Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Mark Robson and the blustery day

March 27, 2007

One of the many charms of living here at the end of the world is the constant nagging feeling one has that the world may actually be about to end. Earthquakes, mudslides, ash raining from the sky – we’ve got it all out here in Los Angeles. What is especially great though is the way that even the most mundane things can bring the city to a seeming halt. Today was one of those days in that we faced two major destabilizing events: wind and rain. Suddenly the air is filled with mini-dust storms, large flying palm fronds, and freeways slicker than any ice storm. Traffic grinds to a halt and there are sirens in the air at every turn.

Against this backdrop, a number of souls (including none other than Frank Gehry) braved what we call weather for the latest installment in the "piano spheres" concert series at Zipper Hall downtown. The evening featured a recital from local piano celebrity Mark Robson in a varied and surprisingly fun program which included Andriessen’s Trepidus, Feldman’s Last Pieces, Mauricio Kagel's MM51: Ein Stück Filmmusik für Klavier, Cage’s The Seasons, and four of Ligeti’s last piano Etudes. Robson's virtuosity was on display and one really got the sense of his love for this music. This was particullarly true of the Kagel piece, which requires a fair amount of theatricallity to pull off the hammy B-movie sense of forboding without seeming corny. Robson arrived on stage in a tuxedo with his shirt poking through his fly and then sat down to distractedly rearrange and study his music. The score calls for a metronome to play throughout the piece which becomes increasingly humorous as it veers away from its own regular rhythm stopping and starting as if to torment the player. Later, Robson laughs like some villan as the music spins out of control and for a moment the mock tension created in what seems like music from a cliché film score becomes real. Much like the weather outside, the most mundane things can sometimes be the most dramatic. The program ended appropriately with the Ligeti and Á bout de souffle seemed to perfectly capture the spirit of the day.

Into the Night

March 25, 2007

Christopher Rouse, Grant Gershon, Sanford Sylvan
LAMC and orchestra. Photo: mine

I waked, she fled, and day brought back my night.
- John Milton, Sonnet XXIII

The Los Angeles Master Chorale has a taste for premieres, and tonight they got a doozy - the world premiere of Christopher Rouse’s Requiem. Requia are not usually my favorite genre of music mostly because no matter how dark they get, they never seem to be quite dark enough for my taste. There’s always too much piety and light mixed in, overcompensating for the drama of the Deus Irae. It appears however that Rouse may have written the Requiem I have been waiting for. It’s dark. Very dark. Shostakovich’s 14th “symphony” dark.

This is not your parent’s heroic, noble, resting-in-peace requiem, but a mournful, pleading, day-of-reckoning requiem. In some part this may be due to the emphasis on what the composer refers to as an“everyman” approach to the text. In the Britten War Requiem manner, Rouse has set both the latin text (which he takes from the Berlioz adaptation) and adds a number of poems from Michelangelo, Ben Johnson, John Milton, Siegfried Sassoon, and Seamus Heaney. All of these poems were first person accounts or reflections on the death of a close loved one and were set as baritone solos. Sanford Sylvan imbued these stories of lost sons, fathers, wives, and brothers with such pain that I was tearful on more than one occasion. In fact the piece opens with his acappella performance of Heaney’s Mid-Term Break where a young man recounts coming home for his younger brother’s funeral. The net affect of these poem settings is to keep bringing the work back to stories of personal loss. Because this keeps the work grounded in the common human experience of loss, it simultaneously makes the work in some ways the most worldly and secular requiem I’ve heard. While there are definitely moments of release and redemption at the end, in Rouse’s Requiem everybody hurts, sometimes.

And then there is the music itself. While the solos are often lyrical and lovely, they are a minority of the work and there are virtually no orchestral passages of any significant length. I estimate that well over 85% is very rigorous choral writing that seems fiendishly difficult. The LA Master Chorale is without a doubt the hero of this evening. The double chorus was on its feet virtually the whole time much of it singing and at times shouting over loud passages heavy with dramatic percussion. The work even had a body count with at least one pregnant chorus member having to take a seat about 40 minutes in for the remainder of the program. Even the quiet passages involved wide ranges and sometimes complicated rhythms and whispering. The Los Angeles Children’s Chorus was also involved and performed admirably.

This is challenging music that is not afraid not to be pretty about not so pretty topics and often has an otherworldly air. The program notes speak much of the influence of Berlioz and Britten on the work, but it would seem to me that the other name that the greater musical debt may be owed to is Gyorgy Ligeti. But here in the darkness, there are many beauties. This is a profound work that definitely deserves multiple hearing and certainly future performances. In Rouse’s Requiem we are united in our darkest moments, and while this may not be ultimately liberating, it is definitely a source of comfort.

The times they are a-changin'

March 24, 2007

My partner and I were at Amoeba Records on Sunset last night and purchased several items. Upon checking out, we handed our selections that included a DVD of Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio, a 3-disc retrospective of the compositions of Julius Eastman called Unjust Malaise, and the new disc from LCD Soundsystem among others to the cherubic faced young man at the register. However, of all of these items, the only one that apparently warranted any of his affable commentary was the DVD release of the first season’s episodes from the 70s television series Maude. Thus, without sarcasm or irony, we were greeted with the following,

“Wow. That woman looks like a young Bea Arthur.”

As the air returned to my lungs and my view of the ceiling came into focus, I could here my more composed partner explaining that in fact a “young” Bea Arthur might more resemble Lucy Brown, Yente the Matchmaker, or Vera Charles. Luckily, a wheelchair was available to help one of such advanced age as myself to the car.

Crowd Pleasers

March 21, 2007

The LA Philharmonic and LA Opera were operating from the same game plan this week as they planned shows with big stars and crowd-pleasing fare in an effort to get the bodies in the seats. And filled seats were certainly what they got, though the end results unsurprisingly were far more varied. LA Opera sponsored a recital with Angela Gheorghiu on Saturday in a program that could scarcely be less imaginative – French stuff she’s recorded, Verdi, Puccini, blah, blah, blah. Now, I know there are a lot of Gheorghiu-haters out there these days, but I am not one of them. She rocks. And while this selection of arias performed with the assistance of Eugene Kohn and the LA Opera orchestra came off as essentially a big commercial for her recordings, there were more than a few moments of brilliance as the dark-edge of her voice had its way with “Adieu, Notre petite table” and “Pace, pace, mio dio”. She does lose power in the middle range, but it’s not the biggest issue. I think my bigger complaint is around how telegraphed and choreographed the whole evening was. All evidence of spontaneity or real connection with the audience seemed lost amid the desire to sell, sell, sell. It was not unlike seeing Barbara Streisand perform except without all the heartwarming 60s nostalgia.

Of course these concerns seem minor quibbles compared to the “Baroque Variations” program the LA Phil hosted last night with Joshua Bell and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. The program included Vivaldi’s “four seasons” concertos (which frankly just seems like pandering to me) and the incomparable "Baroque" stylings of Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir d'un lieu cher and Serenade for Strings. I suppose the performance was really OK, but I just can’t get past Bell. With each viewing, I am more and more struck how his playing can be both histrionic and soulless at the same time. Perhaps all that “Passion” for the violin sometimes clouds his judgment. The seats were full however, so here’s hoping the Phil and LAO put the funds to good use.

Come Monday

March 20, 2007

In general, concert programs follow certain conventions. Symphonic concerts rely upon the classical and romantic repertoire, as well as that of the “classical modern.” Here and there, a contemporary work will be incorporated. Baroque musicians stay in the 17th and early 18th century. New and contemporary music mostly has its own performing forums. Thus we have not only the “well-known” divide between “Serious Music” and “Light Music” according to the European tradition; there are also divisions within the practice of European art music.

Must this be? There is no convincing reason that the public prefers this state of affairs. But can we be sure? In earlier times music lovers were more open. One was curious and waited for something new, but naturally one also wanted something well-known, something familiar that offered great value.

-Dieter Rexroth for Kent Nagano

This extended quote comes from the concert notes to last night’s installment of the illustrious Monday Evening Concerts, now revived and operating in the Zipper Concert Hall in downtown LA. As with the other programs this year, this one was “curated” by an artist with important local ties, in this case the recent LA Opera music director Kent Nagano. The program, entitled “Bach and Music of Today”, was designed to suggest influence and relationships between the work of J.S. Bach and contemporary composers. This, in and of itself, is not a radical idea. The program notes themselves suggest ways in which compositions from the standard repertoire are often juxtaposed with newer pieces for just such a purpose – a strategy very familiar with audiences of the LA Philharmonic and its heroic leadership under Esa-Pekka Salonen. But, I would argue, last night’s program was both brilliant and sly in suggesting something much greater. I would suggest that this not always musically stimulating evening, also implied that modern music in fact influences the way we hear and interpret Bach’s music itself.

The program began with two preludes and fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One that, like all the solo piano works on the program, was performed by Ichiro Nodaira. Nodaira was ringmaster for all of the evening’s performances given that he also conducted all of the small ensembles on the program including the U.S. Premiere of his own piece Texture du Délire I. His steady hand and excellent playing were key to this evenings success. Following the introductory pieces were two works: George Benjamin’s Viola, Viola and Unsud Chin’s Fantasie Mécanique. These works were presented here in the more traditional way modern and repertoire pieces are juxtaposed: the modern pieces here demonstrating responses to techniques and structures in Bach’s work. The Chin piece was especially mesmerizing with its mix of percussion, trumpet, and trombone. (It also builds my excitement for seeing her Alice in Wonderland this summer.)

Then things began to change. Nodaira performed Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue a piece where, in contrast to the prior preludes and fugues, Bach sounds suddenly as if he is becoming slightly unhinged. The rules and structure begin to loosen and all appears to not necessarily be in the right place. The response to this piece included Kurt Rohde’s Double Trouble a sort of concerto for two violas which wasn’t particularly overwhelming and Nodaira’s piece. Texture had a sort of otherworldliness as its small group of flute, clarinet, cello, and violin were driven by three keyboards, two of which were electronic. Both of these works ostensibly deal with madness, and reinforced the notion of loosening or letting go of structure or an identity. Then came the big finale, and perhaps the most interesting statement. The program concluded with Ferruccio Busoni’s transcription of the Chaconne from the D minor Partita for solo violin. Busoni rewrites and reworks Bach into what sounds like a romantic piano piece in some ways unrelated to the source material. Here, Bach is no longer just Bach, but something else. Here it becomes a product of the time in which it is heard (i.e. Bussoni's time), not just a product of the time in which it was actually written. In some ways this is the most radical gesture: “Bach and Music of Today” is not just about the influence of the Master on today’s music. This program implies on some level that our understanding of Bach is always predicated on the reciprocal relationship, contemporary music’s influence on our hearing of Bach.

Of course this is just an initial thought. Even though some of the performances last night weren't especially inspired, the overall program seemed to me to be a twist on a relatively common program theme.


March 18, 2007

With spring arriving this week, it’s time to start finalizing the opera travel plans for summer. In addition to Santa Fe and San Francisco (where I am especially excited about the Isokoski/DiDonato/Miah Persson Der Rosenkavalier), I will be heading over to Eurpoe. My choices this year include Kata Kabanova at Covent Garden under Sir Charles Mackerras, Dawn Upshaw (hopefully and finally) in Saariaho’s La Passion de Simone at the Barbican and a week in Munich. Why Munich you may ask. Well among other reasons, because I LOVE EUROTRASH! Yes you heard it. Cocaine sniffing princes? great. Naked Tosca? you bet. Apes? Bring It On! During the festival we will see the world premiere of Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland, as well as a return of the William Friedkin Salome (hopefully with breast-licking intact), the house’s new Kovanshchina, and their Christof Loy productions of Roberto Devereux and Alcina. I can’t wait.

Why do I love “eurotrash” productions? Because I think they build on the actual tradition of opera over the last 400 years. If not being adverse to a little shock value was good enough for Mozart, I can’t see the harm here. Plus where does the whole use of the stupid term “eurotrash” come from anyway? I’ve heard it used twice this week alone. First in some of the blog commentary on the Met’s new Die Ägyptische Helena and secondly at a focus group I attended this week for the LA Opera. There, an older woman with a clear and heavy Eastern European accent expressed her rage over two recent local “eurotrash” [sic] productions directed by Robert Wilson: Madame Butterfly and Parsifal. The irony here is too thick and multi-faceted to even begin to comprehend. Apparently many former Europeans, like most Americans, aren’t sure where Texas is either.

I’ve always found the use of the term “eurotrash” as a pejorative when directed at opera productions, particularly by Americans, highly ironic. What exactly is the criticism here? American opera-lovers who critique an example of the most European of art forms that has been largely supported by the idle rich with more money than taste for over four centuries seem to have missed the point. Opera itself seems to me to be “eurotrash” by definition. As usual, the criticism says more about the critic than the object of the criticism. In reality, Americans criticizing an opera production as being “eurotrash” are essentially expressing their own discomfort with the idea that the picture-postcard romantic tourist Europe of their imagination may not in fact be one that anyone lives in now or has even lived in. As for those who want Tosca to look like Tosca: apparently some Americans just aren’t happy unless they can smell the decay and rot of others’ civilizations.

In any event, it should be a fun summer. All this and Santa Fe which will include a chance to revisit Laurent Pelly’s production of Platée is more than enough for me. See you around.

Old Masters

March 17, 2007

Two recitals in LA this week were reminders of the benefits of age, even though they may not necessarily be the same ones for all people. Last night REDCAT hosted a recital from 67 year-old cellist Rohan de Saram, formerly of the Arditti Quartet. The program concentrated on contemporary works for solo cello he has championed including Berio’s Sequenza XIV (2002) composed specifically for de Saram and one of the last of the sequenzas Berio completed. The program also featured Elliott Carter’s Figment (1994) and Figment No.2 (2001), Xenakis’ Kottos (1977), and Roger Reynolds’ Focus a beam, emptied of thinking, outward…. This program of difficult music was enthralling largely due to de Saram’s unparalleled technique. Every note seemed assured and rooted in is exact place in pieces where precision is a necessary but dangerously elusive quality. The Kandyan drum-inspired rhythms of the sequenza were stirring and de Saram expertly removed any sense of kitsch from Kottos. Of course there is the matter of the Reyonlds’ piece and I must admit after several exposures, I just can’t seem to wrap my head around his music. But if all of this wasn’t enough, de Saram performed an encore before the intermission of the third movement from Kodaly’s Cello Sonata. It’s not often that the encore is truly a showstopper above and beyond the preceding program’s actual content, but it was here. Considering how great the performance was overall that is saying a lot. The only real drawback to the evening was the second half in which de Saram participated in a performance of Schubert’s String Quintet. Here he was paired with CalArts students and faculty and the folly of youth came roaring to life. Pitchy and uncoordinated, the performance of the group seemed painful compared to the mastery of the first half-of the evening. In the end, it was a reminder of the importance and brilliance of technique won over the years, qualities that de Saram has in abundance.

Another artist with an abundance of wisdom and legendary talent, Alfred Brendel, returned to the Walt Disney Concert Hall on Tuesday for the polar opposite of a program that included piano sonatas from Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, and two Schubert Impromptus. Here Brendel’s experience and wisdom shone through with readings that were technically marvelous, but were less about insight and precision, and more about feeling and lyricism. While not necessarily probing, insightful, or detailed, the performances here were amazing for their ability to imbue the works with a real sense of purpose and direction. This was about music being felt but not necessarily examined. This approach certainly has its own attributes and while the Schubert and Beethoven fared well, the Mozart seemed too heavy and somewhat thoughtless. Still, the reverant capacity crowd responded with justified great enthusiasm.


March 13, 2007

Howard Swain, Erik Lochtefeld, and Nancy Carlin
Photo: Katy Raddatz/SF Chrnoicle 2007

I was originally going to write a brilliant post about the Berkeley Rep’s recent production of Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman and how it demonstrates some of the basic tenets of Baudrillard’s philosophy. It occurred to me about halfway through however that it would be more of a term paper than a blog post and I’m a firm believer in not having to scroll down to read much of anything. So instead I've just decided to skip to the point on a number of recent thoughts. The Pillowman is fantastic and one of the most intellectually challenging new plays since I’ve seen since Albee’s The Goat. Let’s just leave it at that.

Plus not writing that post has left me time to think about some other bits and pieces. For instance, does America really need yet another pussycat doll? And is all this fuss an expansion on the gross number of dolls or was one of the old ones injured in some unspeakable mascara and or breast implant tragedy? You'd think all the potential viewers were too busy reading Seventeen or Maxim to care. That is what I get for turning on the television this month.

In real life, I saw Yundi Li play the Liszt first piano concerto and was duly impressed with his talent in something I consider a rather ho-hum piece of music. I’m not going to say anything about comparing him to other young famous Chinese pianists because frankly I think doing so at this point is simply racist. Slatkin conducted the program, which included Holst’s The Planets, and it was quite enjoyable. I’ve always considered him a rather meat and potatoes kind of conductor, which I guess is really unfair, but he got the job done here without any questions.

On Saturday, at the second performance of LA Opera’s Recovered Voices concert, James Conlon again addressed the audience before the show and spelled things out for the project a little more clearly – he wants LAO to produce one opera a year from one of the 25 or so composers he places in the group. Who knows if that will happen, but if it includes Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten I’ll be a happy clam. I got invited to another LAO focus group tomorrow and if it comes off, maybe I'll post about it.

Oh yeah, and while I’m spewing opinions, Center Theater Group announced the season for the Ahmanson this week and it appears Michael Ritchie has officially given up doing anything the least bit challenging. On offer – six musicals, virtually all touring productions: Avenue Q, The Drowsy Chaperone (again), A Chorus Line, The Color Purple, and just in case we haven’t suffered enough, My Fair Lady. Suddenly LA is the MUNY in Forest Park without the unbearable heat. I think Hollywood High School is putting on a more interesting season. Of course it’s not all bad news, we will get to see the John Doyle Sweeney Todd with god-only-knows-who in it. Maybe I’m being unfair since the Mark Taper Forum will be closed all of next year and this season is probably a response to try putting on a larger number of shows in CTG’s two remaining spaces than they're used to handling. These Ahmanson productions all have relatively short runs and will come pre-assembled so as to allow some “Taper” productions in the Ahmanson space. Still, I’m not regretting dropping that subscription awhile back.

Guess I’ll stop now that I’ve finished purging.

If you want to, you can rhyme it with bazooka..

March 10, 2007

Carmen Miranda
Photo: 20th Century Fox Studios

Originally, I was going to write a post about last Thursday’s Denyce Graves recital at Royce Hall. I was going to say something to the effect of how the experience was like visiting your childhood hometown years later to find the overwhelming sense of loving nostalgia mixed with the sad realization that everything has changed and not for the better. But I had a much more exciting experience last night that I’ve decided would be more worthy of comment.

Photo: 20th Century Fox Studios

A day I have waited for for many years finally arrived in the form of a DVD of one of my favorite, and I would argue one of the best, films long out-of-print. You can keep your Citizen Kane’s and your Wizard of Oz’ – I’ll take The Gang’s All Here any day of the week. For those of you unfortunate enough to not be acquainted with this legendary film, it’s a 1943 20th Century Fox musical that encapsulates everything one would expect and hope for of a film from this period. I have watched a VHS copy of this film recorded from an American Movie Classics (before they started to suck) broadcast sometime in the early 90s more times than I care to admit. To see it in a restored version in all its Technicolor glory was overwhelming. The Gang’s All Here has a dream cast: Alice Faye and Carmen Miranda play New York City nightclub stars. Faye’s Eadie Allen falls for soon-to-be-shipped-overseas Sergeant Andy Mason (played by James Ellison). However, when he returns home a hero, complications ensue when Eadie discovers her hero has another pre-war sweetheart. All of this is played for comic effect and played against a backdrop of the nightclub performers' putting on an out-of-town benefit to (what else?) sell war bonds to the upper crust in Westchester.

Carmen Miranda and Tony DeMarco
Photo: 20th Century Fox Studios

The charms of this film are almost too many to count. Directed by Busby Berkeley, it is filled with extravagant and outrageous production numbers including the big finale – an homage to the polka-dot. (“While the polka is passé, the polka-dot is here to stay…”) Alice Faye and Carmen Miranda were at an apex and for better and worse many of the images here are the ones North America will most remember Miranda for, including “The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat” and “Brazil”. Faye, who has always been underrated, shines. She may not have the most impressive pipes in the world, but she sells these songs and injects what could have been a rather static part with some real emotion.

Alice Faye
Photo: 20th Century Fox Studios

If this weren’t enough, the club is fortunate enough to have Benny Goodman’s band as its house orchestra and he also has two numbers including the fantastic “Paducah,” a song celebrating the Kentucky town that, once heard, will never leave your head. And did I mention Charlotte Greenwood and Edward Everett Horton? Two class A performances from genius comic Hollywood character actors.

Charlotte Greenwood and Edward Everett Horton
Photo: 20th Century Fox Studios

The film is sublime. On the one hand, it is an upbeat commercial that Hollywood made for the WWII effort complete with a war bonds pitch and a paean to the “good-neighbor policy.” On the other hand it is a hallucinatory LSD trip functioning on its own internal logic. It is both nostalgic and forward thinking and has surprisingly good music overall. Lucky for us, it is now available on DVD in both a single format and packaged with three other Alice Faye classics in a box set. Now’s your chance, get out and buy it.

In Recovery

March 07, 2007

Donnie Ray Albert, Tatiana Pavlovskaya, and Anthony Dean Griffey
Photo: Lori Shepler/LAT 2007
Just in case you thought Salonen and the LA Philharmonic had cornered the market on 20th century music performance in this town, tonight James Conlon and the LA Opera orchestra reminded everyone that two can play at that game. The event was the first of two concerts to start off Conlon's "Recovered Voices" project - a series of events designed to highlight works and artists suppressed by Hitler's Third Reich. This has long been a favorite period and topic for Conlon who has advocated for the works of Schulhoff, Zemlinsky, Ullmann, and others across the US and elsewhere for many years. LA Opera has provided a new forum and platform for him to rightfully explore some of the operatic works of the 25 or so composers who affected to greater and lesser extents by this suppression.

The concert to kick off these events was a grab bag designed to introduce local audiences not just to the topic, but to a number of works and authors that many regular local opera goers had likely never heard of. Conlon spoke passionately from the stage about these works and it's hard to resist his enthusiasm. The first half of the program was a medley of opera outtakes from six different composer: Schreker, Braunfels, Krenek, Ullmann, Schulhoff, and Korngold. These arias and orchestral passages from different operas were strung together into a single symphonic piece. While laking a narrative structure and knowingly and intentionally disjointed, this program rightfully highlighted a host of treasures performed by a number of performers currently appearing in LA Opera's Tannhäuser and Mahagonny productions. Despite the wildly varied tones and styles of the pieces, this segment worked quite well and featured a "staging" that augmented the soloists with video projections of the composers and various bucolic fields and other sundry romantic images. The orchestra, unfortunately was in the pit, not on the stage.

This arrangement became much more of a problem in the second half during a complete performance of Zeminsky's Eine florentinische Tragödie. Again the orchestra and Conlon's impassioned direction were the star, but all the audience was left with were three soloists on an empty stage with music stands and some not-so-clever Italian renaissance inspired Photoshop images. It got dull fast. Donnie Ray Albert, the baritone doing the heavylifting in the piece, was good but significantly underpowered overall. Tatianan Pavlovskaya, the soprano playing Bianca, fared a little better, but frankly didn't have much to do. Of course the Wilde text used for the libretto seems as unshocking today as, well, Salome (Both the play and the opera).

I guess the good news here is that while the evening itself was not overwhelming, musically there is a promise of great things to come from a music director who is clearly engaged about this project and about producing these works in LA.

In Bloom

March 03, 2007

Rusini Sidi, Eko Supriyanto, Astri Kusuma Wardani, Jessica Rivera, Russell Thomas
Photo: CAL Performances 2007

I am a great fan of John Adams’ music. I think Doctor Atomic is a masterpiece and I still cry at the end of El Niño. So it was with great interest and excitement that I traveled to San Francisco this weekend to see the US Premiere of his latest oratorio/operatic work, A Flowering Tree. With such high expectations, some disappointment of course is inevitable. While Tree isn’t as great as either of those two earlier works, it still has numerous charms and is often quite beautiful.

Adams and director Peter Sellars adapted the libretto from the poetry of A.R. Ramanujan and the story concerns a legend from Southern India about a young woman, Kumudha, with a magical power to transform herself into a flowering tree. A young prince falls in love with her, but they are separated when his sister and her friends compel her to perform her transformation and break off her branches. She is unable to return to human form and is ostracized as a monstrosity. In the end, she is reunited with her prince who saves her by mending her branches and helping her return to human form.

Tree was inspired by Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte as part of Vienna’s New Crowned Hope festival last year, which Mr. Sellars curated. Sellars hoped that the major works in the festival would reference the three major woks Mozart worked on in the last year of his life and Adams chose to Mozarts magical opera for inspiration. Both works are purportedly written in a straight-forward and stripped down style emphasizing magical elements and simple human joys. Sellars made a point of trying to sell Tree as a plea for peace and our common humanity during “difficult times.” This is a noble sentiment. But while there are many wonderful things in the opera, this interpretation may be a bit of an overstatement. It is a beautiful love story and does deal with redemption. As to wheter or not this redemption applies to all humanity depends on one's perspective. Of course Sellars and Adams go for broke in incoporating a dizzying array of multicultural elements to carry this point across from the spanish-language chorus to south asian dances. But does all of this really add up? Even if it doesn't, it may be beautiful enough not to notice

The piece is two and a half hours with one intermission and involves three vocalists: a soprano, a tenor, and a bass..This weekend, as in the debut, these performers included Jessica Rivera as Kumudha, Russel Thomas as the Prince, and Eric Owens as the Storyteller who narrates much of the piece. Rivera also starred in Golijov’s Ainadamar as Nuria and here she was radiant and heart-breaking. Owens is also rapidly building a career in new music over the last few years as well including the roles of Gen. Leslie Owens in Doctor Atomic and the title role in Goldenthal’s Grendel. His tone grows richer and richer each time I’ve seen him and his performance was admirable. This semi-staged version also included three Javanese dancers who would act out events in parallel with the vocalists on stage. Surprisingly, this works very well and adds a great deal to the story, often amplifying the casts’ vocals and actions.

The music itself is clearly cut from the same cloth as Adams’ recent work including “shimmering” strings and big choruses. It is often pretty including the sequences where Kumudha transforms into a tree and the passages of expression of love between the two principals. But nothing in the work is quite as moving as the childrens’ chorus from El Niño or “Batter my heart” from Doctor Atomic. But all in all it is an a piece well worth future repeated listening.


Stéphane Denève
Photo: J Henry Fair
I decided to wait until Saturday to travel up to San Francisco for the US premiere of John Adams’ new opera/oratorio A Flowering Tree. Why? Because the LA Philharmonic was putting on one of those shows I didn’t want to miss. I’m glad I didn’t skip it because it was fantastic.

The guest conductor, Stéphane Denève, was another of those young guns that LA loves and loves to be seen loving. He has performed around the US: in Minnesota and with the WNO, and here he was paired with Piotr Anderszewski,
Piotr Anderszewski

another relatively young celebrity pianist, for Bartok’s 3rd Piano Concerto. Now there are two great tastes that go great together – Anderszewski who is both supremely talented and a hottie, and the Bartok piano concertos, which I absolutely love. Needless to say I was not disappointed. His playing was both cerebral and fun, and the second movement was a beautiful and delicate masterpiece.

Copyright: Warner Brothers

Denève didn’t let Anderszewski take all the glory, though. He led the Phil through the very well-tred Tchaikovsky’s 4th symphony. Here, though, it was very exciting and may be the best live performance of this work I’ve yet seen. Of course Denève does not have Anderszewski’s hotness factor given that he has saddled himself with a hairdo I had back in college. Of course it does have a touch of that Bugs Bunny/Leopold Stokowski factor. Denève is coming back next year as well, and I look forward to getting to bask in his talent once again then.


Love for Sale

March 01, 2007

I knew a girl named Nikki...
Photo: Robert Millard 2007

Perhaps the only thing less erotic than watching people have real sex on stage is watching them have simulated sex on stage. Or at least it felt like that last night in the opening minutes of LA Opera’s new production of Tannhäuser, directed by Ian Judge. For Judge, Venusberg was sort of a politically correct red-light district where a number of hardbody men and women were recruited to cavort bare-chested in red or nude color g-strings in various combinations. There was even a whip, but sorry folks, no animals. As squirm-inducing as this may have been, I can’t say that the gesture went totally unappreciated. It made sense and fit in the piece, so Judge gets an A for effort.

Judge is a bit of a house director, given that he is single-handedly responsible for a large number of LA Opera’s productions including their most recent Figaro, Tosca, Romeo et Juliet, and Don Carlo to name just a few. He knows how to fill the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage with sets that are both simple and eye-catching. Most of the time things work well, but sometimes they don’t. Overall, his Tannhäuser wasn’t so bad, although it certainly wasn’t his best. The design was equal parts Dan Flavin and Erte with a large, angled, black lacquer room, the two sides of which rested on angled rotating platforms allowing the sides of the room to be altered in different ways to represent Venusberg, the Wartburg Hall, or the outdoors. Corners were lit with a single long vertical neon bulb that would change colors back and forth from the lustful red to the redemptive green over the course of four hours. Costumes followed this overly simple color scheme with red, green, white, and lots and lots and lots of black. This may be the darkest Tannhäuser on record simply due to the totally black set and overall lack of lighting. The symbolism could have been a little more subtle, but again, it was nice that someone was actually thinking about the work itself in the production design.

This is what it sounds like when doves cry
Photo: Robert Millard 2007
This commentary sounds negative, but it isn’t intended to be. I actually liked the staging and feel it worked better as the opera went on. The performance itself was very good if not great. Conlon continues to wow local audiences in his first season that seems filled with endless surprises. He continues to marshal great performances from the LA Opera orchestra and this evening was no exception. The principals are two of my favorite Wagnerians: Peter Seiffert in the title role and Petra-Maria Schnitzer as Elisabeth. Seiffert started out a little wobbly but pulled out of it and was bright and heroic throughout Act II and III. I worry, though, that this is a part he has become too familiar with and has gotten sloppy in the acting department. Last night he seemed more a graduate of the Jim Rockford School of Dramatic Arts than the Peter Seiffert I’ve come to know and love. Schnitzer fared far better and impressed everyone with her assured touch. The supporting cast was serviceable across the board.

In the end, it is a show definitely worth a return visit. Provocative if not necessarily erotic, the production may owe something to the music videos of Prince, but it certainly isn't cookie cutter Wagner either which is a very good thing.

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