Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Now swallow

November 26, 2007

Angela Gheorghiu
Photo: Terrence McCarthy/SFO 2007

The last opera on this visit to San Francisco was the soon to close production of Puccini’s La Rondine mounted specifically as a star vehicle for Angela Gheorghiu in her first appearance with the company. She is marvelous. There are about a million things to love about her including her wonderful voice. Close to the top of that list is her ability to take a minor work like this by probably the single-most overrated composer in the Western tradition of music and make it seem more than tolerable, but actually worthwhile. There were moments where all the dross melted away and she held that audience in her sway with only the power of her throat. Amazing. There are a lot of jollies to be had in opera and this is unquestionable one of them.

A lot of scuttlebutt has been floating around lately about Ms. Gheorghiu’s diva-like behavior – walking out of this and that production here and there while here understudies are lionized as the next big thing by people with axes to grind. And while I certainly am no fan of unprofessional behavior, when you hear that she has been "fired" by Chicago Lyric Opera for skipping out on the majority of rehearsals of La Boheme one can’t help but think, well isn’t that kind of what they get for such unimaginative programming in the first place. If you put on the same old thing for the umpteenth million time, it seems to me that this is the risk you take in hiring a big name talent. If there is a criticism of Gheorghiu it is not that she is unprofessional, but that she continues to drag herself through perhaps the least interesting roles and career trajectory imaginable. Sure her Violetta is beyond reproach. But what has she done for you lately? Tosca? Mimi? Amelia? If she wasn’t spending most of her time trying to rescue marginal and over-performed operas to begin with, she might be in better stead overall.

Of course there was more to this Rondine than Gheorghiu but not much. Misha Didyk sang some tenor part competently. The audience applauded the sets, which were most appreciative of the attention. And while the art deco Egyptian look fit the 1920s Paris update well, no one seemed to pass that information around to the wardrobe department who went with costumes a little more Iowa than arrondissement. But, as I've noted, the whole point of this is to feature Ms. Gheorghiu singing, which she does unquestionably well and that alone is worth seeing it if you haven't already. There is one more performance left next weekend.


Stop Making Sense

November 25, 2007

Georgina Lukács and Thomas Hampson
Photo: Terrence McCarthy/SFO 2007

It seems unfair to write about San Francisco Opera’s current production of Verdi’s Macbeth at this point. So many have already provided ample commentary on the wilder aspects of the evening from the light box, to the typewriter, to the witches with hula-hoops. What more is there possibly to say? Well how about this, based on last night’s performance I’d say this Macbeth not only sounds great, it’s a whole lot of fun. Sure there are anachronisms galore, and thank god for that. Without them we’d be stuck with another horror like the season opening Samson et Dalila revival. Instead we have a wacky array of red clothed witches of every stripe with props to match, huge day-glo robes for the principals, and lots of green everywhere representing not only Scotland’s verdant countryside, but at times blood and death. Not everything works, but it is always fun to watch. Despite all of General Director David Gockley’s teeth gnashing about “Eurotrash” productions, there is some good news – it appears he’s still got some commitments he hasn’t been able to extract himself or the company from just yet.

Musically, the performance matched the production. Georgina Lukács has taken a lot of hits for her wide vibrato and rightly so. But I actually thought that after the first act things got progressively better for her. Perhaps it was just the fear of being attached to the top of the light box with cliff repelling gear that set her on edge, but her performance was certainly remarkable in its level of commitment. She starts crazy and just gets crazier. I never once doubted her sincerity and while her acting choices tended toward the broad, I thought it worked quite well overall making her death scene more than believable. In this respect, Thomas Hampson, the Macbeth and big star of this production could stand a few lessons from her. His singing was impeccable with a beautiful tone but I found his performance somewhat unengaging in the acting department. He often seemed to be singing to himself more than anyone else onstage or in the audience. Not that he was underpowered, just somewhat preoccupied. The chorus was excellent. They sounded great and they actually had something to do, which they did with great aplomb throughout. The orchestra under Massimo Zanetti also lived up to expectations.

Still, director David Pountney didn’t make it easy on Hampson, giving him oodles of things to deal with including a banquet table filled with fresh graves, death star military costumes, and the tiny lithe female body of the murdered King Duncan to carry around for more seconds than he or anyone else probably felt comfortable with. But, hey that’s show business, folks. The San Francisco Opera’s Macbeth has three more performances next week.


Faraway, So Close

November 24, 2007

Laura Aikin as Anne Truelove and William Burden as Tom Rakewell
Photo: Terrence McCarthy/SFO 2007

San Francisco Opera opened its last new production of the Fall, Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, Friday night and, with the exception of the last 20 minutes and the lack of a little vocal power in some areas, it is brilliant. This staging from Robert Lepage is a co-production that had its world premiere at La Monnaie earlier this year and will travel to Covent Garden in 2008 with a cast to include Charles Castronovo, Sally Matthews, and John Relyea under the baton of Thomas Adès. Lepage’s Rake owes less to the engravings of Hogarth and much more to the films of George Stevens, creating a world decidedly cinematic in tone with large Cinemascope-like projected backdrops that move and roll with the elements on stage. The opera's mise-en-scène is moved to the American West of the 20th Century in much the same way that John Doyle did in LA in February with his staging of Weil’s Mahagonny. Lepage’s Tom Rakewell becomes a James Dean-type innocent who leaves his West Texas home to be corrupted by the lure of Hollywood and Las Vegas complete with his turns as a cocaine-sniffing actor and jaded Beverly Hills husband. However, where Doyle’s adaptation trudged along despite high wattage star power, Lepage’s Rake flies by on the wings of an ever-expanding series of trompe l’oeil where inflatable camper vans spring from the stage, miniature houses arise from the backstage as if in the distance, and movie-set saloons rise instantly from the floor.

Denyce Graves as Baba the Turk and William Burden as Tom Rakewell
Photo: Terrence McCarthy/SFO 2007
All of these fun and grabbing visuals were accompanied by a musical and vocal performance that, while far from ideal, was not completely shabby either. If there were any issues with the cast, they were primarily about vocal power. The Tom Rakewell, William Burden, and Anne Truelove, Laura Aikin, frequently vanished in the orchestration unless they were downstage center and facing out to the audience. When they were, their tones were both quite splendid, but this was a hit and miss affair. The supporting roles were much stronger. As usual Denyce Graves all but steals virtually every scene she is in as Baba the Turk, which is not a testament to her singing which is a little ragged around the edges but her immense acting talent which often more than compensates. The perennially stentorian James Morris was wonderful as Nick Shadow. Conductor Donald Runnicles was on the podium with a spirited version of the score if not the most detailed.

With so much to like on stage, what could possible go wrong? If the Rake’s Progress proves anything, it is that in opera, like apples, one rotten scene can run dangerously close to dragging down everything with it. The whole piece seemed to be sprinting toward a winning evening when suddenly everything unraveled in the final insane asylum scene. After the prior 2 and a half hours whizzing by, things came to a grinding halt through a series on concurrent poor choices. First, the set for the asylum was set into the floor placing much of it out of view, at least for the orchestra. Runnicles elected to take things much slower than the rest of the evening presumably to match the change in tone from more comic to more tragic and to allow the soloists to lovingly languish over some of the beautiful lines Stravinsky has written for them. Sadly the effect was more like pricking a balloon with a pin and one could feel all of the air rushing out of the room. It was a case of opera jet lag and those previously missing two hours suddenly returned to everyone’s regret. Still, there is too much right about this production overall to miss it during the remaining five performances at the War Memorial Opera House through December 9.


Ancient History

November 21, 2007

(l to r)Brett Ryback, Demond Robertson, Adam Armstrong, and Seth Numrich
Photo: Craig Schwartz 2007

I’ve missed posting about a number of theater events these last two weeks and to be honest it’s mostly because much of what I’ve seen has been OK but not necessarily overwhelming. However, there was one particular relative disappointment worth noting. Last weekend saw the opening of a local production of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys at the Ahmanson Theater downtown that will run in a limited engagement through December 9. This is a fine play and a solid British entry into the beloved-teacher/inspired-student relationship genre. Part of the real success of Bennett’s work is that it is a play of ideas but actually has a strong narrative structure. After well-received productions in both London and New York as well as a motion picture, this LA facsimile is a bit of a departure in that it does not benefit from any of the original cast or direction common to these prior incarnations. Although it does retain the sets and overall design elements seen on Broadway, this production seems more hampered by these holdovers than helped by them. A largely American cast deals with accents and plot elements with varying degrees of success over the course of two and a half hours. Unfortunately, this does end up being important, especially in terms of succeeding with some of the work's more implausible elements such as the rather elastic sexual nature of 1980s English teenage boys. Still there are some fine performances from Dakin Matthews as Hector and Charlotte Cornwell as Mrs. Lintott. Matthews continues to grab attention here on LA stages and he follows up his scene stealing contribution to the Taper’s recent Water and Power with another commanding run here. Still, the critique of Thatcherite England falls somewhat flat here even if it is a sharp looking production with several enjoyable elements.


Dis is the City

November 18, 2007

Grant Gershon with the LAMC and LACO
Photo: mine 2007

You have to hand it to the Los Angeles Master Chorale and their fearless leader Grant Gershon. As Esa-Pekka Salonen used his influence to mold this city into one that has a strong appreciation of new music, the LAMC has not missed a beat throwing itself headlong in the same fashion commissioning new works right and left from living composers and keeping their programs challenging and inventive despite their decidedly low brow PR. Tonight’s concert was no exception in that it featured a substantial and tantalizing world premiere from Louis Andriessen, The City of Dis or: The Ship of Fools. The piece stems from his longstanding interest in Dante’s Divine Comedy and hearkens to an earlier work, Racconto dall’Inferno for orchestra and soprano, which had its US Premiere with the LA Phlharmonic in 3/06 with the incomparable Cristina Zavalloni. The City of Dis is a teaser in that it is a preliminary version of the first act of Andriessen’s latest operatic work La Commedia, which will debut this summer at De Nederlandse Opera with Zavalloni in the role of Dante. (If you’re thinking about plans for next summer as I am, here is an idea, DNO is running Commedia against Messiaen’s Saint Francois d’Assise)

The City of Dis shares much in common with Andriessen’s recent works for the stage. Just as he has collaborated with Peter Greenaway in the past, Andriessen will work with American independent film legend Hal Hartley on cinematic elements to be incorporated into the work's final performance. He has also treated the piece as a sort of collaboration with another young composer as he did in Writing to Vermeer with Michel van der Aa. Dis features “soundscape” contributions from former student, Anke Brouwer, who has captured ambient sounds from city life that burst throughout the work, most notably at the very opening in an almost Ligeti-like fashion.

The work is surprisingly varied for a piece about hell, containing rather bright music intermingled with the more menacing threads one would expect. Andriessen has always had a sense of humor and it shows here. His notion of hell is based somewhat on the life of modern cities and he makes references to them throughout using sounds such as shattering glass and car horns. Of course how can you start a work about descending into the city of hell without mentioning Gershwin, which Andriessen does by sticking a reworked version of An American in Paris into the introduction of The City of Dis. However, make no mistake, this composition is no paean to country life. It barrels through a variety of texts besides Dante including Psalm 107 and a Medieval Dutch version of The Ship of Fools.

Musically the work is scored for a small orchestra, two pianos, cimbalom, and choir. This version of the first act has little in the way of solo vocal performance with only short arias for Beatrice, Virgil, and Dante. The chorale sounded great as usual as did Deborah Mayhan as Beatrice, though most of the fireworks are reserved for the chorus. The text shifts between several different languages both current and historical creating a sense of disorientation. The music is trademark Andriessen, which is not as dissonant as one might think, but can be plenty unsettling when it’s called for. Admittedly this 20-minute snippet is hard to fit into a larger context, but what was played here under Grant Gershon’s leadership was certainly enticing enough to make me want to hear more. The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra played admirably though not as cleanly and insightfully as one might have hoped.

The rest of the evening's program featured music concerning the desire for peace in a time of war - Haydn’s Misa in Tempore Belli and Tormis’ Varjele, Jumala, soasta. As effective as these were, the program seemed strangely distanced from such an obviously current theme. Not much was said about it during the course of the program and Haydn’s 18th century version of suffering and catharsis sounds very different from contemporary ones. Still, the performance from LACO and the LAMC under the leadership of Jeffrey Kahane in this half of the program was admirable as all of the Haydn masses LAMC has presented over the last few years. But then again maybe little more needed to be said than to let the music itself "speak" for itself.



November 17, 2007

During a lovely but otherwise unremarkable performance by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic under Yuri Temirkanov in Orange County this week, I came across the following –

Which raises the question: since when is the idea of having one’s “private time” unexpectedly interrupted by the early return of, say, a parent or spouse considered appropriate holiday fare? Especially in Orange County. And what does all of this have to do with Austria anyway?

Sorry about the slow pace of posting this week, by the way. I’ll be seeing to that presently.

Pina's Sense of Snow

November 12, 2007

from Ten chi choreographed by Pina Bausch
Photo: Jochen Viehoff 2006
It almost didn’t happen, but I’m sure glad it did. With the pre-Holiday season in full swing, I nearly passed by probably the most exciting and visually engaging event of the entire UCLA-sponsored performing arts fall season. All the press may have been about Ian McKellen’s Lear but it was Pina Bausch Tanztheater Wuppertal that delivered the goods – in spades. This was the US premiere of a work, Ten Chi, originally developed and performed in 2004 in conjunction with Saitama Prefecture, Saitama Arts Foundation and the Nippon Cultural Centre. Sunday's matinee got off to a rough start when the performance was delayed over a half-an-hour as UCLA, the worst run box office in the city, loudly tried to pass the buck onto Ticketmaster for the large number of patrons whose tickets had mysteriously not turned up at Will Call. It was worth the wait, however, as Ten Chi is a wild and woolly nearly three hours of inspired movement, irreverent humor, and stunning images that will last a long time after first exposure.

This is a non-narrative work with several recurring sequences and themes that never add up to some Big Idea but hypnotize the audience with the wonder of a whole bunch of little ones. It is populated with women with long flowing hair in floor length silken dresses and men in black suits. There are two primary speaking parts that use a diverse set of texts from the likes of Brecht, Samarago and Wislawa Szymborska. The first speaker is a maniacal woman seen periodically in red pumps who gets excited over vegetables and later inspects the fingers of everyone in the front row. The other speaker is a cranky middle-aged woman whose dark and sultry voices shares her wisdom about men and other inconsequential matters throughout the work. Meanwhile the 15 other dancers arrive and depart from both inside and outside of the proscenium racing or languishing as they see fit. Their interactions with one another are often brief and more often than not come without clear resolution.

from Ten chi choreographed by Pina Bausch
Photo: Jochen Viehoff 2006
Two themes do seem to recur however, sleep and Japanese culture. The stage itself is a dreamscape dominated by a giant whale’s tail and another hump further upstage that suggest the performers are dancing on water. A more senior male member of the troupe at intervals coaches individuals in the audience to snore loudly spoofing on both the notion of boredom and that the whole work on some level is a dream. Bausch never succumbs to trippy New Age stuff that this set might suggest, however, and instead often engages her players in urbane games with tables and chairs and other hallmarks of daily life incongruous to the deep blue sea. Of course the whale does evoke Japan but only indirectly as much of the cultural elements in the piece do. This is not a work about actual Japanese culture, but the (mis)conception of it by the West. Dancers instruct each other in the etiquette of posture and deportment, the cranky narrator completes a psychotic declination of Japanese words that have infiltrated the English language, and a woman pounds and crushes a pillow with an extended Godzilla impersonation. All of this seems a comic take on the West’s co-optation of Japanese culture, which it then tries to sell back to itself as some ersatz notion of authentic Japan.

Did I mention the snow? About mid-way through the first act it begins to do so and doesn’t stop until after the high-energy final sequence. Besides creating a sense of tension over the concern that someone may slip in all of this, it adds extra dimensions to the movement on stage by altering the space around the dancers themselves. Plus I’ll admit it, I'm a sucker for stage snow. Where does all this lead? Well perhaps nowhere in particular but it does it beautifully and sometimes that is just about all you need. Ten Chi is smart and funny and will be up at Berkeley this weekend. It should be high on your priority list

Sawdust and Diamonds

November 11, 2007

Argerich, Dutoit, and the UBS Verbier Festival Orchestra
Photo: mine 2007
Two very different artists made big impressions at the Walt Disney Concert Hall this weekend. On Thursday, Martha Argerich finally made her debut in the space on a bill with the UBS Verbier Festival Orchestra and Charles Dutoit. This was the final show in the International Youth Orchestra Festival the Philharmonic has been touting over the last few weeks and was easily the best show of the series. The group is not sponsored by a nefarious state, but instead operate under the banner of a nefarious multinational financial services corporation, UBS. Keeping with their multinational sponsor, the group is composed of young musicians from all over the world playing at both the annual Verbier Festival each summer and touring later in the Fall. And while they did not have snazzy jackets to whip out for the encores, the young men did sport colorful red or orange ties to go along with the sponsor’s logo. All of this aside, the playing was quite fine and Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, which closed the program, sounded dynamic and wonderful under the expert guidance of Dutoit. The show stealer however was undoubtedly Argerich, whose performance of Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano Concerto was nothing short of perfection. Nimble and rich, her playing was a true wonder and even if the orchestra seemed timid up against her playing at times, she delivered marvels. Two encores followed prior to intermission and if not for her forceful intervention to pull the orchestra off stage, the crowd would have continued to beg for more the rest of the evening.

Photo: Paul O’Valle 2007

Friday’s artist is also interested in percussive string instruments but favors the harp over the piano. Joanna Newsom appeared with both her band as well as a small orchestra under the direction of Sean O’Loughlin. Newsom received rave reviews for her idiosyncratic 60 minute 5 song recording Ys last year and the highlight of the program was a performance of the entire work from start to finish with all of the rich orchestrations from Van Dyke Parks still intact. Newsom’s harp playing is enthralling and her vocal style, less affected in person that on record, owes as much to Kristin Hersh as it does Björk. These songs sprawl over multiple tempo changes and operate in their own twisted pop song logic swelling and receding at whim. The second half of the program focused on older and newer pieces featuring only her small band and herself. Many of these songs are built on Appalachian folk traditions and, while strong, they seemed somewhat pale against Ys and Parks’ orchestrations. Still it was a great show and the young hipster crowd seemed to eat it up. Newsom herself seems unsure about how to handle all the shouted proclamations of love from such an audience. She is frequently all business, propelling things forward and not straying to chat or reflect. But that is certainly OK when the business at hand is as interesting as this.

And furthermore...

November 10, 2007

Photo: mine
It’s been a busy week for me, which is not that surprising. It has also been a busy week for the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela and their maestro Gustavo Dudamel who are skating across the US in a series of sold out concerts that seem to elicit tears in grown men everywhere. (Not unlike formaldehyde.) Fawning reviews and commentary have appeared in both print and digital worlds. Even I have not been immune from this phenomenon as evidenced by the overwhelming response my posts on the two SBYOV programs in LA. In these items, I raised questions not only about the musical quality of the overall performance but some of the problematic political overtones as well. In fact, the LA Times' own Mark Swed echoes some of the questions I raised last week in a follow-up piece to his initial reviews about all the Dudamel “buzz” around town. Swed also uses his current article to make some important arguments about music education and the positive lessons that can be learned from el sistema, the Venezuelan model of youth orchestras founded under José Antonio Abreu. We are told that Dudamel’s appearances and upcoming appointment to the LA Philharmonic are acting as a springboard for revitalizing music education in this city and that people are talking. That is all fine and well and if these appearances result in more opportunities for talented young musicians, that’s great.

But what I take issue with here is his notion that "the Venezuelans" represent something new. If what we saw here is any indication, it is beyond me what is specifically so “new” about the Venezuelan model. The is certainly nothing new about programming Beethoven, Bernstein, and Mahler. Nor is there anything radically different about doubling the size of an orchestra to play them in the most overwrought format imaginable. The idea of public and governmental support for arts training is also not new - in fact, people in the US have done their best to dismantle anything that used to resemble it over the last few decades. And as for those excited by spinning cellos or synchronized horn movements, head on out to any local American high school football field at mid-game on a Friday night - your mind will be frigging blown.

What is in fact new, is the PT Barnum-inspired ability for critics and commentators to abandon their senses in the face of the PR onslaught. Clear faults in the performances are frequently acknowledged and then just as quickly swept away on a wave of youthful good feelings. Of course this is part of the draw of performance. Nothing is ever perfect but some combination of elements that create a general sensation of the whole. But virtually all commentary on the SBYOV performances to date has been particularly forgiving of youthful digressions that would be used to tar and feather others.

Of course, as is usually the case, all of this glowing warmth tells us much more about us than them. El Sistema is attractive and inspirational precisely because it feeds into our bourgeois Eurocentric fantasy of the poor unwashed masses being saved by Western high art. Suddenly every music writer in America has latched on to Music of the Heart as an inspirational paradigm. The SBYOV are so well received not simply because of what they sound like, but the idea of who they are and where they have come from. Writers make hay of how these youth were prevented from joining "gangs or worse" by classical music. Part of the reason we in the US, and Europe, are so fascinated by SBYOV and the organization behind it is because it validates our own aesthetics and by extension ourselves. A little moody Mahler, a little booming Shostakovich, and suddenly our economic and political disparities are addressed as easily as some careful tuning of strings. This is the same kind of jingoistic thinking that compels millions to watch the Olympics every four years and look at all the peace and good will that it has generated. The success of the SBYOV in America is hardly a threat to the status quo in classical music, it is the actual validation of all that already exists.

Certainly access to music education for those with interest and talent is an important thing. Abreu and el sistema are clearly a wonderful thing for the many people who have benefited from it. And while the education and development of the young are always beautiful things, "Dudamelmania" is little more than us feeling good about ourselves. A mind (or talent) is, indeed a terrible thing to waste. And apparently for some, if that preservation can be done in such an entertaining and tear-inducing way - that's all the better.

I, trombonist

November 05, 2007

Sandeep Bhagwati
Photo: Kate Hutchinson
While the two most over-hyped performances of the year were playing out upstairs at Walt Disney Concert Hall this weekend, a much more auspicious debut was taking place below ground in the same building. Here the REDCAT presented the world premiere of a genuinely inventive musical theater work, Vineland Stelae, from Indian-born composer Sandeep Bhagwati. Bhagwati has trained and worked throughout Europe over the last two decades particularly in Germany. He has long been interested in the intersections between different artistic forms of production across genres and cultures producing a wide variety of both musical works and installations that exploit these collisions. Vineland Stelae continues in this tradition by exploring the dichotomy of improvised versus composed music and the tensions inherent in theatrical versus musical works. He accomplishes this by creating a piece that is less musical theater and more theatrical music. Widely improvised, the work operates within the context of a more rigid but non-conventional musical structure.

Vineland Stelae is organized around an untitled poem the author wrote in the mid-90s using only 9 letters of the alphabet – I, T, E, N, D, L, A, S, and V. The 29 musicians in his orchestra are grouped into small units each assigned to a specific letter with the letter I being represented by a solo trombone played in this instance by the renowned composer and performer Mike Svoboda. Svoboda is stationed in the center of the theater on a raised square platform with the audience surrounding him on all four sides in two or three rows. The rest of the orchestra is arranged in groupings of three to four players in 8 stations around the audience each corresponding to the remaining 8 letters. The vowels are stationed to the East and West while the four percussion groups (metal, wood, skins, and mallets) are located in the corners and the final two consonants, D and S, fill the North and South. Svoboda then engages each group in a dialog of sorts rapidly turning around and around again as each cluster is engaged in roughly the same sequence as the letters occur in the poem.

Mike Svoboda
At first this seemed like somewhat of a hollow proposition, but as the piece went on it grew progressively more hypnotic and seductive as it developed extended solo and duet combinations between Svoboda and Vicki Ray on the prepared piano, Aashish Khan on the sarode, Rachel Rudich on the shakuhachi, Vinny Golia on the contrabass flute and Swapan Chaudhuri on the tabla. The groupings began to not only interact with Svoboda but also with each other in ways that weren't always in the confines of the overarching poetic structure. The playfulness between musicians as well as Eastern and Western cultural elements was at times dazzling and heady. This is what I like to think of as the musical effect of a Jacques Rivette film where the work stops being about the contrived silliness of what it appears to be and enters a more sublime world with a language, economy, and beauty all its own. It was a wonderful evening as the 90 uninterrupted minutes flashed by seeming all too briefly. Three sold-out crowds were lucky enough to hear the piece which will hopefully have a life elsewhere outside of the REDCAT. But for those who want another local taste of Baghwati’s work, you’re in luck – Vicki Ray is scheduled to perform Inside a Native Land, a work based on the same poem and similar structure, next week during her Piano Spheres recital at the Zipper Concert Hall on Tuesday November 13th.


Back for more

November 03, 2007

In full regalia
Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela
Photo: mine 2007

I had not planned to comment on the second night of the performances from the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela at the Walt Disney Concert Hall under Gustavo Dudamel. After my report on the first night, I figured I’d leave it at that, but it turned out to be such a strange and surreal mix of elements, that I’ve changed my mind. The evening started out with much more promise. Apparently Dudamel got the memo about the volume and overall things were toned down to a much more pleasing level. (To be fair, it appears that many instruments were held up in customs and the orchestra did not get adequate time to rehearse in the space.) The program started with a very spirited Beethoven’s 5th that was hard not to admire. It was one of those big sound productions popular a few decades ago with a beefed up orchestration to make everything sound fuller. I’m no expert in this area, but I’m pretty sure Beethoven didn’t originally call for 5 flutes and 4 oboes. Still the playing was strongly felt. The group got another standing ovation at intermission as love poured from an audience with more than a few expatriate Venezuelans.

The second half focused on Latin American composers – Moncayo’s Huapango, Márquez’ Danzón No. 2, and Ginastera’s Suite from Estancia. The group and Dudamel were clearly having fun and the audience again responded in kind. Dudamel does in fact appear to be the real deal and the performances he elicited from this group of relative youngsters while not perfect was better than much of what you could expect from most professional orchestras these days particularly in terms of energy level. He is among close friends with the SBYOV and the ease of communication shows. It is easy to be swept away with the sheer youthful enthusiasm of the group.

However, it was at this point that things got a little weird. The show ended with a series of encores drenched in spirited patriotism for Venezuela. The house lights dimmed briefly as the musicians donned blazers with the red, yellow and blue of the Venezuelan flag. The crowd became ecstatic and then John Williams (of all people) appeared in his own Venezuela blazer to lead the massive group through the theme from Star Wars. The SBYOV continued through at least two other encores including the Mambo segment from West Side Story. At this point the group stood and swayed and periodically danced around in maneuvers that are standard fare for most high school marching bands as the excitement level grew. As a final encore, Dudamel cajoled his mentor and SBYOV founder José Antonio Abreu onto the stage where he led the orchestra through the Venezuelan national anthem. Some commentators, including Pliable, have noted discomfort with this brand of patriotism from any group but especially concerning in this case given the current political realities in Venezuela. While this very talented group of young people are drawing attention around the world, this very day their peers are under assault with tear gas and rubber bullets for defending democracy in the streets of Caracas. Of course, we Americans can appreciate what it is like to feel pride in one’s homeland even when that place has political leaders who make very poor decisions and are reviled both at home and abroad. Still, I would have to agree that all this flag waving pushes some boundaries. Certainly this is not 1938 and they aren't playing Deutschland über alles, but I can also certainly imagine Mr. Williams growing to regret some of those photos with his on-stage wardrobe a few years down the line.

Still, for now, everyone seems to be able to look the other way and have a good time, an art mastered by Americans. If anyone had any doubt of that, the appearance of Los Angeles’ own progressively more-troubled Mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, during the second half should have made that clear. Dudamel and these young players give off many good vibrations and those in need of them are apparently not far from hand. Dudamel has had some big name music mentors including Barenboim, Rattle, and Claudio Abbado, and, if he is wise, he might have leaned in for some words of wisdom from the mayor as well. If these performances indicate anything for Dudamel’s future in LA it may be this – he may be much less likely to face musical difficulties than he is to face political ones. Fair or not, the more of a despot Hugo Chavez becomes and the more his country and the US are at odds, the more pressure he may feel here to take a stand for what he believes in. Dudamel has carefully avoided taking positions on the controversies in his home country in the press while maintaining a necessary amount of contact with the Chavez regime that continues to provide funding for the SBYOV. Dudamel’s biggest challenge here in LA may be remaining publicly neutral in regards to events in his own country. These are tensions felt by many in the expatriate Venezuelan community here, and it may not just be the press that proves unforgiving.

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Crushed by the Wheels of Industry

November 02, 2007

Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela
Photo: mine 2007
It was certainly a big evening at Walt Disney Concert Hall tonight. The occasion, of course, was the first of two programs from soon to be LA Philharmonic music director Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela so near and dear to his heart. Everyone was there from Mr. Gehry to Peter Sellars in his 60s love beads. The crowd was wound-up beyond belief producing huge prolonged standing ovations at any minute for the orchestra and their conductor. The Orchestra itself delivered a standing ovation for the orchestra’s founder, José Antonio Abreu, and a sitting one for Dudamel himself. Venezuelan flags were waved from the audience, multiple tongues were spoken, and a sold-out crowd with many children and young adults filled the hall. Free copies of Tocar Y Luchar, the documentary by Alberto Arvelo, were handed out to members of the audience to further the feel-good publicity around the orchestra and el sistema, the training program responsible for the SBYOV. There was only one small problem – the matter of Mahler’s 5th Symphony and Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances form West Wide Story.

I realize that I will probably be burned for heresy for saying this, but here goes – the performance, while certainly spirited was a bit much. Not unlike the sexual advances of an amorous teen, exuberance supplanted the knowledge that comes from experience. Not that the playing wasn’t often brimming with life. Dudamel produced an amazingly passionate performance. It's just that the whole thing was loud - very, very, and often unnecessarily loud for the room. The Bernstein alone employed a super-sized 200 plus member orchestra involving approximately half the young adult population of Venezuela. It was more the orchestral equivalent of the Round-Up amusement ride, the centripetal force of the noise plastered you against the wall till what at first seemed pleasurable quickly became mildly nauseating. The Bernstein was marked with some of the rhythmic brilliance widely reported from their London Proms performances, but the horns were deafening throughout and there was an absence of any delicacy. Perhaps all of their YouTube stardom of recent months have gone to their heads.

The Mahler fared a little better. Mahler is no stranger to bombast and the no-holds-barred approach fit well in many places with a real whiz-bang of an opening and a closing. But the performance was grating after awhile even by Mahler standards. To be fair, this group of young musicians is clearly very talented and given their age the fact they could pull off a program that sounded like this to begin with is truly amazing. Dudamel is quite magnetic and his guidance is clearly an inspiration. It’s very exciting to think about his potential with a more seasoned group of musicians and it bodes well for the future here in LA. There is another program tomorrow night.

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