Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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


November 28, 2006

Gerald Barry
Photos: Steffan Hill 2006
That it was. And really for all parties involved. Tuesday night brought the second of the current round of LA Philharmonic shows curated by the composer and pianist Thomas Adès to the Walt Disney Concert Hall which consisted entirely of a concert performance of Gerald Barry's opera The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit in its US premiere.

It was a dazzling evening of music. 55 minutes of, in Steven Stucky's words, "relentless" music structured around a tale about the struggle over Beauty between two teams of ideals: on the one hand Pleasure and Deceit, on the other Truth and Time. Not so much characters as representations of ideas, the five roles are all sung by males, two countertenors (Pleasure and Truth), a tenor (Beauty), a baritone (Deceit), and a bass (Time). The vocal writing and libretto create an interesting gay subtext to the work as well. Although Barry points out that these are not really people as much as they are ideas, on some level the work can be read as a romantic struggle between different pairs of men. Given the valence of some of these particular issues in the gay male community (e.g.,the role of pleasure, the importance of youth and beauty) the piece can also be seen as a political commentary as well although I doubt it was the primary intent of the authors. This subtext is also interesting considering how Barry's later opera, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, raises these issues again when dealing with the subject matter of Fassbinder's film and its all female cast.

The original libretto by poet Meredith Oakes, who is also responsible for the similarly styled libretto of Adès' The Tempest, consisted of rhyming couplets that were set in unusually stressed intonation patterns and were often sung at a rapid pace. The music itself is not lyrical or conventionally melodic, although as Stucky and Barry himself pointed out in a pre-concert talk, the music is actually nothing but melody - only multiple and unsynchronized lines being played simultaneously often in clusters of different instruments and singers throughout the piece. The frenzied effect created a real sense of struggle amongst the characters and highlighted the many ways these concepts overlap and yet in different ways do not. Even more stirring was the way in which the piece ends in a simple paired and mirrored line sung a capella by Beauty and Pleasure resolving the conflict of the piece both musically and dramatically.

The vocalists were all excellent and deserve mention - Andrew Watts, Stephen Wallace, Christopher Lemmings, Keith Phares, and Kevin Burdette. The small ensemble of the LA Phil new music group showed great skill and nerve as is their reputation with a difficult score including the evening's concertmaster, Bing Wang, another of my favorite Philharmonic members.

The other triumph of the evening, though, goes to the LA Phil. Again LA produced a respectively huge crowd for this performance. One, in fact, that clearly took Adès somewhat by surprise as he came out on stage and commented (as Brett Dean did only a few weeks ago) on the size of the audience. Yes, Virginia there is an audience for new music. It's here in LA and it doesn't require a token Beethoven symphony or Brahms concerto to get people to buy tickets. Now here's the big question (again): who'll be first in the US to stage Bitter Tears? Santa Fe are you listening?

The Barber of San Francisco

November 27, 2006

House with Cast
Photos: Terrence McCarthy 2006
The last opera on my schedule for San Francisco this weekend and this year was the current revival of Il Barbiere di Siviglia with Nathan Gunn as Figaro and Allyson McHardy as Rosina. No, I did not see their current Carmen - even I have limits about how many times I can sit through some things. In fact, the only reason I paid to see Barbiere was because of my acknowledged infatuation with the more-than-opera-hot Mr. Gunn. He was great as always, though, oddly enough, SF Opera did not find some reason for him to take his shirt off this time around, an on-stage activity that seems to come up for him again and again in recent years in his many Billy Budd’s and even last year’s An American Tragedy at the Met. Actually, I was glad I stuck around. I had not yet seen this particular production and the amazing revolving house set is truly worth seeing, in and of itself. The finale where the house continually spins and the performers move to reposition themselves in various windows and doorways is truly inspired and though I know this production bored many who had seen it before, it was new to me.

But more than this, the production got me thinking about what a poor year it has been for this company artistically and what the future may hold. Of course I realize this assessment is unfair given that this is a "transitional" year between two general directors that also included the non-renewal of one of the company’s strongest assets, Donald Runnicles. Still, this particular slate of operas between the fall season and last June’s mini-season was uninspired at best. When the best staging comes from a several-years-old LA production of Tristan and a now third time remounted Barbiere, things are not good. I sure hope the company put a lot of money in the bank, because they have little else to show for this year. Even the few notable stars they were able to book, like Deborah Voigt and Karita Matilla were burdened with sad, overwrought historical productions. There were highlights, though, like Christine Brewer and Dolora Zajick who did show some signs of life.

Perhaps what bothers me most, as I have alluded to in previous posts, is what I feel is a smug and puzzling stance by the new general manager David Gockley. He has certainly made the cosmetic changes he could with a season he was largely left with, including moving the supertitles and doing a summertime free outdoor broadcast of Butterfly. Some of these moves have been shrewd but others like making the programs look somewhat like the front of medical journals, are not.
He has promised that his announcement of the new season in a few weeks will be exciting and will give everyone a more specific idea of what he has in mind. I hope it will be exciting, but I have this deep seated feeling of misgiving inside. I feel Gockley has been working too hard to mollify the worst elements of the company's audience - namely those alienated by Pamela Rosenberg's tenure and her interest in producing challenging and forward-thinking work. Rather than push forward to something new and interesting, his conciliatory tone with the audience's most conservative elements suggests that future season's may not hold much more of interest than the current one. Of course this doesn't really gel with the history of his tenure in Houston where he was responsible for bringing more new operas to the stage than just about anyone around. Which raises the question: are all these promises of more "traditional" productions and avoiding mistakes of SF Opera's past a front? Maybe this PR is exactly that, trying to shore up a disillusioned audience faction before springing into something unexpected and refreshing.

Time will tell whether or not the occasional trip to San Francisco for opera will still be worthwhile.

Manon, encore

November 26, 2006

Karita Mattila as Manon Lescaut and Misha Didyk as Chevalier des Grieux
Photos: Terrence McCarthy 2006

It’s been a big year for Ms. Lescaut and me. We’ve already met twice before this – times under the guidance of Mr. Massenet – in April at the Metropolitan Opera with Reneé Fleming and again at LA Opera in October with Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazòn. This time the terms of engagement were a bit different in that it was under the auspices of Mr. Puccini as interpreted by Karita Matilla, with help from Misha Didyk, and conductor Donald Runnicles. While this meeting did have memorable moments, it was certainly no date with destiny.

Let’s get right to the point. Mattila was magnificent. She is so good it is almost possible to overlook a production that is as inoffensively boring and predictable as it can be. The strong suit this year in San Francisco continues to be Mr. Runnicles and the wonderful SF Opera orchestra. On target throughout, the playing was exemplary. Of course the rest of the cast contained nary a slouch. Eric Halfvarson, John Hancock, and several of the current Adler fellows made the smaller roles more than just place holders while the principal's rested. Misha Didyk's Des Grieux was serviceable, but not entirely convincing. Didyk appears to have developed a good relationship with the audiences and administration here and he's not bad but his prior two outings were in Russian-language operas by Tchaikovsky where he excelled. His Italian has a bit of a slavic flair that makes one wonder what this particular Des Grieux sees in this French bauble of a young woman anyway. Still, he held his own against Mattila and improved steadily as the evening wore on.

Karita Mattila as Manon Lescaut
Photos: Terrence McCarthy 2006

So with all this to like, why was I so bored out of my gourd? One issue was certainly the by-the-numbers staging which could have easily been the set for half a dozen other operas without moving a single piece of furniture. But honestly, this shouldn't be that big of a problem considering the caliber of the vocal performance. I think the real reason is that the opera itself is rather a shaggy dog. Massenet's version is far superior and makes more dramatic sense. Here, Manon is so unlikable throughout, it's hard to care about her relationship with Des Grieux or about her death. Not that one needs to care for her to enjoy the opera, but at no point does she seem young, charming, or passionate - just shallow. The poor characterization of the opera arises from another source - the total mess of a libretto. Unlike Casablanca, here too many cooks (at least 6 different individuals laid hands on it during composition) do spoil the broth in a story that at times borders on the non-sensical.

In any event, hearing Mattila was a treat, one I look forward to again at the Met in February in her reprise of the title role in Jenufa.

Bright Lights, Big City

November 25, 2006

The final SF weekend this year started off with a screening of Chaplin’s film City Lights at Davies Symphony Hall. The SF Symphony accompanied the film with a performance of the score Chaplin himself wrote. The program makes much of the fact that as a silent film, this work arrived somewhat late to the ball in that by its premiere in 1931, audiences had already been exposed to several “talkies” such as The Jazz Singer, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Blue Angel. However, due to Chaplin’s concern about how his “little tramp” would translate into the speaking world, the film remained without dialogue except for some recorded music and sound effects.

Charlie Chaplin and Virginia Cherrill

David Robertson conducted the symphony in this nearly sold-out performance. Certainly while it was a lot of fun and there is no disputing that City Lights is a great film, I couldn’t help but wonder why the Symphony had chosen to sponsor such an event. The music is cliché and standard issue movie soundtrack for the period. Additionally, these sort of screenings in large halls are complicated by an inability to get the room dark enough to actually appreciate the film. In the end, this was the orchestral equivalent of comfort food – filling and reassuring but hardly very important or challenging. However, it was a great chance to see one of Chaplin's masterworks of comedy and motion.

The Sound of Glass

November 24, 2006


Last weekend, Long Beach Opera mounted a production of two one act operas by Philip Glass and librettist David Henry Hwang – The Sound of a Voice/Hotel of Dreams. The company, under the leadership of its current director Andreas Mitisek, has had a fitful but fascinating trajectory. Like many smaller companies, it has relied on staging less common works and more familiar fare in smaller and more unorthodox ways. While these results can be thrilling, they can suffer from the haphazard administrative issues inherent in some smaller organizations.

Sound is representative of this struggle in both ways. One of the first fully staged Glass operas in Southern California, this production was a unique local experience. However, much about it seemed thrown together and last minute despite the relatively high production values. With virtually no marketing and a season that was only announced a few weeks before the first production, Sound had little chance of drawing even a 50% audience at an unusual location – the Aratani Japan America Theater in downtown LA. Additionally, even though the production team was nearly identical to that involved with the work’s premier in Cambridge, MA, a few years ago, it seemed very unrehearsed with poor timing of the relatively minimal set changes and a complete loss of (unnecessary) supertitles less than halfway through.

The work itself ostensibly deals with the obstacles to isolated people falling in love and are based in some part on Japanese ghost legends. Sound concerns an isolated woman who may be a hermit and a warrior she encounters who may have been sent to kill her. Hotel deals with an elderly disillusioned writer and a madam who runs a brothel he has come to investigate in the hopes of using it in a novel only to confront the despair in his own life. Both pieces end in suicides and there are many moving moments in the work. The end of Hotel is particularly affecting as the writer dies in the aged madam's arms. But the work suffers from what is certainly not Glass’ strongest music, and even more so from the incredibly weak libretto by Hwang. Both Glass and Hwang have commented on the intention to create a more theatrical experience with a “conversational” libretto. Unfortunately, the lack of any poetry in the text creates an especially awkward sensation in what is otherwise a highly stylized and esoteric plot.

The vocalists, Herbert Perry and Suzan Hanson, both of whom appeared in earlier stagings were excellent and made the most they could of what they had to work with. Its hard not to admire the plucky spirit of LBO - this is the company that presented a two day condensed Ring cycle earlier this year and will unveil a new production of Golijov's Ainadamar next year without any of the original cast or collaborators. However, a little more planning might help.

Oboe Update

November 21, 2006

Ariana Ghez
Photo Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra
One of the things I love about performance is that for every play or concert that I look forward to that turns out to be a dud, there is another show that turns out to be an unexpected surprise. Tonight’s LA Phil-sponsored chamber music program was just one of those shows. An odd grouping of 20th century works, the program seemed to focus on three individuals: the composer Steven Stucky, the composer and pianist Thomas Adès, and the Philharmonic’s new principal oboist Ariana Ghez. While these figures certainly played leading roles, all of the performances were so strong and the music so affecting that the show became much greater than the sum of its parts.

First was Françaix’s Trio for Oboe, Bassoon, and Piano that was clearly a platform to highlight the talent of the new principal oboist the Phil recently hired, Ariana Ghez. Ms. Ghez’s appointment was remarkable for her young age, but hearing her play tonight made it clear how this all came to pass. I’m as far from an expert on oboe technique as you can get, but the showcase seemed to come off without a hitch. Her playing was magnificent and she is quite a striking figure with her large mane of hair.

Next up was Stucky’s Nell’ombra, nella luce which held the audience completely rapt in complete silence throughout - a rarity in the WDCH acoustic chamber. Closing out the program was Fauré’s Piano Quintet No. 2 in C minor featuring Thomas Adès on piano. Adès was great, not just because of his playing or insight into the music, but more so because he was able to actually listen to the other musicians and interact with them as a whole unit.
Thomas Adès
I have seen other visiting stars in recent years, including the likes of Joshua Bell ,come in and roll over everyone in these small groups often at the expense of the music itself. It was nice to see someone who could integrate easily to turn in a stunning performance with the whole team, including Dale Hikawa Silverman, Johnny Lee, Ingrid Chun, and Brent Samuel.

The other interesting thing about this evening was observing one of those moments that says everything about the differences between American and European audiences and the implications of public funding for the arts. Before the performance, two young men were lurking around the front orchestra looking to snag unoccupied seats closer to the stage. At the intermission, saavy ushers caught them and confronted them about having moved into spaces they apparently hadn't paid for. Despite empty seats throughout the hall, both men retreated farther back in the theater after some low-level argument about the matter. This was a stark contrast to the situation at the Berlin Philharmoniker earlier this year in which we observed the ushers actually assisting comparable young men in achieving the same goal. I tend to think this says a lot about the way American’s think of everything in terms of ownership and getting only what you’ve earned or paid for yourself. On the other hand, in Berlin, it was more about the performance and the space being a public good that everyone has contributed to and can participate in. Less public money results in more policing of all the private dollars and what they have been used to purchase, including maintaining empty seats on principal.

I could go on, but I won’t since there is a much better and broader discussion of some of these issues on Sandow’s site. If you haven't already, you should take a look at some of the interesting posts he has published recently about the history of funding of orchestral groups in the US.

Meanwhile, at the Staples Center

"Come back to the five and dime, Barbra Streisand, Barbra Streisand."
-Sandra Bernhard

Yes, despite myself, I saw the Streisand show tonight. Yes, it was fabulous. She can sing and she does it well despite the effects of aging one would expect. Her career choices may not have always been the best, but tonight all was forgiven as she reprised much of the music that made her great, including many of the songs from Funny Girl.

It was a star encrusted evening with Quincy Jones, Bill Maher, Phil Jackson, Sen. Barbara Boxer and future Speaker of the House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi in the audience, to name just a few. (The latter two she identified from the stage.) The comedy shtick was a bit heavy at times, but the Bush routine was nowhere near as bad as it was made out to be in the press. It was far funnier and less painful than the garbage Il Divo had to sing and say.

No question, they suck. Here’s the greatest irony of all — across town, LA Opera has just opened a production of Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel in English to make it more palatable and user-friendly for people who don't normally attend the opera. Meanwhile, down the street, Il Divo, sang “Unchained Melody” and “Unbreak My Heart” in Spanish to a largely English-speaking American audience to make it sound more operatic, ostensibly for the same group, I would assume. Go figure.

All Killer, No Filler

November 20, 2006

Gidon Kremer in NY last week
Photo Erin Baiano/New York Times 2006
It was another busy weekend in LA. Although I missed the Thomas Adès led Powder Her Face at the USC Thornton School, I did get to see the Long Beach Opera production of Glass’ The Sound of a Voice/Hotel of Dreams which I will write about later. Last night was an exceptionally good chamber performance from the unlikely trio of Gidon Kremer on violin, Andrius Zlabys on piano, and Andrei Pushkarev, on the vibraphone. This show had been seen in New York last week and was performed in the much larger Royce Hall as part of the UCLA Live series here.

The program consisted primarily of 20th-century chamber works directly inspired by Bach or adaptations of his work for this combination of instruments. The emphasis was not only about Bach’s influence but how he and other Baroque composers had an interest in variations and improvisation. Needless to say, jazz featured into the program, including a rather playful solo performance by Pushkarev of three of Bach’s two-voice inventions (in C major, D minor and B major) played on the vibraphone in the style of various famous jazz musicians including Bill Evans, Dave Brubeck, and Oscar Peterson.

Three works, Pärt’s Fratres for violin and piano, Bartok’s solo violin sonata, and a set of music by Piazzolla – the Grand Tango, and Three Milongas, dominated the rest of the program. The Fratres was by far the most convincing and moving performance I’ve heard of this work in a while. It was far superior to the 8 cello version performed in the CalArts Cellos program at the REDCAT earlier this year. The crowd responded enthusiastically to both the Piazzolla and the Bartok. And in response to the woman speaking with LA Times correspondent Richard Ginell at intermission, no, it would not be nice to have heard the Bartok paired with either a Brahms or Beethoven sonata, given that such a pairing would have been beside the point of the program. Apparently, some people just can’t drink perfectly decent black coffee without drowning it in sugar and cream. It is not often that one hears a program as strong all around as this one and is both thematically cohesive at the same time. Kremer and has colleagues should be heralded for that fact alone.

Bringing it all back home

November 19, 2006

Elia Arce
Photo: Lawrence K Ho/LA Times 2006

In case you didn’t know, the 5th Annual International Latino Theater Festival of Los Angeles is taking place all over town this Fall with a wide variety of events in both English and Spanish. The REDCAT contributed to the festival by sponsoring a performance art piece by Elia Arce entitled “The Fifth Commandment,” supposedly concerning the ethics of killing in war and the current war in Iraq from the eyes of members of the American military and their families. The piece was developed with the participation of two Iraq war veterans, Cameron White and Matthew Howard, as well as Nadia McCaffrey, the mother of a soldier killed in the conflict. The piece is a loose association of monologues and character sketches. Arce has repeated scenes throughout as a character involved with many servicemen as they come and go from the "theater" allowing her to reflect on the nature of war and the American military’s relevance in her own past in Central America. The rest of the show is a hodgepodge of mildly dramatized personal accounts from servicemen and women including some first-had accounts from Howard and McCaffrey.

Charles McNulty wrote a nice piece about the performance in the LA Times this weekend, and while he is right that there is much to think about in the piece, he gets the reasoning backward. Actually, the most compelling thing about the work is Arce’s monologues. Delivered in a come-hither rasp, the overtly sexualized character she plays directly draws into the light some of the ways we in America live with the contradictions inherent in sanctioned killing during wartime. Here, we constantly try to convince ourselves that it is all about sex: being men, being women, appearing heroic, appearing vulnerable, being strong, and preserving our “way of life.” This conflagration of sex and violence is key and has been taken up in a uniquely American way over our history. Arce's performance was riveting and contained a certain ambivalence that at times made it unclear whether she was speaking about Iraq or WWII.

On the other hand, the personal first hand monologues from McCaffrey and the veterans seemed awkward and out of place. They are certainly moving, important, meaningful and desperately need to be heard by a much wider audience than the half-full already-converted choir present on Friday. But the problem is this: Are these first-hand accounts really art? Political speech, yes. Documentary reportage, yes. But performance, no. The only way they might be construed in the artistic sense is in the way that “found objects” have been construed as art for decades now: by their juxtaposition with unfamiliar, incongruent, or otherwise unrelated elements that provide some commentary on one another. I don’t believe the piece made a cohesive argument about the relation between these elements and the fabricated ones. Instead the evening felt like everyone sat around and said, “What else can we throw in that would have to do with the horrors of war?” Perhaps these segments would have worked better if they were extrapolated in some way or performed by actors. The recent London performances of “My Name is Rachel Corrie” come to mind as a possible template.

There were a number of good ideas in the piece that could have been developed more like the religious overtones of the war and our tolerance of killing or the cultural implications for the young men and women who are in the American military but are themselves immigrants or recently descended from immigrants (a theme oddly less present than one might expect in the context of an International Latino Theater Festival). But I suppose half a good-idea is better than a bad one.

The House of Elliott

November 17, 2006

Kirsten Potter as Rosalind and Mark Deakins as Orlando
Photo: Craig Schwartz 2006

The fall theater season is wrapping up and while there are a lot of good productions in town, it feels like something is missing. Over at A Noise Within, the current productions of As You Like It and A Touch of the Poet are in their final performances. I caught the Shakespeare on October 29th and like everything from the ANW stable it was rock-solid with a sharp if low-budget set and strong acting. Michael Michetti’s direction added an extra touch of A Midsummer Night’s Dream elements to round off some of the play's rougher edges in the form of a mysterious animal spirit who roams the woods observing and sometimes guiding the character's actions. (Michetti is one of the artistic directors over at the very-excellent Theater @ Boston Court in Pasadena currently on loan to ANW). Kirsten Potter’s Rosalind conveyed both the requisite strength and vulnerability despite an absolutely screeching laugh that was too deafening to be endearingly anxious. Of course as is the current trend with productions of As You Like It, Rosalind in male garb ends up looking like Diane Keaton from Annie Hall. Opera has been doing pants-roles for centuries and you would think that some of these Rosalinds could reference different clichés every now and then.

Deborah Strang as Nora Melody and Geoff Elliott as Cornelius Melody
Photo: Craig Schwartz 2006
Meanwhile, somewhere in New England, Geoff Elliott gets to star as Cornelius Melody in A Touch of the Poet. Elliott is the artistic director of the company and one of the apparent perks is getting to star in a production or two each season. This is a mixed bag for the audience. While it creates an impetus to do new (for the company) and different works each season, it also exposes more audiences to his very mannered acting. Elliott has done a great job with ANW and their commitment to educational activities is one of the biggest in Southern California. However, repairing the copious bite marks from the sets after each performance must be very expensive. On the good side, this production did feature Deborah Strang, easily one of the company's strongest assets, who continues to surprise with her ability to handle a wide array of roles - here as the much maligned Nora Melody. This high-quality production did a good job of capturing the cultural and societal anxieties in O’Neill's play.

Last weekend I also finally got to see the current touring production of Lucas’ and Guettel’s The Light in the Piazza. I was looking forward to this, given that the show had received some significant coverage in the opera press, including a write up in OperaNews, due to the original score and more demanding than usual vocal parts. No doubt the music was pretty, but the whole thing was wrapped in such a dog of a story (or perhaps “concept” is the right word to use here) that in the end no one gets out alive. It’s hard to develop an attachment to a work where the dark secret of the protaganist Clara seems to be that she has poor penmanship and a very bad sense of direction. It’s almost as if the intetion was to make her mentally retarded, but not in any way that might make her unusual, unattractive, or commercially unappealing. The mother storyline is interesting, but not enough to make the rest of this really tolerable. Plus is it just me or aren't these Italian stereotypes a bit on the racist side even for a period musical? Oh well, with a happy ending I guess virtually everything can be forgiven.

The Ax Man Cometh

November 14, 2006

One of the tactics the LA Phil has been using in the last several years to attract audiences is extended artistic "residencies." A particular performer of some notoriety will come to LA and play in a variety of different kinds of subscription events (usually at least one chamber music show and at least one regular weekend show with the whole Philharmonic) over the course of two or three weeks. In recent years they have had great success with this format with both Leif Ove Andsnes and Thomas Adès who will again return this year. In recent weeks, the Phil's resident guest performer has been the great Emanuel Ax who has been doing a lot of heavy lifting around the WDCH in programs focused almost exclusively on the work of Mozart and Strauss. In some ways, the most refreshing thing about these shows is hearing a relative "old-hand" and his mastery of this material. In a piano world overrun with numerous young lions like Leif Ove Andsnes, Paul Lewis, Hélène Grimaud, Ingrid Fliter, and Piotr Anderszewski, its easy to lose sight sometimes of the Brendels and Uchidas. But if these last few weeks have proven anything, it has shown beyond a doubt that Ax has one important quality in common with the Mozart and Strauss pieces he has played: adaptability. Just as Mozart's music has an unblinking ability to stand up to a variety of different performance techniques and interpretations over the centuries and still shine like a diamond, Ax has withstood some often not-so-great companions in his time in LA, and he has persevered above them all.
Photo: J Henry Fair

Things started off rocky on October the 24th when Mr. Ax participated in a program with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. This program included the Cosi overture and Symphony No. 35 as well as the 17 th (K.453) and 25th (K.502) Piano Concertos. Ax put up a good fight, but the lack of a conductor proved a clear deficit in this case as the orchestra (which I have certainly loved in other settings) showed no break in their resolve to win what they perceived to be a battle. Ax tried his hardest to either play along or give some leadership but Orpheus wouldn't have it either way. Around this time Mr. Ax did a "celebrity" recital with his long-time friend Yo-Yo Ma which I skipped out on given that the audience excitability factor was going to make this evening a bit more than even I could tolerate.

Things picked up over that weekend, though, in the programs over October 27th through the 29th where Ax played Mozart's 9th piano concerto (K.271) on a program that included the Don Giovanni Overture and two orchestral works by Richard Strauss, the Serenade and the Der Rosenkavalier Suite. Alan Gilbert was the conductor and proved the most apt in rallying the Philharmonic to a strong but appropriately light-of-touch performance in the Mozart. Gilbert's time in Santa Fe is already paying off in his Strauss interpretations and the rest of the program was excellent.

The next go round with the Phil would take place over the November 10-12th weekend, this time with Alexander Mikelthwate, the previous Assistant and now Associate conductor. Mikelthwate is a young man with many musical talents but this reading of Mozart's 22nd piano concerto (K.482) left poor Mr. Ax hanging in the wind with little support in a rather listless and underdriven performance. The Strauss quasi-piano concerto Berleske fared much better as did the performance of Ein Heldenleben.

To wrap up this series, the Philharmonic presented a three hour chamber music program where Mr. Ax got to pair up with a variety of different individual players. The program kicked off with a presentation of a spoken-word melodrama with musical accompaniment, Enoch Arden, based on the Tennyson poem. The spoken portion was performed by Patrick Stewart of all people. Stewart is a fine actor, but his performance this night was definitely frazzled with bits of forgotten text and coughing. This is not the first time the LA Philharmonic has delivered Hollywood actors in performance (the most recent memorable one was Holland Taylor performing the spoken role of the scribe in Glass' Akhnaten). Arden is certainly a Victorian entertainment through and through, often leaving a modern audience bemused, but the music is lovely and well worth hearing. The rest of the program was less tied to a particular era and featured Mozart's Violin Sonata in C major and Piano Quartet in E-flat major as well as Strauss' Sextet from Capriccio and the Cello Sonata in F major. The highlight here was the impassioned performance of the Philharmonic's principal cellist Peter Stumpf, a long-time favorite of mine. At last Mr. Ax was paired up with a performer worth his mettle and the results were immediately apparent to everyone.

So here's wishing you well Mr. Ax and come back soon. Next time maybe we can muster up some stronger support for your wonderful playing.

Good-bye old friends

November 13, 2006

Reinhard Goebel, left and members of Musika Antiqua Köln

Southern California has had a couple of notable good-byes for those working in the "historical practices" vein recently that are worth noting. On November 7, Musika Antiqua Köln’s farewell tour rolled into the Walt Disney Concert Hall for what was generally a well-received evening. As has been widely reported, this tour has not included the group's founder Reinhard Goebel who has been sidelined due to health issues, which have also brought about the demise of the group. The program focused on Bach (J.S. of course) and several other compositions by lesser known members of his family including, great-uncle Heinrich and his son Johann Christoph.
Marijana Mijanovic
Photo: Robert Jan Stokman, Amersfort

The group was accompanied by contralto Marijana Mijanovic who joined them for J.S. Bach's "Widerstehe doch der Sünde" from Cantata, BWV 54 as well as arias from JC and Jan Dismas Zelenka. Her very low voice often seemed under the contorl of other worldly forces more than her own, but given the fire and brimstone/sin and death material, maybe that is a good fit after all. The group's focus on a seemingly endless world of undiscovered Baroque gems and the joy they bring will surely be missed.

Others will carry on this tradition, however, including the English Concert who appeared with their soon-to-be-leaving director Andrew Manze down in the OC in the new Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall on October 30. Unlike Musika Antiqua, the English Concert will continue under the guidance of Baroque specialist Harry Bicket. (Bicket will be in town next month to head up LA Opera's staging of Montiverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea) As much as I like Manze for his user-friendly approach and self-deprecating humor on stage, it may well be time for a change. The Concert's montone color-coordinated "up with people" image could use an upgrade and Bicket may be just the man for the job.
Photo: The English concert

This program was mostly Mozart (what else), which was bright and well-played. The biggest detriment here was the Hall (what else). With the "reverberation chambers" open, the room sounded more like a subway or a men's room than anything else. But more disappointing than the plastic on the carpet or the clear evidence of ongoing construction, was the majority of empty seats in the house. Granted it was a Monday, but this is the second concert I've seen in the new Hall where it was under 20% full. In the first two years after the WDCH opened, it was difficult to get seats to almost any show on any day of the week given the interest in seeing the new building. It's really a shame to waste such a nice building as the Segerstrom Concert Hall on a community that isn't apparently ready to support it or the music performed inside. If the idea is that the building will generate interest in the music inside, from the looks of things, there's a long way to go down in the OC.

Perhaps the greatest irony however is what this may say about public funding for the arts. Segerstrom is largely a private enterprise supported by funds from the personal fortunes and built on private land. WDCH, while certainly far from a totally publicly funded venture has relied on significant support from LA County. Who knows maybe civic pride and people's sense that their taxes actually helped pay for the building incline them be more interested in the outcome. Of course these are broad and unfair generalizations, but it's my blog and I'll overstate the case if I want to.

Then again, none of the Baroque music performed on either night was originally commissioned by anyone other than a wealthy private patron of the arts, so go figure.

Aki Takahashi in recital

In case you’re wondering, the performance highlight of the weekend was the Aki Takahashi recital Sunday night at REDCAT. Takahashi has made a career out of playing and recording the work of contemporary composers. The little black box that is the REDCAT Theater was filled with the fleeting and beautiful sounds of a number of works that were all about simple and often unadorned phrases. The program included Marc Sabat’s Nocturnes (1996), Peter Garland’s Waves Breaking on Rocks (Elegy for All of Us) (2003), Feldman’s Extensions 3 (1953), and the world premiere of Somei Satoh’s HASHI (Bridges) (2006). The program concluded with five selections from the Hyper Beatles collection – a series of short works commissioned by Takahashi who asked contemporary composers to re-work favorite Beatles songs. The best of these was Carl Stone’s adaptation of “She Said She Said” replacing the driving rhythms of the original with rapid bursts of the melody's notes as if being played by someone completely unfamiliar with musical notation. The REDCAT is a small venue by any means and with pieces such as these that highlight the border between silence and sound it was an ideal location. I can't recall the last time I heard an audience sit so quietly as sounds faded in and away. All around a wonderful evening.

Cool Beans (for November)

November 11, 2006

One of the highlights of this month here in LA for me is the concert performance of Gerald Barry's opera The Triumph of Love and Deceit which will take place at the Disney Concer Hall on 11/28 as part of their new music series. Thomas Adès will conduct as part of his two week "residency" here which will also include performances of his Asyla.

In addition to Triumph, I've been listening to the most fabulous recording of Barry's most recent opera The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, based on the most fabulous Fassbinder film of the same name. In fact, the libretto appears to be more or less a direct setting of the screenplay itself. There is a lovely RTÉ recording available of concert performances given in Dublin in May 2005. Barry's use of somewhat competing horn passages to set off the vocal parts of the female cast creates an effect that works well with the piece's tone and content. It's cool beans—you should check it out.

Ready or Nott

November 09, 2006

Jonathan Nott
Hans Werner Henze
Sandwiched between a slew of plays last weekend was a concert with the LA Phil, conducted by Jonathan Nott, which included Schubert's 6th Symphony, the Brahms Violin Concerto and Henze's Erlkönig. Although the show was a mixed bag, it highlights one of the things I love about the LA Phil. It continues to have a serious commitment to contemporary music and music of the latter half of the 20th century not just in the margins, but in the heart of its week to week programming. Not only did the program include Henze's short piece, but it was headed up by a conductor with a real interest and track record in music of this period. Even at 10 minutes, Erlkönig was the clear highlight of the evening capturing the the driving menace of Goethe's tale without the romantic overtones present in Schubert's version of the story.

The rest of the program, though less exciting, was worthwhile. The Schubert symphony was just fine and dandy, but then there was that matter of the Brahms. The soloist was Joshua Bell, who apparently is a big seat-filler given the size of Sunday's crowd. Apparently he's fully aware of this. On the prior Tuesday, he performed with members of the Phil in a chamber music program that included Mendelssohn's Octet which, with Bell in tow, became more of a violin concerto than a chamber piece. Certainly his playing is virtuosic even if his own cadenzas were uninspired. My bigger problem with Bell is how physically histrionic he is. I might enjoy him a little more if he'd stop dancing around the stage like a meth-addict and just play. I understand his becoming emotional with the music but his jerking and swerving are a disservice. And he's not above giving the people what they want. After the concerto which Hugh McDonald's program notes correctly point out owes more to Beethoven than Paganini, Bell made sure he re-inserted the hyper-virtuosity back into the proceedings with an encore from The Red Violin Soundtrack. In the end, the people who came to see him got their money's worth.

Totally Bummed

November 07, 2006

I’m totally bummed. Chris Pasles reports in the LA Times that Dawn Upshaw’s been diagnosed with breast cancer. On top of all the obvious reasons why this is sad, it also means that we won't get to hear her sing Kaija Saariaho’s new oratorio The Passion of Simone in January. I’m not sure if it will also affect the Vienna performances this month or the London ones next July.

In any event, here’s wishing her a speedy recovery. In the meantime, I'm going to think about one of my favorite Upshaw performances, from San Francisco Opera's 2004 staging of The Cunning Little Vixen. Get well soon.

Photo: Merkle/SFO 2004

Weekend On Stage

November 05, 2006

Jenna Cole as Phaedra and June Claman as Oenone
Photo: Craig Schwartz 2006
It was a big theater weekend here in LA with lots of shows in their final weeks before the holiday season. On Friday, I caught A Noise Within’s new staging of Racine's Phaedra in a translation by Richard Wilbur under the direction of Sabin Epstein. This is the first of three productions in their fall schedule (the others being As You Like It and O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet both of which I may write about later). I have long been an admirer of ANWs repertory productions and the overall high level of quality given their small size. Plus, having a year-round source for live Shakespeare is always a good thing. This current Phaedra is a bit of a puzzle, though. The design was sharp and handsome in a modern-dress approach that gave Hippolytus a sort of emo-rock look which was a good contrast to the more matronly but stylish Phaedra. The acting was a mixed bag and often a bit histrionic. One exception was the particularly notable contribution from June Claman as Oenone. But somehow the intermissionless 95 minutes dragged-on like nobody’s business. It may have been the rather awkward attempt to maintain Racine’s poetic couplet structure in the translation or perhaps some of the weaker performance in the cast. In either event, the air of tragic inevitability created in the text resolved with less of a sense of release and more of a sense of “let’s just get this over with.” It was pretty though in a Robert Wilson zen-garden kind of way.

Judy Kaye as Florence Foster Jenkins and Donald Corren as Cosmo McMoon
Photo: Stefano Paltera 2006
On Saturday, I caught one of Judy Kaye’s performances in the current touring production of Souvenir. Kaye received a Tony nomination for her portrayal of Florence Foster Jenkins on Broadway last year, and she and her costar Donald Corren reprised their performances at the Brentwood Theater on the LA VA Campus. Kaye’s ability to sing consistently off-key is remarkable considering that she has made a career of doing just the opposite and she deserves the kudos she has received. While this is certainly light, sentimental and comic fare, I felt it raised a lot of very worthwhile questions about the nature of art and the fine line between being a trailblazer with a strong-sense of self and a misguided eccentric blind to the reality of the world outside. Does it matter if an audience enjoys a performance even if it was not in the way originally intended by the performer? Souvenir gently questions the importance of intent or lack thereof in performance and art by suggesting that maybe its OK if what the audience experiences and what the performer intends them to experience don’t always match up.

Harold Surrat and Lorne Green
Photo: Ed Krieger 2006
After this, I headed over to the extremely well appointed Theater at Boston Court in Pasadena for their current production of Suzan-Lori Parks' The America Play. Boston Court has been in the enviable position of having a great modern facility and a very good reputation for high-quality work after a relatively short time in existence. Michael Michetti and Jessica Kubzansky have maintained a commitment to new work in this space that frequently pays off. A stark and menacingly beautiful set complements Parks work well. The play itself deals with many of the same themes of her later Topdog/Underdog including the mechanics of history and the role African-Americans have been forced to play in its production. The characters struggle with the legacy of the past in a work that is less about events than it is about repeated gestures and how the gestures in and of themselves can create and alter meaning through their repetition. The work is filled with haunting images including that of the protagonist's recurring pretend assassination as he poses as Abraham Lincoln for a parade of paying customers who pretend to be Booth. Each of these would-be assassins end their act in the spotlight with a hearty "Thus to the tyrants!" or "The South is avenged!" Thought provoking and sharp with the highest-caliber performance from Harold Surratt in the lead role.

Lynn Redgrave
Photo: Lawrence K. Ho/LAT 2006
Back over at the Mark Taper Forum on Sunday, I finally caught the Lynn Redgrave solo performance Nightingale – a sort of fantasia of its own about the imagined life of Redgrave’s maternal grandmother. She acts out a chronological sequence of vignettes from one woman’s life in the 20th century with particular attention to the way social mores have changed over time and how they affected the women who lived through these periods. It was hard not to like this rather thin-seeming piece given the sheer talent of Redgrave herself and her ability to hold your attention even with a story you feel you’ve heard several times before. Of course this type of feminist-inspired work is always good to see on a major stage with the kind of love and attention given here in LA. Frankly, I’d rather see a dozen more of these than one more piece about the estrangement of fathers and sons or a young man's coming of age- works which seem to exist in an endless supply. Overall not a bad weekend with the biggest winners being Judy Kaye and the Boston Court’s production of The America Play.

Grand Hotel

November 04, 2006

The nice thing about the mid-fall opera season hiatus is that it allows one to get caught up on the non-theater music events and non-music theater events around town. Of course, there is also the matter of the non-operatic musical theater which was the focus on Thursday evening at the Blank Theater’s 2nd stage in Hollywood. (This small but notably ambitious company has no 1st stage using the “2nd” in the name as an optimistic way of looking towards the future.)

Rick Cornette and Jennifer Malenske
Photo: The Blank Theater company 2006
The Blank has survived not only on its sheer ambition, but also with help from some very good and talented friends of artistic director, Daniel Henning - namely the company’s artistic producer Noah Wyle (former star of TVs ER) and Mr. Henning’s close professional relationship with Michael John LaChiusa. Mr. LaChiusa’s musical The Wild Party was produced by the Blank to many rave reviews and local theater awards in 2005 and this year his work returns under Mr. Henning’s guidance in Hotel C’est l’Amour. Hotel is essentially a musical revue – 29 songs culled mostly from prior musicals with a few “B-sides” mixed in for good measure.

Of course, as a revue the plot that holds these songs together is flimsy at best. It had something to do with regrets and tensions between two newlyweds on their wedding night in a fancy hotel with comedic interludes from the overly exuberant hotel staff. It may have seemed that this cliché set-up would accept virtually any song about love and it almost does. But let's be honest. The real star of this show, and the point, is the music of Mr. LaChiusa. Audra McDonald, the star of his earlier Marie Christine on Broadway has been a big advocate of his music, and seeing this revue makes it clear why. His writing is sharp, pretty, and often moving. He has a way with characterization and actually know how to tell a story with a song, a skill not to be sniffed at in today's theater scene. Perhaps he is more adept at comedy than drama, but that isn't necessarily such a bad thing. It's a shame he isn't more widely known than he is, given his remarkable talent.

The other thing I love about local theater in Los Angeles (as is true in NY) is that one gets to see B and C list actors known mostly for TV work in virtually everything. More often than not, this is exciting because it allows many of them to finally demonstrate the talent that actually got them some of the jobs that keep them from displaying any of it on television. These are not seat-filling names now so common on Broadway or necessarily people with a lot of theater experience, but they are often surprising. This time out the star was Vicki Lewis, perhaps best known for her role as Beth on the 90s sitcom NewsRadio. This is the second appearance she has made on local stages this year - the earlier being a part in the Reprise production of the Gershwin revue My One and Only at UCLA. Once again the surprise is that she is funny and can actually sing and act. You'd never guess it seeing any of those NewsRadio reruns, but its true. Of course Ms. Lewis has done some time in both Chicago and Damn Yankees on Broadway - the New York theater equivalent of an appearance on Law and Order or ER. In any event she and the production are well worth seeing.

Crime, with or without Punishment

November 01, 2006

From Wrestling Dostoyevsky Photo: Betontanc 2006
With everything else going on this week, I’ve barely had time to post but I must mention one event before too much time slips away. Last Friday I got to catch a great dance performance by a company called Betontanc at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (wisely abbreviated REDCAT) downtown in the basement of Disney Hall. REDCAT and its very versatile and modern performance and gallery space is rapidly becoming one of the best spots for new performance, music, and art in LA and the hits just keep on comin’.

Betontanc is a Slovenian dance troupe currently touring a production called “Wrestling Dostoyevsky” in the US that, following well-reviewed shows in New York, arrived in LA last weekend. Though I am not usually a big consumer of dance or dance-related performances, I was especially taken by this witty, disarming, evocative, and kinetic evening. The performance attempts a non-linear and idiosyncratic retelling of Crime and Punishment using poetic dialogue and a grab-bag of dance styles including everything from Broadway-style chorus routines to slam-dance and “street fighting” maneuvers that deliver a real physical sense of foreboding and menace where it is called for in this rather somber material. This all takes place in a modified living room setting on four area rugs that late in the piece become a cover for Raskolnikov’s heinous crime with only the ax periodically rising out from under the disguised fray. The audience is seated in the round amidst floor lamps covered in articles of clothing. The performance was heavy on audience participation and when we weren’t turning the lights on or off, we were being panhandled or offered cookies.

From Wrestling Dostoyevsky Photo: Betontanc 2006
The most admirable thing about this great troop of 6 men and women were not just how well their choreography captured the content of the novel, but how it reiterated the feeling and atmosphere of the novel simply through movement independently of the narrative elements. There were many stirring images throughout that appeared to take advantage of the space’s own unique set-up including an instance where most of the back wall of the theater slid back to reveal the large contrastingly brightly lit loading dock behind. For a moment the entire cast approaches the huge gang-way as if to escape both the audience and the internal hell created in Raskolnikov’s mind, but of course they can’t-and in the end what a great thing for us.

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