiar elements for music about space (like tinkling celesta) and some that weren’t like a theme based on an Indian raga. Denève demonstrated his love and interest in new music in just a matter of minutes creating interest and excitement in the crowd with just a little guidance and a few words. (Now see how easy that was?)

Following this was the more earth-bound but equally French music of Claude Debussy who Denève has apparently not had a conversation with prior to the composition of Ibéria. It was splendidly played nevertheless with a luxurious sweep and lovely engaged playing. With so much success, the after break feature may have seemed like an afterthought, but wasn’t. The orchestra was joined by American pianist Nicholas Angelich for Beethoven’s 5th Piano Concerto. Things were kept under and energetic control between the soloist and orchestra for a solid performance. Angelich wasn’t one for fine detail or clarity, but he got his point across and the balance with the orchestra was good.

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Don't Ask, Don't Tell

December 04, 2010

 
Ari Fliakos in The Wooster Group's Vieux Carré Photo: The Wooster Group

The Wooster Group returned to Los Angeles this week at the REDCAT performance space downtown as part of their ongoing multi-year residency there. After a number of successful performances under their belt at REDCAT already, Elizabeth LeCompte and her troupe of players presented a U.S Premiere of their most recent production, an adaptation of Tennessee Williams' Vieux Carré. The Wooster Group has a special way with most materials whether their lineage is great or common. They are expert at making big points by fusing or juxtaposing texts from both categories in the same space at the same time like 2008’s performances of Cavalli’s La Didone. And much about the look of the group’s take on Vieux Carré is certainly familiar from its stripped down staging atop and beside two large rolling platforms to the use of multiple video screens and a variety of visual and audio collage techniques. In fact this may be the piece’s largest weakness in that even by Wooster Group standards, Vieux Carré looks overly familiar and downright conventional.

Ari Fliakos and Kate Valk in The Wooster Group's Vieux Carré Photo: Nancy Campbell/The Wooster Group

The story is one that took a long time for Williams to tell. Vieux Carré is one of the playwright’s “memory plays.” It follows a loosely autobiographical story of a young writer’s artistic and homosexual awakening during his youthful days living in a decrepit Depression-era New Orleans boarding house filled with a cast of eccentric characters who by turns are alternately both predatory and supportive. The writer, played by Ari Fliakos, is not unlike Williams' other autobiographical young writer, Tom Wingfield, in The Glass Menagerie, looking for himself in the most desperate of circumstances. But while Williams only hints at Tom’s sexuality in that play, Vieux Carré pulls no punches with an explicit narrative where the unnamed writer finds himself in any number of sexual interactions with the other men who drift through his world including Nightingale, his TB-infected next door neighbor. The frankness of the depiction of sexuality here may be even more surprising considering that while Vieux Carré received its unsuccessful New York premiere in 1977, Williams had worked on it as early as 1939 with the final product never seeing the light of day until the world had substantially changed around it.

LeCompte and her troupe deal with the sexual content of the play directly with Ari Fliakos and Scott Shepherd, who plays both Nightingale and the beautiful, threatening, sexually ambiguous Tye McCool. The two men spend most of the first hour on stage in little more than jockstraps, Shepherd’s characters walking about with a large dido protruding from the few remaining elements of their costumes. It is a funny gesture that simultaneously clarifies the homosexual desire that permeates every moment of the show and mocks the melodramatic way in which Williams sometimes handles the subject. Some of the sexual fantasies of the writer that are only alluded to in the script, are acted out in much greater detail on the many video screens where live video feeds are altered and processed in such a way as to replicate pornography in a video collage of different video channels. Above the action on the disheveled prop-strewn stage two smaller monitors appeared to be playing excerpts from the early cinematic oeuvre of Joe Dallesandro. The material is delivered in the troupe's preferred arch style with a variety of sound effects added to the amplified voices.

But while the show looks great, and the performances of the three principal players Fliakos, Shepherd, and Kate Valk are remarkable in the multiple roles they all handle, I felt like something was missing. When you get write down to it, The Wooster Group's Vieux Carré is pretty much the play Williams wrote, nothing more, nothing less. And that leaves the production vulnerable to some of the script's excesses including a second hour that drags and a feeling that you've seen this before. It was almost as if there was a missing layer—another text or different perspective—that should have been intruding on the proceedings but strangely wasn't. Certainly, the use of video and sound processing helped heighten the sense of dislocation in a play that may exist only in the memory of its characters. But Vieux Carré for all of its strengths seems like only half a concept. It's is undoubtedly from the minds of The Wooster Group, but I would argue its not among their best work either. The show runs through December 12 at the REDCAT.

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Distilled Spirit

December 02, 2010

 
Pierre-Laurent Aimard Photo: Felix Broede/DG

Hot on the heels of a great Piano Spheres program with the music of Morton Feldman on Monday, came another superb evening of piano music Tuesday night right across the street. The occasion was a solo recital from perhaps the most intelligent pianist currently performing before the public, Pierre-Laurent Aimard. He’s not flashy, sexy, or mysteriously aloof, but he is one seriously intense and intellectually sophisticated musician. His appearance at WDCH featured a snapshot examination of French piano music and technique. What was interesting about the program was how it worked backwards starting with a relatively more recent work and working back to the 19th century. Aimard revealed the core by cutting away from the present, illuminating unexpected ties and managing some miraculous playing all along the way.

The evening started with Olivier Messiaen’s Preludes, a set of eight short pieces composed during the late 1920s. It’s one of Messiaen’s earliest works and it’s very rooted in the kind of impressionism associated with Debussy. However, the sonic hallmarks of Messiaen’s own music is already clearly audible throughout all of the Preludes, and Aimard, who has previously recorded the works, made them sound like grand premonitions of the future. He returned for the second half of the program with Ravel’s Miroirs, five movements Aimard performers on his most recent DG release. This piece was completed about 25 years prior to Messiaen’s Preludes, and Aimard expounded on the themes brought to light in the first half of the evening now in the Ravel. Again the use of color is central and Aimard’s crisp, yet lush take on these impressionistic tributes to Ravel’s fellow artists and colleagues was captivating. The program closed by going even further back to two works from Chopin, Barcarolle in F-sharp major, Op. 60 and the Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op.31. Aimard's focus on color, clarity, and process gave the work an unusual but interesting edge pulling them out of their traditional Romantic context and placing them in a clearer line with what had come before (in the evening) and later (in history). And just to put a point on it all, Aimard capped off the evening with a reminder of the late 20th century with a brief sobering reminder that harkened back to the sparse sound and deliberate methodology of the Feldman from the night before with György Kurtág’s Hommage à Berényi Ferenc 70. Granted, this frustrated some who were looking for something big, tuneful, and familiar to send them on their way. But this is Aimard, and there is always much more going on than the conventional.

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In the Realm of the Senses

December 01, 2010

 

A live performance of any of the late works of Morton Feldman is a special occasion. Not only because they can involve unusually long amounts of time, but also because they involve what composer David Lang calls a different kind of virtuosity. As Lang noted in program materials written especially for Tuesday’s Piano Spheres concert with Vicki Ray and the Eclipse Quartet, Feldman requires a particular kind of restraint and endurance from musicians. This is not about flashy, fleet dexterity or grand gestures. Feldman is about maintaining: keeping notes and chords hanging together long enough to move the music forward, sustaining its life. Tuesday’s Piano Spheres was devoted entirely to Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet which he wrote specifically for the Kronos Quartet and Aki Takahashi. The piece, which is comparably short at around 80 minutes in contrast to other pieces Feldman composed around the same time, received its world premiere right here in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s at a once important venue for new music, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

So it was a welcome return for this seductive and in some ways delicate music to Los Angeles with local keyboard hero Vicki Ray and the Eclipse Quartet. The ensemble played Feldman’s seemingly endlessly repeating pairs of chords and the cautious slow arpeggios that punctuate them in between. The beauty in Feldman’s music has to be appreciated from a distance. In the moment it can seem maddeningly repetitive or nearly inert. But when a listener can let herself go in the flow of the sound, it’s a miraculous world where the smallest changes or alterations suddenly become glorious huge dramatic statements. There is a sweep to this music that unfolds slowly over the many minutes behind it. Not unlike some of the work of visual artist Andy Goldsworthy, there is a slow, organic process of change in which beauty is held. But you can’t force it – it has to come on its own over time. The Eclipse players and Ray seemed perfectly attuned to each other keeping the conversation between them going, even as the significant pauses between elements in the score constantly threatens the whole piece with collapse. It's rare and wonderful performances like these for which Piano Spheres was founded and it's why they remain so important to the musical life of Los Angeles.

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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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