Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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


January 29, 2007

Steve Reich with Grant Gershon and members of the LAMC
Photo: mine 2007

Birthday mania continued in LA this weekend with our local installment of the celebrations for Steve Reich’s 70th. Reich had a tribute of sorts last year in a program solely of his work during the LA Philharmonic’s Minimalist Jukebox events. This time around, it was the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s turn to pay their respects and they did so with excellent performances of two of Reich's major recent works. First up was You Are (Variations) a piece commissioned and first performed by the LAMC in 2004. The other half of the program featured the West Coast Premiere of Daniel Variations, Reich’s tribute to slain journalist Daniel Pearl. The works were each paired with shorter motets by Josquin des Prez and William Byrd to help denote influences on Reich’s work as a composer.

These are two magnificent pieces and the Daniel Variations washes over with both joy and sadness simultaneously not unlike memory itself. These beautiful settings of brief texts from the Book of Daniel and expressions spoken by or associated with Pearl are moving. They work amazingly by managing to incorporate both the personal and political in a single text without overwhelming the whole. There are clear references to terrorism but the piece remains tied to more universal themes. The motets were a nice compliment and the Chorale was in excellent form showing off their own new music chops.

However, as always, the LAMC can’t resist the urge to undercut itself and so it was again last night. The biggest problem was (surprise) the amplification. The singers and orchestra were so over-amplified during the first half of the program in the beautiful but unforgiving acoustics of the hall that the whole thing became a shrill screech at higher volumes where I was sitting. While the LAMC has a great reputation and is intimately involved with new music and challenging programming, it constantly seems to bend over backwards to dumb things down to the lowest common denominator. Sing-along Messiahs, odd on-stage choreography, and awful program notes continue to make their operation seem less than serious. One particular pet peeve of mine is the atrocious and inane writing of Victoria Looseleaf who regularly contributes to the program notes for the LAMC as well as freelance material for the LA Times and other outlets. In last night's program she offers this commentary about Josquin des Prez, "Consdered the greatest music maker of the high Renaissance, he was also willful and expensive to commission -the Usher of his day- ..." Apparently Looseleaf thinks the average audience member for the LAMC can't get their heads around "willful" and "expensive to commission" without a reference to a current-day R&B heartthrob.

The good news is that many of these issues are cosmetic and relatively easy to ignore and, with program's like this one, it is easy to love the LAMC.

After the Fludde

January 28, 2007

Cross from Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral

LA Opera’s new music director is in town for the next several weeks as he prepares to lead brand new productions of both Mahagonny and Tannhäuser. While this is his first year in the job, he is already making his presence keenly felt. He started the season with magnificent performances of Don Carlo and La Traviata and shortly thereafter announced a major new initiative to feature concerts and new performances of works and composers suppressed by Hitler’s Third Reich. In fact, new productions of works by Ullmann and Zemlinsky are one of the few highlights of LA Opera’s 07/08 season.

One of the other things that is quickly becoming clear in Conlon’s tenure is his commitment to community and educational programs. Three years ago he headed up a performance of Ullmann's Der Kaiser von Atlantis in a Wilshire synagogue for the LA Phil and this weekend he participated in another significant community-oriented event - a staged production of Benjamin Britten's Noye's Fludde at Our Lady of Angels Cathedral. The piece was performed with the Orchestra of the Hamilton High School Academy for Music and adult and children's choirs from St. John Eudes. The orchestra and cast did contain a few ringers from the LA Opera orchestra as well as Jason Stearns as Noye and Phyllis Pancella as Noye's wife.

The production was ticketed, but free to the public and turned out to be a huge success in perhaps every way other than artistically. Though this may be debatable as well. Britten's 45 minute version of the 16th Century miracle play does contain some moving and beautiful music. He wrote it with the intention of its being performed in this very type of setting with these types of forces - essentially a children's opera of sorts. So it is what it is. The acoustics of the cathedral are far from ideal and the amplification was awful. The large cast of children sang and moved around a minimal set of colorful fabric that represented everything from waves, and rainbows to the body of the ark and huge puppet doves that flew over the audience. The piece can't quite shake that Church of England Christmas Pantomime feel even here in media savvy LA where a significant number of kids in attendance probably have their own agents already working out their big deals at Sundance.

So what was so successful about the evening? There were a lot of kids there gaining some exposure to opera through a work that was neither chopped up or translated in order to achieve the purpose. But more importantly, the crowd was standing room only. I've not seen this large of a crowd at the Cathedral even on Christmas Eve. Why is this important? Not primarily for religious reasons (though Cardinal Mahoney was on hand to thank everyone for coming and encouraging them to come back again soon) but because there were many, many people who were seeing the Cathedral for the first time. While much attention has been rightly lavished on Frank Gehry's magnificent Walt Disney Concert Hall just two blocks away, many have forgotten about the other major architectural achievement in downtown LA this decade - and frankly one arguably as important as the WDCH. José Rafael Moneo's design which was completed in 2002 is stunning and in many ways fits Los Angeles perfectly. The building is filled with light filtered through hundreds of panels of Spanish Alabaster and, though the building itself is minimal and very modern, it imparts a real warmth and sense of comfort appropriate to its purpose. So maybe even if the opera itself wasn't so great, many good things came out of it and a good time was had by all.

About last weekend

January 25, 2007

Last weekend was one of those busy theater weekends that’s hard to keep up with on the blog because everything was just so-so. It’s much easier to write about things when they are really good or really awful. When things are just OK – that’s just it – they’re OK.

Marissa Chibas in
Daughter of a Cuban Revolutionary
On Friday the 19th, I took in one of the premiere performances of Daughter of a Cuban Revolutionary, a solo autobiographical piece written and performed by Marissa Chibas. The work was co-produced by INTAR in New York where it will run later this year. Chibas is a good actor with a very interesting genealogy. She is the daughter of Raul Chibas, a comrade and confidant of Fidel Castro during the struggles against Batista in the 1950s. Eventually, he left Cuba for the US in the early 60s to live in exile when Castro turned toward Communism. Her uncle, Eddy Chibas, was a political activist, radio celebrity, and one-time presidential candidate who committed suicide in 1951 during his weekly live broadcast. All of this makes for interesting material, but none of it is particularly well served in this performance where Chibas reenacts central events in her relatives' lives including that of her mother. The performance is wrapped in a hackneyed framework where the vignettes arise as a series of flashbacks during the story of a near-death drowning experience. There is also a fair amount of the standard fare immigrant experience motifs but Marissa Chibas seems almost intent on steering away from the most interesting parts of the story like her family’s conflicted role in the Cuban exile community in favor of pedestrian television-like "important moments." The piece has a modern and attractive desert island set with projected video content makes things look smart, but you feel there is something much more interesting at the heart of these stories.

Tyler Mann and Emma Degerstedt in 13
Photo: Béatrice de Géa/LAT 2006
Meanwhile over at The Mark Taper Forum we have the world premiere of the new musical from Tony-Award winner Jason Robert Brown, 13. The show is a love letter to that awkward phase of early adolescence: a time period of great transition, angst, and for many people, like Brown himself, probably the time when they first started to love musical theater. However, rather than soaring, this production becomes the evil step-sister of the fantastic Spring Awakening now playing in New York. Unfortunately, Dan Elish's cookie-cutter, sanitized plot succeeds in capturing the thrill and heartbreak of adolescence about as well as an after-school special. Which is really a shame considering the sheer talent of the kids involved, including Ricky Ashley, Sara Niemietz and Tyler Mann. Brown’s music and lyrics are much, much better than the show overall and there are several numbers, (“What It Means to be a Friend,” “Tell Her,” and “Getting Over It” to name three) which in the hands of the likes of Audra McDonald could bring people to tears. Here’s hoping this music surfaces again somewhere free of this dross for people to get to know.

Steve Rankin and JD Cullum in Pig Farm
Photo: Henry DiRocco 2006
Down in Orange County, the South Coast Repertory Theater is currently running a production of Greg Kotis’ Pig Farm following its recent premieres in New York and San Diego. The play has been maligned by many here and elsewhere as juvenile and filled with too much lowbrow gutter humor. But I feel that some of this criticism misses the point. The play concerns the anxiety created when the federal government gets involved in the lives of some average Americans due to environmental concerns stemming from their work as pig farmers. One of the common criticisms of the play is that the play's critiques about these issues are overly broad and unfocused. But from my view, that was exactly the point. The play seems to be more of an absurdist questioning of those who really spend time worrying about the role of Big Government in their lives and work. The play it reminded me of was Sam Shepard’s The God of Hell recently put on by the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood. Though Pig Farm is certainly intended to be less menacing and more comedic than that work, the similarities between the two in terms of settings and characters are hard to ignore. I enjoyed Pig Farm not because it was sophisticated and witty, but more that it made some of the worthwhile counterpoints to Shepard’s project with a subtly deceptive but low brow tactic.

Patti LuPone
The weekend ended on a somewhat sour note with a “cabaret” performance from Patti LuPone at the Samueli Theater buried within the bowels of the new Reneé and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Orange County. The room itself is about as far away from a cabaret space as you can imagine. Just as the Opéra Bastille in Paris resembles a large sterile airport, the Samueli Theater appears to have taken a high school gymnasium as its template. The big square overly lit stone and wooden box did nothing to foster a mood other than a need to hit the showers. Ms. LuPone was dressed for the place, appearing in outfits that could well have been accessorized with a coach’s whistle. Joshua Kosman recently pointed out on his blog that Ms. LuPone can’t sing. And in terms of maintaining consistent pitch and phrasing this appears to be true. I’ve seen her before in the recent Sweeney Todd production in New York, and I didn’t mind or notice it so much in that setting. She is more of an actor than a singer, a skill that is often useful on the musical theater stage. Just as I can appreciate excellent singers who don’t act well, I feel it is possible to like an actor whose singing isn’t the best in some settings. What bothered me more about her performance of the “torch songs” that made up this performance was the overly broad and comedic approach she took to them. This was not an evening of smoke and heartbreak but more of dull-witted camp and seltzer-down-your-pants laughs. Ms. LuPone is in town for the rehearsals of LA Opera’s Mahagonny to open in just a few weeks and I’m interested to see how she fares in a more theatrical and narratively driven setting.

Birthday Boy

January 24, 2007

John Adams, Salonen, and the LA Philharmonic
Photo: mine
Towards the end of last year there was much talk about Mozart-fatigue over the omnipresent revivals of his work in celebration of his 250th birthday anniversary. As irritating as Mozart-fatigue may have been, it is nowhere near as irritating or long lasting as “birthday celebration”-fatigue is. It now appears that the seemingly endless string of Birthday celebrations may be replacing virtually every other programming idea or concept all over the world. Next up in keeping this tradition alive is John Adam’s 60th birthday, which will be marked by the now requisite festivals and commemorations throughout the entire year.

However, it’s hard to complain when this results in shows as great as those that took place in Southern California this weekend. I had the great pleasure to attend two of these shows at the Walt Disney Concert Hall this weekend. On Saturday, Salonen conducted the LA Phil in a performance of Naïve and Sentimental Music, a piece, Adams noted, the Phil “owns,” given their experience recording it and premiering it both in LA and New York. This was a homecoming in that it was the first LA performance of the piece since the 1999 premiere. Before the performance, Adams expounded on how he feels the interpretation has grown in beautiful ways under Salonen’s leadership. I agree with him - it was hard to imagine a better performance of this masterpiece. The crowd was ecstatic at the end of this program, which opened with Beethoven’s 2nd Symphony, and suddenly Adams opening joke to the audience wasn’t so much of a joke anymore – on that night in this city, he is in fact the composer that knocked Beethoven off the second half of the program.

On Tuesday, Adams returned to conduct members of the Phil's new music group in a program of three smaller works, China Gates, the clarinet concerto Gnarly Buttons, and Grand Pianola Music. These earlier pieces worked well together and demonstrated the influences and developments in Adams’ work over time. Derek Bermel was the clarinet soloist for Gnarly Buttons, providing a strong center to a work that can easily succumb to its own American Western kitsch. Pianola brought the house down with the combined talents of LA Phil keyboardists Joanne Pearce-Martin and Vicki Ray. Suddenly, I was sad that the Birthday celebration was over so soon and without anything from Nixon in China or Klinghoffer. In this case, the good news is that the birthday year is just getting started and Americans and Europeans will have a lot more opportunities to hear his music with The Flowering Tree in London and San Francisco and Doctor Atomic in Amsterdam and Chicago.

Last, but not least

January 23, 2007

Regular readers of my posts may know that I have not been especially optimistic about San Francisco Opera or its new leadership under David Gockley over the last year or so. However, today’s announcement of San Francisco’s 2007-2008 season has gone a long way to assuaging my doubts. Gockley still can't keep his hands off the whole "new era" rhetoric in his introduction, but this is a plan significantly superior to slates already announced for Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington National for the same period and it all comes down to one word – variety. While there are only two new productions out of the ten, the world premiere of Glass’ Appomattox and a new Tannhäuser, the rest of the slate features an excellent assortment of borrowed productions, most new to the West Coast. There is only one revival in the bunch, and the house has boldly chosen to take a breather from all the usual top 10 favorites. All this and Gockley has delivered on stepping up with a little more star power this year in the forms of Natalie Dessay, Angela Gheorghiu, Thomas Hampson, Olga Borodina, and Susan Graham. (As well as the SF Opera debut of Ewa Podles) Plus, if you count the additional production of Portman’s The Little Prince, the season contains 4 works from the 20th (and 21st) centuries. All this and Macbeth, The Rake's Progress, and their new Das Rheingold a co-production with WNO.

Of course at this time of year, everything looks good on paper, so only time will tell, but I would say this is not at all a bad start. There are some interesting California coincidences of note. LA is about to premiere its new Tannhäuser in February with the same two principals that San Francisco has scheduled for October, Peter Seiffert and Petra Maria Schnitzer. Both companies will stage La Rondine in June 2008. San Francisco will have an imported production with Gheorghiu and LA will have a revival of its Marta Domingo production with Patricia Racette. The Metropolitan Opera continues on its course of becoming the nation's biggest opera lending library by loaning out their new Lucia di Lammermoor complete with star Natalie Dessay still intact just as LA will get their Jenufa complete with Karita Mattlia. Not only has the Met taken over the movie theaters and the airwaves, but the opera world-domination appears to have extended into other actual opera houses as well. But there is no quibbling here. The best news of all – I continue to have an excuse to travel north and have oysters at Zuni.

And now for something
(almost) completely familiar

January 19, 2007

The frustrating thing about Los Angeles Opera is that the company tends to take a "two steps forward, one step back" approach to productions. Innovative and exciting things happen, but often at a frustratingly disjointed and slow pace. Often each new season oscillates between the exciting and the predictable. Given that the 06/07 season has started off to be a big winner with great productions with superior casts, it is no surprise that today’s announcement of the 07/08 season represents a retreat of sorts. Of the nine productions, five are revivals of LA Opera productions. Two of these La Bohème and Tosca have been revived here within the last 3 years. With this roster, it’s a wonder that they didn’t find some way to mount Figaro and/or Butterfly yet again. The other revivals include Don Giovanni, Tristan und Isolde and La Rondine. There is some significant vocal talent across all the productions, but after the star studded A-list we’ve had this year it’s hard not to feel a little bit of a let-down even with names like Karita Mattila and John Treleaven.

Of the four non-revival productions, three are new to LA that have been seen elsewhere including the Met’s Jenufa complete with Mattila, a Fidelio from Valencia, Spain, and an Otello with (gasp) Cristina Gallardo-Damas. (Now the down side to the Sirius radio broadcasts: after hearing repeated botched Cio-Cio Sans, is it possible to think about Desdemona without a significant element of dread?)

Of course all of this amounts to what Domingo calls a “season of giants.” Frankly however, I fail to see how every season at every opera house in the US isn’t always a “season of giants.” (Where’s that giant-destroying Ring when you need it anyway?) However, there is some light here, and as fate would have it, it’s a dwarf - Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg to be exact. As part of LA Opera and music director James Conlon’s "Recovered Voices" initiative, early '08 will see a double bill, paring this opera with Ullmann’s Der Zebrochene Krug. Both of these US premieres should be exciting given Conlon’s track record with these works. He conducted a semi-staged version of Ullmann’s Der Kaiser von Atlantis here with members of the LA Phil that is fondly remembered by all who experienced it. Conlon will also conduct a majority of the other productions, but is managing to steer clear of all the Puccini – not an easy feat when his works represent 1/3 of the productions and nearly 40% of all the performances.

Oh, and just in case we weren’t paying attention, there was a time-delayed bomb dropped at the new conference concerning the renovation of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Apparently, this will require at least a year’s closure of the hall and the Board wants to start softening up everyone now for this event that may take place as soon as 2011. LA Opera is apparently also getting into the radio broadcast game as well not to be left out of the new national trend.

Still, given LA Opera’s tradition of multiple last minute changes, who knows how much of this will come to pass. Probably most of it will and, as with two years ago, all one can hope for is that some of these saved dollars this season apparently intends to generate will go toward something exciting like the new ring cycle starting in 2008.

Masterpiece Theater

January 17, 2007

The Los Angeles Philharmonic has long sponsored a chamber music series that has lived in a variety of homes over the years until the Disney Hall opened. Immediately prior to this, the series, which featured 8 programs of chamber works performed by members of the Philharmonic, took place in the Gindi Auditorium on the Westside campus of the University of Judaism. This was an intimate, if plain and industrial, setting for these often rousing performances. The new hall has changed all that for both the better and the worse. Many have complained that the acoustically marvelous hall is too large for these events, but as someone who attended them both before and after the move, the shows are no doubt much better attended than before. Of course, enlisting visiting stars to play pieces with the Phil members and offering free wine courtesy of whomever prior to each show for subscribers didn’t hurt. These shows can be hit or miss and are often populated by first-time audience members (i.e., lots of clapping between movements) and Mitchell Newman reminded everyone about proper etiquette before the start of the program containing two "materpieces of 20th century French music," Debussy’s String Quartet Op. 10 and Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps.

It’s nice to have a regular series of chamber works that highlight the individual talents of Phil members, but these are not set or recurring groups and often the performances lack the spirit a regularly performing small ensemble might provide. However, sometimes these shows are absolutely brilliant as was last night's program. Both of these small ensembles played with the requisite colorful tenor. The Messiaen was particularly moving and beautiful. It's pieces like these that leave me bewildered about the criticism that "modern music" is overly cerebral and often unemotional. I can think of few pieces as touching and moving as this one.

The Philharmonic players were all excellent and made clear why these pieces are in fact the masterpieces they were billed to be. I will here list all of the individual performers because they are the superstars behind the best chamber show the Phil has put on this year so far. The Debussy featured Elizabeth Baker and Mitchell Newman, violins; Meredith Snow, viola; and Gloria Lum, cello. The Messiaen had stellar performances from Lorin Levee, clarinet; Camille Avellano, violin; Barry Gold, cello; and visiting Cal Arts pianist extraodinaire Vicki Ray. Congratulations to all of them for a wonderful concert.

Next up at the Philharmonic, a John Adams Tribute.

Deborah Voigt in recital

January 15, 2007

Deborah Voigt
Photo: Myung J. Chun / LAT 2006
Deborah Voigt was in town last night for her LA Opera debut in a solo recital accompanied by Brian Zeger. Voigt has a remarkable voice and it’s a shame that her talent now has to constantly compete with the whole weight thing. The controversy around her firing over her weight and subsequent gastric bypass surgery now seems to be a mandatory point to be made in any of the mainstream media or elsewhere. Towards the end of her recital, a fan shouted out “You look great.” She jokingly turned to walk off stage as if to say “My job here is done” but all I could think of was how sad it was that no one had shouted “You sing great.” I’m certainly glad for Ms. Voigt and hope the changes in her life have improved her health, but I think it’s time to move on and start treating her like a person and an artist instead of a “walking, talking, flirting, singing advertisement for gastric bypass surgery.”

And in that spirit, the recital overall was a mixed bag. Voigt has power, no doubt, and even hampered by a head cold, which she apologized for at the start of the evening, there was little evidence of problems in her performance overall. However, the whole thing still seemed quite boring. I think that most of this had to do with the poor choice of material. Much of the program consisted of off-the-beaten-path oddities including a Mozart cantata, and songs from Verdi, Respighi, and some lesser-known Strauss. All of it was sung technically well, but none of it was very emotionally convincing. The best parts were the American songs from Amy Beach and Leonard Bernstein, which finally seemed to kick things in gear after a rather uneventful hour and a half. Voigt herself is charming and exudes wit and a sort of selfless panache that resulted in a rather amusing piano duet with her accompanist during the encore of “I love a piano.” A lot was missing last night, but there is no doubt that Voigt continues to be a stunning talent in the right places at the right times. Here’s looking forward to her Die Agyptische Helena this spring in New York.

Best of '06 - Theater Edition

January 14, 2007

Because I favor music events and I love lists, I think its only fair to produce a second 2006 Top Ten list for non-opera theater events. Not that these performances were music-free. In fact at least three are musicals. Out of 81 events the following were my favorites:

Cast of Spring Awakening
Photo: Doug Hamilton 2006
1. Spring Awakening. Sater and Sheik. Eugene O’Neil Theater, New York. Believe the hype. This show is simply that good and it single-handedly revives the career of Duncan Sheik, an excellent songwriter, too long ignored in the pop world. A masterful recasting of a 19th century play in a way that injects it with modern relevance without having to change the plot line substantially. A minimal staging that is immediate and viscerally felt.

Matt McGrath in The Black Rider
Photo: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg Hamburg 2006
2. The Black Rider. Burroughs, Waits, and Wilson. Ahmanson Theater, Los Angeles. A visually arresting masterpiece that is both funny and poignant. Los Angeles seemed to miss the point that audiences in San Francisco lined-up around the block for less than a year ago which may say more about Center Theater Groups planning and marketing skills than anything else. The audiences had a very tough time with this avant-garde staging from Wilson despite his recent successes at LA Opera. Too bad for them.

3. Christine Ebersole in Grey Gardens and Cherry Jones in Doubt. Two master classes in how an incandescent performance can take a work and transform it from something good and interesting into something magnificent. Ebersole takes a flimsy plotted musical and makes it a fully functional tour de force. On her national tour of Stanley’s play, Cherry Jones filled the theaters with an incredibly intense performance that made the work much more than the sum of its parts.

Roger Guenvuer Smith
Photo: Variety 2006
4. The Watts Towers Project. Roger Guenvuer Smith. Kirk Douglas Theater, Los Angeles. The much talked about demise of CTG's development programs for underrepresented groups in theater under its new director, Michael Ritchie, did had one upshot – it brought this fantastic solo piece from Smith to life. A solo meditation on growing up in LA in the shadow of the Watts Towers and its legacy contained universal moments that all Angelenos could relate to. The meditative free-floating performance art nature of the work contained many moments of sheer rapture.

5. Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at The Fountain Theater, Fences at the Odyssey Theater, and Jitney at the Lillian Theater. All in Los Angeles. August Wilson. Wilson left several masterpieces of American theater and LA participated fully in the celebration of that gift this year with magnificent local productions in several venues – all with uniformly excellent casts.

Judi Dench
Photo: Catherine Ashmore 2006
6. Hay Fever. Noel Coward. Haymarket Theater in London. Dame Judi Dench shined in this commanding comic performance over the summer. She delivers Coward’s lines like they were written just for her. I have seen Dench on movie screens many times, but seeing her in a live performance made it easy to understand why she is so loved as an actor.

Neil Patrick Harris as Chris Keller, Laurie Metcalf as Kate Keller,
and Len Cariou as Joe Keller
Photo: Michael Lamont 2006
7. All My Sons. Arthur Miller. Geffen Playhouse. After a rocky season, the Geffen produced a brilliant version of this classic with Len Cariou and Laurie Metcalf. Metcalf was piercing, and the opening image of her standing alone onstage outside of her home lit only by the periodic lightning of a raging storm staring at a downed tree in the wind may be the single strongest LA stage image from the whole year.

Kenneth Alan Williams, Amy Farrington, Thomas Vincent Kelly and Jen Dede
Photo: Variety 2006
8. Mr. Kolpert. David Gieselmann. Odyssey Theater, Los Angeles. A skewed German version of Hitchcock’s Rope without pity. Here the body in the trunk is played for uncomfortable laughs and nobody on stage or in the audience is left off the hook. Daring and fun.

9. Wrestling Dostoyevsky. Betontanc. REDCAT, Los Angeles. The REDCAT continues to produce some of the most interesting theater events around, and this dance adaptation of Crime and Punishment from the Slavic troupe challenged boundaries and delivered on the promise of the novel while having its way with the narrative.

Nikkole Salter and Danai Gurira Photo: James Leynse 2006
10. In the Continuum.Nikkole Salter and Danai Gurira. Kirk Douglas Theater, Los Angeles. It was hard to ignore this touring production of the off-Broadway hit. Topical without being cloying. Moving without being trite. It felt like the start of a movement more than it did a stage play. Inspirational.




The show must go on

So what do you do when a big star, in this case Dawn Upshaw, falls ill and drops out of your scheduled big premiere of a major new work, Saariaho’s La Passion de Simone, only a few weeks before the show. If you're Salonen and the LA Philharmonic, you put together a well- thought-out program of works you haven’t played before. That is exactly what has happened this weekend in LA where Salonen led the Phil in a program he suggested in his own comments addressing the “collapse” of romanticism. Our orchestra has become world-famous for its interpretations of 20th century (and newer) music and Salonen used this program of “extreme contrasts,” Webern’s Five Pieces for Orchestra and Mahler’s Symphony No.7, to make his case. These two pieces, he argues, written within a few years of each other represent a collapse of the maximal grand expression of emotion in orchestral music to a completely minimal and brief 5 minutes intended to do the same with nothing but the bare bones of the music. The Webern, Salonen argued, was the orchestral equivalent of a haiku. And of course such a haiku could only be paired with the War and Peace of a Mahler symphony.

Part of the reason why this particular symphony is additionally interesting in this context is that this is the first time that Salonen has conducted it with the LA Phil. He is no stranger to Mahler and certainly has his favorites – No. 2 most notably. But I’ve often felt that Salonen prefers works such as No. 7 where there is a “soft” of delicate core in the midst of all the noise and bombast for him to exploit and examine. He did just that last night bringing out many of the gentle textures and examining the intricacies of the many beautiful solo or small ensemble moments buried in this piece. There certainly were moments where I felt things got away from him near the end to the last movement, but all in all it was another great performance for the Phil.

What becomes a legend most?

January 13, 2007

Comic timing. Probably the most startling thing about the Met’s HD live broadcasts over the last two weeks besides the fact that these productions may look better on camera than they do in person, is that Beverly Sills may have missed her calling by not pursing a career in comedy. She was a total hoot during last weeks I Puritani broadcast with Margaret Juntwait, and this week she was even better. After wisecracks about getting Domingo alone in his dressing room away from his wife, she made an off-hand remark about David Beckham during an intermission interview with the opera legend. In the midst of lauding Domingo's many strengths and recent successes, she made reference to “your” (I take it, she meant LA's) luring Beckham to play hockey. After clearly pausing to figure out what she was talking about, Domingo acknowledged this week’s news that Beckham will be coming to LA to play soccer for the Galaxy. At the LA screening I attended, hilarity ensued. Sills rocks America. They should sign her up for lots more of this stuff.

Oh, and by the way, my second screening of the overly maligned The First Emperor was thoroughly enjoyable. Quite a bit of it doesn’t work so well, but a significant amount of it does. The choral writing is very good as are the openings of both acts. It is worth seeing for its fine cast, if for no other reason. I can think of many operas in the repertoire with as much dross in them as this one. It may not survive into future productions outside of LA, but I still admire its ambition.

In-between days

January 11, 2007

I have been known to read a book on occasion.

Although I usually do not like Out West Arts to stray into topics and areas outside of my original intentions, I am going to make a small exception here. I have been cajoled into a blog-based reading group that is assailing the unabridged version of Samuel Richardson's Clarissa. The group is reading this epistolary novel in "real time" covering each letter on the day of the year it was written.

This is a similar group of folks who trapped me into spending time I will never get back on Kathleen Winsor's Forever Amber, a taste I have yet been able to wash from my mouth. For any interested parties, things have just gotten started over at (what else?) Forever Clarissa, a new link for which can also be found on the left.

Happy Anniversary

January 10, 2007

Salonen and members of the
LA Philharmonic New Music Group
Photo: mine
It was old home day in Los Angeles last night over at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Specifically, it was the third concert of the “Green Umbrella” series: programs focused on new music and recent compositions. What was originally intended to be a showcase for Dawn Upshaw, who was forced to back out of this and this coming weekend’s concerts for health reasons, had changed. Instead, the program morphed into a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s New Music Group complete with free wine and cheese. Most surprising of all, it was an honestly exuberant and celebratory atmosphere. Esa-Pekka Salonen was on hand and in comments from the stage he thanked his esteemed friend and Philharmonic benefactor, Ernest Fleischman, for helping to establish this series, which he also noted has become the envy and inspiration of music organizations across the country. (Apparently the "Green Umbrella" title was also Fleischman's idea, per Salonen's report to my partner. No real meaning to it, but more of a dada gesture.)

To celebrate, Salonen selected works from long-time personal friends, colleagues and mentors to him and the LA Phil, including Lutoslawski’s Chain 1, Donatoni’s Hot, Steven Stucky’s Nell'ombra, nella luce, and Salonen’s own Catch and Release presented here in its US premiere. Each was a gem in its own right from the “imaginary jazz” of Donatoni to the Stucky, which had been performed earlier this season in a chamber music event and shone even more wonderfully the second time around. Salonen of course got the anchor spot with the evening’s longest piece and it was hard not to share his excitement for this work scored for a nearly identical ensemble as Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat. He noted that this three-movement work was intended as a sort of paring for the Stravinsky and was developed from ideas that arose during the composition of his orchestral piece Insomnia but didn’t fit in because of their more ebullient nature. This is Salonen at his most whimsical and featured a Kurtág-esque sense of playfulness with a variety of musical games littered throughout the work.

The best part of the evening for me, though, was the overall joyous mood of both performers and audience. This was more than just another evening of musical performance. It was a reminder of how the Philharmonic and LA have grown together over time. Salonen and the Philharmonic have a real relationship with audiences here that has been hard won, and one gets the sense of how much everyone is enjoying the continuing and ongoing exploration together. Of course all good things must come to an end and surely this will one day too. But one thing is certain, it has been and will hopefully continue to be this much fun and I believe both audiences and the Philharmonic have come out the better for it.

Ever Decreasing Circles

January 09, 2007

Nicola Luisotti and David Gockley
Photo by Terrence McCarthy 2006
San Francisco Opera announced today that Nicola Luisotti has been appointed Music Director to succeed Donald Runnicles when his tenure ends at the beginning of the 2009-2010 season. I will hand it to the board and General Director David Gockley in that they have chosen someone young, hopefully with all the commensurate energy and excitement. However, unlike some people, I hardly think this is a reason to jump up and down. As Joshua Kosman notes on his blog, Luisotti doesn’t have much of a known track record outside of Verdi and Puccini. Great - just what San Francisco needs, more Toscas and Traviatas.

I’ve seen Luisotti on three occasions – the 2004 Forza in SF as well as a 2004 Carmen and a 2005 I Pagliacci both in Los Angeles. All of the orchestral performances were certainly good, but nothing to write home about. Of course this may be unfair in that my recollection of all of these productions are hampered by problematic vocal performances. (i.e. Alagna as Canio and Gruber as Leonora.) But I find it hard to believe that anything in his press materials or CV suggests that Luisotti is likely to be a dynamic and forward-looking music director. Of course maybe Gockley and the Board know something that isn’t apparent on the surface. And who knows, with the upcoming announcement of next season’s productions, there may be all kinds of tricks up those sleeves that have yet to be seen. Luisotti certainly is photogenic though, isn't he?

Show people

January 07, 2007

Gustavo Dudamel in action
Photo: Lawrence K Ho/LAT 2006
It’s Oscar season here in LA and as the industry is busy considering all kinds of films and performances, the LA Phil got a little glamour of its own this week. This came in the form of guest conductor Gustavo Dudamel who led the Philharmonic in a program featuring Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, Kodály’s Dances from Galánta, and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.3 with soloist Yefim Bronfman. Here in LA we like ‘em young and hot and with a lot of good press in advance - clearly Dudamel fits the bill. He’s been seen around the world with all the right people apparently soaking up wisdom from the likes of Sir Rattle. I myself saw him conduct a very good performance of L’elisir d’amore under the direct and watchful eye of Daniel Barenboim at the Staatsoper Unter der Linden in Berlin last April only to see him return the next night to watch a performance of Der Freischütz with Barenboim from the director’s box just off stage left.

So it was no surprise that he was met with such a wildly enthusiastic reception at the Walt Disney Concert Hall here in LA. He is wildly exuberant in a way that is still charming given his youth and he’s not bad at leading the orchestra either. The Kodály was vibrant and spirited and the Bartók was nothing to sniff at either. The big problem was the Rachmaninoff, which in the hands of Bronfman, sounded rather undynamic while certainly technically admirable. I typically like Bronfman, and he was certainly very engaging in an excellent performance of Schubert’s Piano Trio in B-flat with Bing Wang and Ben Hong on Tuesday. Of course I may not be the best judge in that I will admit that I don’t care for the Rachmaninoff piano concertos largely because they have always seemed like so much histrionic mush. (And I have an extremely high-tolerance for sentiment as evidenced by my love of French opera.) But the crowd loved it anyway, which I guess is OK – this is a show business town and, regardless of the music or its performance, this was quite a show.

Coming Soon to a Theater Near You

January 06, 2007

I drove over to an AMC Theater in Burbank (of all places) today to see the live simulcast of I Puritani from the Metropolitan Opera. As readers of this blog know, I saw this production while in New York last week and I had purchased these tickets mostly out of curiosity about what this experience would be like, given all the media attention lavished on the first movie theater broadcast of The Magic Flute. While I loved Ms. Netrebko’s performance last week, I didn’t really feel the show as a whole was worth a second viewing.

Anna Netrebko as Elvira Walton
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera 2006
Much to my surprise, the simulcast was far more enjoyable than it was actually being there. Some of this, of course, is due to the presence of Eric Cutler’s far more pleasant Arturo compared to his stand-in last week, Gregory Kunde. But frankly the biggest difference was in seeing the performance through the eye of the camera, allowing for different angles at different times. In short, the video allowed the viewer to focus on the best parts of this performance, the vocalists and their acting and singing often at very close range. The worst parts of the production - the stupifyingly boring sets and complete absence of on-stage activity from the chorus - vanished. Suddenly, a performance viewed through a series of cameras over a thousand miles away was more interesting and stimulating that sitting through the same performance in the center of the orchestra just yards from the stage.

This has changed my mind about some of the issues around watching performances on DVD. Of course, there is always a special thrill to seeing live music and performance, and I, like many others, have always believed that a live performance in general is unquestionably superior to any kind of reproduction of that same event. But now I realize that in fact, there may be exceptions. Despite what some would have you believe, a significant part of the opera experience is visual. The static setting of the viewer's single visual field forces extreme importance on the overall tableau of the stage and set. In video, this is lost with a myriad of close-ups and follow shots. But in situations where the visuals are as weak as they are in this Puritani, this can be a distinct benefit.

I also got to thinking again about what a great job Mr. Gelb has been doing by injecting some life into the oftentimes stale atmosphere of the Met. He’s barely half-way through the season and I think in sheer terms of PR and opening up the institution, his first year has been a huge success. Now the question is, with all this great technology and access, will he have anything artistically worthwhile to show off? He certainly still has access to the world’s greatest singers and one of the world’s great orchestras. But with the sheer number of ponderous, boring, and woefully out-of-date productions the Met has come to rely on over the years, it will take far more than radio broadcasts and big screen projections to bring some much needed vitality and fresh air to that institution. The early indicators are that he is moving in the direction of increasing the house's artistic relevance - co-productions, works new to the Met's repertoire, and inclusion of designers from other parts of the theater world are all excellent ideas. Here is wishing him well.

NY Wrap-Up: Diva Moments

January 02, 2007

Raúl Esparza and cast in Company
Photo: Sandy Underwood 2006
Of course New York is always full of divas and this winter has been marked with star turns by many of them in productions that may or may not have survived otherwise. I’ve already commented on Anna Netrebko at the Metropolitan Opera and Christine Ebersole in Grey Gardens, but this recent trip had a number of other interesting individual standouts as well. The first is Raùl Esparza in the current John Doyle-directed revival of Company. Doyle has recycled the same conceit that drove last year’s magnificent revival of Sweeny Todd where the ensemble acts as both cast and orchestra simultaneously. Here the effect is not as great. Where the sometimes meager and off-kilter sound of the players heightened the creepy factor in Todd, in Company it often sounds under-rehearsed at points where it should be cool and cosmopolitan. But Esparza is the real centerpiece here in what is typically an ensemble piece. His Bobby has only two real numbers although he is on-stage the whole time, but he can more than deliver “Being Alive” and “Marry Me a Little.” He keeps this revival in tact by neither being too much of a dunderhead or a playboy but still maintaining a touch of urbane sophistication. The piece still seems out of date, but with Esparza it is easier than usual to overlook the seeming anachronisms.

On New Year’s Eve, I got to see the return of Bebe Neuwirth to the regular cast of Chicago in the role she didn’t make famous, Roxie. I love Neuwirth. Her Weill interpretations in Here Lies Jenny were spectacular as was her dancing. She is a natural in this kind of material and her return, even in the chirpier role of Roxie, was superior. Her timing is flawless. The problem is that the now 10-year-old production is showing its age. The cast seemed sloppy and uncoordinated throughout and they seemed overwhelmed by the clearly more adroit and commanding Neuwirth. Of course the atrocious Huey Lewis, whose contract apparently doesn’t run out until mid-January, didn’t help matters. He is neither suave nor charming and he cannot sing to save his life. He couldn’t in the 80s and I am here to report that nothing has changed. Neuwirth is now singing opposite another Broadway veteran Brenda Braxton in the role of Velma. Braxton is good, but at times seemed stiff and it appeared that not all the kinks had been worked out yet in the numbers she and Neuwirth share. Still, it was a chance to see a great performer in a production she helped make famous even if it was in a different way.

Audra McDonald
Photo: Hiroyuki Ito/NYT 2006
Later that same evening, I celebrated the New Year uptown at Lincoln Center with Audra McDonald and the New York Philharmonic. The program consisted mostly of songs written for films and most of those from movie musicals of the 40s and 50s. My love for Ms. McDonald is no secret (I’m seeing her again on Friday on her mini-tour with Barbara Cook in Orange County), and this evening she was in great form. I think she comes off better in a more intimate setting, especially with ballads and quieter numbers, but nonetheless, she sounded great.

It was a great trip to end a pretty good year music and theater-wise. It’s sad though that the two operas at the Metropolitan were weaker than virtually anything we saw on Broadway. An unusual occurrence, mind you, but in some ways the very weaknesses and strengths of these different productions suggests one thing – Mr. Gelb is making some very wise decisions. For now, its back to my sunny wonderful home and more from way out west.

How do you measure a year?

January 01, 2007

I love lists and although I know that the whole “top ten” phenomenon really means nothing, I can’t let go. So now that 2006 is actually over, I've put together my list of favorite performances I attended this year. Just for reference on the denominator, I attended 212 performing arts events this year comprised of the following:

50 individual opera performances*
66 “classical” or “art music” concerts
81 non-opera theatrical events including 16 “musicals”
9 non-classical music concerts, and
6 events that were primarily dance, comedy or something else.

While there were a few dogs, the number of really enjoyable evenings and afternoons far outweighed them. Here are the best with links to those items I've written about previously:

Cast of Platée
Photo: Opéra National de Paris 2006
1. Platée. Rameau. Opera National de Paris – Palais Garnier. I know that this 3rd revival of Laurent Pelly’s production is old news. It’s even out on DVD already. But guess what, I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed anything so much. It was beautiful, funny, and stylish - seemingly effortless. Marc Minkowski was brilliant. Mireille Delunsch is a national treasure. There are images I’ll never forget- of fire raining from the heavens and a table of thousands of wine glasses to name two. Director Laurent Pelly also deserves mention for his whimsical design of Massenet’s Cendrillon at Santa Fe Opera. Dresses worn either way up, a carriage made of words, enormous red books of fairy tales, and Joyce DiDonato in a dream of love on the rooftops of Paris – how can anyone not fall for this?

2. The Peony Pavilion. Tang Xianzu. The Suzhou Kun Opera Theater of Jiangsu Province at UCLA Royce Hall. It’s been done in more complete versions in the past but this nine-hour abridgement focusing on the young lover’s plot lines was bewitching. I found it incredibly rewarding to see something so rarely performed that is not only older than nearly all Western opera but calls into question many of its basic tenets. Plus, while doing this, it manages to charm and beguile.

Stephen Milling as Tsargo and Patricia Bardon as Adriana Mater
Photo: Ruth Walz/Opéra National de Paris 2006
3. Adriana Mater. Kaija Saariaho. Opera National de Paris – Bastille. The French press was rough on it, but the music alone makes it the third operatic masterpiece of the 21st century. (Just after L’amour de loin, and Adams’ Doctor Atomic) What nobody says about the opera is that the real reason people don’t like it is that it’s optimistic about the future of humanity – a sentiment that is hard to swallow in fashionable circles these days and particularly hard in a non-comic opera.

Cast of The Tempsest
Photo: Ken Howard 2006
4. The Tempest. Thomas Adès. Santa Fe Opera A magnificent American debut in Santa Fe and the crowning jewel of a varied and fantastic slate of programming from Adès here in the West with everything from Asyla and the violin concerto to chamber works performed with the LA Phil. The image of drenched passengers crawling out of a flooded pit onto the island is a keeper as is the wonderful score. Here's hoping that we see more music from here soon.

5. Minimalist Jukebox. LA Philharmonic. A magnificent and varied retrospective of music from Reich, Andriessen, Riley, Pärt, Glass, and Adams. There are treasures here too numerous to mention: the American debut of Christina Zavalloni, a maximal In C, a live performance of Tabula Rasa, and stirring selections form Akhnaten. All this and Salonen closes the 05/06 season with Ligeti’s Requiem, his own Wing on Wing, and his LA calling card, Le Sacre du Printemps. The LA Phil continues to be America’s preeminent purveyors of 20th and 21st century music.

6. L’incoronazione di Poppea. Monteverdi. LA Opera. Graham, Daniels, von Stade, and Harry Bicket made this the crowning achievement of an already amazing Summer and Fall for our local company that included a brand new Don Carlo, 2 Traviatas (one new, and one old with Fleming), a new sold-out Manon with Villazón and Netrebko, and Grendel, a world premiere that ended up making money after potential disaster. All this and our new music director James Conlon made it a very good year for opera on the West coast.

Simon Keenlyside as Pèleas and Angelika Kirchschlager as Mèlisande
at the Salzburg Easter Festival
Photo: Bernd Uhlig 2006
7. Pèleas et Mélisande. Debussy. Berlin Philharmonic with Simon Rattle. Away from the circus costumes of the Salzburg Easter Festival production, Rattle produced an exceptional concert performance in Berlin with the same all star team of Angelika Kirchschlager, Simon Keenlyside, and Laurent Naori. If I have to keep traveling to Europe to see Keenlyside, so be it. Totally engrossing.

Anna Netrebko as Manon and Rolando Villazón as Des Grieux
Photo: Robert Millard/LA Opera 2006
8. Netrebko. Everywhere. While she may not be the next Joan Sutherland, two things are true – she can sing and she can act - talents that many of her peers lack in that combination. People love to see her perform as do I. My three exposures to her , this year, as Dorina in the Met’s Don Pasquale, Manon in LA Opera’s production and Elvira Walton in the Met’s revival of I Puritani, were all highlights.

9. Two Southern California opera concert performances of 21st century operas – Barry’s The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit with the LA Philharmonic under Thomas Adès and Golijov’s Ainadamar with Dawn Upshaw under the leadership of Robert Spano with the Atlanta Symphony at the 2006 Ojai festival. Grendel wasn’t the only new opera in town this year and these two excellent performances gave new music fans even more to chew on.

10. Gergiev. Everywhere.
Classical music’s iron man certainly was everywhere and while he may not be the best at everything, he is better than most much of the time. My notable moments with the Maestro included a heart-wrenching performance of Shostakovich’s First and Fourteenth Symphonies with the LSO at the Barbican and the expansive Marinsky Festival in Orange County with a top notch Boris Gudonov and a not-entirely shabby Ring cycle.

Since I favor music performances, I’ll follow this post with a list specifically about non-opera theater events later. Happy New Year everyone.

*Note: The 50 individual opera performances included 4 that were either concerts or “semi-staged.” I attended the Marinsky Theater’s touring production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle as well as three evenings worth of the Suzhou Kun Opera Theater’s touring production of The Peony Pavilion and I have counted each of these evenings as an individual performance. Of the rest, I saw four specific productions twice, all here in LA: Elliot Goldenthal’s Grendel, Manon with Netrebko and Villazon, Don Carlo, and L’incoronazione di Poppea. There were two operas I saw in two different productions, Massenet’s Manon(at the Met and in LA) and Verdi’s La Traviata (what else? And both in LA?!). Yes, for those of you keeping score, I have sat through Manon three times this year alone. I like French opera. Deal with it.


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