Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

In The Wings - March '11

February 28, 2011

 
Jonas Kaufmann Photo: Uli Webber

March is all about opera this year. There’s a wide variety of things operatic to choose from both locally and around the country as many of the nation's companies head into the home stretch of their seasons. Where to start? Well, if you haven’t seen L.A. Opera’s production of Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia, it should be first priority as you may not see a better one anywhere this year. There are four more performances through the 15th. The other hot ticket in town this month will be a one night only appearance by tenor Jonas Kaufmann making his local recital debut at L.A. Opera on the 11th. And, if you’re coming from out of town, you might as well make it a weekend with the opening performance of Jonathan Kent's production of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw starring American soprano Patricia Racette on the 12th. If you're looking for something even more hot off the opera presses, though, you should head down to Long Beach where Andreas Mitisek’s adventurous company will be presenting fully staged performances of Glass’ Akhnaten on March 19 and 27.

Ryan Fletcher and Vicki Manderson in Beautiful Burnout Photo: Gavin Evans

Out of town opera looks promising as well. I’ll be in Chicago on the 4th for Lyric Opera Chicago’s premiere of Handel’s Hercules starring none other than Alice Coote, Eric Owens, and David Daniels under the direction of Peter Sellars. The company is also continuing its well-received run of Lohengrin with Johan Botha who will be joined while I’m there with the up-and-coming Amber Wagner as Elsa. Later in New York, the most promising moment of the month will be the Vladimir Galouzine and Karita Mattila-led Queen of Spades at the Metropolitan Opera, which I’ll see on the 18th just before the final performance of Natalie Dessay in the company’s Lucia di Lammermoor revival on the 19th. (This show will also be broadcast to theaters around the country in HD.) On the theater side, that quick visit will also include the return of the National Theater of Scotland with Beautiful Burnout at St. Ann’s Warehouse and the new Broadway revival of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, which is being imported from London in a fantastic production seen there in 2009.

Emanuele Arciuli

Back in Los Angeles, new and contemporary music abounds this month. REDCAT, the downtown home for artistic adventure, presents two intriguing piano recitals, the first from Danny Holt on the 9th and later from Emanuele Arciuli on March 24. The L.A. Philharmonic will host the Emerson Quartet playing the local premiere of a new string quartet from Thomas Adès on the 14th and the following evening will present contemporary works from Anders Hillborg and the fascinating Unsuk Chin. (When will her Alice in Wonderland opera see its local premiere?) And don’t forget about Monday Evening Concerts, which pairs work from Rolf Riehm with Heinrich Schütz’ St John Passion on the 28th. But perhaps the most star-studded new(er) music event this month will take place on the 29th when the L.A. Philharmonic presents a program in tribute to the late Ernest Fleischmann that will include music from and appearances by both Esa-Pekka Salonen and Pierre Boulez.

The Scharoun Ensemble Photo: Gantschi

There are a number of noteworthy visitors this month as well. The Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin arrives at Walt Disney Concert Hall on March 2. The next evening you can see the eight Berlin Philharmonic musicians that make up the Scharoun Ensemble at UCLA’s Royce Hall. That same evening down in Orange County the Vienna Philharmonic will appear at the Segerstrom Concert Hall with Mahler’s 6th Symphony. The St. Petersburg Philharmonic will come to L.A. under Yuri Temirkanov with cellist Alisa Weilerstein on the 22nd with Shostakovich and Brahms. Pianists abound as well with Yefim Bronfman in a solo recital on the 9th and the always spellbinding Martha Argerich is scheduled to play Beethoven’s 1st Piano Concerto with the L.A. Philharmonic the weekend of the 17th. And speaking of the L.A. Phil, Dudamel is back in town again for the Argerich program, Bruckner’s 7th Symphony and an evening of Tchaikovsky works inspired by Shakespeare. The latter complete with cameras, ‘natch.

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Forget Radiohead

February 24, 2011

 

I'm just sayin'

Friends, Romans, Countrymen

February 22, 2011

 
Gaultier Capuçon Photo: Julien Mignot

I finally caught up with the Los Angeles Philharmonic this weekend for the first time since their return from their recent European tour. I was glad to see them back in town and particularly in the company of the organization’s young and very-talented Associate Conductor Lionel Bringuier. He’s in his fourth and final year in that position here, and I will be sad to see him go, having heard him lead so many fine performances at Walt Disney Concert Hall during his tenure. This weekend was another one of them. It wasn’t anything flashy or unusual but it was well played and led without an overabundance of demonstrative exuberance. The concert included major works from composers associated with 19th-century musical nationalism. And while both Bringuier and guest soloist Gautier Capuçon are both French, the music was predominantly Czech, including Smetana’s ubiquitous The Moldau and Dvořák’s Symphony No. 5. Opening the concert, the Smetana piece certainly invoked the watery movement associated with its title if not all of the nationalist spirit that comes with it. The Dvořák piece was well organized and developed by Bringuier with very fine playing all around. The symphony was composed at a time when Dvořák was becoming more interested in the folk music and traditions that would influence his later work. And while Bringuier may not have always brought out these influences to their fullest, it was hard to argue with this clear-headed rendition.

Given that the Dvořák Symphony No. 5 was a departure stylistically for the composer at the time, it couldn’t have been more appropriately paired with the Schumann cello concerto that was sandwiched in the middle of the show. Schumann’s richly lyrical work, which plays without pause between movements, is not all about showy finger work and virtuosity. It’s a deeper and more complicated work, which soloist Gaultier Capuçon gave a solid performance of. He was making the first of two appearances here this season. (The second of which will include his brother, violinist Renaud Capuçon and the equally dramatically coiffed Gustavo Dudamel in one of those new-fangled theater broadcasts in June during the "Brahms and More Brahms" festival.) The young photogenic Frenchman had a direct no-nonsense approach to the work, which was more admirable on an intellectual level than it was an emotional one to my ear. But maybe that is for the best in an evening filled with music of understated gestures.

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Turkish Delight

February 21, 2011

 

Musica Angelica may be L.A.’s best-kept secret when it comes to classical music. Which in some sense is too bad considering that our local period practice Baroque ensemble under music director and conductor Martin Haselböck routinely creates some of the finest musical evenings in town. This weekend the ensemble presented their annual operatic offering, a staged version of Mozart’s Zaide. For many Mozart fans, Zaide is the one that got away. A mid-career opera with some very beautiful music, Mozart abandoned the work after completing the first two acts with no overture and no conclusion in order to work on Idomeneo. He never returned to the score, which surfaced again in a large fragment after his death. But the work has lived on due to the beauty of what remains. Zaide is often cobbled together with other Mozart bits and pieces to create a more full fledged production, which was the case in the Musica Angelica performance as well. Haselböck inserted Mozart’s Symphony No. 32 for an overture, which is a typical practice. More unusually, though, Haselböck and director/collaborator Brian Michaels used a vocal quartet, KV479, which Mozart originally wrote as augmentation for another opera by another composer, to complete the Zaide score. Some new dialog was added to create a quick, but logical ending to the Turkish “rescue” opera, which revisits popular themes of its day.

The augmentation worked well for the essentially comic opera. Haselböck and his orchestra sounded lively with good clarity and, as usual, was the show's biggest asset. The four principle roles were taken by a number of satisfying young singers. Valerie Vinzant, a recent graduate of the L.A. Opera Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program, sang Zaide with a bright silvery tone. She’s an attractive and interesting performer who was well matched with Andrew Bidlack in the role of Zaide’s lover, Gomatz. Bidlak was recently one of San Francisco Opera’s Adler Fellows and has been making his way with his pleasing, sizable tenor. He was very enjoyable to listen to. They were joined by Christoph Genz as Allazim and Christian Hilz as Sultan Soliman. All four vocalists did especially well, considering that they were performing on stage with the orchestra and conductor behind them. And even in the second performance of the day on Sunday, they all sounded fresh and highly engaged. Best of all none of them were taking the comic trappings of the opera or the basic staging too seriously. The four performers were arranged side-by-side on stage, initially with each one ensconced at their own desk or chair. The performers moved about using the pieces of furniture to represent other objects such as boats, but there was little rhyme or reason to this as if it were being improvised as they went along. There was a series of puppets as well, each representing one of the four characters, that the cast would manipulate or perform with on occasion. And while I never quite understood the point or significance of this, the staging on the whole was not so intrusive as to derail the comedic spirit of the performance. Hilz's comic introduction to the makeshift final act was especially good-spirited and made for a worthwhile turn through an operatic rarity. There are two more Musica Angelica performances this season, including Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, so check out their site for more details.

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Culture Clash

February 20, 2011

 
Simone Alberghini, Maxim Mironov, Nino Machaidze, and Paolo Gavanelli in Il Turco in Italia Photo: Armin Bardel/LAO 2011

This is why I love opera. Or more accurately, it’s performances and evenings like the one now on offer at Los Angeles Opera that make me obsessed with this most over-sized of all art forms. The company opened a run of Rossini’s infrequently performed Il Turco in Italia on Saturday night in a supremely funny and always superb production with L.A. Opera music director James Conlon conducting. How do I love thee? Let’s start with the overdue American premiere of a production from one of Europe’s most important and in-demand directors, Christof Loy. For this revival, Axel Weidauer filled in for Loy in the director's chair, but the show still has that unmistakable look. Loy's aggressively modern stagings often use contemporary street clothes and he’s managed to get Edita Gruberova to rip off at least two different wigs in two different shows. And this vision of Il Turco holds true to that form. This is an imaginary Italy of the recent past where all of the stage craft behind the scenes is readily on display. The male chorus members come dressed as stage hands at times and watch with bemusement as the characters spill out their emotions in song. It’s a show constantly in motion with walls and supernumeraries that slowly creep across the stage at times when there are more static vocal fireworks taking place elsewhere. And while all the action takes place in a single giant room, the inventive use of a huge variety of props keeps the stage exciting to the eye at all times. Granted there will be some complaints that this or that particular item doesn’t make sense at this or that moment. But that is foolishness. This production is as visually witty as the activity in the libretto and it raises the opera’s whole enterprise to another level.

The story concerns a flirtatious wife, Donna Fiorilla, who becomes enamored with a visiting Turk, Selim. This infuriates both her husband, Don Geronio, and her current lover, Narciso. The Turk also has a former lover, Zaida, who was forced to leave him in Turkey and is now living among the Romani in the very same Italian town he has arrived in. All of this is packaged within the meta-narrative of the poet Prosdocimo who is trying to break through his writers block by observing the local Romani to get new ideas. Soon he is both observing and writing the action of the opera as it unfolds with the characters interacting directly with him. Yes, it sounds slight, but Loy is expert at providing just the right amount of heft to these proceedings to make them funny without getting overly frothy.

And then there is that cast. Where to begin? Nino Macaidze stars as Donna Fiorilla and manages to stake her claim to these bel canto roles. She’s as good looking and certainly as strong and instinctive an actor as Anna Netrebko, with a more agile voice. She is excellent in this throughout. Paolo Gavanelli plays her cuckolded husband, Don Geronio, with a booming sound, superior comic timing, and a lot of physical comedy. Sir Thomas Allen returns to L.A. Opera as the poet, Prosdocimo, Il Turco’s quasi-narrator. His comic chops were proven beyond a doubt in the company’s 2008 Gianni Schicci, and he does not disappoint here. Then there is Kate Lindsey as Zaida whose voice I fall in love with more and more with each performance since her superb Nicklausse in New York last season. Simone Alberghini and Maxim Mironov round out the men in the cast with detailed and interesting performances. Mironov sings the tenor part, Narciso with the kind of light voice and agility one associates with Juan Diego Florez. His is a name to remember. This is one of those times where there are no weak links, and the comic heat generated by this cast can be overwhelming.

Did I mention how strong the orchestra sounded? James Conlon has done so much to raise the playing level of the L.A. Opera orchestra and this was one of the best performances I’ve heard them give. The work never lagged. The brass sounded assured throughout particularly in their most exposed moments. It's a wonderful evening and there are 6 more performance through March 13. Don't miss this.

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In Writing

February 19, 2011

 
Tim Crouch as The Author
Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2011

Culver City’s Kirk Douglas Theater, the would-be experimental edge of L.A.’s Center Theater Group, got around to offering something that would live up to such a moniker this week with the opening of Tim Crouch’s The Author. The event was presented as part of the “DouglasPlus” series, the poorly promoted developmental theater branch of the theater’s offerings. Crouch’s sort-of-play debuted at the Royal Court Theater in London in 2009 and in all honesty its impact is greatest the less you know about it, so if you’re planning on going already or have any interest in theater off the beaten path, go first, and read what follows here later.

The Author is notable for what it is not. It is not a play to be watched passively by an audience facing it in the dark. Crouch intends to examine the role of the audience in creating theatrical experiences and questions their role as a passive consumer of images and sounds. Upon entering the KDT stage the audience is seated on two sets of risers facing one another. The performers, including Crouch who plays the titular author, are planted among the audience members. After a short pause where little happens, the performers begin to take turns speaking and slowly unravel a story in which Crouch the character has written a sensational hyper-violent and sexually explicit play for the Royal Court Theater in London. The two stars of the play are also there in addition to a purported audience member who has seen the play. The characters relate their experiences preparing for the roles in the author’s play about the graphic sexual abuse of a minor female by her father. The material becomes progressively more disturbing as the lines between the imagined play and the actions of the characters become blurred in their own descriptions.

All of this is purportedly interactive, and the characters repeatedly ask the audience if they are “OK” and if they should continue with their story. But this gesture is more metaphorical than practical and the random comments of audience members are as likely to be ignored or passed-over than responded to by the characters who despite all the arch set-up, still have a story to get through complete with developing story arcs and a dénouement. And while some of the graphic descriptions can make the audience squirm and the banal protestations of the audience-member character can be rather biting along the way, the overall project didn’t really grab me as all that disturbing or anger provoking.

Crouch’s project is not unlike that of works such as Michael Haneke’s Funny Games where the audience’s role in the creation of a work of art is repeatedly in question when it comes to graphic depictions of sex and violence. These are fair questions, but I don’t know that The Author asks them any better than anyone else has. What’s more, the show is hampered by being taken out of its original context. Developed for the Royal Court Theater in London, the characters repeatedly make reference to working at, subscribing to, and being aware of the history of the Royal Court and the British theater scene. And while the meaning is clear, the impact is lost. There are multiple references to landmark theatrical controversies at the Royal Court including Edward Bond’s Saved and Sarah Kane’s Blasted, but the connection between these works, The Author, and the physical space of the theater is lost over the thousands of miles between London and Los Angeles. In contrast, I can think of the wonderful job Dutch provocateurs Wunderbaum accomplished on similar turf here last fall at REDCAT by wedding an imagined controversy or explicit art in the Netherlands with local artists, actors, and performance history right here in Los Angeles. Still, Tim Crouch’s The Author is not your average evening at the theater, and even if the questions it raises are not new ones, they are worth considering even here in the most media-savvy of all towns. It's on stage now in Culver City through Feb 27.

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The String Quartet and its Discontents

February 15, 2011

 
The members of the JACK Quartet
Photo: mine 2011

What better way to celebrate Valentine’s Day than taking apart one of the central ensembles of the chamber music repertory piece by piece. OK, these two things have nothing to do with each other, but Monday Evening Concerts still managed to come up with a strong and interesting program for arguably the most commodified of holidays by inviting the JACK String Quartet back to Los Angeles on Monday night. The ensemble had performed for the series last year with Georg Friedrich Haas’ String Quartet No. 3, which they played in complete darkness in Pasadena in one of the classical music highlights of all last year. Given the success of their last program here and the JACK Quartet’s increasingly high profile in the new(er) music realm, this visit was highly anticipated, and as it turns out worth the wait.

The evening’s theme dealt with re-imagining the string quartet in a contemporary context and was cast under the title, “The Explorers.” Of course, any program promising this much deconstruction would naturally start with the music of John Cage, and his 1950 String Quartet in Four Parts perfectly set the stage. Cage’s work was an early call to question both the content as well as the process of performance. The work draws inspiration from the four seasons which end up sounding more similar than different except perhaps for the final movement of the work, which invokes Spring as a contrasting short folk tune in defiance of the more discordant material preceding it. The groundwork having been laid, the evening took off from there with two string quartets from the young composer Aaron Cassidy, both of which questioned the basic principles that guide the very production of sound by the musicians using their instruments. Cassidy’s String Quartet from 2002 takes the music of the traditional single staff and cleaves it in two as if written for the piano. Performers are given separate sets of instructions for each hand resulting in something that is both unexpected sounding and physically involved. The aptly named Second String Quartet, which Cassidy wrote specifically for the JACK ensemble in 2010, builds further on this notion. Cassidy uses a color-coded notational system that guides the physical movements of players producing sound in favor of prescribing resultant pitches or tones. Both pieces were intriguing to watch as the players responded to the music in terms of their physical demands. Sandwiched between the two Cassidy string quartets was Webern’s Six Bagatelles, which sounded like Wagner when set up against these far more deconstructed works.

The second half of the program was devoted to the fifth string quartet of Horatiu Radulescu subtitled “Before the Universe was Born.” Radulescu’s work had made a previous appearance on the MEC stage in 2007 prior to the composer’s untimely death in 2008. This quartet from the early 1990s was making its U.S. Premiere and used non-standard tunings of most of the strings on all four instruments to produce its spectral sounds. The microtonal shifts between the players created a wash of sound through the piece’s 30-minute single movement that was surprisingly organic for so technically sophisticated a work. The JACK Quartet players were as impressive in their musical communication skills here in the light as they had previously been in the dark last year. Their mastery of such difficult music and interest in pushing the boundaries raises hopes that they will have a long and active career. And even if it wasn’t wine and red roses, it was a wonderful treat for this Valentine’s Day audience.

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Seen About Town

February 14, 2011

 
Anna Netrebko, Susan Graham, and Renée Fleming in Diane von Furstenberg
Photo:Richard Termine/Met Opera

There was plenty going on outside of the opera house in New York this weekend. In fact right outside on the Lincoln Center Plaza were crowds milling about streaming in and out of the pavilion for Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. All around, the fabulous and not-so-fabulous made their availability for any passing photographer known. It was not unlike the Halloween Parade in West Hollywood with perhaps a bit more fur. Even some of the biggest opera names currently appearing at the Met got into the act, as pictured above, when Anna Netrebko, Susan Graham, and Renée Fleming got into the act in Diane von Furstenberg designs while attending her show.


And, though I've always considered her more of a Commes des Garçons gal myself, Mitsuko Uchida was also in town in her gauzy, flowing signature look at Carnegie Hall on Friday. Any performance for Uchida is a special one, and her sold out recital at Carnegie Hall on Friday night fit comfortably into this mold. She has a remarkable ability to generate drama without sacrificing clarity or detail, and, while the program was filled with familiar romantic solo piano works, it sounded as fresh and unexpected to me as anything I’ve heard recently. After the introductory salvo of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in D major, she plunged into the showcase work for the evening, Schumann’s Davidsbundlertänze which she has recently recorded and released on Decca. These eighteen short impressions are the height of Romanticism. Schumann ascribed each segment to one of two different characters representing opposite Romantic poles of Schumann's personality, Florestan and Eusebius. From this concept flows some beautiful music, however. Uchida's tone and color changed with amazing alacrity from one segment to the next and she held the audience completely mesmerized throughout. After the break, it was Chopin and more Chopin with the Prelude in C-sharp Minor followed by the Sonata No. 3. Uchida's precision in the context of so emotionally sweeping and familiar music was again utterly enthralling. And just to make the weekend all that more notable for the pianist, she picked up her first-ever Grammy on Sunday night for her recording of Mozart's Piano Concertos nos. 23 & 24. There are precious few like her and even in New York she stands out as one of a kind.

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Tricky Dick

February 13, 2011

 
Janis Kelly and James Maddalena
Photo: Ken Howard/Met 2011

The latest installment in The Metropolitan Opera's shoulda-woulda-coulda season arrived this month with the premiere of John Adam's Nixon in China. This much discussed premiere of Adams' 1987 signature work, which has been seen just about everywhere else by now follows a similar strategy to the company's recent, new production of La Traviata . Like Willy Decker's well-regarded 2005 Salzburg vision of Verdi, the Met elected to reproduce the landmark premiere production of Nixon wholesale including many of the key players from that auspicious run in Houston. Director Peter Sellars was on hand as was composer John Adams who is conducting this run including the performance I saw on Saturday. The original Nixon, James Maddalena, starred again in the title role.

But times have changed and there were many reminders of this all around. Maddalena's voice is not what it was and he struggled in some of the higher stretches of the part. The audience has changed as well. On Saturday, I saw Madeleine Albright in the audience and overheard her reflecting with a companion on the treatment of Kissinger in the work. That fact may be more evidence that Nixon in China has achieved some sort of canonical status than the work's appearance on the Met stage in and of itself. And yet all this reasoned debate and sanctioned approval couldn't get around that same ersatz feeling from the earlier La Traviata run. Nixon seemed like more of a wish about where this company should have been twenty years ago than an actual statement about where it's headed now.

Of course, not every new production needs to encapsulate the entirety of a company's or an individual's vision. Sometimes a Nixon is just a Nixon. And with the Met's resources, this one had many things to recommend it. Foremost among these was an orchestra and chorus the quality of which it hasn't likely seen before. No wonder Adams was keen to conduct this run. Who can blame him for wanting to be at the center of hearing this ensemble play his music first hand? And although he still did not convince me that he is the preeminent interpreter of his own work here anymore than he has elsewhere, it was lovely to hear. There's been a lot of grousing again about Adam's preference to mic and mildly amplify his singers, but I still don't get what the fuss is. I've heard worse "natural" sound, and I've heard better.

The rest of the cast had many excellent vocal performances from Robert Brubaker's Mao and Russell Braun's Chou En-lai to Janis Kelly's Pat Nixon. Kathleen Kim gave a magnificent turn as the fiery and authoritarian Madame Mao. Richard Paul Fink was a particularly unsavory Kissinger in another completely committed performance. The intentionally two dimensional set design looked good to me as well, despite there being some lack of punch to the closing numbers of the first two acts. But Nixon is equally about the hallucinatory as well, and Adams and Sellars clearly reveled in the off-kilter version of the world they generate in Act III. And crazy, in and of itself, can sometimes be enough to justify a work or performance and the Met's new/old Nixon in China is often satisfying if not overwhelmingly so. The question is, now what's next?


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He Ain't Heavy

 
Susan Graham and Placido Domingo
Photo: Ken Howard/Met

Saturday brought Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride to The Metropolitan Opera in a revival of the company’s successful 2007 production. Almost everything from the prior run of the show has been left unchanged. All three stars in the cast are back including Susan Graham, Placido Domingo, and Paul Groves. Director Stephen Wadsworth was again on hand to guide his large, dark, and periodically goofy vision of the story. There was still a very naturalistic approach to reenactments of the numerous dream sequences in the plot. There were still rather ridiculous dance sequences from the Scythian troops in Act I, and celebrating Greeks in the opera’s finale. And there were still some extraneous plot additions including the all but risible emotional rollercoaster that Iphigénie pantomimes in the production’s closing scene where she first rejects and then accepts Oreste’s love given his evil deeds.

But if there is anything that prevents this revival from being a repeat success, it is the one significant change that’s been made. This time around the conductor is not Louis Langrée, but the American Patrick Summers. Summers is a respectable and dependable opera conductor. He’s well known to this house and the members of this cast. He’s game for just about anything and manages to provide satisfying and well-paced performances in an array of works. However, Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride is not one of them. Much as I recall from his outing with Graham in this opera in San Francisco in 2007, there is a particular lack of delicacy. He bounds through the score with a bit too much force and at times seemed indifferent to some of the vocal detail this cast can muster. Granted, some of this might be ascribed to a lack of adequate rehearsal time. There were a few moments where the timing between orchestra and cast seemed to get away from him, but the bigger issue was lack of nuance.

The title role still fits Graham like a glove. And while she seemed rushed at times, most notably in her big aria “Ô malheureuse Iphigénie,” she sounded warm and certain throughout. Paul Groves sounded comfortable as Pylade without any strain. As much as I love Placido Domingo, it feels like he’s slumming here in a bit of luxury casting as Oreste. And while all three vocalists displayed the kind of interaction that comes with having done these roles together on several occasions before, the production does seem to weigh them down a bit. Repeatedly, when things get going, there is some bit of dramatic business that seems to mar things. For example, Wadsworth seems unsure of what to do with the homosexual subtext of the work, barely keeping this most intense of platonic loves between Pylade and Oreste outside of parody. But all in all, this is Graham’s show. It’s a role she has made her own in the last several years and if you haven’t seen her in it, it's worth the visit. Iphigénie en Tauride runs through March 5.

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A Dandy Evening

February 11, 2011

 
Dmitri
Hvorostovsky
Photo: Pasha Antonov

Los Angeles Opera continued its winter recital series featuring the hottest male vocalists in all opera on Thursday night with an appearance by Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky. René Pape opened the three part series in January (Jonas Kaufmann will close it on March 15) and while both men are formidable talents, the differences in the two evenings were significant. Pape sang an all-German program with some reserve in a tuxedo that called for a little tailoring. Hvorostovsky arrived on stage, his well-conditioned white locks flowing behind him, looking every bit the dandy with form-fitting tuxedo pants and huntsman-style tailcoat complete with black-sequined satin lapels. He looked like a smooth operator, taking his preferred stance with his right leg slightly forward as if about to take off running. Periodically he had a knowing smirk on his face between numbers. He exudes a masculinity that is a definite part of his charm to his big and vocal fan base who responded in kind Thursday. Hvorostovsky was quickly greeted with flowers even before the end of the first half of the show.

But despite all of the glamor moments, there was still the fact of his incredible voice. Hvorostovsky may be pretty, but he’s no fake. The world’s foremost Eugene Onegin and the Verdi baritone of choice, his recital was a wonder of technique. He’s got breath for days and his beautiful phrasing of just about everything bordered on the miraculous. And in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, which is known for chewing up baritones with abandon, he dominated the space the whole show. Hvorostovsky was joined by accompanist Ivari Ilja in a program that focused on a number of Russian works, which he is repeating around the country including an evening at Carnegie Hall on February 21. First in the program were four songs from Fauré, including “Après un reve.” And although the tone here was lovely, Hvorostovsky’s French doesn’t compare to his Italian much less his native tongue. But there was plenty of that on offer as well and five songs from Sergei Taneyev soon followed. These are not your everyday recital works and while they seemed a little lean to me musically, Hvorostovsky infused them with plenty of spirit.

Hvorostovsky’s remarkable vocal technique is well matched with a real flair for storytelling in his delivery. A prime example of this came after the intermission, when he performed two of Franz Liszt’s Three Sonnets by Petrarca. The second of these, Pace non trovo, was the highlight of the show with Hvorostovsky slowly and deliberately building the song to a powerful and dramatic conclusion. Tchaikovsky’s Six Romances closed the main part of the evening with another showcase of the baritone’s native tongue. All of this was lovely and well paced despite the frequent enthusiastic interruption of song sets by the audience. And then in another twist, Hvorostovsky elected not to sing "Some Enchanted Evening" for an encore, breaking a practice that seems omnipresent these days for some baritones. Instead he stuck to what he does best and gave three encores, including Rachmaninoff's V moltshari notchi taihor, Passione, a song by Valente-Tagliaferri, and a folk song which Hvorostovsky performed a cappella. And regardless of whether or not one appreciates his personal style, Hvorostovsky left no question that he's king of the baritone hill.


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10 Questions for...
Sir Thomas Allen

February 10, 2011

 
Sir Thomas Allen
Photo: Sussie Ahlburg

There are few vocal artists working before the public today with a history comparable to that of Sir Thomas Allen. The English baritone has a career spanning over forty years and continues to win accolades for his performances around the world. He has excelled in many different corners of the repertory and is particularly well regarded for his interpretations in the works of Britten, Mozart, and as Wagner’s Sixtus Beckmesser. He will return to Los Angeles next week in the role of Prosdocimo, the Poet in Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia, which opens in a Christoph Loy production at L.A. Opera on Feb 19th. Allen made quite an impression here in 2008 starring in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi and he joins a great cast including Nino Machiadze, Kate Lindsey, and Paolo Gavanelli for this return engagement. Sir Thomas was kind enough to break from rehearsals for Il Turco to tell us where he’s been and what’s up next in 10 Questions with Out West Arts.

1. What role would you most like to perform, but haven’t yet?
Wozzeck is a role that has interested me greatly, but productions are rare and sadly it has never come my way. The mix of Berg's score, the text and nature of the piece are at the core of early 20th-century European culture, a fascinating period. Falstaff would be the other role that bugs me for not having performed it. I think I'd still consider it at this stage of my life, having turned it down on several occasions.

2. What role would you never perform, even if you could?
Any of those great bel canto roles as in Puritani or Lucia. There's absolutely nothing wrong with them or the music, and there may well have been a time I'd have been glad of the offer. But experiencing other repertoire—and I include Beckmesser in Meistersinger, Don Alfonso, Doktor Faust and Gianni Schicchi—has turned me away from the stand-and-deliver kind of repertoire which I'm happy to leave to others. And, dare I say this, it also includes a lot of the music of Verdi.....but not by any means all.

3. You’ve worked with nearly every major conductor and vocalist in the opera world over the length of your career. Is there someone you haven’t worked with yet you’d like to?
A lot of my career seems to have involved Riccardo Muti, which, it seems, rather precludes working with Claudio Abbado. That's a pity as I've enjoyed watching him and listening to the music he makes. As far as singers are concerned, I met Jonas Kaufmann some years ago and it's wonderful to watch him flourish and finally perhaps to provide Germany a replacement for the sadly missed Fritz Wunderlich. It would be lovely to work with him, I think, and to be near such a lovely sound.

4. A remarkable number of your performances over the years have been preserved on both audio and video. Is there a particular recording you are glad was saved for posterity?
I'm very fortunate to have recorded so much repertoire in opera, song and oratorio. From earlier days, I'm particularly happy to have been involved in The Marriage of Figaro with Solti, Te Kanawa, Von Stade and lovely Lucia Popp. More recently I recorded two CDs called Songs My Father Taught Me. They have a very special place in my life as they really do connect to my father who was very special to me.

5. Over the last several years you’ve added opera directing to your extensive resume. What, if anything, has directing opera taught you about performing on stage?
Two things I've learned from directing: respect for director and designer, and for the work they deliver. A huge amount of thinking goes into the creative process. It is this process I enjoy in particular. The hours spent with my designer with models, reference books and model theaters is such a different process from the one I'm most accustomed to. Really it's the business of being in a creative process as opposed to a re-creative one that really excites me. Consequently I listen now with differently attuned ears to a director expressing his or her approach to a work with an enormous amount of respect. Perhaps I'm also able to act as arbitrator when needed, with a foot in both camps.

Photo: Jason Bell/ROH

6. Which music made you want to sing opera?
No music wanted me to sing opera. The need to make a living pointed me towards opera. I had no overriding passion to do so. I was simply a singer. But having heard Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau on record singing Brahms and Schubert, then to hear him as Mandryka in Arabella certainly opened up unrealized ambitions.

7. You wowed audiences on your previous visit to L.A. Opera as Gianni Schicchi in 2008 and now return as Prosdocimo in Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia, both comic roles. As a baritone, is it more fun being bad or being funny on the opera stage and why?
They say every clown wants to play Hamlet. I've sung Hamlet and also played the clowns. I need both in my life. But I often think that baritones and mezzo-sopranos in particular seem easily able to access the melancholy parts of their psyche. It's all there for us to tap into.

8. Your iPod is destroyed by a vengeful mezzo. Which lost tracks would you miss most?
A vengeful mezzo...not a soprano? It's more likely to be a tenor after what I've said about them over the years. Klemperer's Fidelio would be the first thought. Unbettered after all these years. Casals and the unaccompanied cello suites of Bach…essential. Anything by Sinatra or Billie Holiday that is on my machine.

9. What's your current obsession?
This is easy. All the time I spend away from home now is very frustrating. I have a workshop in my garden. Inside are my machines and tools. I'm currently involved in making a large model of a Swedish warship that sank in 1628, Vasa. The work has kept me occupied for years because of traveling commitments, but an end is in sight and I'm aching to get back to it. The rigging is my big job at the moment—a monumental task. It's in complete contrast to my main work and I'm all the better for it.

10. With which of your operatic roles do you have the most in common?
It would be expected I might say Don Giovanni. Too obvious. Actually, as hard as it is to admit, there's a lot of Beckmesser about me. He's a nitpicker and I can wrestle for hours over getting small details right without losing patience. That's why, I suppose, the fineness of detail in making ship models fits me so well. I'm a Virgo and though astrology wasn't taught in my school and I don't subscribe to it, there does seem to be in me this need for perfectionism in small detail....ship models.


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Set the Night to Music

February 09, 2011

 
Jane Fonda and Samantha Mathis in 33 Variations
Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2011

The Ahmanson Theater in downtown Los Angeles rarely hosts straight plays. On the occasions that it does, they tend to be imports from Broadway with big marquee stars. That tradition continues with the opening of Moisés Kaufman’s 33 Variations, a play most notable for the appearance of Jane Fonda in the lead role. She portrays Dr. Katherine Brandt, a musicologist studying one of the great mysteries of classical music, why Beethoven became preoccupied with a seemingly insignificant waltz composed by music publisher Anton Diabelli to the extent that the composer wrote a now canonical set of 33 variations of it for solo piano. It’s an example of one those intellectual or artistic mystery plots that populates such touchstone works as A.S. Byatt’s novel Possession or Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia. But Kaufman doesn’t quite go as far as either of these works, instead choosing to wrap his rather mild mystery in a much more melodramatic context involving Dr. Brandt’s physical decline from ALS, the conflicted relationship with her daughter, and the pop psychological analysis of Dr. Brandt’s persona. Dr. Brandt travels to Bonn where she befriends an archivist who becomes her confidant during her illness. Life lessons are learned, laughs are had, and the emotions are pat and broadly expressed.

If you think this sounds like a TV movie, you’d be right. And the second half of the play is interminably slow and obvious despite the contributions from fine actors such as Samantha Mathis as Dr. Brandt’s daughter and Zach Grenier as Beethoven. The composer appears in the play in a narrative from the 19th century depicting the events surrounding his composition of the Diabelli Variations that are intercut with Dr. Brandt’s investigation of the same events. Of course, Beethoven’s own declining health at the time establishes painfully obvious parallels, but all of it is wrapped in some lovely set design by Derek McLane, which uses projected elements of Beethoven’s scores. Of course, the reason many will see this show is to catch a glimpse of Jane Fonda. She’s as great an actor here as in any other project you can think of that she’s done. If 33 Variations were a film, it would certainly be Oscar-bait considering she gets to play a woman who is progressively becoming more physically disabled over the course of two hours. I never once felt that I was looking at Jane Fonda during the performance and bought her performance in total.

But is she enough to justify seeing the whole play? Probably not. Even with live piano accompaniment from Diane Walsh who performs Beethoven’s music throughout the evening, 33 Variations isn’t ever pointed or funny enough to raise much sustained interest. While there is plenty raging against the dying of the light in this one, it still goes quietly to its end with too many dry eyes in the house. However, if you’re a big Fonda fan, you can’t go wrong here. And if it’s celebrity you want, the Ahmanson is currently delivering.

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Before I Forget

February 08, 2011

 
Martin Haselböck

There are a handful of events I missed in my season preview for February I thought it might be worth mentioning before we got too far into the month. I was recently reminded that the always lovely Musica Angelica will be presenting their annual opera offering this month with a notable Mozart rarity, Zaide. Composed in 1780, Mozart finished the first two acts but never completed the work which had been commissioned by Emperor Joseph II. Musica Angelica will present a completed and staged version of the work on Feb 19 and 20 under he direction of Martin Hasselböck. The cast will feature Andrew Bidlack, Janai Brugger-Orman, Jesus Leon and Christina Hilz. This is a great chance to hear a rarely performed piece of music with one of the region's premiere period music ensembles, and there are a total of three performances with the two on the 20th happening at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica.

I should also mention a promising program from the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra that will come up the following weekend on Feb 26. Lisa de la Salle will join the ensemble under Louis Langrée who will perform Beethoven’s Second Symphony along side Saint-Saens Piano Concerto No. 2 and a short work from Ravel. And, if you’re inclined for more piano magic, Simon Trpceski will appear in a solo recital at Disney Concert Hall on Feb 22 in a program that includes Haydn, Chopin, and Prokofiev.

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Take Your Pick

February 07, 2011

 
Photo: mine

The Los Angeles Philharmonic returns home this week following a European Tour marked by mixed reviews and two big announcements. The first of these was that Gustavo Dudamel has extended his contract as music director through the 2018-2019 season. This is undoubtedly good news for an organization that is increasingly invested in substituting publicity for artistic excellence. But while you can fool some of the people all of the time, the announcement of the 2011-2012 season schedule is a testament that his extended tenure as music director in Los Angeles is increasingly looking like our own local “lost decade.”

The schedule increasingly tells the tale of two Philharmonics. One honors the heritage of the ensemble’s greatest successes as a purveyor of new(er) music with a large number of commissions from major composers including most notably John Adam’s new oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary, which will close the season starting May 31, 2012. Then there is also the previously reported premiere of the new operatic fragment from Shostakovich, Orango, which will be conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. There is also work from Philip Glass, Haas, Bettison, Matheson, Pereira, Chapela, Dubugnon, and Hillborg. It sounds exciting, and oddly Dudamel will have little to do with the majority of it. He will lead the Adams work and the two shorter pieces from Enrique Chapela and Joseph Pereira, who serves as the principal timpanist of the L.A. Philharmonic. The majority of the new works, even when they don’t occur in the “Green Umbrella” new music series, will be entrusted to visiting conductors and alumni.

And while there’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself, the projects Dudamel has elected to lead instead include such groundbreaking initiatives as a Mahler symphony cycle. This ill-conceived project will include performances by both the L.A. Phil and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra during a visit to LA in late January and February. Dudamel has proven on multiple occasions that Mahler’s works fare poorly under his direction with little unity of vision. A whole cycle in one season promises to be overwhelming in a bad way. And while there will be an opera performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the remainder of the programs led by Dudamel are backed with familiar warhorses at every turn. I think this is bad news and bears witness to some of the concerns I’ve had about Dudamel’s leadership all along. In a short piece defending him from skeptics and a perceived “backlash,” the maestro was quoted in Britain’s The Guardian as saying “The word 'professional' is destroying our art. In the end we are artists ... The most boring thing in the world is to see someone doing their job without passion.” And whether or not you believe the false dichotomy implied in this out-of-context quote, I would argue that in music, as well as all the performing arts, passion is not enough in itself. Trust me, I think I’m more passionate about Messiaen’s Saint Francois d’Assise than anyone in the world, but you so do not want to have me conduct it, direct a production of it, or even deliver coffee to the folks that could. That’s not to say the LA Philharmonic season on the whole is poor or that it isn’t filled with tons of exciting or interesting music. It’s just that audiences will have to increasingly decide which of the two L.A. Philharmonics they want to hear.

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Big Bad Momma

February 06, 2011

 
Suzan Hanson in Medea
Photo: Jim Farber/LBO 2011

Long Beach Opera dove head-first into its 2011 season last week honoring its tradition of presenting some of the most unusual operas in the most unusual places. 2011’s first production was Luigi Cherubini’s late 18th-century treatment of Medea, which the company had mounted in a vacant furniture showroom space in the Bixby Knolls neighborhood of Long Beach, CA. Perhaps the most important composer to have worked in Paris throughout the time of the Revolution, Cherubini’s operas were hugely influential for a whole generation of later composers including Beethoven, Wagner, and Weber. Yet despite this heritage, his works are rarely seen in the contemporary repertoire. So to have Cherubini’s Medea show up in Long Beach is a special event indeed, and the company under the guidance of Andreas Mitisek definitely put together a memorable take on this neglected masterpiece.

Ani Maldjian in Medea
Photo: Jim Farber/LBO 2011

Medea, like so many other operas, has lived on in many formats and languages. LBO’s Mitisek and the soprano Suzan Hanson, who stars in the title role, continued this tradition by adapting Cherubini's score to their own artistic purposes. Shortened to a single act in 10 scenes and around 100 minutes, the performance trimmed a good bit of music associated with the work. Furthermore, the libretto was streamlined and translated into English with spoken dialog favored in between the arias as Cherubini initially intended as opposed to the recitatives that had been used for later revivals of the work. This did have the benefit of keeping the action focused in a manner similar to Salome or Elektra. Unfortunately, this particular translation of Medea was pointedly plain and unpoetic, and didn't pack the punch of either of Strauss' works. But while the libretto seemed uninspired, the rest of the performance's qualities were strong making this revival a worthwhile excursion.

Long Beach Opera has repeatedly proven their remarkable ability to do more with less, which I was immediately reminded of on entering the EXPO Warehouse. Here in the middle of a darkened warehouse was a dramatic, stark, and modern set. A large central cluster of steel risers dominated the room lit mostly from below and surrounded by candles. The stage was surrounded on all sides by the audience with Mitisek and his orchestra placed off to one side. In fact, both the set design and conducting, as well as the lighting design and direction, were all under the guidance of Mitisek, causing one to marvel at his range of abilities in bringing this performance to life. His conducting of the orchestra was comendable as well, highlighting the rich orchestral feeling that so clearly inspired Cherubini's peers and successors.

The cast entered and took their positions atop the stage where they remained throughout, lying down when not called for in the scene. The first scene contained an exciting coloratura aria sung by Dirce, Jason's new wife, who was performed by Ani Maldjian. She exhibited excellent control and milked this solitary moment for her character with real gusto, playing up the adolescent, inebriated characterization in the production. Shortly after this, Dirce is joined by Ryan MacPherson who sang Jason in his white tuxedo jacket, and the Creon of Roberto Gomez in a black leather duster coat. Medea is accompanied by three women who act both as friends and fates in this production and were sung by Peabody Southwell, Ariel Pisturino, and Diana Tash. All provided excellent support in the cast, and Southwell's featured aria came off splendidly.

But the heavy lifting in the show was done by Suzan Hanson in the title role. She spends virtually all of the production atop her perch in the center of the set and rightly maintains herself as the central focus. This is a challenging part favored by legendary sopranos from Callas to Gwyneth Jones. Hanson gave a strong and very committed performance that was great fun to watch. She projected her character's rage and heartbreak beautifully throughout. Sadly she was plagued by an unfortunate ill-fitting costume meant to contrast with the contemporary garb of the rest of the cast. Yes, it, along with the large tribal tattoo that covered her right side, did highlight her otherness in contrast to the other characters. But, the huge amount of draped fabric would have resulted in a first-round elimination on Project Runway. Hanson was forced to spend most of the show maneuvering knots or bolts of fabric and it was often distracting. She did her best to rise above the garment, though, and gave a memorable performance. Once again the ambition of Mitisek and LBO impressed their audience with an operatic rarity. And while Medea may not have been shocking or frightening, it was lovely to hear and see even in this most unusual of spaces.

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Leap of Faith

February 04, 2011

 
Kevin Anderson in The Break of Noon
Photo: Michael Lamont/Geffen Playhouse 2011

Neil LaBute’s latest stage effort made its way West this week to the playwright’s L.A. stage of choice, the Geffen Playhouse. The Break of Noon, which debuted last Fall at The MCC Theater, arrived with two new cast members but the same director, Jo Bonney. And if it is anything, The Break of Noon is recognizable LaBute through and through complete with one very bad boy, female characters said bad boy uses to define himself, and the thorny relationships that ensue between them. The focus of the play, however—the origins of faith and its place in today’s world—is an unusual central theme for LaBute. That being said, though, his treatment of it is not entirely original. The central character, John Smith, we learn is the sole survivor of a horrendous mass murder. He gets religion, feeling he was saved after hearing the voice of God, and just as quickly obtains significant fame and fortune in part from a rather gruesome photo he shot of the killer and at least one bloody victim. The following 90 minutes deal with the aftermath of these events and Smith’s struggle to live up to the holy task he now believes he has been called to do. Of course, he turns out to be not quite as changed as he may have initially thought, and we soon see Smith dealing with some of his old, womanizing, cheating, and lying ways. But LaBute never lets the audience or Smith forget that Smith does in fact have a new-found faith that he wishes to spread and that there is sincerity in his urges to do good.

The old chestnut of the troubled and perhaps disingenuous man of faith doing some real good, however unintentionally, has populated more movies and plays than you may care to remember. But this is LaBute’s world, and despite the familiarity of the set up, nothing in the play sounds quite like your typical Hollywood film. Smith travels through eight scenes encountering four women and two men in between his long monologues that start and finish the piece. Each outsider challenges his new found perspective on life by recalling some of his not too pleasant past in different ways. Each outsider appears only once before moving on, but all contribute to a building narrative along the way. The cast is quite good including Kevin Anderson in the title role alongside Catherine Dent, Tracee Chimo, and John Earl Jelks. (The latter two appeared in the New York run of the play.) LaBute’s biting view on male-female relationships is again on display as Smith meets up with his ex-wife, ex-mistress, and a prostitute. But these interactions are always more about him than the women. All the scenes are sharply written with smart dialog except for a TV interview segment that reads more like one of those unfunny sketches that populates the last 10 minutes of a Saturday Night Live broadcast. There is a fair amount of humor in the play, though it often seemed a little hard to decipher in The Break of Noon, considering some of the material that immediately surrounds it. Still, it’s a good effort and highlights many of the best qualities of LaBute’s writing. It may not be new, but you could do worse than simply being familiar. It continues at the Geffen Playhouse through March 6.

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In The Wings - February '11

February 02, 2011

 
Nino Machaidze in the Christof Loy production of Il Turco in Italia
Photo: Armin Bardel

The event I’m most anticipating in February is the return of Nino Machaidze to Los Angeles Opera to star in Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia starting on Feb 19. What’s better yet is that this wonderful soprano will star in a Christof Loy production imported from Munich that will also feature the super Paolo Gavanelli and Thomas Allen. It’s not the only event LAO will host this month, which will also include the second in the company’s all-hunk recital series when Dimitri Hvorostovsky comes to town on Feb 10. Many of February's other highlights for me are also operatic and I’ll be headed to New York ever so briefly to catch Adams’ Nixon in China and the return of Susan Graham and Placido Domingo in Gluck’s Iphigenie en Tauride both on the 12th at The Metropolitan Opera. (Nixon in China will be featured in a broadcast on Feb 12th as well, so it will be available much closer to home than New York.) The only bad news here is that it will force me to miss the lovely Joyce DiDonato when she arrives at the Broad Stage on the 11th in Santa Monica. And if you still haven’t caught it, Long Beach Opera will offer two more performances of Cherubini’s Medea on the 5th and 6th of the month as well.

The JACK Quartet
Photo: Stephen Poff

On the music front, the pick of the month will be the return of the JACK Quartet to Monday Evening Concerts, this time with the lights on, to play a Valentine’s Day program of Cage, Cassidy, and Radulescu. Ain’t love grand? Meanwhile, Piano Spheres will present an evening of duets from Liam Viney and Anna Grinberg on Feb 8. There’s an awful lot of jazz and jazz-related projects around town as well. REDCAT will host a new “free-jazz opera” from George Hermes entitled The Artist’s Life Feb 3 through 5 before welcoming the Mark Dresser Trio on the 7th. The Los Angeles Philharmonic will get in on the act as well after returning from their recent European tour with a new commission from Wynton Marsalis who’ll appear alongside conductor Leonard Slatkin on the weekend of the 11th. Less jazzy, but just as noticeable will be Lionel Bringuier leading the orchestra the following weekend of the 18th with Gautier Capuçon in the Schumann Cello Concerto and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 5. Oh, and not to be forgotten, Lisa de la Salle and Louis Langrée will appear with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra on weekend of the 25th with works from Ravel and Beethoven.

Kevin Anderson in The Break of Noon
Photo: Michael Lamont/Geffen Playhouse 2011

On stage, Center Theater Group will bring Jane Fonda to the Ahmanson in Moisés Kaufman’s 33 Variations all month long after her recent Broadway success. And for challenge-seeking audiences, the company will host Tim Crouch’s The Author at the Kirk Douglas Theater starting Feb 15. While on the Westside, the Geffen Playhouse will open up the world premiere of Neil LaBute’s The Break of Noon as of Feb 3. And, if you still haven’t seen Spring Awakening!, (you should) you’ve got another week’s worth of chances starting on Feb 8 at the Pantages. There’s dance as well with Association Noa/Vincent Mantsoe at REDCAT Feb 9 and Kidd Pivot Frankfurt RM at UCLA’s Royce Hall on Feb 25. And, if all else fails, you can always catch L.A.’s own Local Natives in their debut at Walt Disney Concert Hall downtown on the 26th. Have a great February.

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The British Are Coming

February 01, 2011

 
Grant Gershon and members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale Photo: mine 2011

The Los Angeles Master Chorale continued its internationally themed 2010/2011 season on Sunday night with a program entitled “London Bridges.” And while the overarching programming concept may seem a little ham-fisted, British choral music never is, and Grant Gershon and his incredible singers put together another beautiful almost entirely a cappella evening for the crowded Walt Disney Concert Hall audience. As is Gershon’s preference these days, the evening was of two minds, book-ending a series of 20th-century works with late-16th/early-17th century material connecting two sides of Britain’s rich choral music tradition. The evening started with William Byrd’s Four-Part Mass, which Gershon described as a work that was likely performed in secret among Catholics, like Byrd himself, in an often hostile Protestant England of the time. The work does indeed have a sort of quiet reserve, seemingly holding its faith tightly against daunting odds. The Chorale had a clean sound and provided rich texture in a work that avoids any high-wire dramatics.

The evening then moved into contemporary territory with Two Human Hymns from the under-appreciated Judith Weir. These settings of 17th-century texts included organ accompaniment from Paul Meier that busily oscillated in contrast to more steady, melodic lines in the chorus. There was an unnerving feeling to Weir's settings that made many in the audience, including myself, eager for more. Then came two pieces from Benjamin Britten. The Hymn to St. Cecilia was led by Associate Conductor and former member of the LAMC Lesley Leighton, who highlighted the philosophical conflicts between Britten and his librettist W.H. Auden, whose strained professional relationship was drawing to a close around the time this work was completed. Auden peppered the text with admonitions to live life to its fullest emotionally and otherwise in what Leighton posed as a sort of taunt to Britten. The composer's more thorny Missa Brevis in D followed the intermission but as with the prior work, it sounded great in the Chorale's hands.

Perhaps the highlight of the evening, though, came after the Missa Brevis with a performance of John Tavener’s haunting Song for Athene. The piece has become well known and deservedly so for its sheer beauty as an elegy. Gershon and the Chorale demonstrated a mastery of the work’s slow simmering build to a brief but radiant climax that was absolutely thrilling. After the drama subsided, though, it was back to the 17th century with a grab-bag of eight English madrigals by various composers. The vocal performance here was a bit more rough and tumble than some of the prior works. However, this is to be somewhat expected given how these folksy tunes stem from more everyday sentiments. They were great fun to listen to, however, right down to the repeated fa-la-la-las, which "lay"-ed around every turn.

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