Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond
Nothing But Flowers
January 27, 2013
The Los Angeles Master Chorale kicked off the Spring leg of their season with a beautiful reflective program this weekend pairing two large orchestral works for chorus and soloists – Peter Lieberson’s The World in Flower and Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem. Both works focus on redemption in the face of death and provided an opportunity for the chorus to shine. That’s not unusual; they and their Music Director Grant Gershon are always great. But sometimes the chorus doesn’t quite get the starring role it deserves, especially when placed as the backdrop of so many other simultaneous musical forces. Brahms’ Requiem is a familiar staple. It's easy to hear it performed by any number of the worlds’ great orchestras often with the most rarified of conductors and soloists. But sometimes the choral contribution to such performances can be left wanting by comparison. Take Daniel Harding’s 2010 performance with the Dresden Staatskapelle in New York with Matthias Goerne and Christiane Karg. Beautifully played and sung, the work sounded somewhat flat and uninvolved, and the chorus while admirable was a ramshackle amalgam of various local choral groups. The work fared little better with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2011 under Gustavo Dudamel. Again Goerne was joined by Christine Schäfer and the LAMC, but the whole affair collapsed under Dudamel’s typically ponderous, excessive conducting penchants. The LAMC performances this weekend with the assembled orchestra under Grant Gershon couldn’t have been farther from either such previous outings. Here the chorus was given pride of place and room to shine without the intrusive overworked contributions from previous conductors. With the focus shifted, the Requiem came alive underscoring Brahms’ humanistic approach to the mass. Suddenly this was a requiem for and by the people, and that community spirit shone through for a stirring and often quite touching hour.
Of course, the fine work of the soloists Hayden Eberhart and Brian Mulligan also helped make the evening such a success. Mulligan has repeatedly given remarkably strong and earnest performances on so many stages this year that his international super star status seems all but a certainty now. He was no less impressive here, muscular and warm with a note of heartbreak deep inside, he gave another stirring vocal performance here. Mulligan was also one of the soloists for Lieberson’s The World in Flower alongside mezzo and Los Angeles favorite Kelley O’Connor. Neither vocalist is a stranger to contemporary music (O’Connor will tour with the LAMC and the LA Philharmonic this spring to take John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary around the world) and their experience paid off here. The song cycle, which features settings of poems by a variety of authors including Rilke, Hopkins, Whitman, and Neruda, was put together for Lieberson’s wife who sadly died before the work’s completion and premiere. Lieberson himself had completed a round of chemotherapy for his own cancer prior to orchestrating the work and the spiritual life-affirming elements of the piece hit very hard. O’Connor and Mulligan soared above the exquisite choral writing for a remarkable opening to the concert. Lieberson used a more constrained sound palette for The World in Flower in contrast to several other of his late works (his percussion concerto, Shing Kham will receive its world premiere by the LA Philharmonic next season) but the even-handed tone fits well amid such charged material overall. It was a beautiful start to the year from the LAMC. One that brings hopefully as much joyful artistry as they offered up this weekend.
Friday brought the latest frustration in what has been one of the most unexpectedly disappointing Los Angeles Philharmonic seasons in recent memory. Great nights with the LA Phil at Walt Disney Concert Hall have been few and far between lately, and Friday’s program under Pablo Heras-Casado featuring the works of 20th-century Hungarian Composers was one of the biggest let-downs yet. The centerpiece of the evening was the world premiere of a new commission from Peter Eötvös, a violin concerto entitled DoReMi written for Midori. Eötvös has been featured around town all week and his appearances here were some of the most anticipated of the year. And yet not unlike Tuesday’s concert staging of his Angels in America, DoReMi fell far short of its promise. The single movement work does capture a playful spirit as suggested in the title – one concerned with the basic building blocks of music composition. Eötvös is taking a wry wink at the relationship between these most elemental of tones. This playfulness is also reflected in the way other members of the orchestra often share or swap the solo material in various asides or outright duos passed to and between the ostensible soloist Midori and the Concertmaster or even the Principal Violist. At first I wondered if Midori, not a name that leaps to mind when thinking of contemporary music, was picked at random for this project through some new violin concerto generation software. But her virtuosity is never to be taken lightly and she flew into one thorny discordant passage after the next. She clearly dug in with wild swings bouncing to and fro off the other orchestral elements.
Yet oddly, all of this playfulness never amounted to much joy. The piece came off mechanical and frequently muddy. There was a homogeneity to it all as well that left one wanting for a bit more development or direction. Of course, part of the problem here may rest in the hands of Heras-Casado. Despite some exemplary outings with the L.A. Phil in the past, his assails of Kodály’s Háry János Suite and Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra were wanting. There were moments of lush sound, but an edge was missing in both. No hint of folk or ethnic influences here. Instead both works wandered without focus or much direction with the same muddy sound-constrained dynamic range. What should have been a barn-burner was instead reduced to a little night music. And for the lions of 20th-century Hungarian music, that is not enough. Not by a long shot.
This is great. One of Salonen's last gifts to the Los Angeles Philharmonic during his tenure as music director, this Violin Concerto (played here by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra) is probably the most important example of the genre since John Adams'. (Unsuk Chin's is another contender for this title to be sure.) The soloist is Leila Josefowicz for whom the worked was composed and she gives an athletic, enthralling performance in this clear, well-balance DG recording. The concerto is paired with Salonen's Nyx which is also receiving its premiere recording.
This Saturday, the Metropolitan Opera will broadcast a live performance (in HD as we are incessantly reminded) of the company’s new production of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda across the world. I saw the production on New Year’s Eve and although there is not a single surprising thing about it, you should go see it. The primary reason is because of the biggest non-surprise in the show – the incomparable vocal artistry of American mezzo Joyce DiDonato in the title role. She sang the role spectacularly in Houston earlier this year to great acclaim and she is no less successful here. She is nothing short of radioactive in this performance. Her vocal lines are so beautifully shaped and cared for, her inner reserve as the imprisoned queen so heart stopping, it will leave you stunned. Her opening scene, the second part of Act I, may be one of the best things I saw on any opera stage all last year. DiDonato has taken the mantle as one of opera’s true international super stars in recent years, and here she delivers with a title role deserving of her superb artistry.
Of course a world-class performance from DiDonato is no surprise. Sadly given the artistic fortunes of today’s Met, most of the off kilter underwhelming elements of the production otherwise should also come as no shocker. David McVicar’s by-the-numbers staging has all the dramatic tug of a Macy’s window display. It’s dark and lovely but slavishly follows the house imperative against interpretation or analysis. All of that is fine and well, but what McVicar does to the poor soprano Elza van den Heever is nearly unforgivable. She takes on the other meaty role in the opera, Elizabeth I of England, and musically you could ask for little more from her. San Francisco audiences were lucky enough to hear many of such performances during her time there, and her Met debut is a notable one. Except for the cartoon villain mannerisms McVicar foists on her character, like trying to snap a riding crop in two as a sign of anger, for example, in one of the opera’s several unintentionally laugh out loud moments. This is not good theater – plain and simple.
The Met orchestra sounded lovely if under-rehearsed on opening night under maestro Maurizio Benini. Hopefully things will have settled down in time for the broadcast on Saturday, but on New Year’s Eve the sound was sluggish and wandering at times. Matthew Polenzani is also on stage as Leicester, but, thanks to Donizetti, blink and you’ll miss him. In the end this is Donizetti’s version of Schiller’s play, and the dueling queens, who never actually met in real life, are still the centerpieces. And the Met has recruited two formidable women in these roles making this very predictable new production worth seeing despite its many failures.
So, after being on hiatus, how do I get started again? I say just jump right back in.
Opera composers have long relied on stage plays as a source of dramatic material. It seems a natural choice: take something stage worthy to begin with and set it to music. What could possible go wrong? On occasion composers have even taken the text of a play as a libretto in and of itself, though more often than not they use an adapted version of a text for their own music dramas. It’s as true now as ever, and a recent visit to Los Angeles by Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös reminded us that these stage-to-stage endeavors are rarely as uncomplicated as they might seem. On Tuesday night, the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group under its “Green Umbrella” series gave the local premiere of Eötvös’ version of Angels in America, the landmark multiple award winning two-part drama from Tony Kushner. The opera received its world premiere in Paris in 2004 and has been seen in several different venues both in America and abroad. It has undergone many changes and re-orchestrations over the last decade from a small predominantly electronic instrument-based ensemble to the larger chamber orchestra-sized one that appeared in Los Angeles this week as part of a series of events Eötvös is participating in here this week.
In some ways this is asking for trouble. Angels in America is a play a lot of art loving folks here hold near and dear to their hearts, particularly here in Los Angeles where the play first stumbled forth onto the stage of the Mark Taper Forum. Gay men of a certain age view Kushner’s play as their play in a sense – or at least a highly biographical take on their own lives and communities in the not so distant past. But an opera, even a long one, can’t absorb all seven hours of Kushner’s miraculous, wordy wonder, and like composers before him, Eötvös had to make some hard choices, which he did with Kushner’s assistance and that of librettist Mari Mezel. What's left is a peculiarly non-American take on the most American of plays with much of the political context stripped away. Some grumbling was to be expected with such a devoted audience, but the grumbling seemed fair even beyond the devotion of an audience for the original work. Angels in America in this instance is as disappointing as often as it isn’t.
The problem lies in Eötvös’s focus almost exclusively on the magical realism in the piece. He is enamored with the hallucinogenic, fantastical dream sequences of the play from Prior Walter’s wrestling with the Angel to Roy Cohn’s extended dialogues with Ethel Rosenberg. They are undoubtedly some of the strongest moments in the play, and they are well served with Eötvös modernist dark discordant score. Sadly though a single piece of theater, the work falters without a clear overarching framework. Understandably cuts have been made, but it feels like they have been made again and again in the wrong places. Scenes are kept for the beauty of their language or their profound sentiment, but necessary connecting narrative elements are too easily lost, creating confusion in the final act as to exactly how things got to the point they have. Worse yet, Eötvös’ monochromatic score cuts against the proceedings as often as it seems to drive the action forward. Angels in America turns out to be as didactic as an opera as it is a play. But while that works on stage, it fails overall in the concert hall.
Musically, the members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and their guests availed themselves of this score, which featured both acoustic and electric instruments as well as amplified voices, expertly. Pablo Heras-Casado served as the conductor as he will for the world premiere of Eötvös’ new Violin Concerto written for Midori this coming weekend. He kept things well coordinated and relatively fleet for such a wordy libretto. Measha Brueggergosman appeared as the angel and gave a lusty, visceral performance as a supernatural creature in a sea of human neurosis and pain. David Adam Moore’s Prior Walter was the center of the large eight-person cast and handled singing about erections when it was called for with a believable ease. There’s as much spoken dialogue in the show as sung text and the cast included many other fine vocalists such as Julia Migenes and Janice Hall. All of the eight vocal actors on stage were joined by three other vocalists: Jamie Jordan, Abigail Fischer, and everyone’s favorite local barihunk Abdiel Gonzalez who provided layering and augmentation to the individual sung lines throughout in a sort of mini mirror chorus. It was one of Eötvös’ most clever and resounding musical effects in an evening that often provided drama and more than a little magic. Even if it did so at the expense of delivering a unified dramatic whole.