Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

A Series of Unfortunate Events

April 30, 2007

George Wendt and Richard Thomas
Photo: Joan Marcus/CTG 2007
With the LA Philharmonic in New York and LA Opera tickets for next week's performances, this was the perfect weekend to catch up on some of the productions in Southern California’s bigger theaters. Too bad what was on offer was far from perfect. On Friday, I caught the Roundabout Theater Company’s touring production of Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men currently at the Ahmanson Theater. I’ve never seen this play outside of the famous movie adaptation, so with deep discount subscriber add-on tickets, I figured what was there to lose. As fate would have it, the answer to that question was about ninety minutes, the running time of this breakneck exercise in speed acting. Delivering the lines that quickly almost eliminated any realism to the proceedings, but as time passed, I began to realize this may have been an intentional choice on the part of director Scott Ellis as a last ditch effort to somehow quell the overacting of Richard Thomas who had elected to eschew subtlety for volume and histrionics. George Wendt was in this too as the jury foreman, but it was unclear what function he served other than to entertain the segment of the audience who likes to hear themselves clap when they recognize someone from TV in their midst. The play itself is very interesting and holds up surprisingly well, all considering. The only exception though is the play’s over-reliance on an outmoded version of Freudian psychology to inform the play's characters. There were some thrills here if admittedly not big ones.

Charlie Robinson
Photo: Henry Di Rocco/SCR 2007
I thought this would be the low point of the weekend, but little did I know what was in store in Orange County at the South Coast Repertory on Sunday. SCR has a great reputation for staging new works by young American playwrights, and spring usually brings one or two world premieres. The promise of this spring however turned out to be rather hollow. I took in a double header (as is my wont), which started with Julie Marie Myatt’s My Wandering Boy, best described as the “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” version of Waiting for Godot. Actually the best thing that can be said about this experience is that it reminded me of how liberating it can be to walk out of something awful at intermission. It is quite sad that talents like those of director Bill Rauch and star Charlie Robinson (who was incredible in the Odyssey Theater’s recent production of Fences) are wasted in this mess. A local character actor who deserves a much bigger career and much more notoriety, Robinson was no match for a play devoid of narrative, tension, dramatic development, linguistic beauty, or wit.

John Sloan and Shannon Cochran
Photo: Henry DiRocco/SCR 2007
After this teeth-grindingly bad afternoon I figured how bad could that evening’s performance of David Wiener’s new work System Wonderland be? Well, I didn’t walk out of this one. But looking back on it now, maybe I should have. This almost entirely humorless send up of the dark-underside of Hollywood suffers greatly from absolutely plodding pacing and a lack of insight into its topic matter. The ersatz vision of Hollywood Wiener dreams up is about as embarrassingly fake as the Oscar on the mantle piece of the play’s protagonist. (What a lovely touch! His Grandmother must be so proud.) The work is set in some mythical time after the widespread use of word-processing software but before the advent of DVDs when stars sat around reliving their past via film projectors set up permanently in the middle of their living rooms. At times the piece seems to want to have a noir Sunset Boulevard feel but can’t seem to commit to this idea any more than the idea of being a fiercely witty comedy. It’s not a good thing when a play begins to make you long for Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow, but there it was. New work always involves some risk; it's just too bad when none of those risks pay off.

More (of the same)

April 29, 2007

Cast of Suor Angelica
Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2007

I’ve been a bit neglectful in posting lately in part due to Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge but I'm back on the saddle this week. Saturday wrapped up my "East Coast" opera season with the Met’s HD broadcast of Il Trittico. Considering Jack O'Brien's mightily uninspired new staging of Puccini’s disjointed masterpiece(s), I was surprised how entertaining an afternoon it was. This was due largely to the impeccable vocal and acting talents of the casts including a wonderful Stephanie Blythe who made hay of the rather small and thankless parts she was left with in all three works. Of the leads, I was most taken with Barbara Frittoli whose Suor Angelica struck me as supremely tragic and brought tears to my eyes. Il Tabarro's grouping of Salvatore Licitra, Joan Pons, and Maria Guleghina worked well and I was surprised how authentically frightening Licitra looked playing dead as Michele's cloak is pulled back to reveal Luigi's dead body to Giorgetta. Massimo Giordano's Schicchi was sly and funny without too much mugging and the rest of the cast provided excellent support.

Suor Angleica was definitely the strongest link in this chain of unrelated operatic events with its blend of mysticism and tragedy. The final tableau of the dying Angelica prostrate as light returns to the courtyard accompanied by the ghost of her dead son was a real winner. Unfortunately, the bookends around this piece, while not awful, were certainly nothing special. Outside of a balcony set that drops from the ceiling as Buoso Donati's bedroom descends into the stage floor, there was little to look at in these static and boring sets. Probably most shocking though is how much the Met allegedly spent on something that is so large and detailed but ultimately bland and far from engaging. During the screening, much was made of how large and elaborate this staging was - even outsizing the legendary Zeffirelli Turandot production that followed Il Trittico on the Met stage Saturday evening. But to what end? Frankly, the Met could have probably spent half of what they did on these simultaneously fussy and bland sets and had a more minimal and direct staging with twice the visual impact. Here, less truly would have been more.

Speaking of making money....There has been a lot of whining in some quarters about how the Met's new General Manager Peter Gelb is only interested in the bottom line and how artistic values (particularly musical and vocal ones) are being sacrificed for a pretty face and the turning of a quick dollar. After having seen eight of the 06/07 seasons productions, not including the HD broadcast of It Trittico, I'd say that what little tinkering he has been able to do so far has been very good and if there are any concerns about what Mr. Gelb has done, it should be the fact that it doesn't go far enough. Well, at least not yet. Granted, he had little to do with the original planning of the season, ending in the next two weeks, but he is definitely headed in the right direction - bringing in fresh faces both on stage and off, offering more adventurous programming, and more aggressively marketing the company's product to the rest of the nation and the world. He is opening the house up and trying to breath some life into things by actually reminding everyone that no matter how important the music is, opera is still in large part theater. Good for you, Mr. Gelb. Keep up the good work and here's my vote of confidence - for next year I've become a Patron.


April 22, 2007

Salonen, Mullova, and the LA Phil
Photo: mine 2007
The LA Philharmonic and Esa-Pekka Salonen took a detour of sorts this weekend in the midst of their Tristan shows for some more traditional orchestral concert programming. Since our local ensemble will be in New York for the next couple of weeks, it was the time for a little teaser. Namely, a program featuring the Beethoven violin concerto and Sibelius' Lemminkäinen Suite. Sibelius will figure prominently into several programs opening up the Philharmonic's 07/08 season in October as Salonen will lead the group in performance of all 7 symphonies and a handful of other pieces as well. In case anyone had forgotten why this is exciting news, our illustrious maestro provided a distinct reminder of his prowess in conducting Sibelius' work. Lean and mean with incredible attention to detail, Salonen & Co. wowed the Saturday audience with a response almost as enthusiastic as the Tristan performances and that is saying a lot.

Before we got to the ringing nordic beauty of the Sibelius though, there was the matter of the Beethoven. It was fine but not much more. The soloist was Viktoria Mullova who seemed like she wasn't completely there. I though her attack was sloppy, but I've heard much worse. The orchestra however performed admirably and it was a wonderful afternoon all around.

Southern Comfort

April 20, 2007

William Burden as Nemorino and Olga Makarina as Adina
Photo: Opera Pacific 2007

I’m not a frequent visitor to productions put on by Opera Pacific, and perhaps I should be. But Orange County is a bit of a drive for another Boheme or Carmen so I pick and choose. This week, however, after a whole lot of Wagner, I was in the mood for a change of pace and their current L’elisir d’Amore sounded like just the thing. And it was. I find that Donizetti’s comic masterpiece is just as entertaining as Barbiere and it’s too bad it doesn’t have a broader reputation in and of itself. (Though granted it is far from being a rarity.) The production here was Jonathan Miller’s, borrowed from New York City Opera, which premiered last fall. It’s updated to a diner in 50s West Texas, a transposition that works surprisingly well. The setting provides a believable milieu for innocent big-hearted Nemorino and his coquettish paramour Adina that is simple, witty, and eye catching.

But no opera lives on charm alone and the selling point this evening was tenor William Burden. He was excellent here, giving one of those performances that makes you wonder why he isn’t a bigger name. Handsome, with a beautiful tone and strong acting chops, he lit up the stage and deservedly garnered the biggest response from a rather dead and not near capacity audience. It would especially be nice to see him in a cast and with an orchestra that better rise up to his level. Not that Olga Makarina’s Adina was bad, it was completely serviceable. Just not any more than that. Perhaps I’m being unfair in that part of my problem was her costume and in particular she was saddled with one of the worst wigs on stage. It seems to me that wigs may be the one piece of wardrobe that can be the most destructive in an opera. Here, the intended effect was clearly supposed to be blond bombshell. But instead of Marilyn Monroe, she ended up being a little too Shelly Winters instead. I just kept wondering why cute young Nemorino was so enraptured with the most matronly of all the females in town. Perhaps because she owns her own business? (In this staging, Adina’s Diner.) The orchestra wasn’t bad; though, I felt that John DeMain did let things drag at times, and that he and the production's Dulcamara, Steven Condy, were clearly out of sync on several occasions.

But all of these points are easily forgiven in a work as fun and breezy as this warm and witty production. Sometimes traveling South can be worth the trip. Here’s hoping LA Opera can pull off as successful an evening with their upcoming English-language Die lustige Witwe next week.


April 17, 2007

Not that anyone’s counting…but did anyone else happen to notice that all three of the finalists for this year’s Pulitzer Prize in criticism write for LA publications about this great city. The winner was LA Weekly’s food critic Jonathan Gold who beat out two of the Los Angeles Times’ best - art and architecture critic Christopher Knight and the always remarkable and very readable classical music critic Mark Swed. Congratulations to all three. Apparently while those outside LA may still debate the existence of the city’s non-cinematic cultural life, there is little argument (at least among the Pulitzer committee) about the city’s ability to write about it.

And most of this from a paper repeatedly on the chopping block due to its lack of "national cache".

Great White North(ern Europe)

April 16, 2007

If I didn’t know how much Esa-Pekka Salonen loved this city and community I would think he was trying to rub salt in our wounds this week by going out of his way to highlight some of the things we will be missing in his absence as music director with the LA Phil. In between performances of the stupendous revival of “The Tristan Project” across the street, he "curated" a superlative program for the Monday Evening Concerts Series at Zipper Concert Hall tonight. He jokingly told the audience in brief pre-concert comments that while the composers he had invited weren’t necessarily young, they belonged to a group unusual here in LA – middle-aged Scandinavian composers. Specifically, the program contained two works from fellow Finnish composer Kimmo Hakola sandwiched between two others from Norwegian-born Rolf Wallin.

Rolf Wallin
Photo: Eli Berge
Wallin has made a name for himself by working with computer technology and mathematical approaches to composition. Heavily informed by European modernism, the two pieces here were wisely chosen representatives of his work. The concert opened with a piece for a small ensemble, The Age of Wire and String, a set of 8 miniatures with titles like “Dog, Mode of Heat Transfer in Barking” and “Food Costumes of Montana”. While not technologically innovative, the work was sly and under the direction of Magnus Martensson, played up to its witty best. The program closed with Lautleben, for solo voice with accompanying processed sounds and a video installation by Tone Myskja. Wallin has written works using balloons and “controller suits” but Lautleben takes a different approach. The piece is performed by Sidsel Endresen, a notable Norwegian vocal talent, who improvises a type of maniacal scatting in bursts over the top of a manipulated soundtrack of her own voice producing other sounds. All of this unusual vocalizing is accompanied by an abstract video installation that created sort of an ironic contrasting effect to the video accompaniment Bill Viola has developed for Wagner’s music just across the street. This music was certainly fun and engaging if not immediately memorable. Certainly worth another listen, though.

Kimmo Hakola
Photo: Saara Vuorjoki/Fimic 2006
In contrast, Kimmo Hakola, while not immune to the influence of European music of the last twenty years, is clearly more interested in more traditional forms not unlike what one might imagine a Scandinavian John Adams would be like. He had two works here – the Chamber Concerto for 5 strings, 4 winds, percussion and a piano; and Capriole, a duo for clarinet and cello. The five movements of the Concerto were both frenetic and lovely, and the group performing here was conducted by the composer himself. The piece ends with a rather majestic tone and was very well received by the audience. Capriole benefited from the virtuosic playing of Claire Bryant on cello and Carol McGonnell on clarinet who passed the alternately rhythmic and laconic melodies back and forth in what was surely the highlight of the evening.

In the end it was nice to have a visit from these two quite interesting composers even if it was a reminder that things may be getting a little less Nordic around here.

Second Coming

April 15, 2007

Tristan und Isolde, Act III
Photo:Kira Perov/Bill Viola
I get excited about music and theater and I have been known to cry on occasion if so moved. However, it is rare that I get breathless with anticipation or awe. However, this has been one of those weekends. The Los Angeles Philharmonic under Esa-Pekka Salonen performed the first three nights of “The Tristan Project” over Thursday, Friday, and Saturday this weekend and not only was I moved to tears, I was literally short of breath from excitement on several occasions throughout these evenings.

The project consists of a semi-staged version of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde that is accompanied by a giant video installation from renowned visual artist Bill Viola. The Project premiered in December 2004 and then as now, each act was presented on a separate evening paired with a piece of music inspired by Wagner’s masterpiece in some way. Last time out, these works included Saariaho’s Cinq Reflects from L'amour de loin, selections from Berg's Lyric Suite and Debussy’s suite from Péleas et Mélisande. This time all three acts were paired with a work from Debussy – Act I with Printemps, Act II with Trois Nocturnes , and Act III with La damoiselle élue. The program's staging was directed by Peter Sellars and starred Christine Brewer as Isolde reprising her role from 2004. Most of the rest of the cast was different this time with Alan Woodrow as Tristan, John Relyea as King Mark, Jukka Rasilainen as Kurnewal, and Anne Sofie von Otter as Bangäne.

Tristan und Isolde, Act III
Photo:Kira Perov/Bill Viola
In some ways, it is hard for me to write about this weekend’s performances. The 2004 shows were so affecting that they probably rank among the best things I have ever seen anywhere. I had never much cared for or understood Wagner prior to that time, but Salonen and particularly the video installation from Viola opened my eyes to something that had always been there, but I had never really seen. I finally got it. Revisiting these performances now invites comparisons with memories that may be blown totally out of proportion for me and that have taken on legendary qualities in my mind. The visuals are still stunning. Viola has created a system of visual leitmotifs for the opera. They do not correspond with Wagner's and are certainly not narrative. Tristan and Isolde are represented throughout by two pairs of actors. A pair of "earthly bodies" who represent the lovers as they are bound by duty, honor, and the light of day as well as a pair of "heavenly bodies" where they are free in the darkness of night and eventually death. These actors appear in a series of beautiful images that add further layers of meaning to Wagner's work. In Isolde's final aria, the "heavenly" Tristan's body appears on a bier at the bottom of a tall portrait-configured screen. Slowly, water begins to rise from him and eventually an upward moving torrent ensues as his body rises into the air and eventually off the screen. Immediately we see a dark pool of water from underneath and as Brewer hits the final high note, Isolde's body plunges into the water at the bottom of the screen, slowly rising through the pool until she passes off the screen with the final notes of music. The images are simply perfect.

Tristan und Isolde, Act III
Photo:Kira Perov/Bill Viola
That being said, it’s easy to see why the last three days didn’t feel exactly the same as 2004 did. But despite some significant differences, these shows were still amazing. Part of the reason why these performances are so strong is that Sellars has wisely used the Walt Disney Concert Hall as a player in the performance itself. Throughout all three nights, orchestra members and vocalists would often perform in various parts of the hall well off the main stage. The incredible acoustics would often leave the audience with a startling sensation that everything could be heard clearly even if you weren’t exactly sure where the music was coming from. Sellars had taken advantage of the setting last time out, but he was much more aggressive about it this time. At the end of Act I as all the lights in the house (the light of day) slowly come on to fill the hall and the trumpet fanfare announcing King Mark’s arrival blares from the balcony, the audience was treated to the site of Salonen conducting the horns while facing the audience and away from the orchestra at the climax of the Act. It was thrilling.

The vocal performances were all very strong, if not perfect. Christine Brewer’s Isolde is a force to be reckoned with. Despite a little pitchiness at the start of Act II and a loss of some power in the final "Liebestod" compared to my memory, she remains one of my favorites. Woodrow was a significant improvement on 2004's Tristan Clifton Forbis even if he was a little thin in the higher end of his range. Von Otter, Rasilainen, and Relyea were all magnificent. Despite these contributions, though, full credit must be given to Salonen. If there was any doubt about what LA will be missing in his departure in 2009, these evenings made it perfectly clear. The Philharmonic has never sounded better. Dudamel may be many great things including a great choice for this orchestra. But I will always miss the clarity, precision, and nordic cool that Salonen has brought to LA.

The next step in the project will be two performances of the complete opera in LA over the next two weeks followed by two more in early May at the Lincoln Center. My advice - this is not the performance you want to miss.

Tristan Project Night 2, or Why I Love Peter Sellars

April 14, 2007

The following is an excerpt from Peter Sellars synopsis of Act II of Tristan und Isolde taken from the program notes distributed during the LA Philharmonic’s current run of The Tristan Project.

Tristan und Isolde, Act II
Photo:Kira Perov/Bill Viola

The day breaks. Melot takes the direct path to political power, denouncing forbidden love with great moral indignation and calling for maximum penalties to be imposed on vulnerable people. King Mark knows this path offers neither restitution nor justice. As he pours out his heart we realize that the King is just a man, that he was Tristan’s first lover, and that the “love that dare not speak its name” is as strong as any other love. He is infinitely tender with the man who betrayed him. He is in hell. He hopes one day to know why.

Oh, yes he did. And he did it in a floral-patterned top. More later.

LA Philharmonic: Tristan Project Night 1

April 12, 2007

I'm too overwhelmed right now for details.

Tristan und Isolde, Act I
Photo:Kira Perov/Bill Viola

Just Brilliant. Absolutely f***ing brilliant.

My father knew Julius Eastman

April 11, 2007

Julius Eastman
Not really. It's just that there is a part of me that would like to imagine Eastman as a late 20th century Charles Ives – a multi-talented rebel with his own idiosyncratic approach to music. But, of course, there really aren’t many unusual parallels between the two, I think it just makes a good title. Eastman trained in NY and was active in the avant-garde music scene in the 70s and 80s. He died in 1990 in virtual obscurity following years that were marred by homelessness and drug abuse. However, he was known as a excellent vocalist and composer and had worked with such contemporaries as Morton Feldman and Peter Maxwell Davies. I'm not going to spend more time on Eastman's interesting history here given that Kyle Gann and Mary Jane Leach among others did know him and have written elsewhere about him.

For those worried that Salonen’s departure will mean less contemporary music in LA, tonight was a reminder that there are still plenty of other games in town. A sizable crowd (including a visiting Peter Sellars) came out to hear members of the California EAR Unit at the REDCAT downtown in a program that featured a performance of one of Eastman’s pieces for four pianos entitled Crazy N*****. (The *** are mine. Eastman had a penchant for politically provocative titles and while that is perfectly fine for him, publishing them in my blog is another matter.) The work builds on a minimalist tradition where chords and simple two-note structures are repeated over and over again with minor alterations over time. Not unlike Riley’s In C, sequences fade in and out as they replace one another over an ongoing basic pulsing rhythm. At just under 50 minutes the piece creates a hypnotic effect, similar to In C, with short small bursts of beauty and color that builds into a greater cacophony over time. In the end, the piece requires so many lines be played simultaneously that the four pianists must be augmented with an additional six performers to perform on the same the four pianos.

This performance by the four primary pianists Vicki Ray, Erika Duke-Kirkpatrick, Amy Knoles, and Dorothy Stone was a wonder. Crazy follows the tradition of most great minimalist music where the beauty comes not so much from a specific melody, but from an altered sense of time that arises in the course of hypnotic repetition with minor variation. It’s not unlike the films of Jacques Rivette and in many ways I love pieces like this for the same reason I love Celine et Julie Vont en Bateau. What initially seems ridiculously simple and banal slowly takes on a life of its own and develops its own internal logic. The joy is in the details of the mundane and the predictable, a lot like life itself. There is a great 3 CD set of Eastman's music available through New World Records called Unjust Malaise and the recording of his performance of Maxwell Davies' Eight Songs for a Mad King is available overseas. Check them out.

And so begins the era of good feeling

April 10, 2007

Just met the new boss...,
Photo: Al Seib / LAT 2007

In case you're keeping score, that's five articles in four days alone in the LA Times on the Dudamel appointment.

Oh, and in case you're wondering, I make a regular habit of ignoring Joshua Bell wherever he plays, be it in the subway, concert hall, or elsewhere.

Picking up the pieces

April 09, 2007

I’m still reeling from the whole shock of Salonen’s resignation and Dudamel’s appointment with the Philharmonic here in Los Angeles. Even though I can’t imagine too many better scenarios as I pointed out in my last post, I can’t help but still feel sad despite the inevitability of change. Another interesting piece appeared in today’s LA Times about how the orchestra members took the news. According to Diane Haithman’s piece, the orchestra found out about the details and Dudamel’s appointment following a rehearsal Saturday from Salonen and executive director Deborah Borda. The implication is that the selection was as much of a surprise to the Phil members as everyone else. The interviews conducted by Haithman also suggest that, despite the shock, many members are happy about the selection, given the inevitability of Salonen’s departure. Assuming this is a full and accurate report of a majority opinion, it stands in stark contrast to the grumblings and bad press generated out of Baltimore last year when some musicians there vocally complained about being frozen out of the selection process of the new BSO music director Marin Alsop. But things work differently here in LA, and flexibility and looking forward are at a premium. This point is also borne out in a piece in tomorrow's Times on Dudamel from Mark Swed. I feel some added sadness for nonsensical reasons in that I was still out of town in New York over the weekend when the story broke – like I had somehow betrayed my hometown. Of course this is silly, but that is how emotions are sometimes. Well, I guess I'll have to move on.

David Walker as Flavio and Kathryn Allyn as Teodata.
Photo: Carol Rosegg 2007

The final event of my New York trip was the New York City Opera’s revival of Handel’s Flavio. It was a nice counterpoint to the Met’s Giulio Cesare on Friday, in that while not as full of overall star power and stratospheric vocal talent, it was overall a more satisfying production. This is no surprise considering that NYCO has become America’s preeminent Handel house in the last several years and the company’s fresh and engaging approach to this Baroque gem is case in point. Baroque operas, including those of Handel can often present a special challenge to directors in that they involve not only a wide range of emotional content and variations in tone within a single work, but these changes often happen on a dime. The question is often how to either capture that inherent variety, or to recast the piece emphasizing certain aspects. Chas Rader-Shieber’s adaptation goes for the comedic aspects of the work and runs with them. Of course the production benefits greatly from the lightness in tone and the colorful and playful set design. This is also an important demonstration that all of a single directors productions may not be equal. Rader-Shieber was also responsible for NYCO's awful La donna del lago just days ago. But in Flavio everything worked just right. But there is a price to be paid for stylistic unity, and the problem here was obvious – the dramatic and tragic moments in the piece often seemed awkward and out of place as if they were afterthoughts. But I would rather have an afternoon of fun like this then sit through the Met's hodge-podge Cesare again.

The singing was very good throughout especially from David Walker as Flavio and Marguerite Krull as Emilia. Of course the real highlight for me was getting to see Gerald Thomson as Guido. Having seen Thompson in San Francisco both as Prince Go-Go in Ligeti’s La Grand Macabre and as Udolfo in Handel’s Rodelinda, I have become a big fan. Guido is a much bigger part than these and other assignments in San Francisco may have been, and admittedly he struggled more as the performance wore on with some loss in power. But despite being underpowered, he was otherwise fabulous and I look forward to hearing him again in other settings.

So in the end it was a pretty great weekend. The winner definitely was Deborah Voigt and Strauss' wonderful Die Ägyptische Helena in the Met's great new production. That evening alone was worth the trip. Next up, Tristan und Isolde.

The beginning of the end

April 08, 2007

Photo: Kasskara / DG 2007
At last the shoe has dropped. Mark Swed reports in today’s LA Times (and as Alex Ross has pointed out as well) that the LA Philharmonic will lose Esa-Pekka Salonen as music director at the end of the 2008-2009 season to be replaced by Gustavo Dudamel. As painful as this is for those of us in LA, it is not unexpected. Salonen has almost single-handedly made the LA Phil a world class organization and probably the best orchestra in America. He has championed new music, and the organization has benefited from his own interests and work as a composer. He marshaled the group through its transition into its beautiful new home at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. But all good things must come to an end, and Salonen has made no secret about his competing interests and work responsibilities. When he renewed his contract with the Philharmonic last year, it was with the stipulation that further extensions beyond 2009 would be on a year to year basis, signaling that the end was probably more nigh than not. He will be greatly missed here in LA despite the report of his continued residence in the city.

Of course, the savvy LA Phil board new that this would be big and difficult news when it hit and that given the ongoing searches by several other major American orchestras for music directors, it would be best to settle things behind closed doors before airing everything in the town-square. And who can blame them? Resolving the question before the debate has even begun also spares everyone the weirdness seen in such places as New York with everybody and their brother including Lorin Maazel advocating for their favorite successors like some Medieval royal court jockeying for position after the death of a monarch.

The Phil’s choice is Dudamel, which certainly keeps with the organization's tradition of betting on young hot shots. Of course there are pluses and minuses. Dudamel is definitely untried in a number of departments. I’ve seen him conduct twice – last season with the LA Phil (which I wrote about here) and in Berlin at the Staatsoper Unter der Linden under the direct observation and tutelage of Daniel Barenboin (see the same link for more details). Both performances were strong, but hardly evidence that he can maintain the commitment the organization has had to 20th century and contemporary work. Still, he is no slouch by any means. But it is also the risk of the unknown that brings change and if the organization is going to continue to be groundbreaking it cannot go the route of so many other orchestras in the US always relying on bringing over “European Masters” in their twilight years to dazzle and impress.

There is another benefit as well. As Swed rightly points out, Dudamel does have the opportunity to place greater emphasis on music from Latin and South America. The LA Phil and other arts organizations in the city have not always done the best job of recognizing the music and art from the non-European heritage of a majority of the people who live in this city. Maybe this will happen and maybe it won’t, but I’ll say this, I think the LA Phil has made a wise choice and it’s great that they’re continuing to take risks. It is what has made them what they are up till now and it is the only way to prevent stagnation.

Photo: Bill Viola, Tristan und Isolde, Act III
I know this is a long post, but let me add one more thing. This weekend will bring back the Philharmonic’s Tristan Project: a semi-staged performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde with Salonen, Christine Brewer, Alan Woodrow, and Anne Sofie von Otter that is presented in conjunction with a massive video art installation from Bill Viola. Each act will be performed on a separate evening this weekend paired with a piece from Debussy, and the entire opera will be performed twice on the 18th and the 24th. After the LA performances, it will travel to NY where people would be foolish to miss it. This was probably the greatest moment I’ve had listening to the LA Phil under Salonen and it should not be missed. It is a fitting performance after this announcement in that in many ways Tristan is also very much the beginning of the end. If you want to see Esa-Pekka Salonen and the legacy he is leaving as music director in Los Angeles, this is it in a nutshell, now’s your chance.

New York Double Header

April 07, 2007

Ben Heppner and cast.
Photo: Marty Sohl/Met Opera 2007

One of my favorite things to do on a visit to NYC is to take in a double header as I did today. In the afternoon, I saw the Met's revival of Andrea Chénier starring Violeta Urmana and the illustrious Ben Heppner. This performance was beautifully sung, expertly conducted, exquisitely executed, and as emotionally engaging as dust. Admittedly, this is not my favorite opera. But, I had high hopes in Act I when I saw the giant angled mirror that dominates the stage. Quirky and visually interesting, this was a period production I thought might have some life in it. However, things soon gave way to rather standard fare 1950s Disney-esque visions of the French revolution complete with quaint peasants engaged in background murmur right out of Acting 101. Heppner was in great form and it was a joy to hear him. Urmana is not my favorite soprano by any means, but she holds her own here. Not an awful way to spend a Saturday afternoon, but not one for the history books either.

Act II of Helena
Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2007
This evening though was quite a different story. I know this is an unfashionable opinion but David Fielding’s new production of Die Ägyptische Helena that wrapped up its run at the Met tonight is marvelous. It is a great production that is always interesting to look at. Much of the staging is clever and fits well with a libretto that is admittedly a mix of mythological and fanciful elements. It was a real treat to hear this unjustly ignored music. It’s easily better than Salome, and really not any stranger than Die Frau Ohne Schatten. The vocal performances were uniformly excellent, and Voigt is a true wonder. I have been iffy about her at times in the past, but I have to admit tonight I was ready to jump on the bandwagon. She’s funny, charming, beautiful to listen to and interesting to watch. I should make special mention of Diana Damrau as well, who matched Voigt this evening in both acting and singing departments. It's exciting to hear that she'll be singing more in the states in the coming seasons.

I think the biggest disservice to this opera is the way it has been marketed. A lot of the press and advertising materials have emphasized this as a story about marital conflict. And while that is true, I think it misses the point. The story is more about Helen figuring out that she gets more from the truth than from solving her problems through various lies. It is her rejection of Aithra’s “help” to deceive her murderous husband that the plot turns upon. It also allows Helen to have some agency. She may be one of the great passive objects in all of mythology, being acted upon by a variety of male protagonists. Here, however, it is all about how she is going to do things her way against the wise advise she has gotten from others. Definitely the highlight of the trip so far.

Coming, Seeing, and Nearly Conquering

April 06, 2007

Keep smiling! Daniels and Swenson.
Photo: Marty Sohl/Met Opera 2007

It’s Easter weekend in NY and there’s Handel everywhere you look. Tonight was the opening performance of the Met’s revival of Giulio Cesare which featured a typically all-star cast including David Daniels as Cesare, Ruth Ann Swenson as Cleopatra, Patricia Bardon as Cornelia, Alice Coote as Sesto, and Lawrence Zazzo as Tolomeo . Also as usual, the Met has revived a completely hopeless and ridiculous production from John Copley, which ultimately undercuts the vocal and musical performance. Now, I love Baroque operas. Honestly, if I don’t break the third hour in an opera I feel cheated and Baroque pieces appeal to my love of formality and structure. So in the end I really enjoyed this evening because this is a great opera that is well sung with the current cast and a conductor, Harry Bicket, who knows what he’s doing.

That being said, there is a lot that could be improved here. This is the third outing of this production from 1988 and it suffers from a tepid kitchiness that is hard to tolerate. I recognize the idea is to make the opera look like a Baroque version of ancient Roman and Egyptian history, but this seems like a rather cynical approach. I think it is possible to stage Baroque operas without having to always be tongue-in-cheek and still have modern audiences relate to them. Here we don’t get the chance to do that as the women flounce around in ridiculous hoop skirts and the men must all deal with capes so lengthy that any movement is preceded with a dramatic wave to clear their path of fabric. I think if you’re going for a camp effect you can’t do it half-way – think Laurent Pelly. For some other great ideas for staging this opera, check out this photo from Christof Loy's recent Theater an der Wien staging.

Kristina Hammarström (Cornelia), Malena Ernman (Sesto), Nicolas Rivenq (Achilla), Klemens Sander (Curio), Marijana Mijanovic (Giulio Cesare)
Photo: Wilfried Hösl 2007

All this campiness also proved to be too much for some of the cast most notably Ruth Ann Swenson. Swenson, of course, decided to make some rather unfortunate accusations in the NY Times about Peter Gelb and the Met management pushing her aside in the future because of her weight. I somehow doubt that. It is certainly true that she can sing well, but I suspect a bigger issue may be that her one-note acting approach is getting old. There is a difference between playing Adina and Cleopatra but you’d hardly know it from the smirk on her face throughout most of the performance. Many in the crowd, though, took the bait she put in the paper, and she was greeted at the final curtain with a big ovation accompanied by shredded program confetti strewn from the upper balconies.

Of course, Swenson being around at the Met less may make room for new singers who deserve to be heard here but haven’t had the chance like, say, Danielle de Niese who will take over later in the role. Tonight featured excellent performances from Alice Coote and a Met debut for the fabulous Patricia Bardon. I was excited to see her again after her amazing creation of the role of Adriana Mater last year in Paris and here she rose above the onstage silliness to generate some real emotion. Musically, things were pretty good but the Met Opera Orchestra is clearly not used to playing many of these Baroque scores and, despite some ringers on the lute, Baroque guitar, and Bicket playing the harpsichord himself, the group often overplayed, sacrificing much of the fragile and whistful nature of the score. This is Handel, not Verdi and quick does not always need to be charging.

In other news, it was nice to see some familiar LA faces in the crowd including Mark Swed from the LA Times. Well it's off to today's double header at the Met, with report to follow.

Let it Snow

Barry Banks as Uberto and cast from the Minnesota Opera presentation of the current NYCO production
Photo: Michal Daniel 2006
If the current new production of La donna del Lago is the best NYCO can come up with, they are in worse need for the services of Gerard Mortier than I could have imagined. Granted, the performance I saw was the next to last one in the run and fatigue could explain some of the problems, but others had deeper roots than that. As readers of this blog may know, I’m a big fan of anachronistic stagings. Change the story, alter the characters, even play with the music – it’s fine with me. However, there should be some point to it all. The problem and big question with this Lago is why? Why the rifles with bayonettes? Why is the set dominated by several crumbling brick walls? Where is the lake?

Of course the costumes didn’t help either in that many of the principles were indistinguishable. You see, in Scotland, Elena has three lovers - Malcolm, the young man she loves, sung here by Laura Vlasak Nolen; Rodrigo di dhu, her father’s choice; and Uberto, a stranger who is actually King James V of Scotland the enemy of everyone else. However, with Malcolm being a pants role and the wigs and costumes for Uberto and Rodrigo being so awful it often became hard to tell who was who. The evening often devolved into playing “which butch lesbian is in love with Elena now?” Of course there were some clues, every time Andrew Drost, who sang the role of Rodrigo on this evening, opened his mouth to sing, it became painfully obvious who he was.

The rest of the performances were serviceable, but far from great. George Manahan was the conductor, but it really seemed nobody's heart was in this as the music dragged along hour after hour. I know it’s popular to complain about the acoustics of the State Theater, but I don’t know if they’re so bad. I could easily here the whining of hearing aids and the laugh-inducing patter of the fake snow thudding against the stage in many scenes. I'm sure there are many charms to the serious operas of Rossini, but you wouldn't know it from this evening. Maybe next time around.

An Early Frost

April 05, 2007

Frank Langella as Richard Nixon
It’s off to New York for the Easter weekend and a truckload of operas. But before we get into that, I took in a preview last night of Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon which is about to open after a successful run in London. Cutting to the chase – it’s worth seeing if for no other reason than a great performance from Frank Langella. He captures a lot of Nixon including his sharp wit and inner conflict and it speaks volumes to say how easily one accepts this performance given the stark physical dissimilarities between the actor and the man.

Frost/Nixon recalls events leading up to the 1977 interview David Frost conducted with the former president and how both were looking to achieve success or a comeback at the expense of the other in this process. This is a history play first and foremost, and much of the its action is narrated directly to the audience by supporting characters including Jim Reston, an academic who helped Frost prepare for the interview, and Jack Brennan, Nixon’s Chief of Staff. It is reminiscent in many ways of David Hare’s recent Stuff Happens although this piece is admittedly more of a character study of two men engaged in a struggle than just a speculative retelling of history. One important similarity is that Morgan and director Michael Grandage try to maintain the kind of rapid-fire pacing that made Stuff work so well. The staging involves a large wall of TV monitors used to project images related to scene transitions and also carries a live feed of Langella and Sheen during their scenes reenacting the actual interview.

Michael Sheen as David Frost and Frank Langella as Richard Nixon
Often funny and ultimately very moving and relevant, Frost/Nixon has several great moments. And in some ways, it reminds us why history plays are important. It’s easy to forget why the country was so angry about Nixon 30 years ago especially in the midst of his current ongoing legacy rehabilitation. However, it becomes painfully evident how many parallels exist between now and then and how easily one forgets the very past we ourselves have lived through. Revisiting Nixon’s arguments about how it’s sometimes OK for the president to do illegal things if they serve the national interest is shocking because we have to remember why this was upsetting in the first place – how could this have been forgotten at all to begin with?

The play is far from perfect however. It drags in the middle which makes for a long intermissionless 115 minutes. This is Morgan’s first play, but he was responsible for the screenplays for both The Queen and The Last King of Scotland. Given this track record, it is no surprise he was interested in the character traits and stucture of major historical figures of the last part of the 20th century and how that has influenced their behavior under times of stress. Like both of these films, he seems less interested in telling us something new about the events they describe but want to reflect more on the character structure of the major players. Given this, the performances of Michael Sheen (who played Tony Blair in The Queen) and Frank Langella are so important. They are the heart and soul of this play. Langella, in particular, is great, and his performance is not to be missed. Go see it.

Weekend Theater Update

April 04, 2007

The other highlight of last weekend was seeing a number of world premiere plays around Southern California that are worth mention to varying degrees. In Pasadena, the Theater at Boston Court has a new version of the Gilgamesh legend adapted by Stephen Mitchell under the direction of Jessica Kubzansky and Stephen Sachs who was also responsible for the stage adaptation. Boston Court is a great facility and already in its short history, this company has developed a reputation for engrossing, technically sophisticated productions. Unfortunately, this was not one of them. Though not an unattractive staging, the adaptation is marred by an overly primitive approach and uninspired language. The Middle Eastern flair lends a kind of a Sinbad feel to the proceedings – and I mean that in both the lame 80s comedian sense and the Ray Harryhausen sense. Needless to say the nudity and simulated sex didn’t help much either.

Bronson Pinchot and Rita Wilson in Distracted
Photo: Karen Tapia-Andersen/LAT 2007
Better results were to be found at the Mark Taper Forum which is currently hosting the world premiere of a new play from Lisa Loomer, Distracted. The play concerns a mother struggling with her 9 year-old son’s increasing behavioral and attention problems and whether or not she should pursue medication of other interventions to address what seems like a constant stream of new concerns. The production boasts several stars including Rita Wilson as the mother, Bronson Pinchot, and recent OSF favorite Ray Porter as the father. This rather minimal staging relies on a number of large screens used to project a constant stream of images and backdrops that assist in creating a sense of hyperstimulation for the audience. Often funny, Loomer casts a good balance of views and keeps things moving. However, her reliance on character asides and direct address to the audience becomes tiring after awhile and it begins to seem as if the play is more about incorporating all possible positions and opinions for the sake of completeness than it is about having a cohesive narrative drive. Distracted does avoid sinking into just another TV movie of the week, but just barely.

Linda Gehringer as Mrs. K in The Piano Teacher
Photo: Glenn Koenig/LAT 2007
On Sunday, I caught the last performance of the new play from Julia Cho, The Piano Teacher, which got its world premiere at the South Coast Repertory. Cho continues to plumb the territory of the shifting nature of memory and how this plays out in the lives of people who have been abused. The play is largely a solo monologue by an elderly retired piano teacher who reaches out to former students in an effort to combat lonliness. Her efforts backfire when she discovers that memories of their childhood piano lessons are often shadowed by the violent and sexually graphic stories her now-deceased husband would tell them in the kitchen while awaiting their appointments. This Homebody/Kabul strategy works largely on the strength of the performance of Linda Gehringer in the title role. Of course, when the work strays from her, particularly in the final extended monologue from her former student Michael, things fall apart somewhat. Still, this is a play with interesting ideas. It plays with many of the same issues as Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman but without the same preoccupation with shock value. In Cho’s play, the stories Mr. K has told may or may not have had a lasting negative impact, but in The Pillowman McDonagh suggests that the telling of these stories and the process of constructing memory may also be a source of agency and maintaining subjectivity. In The Piano Teacher the stories may not always be remembered by the listener, but their predatory function seems more certain. Cho leaves Mrs. K with troubled dreams and an uncertain sense of self having learned about her husband's past. She finds little ability to comfort herself with her own stories of the past and may be unable to escape an alternate version of her reality that she has now been made aware of. Certainly this is a play that can use some more development, but it has something to say and does a fair job of it, which is no small feet.


Let's take this outside

April 02, 2007

Mr. Salonen gets the job done
Photo: Annie Wells/LAT 2007
Twice a year our excellent local classical public radio station KUSC, like many of its brethren, takes to the airwaves to drum up financial support from its listeners to stay in operation. As much as I love them, this period always irritates me because I have to listen to them make some of the most inane arguments about why supporting classical music on the radio is important. Perhaps my least favorite of these runs something along the lines of classical music is important because its so relaxing. “Escape the hectic and fast-paced world with the peaceful and calming sounds of classical music” – or so it goes.

However, I'm not sure that the actual audience for classical music got the memo on this one. I don’t know about you, but while there are many things I think “classical music” is or can be, a relaxing escape is not frequently one of them. In fact, if anything, it would seem to be quite the opposite. It is both intense and intellectually demanding requiring concentration and thought. Relaxing is for bath products, not for music.

I would argue that my position is further borne out by the behavior in audiences at classical performing events. All of these chilled and relaxed people seem to get in a disturbingly high number of fights and altercations from what I can see. Take for example last Saturday night during the LA Philharmonic performance under Esa-Pekka Salonen at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. It was an excellent program starting out with a US premiere of a six minute overture written by Salonen himself called Helix followed by Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand and a suite from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet. Our hometown ensemble was in top form and played these pieces with great aplomb. (You can read more of this in Mr. Swed’s great review here.)

But apparently the concert wasn’t so soothing to some rather enthusiastic fans. A middle-aged man seated not far behind me at the rear of the Terrace section appeared overly confused about finding his seat before the show, but listened intently and reacted with a uniform standing ovation and huge shouts of "bravo" after every piece. Certainly Salonen inspires admiration, but frankly this was a bit much. However, as excited as he was in the first half, this gentleman apparently couldn’t quite get back in time after the intermission. Thus, those of us seated in the hall were treated to the sound of him tackling and pushing aside several ushers in order to return to his seat after the music had started, punctuated with the loud slam of a door and the clear shouts of a scuffle. That should sound great for the i-Tunes recording that was taking place. Of course the real fun came after the show as security cornered the lunatic and had him escorted from the building. Now sufficiently relaxed, he was ready to return home.

This isn’t the first time that I’ve seen classical music produce this reaction. Last year I saw a fist-fight break out in the same hall in a crowd overwhelmed with brotherhood after hearing Beethoven’s Ninth (also with Salonen) and two years ago I saw a man threaten to kill another over a slight the latter had made to the former’s wife in the lobby of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion during the intermission of Der Rosenkavalier, of all things. Maybe a dwindling audience for classical music isn't such a bad thing if we can just select who specifically gets dwindled in the transaction.

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