Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond
Maria Full of Grace
January 31, 2012
One certainly can’t fault Long Beach Opera for a lack of ambition and reach. The company’s 2012 season opened Sunday with a new production of Piazzolla’s Maria de Buenos Aires, a show that the company did before in 2004 but under much different circumstances. I use the word “show” intentionally considering that it’s a stretch to call Maria de Buenos Aires an opera. The plotless, open-ended structure consisting of little more than a series of songs – Horacio Ferrer’s obtuse poetic lyrics against Piazzola’s tango music. There is a central character Maria who becomes a prostitute, dies, and then returns later on in another form. There’s also a spoken part, El Duende, whose text could be taken any number of ways. Of course, leaving so much room for interpretation makes the work powerful, but in the end it’s only as great as what one puts into it.
LBO’s artistic director Andreas Mitisek puts quite a bit into the show. The action is grafted onto Argentina during the late 70s and early 80s, a time of domestic terror when the county’s military government used state-sponsored violence to suppress political dissidents and thousands of citizens literally disappeared from the streets. Maria becomes a idealistic woman who falls in love with a rebel, a composite character called Payador. They are married and happy until Payador is arrested for his protest activities. Maria engages in a search for her husband in a seedy underworld and eventually is sexually assaulted by the police and taken into custody where her downward spiral continues despite eventually coming into contact with her former husband. The El Duende character in this version becomes an older version of Payador remembering the life of his lost love in a series of flashbacks.
It’s a bold take on the work and Mitisek and his players have put together something that looks incredibly good. The entire performance is given behind a scrim over which black and white images of stock footage from the period is projected alongside imagined scenes between the principal characters. There’s also a wall of faces of the “disappeared” that slowly rains down in random segments over the performances opening music. The cast itself, all amplified throughout, sounded great. LBO favorite Peabody Southwell sang Maria with clarity and real energy in a very physically demanding staging where she is often dancing or in physical conflicts with others. Her young lover was the equally enjoyable Gregorio Gonzalez who handled the show’s only other singing role in this version. The spoken part of El Duende went to Gregorio Luke who was commanding even with the evocative poetic lines he was given that rarely related to the action on stage. The members of the Nannette Brodie Dance Theater were always present providing the dance material that is commonly found in staged versions of Piazzolla’s score.
But despite how good this looked and sounded, and as much as I admired Mitisek and company’s bold adaptation, I found the whole thing rather wanting. Mitisek claims in his program notes that he “wanted to go deeply into the soul of this work and give it a contemporary meaning beyond clichés and stereotypes.” But I’m not sure that whitewashing the more unseemly aspects of Maria’s character to make her a revolutionary lover and symbol for all the good aspects of a nation’s spirit is necessarily avant-grade. Mitisek continues, “Maria is the ultimate metaphor for the heart and soul of Argentina and also a symbol for love, hope, fear, and resilience.” Fair enough. But none of that makes her necessarily very interesting or human as a character. Instead the complexity of the woman, and if taken symbolically the country she represents, is watered down to a sort of populist propaganda with a veneer of exotic sexuality tossed in for good measure. Long Beach Opera’s Maria de Buenos Aires is certainly attractive and professionally done, but it doesn’t quite deliver on the radicalism implicitly promised by its own premise. There's another performance on Saturday February 4th at The Warner Grand Theater in San Pedro.
It was a particularly good weekend to be in San Diego. Not just because of San Diego Opera’s very good production of Salome, but also because I got to see The Old Globe’s excellent production of Horton Foote’s Dividing the Estate, which is running through February 12. The play comes largely intact with the ensemble cast that helped Mr. Foote get another Tony nomination for best new play in 2009. The cast features two of his own children, Hallie Foote as Mary Jo and Horton Foote, Jr. as Mary Jo’s ne’er-do-well older brother Lewis. Of course, Foote’s family most likely has nothing on the Gordons of Harrison, TX, circa 1987 as depicted in the play. The three adult Gordon children, Lewis, Mary Jo, and Lucille have all gathered at their family’s palatial if somewhat sputtering estate for a dinner at which perennial discussions of money and the fate of the family’s land in the not so distant future are again rehashed. The family matriarch, Stella Gordon, played by the simply incandescent Elizabeth Ashley, seems to change her mind nearly minute to minute about what she wants for the remainder of her life and afterwards. She’s also a soft touch enamored with her memories of the past, and easily persuaded into bad decisions by her children over the objections of the estate's caretakers Lucille and her own child, referred to as Son, who are striving to keep everything financially afloat.
But money stressors are all around as Mary Jo’s husband and children find themselves in increasingly deep water in Houston while Lewis finds himself ever in debt through some combination of gambling and alcohol. Foote takes a darkly comic view of these events and it isn’t long before the thin ice everyone is skating on opens up cavernous cracks as death starts to call for more than one member of the extended family. All of this is reminiscent of Tracey Letts’ landmark August: Osage County but with a far more restrained and subtle tack toward family dynamics. The Gordons may raise their voice, but things never descend into outright violence. Of course, Foote has thrown in more than a dash of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard here as well as the crumbling and inevitable economic realities loom large in the minds of the audience if not the Gordons themselves who are unable to wake long enough to save themselves from either their own greed or from wallowing in a bygone dream of themselves. The critique of the American dream is still front and center for Foote, if not always as brutally scathing as it is in August.
But the hint of nostalgic melancholy gives Dividing the Estate its unique sensibility. It is always a very funny play, but the expansive and beautiful homestead set can do little to disguise the socially claustrophobic family relationships playing out within its walls. Michael Wilson’s direction makes room for everyone in this large ensemble to shine but Ms. Foote and Ms. Ashley are given particularly juicy bits and understandably draw more attention. So while the show may not be a revolution in theater, it does promise for a very fun and hopefully hugely successful run in San Diego. See it before you lose the chance to.
Opera, like most other natural phenomena, travels south for the winter in California. Which means it’s time for the opening of the San Diego Opera 2012 season which kicked off Saturday night with a first-rate performance of Strauss’ Salome. Based on Wilde’s faithful play of the classical Biblical tale, Salome continues to be one of the more shocking and outright graphic of all operas. This is abetted, of course, by one of the most shocking scores in 20th-century music, one that serves as the starting point of Alex Ross’ great survey of the topic, The Rest is Noise. When done as well as it is currently in San Diego, it’s as unnerving now as it was a century ago.
So what makes a good, Salome? Well first an orchestra playing as well as the San Diego Symphony Orchestra did under Stuart Bedford. After a bit of a tenuous start, they dug in admirably with a difficult often-raging score that can lurk in some intensely beautiful lyrical passages before lunging unexpectedly for the throat. The production, originally commissioned by Opera Theater Saint Louis, comes from choreographer turned director Seán Curran. It’s a bland single room that looks like some abandoned sewer with a large covered circular opening at the back that serves as the cistern. The costumes are mostly modern dress with a few accents that might suggest the Middle Eastern setting of the piece, and the whole thing relies heavily on Chris Maravich’s lighting design for any visual punch. I wasn’t crazy about the production last time it surfaced in San Francisco and am still puzzled by some elements. (Still with those copper-colored shin guards for some reason.)
But casting makes all the difference in some instances, and this plain production coursed to life with the enormously talented Lise Linsdtrom in the title role. That she looks gorgeous in this physically demanding role is one thing. But the fact that she can actually sing the part, and do so much better than most, is another matter all together. Her tone is even and well placed without ever turning shrill or her having to yell, a not uncommon occurrence in this particular role. She cuts through the orchestra readily when she needs to, and her final monologue on the mysteries of love and death came off as fresh and authentic. We’ll take some more of her please, and soon. And then there’s that dance. Lindstrom takes Curran’s twist on the dance of the seven veils by making it less of a striptease and a bit more contemporary with Salome using various bolts of cloth to engage, cajole, and tease Herod. Lindstrom makes the whole thing sexy in a way that is surprisingly understated and direct.
She has quite good colleagues around her on stage. Allan Glassman gives one of the more complex performances of Herod than I’ve seen in a while and avoided barking or mincing around the stage. Sean Panikkar was a sweet-voiced Narraboth and Irina Mishura avoided making Herodias overly campy, another common pitfall. Popular American bass-baritone Greer Grimsley sang one of his signature roles with Jochanaan and looked every bit as seductive as Salome imagines him to be. Oddly, his booming sound came clearest where I was sitting when Jochanaan was singing off-stage from within the cistern and somewhat muddier when he was onstage bare-chested and in chains. In any event, this is a show that works in the biggest moments and is blessed with talents both onstage and in the pit that make a great evening out of the most basic elements.
The Los Angeles Philharmonic reached the two-thirds point in the local run of its Mahler cycle, or “Project” for those so inclined, on Thursday. And after some time off for good behavior this week, it was back in the saddle for me. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s Symphony No.6 – the “Tragic” one. Mahler’s subtitle for this symphony of course turned somewhat prophetic for him personally in the year following its premiere, and given music director Gustavo Dudamel’s track record of conducting Mahler’s works, it certainly ran the risk of predicting this evening’s performance quality as well. As the symphony numbers in this series get higher, the works get progressively more challenging in terms of content. Dudamel and the L.A. Philharmonic have been doing fairly well so far in the cycle with solid performances of Symphonies 1, 4, and the Adagio from the 10th. But Dudamel appeared to be running out of steam on Thursday. Certainly not in any physical sense – he appeared hearty and hale as always. But the small cracks in the interpretive façade from earlier on are starting to expand as the cycle goes on.
Dudamel, as is his wont, conducted the score from memory. And things got off to a great start. The strings poured out rich beautiful wound in well coordinated attacks on the two contrasting themes in the early part of the first movement. I was sorry to hear it end and the interruption of late comers clattering in between the first two movements was a disappointing punctuation mark on the music. Dudamel went with the original ordering of the next two movements going on with the Andante moderato which was reserved and frequently lovely. But this is a big siymphony with a lot of angst-ridden themes in it, and Dudamel began to falter on entering the Scherzo. Things turned listless at this point. Not that there wasn’t passionate, committed playing from the orchestra members, but the various elements in the score became increasingly disorganized from one another. This lack of focus and overall direction spilled over into the forth movement which started off sounding uncertain as well. By the time the hammer let lose in the home stretch, things had pulled together rhythmically and again the orchestra’s sails seemed to catch the prevailing winds. But moments of muddiness continued to arise write into the final bars. The symphony ends with diminishing brass ad a large final crescendo that fades into darkness. It’s a profound and tortured moment and an opportunity for the kind of awed silence Dudamel has been cultivating in audiences here. But for some on Thursday he had not sealed the deal, and fervent applause immediately crushed the last bits of sound from the orchestra, a development the maestro looked none to happy about by his facial expression.
And I can certainly sympathize with him on that account. But this was not a performance or an audience that was entirely thrust into rapture by the end, and despite its many charms, continued to serve as a reminder of how much work there is left to do for Dudamel and this orchestra. There’s more Mahler ahead next week so stay tuned.
If it’s Thursday, it must be Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 which Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela did their one-off performance of on January 26. As mentioned earlier this week, I’m spreading the love around by passing along my seat to some guest voices to reflect on the Mahler mania downtown. For the 5th, I’ve asked bon vivant and man-about-town Ben Vanaman to share his thoughts on the performance, which follows.
The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Mahler Project” continued Thursday night with a performance of the composer’s Fifth symphony by the Simon Bolivar Orchestra of Venezuela. It was a messy business, but, then, the orchestra had to contend with the likes of the man sitting behind me who snored convulsively through the entire performance. In any event, this was my first time hearing this band perform. I’ve heretofore resisted, for while I appreciate that this is an ensemble made up largely of young people who are the future professionals of orchestras around the world, I would frankly rather listen to grown-ups play, men and women with a little more living under their belt who bring added maturity and wisdom to their collaborations with each other and the maestros leading them from the podium. In this regard, I wasn’t contradicted. This is a very large orchestra and they make a lot of noise, an often fractious, cacophonous, undifferentiated wall of sound against which there’s little defense. Think of an aural equivalent of the ninety-foot-tall tidal wave hurtling toward the S.S. Poseidon, and you get the idea of what it’s like being subjected to the mighty blast conjured up by these earnest but precociously unseasoned young players.
These kids hit their notes accurately but invariably. The horns blared, the woodwinds –not always in tune- bleeped, and the string players sawed away, swaying to and fro, with a fervor that would have made Mantovani blush. Everything was mezzo-forte. Inner voices were often indistinguishable. It was often like listening to a really good high school marching band. But is this Mahler? Part of the problem may have been at the podium. The massive architecture of the Mahler (and Bruckner) symphonies is paradoxically delicate, and it can be so easy for these cathedral-like structures to collapse lacking venerable leadership at the helm. Such sometimes seemed the case here, maestro Dudamel alternately pushing through the score with grim determination while occasionally stopping to luxuriate too long over this passage or that as is his youthful wont, the effect being equivalent to participating in an old fashioned taffy pull. It was gooey, but was it musical?
This brings us to the Adagietto. Immortalized for cineastes as the soundtrack to Luchino Visconti’s adaptation of Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice,” this movement –some of the most beautiful music ever written- began prettily enough. Certainly my ambivalence over the conductor’s reading of the movements preceding it made me yearn to reach this emotional climax. But by the time Dudamel had slowed the recap of the opening theme toward the end of the movement to the point of dissipation, I couldn’t help but think that the snoring man behind me was Aschenbach raising complaint, his obsession with Tadzio having succumbed to narcosis rather than being driven inexorably if fatefully onward by the surge of Mahler’s passionate score.
This being L.A., the rousing final chords were met with an instant and uproarious standing ovation. Few left. Many were stamping their feet like they were at a hootenanny. In fact, that may not have been far off the mark, as the L.A. Philharmonic organization is arguably in the process of becoming the Ringling Brothers of classical music. Long before the end, I was wishing that I were somewhere else: seeing Norris’ Clybourne Park a second time across the street; sitting near my same seat in Disney Hall listening once again to the L.A. Philharmonic’s brilliant recent performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 4 under conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen; lounging at home watching the latest episode of “Revenge.” When you’re in the concert hall and you keep thinking of the items you need to pick up at the market on the way home, there’s a problem. Or maybe that’s just me.
Opera should be impossible. Obviously it isn’t, but the artistic forces involved from so many people at the same time make it perhaps the most challenging and least individual of art forms. The impossibility of such an artistic quest gives the concept of opera ideological parallels to a novel like Melville’s Moby-Dick. Music and theater artists have frequently picked up on this peculiar relationship to produce such varied work as Laurie Anderson’s Songs and Stories from Moby Dick from 1999 to Jake Heggie’s recent outright operatic treatment of the novel that premiered in Dallas in 2010 and will be seen next month in San Diego before arriving in San Francisco this fall. The commonalities also served as the inspiration for Rinde Eckert’s And God Created Great Whales a performance art piece that isn’t exactly opera, but takes up the topic of the creation of an opera based on Moby-Dick as its subject. The work originally premiered in 2000 to much acclaim and various performances over the following three years. More recently, Eckert, along with his collaborators, costar Nora Cole and director David Schweizer, developed a technologically retooled new version of the show that opened up the spring season at REDCAT on Wednesday for five performances before moving onto New York later this year.
Eckert directly taps into the concept of the struggle of artistic production and its parallels both with the struggle of every day life and the struggles for greater knowledge and the unknown in Moby-Dick. And God Created Great Whales tells the story of Nathan, played by Eckert, a composer working on an operatic version of Melville’s novel. Nathan has been diagnosed with a degenerative cognitive disorder and is losing his memory, making his task that much more difficult. He’s created an elaborate system using several tape recorders, including one that is strapped to his chest, to remind and orient himself to his project and work on a repeated daily basis. He’s also joined by Cole, who portrays an imagined version of a famous opera singer Nathan has previously befriended during his work as a piano tuner. She advises and motivates Nathan and after each repeated start with the tape recorder, she joins him in re-enactments of various scenes from his opera. Slowly but surely, things deteriorate for Nathan until he too must face the inevitable sway of forces greater than himself.
Nora Cole gives a wonderful performance as the imaginary friend with a lovely voices and a big stage presence. But at the heart of it, this is Eckert’s show. He has composed all of the accompanying music, much of it incorporating samples of whale sounds, and sings and moves through most of the evening. He plays and tunes a dilapidated piano strung up to the rafters above with thick rope. He’s both touching and funny at times in a script filled with wry, and sometimes bitter humor. Still the last decade alters one’s perspective on the show. The notion of saving memory on a tape recorder comes off as even more archaic in a post Momento, post i-whatever world which makes Nathan seem decrepit and weak even before the scope of his deterioration is elaborated upon. The operatic segments can also be rather genteel and softball in their lampooning of operatic conventions. The laughs here are warm, but rarely all that dark or biting. Nathan’s decline is more marked by apathy than psychic pain, which may be more naturalistic, but doesn’t always make for the best drama. Granted it’s smarter than drivel like Moises Kaufman’s 33 Variations, but I often felt like I was missing something in the fleshing out of Eckert’s concept. The show continues through Sunday at REDCAT, downtown’s still best kept open secret.
Amid a huge expanse of overplayed Mahler this week from Dudamel and the visiting Bolivar Orchestra, there was a moment of beautiful music, simply played and wonderfully effective for it. The program was an evening almost entirely of works from Vivaldi played by Europa Galante under their music director Fabio Biondi and accompanied by the vocally and visually gorgeous Vivica Genaux. The crowd was small even for a Tuesday and paled in comparison to the packed and endlessly enthusiastic audiences Dudamel and his orchestra have played to. Which only goes to show there is no accounting for taste. Genaux and Europa Galante are the real deal, professionals who know without hesitation exactly what they are doing and, despite the smaller scale, they were met with the deserved ardor of the discerning crowd on hand.
Biondi’s players are one of the more polished period-practice ensemble around. Their playing is particularly crisp and never boring. In addition to two Vivaldi concertos they also presented works from Nardini and Locatelli. The Locatelli concerto, subtitled “Il pianto d’Ariana” (The Weeping of Ariadne) in particular benefited from the polished, more lyrical approach. Biondi’s players are quite good in bringing out the sort of thematic and emotional detail that modern audiences tend to gloss over in Baroque works now that their ears have become accustomed to much broader 19th-century dramatics. Of course, the evening rotated around mezzo-soprano Genaux who was as stunning here as she was during her appearances with Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra last fall. She has a smaller sized voice that has kept her close to concert halls and smaller European houses for much of her career and she was challenged by the relatively large WDCH space. But unlike some vocalists with similar sized instruments, Genaux has actual Baroque technique to show off and readily manages the floral ornamentation of coloratura passages in such hallmarks as Vivaldi’s “Agitata da due venti.” She could also be heartbreakingly tender as with “E prigioniero e ré” from Semiramide. There are few vocalists that can imbue these Vivaldi arias with the color and pathos Genaux does, and even in this overly large space she was a thriller. Next time around here’s hoping she gets an audience that corresponds more accurately to the size of her talents.
After deciding I couldn’t take another Mahler symphony with the Bolivar players under Dudamel this week, I headed over to UCLA instead for a solo piano recital from Denis Matsuev who is currently on a three-city tour of the U.S. that will end in New York on Friday the 27th. Matsuev shot to fame after winning the 1998 International Tchaikovsky Competition and he has continued to perform around the world since then. His name is everywhere lately with a new recording of Liszt's Piano Concerti on RCA and an upcoming performance of the two Shostakovich Piano Conerti with Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra. He’s also scheduled to make an appearance playing Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto 1 under Krzysztof Urbański this coming summer at the Hollywood Bowl in what is easily the most exciting program all summer in terms of scheduled performers and repertoire. (Note to Bowl programmers, big classical music stars are most interesting when they are performing something interesting.)
But before all that was this solo recital that had a lot more in common artistically with the kind of approach Dudamel takes to music than you might expect. The show was primarily very familiar piano sonatas: Schubert’s Sonata in A minor, Beethoven’s Sonata No. 23 in F minor, and Grieg’s Sonata in E minor. The show concluded with Stravinsky's Three Movements from the Ballet Petrushka arranged for piano, a work he’ll also perform at the Bowl. Matsuev bounded onto the stage Tuesday and was clearly all business from the get go. He tore into the Schubert making it clear from bar 1 that timidity would not be the order of the day in this performance. The Schubert sounded incredibly broad and magisterial like some sort of music for a regal ceremony. Even in more quiet moments the sound could be on the severe side though never unpleasant. Matsuev was not trying to recast these works as something else, à la Marino Formenti’s take on the Diabelli Variations earlier this year, but was definitely pressing them into a service which called for high drama and big bold sound. The Beethoven gave off a flesh-bound burning passion in this version and the Grieg was no less intense or flashy.
The technique was a thing to behold, and Matsuev is surprisingly fleet given the level of energy and sound he puts out. But perhaps this approach worked best in the arrangement of Stravinsky's Petrushka. Matsuev amazingly made the piano sound like the entire orchestra in this work. It was an entire ballet from a single keyboard, but it worked brilliantly with propulsive motion throughout. Matsuev was swimming in floral bouquets from his many adoring fans in the predominantly Russian-speaking crowd. And while he didn’t make chit-chat or waste time lounging around, he did deliver a number of encores, most notable an unhinged version of Take the "A" Train. Matsuev is known as a jazz aficionado, and the encore was a chance to offer the audience something along the line of his other major performance area. It was an intriguing run through if no less intense than anything else on the evening's bill.
As much as I love the sound of my own voice, I find that even I can tolerate opinions other than my own once in a while. It’s a sign of good breeding. So following Sunday’s performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 with Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, I decided to take a pass on the next couple of collaborations of these particular artistic forces and invited someone else to chip in here at Out West Arts for a change. So, give a big hello to conductor and music critic Matthew Martinez who stepped into the breech for Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 in the current cycle and contributes the following report.
Another opening, another show. So it goes in the jam-packed “Mahler Project.” Less than 48 hours removed from an emotionally exhausting Resurrection Symphony, the 150-plus players of the Simón Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela filled in every suitable inch of the Disney Hall platform to take on Gustav Mahler’s even longer subsequent work, the Third Symphony, for only one performance. Under the direction of Gustavo Dudamel, the players were joined by the Women of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Los Angeles Children’s Chorus and mezzo-soprano soloist Christianne Stotijn. While there were some stunning moments, the performance was often oddly detached, and even academic. Perhaps it was the grueling schedule. In any case, the capacity audience (many of whom felt compelled to clap after each of the first three movements), responded with a loud ovation. Some, however, seemed a bit dazed and were undoubtedly asking, “What was the point?” Unfortunately, this question wasn’t answered on Tuesday night, but some enjoyable moments and beautiful playing offered some glimpses into the majesty of the longest symphony in the repertoire.
After Mahler attempted to answer the questions of death and the after-life in his Second Symphony, he felt compelled to look closer at this life and all that shapes it: nature. In some ways, Mahler’s dramatic strengths are less obvious in this piece than in his other long works. The over-the-top thunderous cries of the Second and Eighth, are replaced by a nobler, more refined language. The constant intrusions by solo instruments can seem devoid of meaning if not given strong purpose. Unfortunately, this was common in the first three movements on Tuesday night. Rather than providing the propulsion for such expansive canvases, they seemed to interrupt rather than motivate. It made for a first movement that sagged and wandered, not due to slowness of tempo, but rather lack of direction and definition. Indeed, the most promising development was a moderation of tempo by the Maestro. There were certainly break-neck accelerandos, but overall, tempos were comfortable and buoyant. Dudamel conducted in a clear pattern and often took on the role of traffic cop, making sure that it was clear where the barlines and entrances were. In a way, this was remarkably refreshing.
Such clarity and moderation brought out the best in the players. The solo flugelhorn sweetly sang from the highest rear balcony in the hall and, while not perfectly in sync with the onstage forces, it was effective. Indeed, there were several fine solos throughout the evening. The first chair trumpet and oboist were exceptionally virtuosic and grand. Mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn’s solo in the fourth movement was effectively sung. Her tender tone filled the hall and, while not particularly rich, was satisfying in its authority. The Los Angeles Children’s Chorus sang skillfully, but with a slightly thin tone as their boy-sopranos were significantly outnumbered. The Women of the Los Angeles Master Chorale were exemplary as usual, singing with an appreciated dramatic playfulness of text that played well off of Stotijn’s lines. The finest moment of the night belonged to the Venezuelans, however, as Dudamel led a masterful beginning to the final movement, Langsam. The tempo was appropriately slow, but pulsed with a constant vitality. The playing was controlled, beautiful, and blossomed with a sustained energy that spoke naturally without artifice. It was one of the few extended passages where Mahler ascended with purpose. The music soared because it had to. While they were not quite able to sustain it for the final thirty minutes, it was still affirming. For Dudamel and the Venezuelans, it was an admirable step in the right direction.
Remember the “Recovered Voices” project? It was the initiative spearheaded by Los Angeles Opera and music director James Conlon to present some of the music composed by artists adversely affected by Germany’s Third Reich and largely neglected in the history of 20th-century music. L.A. Opera kicked off the series with a concert in 2007 followed by full productions of Zemlinsy’s Der Zwerg, Braunfel’s Die Vögel, and Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten over the next few seasons. Unfortunately the state of the economy and the company’s budget have precluded any more fully stage productions along these lines since 2010. But neither the spirit nor the music itself has been forgotten, as evidenced by James Conlon’s appearance last weekend conducting members of The Colburn School Orchestra and L.A. Opera’s Domingo-Thornton Young Artists in a double bill of one act opera’s by two of those same composers featured in the “Recovered Voices” series.
The concert took place in Colburn’s Zipper Hall and while this may not have allowed for the largest space for these semi-staged productions, it was ideal considering the musical resources. The vocalists easily projected in the space over the chamber-sized orchestra without strain showing off their best attributes and allowing for some pointed and memorable performances. First on the bill was Ernst Krenek’s The Secret Kingdom. Krenek’s career covered a lot of 20th-century musical ground including the jazz-influenced 1926 opera Jonny spielt auf. The Secret Kingdom is more clearly situated in the dying days of late Romanticism with nods to the Second Viennese School. It also owes a lot at least thematically to Wagner. The story, which starts with narration from the court’s jester, tells of an unpopular king among his subjects and even his queen. The queen enlists her three ladies-in-waiting to cajole and seduce the king's jester into giving up the crown he is holding for the king in a clever reverse of the opening of Das Rheingold. She in turn attempts to use the crown to seduce a rebel leader with the promise of power and her affection but to no avail. The royals all escape the rebels and enter the forest where the queen turns into a tree. After the king contemplates suicide, the queen’s voice comforts him and the Jester returns the crown bringing the show to an end.
This sort of fairy tale material lends itself to any number of sociopolitical interpretations in its historical context. Director Gulu Monteiro and designer Swinda Reichelt, who contributed to both stagings, used the space and resources at hand to evoke German expressionism without overplaying either the political allusions or fantastic aspects of the story. Domingo-Thornton alumnus Daniel Armstrong sang the role of the jester and sunk his teeth into the playfulness of the part interacting with the audience. Baritone Museop Kim was the heartbroken king and he produced a warm even sound in his scenes with guest artist Stacey Tappan who was both commanding and lovely as a queen. Tappan has had a number of notable roles in California recently including singing roles in San Francisco’s recent Ring cycle such as Siegfried’s Woodbird. Her tree evoked Strauss’ Daphne for obvious reasons and her performance made me look forward to hearing her in bigger roles. The three Ladies in Waiting were Valentina Fleer, Renée Rapier and Tracy Cox who all performed with voices lovely enough to evoke the unavoidable allusions to Rheinmaidens.
The second half of the program was a reprisal of Viktor Ullmann’s The Emperor of Atlantis, a piece written in Theresienstadt and a favorite of Conlon’s. He performed it in Los Angeles at the Wilshire Temple in 2004 with members of the LA. Philharmonic, and this staging rivaled the quality of that previous one. This war time allegory about death taking a holiday and refusing to end anyone’s life despite the king’s request he do so as part of an ongoing war campaign is dark, sardonic material. The sweet and brightly voiced Ben Bliss played Harlequin, the character who represents life and debates Death’s decision to renounce his usual duties. Bass Erik Anstine made for an ironic and rather comical death figure. Renée Rapier returned as the drummer-girl in her Weil-inspired stage presence. But perhaps most engaging was the lovely lyric duet performed by Alexey Sayapin and Janai Brugger who performed as a soldier and Bubikopf, combatants who become lovers in the absence of death. Perhaps most satisfying, though, was the robust and sizable performance given by the Colburn players, which sounded much bigger than their number might suggest on the stage. This is music with lots of rapid stylistic changes and can move between tense and gently lyrical with little notice. It made for a lovely afternoon and a promising showcase for some of the company's youngest talents.
On Sunday the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela joined Gustavo Dudamel on the stage of the Walt Disney Concert Hall for their first appearance as part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s ongoing Mahler Cycle. It’s the orchestra’s first appearance here since 2007 when they performed Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 under Dudamel with pretty dicey results. Now they are back without the “Youth” in their name anymore, the orchestra is still composed of players aged 18-28, and a lot more Mahler under their belts in all sorts of international venues. They played Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 on Sunday, a work they played during last year’s BBC Proms to very mixedreviews. It’s been very popular for people who write music criticism to write about the SBSOV players as having special insight into this work. The idea being that a resurrection after death is somehow akin to the “El Sistema” backstory that has been a cornerstone of the publicity around the orchestra. Western art music saves the poor children of South America just as faith and religion promise life beyond earthly suffering. As to whether or not any of the orchestra’s players relate to such a proposition, I wouldn’t know. But clearly there are audiences around the world who find the idea alluring. Of course, you could also just see it as a bunch of 20-year-olds sharing their take on one of the great works about death and the afterlife.
In either event, the excesses that plague Dudamel’s conducting were back to the fore on Sunday with an orchestra apparently much less inclined to moderate them. How so much energy and emotional playing can result in music so empty of dramatic tension is a mystery to me. There are some admirable moments. Dudamel got a wonderful performance from the Los Angeles Master Chorale alongside soloists Christianne Stotijn and Miah Persson in the finale of the evening. But this moment like so many others felt disconnected from the whole. Dudamel continues to get bogged down with over-slow pacing, particularly in the second movement, and allows passages to too easily separate from one another. The motion grinds to a dead stop over and over, dissipating the overall effect and dramatic line again and again. Now it should be said that Mahler was not against excesses on the whole. He certainly called for as many strings as possible, and with the SBSOV that is what you get to the point that during the performance a bass player lost his instrument’s footing near the edge of the very cramped stage. But having a lot of players, and controlling their sound are two very different issues and many of the biggest moments from the orchestra sounded sloppy and unfocused more due to the sheer number of players than anything else.
But even in L.A. size matters and the big finish got the enthusiastic response it commanded with a big ovation stretching on and on for many minutes. As throughout their entire history both live and on stage, the quality of the actual performances of the SBSOV under Dudamel rarely correlate to the crowds response. The relationship seems to be based more on energy and enthusiasm. The more dramatic and overstated the performance, the more dramatic and overstated the response. But things work like this in the modern world more and more; why should classical music be any different?
The growth of Santa Monica’s ambitious Jacaranda Music series in just over four years of existence has been staggering. The series, under the direction of Patrick Scott and Mark Alan Hilt, has become a major player in presenting 20th- and 21st-century art music in L.A., and if there was any question still remaining about that fact, all one had to do was look around the room at the faces in the nearly capacity crowd at Santa Monica’s First Presbyterian Church this past Saturday night. (One wonders how much longer they'll be able to continue in this space given the ever increasing size of their audiences.) In addition to the concert, entitled “Ring Around the Moon,” the evening also marked the annual awarding of the group’s Forte Awards honoring individuals who have championed 20th-century music in L.A. Both of this year’s recipients, violinist Movses Pogossian and L.A. Philharmonic president Deborah Borda, were in attendance Saturday, a testament to Jacaranda’s reach and importance in the music community here.
Of course, all this seems obvious considering the quality and content of the show performed that evening, which lived up to the series’ high standards. The pieces all spoke to a nocturnal world and one often marked with a certain spirituality. It was music for the darkest days of the year with a cold and sometimes sparse beauty. Kaija Saariaho’s trio for piano, cello, and viola Je sens un deuxieme coeur started things off. These brief five movements grew out of Saariaho’s 2006 opera Adriana Mater and play with the idea of independent organic rhythms tied together such as the baby's heartbeat in a pregnant woman - a theme central to the opera. The trio was well played by Gloria Cheng and two members of the Calder Quartet, Jonathan Moerschel and Eric Byers, which set the tone for this sometimes quiet and introspective evening. This was quickly followed by a solo guitar work, All in Twilight by Toru Takemitsu played by Michael Kudirka. As with many of Takemitsu’s works, silence and space plays as big a role in the music here as the actual sound. Wrapping up the first half was Dutilleux’ Ainsi la Nuit performed by the Lyris Quartet. These twelve short movements gave off exactly the kind of glow that one might associate with the moon and I was just as impressed with the Lyris players here as I was when they played David Lang’s Difficulty of Crossing a Field for Long Beach Opera last year.
But all of this sparse nighttime music led to something a bit more unexpected: Chinary Ung’s 2006 work for small ensemble and two sopranos, Aura, conducted by Hilt. The nearly hour long piece is filled with Asian elements, some from Ung’s own birthplace of Cambodia. The six string players, three winds, two percussionists, and vocalists were all given double duty on both their own instruments as well as cymbals, water glasses, or at the very least vocalization of sounds more akin to chanting than singing. While some of the text used Khmer and Pali words, much of it did not, heightening the sense of ritual performance in the piece. Sopranos Elissa Johnston and Kathleen Roland were both provided lovely bright vocal sound on top of an often surprisingly large output from the small orchestra, expressing the sense of these various untranslated words. The sound spun outward in a consistent and somewhat meditative way that slowly swept you into it. It’s one of those pieces where by the end you feel you’ve gotten somewhere even if your not exactly sure how you got there. It’s what my friend Robert described as what Mahler imagined himself to be writing with Das Lied von der Erde. And there’s truth to that, if at least in the work's format, though there is something about Aura that while not unaware of death, seems less completely transfixed by it. It received the biggest and most enthusiastic response of the evening and it certainly felt much larger than the resources used in its production would imply. But this may be the story of Jacaranda as well, and the work suited the evening. Out of love for 20th- and 21st-century music and the ambition to martial available resources, a hugely successful concert series has thrived by the sea featuring music that often goes looking for a home.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. On Thursday, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and music director Gustavo Dudamel continued their Mahler cycle (or “Project” if you’re prone to marketing jargon) by covering familiar territory. The main course on the program was Mahler’s Symphony No.1, a favorite of Dudamel’s. Ironically, though, it’s not a work that he’s conducted particularly well in its previous outings here at least. Most notably was the symphony on the bill for the gala opening performance of his tenure as music director in Los Angeles, which was preserved on video. As you may recall, it was artistically disastrous, though the PR machine built up around him bowled over any objections from those who were really listening. Two years later the prospect of its return was not inspiring.
But two years is a long time, and Dudamel’s work with the orchestra has clearly started to pay off as evidenced by what was heard on Thursday. It’s by no means a deep or mature interpretation, but it was undoubtedly a reasonable and at turns quite reasonable one. Many of the same mannerisms are still present – the exaggerated tempi, the obsessive focus on maximizing every little detail at the expense of the whole, and so on. Again the first two movements bogged down occasionally over this preoccupation. But these issues were far less pronounced and the sense of motion through the piece was more intact. Of course, many of those small moments sounded wonderful and the third movement came off without any drag. Dudamel can always sell the big finish, and the finale was as heroic as you could wish for.
As the conductor himself noted, this is usually the point at which the concert would end. (And in fact did so during the inexplicably popular “Casual Friday” performance where you pay the same ticket price for less music with a side of chat, but go figure.) But as Dudamel told the audience before leaving the stage, there was more to come in the form of the Adagio from the unfinished Symphony No. 10, the final symphonic piece Mahler completed before his death. This was provided for contrast with Mahler’s earliest symphonic work, and while the idea may have been a little obvious, the execution was something else entirely. The increasingly lush strings of the L.A. Philharmonic poured themselves into this performance with Dudamel delivering what he had promised – a movement that connected Mahler to the musical revolutions of the 20th Century. Here the Wagnerian overtones were crystal clear and the second Viennese school was clearly in sight with a sound bordering on the dissonant and reorganized. The youthful excesses of both the music and the conducting of the first were gone and replaced with something far more cohesive and impressive. I’ll take more of this Dudamel, please. All this raises expectations for the later symphonies Dudamel will conduct with the L.A. Phil including the 6th next weekend and the 9th after that. You’ve got one more chance to hear this tidbit tonight before the Bolivar players take over the show with the 2nd on Sunday.
David Cromer’s much lauded production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town made it to Los Angeles this week. It’s landed at The Broad Stage, a venue that is quickly developing an incredible track record for bringing the best in theater to Los Angeles. I’m happy to report that Our Town is another chapter in that growing, remarkable history. The production dates back to 2008 where it originated under the auspices of Chicago’s The Hypocrites and a successful long run in New York followed. (In fact it was the longest New York of run of the play ever since its premiere in 1938.) Director David Cromer and many of the original cast have followed the show West along with Helen Hunt who plays the role of the stage manager as she had during a later part of the New York run. And what’s arrived at The Broad is sensational and profoundly moving.
Wilder’s tale of everyday American lives in the early 20th Century was marked from its premiere with a stark, unusually barren staging – an artifice used to strip away what he saw as alienating pretenses of the stage including elaborate sets and costumes. Cromer follows Wilder’s stage directions to this extent with his actors pantomiming activities like cooking and cleaning. But Cromer uses other devices to brilliantly strip away the veneer of nostalgia associated with Our Town exposing the dark and blistering heart of the show. The stage of The Broad auditorium has been extended out over the entire seating area with the audience sitting on risers atop the expanded space in a U-shaped area. The narrow central corridor contains two tables with four chairs each and large walkways lie directly behind the first row of seating. All of this space is used by the cast completely integrating the audience into the day-to-day life of Grover’s Corners. The town’s children run down these aisles and Hunt is as likely to be sitting next to you as addressing you from the stage. Cromer goes further, though, dressing the cast in contemporary street clothes and playing down New England accents and overly expressive affect.
This all adds up to a certain darkness that sets in from the moment things begin, and suddenly the whole show is imbued by an awareness of human frailty and transience. This is not about longing for the past, but the exact opposite. The Our Town stands and screams with rage over our inability to live in the beauty of the moment which comes home to roost in a powerful third act. Cromer closes the show with a brilliant coup de théatre that I won’t describe here, but suffice it to say the audience was filled with sobbing patrons and I’m not ashamed to say I was among them. What’s more, not only has Cromer managed to expose the raw, painful crux of the play, but he’s done so in a way that feels contemporary. Despite its setting of events from over a century ago, this production of Our Town struck me as urgent a show as Next to Normal with modern day American families going about their lives. This is a not a gauzy John Ford version of the past but a dangerous, beautiful throbbing 'now' to be contended with. There is an excellent cast, not only including a superbly subtle Hunt, but James McMenamin as a heartbreaking George and Jennifer Grace as an Emily nearly bursting with youth. But all in the ensemble are quite good and there wasn’t a single moment in the calm, well-paced show that wasn’t worth savoring. I can’t say enough good things about the show. You should see it if you haven’t already before it’s gone on Feb 12.
Recently, a mini-debate fired up over at the esteemable Lisa Hirsch’s Iron Tongue of Midnight about the widely varying published opinions on Susan Graham’s recent recital appearance in Berkeley. Lisa, Joshua Kosman, John Marcher and others all had weighed in on relative strengths and weaknesses of the show, part of her current U.S. tour, which will soon reach Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center. But lucky for the debaters (and you dear reader), Ms. Graham and her accompanist Malcolm Martineau graced the brand new (and as of yet neither donor nor major corporation monikered) Valley Performing Arts Center on the campus of CSUN, on Wednesday, allowing me to clarify things for them by providing the correct opinions about the evening. So let the healing begin…
To start with, Graham arrived in full-on mid-Century Hollywood glamour mode in a floor length plain white gown with plunging neckline and sparkly jewelry to match. I don’t know if Fred Leighton loans out to opera recitals, but they really ought to seize the kind of moment Ms. Graham could deliver. Overall, she was in splendid voice for the evening. She was certainly stronger and more assured than I recall in her last few fully-staged appearances (the Met’s last run of Iphigénie en Tauride and SFO’s revival of Xerxes). To be fair, in Northridge she wasn’t bothered with some overbearing and dull stage-direction to work around and she bloomed when left to her own devices dramatically. Someone should really be mounting more new productions for her.
The program started by playing to her strong suits with Purcell’s “The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation” and Berlioz’ La Mort d’Ophélie. Her voice still holds up amazingly well in Baroque material and she delivered moments of Biblical warmth and clarity in both pieces. Her French is always flawless and she is a natural for Berlioz as well. These were followed by a collection of six different songs from as may different composers setting poetic scenes from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister. Most interesting were three different settings of “Kennst du das Land wo die Zitronen blüh'n” the first from Liszt that occurred half was through the set, a more comic twist from Duparc, and finally a strikingly more brutal and organic version from Hugo Wolf that demonstrated exactly what a difference a Wagner makes. Graham’s forceful cries of “Dahin!” in the final stanza were absolutely chilling.
Upon returning from the break, Graham switched gears by singing about “bad girls” in contrast to the romantic heroines of the first half as she announced from the stage. Now in black sequins and red lights, she sunk her teeth into some very different material. Sadly, some of this material let her down. First was Joseph Horovitz’s 1970 setting of Lady Macbeth’s dialog in a dramatic scene, Lady Macbeth. This came off as more recitative than actual music and was hugely disappointing in its lack of musical color. Also how these disembodied passages build on one another wasn’t clear. Graham made the most of it with her expressive acting, but there was so little musical meat on the bone everyone was soon starving. Poulenc’s witty Fiançailles pour rire came afterward and was delivered with a knowing smile and more lovely vocalism. Graham concluded the evening with a series of “bad girl” songs from Cole Porter and Sondheim including Ben Moore’s now familiar composition for her “Sexy Lady,” which lampoons her own image and place as a mezzo-soprano in the opera world. These songs do show off Graham’s incredible winning personality – one of the reasons that fans like me love her. But to be honest, even by conventional recital standards these days, it felt like rather a soft landing given how good the material in the first half of the evening sounded. There’s letting your hair down, and then there’s putting it up in curlers if you get my drift. Still I’d be thrilled to see her name on a season announcement for L.A. Opera or really anything out here in California, and this recital reminded me why that is.
Somewhere along the line Steve Reich became a rockstar. It looked that way on Tuesday night when he appeared in Los Angeles alongside the Bang on a Can All-Stars and red fish blue fish at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in a program dedicated entirely to his music. The hall was packed with the biggest crowd I’ve yet seen for one of the L.A. Philharmonic-sponsored Green Umbrella programs dedicated to new(ish) music. And there was an almost party-like atmosphere in the audience filled with young faces and large clusters of people hugging as if they were old friends. Just about everybody who follows classical and/or new music in town was there, and even music director Gustavo Dudamel showed up casually dressed in a polo shirt for part of the evening along with Lionel Bringuier. The evening was a tribute to one of the lions of American music and everyone wanted to be a part of it.
Even Reich himself got into the evening by performing as one of the two hand-clapping parts in 1972’s Clapping Music. The other part was performed by percussionist David Cossin who followed this brief rhythmic introduction with a 2000 work Video Phase. Like Clapping Music, this second work was about variations in rhythmic patters at its most basic and unadorned. In Video Phase, a version of an earlier work for two pianos, Cossin filmed himself playing MIDI percussion pads programmed to reproduce piano sounds in a strict repeating rhythm. The film was played back in live performance with Cossin then playing the same pads in a second part where the original rhythm is repeated and periodically sped up enough to move it slightly out of phase from the original. This process is repeated several times until both tape and live performance are back in sequence. Undoubtedly both of these works, like so much of Reich’s music on the whole, are remarkable for the amount of physical endurance and dexterity they require from the musicians. There is a type of mathematical beauty to them that can’t be overlooked. But both also feel like tricks or high school science experiments at time as well.
The rest of the evening was filled with larger scale works. The evening was anchored with Reich’s masterpiece, Music for 18 Musicians with its complex slowly shifting rhythmic patterns that are spread out between several percussionists, at least 4 pianists and just a few winds and strings. A very similar structure is used in Reich’s 2009 composition 2x5, which was receiving its West Coast premiere that evening. 2x5 is scored for two sets of a five member “band” consisting of a pianist, drummer, and three electric guitar players. The allusion here is to contemporary rock music, although the process of Reich’s shifting rhythmic patterns remains the same moving back and forth between the two ensembles set to mirror one another on stage. 2x5 struck me as a rather sly composition with its popular music references, but both of these later works still carried Reich’s hallmark ebullience. The meditative, Eastern overtones to his work fuse with a distinctly American sound. It was again exceedingly well played by these specialist ensembles, many of whose players know Reich’s music more than just about anybody.
It’s a good vibe, but admittedly for me, it can grow to be a somewhat hollow one. The constant often uncontested optimism in the pieces can create a certain “eternal sunshine of the spotless mind” if you will. Which does have a Zen ring to it, doesn’t it. Reich's music always works best when one can let go and connect with the deeper meditative aspects of it. Perhaps what it cries out for is more of a direct attachment to the natural world. This performance made me harken back to the last time I heard Music for 18 Musicians at the Ojai festival in 2009. There was something about the contrast between the exacting playing of the music outdoors mixed with the sounds of wind through the trees and birds singing that set the whole thing alight in a way I missed indoors. But the surroundings made little difference for Tuesday's enthusiastic crowd who were there to celebrate music they loved and had connected with. And that makes for an exciting evening in and of itself.
I forgot my coat. It’s something you don’t think you’ll need often in L.A., even in January, but it was a particularly cold Monday. Of course in L.A. you also don’t expect you’ll be watching a string quartet in the expanded picture window of an Alvarado storefront just north of Sunset Blvd open to the street with midday traffic rushing by. But we’re Angelenos, and we roll with it. Where I had rolled earlier this week was the heart of Los Angeles’ latest, greatest blossoming modern, art music scene. In the last few years, an expanding network of artists and musicians with ties not only through CalArts but through the ethereal world of Twitter and other social media have been making increasingly important music, and doing it their own way, on their own terms. And on this particularly cold January day, they were making it that way in Echo Park.
The occasion was the launch of the first release from L.A.’s newest record label, populist records. (A superbly ironic name for a contemporary art music outfit.) The label is the brain child of internet-savvy violinist Andrew Tholl and violist Andrew McIntosh who explained that they had created the label as an outlet for Southern California composers to get their work recorded by a home-grown label while providing local artists a chance to perform music they wanted to play. The first recording Nicholas Deyoe – with throbbing eyes provides a survey of Deyoe's work for small ensembles including songs written for soprano Stephanie Aston and two string quartets played by the formalist quartet - Tholl and McIntosh’s quartet alongside violinist Mark Menzies and cellist Ashley Walters. In March, populist will release McIntosh’s recording of solo works from American minimalist composer Tom Johnson. (The sample below features the formalists playing Deyoe's Images from a sleepless night from the new release.)
And while self-publishing music isn’t new, populist records represent a further step in the development of a musical and artistic community in Los Angeles that is beginning to command attention for its breadth, excitement, and sheer energy of production and performance. The launch event was held at Machine Project, a Los Angeles arts collective in Echo Park that hosts and promotes a wide variety of events. Machine Project has worked closely for several years with sound artist/composer/trumpeter Chris Kallmyer who in turn, along with McIntosh, Tholl, and others, performs as part of L.A.’s new music chamber orchestra, wild Up. Kallmyer, whose own work has been seen at the Getty Museum and other major art institutions, helped arrange the event at Machine Project where cupcakes and beer were paired with performances from the formalists as well as Deyoe’s solo pieces for cello. Deyoe himself played electric guitar augmented with an empty aluminum can, a favorite implement in recent guitar-based compositions. The crowd gathered at the front of the space and on the street looking into the store like displaced shoppers in an arctic L.A. mall.
The sense of possibility was palpable as Tholl and McIntosh spoke of future plans for recordings from wild Up and other outfits in the area while the crowd filled with other familiar faces from the local art music scene, knit more closely together through an active online community. Composer Isaac Schankler, whose People Inside Electronics will produce their latest show on Feb 11 funded in part from an indiegogo campaign, was in attendance. Schankler is curating another evening at Machine Project on Jan 29, "Bandwagon! (a combine)", with all sorts of machines, musical and otherwise. All of this, of course, took place just two days after the last wild Up performance in Pasadena last weekend where artistic director Christopher Rountree helped put the final touches on wild Up's Kickstarter project to fund and press vinyl copies of their performance of the Shostakovich Chamber Symphony. The group has already surpassed its fundraising goal and is discussing plans to make a recording of last weekend’s concert available. To boot, Rountree will make an appearance on APM's Performance Today on the 19th to talk about the project. And the performance schedule of both wild Up and the formalist quartet is filled with appearances over the next several months, which, if their track record to date is any indication, will be superlative events.
Increasingly, and egged on by an active online community that has created connections in ways that may not have existed before, there is a new and expanding community of young musicians and composers across the city making exciting music they want to hear and play. The folks I've discussed here aren't the only ones, but they are creating a music scene in a way and with technology that hadn't existed before. They are intent on producing their own sounds in collaboration with one another without waiting for someone to come and discover them. And that is a great day for new music in L.A. Even if it happens in the most unusual spaces, on the most unusually cold days in our typically sunny, warm city.
Now in their sixth year, Los Angeles’ Porters of Hellsgate Theater Company has had a near religious devotion to the works of Shakespeare. This very young company, both in terms of the organization’s age as well as that of many of its resident artists, has touched on most of the major comedies and dramas and has kicked off this year with the famously thorny and relatively infrequently performed Troilus and Cressida. The thorniness comes from a text filled with often incongruent broad comedy and far weightier material about the transience of love, peace, and other aspects of the human condition. Not that Shakespeare didn’t balance these themes well in most of his plays, but here the combination can seem off. The lovers in the title, Trojans both, have relatively less stage time than the ongoing machinations and complications in the long standing war with the Greeks that’s going on around them. Hector’s battles with the likes of Ajax, Achilles, and Agamemnon and the debate over the merits of their conflict and the moral laws that define it take up far more territory. It’s interesting and surprisingly contemporary material, but Shakespeare has placed it in a rather cumbersome package.
The Porters’ Artistic Director, Charles Pasternak, who helmed this production, decides to go with the stronger cards the author has dealt him by emphasizing a particularly testosterone driven tale of war. The warring Trojans and Greeks posture and shout. And everything is wrapped up with an underlining gesture to make it clear this is first and foremost a play about the tragedy of war and moral ambivalence that it can spring from. Romance and heartbreak, though present, are given a back seat and the comedy is whittled down to something a little bleaker. The fool Thersites, played by Gus Krieger, spends most of the play in a leather half-mask strapped to his head which makes much of his dialog a bit more creepy than outright funny. The fight scenes between the young handsome actors playing the soldiers were some of the more convincing I’ve seen in this size of a production with Matt Calloway’s Achilles and Napoleon Tavale’s Hector bouncing off of the walls during their hand-to-hand combat. In this case, having a young and particularly attractive, athletic cast overall paid off in terms of physicality.
And despite some odd choices, like a mincing, effeminate Pandarus and a just two notches over the top Ajax, the show as a whole works well, maintaining focus and smooth pacing. And there were a number of very engaging performances as well, in particular from Thomas Bigley as Ulysses whose portrayal of the thinking and strategizing Greek warrior quickly became the centerpiece of the whole evening. He commanded attention through voice and manner in a show where action was more typically the order of the day. I was also taken with the space that many of the women in the cast managed to carve out in the show even when they frequently are put in the position of reflecting on the horrors of their men’s war. Taylor Fisher’s Cressida was sensible and believable, and Eliza Kiss’s Helen, who also served prominently in both the Prologue and Epilogue, was memorable. Does the Porters’ production milk everything it can out of Shakespeare’s play? Probably not, but then never being able to do so is part of the glory of Shakespeare. Pasternak and his fellow Porters deliver a solid, watchable, and compelling war story with Troilus and Cressida that deserves to be seen by a wide audience. It runs in the valley through February 19.
With all the negativity that’s been heaped on the current revival of Porgy and Bess on Broadway recently, one might forget how great a playwright that show’s collaborator Suzan-Lori Parks is. Well luckily for us in Southern California, there’s an excellent reminder of Parks’ talents that has just arrived at South Coast Repertory where a revival of her 2002 Pulitzer Prize winning drama, Topdog/Underdog opened last week. The play is filled with multiple, complicated layers of meaning and is steeped in mythology, both American and more ancient. Two brothers, Lincoln and Booth, share a dilapidated apartment. Lincoln brings in what little money they have through his arcade job where he dresses as Abraham Lincoln in white-face for visitor to pay money and mock-assassinate him with blanks. Meanwhile, the unemployed Booth, periodically interrupts his fantasies of his own animal magnetism with efforts to cajole his now reformed brother to re-enter the hustle by teaching him the ins and out of dealing three-card monte. The lengthy dialog between these two characters unfolds to reveal much about their history, including their abandonment by both parents as children and the wounds, both imagined and real, that they continue to nurse from those days.
This is powerful material and, though it can be very comic, there is always a sense of menace, particularly considering Booth’s penchant to stay armed at all times. Like all good mythology-based stories, the ending seems inevitable and it’s the points that Parks wants to make about history and in particular African-American history in the U.S. that are the glue that keeps the show together. The chemistry between the leads in the show is crucial and both Curtis McClarin who plays Lincoln and Larry Bates, who plays Booth, managed a believable interaction. But in other ways this production is not what you might expect. Director Seret Scott has gone for an exceedingly naturalistic, almost sentimental take on the story. The staging plays down the more abstract and symbolic parts of the story toning down much of the menace that exists between the brother in an attempt to make a real or at least identifiably conventional relationship between the two. It’s a markedly different approach from the 2004 staging offered at the Mark Taper Forum and has its good and bad points. On the one hand when conflict does boil over between the brothers it is more surprising and unexpected. However, it can also make some of the comedy in the script feel very much like a sitcom. Still, the substrate here is an excellent one and SCR manages to remind us why Suzan-Lori Parks still matters even a decade after this major success with a worthwhile and still provocative statement about America. The show continues in Orange County through the 29th.
And one other note - SCR, a leader in new play development in the region, has just initiated another new and exciting program called "Studio SCR," which will bring in an array of local artists with more off-beat material in its Nicholas Studio space. There are short weekend runs, but there are two shows recently seen here in L.A. already on the schedule that deserve mention. Steven Connell and Sekou Andrews' hip-hop, spoken word meditation on language and race, The Word Begins, which was last seen as part of the RADAR LA festival in 2011 will appear Jan 19-21. Further into the spring, Robert Cucuzza's twist on Strindberg's Miss Julie, Cattywampus will return. The show was the highlight of last year's NOW Festival at REDCAT and I would highly recommend you catch it in June 22-24.
When Molly Ivins died in 2007 at the age of 62, she left behind a pretty big hole in a lot of lives. The firebrand liberal journalist had many friends, and among them was actress Kathleen Turner who has been honoring that connection by playing Ivins in Turner’s one-woman show Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins that opened late last week at The Geffen Playhouse in Westwood. It’s a lovely heart-felt performance from Turner whose gravelly broken voice fits in well with the Texas twang she affects in recreating Ivins' speech. The show itself, at just over 70 minutes in one act, is lean and simple. Turner as Ivins recounts the major landmarks in her life with a dollop of psychological reflection. Ivins' own words are used by authors Margaret and Allison Engel more often than not, which helps capture not only her wit but the cadence of her writing. All of this takes place in a newsroom office where Ivins sits at a desk in front of other desks and chairs that have been packed up or removed and placed along the back wall. There’s a screen at the back that fills with faces and images from the writer’s past as she goes along until her story comes to its inevitable conclusion.
Ivins' writing is quite funny and the show does contain its share of laughs. But perhaps the most admirable thing about the show is that it captures Ivins’ undaunted moral and political spirit as well. The selected writings name some of the names Ivins made her career by calling out in the pages of newspapers, and the show is filled with the kind of rousing pleas the author made to her readers over the year about the importance of public political life and her advocacy for progressive causes. Her attacks on both Reagan and Bush are revisited here and the Los Angeles crowd responded in kind. Granted all of these elements - the social criticism, the autobiography, and homespun humor - can get in the way of one another. There is a real lack of dramatic development in the show outside of Ivins’ biographical timeline and some of the personal psychology revisited in the script can seem forced. Neither of the Engel sisters are playwrights but have spent their entire careers as journalists and Red Hot Patriot sounds like a magazine article and can be particularly clumsy with some of its framing devices. But while the show may not work on the level of a unified dramatic experience, it does serve as a rather painful reminder about how much this country has changed over the last 30 years. Gone is Ivins’ world of newspapers and journalists who viewed their primary role in the world as questioning the truth of what people in authority tell us. It sounds simple, but Ivins’ brand of insight is a rare and precious commodity when so much of the media work largely to pass on approved talking points. Red Hot Patriot reminds us of that world and and asks the audience not to just nostalgically memorialize its passing.
Friday brought the opening performance in what the Los Angeles Philharmonic is calling “The Mahler Project.” What the “Project” part is exactly is unclear. What is clear is that over the next five weeks, music director Gustavo Dudamel will lead a complete cycle of the Mahler symphonies first here in Los Angeles and then in Venezuela relying on both the L.A. Philharmonic and the Simon Bolivar Orchestra of Venezuela. Purportedly the event is “extraordinary.” But considering that Mahler symphony cycles are fairly common in modern orchestras (e.g. San Francisco) and that a complete set of the symphonies was performed as recently as 2009 by the Staatskapelle Berlin in 12 days at Carnegie Hall in New York under Daniel Barenboim and Pierre Boulez, “The Mahler Project” doesn’t seem unique in terms of time, content or scope. (New Yorkers also got a performance of Das Lied von der Erde that time around which we in L.A. oddly will not, considering the work’s significance in Mahler’s symphonic output.) But perhaps all this will be new to some local audiences and/or players, which I guess is enough to warrant use of the term. "The Mahler Project" will be extraordinary - the question is simply to whom.
On Friday, the series opened with the Fourth Symphony paired with Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer). And while it wasn’t necessarily a world-class performance, it was a undoubtedly a very good and quite enjoyable one. Mahler’s short and early song cycle came first, where Dudamel and the orchestra were joined by baritone Thomas Hampson. Dudamel wisely kept the orchestra mostly out of the way of Hampson’s performance with a light touch. Hampson is certainly a big star with a great voice, but to be honest I found him less than exciting in this overall. In the work’s most intense moments he came to life, showing a little of that fire that makes him so good in Verdi. But some of the higher stretches of Wayfarer's score sounded a bit out of reach for him. He was definitely more of a gleaming knife in the chest kind of guy than a romping over the green fields one.
All of this verdant Romance and heartbreak provided a nice segue to Mahler’s most familiar symphony that kicked off with its sleigh bells and bright melodies. Mahler is one of Dudamel’s favorite composers, but one he has struggled to present here in Los Angeles with any real coherence. This evening was certainly the best performance of any Mahler symphony that he has yet given in the city. The work bubbled with life and excitement around many corners and he seemed in touch with the almost pastoral quality of the piece. Dudamel can sell big moments, and he gave the players free reign to run with huge crescendos. The brass and winds sounded lovely and the strings continue to turn richer and more full-bodied under his leadership. The soprano soloist in the final movement was Miah Persson who delivered a very touching rendition of Mahler’s own text describing a child’s vision of Heaven. She soared above the orchestra with a bright and easy tone bringing the evening to a lovely conclusion.
However, this isn’t to say that the performance wasn’t without its share of problems that kept it decidedly earth-bound. Dudamel continues to have balance issues with the orchestra. The first two movements on Friday were full-bodied and brimming with so much activity and emphasis of competing details that the overall focus could get lost in the cacophony of sound. Things never turned harsh, but they were certainly overworked. Subtlety has still not entered Dudamel’s musical toolbox, but this opening Mahler symphony at least suggested he can keep things from unraveling in these large scale Romantic works. It’s a good, solid start that if he can manage to sustain over the next few weeks, just might make this cycle worth hearing from beginning to end whether it’s extraordinary or not.
AARGH! There is too much to do in January. No I can’t believe it either. But worst of all, the intensity of the local performing arts schedule has led me to have to make some very tough scheduling decisions. Try as I might, there are three shows this month that I am dying to see but am going to have to miss because of a variety of other commitments. Don’t make the same mistakes I have! My advice is to buy tickets to these shows now.
Monday and the Los Angeles-based concert series that bares its name, Monday Evening Concerts, brought Austrian composer Klaus Lang to town this week for an evening of the most thoughtful music. Lang figured prominently not only as the composer of the major work on the bill, einfalt. stille., but also as organist for the three short works that preceded it. Lang has written extensively on music history and theory in addition to his work as a composer and he’s got a lot on his mind as suggested by the lengthy abstract program notes he provided. But these were not your average program notes in other ways. Some contemporary art music carries an unfair stigma of being overly intellectualized – more about the concept or theory behind its creation than the end product itself. Worse than this is the reactionary tendency of some living composers to strive for unvarnished and sentimental emotion in their music. But Lang, though certainly thoughtful, lies somewhere else with an approach I’d describe more as philosophical than simply theoretical. He argues for a Zen-inspired concept of pure music free from a tether of meaning. A music that “is not a form of language, it stands on its own as a thing without a purpose, justification and meaning outside of itself. Music neither depicts the structure of the cosmos, nor is it the language of feelings.” He sees his music neither as evidence of mastery of structural tricks or a way to connect with an audience. His hour-long work for voice, viola, flute and percussion, einfalt. stille., instead is firmly rooted in this ideology and is offered as a a text or object to focus concentration towards “a state of the highest inner clarity or inner silence.”
This sort of meditative take on music is not a new one as Lang himself acknowledges. It has roots in early music as much as in the 20th Century and may explain his choice to start the evening with a series of three short early 17th-century Italian organ toccatas. He played works by Girolamo Frescobaldi and Ercole Pasquini on a meantone temperament organ isolated on the Zipper Hall stage. The music theory behind meantone temperament is bit rich for my blood here, but lets just say its not the way instruments have been tuned since Bach’s time and it invites all of these works to have a certain dissonant and dark undertone. They evoked a kind of meditative state, as did Lang’s piece, which followed, and whose title translates as “simplicity. quiet.”
The ghosts of John Cage and Morton Feldman could be heard in Lang’s work, not only for its particular vein of philosophical grounding, but also in the deliberate but slow moving texture of it. The four players were stationed in the upper level of Zipper Hall around and mostly out of sight of the audience for the whole performance enhancing the bodyless sense of sound. The short constrained range of tones was repeated often at similar short intervals over and over often with only slight variations from one part to the next. There was a clarity and separation that gave each tone its own space with minimal overlap. The wordless vocal part consisted of a few frequently repeated sounds performed by soprano Natalia Pschenitschnikova. It was one of those abstract sensory experiences that as Lang suggests, doesn’t “transport” you anywhere other than perhaps inward. And while I didn’t find the conceptualization entirely original, that’s really part of the point. I admired Lang’s comprehensive and thought-out approach to the work that builds on a specific musical history showing how much, and how little things have changed in four hundred years. It was definitely the kind of music that doesn’t tell you how to feel and leaves things open to a more individual experience. That in itself is a major achievement and another reason to keep your Monday evenings open.