Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

If it's Sunday, it must be Shostakovich

May 29, 2007

LA Phil with Salonen, Michael Hendrick, and Vladislav Sulimsky
Photo: mine 2007
The LA Philharmonic’s full-orchestra programs in the “Shadow of Stalin” Series got underway last weekend with a show dedicated to composers contemporary to Stalin and directly affected by the restrictions under his regime. The show included Gavriil Popov, Alexander Mosolov and excerpt from Shostakovich’s operatic works. Before all that, though, there was an increasingly omnipresent video. Ever since The Tristan Project everything in the LA Phil’s world seems to need some sort of visual component. Of course, this is a movie town, but not everyone is Bill Viola. This short snippet of video stated the case for the next two weeks' programs, which include works by suppressed Eastern bloc composers Ligeti, Husa, and Lutoslawski and a full–screening of Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky with the live accompaniment of the LA Phil playing Prokofiev’s score.

But, of course, all of this business started with Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Stalin’s infamous criticism of the work. The shot across the bow of Soviet-style state-sponsored artistic oppression and the beginning of a particularly dark period in Russian music. Sunday afternoon’s program wrapped up with a wonderful performance of the final scene from Act I featuring Tatiana Pavlovskaya as Katerina and Michael Hendrick as Sergei. Salonen dedicated the performance to the late Rostropovich whom he noted almost single-handedly saved this work, one of the 20th century’s great operas. There was also the suite from Shostakovich’s earlier opera, The Nose, here delivered with great vocal performances from Michael Hendrick and Vladislav Sulimsky. It was a fantastic 25 minutes of humor and percussion pyrotechnics that reinforced the concept that it is not the size of the vocal part one has but what one does with it that really counts.

In addition to these two operatic moments, there were orchestral pieces, as well, from Alexander Mosolov, The Iron Foundry, and Gavriil Popov. Popov, like many of his peers found an outlet by writing film music, and the orchestral suite Salonen led was from one such piece - Komsomol: Patron of Electrification. No, it is not available on DVD; however, whoever gave the pre-concert talk, honored us with a little taste of the genuine article. 1920s modernism at its best, Komsomol roars to life with the promise of mechanization featuring the first, and hopefully not last, theremin solo I’ve hear in the Disney Concert Hall.

With all the novelty and utopian modernism on view with such great vocal performances, what’s there to complain about? Well how about too much of a good thing. I left the show feeling cheated and overly distracted. Just as you were getting settle into one piece it was over and on to the next. I think the show would have been a greater success with just the orchestral pieces and a bigger chunk of just one of the Shostakovich operas, preferably Lady Macbeth. It's hard to complain however when you're having this much fun.

Recordings of the week

May 27, 2007

Placido Domingo is not the only artist who can manage a startling singing career well into his later years as evidenced by the amount of attention and the glowing notices that continue to follow Edita Gruberova around Europe. Not only has she had another huge success with Lucia in Vienna this year, but this recent DVD of her first Norma for Munich in 2006 at the age of 59 stands as a testament to good genes and smart career management. Her performance is remarkable and this DVD is a must for those of us not lucky enough to see her in Europe or during one of her relatively rare US performances over the last few decades.

Although it took over a decade, Tracey Thorn's follow-up to her first solo recording, A Distant Shore, finally arrived this year. In many ways it is not a surprise in that just as the music of her collaboration with Ben Watt, Everything But the Girl, changed from a more jazz-influenced pop sound in the mid 80s to big beats and electronica in the 90s, the new disc, Out of the Woods is no folkie collection for wallflowers. Thorn is perhaps one of the most underrated female voices in pop music, and it's great to have another solo disc from her. It grows on me with each listen.

In the Yellow

May 26, 2007

Tzi Ma as HYH and Hoon Lee as DHH
Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2007
Just when you thought David Henry Hwang had moved on to the world of musicals and opera libretti for good, he delivers a “straight play," Yellow Face, to the Mark Taper Forum that is a huge dramatic success. It deserves to be a financial one as well. In fact, this is probably the best new play to grace the Taper stage in years. In a great blend of autobiography and fiction, Yellow Face revisits events from Hwang’s own life following his involvement in the controversy over the casting of Jonathan Pryce in Miss Saigon on Broadway. David Henry Hwang, the character, soon finds himself trapped in an awkward situation as he unknowingly casts a white man he believes to be Asian in his Broadway follow-up to M. Butterfly - a comedy entitled Face Value, a huge flop, that revisited elements of the Miss Saigon controversy. Yellow Face spirals forward from there over the next 20 years intersecting with a variety of personal and public events in Hwang’s life including everything from his father’s illness to the controversies in the press around figures like Wen Ho Lee and John Wong.

All of this is woven into a challenging and thought-provoking work about race and the peculiar American obsession with the need to both simultaneously ignore and acknowledge it. The shifting sands of identity are on display here as the hopeless desire for clear boundaries and convenient categories to define people becomes fodder for comedy and a good bit of dramatic tension. This is a rich play with many things to say and Hwang feels no pressure to make things simplistic or easy. His art, like his (and everyone else's) life is much too complex for that. At the center of Yellow Face are two marvelous performances from Hoon Lee as the author’s stand-in and Tzi Ma in a number of roles including the author’s father. Lee’s comic timing is superb and he resists the temptation to reach for TV-sitcom style guffaws. The supporting cast is quite good across the board as well.

The staging itself and Leigh Silverman’s direction can be a bit pedestrian at times and there are some tone problems as the work careens from comic elements to intensely serious ones with little warning. Story lines are dropped and returned to in a way that is sometimes unfocused. The piece cries out for the intensity of approach on display in some major recent historical works that have made big splashes such as David Hare’s Stuff Happens and Paul Morgan’s Frost/Nixon. But frankly these are minor issues. Hwang has produced a major play that deserves to be seen by a wide audience and here’s wishing him much success with it. The staging will surely get sharper as the play moves on to other locales. If you're in LA, you should definitely check it out at the Mark Taper Forum through July 1. Plus, given that this is the last production at the Taper before it’s year-long renovation hiatus, it will be your last chance to enjoy this space for awhile.



May 24, 2007

Christoph Eschenbach and The Philadelphia Orchestra at WDCH
Photo: mine 2007

The Philadelphia Orchestra was in Southern California for two shows this week: the first on Tuesday at the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the second on Wednesday at the Segerstrom Concert Hall in Orange County as part of their current tour. Both shows highlighted the exceptional playing of the orchestra under its current unfairly maligned director Christoph Eschenbach. There was ample heat and light throughout the two programs, but unfortunately the question we must face in these times remains: Was it carbon-neutral? Sadly, the answer is no. Not Hummer bad mind you, but more along the lines of a midsize SUV, say, a non-hybrid Toyota Highlander.

What I mean to say is that it seemed that an awful lot of unnecessary energy was expended and to no specific end. Throughout Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony on Tuesday, I kept wondering why the ensemble was so infernally loud. Did they not get the memo about the hall's acoustics? You’d think they were playing in some large abandoned concrete warehouse like say, a Home Depot or Avery Fisher Hall. Really though, it’s unfair to criticize any performance of Tchaikovsky as histrionic. Subtlety is not really a quality much in demand in this musical neck of the woods.

But I think it more fair to criticize their performance of Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat major which I got the unpleasant experience of having to sit through twice. The ensemble repeated the work on Wednesday when the originally scheduled appearance of Matthias Goerne, the one real reason to see Wednesday's performance to begin with, was canceled due to a family emergency. This take on Mozart was so blissfully ignorant of the last 25 years of the period practices movement that all that remained was the Mozart equivalent of today's Playboy Magazine - everything is so air-brushed and soft lit that anything once remotely arousing is now dead and lifeless. Where is Nikolas Harnoncourt when you need him?

Of course there were some very good moments, too. The second evening opened up with a serviceable rendition of Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No.1 despite the hard-swallow look on many of the players faces. The real gem however was the final piece, Brahm's First Symphony. Suddenly and unexpectedly, the group hit its stride by either choice or accident and for one brief moment it was possible to harken back to sunnier days for the group and remember how affecting and moving they can still be. Goerne would have been better, but he'll be back in LA next year if all goes off as planned.

Sunday, Pasadena

May 22, 2007

Kaleo Griffith, left, Megan Gallagher and Stephen Caffrey
Photo: Lori Shepler/LAT 2007
So Sunday it was over to the Pasadena Playhouse for a sampling of the current wares, which included two productions. The first being the Playhouse’s revival of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Constant Wife, a witty nugget of 20s proto-feminism. It’s an enjoyable two hours with stable and well-thought-out direction from Art Manke. But George Bernard Shaw, it ain’t. Of course maybe that is a good thing. Let’s put it this way, at dinner following the show, I asked my partner and another English Literature PhD friend of ours to tell me what they knew about Maugham. And now I will share the totality of their knowledge with you, dear readers. Apparently, Leonard Nimoy used an audio recording of Maugham’s voice as the template for Spock’s vocal stylings in Star Trek. So there you have it. Experts in the field agree: Maugham was a Vulcan.

But I digress. I should give “props” or whatnot to the many fine actors in this run, many of whom are alumni of either A Noise Within or South Coast Repertory. Megan Gallagher stars as a completely believable, highly sympathetic, and soon-to-be-independent wife, Constance, who masterfully navigates both the shame and pity heaped upon her by her husband (Stephen Caffrey), mother (Carolyn Seymour), sister (Monette Magrath), and two-timing best friend (Libby West). All in all, this production is worth a look even if in the end it is all just Midsummer Madness.

Shawn Lee and Eric Pargac
Photo: Anthony Masters/Furious Theater Co 2007
Meanwhile, upstairs in the Carrie Hamilton Theater, the Furious Theater Company is presenting the world premiere of a play from Matt Pelfrey, An Impending Rupture of the Belly. This is one of those suburban paranoia comedies played out when a young father-to-be, Clay, slowly loses his grip on reality under ever-increasing threats to his lawn and masculinity. Pelfrey’s dialogue can be quite funny. He is at his best here in family-oriented material, particularly when Clay is forced to solicit the help of his addict ne’er-do-well brother, Ray, in his increasingly unhinged plans. Shawn Lee, who plays Ray, has some great moments here, and it’s one of those performances where he is both completely believable but also clearly having fun. Pelfrey doesn’t do so well with the political stuff, though. Clay’s paranoid hyper-masculine right wing friend/boss Eugene seems such a broad and predictable caricature that it becomes distracting at times. Still, there are many worthwhile and enjoyable things about the piece despite its overly dark and incongruently pessimistic ending. The rest of the cast here was also quite capable including Eric Pargac (Clay), Doug Newell (Eugene), Aubrey Saverino (Terri), and Troy Metcalf (Doug) each of whom fared well under Dámaso Rodriguez’s capable direction. The good news is that Belly is in fact funny, and that is not an easy thing to do.

Grant Gershon - in demand.

Grant Gershon
Chris Pasles reports in today’s LA Times that our hometown hero Grant Gershon has been appointed chorus master and associate conductor for LA Opera starting in the fall. Gershon has a long history of association with both the LA Philharmonic and LA Opera, and seeing him take over the chorus master duties is a welcome choice. He has done a magnificent job so far in leading the Los Angeles Master Chorale in both eliciting incredible performances from the group both in their own series as well as their regular appearances with the LA Philharmonic. He has kept the LAMC fresh and exciting with a broad commitment to new works and adventurous programming. Here’s hoping he can bring his own touch of magic to the LA Opera chorus and organization as well.

Wonder Sandwich

May 21, 2007

Dawn Upshaw
Photo: H.W. Chiu /LAT 2007
If there is currently an American vocalist whose level of artistry rivals that of the late Ms. Hunt Lieberson, it is without a doubt Dawn Upshaw. To paraphrase, the famous lyric: She can take a nothing song, and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile. Luckily, she is almost never left with “nothing” songs considering her allegiances to today’s most important composers as was the case this weekend at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. She performed two song cycles with the assistance of last-minute replacement conductor Alexander Mickelthwate and the LA Philharmonic – Lukas Foss’ Time Cycle and Golijov’s Three Songs for Orchestra and Soprano. The Foss piece is a rather dark and exacting meditation on time, loss, and arguably time regained set to works by A.E. Houseman, W.H. Auden, and O Mensch! from Nietzsche's Also sprach Zarathustra. The piece was haunting and beautiful yet turned out to be but an appetizer of what was to come. The Golijov settings were devastatingly gorgeous and amounted to one of those transportive moments in live music when suddenly you are gone, just gone. Where, I don’t know, but I’ve still got chills over it. If Golijov’s forthcoming Met Opera commission features Upshaw and is a quarter this good, it will undoubtedly be a masterpiece.

That this wonderment was sandwiched between two orchestral dogs was a shame. The evening started with Barber’s silly Toccata Festiva for organ and orchestra and despite the presence of Simon Preston was a complete waste of time. The evening ended with Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, which Mickelthwate conducted with a fussiness that bordered on irritating. The 20 minutes seemed endless, which is sad considering the beauty in this work.

Still, for forty glorious minutes Ms. Upshaw was in full flower. In fact, she is the new topic of the “On Top” segment which features my favorite recordings of hers. Here’s looking forward to her performances this year (at last) of Saariaho’s La Passion de Simone in London and Los Angeles later this year.

Recordings of the week

May 20, 2007

The TONY Award nominations were announced this week, and while I don't have a whole lot to say about them, you can see my thoughts on several of the shows that made the cut this year on OWA including, Grey Gardens, Company, Spring Awakening, and Frost/Nixon. Without a doubt, Spring Awakening is the best of the bunch, and anyone who hasn't seen the show yet should or at least hear Duncan Sheik's marvelous rock and pop score that marvelously grafts modern idioms to an 19th century play.

I heard Dawn Upshaw sing three songs by Osvaldo Golijov yesterday which I will write more on later. It got me to thinking about many of the great available recordings of Golijov's work and this performance from 2000 of his adaptation of St. Mark’s Passion to commemorate the 250th anniversary of J.S. Bach’s death and bears listening to again and again. If you are wondering where all the modern masterpieces are, look no further than here.

Loot, baby

May 19, 2007

Joshua Biton, Jill Hill, and Geoff Elliott in Loot
Photo: Craig Schwartz/ANW 2007
A Noise Within's spring season continued for me this week with their production of Joe Orton’s Loot. Let me start by saying that it’s very good, quite funny and well worth the trip to Glendale. The cast under the direction of Geoff and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott wisely play it straight with little haminess, which helps to add some zing to Orton’s biting satire and wordplay throughout the evening. The cast was excellent and despite some minor accent problems along the way, handled a fairly verbal text with seeming ease. Special mention should be made of the younger members of the cast including Joshua Biton as Hal and Joseph Rye as Dennis who both turned in very believable and engaging performances. I’ve also grown to rather like ANW cast regular Jill Hill, who here was cast as the murderous nurse, Fay. She provided most of the requisite feeling of malice in Orton’s play while maintaining much of the comic elements.

Not everything is perfect though. Things do drag somewhat in the middle and the Elliotts aren’t quite up to making the commitment to a level of meanness that would really have given this show more zing. Instead, it is more often wrapped in nostalgia for Britain in the 60s complete with the Beatles and the Stones during the intermission. At moments, things do spin towards British sex comedy, a little too Austin Powers and not quite enough Harold Pinter. Still, this is a high quality, funny and well acted production that is especially worth seeing if you’re not familiar with Orton’s work.

Moving On

Morenike Fadayomi as Bess and Kevin Short as Porgy
Photo:Robert Millard/LA Opera 2007
The worst thing about having a cold, as I have had this week, is without a doubt the coughing. I can deal with the stuffiness and sore throat and everything else, but the days and sleepless nights of coughing at the end of the cold just ruin everything. Such was the case this week that despite my best efforts I only made it through 40 minutes of LA Opera’s current Porgy and Bess. I refuse to be one of those people who just sits there and hacks away without a care to anyone else around me, so I left. Needless to say I don’t have much to say about the performance. It certainly seemed functional enough and was not unpleasing to look at, but I don’t feel I can say much more than that. Worst of all I’m not going to reschedule or try to see this later because of other commitments and that fact that, well, it’s Porgy and Bess. Maybe if it were Audra McDonald or somebody along those lines, but otherwise I’ve got to move on.

On a more positive note, the Santa Fe Opera announced its Summer 2008 season last week and it’s a winner. Although a slight variation on their usual formula in that there will be no Richard Strauss on view, it's a good combination of works, stars, and (count ‘em) five new productions. This year, it’s all about the guys. The underrated baritone Laurent Naori will return for a starring role in Verdi’s Falstaff and über-hottie baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes will deliver his Billy Budd. And don’t forget the excellent David Daniels who, under the esteemed early music talents of Harry Bicket, will star in Handel’s Radimisto. Of course there will be Mozart in the shape of a new Figaro with Susannah Phillips who wowed audiences in 2006 with her Prince Charmant. But best of all and as the composer herself noted to Opera News last year, the season will include the American Premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s Adriana Mater complete with Peter Sellars and George Tsypin’s input. Monica Groop with take the title role and should prove adept at such a role given her familiarity with Saariaho by having previously performed the Pilgrim in L’Amour de Loin. Now that is a season to look forward to.

In croce

May 16, 2007

Sofia Gubaidulina
Tonight was the final program of the season for the LA Philharmonic’s New Music Group and it was another big success in a year of brilliant “Green Umbrella” shows. (Including shows dedicated to the works of Brett Dean, John Adams, Salonen, and Gerald Barry’s The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit.) This evening was ostensibly the second program in the “Shadow of Stalin” series, but in a strange bit of sequencing, it actually focused on composers from the Soviet Union who came of age in the late 20th century after Stalin’s fall from power. The focus here was on how political oppression and self-censorship continued to prevail even in the post-Stalin “thaw.” The program, which was helmed by Associate Conductor Alexander Mickelthwate, included two works by Sofia Gubaidulina, Concordanza and In croce, as well as Alfred Schnittke’s Symphony No. 4.

These works were selected in part in how they dealt with spiritual or religious motifs in a closeted manner. I know that the “closet” metaphor is over-used to the point of meaninglessness these days, but here I think it actually fits. There was something that I really identified and sympathized with in these works where spiritual themes and elements were changed or disguised in order to pass inspection by a broader disapproving political structure. Thus, the vocal lines in Schnittke’s symphony are not from Ave Maria as he may have actually intended, but instead become shapeless vocalizations. One can feel the emotion there beneath the surface trapped and struggling, in a way masquerading as something else.
Alfred Schnittke
It is in a way simultaneously sad and beautiful. The symphony, which was clearly the highlight of the evening, involved a small ensemble of 7 strings, winds, percussion, celesta, harpsichord, piano, and four vocalists. It consists of 15 smaller sections grouped in three sets of five in a way meant to suggest a sort-of rosary. Calling this piece a symphony, when in many ways it is clearly not, also recalls other great symphonic works with vocal components, perhaps including most directly Shostakovich’s own Symphony No. 14 – a setting of several different death-related poems for two vocalists and a small ensemble.

Gubaidulina works held marvels of their own. Gubaidulina , of course, is much more known for the spiritual content of her work and that was certainly reflected here. Of particular interest, In croce for solo cello and organ was a strange twist on a small chamber piece where issues of power and weakness seemed thrust to the forefront. Playing in this work is clearly as much about the restraint of power, as in its use with an organ that can clearly sonically overwhelm the lone cello. Each player focuses on opposing sequences in the upper or lower part of their instrument's range, slowly moving toward each other tone-wise until they cross and then eventually moving away. Thus they are simultaneously not only "on the cross" but "in crossing." Overall it was a nice end to this season's "new music" programming.

In the Shadow of the Shadow of Stalin

May 14, 2007

Peter Stumpf takes a bow
with Bramwell Tovey and the LA Philharmonic
Photo: Mine 2007

Although the LA Phil’s “Shadow of Stalin” programs kicked off earlier this week, the programs Salonen will lead won’t start for a couple more weeks, leaving a couple of weekend programs in the interim. This weekend’s offering under the leadership of composer/conductor Bramwell Tovey included orchestral exerpts from Peter Grimes and Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Sandwiched between these was the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No 1 with Principal Cellist Peter Stumpf doing the honors. However, apparently this particular Shostakovich wasn’t quite in Stalin’s shadow yet. This was evidenced not only by the Phil’s marketing materials but also by the performance itself which was perhaps the least “Russian” I’ve heard. Stumpf took a far more lyrical approach, smoothing out the harsher edges in the piece. This would have worked out OK, I suppose, if Tovey hadn’t decided to run over him with the rest of the players.

Of course, it was made clear early on that this was not to be Shostakovich’s evening in the pre-concert talk. Here the focus was on the British composers on the evenings bill, and, not surprisingly, Tovey elicited wonderful performances of both works. My issue with everything was more of a philosophical one. In the pre-concert talk composer Daniel Catán invited Tovey to posit Elgar and later Britten as adherents to an anti-Schoenberg tradition opposed to a modernist movement that ideologically constricts otherwise well-intentioned composers to produce unlistenable "jarring" music. This modernist endeavor is apparently supported by “critics” but opposed by audiences who have wisely voted with their dollars against anything “jarring” in favor of something catchier. (Like the Macarena and the theme from Ghostbusters, perhaps? They were certainly all the rage in their own day!)

Now despite the rampant anti-intellectual populism and numerous logical fallacies with this argument, what really stuck in my craw here is the continued insistence of an either/or approach to music appreciation. Why anyone needs to create a bogeyman out of Schoenberg or anyone else to legitimate programming Britten or Elgar is beyond me. Like the old west, there isn’t apparently room enough in town for both Stockhausen and Britten. Which gets me to thinking – can’t we all just play along?

Recordings of the week

May 13, 2007

I feel like OWA has not made enough commitment to talking about recordings. However, I'm not especially interested in "reviewing" recordings either. So, I’ve decided instead to focus on recordings that I love – even if just for right now. I hope to recommend at least a couple each week, old or new, “classical or not.” Just ones I’m thinking about, in case you are, too – or in case you aren’t. This week, I’ve got a couple things on my mind.

Vladimír Godár (1956) is from Slovakia and works in a number of genres including film music. Mater, his recent ECM New Series release, features recent collaborations with vocalist Iva Bittová, among others, and focuses on works based on traditional sacred music forms. It is hard to avoid comparisons to Arvo Pärt, but I see that as a good thing. In fact a very good thing. Truly a beautiful recording and one worth owning. (I know this makes me sound old-fashioned and American, but such is the tyranny of facts.)

For some reason, listening to this made me think of Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot out the Lights from 1982. Maybe it’s the sense of loss and mourning for something that isn’t quite over yet. Maybe not. A near perfect rock album with nearly every song a classic in its own right.

Playing Hooky

Well at least that is how Jason Danieley and Marin Mazzie described their concert appearance at the Orange County Performing Arts Center’s Samueli Theater on Saturday. Hooky in the sense that both are currently starring in Broadway productions: Danieley in the Kander and Ebb musical Curtains and Mazzie in the omnipresent Spamalot. I have to admit I met this news with mixed feelings in that I hate that sinking feeling the little white slip of paper in the program brings, but in this situation it was my gain because they are wonderful together and put on a great if brief show. (Of course I could go on about how these sorts of star absences have become de rigeur in New York, but I won’t. My advice – if you’re traveling to see someone in particular, you might want to check their web site or touring schedule first these days or attend a preview.)

Entitled “Opposite You”, the program which they are touring everywhere reprises their performance from Lincoln Center’s American Songbook Series a few years back, which they have now recorded for PS Classics. Mostly standards and showtunes, the evening relies on several extended medleys arranged around specific composers such as Harold Arlen and Stephen Sondheim. If there are people still unconvinced that a live performance is superior to a recording, here is exhibit A. Danieley and Mazzie are talented singers, but that is only half of it. What makes them some of the best in the musical theater is there ability to sell songs using more than their vocal performance. While the recording of the show is pretty, it seems hollow compared to how much energy and fun the same songs (more or less) were live. Perhaps the vocals weren’t as clean overall, but they were a joy to hear. Of course, singing duets always invites comparisons and the risk here is that Mazzie does come off as the stronger one vocally – Danieley did seem pitchy around the edges, particularly in the upper part of his range and he sometimes seemed relatively thin in tone. But this is rather a quibble compared to how well they deliver the Sondheim numbers. Mazzie will be in San Francisco in June during the summer opera season and will be worth another look in the cabaret setting then.

I've got you under my skin

May 12, 2007

Andrew Elvis Miller as Peter and Amy Landecker as Agnes
Photo: David Elzer/LAT 2007
The Los Angels Theatre Company recently opened the local premiere of Tracy Letts’ Bug at The Coast Playhouse in West Hollywood. This premiere has been a long time in coming out west given the 2004 off-Broadway hit will arrive in a sexed up film version directed by William Friedkin with (get this) Ashley Judd and Harry Connick, Jr. in a matter of weeks. So now is an excellent time to take a look at this play in the light before Judd and Co. sink their B-grade summer flick fangs into its flesh. Letts’ himself has a hand in the adaptation, so it is hopeful that this will not turn into the simple horror genre picture it is being marketed as. Such a transformation would be a real shame given that this is one play well worth seeing.

I hate synopses, but here it goes: Agnes, an addict who lives in a motel room, lives in fear of the return of her abusive ex-husband from prison. She is introduced to Peter, a fellow addict, who she falls for just before his preoccupation with a debatable bug infestation in her room becomes apparent. As he slowly becomes more and more unhinged over the paranoiac conspiracy theory behind the infestation, Agnes elects to join in on the supposed delusion. From this point in, the play heads into the “where does delusion end and scary reality begin” territory which makes sense since there is plenty to go around these days for these characters including Agnes whose own 6 year-old son mysteriously disappeared a decade previously. On the surface this sounds like so much standard psychological thriller fare with a dash of folie a deux thrown in for a twist. But there is so much more here to be seen including biting commentary on motherhood, drug use, and even terrorism.

The evening greatly benefits from director Scott Cummins who is a local master of slow-building creep and paranoia as previously proved in the Odyssey Theaters’ 2006 production of Mr. Kolpert one of my favorite theater events of last year. In Bug he again pulls frankly great performances from the entire cast and keeps the whole thing from sinking into kitsch or parody. It’s no small feet maintaining humor when dealing with characters so easily over played such as the down-and-out residents of this particular stretch of rural Oklahoma. I must also mention the five actors in the cast given how great they all were here – Any Landecker (as Agnes), Andrew Elvis Miller (as Peter), Andrew Hawkes (as Jerry), Laura Niemi (as RC), and Rob Nagle (as Dr. Sweet). Landecker and Miller are particularly fine in getting the audience to sympathize and identify with them despite increasingly higher levels of insanity. Anyway, hurry out to West Hollywood and get a chance to see this stage work before the idea of the soon-to-be-discount DVD in the remainder bin makes you think otherwise.

LA Notes

May 11, 2007

T.E.U.C.L.A. by Richard Serra
Photo: Mine 2007

I've been so busy mourning Alan Gilbert's departure from Santa Fe Opera that I haven’t been able to comment on a number of LA-related tidbits lately, so I’ve got some catching up to do.

ITEM: Tomorrow is the big kick-off of the LA Opera’s broadcast season, which will include performances from all of this year's productions carried on the WFMT radio network. Locally, KUSC will broadcast and stream all the performances (including the Recovered Voices concert from this spring) Saturdays at 10:30 AM starting with last year's season opening La Traviata featuring Renée Fleming and Rolando Villazón. The complete schedule can be seen here. This has been a particularly good season in LA and virtually all of these programs are worth checking out.

ITEM: Apparently, the name Torroba and keyword “zarzuela” are not the draws they once were, so LA Opera has decided to alter the name of their upcoming production of Luisa Fernanda to:

LA Opera must have already capped out on their English-language productions for the year so the marketing folks have had to resort to other crass strategies to sell tickets. Heck, why bother with the title of the piece at all? Ain't private arts funding grand?

ITEM: I’ve been meaning to give recognition to the perhaps burgeoning local classical music blogging scene. When I started Out West Arts, I (erroneously) believed there weren’t many other blogs out here in LA doing what I do. But since then, a number of fine bloggers have joined the game and I’ve become aware of others that I'd like to recognize here. Christian Chensvold publishes FineArtsLA.com devoted so far to interest stories and chat about some of the ongoing bigger arts events in LA and has featured interviews with Lofti Mansouri and Alan Rich. A young man by the name of Blake Oliver has started up Shake It or Bake It chronicling his travails as a struggling cellist in the big city which I have read with great interest. There is also the similarly themed lone oboe from another young local musician. Of course there are composer blogs, too, including UCLA faculty-member Roger Bourland’s and Joel McNeely's. Fellow listener George M. Wallace publishes his blog under the title a fool in the forest which occasionally covers music events as well as other cultural events around town and is also worth looking at. Although I still like to think of OWA as somewhat unique, it’s nice to be part of an expanding neighborhood. (By the way, if I've left anyone out, drop me a line and introduce yourself.) Oh, and with all the big media critics jumping in the game, where is the Mark Swed blog?

Until that fine day, we may be forced to result to this bit of mania. Not exactly LA centric, but certainly "la" centric.

Shadows and Fog

May 10, 2007

Galina Ustvolskaya
Tuesday was the opening show in the LA Philharmonic’s “Shadow of Stalin” series meant to examine the impact his regime had on composers and music from the Soviet Union and the eastern block countries of the period. The first concert in the series consisted of four chamber works including Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes Op. 34, and his Sonata for Two Violins, Op.56. Also on the program was Galina Ustvolskaya’s Clarinet Trio and Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 67. This grouping was intended to demonstrate how Stalin’s political suppression forever altered Russian music over the course of the century. Of course Mark Swed’s excellent review in the LA Times makes this argument far more eloquently than I could ever hope to do here or elsewhere. The problem for me with this evening was that Swed does a better job of it than the musical performance did itself.

I mean the overall theme of this series seems legitimate enough for a program, but I’m not really sure how one is supposed to actually read political influence in a piece of music. Often times it seems that it all boils down to nothing more than political oppression = dissonance, but is that really all there is? This programming concept is in contrast to LA Opera and James Conlon’s “Recovered Voices” project looking at composers whose works were suppressed by the Third Reich. However, the goal there is different. As Conlon himself pointed out in the introductory remarks to his recent concerts, the music and composers, whose works are feature in “Recovered Voices," don’t necessarily have anything in common, and their music was rarely a direct response to the immediate political conditions that they found themselves in. While the music may certainly have been influenced by the times, the point for him is to “recover” a musical heritage in all its variety that was almost “lost” due to the actions of an evil regime.

The playing itself during the concert by the Philharmonic members was quite good but I found the tone of pianist Lina Targonsky during both the Shostakovich and Prokofiev somewhat dull. David Howard, the Phil’s clarinetist turned in two fantastic performances, as did violinist Johnny Lee who participated in the somber and simple Clarinet Trio as well as the Violin Sonata. Perhaps, I am being too hasty, however. There are a number of very fine programs scheduled for this series, including Salonen conducting some of his specialties such as Lutoslawski. Perhaps all will be revealed to me in time.

The news from La Mancha

May 09, 2007

Geoff Elliott as Don Quixote
Photo: Craig Schwartz/A Noise Within 2007
The spring season is in full swing at Glendale’s A Noise Within Repertory Theater company, and Saturday I went to see their “big show” of the season, Man of La Mancha. I know I thought the same thing - "You've got to be kidding." But as is the ANW tradition, I actually learned something. Armed with a treasure trove of acting talent from their stable of regulars, the company provides year-round theatrical staples and probably the thing I admire most about them is their ability to take a well-worn work such as La Mancha and make it clear why the piece is so famous in the first place. The company doesn’t often do musicals, but when they do, they tend to pull out all of the stops and Saturday was no exception. Julia Rodriguez-Elliott was in the director’s chair and she should be recognized for marshaling a kinetic and highly spirited performance from her cast across the board. Her husband and ANW founder, regular, and jack-of-all-trades Geoff Elliott played Don Quixote, and while I often find his performances overly mannered, he was perfect here. His overblown histrionics were a perfect fit for Quixote and he did exactly what needed to be done, drawing attention to the character that is the centerpiece and La Mancha’s reason for being.

The rest of the cast was equally well prepared and the show worked at virtually every moment – funny, engaging, and interesting. Musical support was given by David O on the piano and Kevin Tiernan who played guitar throughout. If there is any larger criticism to be made of the evening, it is that the company favored its own regular cast members who were often not the strongest singers over importing ringers with better vocal chops. However, nothing descended into caterwauling and I found myself thinking, why have I always had such a negative association with this musical in my mind? It’s a really good show and probably the best thing ANW has mounted in their current Glendale home since Ubu Roi in 2005. Man of La Mancha has been extended through June 10th so you should head over and see it if you get a chance.

Comedy isn't pretty

May 06, 2007

Hello Susan!
Photo: Robert Millard/LA Opera 2007
Or at least it isn't if it is done poorly. Which really gets to the heart of the problem with LA Opera’s current production of Die Lustige Witwe. There is much to like about this evening, but the whole thing works so hard to achieve the desired effect that it can get cloying at times. Witwe is one of three operas this season (the others being Hansel und Gretel and Mahagonny) that the company elected to present in English translation. I suppose the notion is that translation somehow makes them more accessible to an audience who might not be willing to see this opera otherwise. However, this production is not unlike an American trying to communicate with a foreign tourist by speaking English to them as if they were stupid and deaf : our company seems to believe that translation is insufficient to get Witwe's jokes across, so just to make sure nothing is missed, the cast repeats them as slowly as possible.

Not that this afternoon’s performance was like watching paint dry. However, when the length of Lehár’s work reaches Wagnerian proportions, as it did here, one begins to drift away. Actually I’m making things sound worse than they are. There are several charming qualities to this production and they go by the names of Susan Graham, Rod Gilfry, and Eric Cutler. All three gave exemplary performances and Graham's wonderful voice often made you forget the ridiculous French accents everyone was trying to affect. At times it was like watching those European vacation episodes of I Love Lucy except without the comedy. Graham is funny and has good timing but there is too much here for her to overcome. Cutler is quickly becoming one of my favorites and Gilfry is always a pleasure to hear.

Another surprise though was an honest-to-God competent ballet sequence at the start of Act III. I certainly don't mind ballet in my opera, but I must admit I've never seen it done well, particularly here in LA. Special credit goes to Peggy Hickey and her leads in Act III, Lisa Gillespie and Jonathan Sharp, who were actually given the time, attention, and space to put a dance sequence together that was worth seeing. The production comes by way of SF Opera and Lofti Mansouri who also jazzed up the libretto a little bit. His liberties were probably much easier for many to swallow than the ones Gary Marshall took with Offenbach's La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein here in 2005. Somehow, though, I'd rather have the Catskill kitsch than this tepid slow-motion Juggernaut. Still, there are probably worse ways to spend 3-1/2 hours.

Heisser Sommer, in diesem Jahr...

May 05, 2007

from Heisser Sommer 1968

Well it’s the first weekend in May and here in LA that means only one thing: Summer has officially started. We in Southern California have an altered sense of time to begin with and since we don’t have actual weather markers to distinguish seasons, Summer typically runs from the release of the first heavily marketed Hollywood action flick (this year Spiderman 3) to Halloween when the end of Daylight Savings Time forces us to at least pretend that it is Fall. While many of us will head to the seaside cooperative farm (not unlike the spirited East German youth in Heisser Sommer), those of us who can’t stand all the nasty grit in our hair and clothes have plenty of other options both locally or out of town. I have just finished updating the “Later” column here at OWA with my own summer arts schedule, and you can check out the details for any of the following highlights and other events using the links there.

May will include the final shows of the LA Philharmonic season. Not to be outdone by James Conlon’s “Recovered Voices” Project at LA Opera focusing on composers suppressed by the Third Reich, the LA Phil has decided to go with one of the 20th century's other horrific totalitarian regimes – the USSR under Stalin. “Shadow of Stalin” will include music from Prokofiev, Gubaidulina, Ligeti, Lutoslawski, Mosolov, Popov, and Shostakovich (of course). Mixed in with this light-hearted fare will be Dawn Upshaw’s return to the local concert stage in songs by Golijov and Foss and two local performances by the touring Philadelphia Orchestra under Christoph Eschenbach.

from Heisser Sommer 1968

June will bring this year’s Ojai Music Festival, which will focus on the music of Peter Eötvös and the magnificent playing of Pierre-Laurent Aimard. The opera front will have a number of worthwhile events including LA Opera’s final production this season of Torroba’s Luisa Fernanda starring Placido Domingo. LA Opera will also be jumping into the radio broadcast bandwagon next weekend (May 12) when KUSC begins broadcasting performances from LA Opera this season. San Francisco Opera will also definitely be worth a trip when they mount Gluck’s Iphingénie en Tauride with Susan Graham and Paul Groves in the Chicago Lyric Opera staging and a revival of Der Rosenkavalier with a top drawer cast including Soile Isokoski’s Marschallin to Joyce DiDonato’s Octavian and Miah Persson’s Sophie.

Summer is nothing without a little traveling and this year I’m off to London and Munich, which I have posted about before here. I’m most looking forward to getting to hear Charles Mackerras conduct Janácek’s Káta Kabanová at Covent Garden and Dawn Upshaw finally getting her chance to perform Saariaho’s La Passion de Simone at the Barbican. I'm planning to also make it out to Glyndebourne for the premiere of their new staged version of JS Bach's St. Matthew Passion and will take in ENO's staging of Kismet with Michael Ball and Faith Prince. Munich will feature the world premiere of Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland led by LA Opera alum, Kent Nagano who will also be leading performances of Bayerische Staatsoper’s new productions of Salome and Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina from earlier this season.

from Heisser Sommer 1968

August means it’s off to Santa Fe Opera and the beautiful desert southwest. Although this year's festival is lean in the big name vocalist department, it will feature performances of Strauss’ rarely staged Daphne, the US Premiere of Tan Dun’s Tea: A Mirror of Soul, and a reformatted Platée - one of my highlights of 2006 from Paris and the mind of Laurent Pelly. Late August will also feature my annual visit to Ashland, Oregon for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in it’s last year under the leadership of Libby Appel before Southern California’s own Bill Rauch takes over the reigns next year. He will direct Romeo and Juliet for the Elizabethan Stage this summer in a season that will also include Tartuffe, On the Razzle, The Taming of the Shrew and my favorite The Tempest.

Back in LA, September means there are still two months of heat to go, and the Hollywood Bowl will feature Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the LA Philharmonic. Performances are scheduled to include his own Foreign Bodies and a concert performance of Boris Godunov with an excellent Russian cast including Michail Kit. Also on the stage of the Bowl will be Rufus Wainwright in his Judy Garland tribute show imported to the West Coast from New York. By that time, however, even though the summer lingers on, the new opera and music season will soon be underway and it will be time to talk of new plans. Heisser Sommer, wie wunderbar!

Switched-On Ray

May 02, 2007

Vicki Ray gets the job done
Photo: REDCAT 2006
The thirteenth season of Piano Spheres now at the Zipper Concert Hall wrapped up on Tuesday with a solo recital from one of our many great local keyboard talents, Vicki Ray. Ray is a member of the California EAR Unit and the Xtet and has been a leading light in the local contemporary music scene for many years including frequent performances with the LA Philharmonic New Music Group. It is always a pleasure to hear her play and the recital was not a disappointment. The program focused on recent and contemporary works that showed off Ray’s impeccable technique and her mastery of modern idioms. Opening the performance was Schnittkes’s Prelude and Fugue (1963), followed next by the US Premiere of James Tenney’s Essay (after a sonata) (2003) taking its inspiration from a theme from Ives "Concord Sonata". Ray then returned for the nine movements in Luc Ferrari’s Fragments du Journal Intime (rev. 1995).

The second half of the program was largely dedicated to the world premiere performance of a new work by Morton Subotnick written specifically for Ray. Subotnick has made his name in the area of electronic music over the last 40 or so years. His new piece, The Other Piano, stems from his interest in electronic processing techniques to (as he puts it) "capture a sense of ... pre-verbal-embodied musical experience by staying close to basic musical qualities." Ray performed a series of varying short and often repetitive sequences. These were recorded and then processed and played back simultaneously in altered form over a set of speakers while she continued to play. Subotnick himself ran the computer equipment used to sample the performance, altering the original tones into myriad wisps and echoes over the course of approximately 30 minutes. At first I liked the piece. The mechanical and spooky processed piano music provided a sort of post-modern commentary on piano performance. This was an "other" piano - one that neither sounds like or responds to our way of understanding a Piano, but at the same time may be one. But while this may be an interesting idea, it was somewhat boring in execution as there was little modulation in themes or tones throughout the work. At best, it sounded like the worst of Ligeti but often felt like it was about to fade into nothing. Maybe I’m biased, though. I’ve always found electronic “high art” music somewhat hard for me to tolerate, having grown up in an era where “electronic” music was heavily wedded to block-rockin’ beats. It’s hard for me to adjust to a real lack of rhythm in largely synthetic soundscapes. Of course without Subotnick and his peers, we might not have had the source material those beats would eventually spring from.

Still, Ray was wonderful, and overall it was a very enjoyable evening.

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