Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Recordings of the week

June 30, 2007

Spire 1

Connector by Richard Serra at Segerstrom Concert Hall, OC
Photo: mine 2007
Spire 2

BT Tower, London
Photo: mine 2007
18 hours and several thousand miles after starting out I have arrived in London and the start of two weeks of opera and theater both here and in Munich. Skies are grey, and, living in Southern California, it’s been so long since I’ve seen rain it feels like I’m on another planet despite the ever-increasingly similarities between cities all over the world. (With all of yesterdays foiled bomb plot news, it was strangely comforting to hear that TV news commentators are just as inane here as back in the states.)

My recordings this week are two operas I was listening to on my rather pleasant flight on the way over. First, is another wonderful Lorraine Hunt Lieberson recording from 1996 of Handel’s Ariodante under the direction of longtime collaborator and friend Nicholas McGegan on Harmonia Mundi. A true Baroque wonder.

Someone asked me when I plan an extended trip like this, how do I decide what to see? I told them that it is usually structure around a single event or two that are very high priorities and the rest is filled in from things that just happen to be going on in the neighborhood at the same time. This summer, one of my big goals was to see Unsuk Chin's new Alice in Wonderland opera in Munich. But the other was to see a true master, Sir Charles Mackerras doing what he will probably always be best remembered for - altering the history of 20th century opera by brining the masterworks of Janácek to everyone outside of the composer's homeland. The best kept secret in opera was long-ago brought out into the open, and I desperately wanted to get to see Mackerras conduct one of the Janácek operas he championed before he retires. What better place than here in Britain. As a warm up, I revisited his landmark recording of Kát'a Kábanová he made with Elisabeth Söderström, which is available separately and as part of a box set with all of the Mackerras' Janácek opera recordings.

All the young dudes

June 28, 2007


S. Epatha Merkerson and Alan Rosenberg
Photo: Myung J. Chun/LAT 2007
It has been much longer than I would like between this and my last post, but the realities of work and preparing for my upcoming European excursion have gotten in the way. But last week was not without its moments, which included the final production of the 06/07 season at Center Theater Group’s Kirk Douglas Theater, a revival of Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba. I’m always surprised at how well Inge’s plays hold up, despite some of the obvious out-of-date content. But then maybe it has something to do with the particular productions I’ve seen. CTG recruited stage and (small) screen star S. Epatha Merkerson to portray Lola (and hopefully sell many tickets I suppose to a show that replaced the previously scheduled premiere of the new David Mamet musical A Waitress in Yellowstone, which has been delayed to next year). Merkerson is cast against type and is most remarkable in how well she handles what is rather a thorny role. Lola’s strength is buried under a whole lot of wistfulness, but Merkerson is no novice and her abundant skill was really great to watch.

Her co-star, Alan Rosenberg, has a different set of problems in that his character, Doc, is mired in a terribly outdated version of the ins and outs of dealing with alcoholism. He goes the stoic route and, while certainly not bad, sometimes is lost between Merkerson and all of the young beauties on stage doing what their supposed to – tempt everyone. Between the milkman and Marie's beau there is more than a little seething eroticism for virtually all parties to chew on.

Of course, Inge has created no shortage of psychoanalytic goodies to mull over, and I found the play rather refreshing for this. Psychological development and tension often seems so watered down or esoteric in current works. Little Sheba isn’t afraid of wearing it’s Freudian heart on its sleeve, and good for it. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon. It runs through July 15th.

Meanwhile, Out West Arts is headed to Europe this week so stay tuned for ongoing reports from Munich and London, the highlights of which can be perused for those interested to the right.

Recordings of the Week

June 24, 2007

On Halloween 1988, I drove two hours from Miami University in Oxford, OH to Columbus, OH with friends to see Sonic Youth play during their tour to support Daydream Nation. It remains one of the most memorable concert experiences I've ever had. Loud and driving, symphonic and poignant, this recording is filled with the sense of danger and rebellion that is the hallmark of the greatest rock records. From the Gerhard Richter painting - Kerze (1983) - on the cover to the final chord, it is near perfection. Two decades of rock albums from Nirvana to Redd Kross to Pavement to everyone else would aspire to capture one iota of this post-punk masterpiece. Unfortunately, nothing would ever really sound cool again after this - or at least not to me. Geffen has just released a remastered edition in anticipation of Sonic Youth's upcoming tour which will reprise those landmark performances form the late Eighties. Not to be missed.

The new Emmanuelle Haïm recording of Handel's Il trionfo del Tempo e del disinganno was released recently on Virgin Classics. Period performance technique, lively playing, and Natalie Dessay - what's not to like?

Another Hollywood(y) Moment

June 23, 2007

By now, the news of LA Opera’s recruitment of Woody Allen to direct a new production of Gianni Schicchi for a 07/08 season opening Il Trittico has been widely reported. The press release also notes that long-time LA Opera collaborator William Friedkin will do the chores for the other two parts of the trilogy which is only appropriate given that he is the source of the company’s 2002 staging of Schicchi which was then paired with Bartok’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. I’m all for this cross-pollination and am interested to see what does, or doesn’t, come out of the collaboration. I do have one criticism already, though. They seem to have selected the wrong opera for Allen to direct. Sure he will always be remembered for his brilliant film comedies. But face it, he hasn’t made one of those in well over a decade or more. As the lion has entered winter, his strength has been his often unfairly-maligned dramas, particularly Crimes and Misdemeanors and the recent Match Point. If anything, I think it would be far more interesting to see his take on Il tabarro, where the older husband slays his wife’s younger lover in a fit of jealous rage. Now there is something Allen could sink his teeth into. What could he possibly add to Schicchi at this point?

Thus, LA Opera continues its forays into recruiting major film directors and artists into the opera world - and good for them. Of course Allen is about as far from mainstream Hollywood as you can get, but the point remains the same. Of course some will grouse about how bad all this outside influence will be on opera, but I say it is about time. If the glamorization of American opera with composers and artists from other fields and performers with talents above and beyond their vocal skills will be the death of opera, so be it. I just hope they finish the job before I have to sit through another wretched Lotfi Mansouri or Franco Zeffirelli nightmare.

Where to stay now

June 20, 2007

I had just a couple of small leftovers from my San Francisco weekend I thought I’d mention here. On Sunday, after all the opera excitement, I stopped by the Empire Plush Room in the York Hotel on Sutter for a cabaret performance from Marin Mazzie, who was wrapping up a week-long stay. The brief 60-minute program featured numbers from her Kander and Ebb/Jeffy Herman review and was enjoyable despite its brevity. I won’t go on except to say that her versions of “Maybe This Time” and her signature version of “Ring Them Bells” made the whole evening worthwhile. I saw Mazzie with her husband Jason Danieley in Orange County earlier this year and she was in the same dress performing different material. Though I like Danieley very much, I thought Mazzie was better here largely because she is the better singer and without him present, it was less distracting.

On my regular sojourns to San Francisco over the last several years, I’ve tended to stay a number of places and while I love the Palace and the W, there are financial considerations to keep in mind, so I’ve taken to staying at the far more reasonable and centrally-located Best Western Miyako on Sutter and Buchanan. It has always been clean but not much else. It was charmingly outdated and I like that it wasn't really trying to do anything. It also had a great advertisement in the elevators for the in-house restaurant , Café Mums, which from the photo appeared to be frequented by die-hard fans of Designing Women.

Well, they have just completed a major renovation and “rebranding” as a boutique hotel so we were surprised to arrive not at the Miyako but instead at the new Best Western Tomo, San Francisco’s newest Japanese anime-themed hotel. The rooms now feature large anime murals as well as cedar wood desks, bright modern furniture, flat screen TVs and huge Fatboy bean bag chairs. Check out the photos. Sure it’s not luxurious, and may be a bit crass, but it was also a fun makeover. Café Mums has also been reformatted and is fairly popular for its all-you-can-eat Shabu-shabu. I'll be in a lot of hotel rooms this summer but I doubt any will be as interesting as this one, compared to its previous incarnation. If you’re 11 years-old or an out-of-town visitor, it’s worth checking out.

The Writing's on the Wall

June 17, 2007

Susan Graham
Photo: Terrence McCarthy/SFO 2007

Despite all the conspiracy theories about the insidious forces of glamor and beauty thwarting musical and artistic values in the opera world, it seems to me that those who espouse these views may have overlooked a far more nefarious agent. After seeing Robert Carsen’s staging of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride now on display in San Francisco, I imagine these chicken littles will have something new to worry about - the undue influence of the chalk and wet sponge lobby. These items play prominently in a wonderful, minimal and dark vision of the work that relies heavily on evocative choreography by Phillipe Giraudeau. The production, which originated in Chicago and is a co-production with the Royal Opera in London, takes place in a giant empty black room with no apparent exits or entrances and walls covered in black chalkboard-like material which the cast periodically write on with both chalk and water. The water, which the cast applies directly to erase the chalk at times, is dripped and splattered at other moments to represent blood or something else equally grisly. This is a particularly effective tactic in the prologue where the dancers in male/female pairs reenact the three murders within Iphigénie’s family that occur prior to the events of the opera itself - water taking the place of blood in each of the three scenarios the dancers repeat over and over. This chaotic and war-like vision of Iphigénie in the prologue is mirrored at the end of the opera as war breaks out between the characters when she refuses Thoas's order to sacrifice her brother Oreste. Everyone comes dressed in totally black costumes that are effective at hiding chalk and sponges, they don’t provide much light or contrast in a hyper-dark, and hyper-somber staging. Instead, the production relies on virtuoso lighting effects from Peter van Praet to accentuate the gut-wrenching performances in a manner similar to Saturday night’s Don Giovanni. In the end of Iphigénie as Diane saves the day and brings piece to the land, all three walls rise 5 to 6 feet in the air to reveal a blinding white light surrounding the stage. I know it sounds trite here, but it was very effective on stage.

Susan Graham and cast
Photo: Terrence McCarthy/SFO 2007

The production arrives in San Francisco with most of the original cast intact including Susan Graham as Iphigénie. It is a star vehicle for Graham who has no shortage of admirers including myself. She is excellent here and will also star in yet another new production of this same opera later this year for the Metropolitan Opera. She deserved the standing ovation she got and then some for this performance on Sunday which was overflowing with pathos. It was so overwhelming, in fact that the audience was virtually stunned into silence throughout most of the performance actually letting moments of post-aria quite go by without filling them with usually ever-present clapping. The other major roles were covered by Bo Skovhus as Oreste, and Paul Groves as Pylade. While Groves healed no one via sexual activity here, he delivered a wonderful set of arias and actually created some erotic tension in a work with a homoerotic subtext that Carsen did not shy away from. Skovhus's experience as Wozzeck paid off big-time here. He does psychologically tortured heroes like nobody else working today. The SF Opera orchestra, while not necessarily delicate under Patrick Summers, were otherwise quite good.

Bo Skovhus and cast
Photo: Terrence McCarthy/SFO 2007

It was a great end to a weekend of very strong productions in San Francisco which, while bittersweet, filled me with some hope for the future. It has been a rough transitional season up north with rather sub-standard and unexciting work most of the fall, and these summer productions were a reminder of the spirit of adventurousness, among other qualities, that may be lost with Pamela Rosenberg’s departure last year. But at the same time, they point out what a great company San Francisco Opera is. There is certainly more than one way to skin a cat, and given Gockley’s track record in Houston and the first sign of his own plans as early as next season, I’m sure there will be plenty to look forward to. All three of the summer productions wrap up by July 1 so get out there before the parade passes you by.

Recordings of the week

I was noticing that my weekly recordings posts have been heavily oriented toward opera and vocal work so far, which is my wont. However, I thought I should feature some non-vocal performances this week and here are two. The recent Sir Colin Davis Sibelius disc featuring a live performance from the LSO of Symphony No. 2 and Pohjola's Daughter has been widely featured in The Gramophone and elsewhere and deservedly so. And since I'm not above jumping on a bandwagon, here it is. This is not a bad place to start if you're getting warmed up for the LA Philharmonic's Sibelius series with Salonen this fall.

The new recording of Silvestrov's Symphony No. 6 is a more complicated choice. I haven't completely decided if I like it yet or not, but it is compelling and worth listening to. At first go through, I felt it was as if someone had taken the "fate" motif from Beethoven's 5th and concocted an entire symphony from these few bars. Granted this first listen was in the car. Subsequent exposure argues for a much broader appreciation, but hey, you be the judge.

A Letter to Three Giovannis -
Part 1, San Francisco

Mariusz Kwiecien as Don Giovanni and Oren Gradus as Leporello
Photo: Terrence McCarthy/SFO 2007

I often complain about the lack of variety in opera programming, particularly here in the US. However, the one exception to this rule is Mozart. I am more inclined to tolerate this youngster’s heavy-rotation hits than any other composers' which may explain how I have ended up with tickets to three different Don Giovannis in the next 6 months. My expectations for the first, here in San Francisco, were rather low, to be honest, given the lackluster 06/07 season they have had thus far. Whether or not these low expectations played into my reaction here is unclear, but it is still very much the case that this may end up being the best Giovanni if not one of the best opera productions I see all together this year.

This standard is set in large part by an unusually strong cast including one of the internationally leading Don Giovannis, Mariusz Kwiecien, who holds the stage easily with his commanding and clarion baritone. This is an episodic opera and one of its pitfalls is that Giovanni can get lost in the mix of all the other characters. The mark of a star is managing to keep the central character in focus throughout and Kwiecien does so with ample finesse. (He may not be quite as hot as Erwin Schrott overall, but he ain't bad in the looks department either.) The rest of the cast doesn’t have a slouch among them: Charles Castronovo’s Don Ottavio was romantic, Oren Gradus’ Leporello was both comic and beautiful, and Claudia Mahnke’s Zerlina was fragile without falling to pieces. Twyla Robinson’s Donna Elvira was good if a little bit too shrill throughout.

Elza van den Heever as Donna Anna
Photo: John Lee/SFO 2007
Then there is the matter of Donna Anna. Much hay has been made of the last moment replacement of Hope Briggs with current Adler fellow Elza van den Heever in this role. Briggs is a wonderful singer and her appearance here as the Duchess of Parma from a few years ago sticks in my mind still. Some have written about all of the political and artistic implications of the switch, but frankly, I couldn’t care less. I will say one thing though, if I, as the director, knew before opening that van den Heever could sing the part like she did last night, I’d have replaced a lot bigger names than Briggs’ no matter how good they were. Van den Heever was freakin’ fantastic. Let’s hope this is more than just a one-off Donna Anna trick she does and that we soon hear her in other roles – lots of them in fact.

Of course, Runnicles turned in yet another stellar performance with the SF Opera orchestra, which is especially remarkable given the big-band modern approach they took. David McVicar’s production is also quite good. Eye-catching and modern without being completely anachronistic, this dark and Byronic take on Mozart’s work holds the eye throughout. It is mobile without being overly fussy or precarious and gives the lighting folks, Jennifer Tipton and Scott Bolman a real chance to show off their prodigious skills. I did feel that the ending could have been a bit more ominous and creepy, however. The Commendatore’s fright-night gore costume was more silly than scary. But who am I to complain. This may well end up being the best thing SF Opera has put on stage in over a year, so go see it, if you haven’t already, in the three remaining performances. In fact if you've already seen it, it's probably worth seeing more than once.

Accentuate the positive

June 16, 2007

Joyce DiDonato as Octavian and Miah Persson as Sophie
Photo: Terrence McCarthy/SFO 2007

My visit to this year’s summer season with the San Francisco Opera kicked off with their revival of Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. I’ve really been looking forward to this one because I love Strauss and former SF Opera director Pamela Rosenberg had put together a top-drawer cast – Soile Isokoski as The Marschallin, Joyce DiDonato as Octavian, and Miah Perssson as Sophie with Donald Runnicles conducting. In most ways, it did not disappoint and is very much worth seeing. The fact that the auditorium was far from capacity on the Friday night's second performance was frankly quite sad.

Before we get to the drawbacks, let's hear the copious good news. You won’t hear a better sung or played production anywhere today. DiDonato’s rapidly and deservedly rising star was no doubt the central attraction. I could say more, but you can read about her everywhere. Let me draw your attention to another great big talent in the cast – Miah Persson. Mostly known in Europe for her Mozart roles, the soprano has graced our shores recently in concert performances in LA and elsewhere. She is now venturing onto our opera stages, and last night she was fantastic. Clear, beautiful, and solid throughout, she was a joy to hear. The show was at its best when she and DiDonato were on stage together.
Soile Isokoski
Photo: Terrence McCarthy/SFO 2007
I should also make note of Isokoski’s performance which was also a vocal pleasure. Kirstinn Sigmundsson did the Baron Ochs chores for the night and they weren’t entirely thankless either. Everyone could have used a little more acting support: DiDonato doesn’t quite have the male physical gestures down, Isokoski was too detached and Ochs could have affored to be a little more buffoonish and a little less boorish. Still, these are minor quibbles. Runnicles and the orchestra turned in a lively performance if not as exacting as I might have preferred.

Despite these many assets however, the negative of the evening is hard to eliminate. I’m not sure what is more shocking: that SF Opera mounted this dreadful, archaic Lofti Mansouri staging as “new” in 1993 or that they have had the gall to revive it now two times since then. It is so musty that it weighs everything down and nearly eliminates any enjoyable visual element from the proceedings. Blogger and SF Chronicle critic Joshua Kosman notes that he originally thought the production akin to “taxidermy” but that it has grown on him during repeated viewings. Apparently bad opera productions have an effect not dissimilar to TV violence – recurrent exposure makes one numb to its deleterious consequences. Still, this is a Rosenkavalier not to be missed - you may just want to keep your eyes closed for protection.

Our beloved revolutionary sweetheart

June 12, 2007

Cast of Luisa Fernanda
Photo: Robert Millard/LA Opera 2007

The Los Angeles Opera brought its 06/07 to a close (at least for me) Tuesday night with a fairly well-traveled and well-received production of Torroba’s Luisa Fernanda. Of course, the work and production are new to LA, a town where more people have a command of Spanish than Italian, German, or French so in some ways it would seem appropriate to bring a zarzuela such as this out to the West Coast. On top of this, the production stars Placido Domingo as Vidal Hernando, and it must be said that hearing the master sing and sing so well at this point in his career is more than enough reason to catch one of the two remaining performances on Thursday and Saturday. But there are other reasons, too - like Yali-Marie Williams for instance. Making her LA Opera debut she has been filling in for an ill Maria Jose Montiel throughout virtually all of this run. She is a former Operalia winner, she sounds marvelous here and holds her own both against Domingo as well as Antonia Gandia as Javier. She is certainly more feisty than romantic, which does leave things a little cold at times in a work that relies heavily on believable romantic sentiment. It also relies heavily on a rather convoluted plot which involved not only the love triangle but a story of revolution and rebellion. And while having a silly or convoluted plot may not be a reason to dismiss a work out of hand, having the music of Verdi or Mozart may go a long way to covering over some of the weaker spots.

The other major contributor to the success of this performance is Emilio Sagi and his clever, sharp, and strikingly minimal set design. The period costumes are integrated into a black and white set with sheer curtains that is simple and to the point, but very effective. This was additionally surprising because of the absolutely god-awful Carmen he subjected us to here as recently as 2004. Which just goes to show why it is important not to judge someone by one production or staging alone. Conductor Miguel Roa and the orchestra sounded good and managed to keep the Puccini-esque score lively enough even when things seemed more disconnected on stage.

Still, though, I couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed. What started off as one of the strongest season’s in recent memory for LA, with dynamite performances of La Traviata, Don Carlo, a Netrebko/Villazon Manon, and a fantastic Poppea, has devolved into a messy group of operettas over the last two months with a significantly awful Lofti Mansouri Merry Widow and the perennially underwhelming Porgy and Bess. Luisa Fernanda is certainly superior to these latter two entries, but it still seems like an afterthought. So the season ends not with a bang, but the proverbial whimper. However, this is opera and, as always, one has to focus on the good in an art form where there are so many elements that rarely are all the stars aligned.

Ojai Day 2

June 11, 2007

Sometimes I wonder why I go to the Ojai festival. I hate sitting outdoors in the sun, or even worse, freezing at night. Nor is sitting on a hard bench for up to 6 hours a day my idea of fun. (Those cushions help but let’s not kid ourselves, shall we?) Needless to say I am not one for rural climes either and one can exhaust the other attractions in Ojai in a little under an hour. But there is one thing the festival does have: great performances from some of the world’s most interesting musicians and composers in what can really be described as an intimate setting. In fact it sometimes boggles my mind that there aren’t more people who take advantage of the festival. My case in point – here is the vantage from my seat at Sunday morning’s concert:

The view from my seats at Ojai
Photo: mine 2007

I can’t tell you much of what Mr. Gehry or Mr. Eötvös spoke about and even less about the conversation Mr. Eötvös had with Mr. Aimard while he was sitting next to me due to my disastrously poor French. But where else are you going to see this without writing a very large check to a very large arts organization.

The concert in question on Sunday morning was a performance from the percussion ensemble, Nexus. The five members presented an enjoyable grab bag of short pieces from virtually every genre you can think of that the solo percussion repertory is drawn from. Probably the two highlights for me were the opening Music for Pieces of Wood by Steve Reich and a collection of Ancient Military Aires played on drums fit for the purpose. Both pieces were astounding with what they could achieve in sheer musicality with so little: much more than rhythm but a whole sound world complete with melody, emotion, and even humor.

Nexus: Bob Becker, Bill Cahn, Robin Engelman, Russell Hartenberger,
Garry Kvistad and one poorly placed tree
Photo: mine 2007

And here’s more news for those new music doubters – the military aires alone prove that “minimalism” as a legitimate and effective musical style was around long before Glass or Reich or Riley ever put pen to paper. The rest of the show was dominated by pieces based on various cultural traditions and a humorous work composed almost entirely of bird whistles and calls by Nexus member William Cahn appropriately titled The Birds. There was also a recent commission from Linda Catlin Smith, Blue Sky, that was mostly comprised of esoteric and lightly played cymbals and other metallic instruments that I did not find completely engrossing in this outdoor context. Somewhere else…who knows? Still, ample talent was clearly evident and if anyone needed a reminder, all they had to do was hang around the dirty bare-foot, patchouli drum circle crowd in the north part of the park during the afternoon break between shows. All the au fait caterwauling irritated me as much now as it did in college and it is a stark reminder that just because one can hit a drum does not mean that one can actually play one.

Aimard with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra
Photo: mine 2007

The closing performance of this year’s festival combined visiting director Pierre-Laurent Aimard and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra under Douglas Boyd in a selection of four works for piano and orchestra: Mozart’s 8th Piano Concerto, Ligeti’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Elliott Carter’s Dialogues for Piano and Orchestra, and Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G to wrap things up. The highlight of the show was easily the Carter work, which was conducted by Aimard, who stepped aside to leave the piano chores to Tamara Stefanovich. In the midst of great performances from a master, Stefanovich stepped up to the plate and delivered an engrossing and completely enthralling version of the Dialogues. While ultimately not as overwhelming as the previous day’s solo recital from Aimard, this was a great concert. Aimard’s playing is a wonder and even his full-bodied approach to the Mozart held me in awe. It was even easy to look past the Gershwinesque Jazz influences in the Ravel and be held rapt by Aimard’s miraculous playing at the opening of the Adagio. All in all, it was a great weekend and with the promise of David Robertson and Dawn Upshaw next year, it’s time to start blocking the dates now.

Recordings of the week

June 10, 2007

Initially, I was going to go in a completely different direction with this week's choices, but after hearing yesterday's performance from Aimard at the Ojai Festival, I had to revisit his 2004 recording of the Ives' "Concord" Sonata. Brilliantly paired with Susan Graham's performance of a number of Ives' songs, Aimard makes the strongest case yet for this work as the masterpiece it is. If there is anyone who is playing this work these days who does it better that Aimard, I don't know who it is. One of my favorite recordings from everyone involved.

As for the latest recording from Rufus Wainwright, Release the Stars, if nothing else, it certainly demands attention. I am one of those who does believe the junior Mr. Wainwright can be prone to self-indulgence at times. But on the other hand as a gay man it is admittedly hard to resist this combination of political and personal disaffection mixed with an unspoken secret desire to be Karl Lagerfeld. So go figure. His opera commission from the Met may or may not turn out to be a disaster, but you've got to love someone whose opera conversion happened around Don Carlo.

Ojai - The First Day

June 09, 2007

George Ball and Pierre-Laurent Aimard at the Libbey Bowl
Photo: mine 2007
I was finally able to get away from town on Saturday for the Ojai festival. This year's 61st anniversary installment is under the guest direction of Pierre-Laurent Aimard and features the conducting and compositions of Peter Eötvös. As usual, the Festival, which is currently headed up by Thomas W. Morris, features six "enchanting, intimate, provocative," and "surprising" programs over 4 days. The first show I caught was Saturday morning's more or less solo recital from Aimard that featured a number of his specialties including Ives' "Concord" Sonata. Before that, though, he played straight through a dizzying combination of shorter works: Schumann's Gesänge der Frühe, two contrapuncti from Bach's Art of the Fugue, and Elliott Carter's Intermittences and Caténaires. Aimard's virtuosity in 20th century repertoire is well known, and here it was in no short supply. His command of detail throughout was magnificent. But his "Concord" performance was sublime. Here each movement was preceded with a reading from George Ball highlighting some of Ives' own writing on the sonata itself as well as the various authors each movement concerns - Emerson, Hawthorne, the Alcotts, and Thoreau. Aimard's rendition of the third movement relating to the Alcott's ancestral home was particularly affecting in its beauty but wisely avoided sentimentality.

St. Paul Chamber Orchestra with Douglas Boyd (behind tree), Vinson Cole and Monica Groop
Photo: mine 2007
This would have been a difficult program to follow up under any circumstances so the fact that this evening's program wasn't quite as great came as no surprise. But it was still very enjoyable with many fine elements. Douglas Boyd led the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in two big works - the US Premiere of Eötvös' Chinese Opera and the Schoenberg arrangement of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. Both works would seem to have connections to Chinese culture but ironically neither really does at all. Eötvös' 30-minute 3 movement work does involve some Asian-inspired percussion elements, but it actually has much more to do with theatrics and his admiration for three particular directors: Peter Brooks, Luc Bondy, and Patrice Chéreau. Witty and enjoyable, but not necessarily overwhelming. The Mahler featured tenor Sean Panikkar (a current San Francisco Adler fellow subbing for the originally scheduled Vinson Cole) and mezzo-soprano, Monica Groop. Both performed admirably as did the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, but in this case the whole was not as great as the sum of these parts. Despite Groop's clear and beautiful tone, I never felt very connected to her or the piece. Despite the smaller size of Schoenberg's ensemble, the arrangement still seemed to be straining to fill up as much space as possible. I'm not sure how much is Mahler and how much was the conducting here, but I felt less would definitely have been more in this situation. But subtlety isn't always everything.

Lift and Separate

June 07, 2007

LA Master Chorale with Grant Gershon
Photo: mine 2007

This evening was the final program in the LA Master Chorale’s season, and like most of their concerts were most noticeable for its thoughtful and vibrant programming choices delivered with the finest of performances under their esteemed leader, Grant Gershon. The show was a bit of a weekday add-on, repeating a performance from Sunday in part to acknowledge the presence of Chorus America’s 30th annual conference taking place in LA this week. The program, designed to show off the LAMC’s many prodigious strengths, included Arvo Pärt’s Te Deum, James MacMillan’s Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, and a new commission from Eve Beglarian, Sang. As usual, the biggest problem with the show had nothing to do with the actual performance of the music, but with the insipid marketing and packaging of the material. The program was entitled “Lift” exhibiting the LAMC’s clear preference for action verbs (like Embark or Awaken) over the adjective/noun combinations the LA Philharmonic tends to go with like “Concrete Frequency,” “Minimalist Jukebox,” and “The Tristan Project.” Grant Gershon referred to the program tritely as “a spiritual journey” which I suppose is true in that they were all based on religious texts but it’s not clear to me what the journey business is. Why the LAMC management persists in describing their often brilliant and challenging programming to the basest possible terms is beyond me. Do people really find this necessary? Does it honestly sell more tickets?

Enough of the rhetorical questions and the complaining. Let’s talk about the good stuff, of which there was plenty. The MacMillan and Pärt performances were LAMC at their best. The chorus was highly evocative and well controlled. As always the beauty of the WDCH showed through, creating the frequent sensation that you could hear each individual member of the chorus simultaneously. However, this probably gives the building too much credit considering how talented these individual and their fearless leader Mr. Gershon are.

Another hallmark of the Master Chorale has been their commitment to new and recent works, exemplified here by the world premiere of Eve Beglarian’s Sang, which is not the past tense of the Master Chorale’s main activity, but the Persian word for stone. The work concerns an ancient Persian parable set along side short bible verses and sung in a combination of Farsi, Hebrew, and Greek. The work was the first of a multi-year commissioning project from the LAMC inanely titled “LA is the World.” The work’s main strength and its calling card is the contribution of two masters of Persian music, Manoochehr Sadeghi and Pejman Hadadi (both of whom reside in Los Angeles) whose performances lived up to their hard earned reputations. However, I think that the piece overall was rather tepid and uninteresting. While pretty, the choral writing is particularly undynamic making the Pärt later on the program sound like a Verdi chorus. The Persian themes are played up for their (surprise!) mystical and exotic content which is both obvious and rather uninspired. As the banal “multi-culti” theme “LA is the World” might suggest, Beglarian’s work may be the harbinger of not so great things to come. Instead of a more complicated view of cultural difference and how it plays out in a dense urban landscape, here we are presented with facile and easy-to-swallow pluralism. Apparently we all can just get along if we stick to our respective places. And so it goes in LA as everywhere, the more things change…


Closing Time

June 04, 2007

LA Phil with Salonen and Karel Husa
Photo: mine 2007
Another LA Philharmonic season came to a close over the weekend and I left anticipating the withdrawal that comes with this time each year. (Of course the Hollywood Bowl is a landmark and all, but the acoustics still suck and I am officially tired of the legions of people who can't seem to to tolerate any second in which they are both immobile and not simultaneously eating.) The last weekend was marked with the final two shows in the "Shadow of Stalin" series focusing on the dictator's effect on composers and their music in the 20th century. Friday night featured Eastern Bloc composers who came of age following Stalin's era but who still felt his political influence - Ligeti, Lutoslawski, and Husa. The highlight of this evening was Husa's Music for Prague 1968. Inspired by the turmoil and unrest of the period, the piece is both percussive and disquieting with a dash of hope. Husa himself was present for the performance and made brief remarks from the stage with Salonen. Ligeti's Concert Romanesc and Lutoslawski's Concerto for Orchestra were not of dissimilar veins which left me thinking that despite all of the influence Stalin may have had over artists from this time and place, the series may have been more aptly called the Shadow of Stravinsky.

The big final show of the year on Sunday was a performance of Prokofiev's score for Sergei Eisenstein's film Alexander Nevsky. Eisenstein's effort to return to Stalin's good graces after his lack of success in the West, Nevsky is burdened by the same tropes as much of Shostakovich's works of this period and later: Did they really mean it? Or is Nevsky filled with clever subversive content that is just now coming to fuller light? I'm not convinced this matters much, but this I do know - the film is filled with beautiful images and Prokofiev's score contains numerous wonderful moments played expertly here. On the other hand, though, I have to admit that as a big season ending show, this was a bit of a disappointing choice for me. In recent years, Salonen has wrapped up with his own works or Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps, both works that could easily hold one over for the whole summer. Here, though, the LA Phil succumbed to the consistent problem of film music in that the performance became obliterated by one's concentration on the narrative and images of the film itself. When it was over, I felt that I had missed the Philharmonic's part all together. Not that it wasn't great, I just wish they would have been a little more center stage. Oh, I should also mention that Ekaterina Gubanova's 3 minutes or so of performance of the total two hours were exhilarating and easily the high point of the show.

So, now it's time to say so long, for now, to WDCH and the LA Phil till October. I was going to comment more about the season overall, but given the length of this post, I think I'll wait until later.

Recordings of the Week

June 03, 2007

With so many great recordings of Handel arias in the last few years it seems unreasonable to expect yet another satisfying collection so soon. But here it is - this time from early music specialist Mark Padmore. He certainly may not be as flashy as some countertenors, mezzos, and sopranos that have mined Handel's seemingly endless vaults for material, but he nonetheless delivers. Padmore is joined by Andrew Manze and his former ensemble, The English Concert, who have also had quite a strong batting average lately given their Harmonia Mundi release of CPE Bach symphonies from last year.

While you can take the boy out of Shaker Heights, you can't ever take the Shaker Heights out of the boy. Exhibit A, Mr. Reznor is still busy burning away that candle at both ends. God bless 'im. Excellent recording.

Romeo et al.

June 01, 2007

Joy Osmanski as Juliet and Deborah Strang as the Nurse
Photo: Craig Schwartz/ANW 2007
I’ve been neglecting to comment on the final production of A Noise Within’s spring season, Romeo and Juliet, which I saw last weekend. In part this is due to the fact that this is not my favorite Shakespeare play by a long shot. The only time I’ve ever found it the least bit engaging was Gounod’s operatic take on the text when LA Opera mounted it in 2005 with Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon. Which may say more about the cast than the play itself – in a convincingly acted performance with two talents of this caliber suddenly the play seemed to work on some level. It may not be that I dislike the play so much as that I just haven't met the right production yet. (I suspect this gets under the skin of all you Netrebko-haters out there. Face it, people eagerly pay to see her for a reason other than her looks. So get over yourselves already.)

ANW pulled out all the stops for this big cast extravaganza of a production under the direction of Michael Murray. No expense was spared in the action department either as fight director Ken Merckx (cast as Tybalt) went full-tilt with some fairly convincing fight scenes. The set design was minimal leaving the focus on the cast who were in period costume appropriate for its 1930s coastal Italy update. Of course I couldn’t quite figure out how Tybalt and Paris got into the coastal Italian branch of the German SS, but some things are better left unknown. The leads were Joy Osmanski as Juliet and Steve Coombs returning to local stages as Romeo. Coombs was decidedly more clothed here than in his appearance in The Picture of Dorian Gray at Boston Court Theater last year. But since he is young and the director has a convenient excuse for him to take his shirt off, I suppose it could make him a little more convincing as a young man in love. However, all the abs in the world couldn't prevent his, or Ms. Osmanski’s, performances from being as stiff as a board. (Ms. Netrebko and Mr. Villazon may be "hot" for sex-starved opera audiences, but there are thousands far more attractive wannabes in LA who can't generate one iota of the emotion either of them can with the power of their voices.)

The real stars here are J. Todd Adams’ as Mercutio, Mark Bramhall’s Friar Lawrence, and Deborah Strang as the Nurse. These long time ANW collaborators proved their weight in gold once again capturing the stage throughout the evening. Strang continues to be one of the greatest treasures of the local theater scene here in LA and her performance as the Nurse here makes it clear why. These three performances alone made the production worthwhile and argue for why A Noise Within continues to provide some of the best and most enjoyable theater evenings in town. ANW has announced its 2007-2008 season which will include The Winter's Tale, Henry IV Part I, and Night of the Iguana which you can read more about here.

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