Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Great Apes

December 05, 2011


Meanwhile, back in Los Angeles this weekend there was another acute reminder of what was lost with the departure of Esa-Pekka Salonen from the Los Angeles Philharmonic a couple of years ago. Salonen, of course, has returned both last season and this year for two weeks of programming as conductor laureate and in his final appearance this year, he and the orchestra delivered the kind of outstanding large-scale multimedia project that was a hallmark of his tenure here. The program last weekend was straight forward enough. It included two pieces from Shostakovich: Symphony No. 4 and the world premiere of an operatic fragment, Orango. But the demands of these particular works and the themes that link them were mighty stuff and the end result was one of the best L.A. Philharmonic performances I’ve seen in the last couple of years.

The show started with the much discussed Orango or more specifically the completed Prologue to Shostakovich’s opera of the same name. The work was commissioned in 1932 for the Bolshoi Theater on short notice to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the October revolution. Shostakovich and his librettists chose a farcical story about a half-man, half-ape creature, Orango, who is created out of, and eventually falls victim to, the excesses of capitalism. The project was never completed and largely forgotten until a musicologist, Olga Dignoskaya came across a piano and vocal score for the opera’s prologue in Shostakovich’s papers archived in the Glinka Museum. With the support of Shostakovich’s wife, the piece was orchestrated and completed by composer Gerard McBurney prior to its world premiere here in Los Angeles.

The final product the orchestra played this weekend certainly sounded like Shostakovich from that period and had all the maniacal and comical musical hallmarks one associates with such a pointed farce. The Prologue concerns a giant celebration where an audience demands of the party’s host (sung by Ryan McKinny) to be entertained by the captive Orango (sung by Eugene Brancoveanu). At first the host is uncomfortable bringing Orango forward due to his propensity for aggression, but he eventually relents. However, Orango does in fact become agitated in response to several of the guests who have had prior undisclosed interactions with him—including the zoologist (Michael Fabiano) who helped create the creature by cross breeding an ape and a human—that will serve as the plot for the rest of the opera. The music is wild, rapidly changing genres at a whim.

And like so much of Shostakovich’s music, the Orango Prologue is notable in its potential for double meaning. It is clearly a farce about the evils of Western capitalism, but it is also taking not very subtle shots at the failures of the October revolution 15 years after the fact. And it was this double meaning, of the social unrest over economic inequalities and the failure to address them in the past or present that was at the heart of the stage direction collaborator Peter Sellars brought to the evening. Most of the singing party-goers were seated in the WDCH audience during the show implicating the concert’s viewers as participants in the overarching politics of the work. All the characters and chorus were dressed in contemporary street clothes. And just to make the connections clear, Sellars used a video consisting of repeated quick-cut still images displayed above the orchestra that included contemporary images of Occupy Wall Street protests, military drone aircraft, and the pensive faces of monkeys (some clearly in a laboratory setting) to accompany the music. This was not timed to the music, but was meant to allude to the cinematic work of Shostakovich’s contemporaries such as Sergei Eisenstein. Sellars had also pointed out the parallels in Shostakovich’s own musical structures with some of the cinematic ones used by Eisenstein. Even at this stage of the game, Sellars knows how to provoke and clearly some in the audience weren’t comfortable with this. But I felt, given the nature of the work at hand, it was appropriate for music that was meant to be comically confrontational. It was a wild and free-spirited performance by American orchestra standards, and even by L.A. Philharmonic standards.

The next surprise came with the highly-related Symphony No. 4 that followed. Shostakovich famously withdrew this work in 1936 following Stalin’s negative reaction to Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and the composers own relative black listing. It was a dangerous time for the composer as the government began to arrest or take action against his friends, family and associates leaving him constantly on guard that he, too, might be punished in some new, unexpected way. The monumental symphony reflects a justifiable paranoid state of mind with its rapid and unpredictable changes in tone and structure over its immense hour-plus length. It can be frighteningly dark and ephemeral or boisterous and militaristic. It is not a work for the fainthearted to perform and requires incredible amounts of control and organization to keep unified. Salonen was up to the task and gave the performance a masterful comprehensive sense of place and direction. The third movement was nothing short of riveting with music more chilling than anything in a movie thriller. This was the other side of Orango’s comic response to that sort of police state totalitarianism. One can cope through dark sardonic laughter, but underneath insidious fear still lurks. Salonen and Sellars have both been around enough to pull off this brilliant program - one that youthful vigor and excitement alone could never have spoken as eloquently too.



Best concert in around 2 years.
The Orango deserves to be played and enjoyed by everyone.
Too bad the Sunday matinee performance had probably 300 empty seats - Shostakovich is not Beethoven, you say.
But for those who chose not to attend, or never purchased tickets, they reallllllly missed a concert.
And the 4th, well, still enjoying it in my head. Only hope it was recorded for subsequent broadcast.
I couldn't agree with you more. I found it somewhat heartbreaking though that the first high-water mark of the Dudamel era came under Salonen's baton, but it is what it is. That was a superb evening.
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