Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Come back here, man, gimme my daughter

October 31, 2007

Alice Ripley, German Santiago, and Samantha Shelton Photo: Blank Theater 2007

The Blank Theater in Hollywood rolls on this fall as the local home for the works of John Michael LaChiusa with a West Coast Premiere of Little Fish. After successful runs of The Wild Party and Hotel C’est L’Amour this production seems like a no-brainer, but in the hands of director Kirsten Sanderson and her strong cast, it is far from that. Fish is a sort-of women’s response to Company where Bobby is a woman looking for a reason for being (alive) in the big city. Of course this is a contemporary work so there are some differences. None of Charlotte’s friends are married but the modern equivalent – catty well-dressed single women and gay men. Plus, she has her revelation about life not via a terrifying come-on from a much older woman, but instead realizes her worth when one friend finds “a lump” and another is beaten by his ex-boyfriend. Those times, the are a-changing.

Of course Little Fish suffers from one of the same challenges as Compnay - albeit far less successfully. The central character is a bit of an empty shirt for most of the show and is therefore somewhat hard to care about. Charlotte wanders around for nearly two hours wondering why she can’t seem to care about her life or react to anything that happens around her. However, all of this is cleverly book ended by Charlotte’s struggles to give up smoking and LaChiusa’s keen sense of wit propels the work almost single-handedly. Which is a good thing considering that Little Fish suffers from that modern confusion of character development for plot. Everyone stands around being witty and having revalations, but nothing ever really happens.

Alice Ripley and Dina Morishita
Photo: The Blank Theater 2007
Still, despite an empty hole that the star, Alice Ripley, does her darndest to work around, there are some excellent juicy small parts here that the cast makes much hay of. Cinder, played by Samantha Shelton, is Charlotte's near-psychotic roommate and grabs every spare bit of attention when she is on stage in the best of all possible ways. Gregory Jbara similarly has a brief but hysterical cameo as a former lecerous boss, Mr Bunter. The singing from the cast never quite lives up to the acting, but in LaChiusa's world all can easily be forgiven. Little Fish runs through Novemeber 18.

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True Lies

October 30, 2007

Djodjo Kazadi, left, Papy Ebotani and Faustin Linyekula
Photo: Alex Gallardo/LAT 2007

Down in the basement of the Walt Disney Concert Hall this weekend, the good folks at REDCAT were hosting an international theater "festival" all their own with no major celebrities or giant sets. On offer instead was a visually arresting dance/theater work straight out of the Congo – or perhaps more appropriately, the Democratic Republic of Congo. But as Faustin Linyekula and his troop might themselves suggest in Festival of Lies, where in fact they are from may be a matter of some debate. The piece is concerned with perhaps one of the most socio-politically fractured regions in the world and the shifting nature of identity in such an environment. Linyekula and his fellow dancers, Papy Ebotani and Djodjo Kazadi, spend much of the evening pressing against and piling on top of one another in a dark and empty space broken only by 10 or so mobile fluorescent lights that are variously arranged in geometric patterns on the floor or carried and piled amongst the dancers limbs in various arrangements. All of this is coordinated with audio from a live house band, and numerous outtakes from a century of political speeches from the likes of Mobutu, Kabila, Lumumba and various Belgian authorities whose translated texts were projected on the blank walls of the space. This relentless source of distress was intermittently broken by the free verse of Marie-Louise Bibish Mumbu who also appeared walking back and forth across the action without actually participating in the dancing. Her humorous and insightful reflections on daily life in Kinshasa provided a stark contrast to the relentless diatribes of disembodied talking heads.

Of course Festival of Lies is a study in contrasts in and of itself. While actively incorporating the standoffish elements of the Western avant-garde, Linyekula sets the dance floor with small tables and an open bar with drinks and food, which the audience is encouraged to use throughout the performance. With the house band playing at breaks, the space is both theater and local club simultaneously. The piece is at once jarring, and crescendos to a more and more physically aggressive combat style but ends as a big dance party, the audience joining the performers in a feel-good conga line. Strangely, it almost all works despite a near derailment. After nearly two hours of these proceedings, the work suddenly changes tactics going from a more esoteric dance work into a more didactic and polemic theater piece. The dancers stop and Linyekula rolls out a giant table piled with baby doll pieces and limbs, which he and the other performers stack, move, and restack as he ponders a hypothetical meeting between Congo’s leaders past and present. Suddenly the subtlety is lost and the spell is broken.

Still, there is too much worthwhile to dismiss everything out of hand for the crash landing. Linyekula’s examination of the shifting and conflicted nature of identity in a land whose history is constantly rewritten often at the point of a colonizer or despot’s gun is both sobering and aesthetically pleasing. There are some moments of seeming deference to the leadership of Lumumba in the 60s, but there are no easy outs here. Festival of Lies will be presented throughout the West this Fall and is worth a visit.


Ladies Nights

October 29, 2007

Blurry Mariza and friends
Photo: mine 2007
With the LA Philharmonic out of town, what better way to fill the Walt Disney Concert Hall than with two return engagements from notable, but maredly different, female vocalists. On Saturday, the “Songbook Series” opened with Barbara Cook who is currently celebrating her 80th birthday with shows around the country. It is remarkable that Cook sounds as good as she does at this age and her command of an audience seems barely diminished. The set featured standards from Harold Arlen, Oscar Hammerstein, and Steven Sondheim that Cook has been singing here in Southern California over the last three years, including some more recent additions she is trying out for her NY Philharmonic appearances later this season. It is a shame that she never had the chance to work directly with Sondheim in an original show since her grasp of his work is excellent. Her performance of “No One is Alone” from Into the Woods was worth the entire price of admission alone. She was accompanied by a small ensemble here of piano, bass, and drums, and the show was simple and straightforward with a minimal amount of theatrics. It's Barbara Cook - she doesn't need them. As seems to be the current fashion for pop vocalists at the acoustically superior hall, Cook chose to sing one of her encore numbers without amplification, and it was only mildly embarrassing for everyone when some in the audience began shouting out “mike” at the start of the number as if she didn’t know what she was doing.

There were no such problems with tonight’s appearance from Portugese fado singer Mariza who was also making a second appearance at WDCH on one of her seemingly regular visits to Los Angeles. With much less experience under her belt, Mariza relished the opportunity to perform free of the microphone and delivered her signature closing number “Primavera” as well as all four encores clearly revelling in the acoustics of the hall. In fact it was in these moments that the show fully came alive with renditions of Gershwin’s “Summertime” and Chaplin‘s “Smile.” Ironically, Cook had also chosen the latter song for her program which did provide a bit of contrast over the two evenings. In fact it seems odd that she would have bothered with amplification at all when it was clearly unnecessary and much of the rest of the program while strong seemed strangely distanced by it. Of course, Mariza seemed truly overjoyed to be singing in LA again in this hall if for no other reason than her friend and local mega-celebrity Frank Gehry had designed a stage set for her meant to resemble a Portugese taverna as the singer herself had grown up performing in. How successful this was is somewhat debatable in that it involved little more than seating some audience members at small tables on the stage and lining the back and sidewalls of the area with corrugated metal.

However the effect came off as stilted in that the Philharmonic, apparently unsure as to how to distribute these seats given that tickets for the event had long ago been sold, elected to seat big ticket donors and celebrities in the area dressed to the nines in obviously coordinated all black attire. (Gehry himself wisely chose to sit in the audience.) Here we watched Deborah Borda schmooze the big money before the show began with the likes of Ed Asner. I certainly don’t begrudge her or the porcess though. Heaven knows she’s got to keep this boat afloat in a country where the majority of citizens with no interest in performance or art insist on a funding system for it that necessitates this kind of pressing of the flesh. Still it's easy to ignore these issues as well as some of the more indulgent crowd-pleasing theatrics like encouraging everyone to clap along when you have the stage-presence and easy charm of a performer as formidable as this young woman. The encroachment of a few English-language songs might seem like selling out to some, but Mariza will always win on the charm offensive.

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Packing up, Getting ready to go

October 28, 2007

Salonen and the LA Philharmonic about to leave on tour
Photo: mine 2007

This weekend also saw the final performances from the LA Philharmonic in their Salonen-led “Sibelius Unbound” series. The program started out with a bit of a cloud over it in that one of the highlights of the show, and in fact the whole series, was canceled. More specifically, tenor Ben Heppner who was scheduled to sings seven different songs from Sibelius could not appear, reportedly due to illness. This is the second time he has been a no show with the Philharmonic in recent years and this time with so little notice on the cancellation, the Phil had no choice but to abandon the songs altogether. In its stead, we got a 6-minute piece of incidental music, “The Death of Mélisande”. It was a blissful short stretch and made one wish for much, much more, but it was no real replacement for the missing Heppner.

The rest of the program went off as planned with Sibelius’ 5th and 6th symphonies. First up was the 6th – a hoary beast if there ever was one. Difficult to get a handle on, this surprisingly modernist work frustrates at every turn, wandering off and deliberately turning into blind alleys over and over again. Salonen and the Phil provided a thorough and well-thought-out account, but in the end it wasn’t really enough. The piece remained largely inaccessible and impervious to most.

The 6th symphony ended the series and is familiar territory to Salonen, who has programmed it here in the last few years. Sweeping in scope but never histrionic, it was the perfect capstone to a series filled with many joys. I’m not sure in the end exactly how “unbound” Sibelius really became from this series of programs. Certainly these symphonies, which were not familiar to much of the audience got more deserved exposure and Salonen made an excellent case for Sibelius’ position in the development of music in the 20th century. Still, there remain numerous mysteries throughout this music. But, in some ways, that is part of their allure. Salonen and the LA Philharmonic will now be out of town touring Europe with the band, not returning until after Thanksgiving. Here’s wishing them a great and very successful trip.


The Out-of-Towners — Theater Edition

October 27, 2007

Ian McKellen and Sylvester McCoy as Lear’s Fool
Photo: Sara Krulwich/NYT 2007
The other big guests in town this week were the members of the Royal Shakespeare Company who wrap up their US tour this week at UCLA’s Royce Hall with their productions of King Lear and Chekhov's The Seagull, which have been showing in repertory. They’re two very high-quality productions that work with varying degrees of success. A fair amount of newspaper ink has already been spilled on these shows both here and in New York largely due to the celebrity status of Ian McKellen who appears in both productions and takes the starring role in Lear. It is his presence that is arguably responsible for the sold-out runs, gushing stories about tickets changing hands for thousands of dollars, and the tossing about of phrases like “event of the season.” And I suppose this might be true to the extent that McKellen’s performance as Lear is masterful and certainly one with which to measure others against. But it is also true that the productions are not equal partners and that there are more than a few issues with both.

The productions themselves are massive, particularly for the Royce Hall stage. Director Trevor Nunn and Designer Christopher Oram’s staging is based around a single gigantic curved terrace and wall that is dressed up not only to contrast the settings of both plays, but, in the case of Lear, to also steadily decay over the course of events on stage. The set is so large that it not only dwarfs the Royce stage, its thrust stage obliterates the first several rows of seating resulting in the need for temporary risers for additional seating on each side of the thrust. All of this is a bit overwhelming but is still quite attractive and exciting as a visual backdrop for a 19th-century Russian country manor. The set design elements have received a fair amount of negative criticism in both the LA Times and the NY Times for being overly indulgent and overblown. All this suggests, however, is how little time these theater critics have spent sitting in America’s opera houses over the last decade where this would appear sparse and unassuming by contrast to much of what currently graces those stages. The performance itself outside of McKellen’s radiant glow is strong including contributions from William Gaunt as Gloucester, Frances Barber as Goneril, and Monica Dolan as Regan. Again the RSC troupe and Nunn have suffered the slings and arrows directed at them for a broad and melodramatic take on Shakespeare, but to me Lear always seems most painful when directors and casts indulge the modern penchant to attempt a psychological complexity to characters who don’t necessarily have them written in to begin with. We may feel that Edmund, Goneril and Regan are unfairly cast as villains, but villains they are, and giving them justifications for being the way they are is more about making us feel better about ourselves than actually serving the purpose of the drama. This King Lear is successful on many fronts – it fills one with melancholy over the cruel inevitability of aging and the bliss of descending into madness in a world gone mad.

Ian McKellen and Richard Goulding in The Seagull
Photo: Lawrence K. Ho/LAT 2007
The RSC's production of Chekhov’s The Seagull is far less successful. Granted, Chekhov is no easy nut to crack, but you can’t help thinking things here could have come off better. For doubters that this sort of Russian drama can’t be pulled off, you need look no further that the National Theater’s incredible production of Gorky’s Philistines from earlier this summer. The pacing throughout this often comic intellectual exercise is glacial where it should have been brisk and energetic, leaving us far too much time to consider in far too much detail some rocky performances by Romola Garai as Nina and Gerald Kyd as Trigorin. The production is dull when is should be heartbreaking and even duller when it is tries to be thought provoking. The comic bits do work well and McKellen has a hand in them again as Sorin but his contribution in this small role is certainly not enough to save the day.


The Out-of-Towners — Music Edition

October 25, 2007

Russian Patriarchate Choir
This has been a big week for out-of-town guests of a variety of stripes on Los Angeles concert stages. Take for instance Monday’s program at UCLA’s Royce Hall where we were honored with only the second U.S. performance ever from the Russian Patriarchate Choir. This ensemble, founded in 1983 by director Anatoly Grindenko, has made a name for themselves with performance of polyphonic sacred choral music from the Russian Orthodox Church. They have made particular efforts in reviving and interpreting Medieval scores and made a number of noted recordings of these works in the early 90s. Apparently the performance from the 10 member all-male ensemble was a bit of a close call according to UCLA Live program director and Greg Probst-lookie-likey David Sefton who announced that a number of the choristers had arrived in LA from their Moscow flight within only the last two hours prior to going on stage. Additionally, another 3 members didn't make it to the show at all. Luckily those who did make it gave a rich and wonderful performance. The evening covered a wide array of periods and material including some Russian folksongs and it was mildly frustrating in that no specific program details were provided to the general audience. The group had a beautiful tone and the evening provided ample opportunities for many of the performers to offer substantial solos. Although much choral music is sacred in nature, rarely have I heard something filled with so much spirit. Alternately dark and light, these works were most reminiscent of early-American negro spirituals – filled more often than not with equal amounts of joy and sorrow. All of this was further augmented by some unusual staging arrangements. Since the program took place in Royce Hall on a day off from the current Royal Shakespeare Company productions of King Lear and The Seagull the massive stage set resembling a decaying castle was left standing. While certainly not religious in nature, the set provided the proceedings with some further Medieval overtones. The group will be traveling to Costa Mesa and Berkeley later this week.

Meanwhile an ensemble of a very different nature arrived at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Tuesday in the opening performance of the “International Youth Orchestra Festival” being sponsored by the LA Philharmonic. Finland’s own pride and joy the Sibelius Academy Symphony Orchestra was led by one of their most famous alumni, Esa-Pekka Salonen, in a program including Magnus Lindberg’s Chorale, Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No 5 and Sibelius’ own Lemminkainen Suite. It was Finnish pride night in LA and Salonen was radiant, beaming with excitement over a task he was obviously enjoying. The performances were quite strong overall, particularly the Sibelius which showed an exemplary level of dynamics and dark, brilliant tones from such a young group of musicians including the piano soloist, Juho Pohjonen, a young man with a surprisingly sophisticated sound. And an interesting group it was too. Very blond and very female with women outnumbering men more than 3 to 1 even in the bass sections. When’s the last time you’ve seen anything like that on a US stage? Of course all of this was marred somewhat by absolutely atrocious audience behavior. The crowd was clearly younger than normal and while filled with youthful enthusiasm, the audience seemed to be unable to get its fill of hearing itself clap in any moment of silence including within the movements themselves at times. Even after Salonen admonished the audience to hold their applause until the end of the piece, some people couldn’t seem to let go of their own need for enthusiasm. Although irritated, Salonen clearly was not going to be bound by these issues during an evening with so much pride and joy. The Sibelius Academy Symphony Orchestra will be doing some free shows around this week and you can see more about those here.


"No," cried the people of Mahagonny

October 24, 2007

The gang's all here - Griffey, LuPone, and McDonald
Photo: Robert Millard 2007
So LA Opera is getting into the DVD game. And why not? Everyone else is doing it so why can’t we. I will say, though, that with last season being one of the strongest in recent memory, why they are starting with the relative low points by rolling out the Fleming/Villazon La Traviata and the John Doyle staging of Weil's Mahagonny is beyond me. I know that the Traviata disc was in Fleming’s three performance contract, but it was hardly her brightest moment or LAOs. Perhaps contractual obligations for Patti LuPone or Audra McDonald are the reason for this Mahagonny seeing the light of day again, or perhaps LAO is hoping that star power will help sales and a successful launch for the endeavor overall. The Mahagonny release is intended to coincide with a broadcast of the performance on Great Performances on PBS. Now that's what I call irony. But then again maybe this isn’t such a bad idea. As I’ve noted here before, sometimes video makes a bad production into a better one, and deemphasizing some of the bad bits in these productions may make them look a lot better on the small screen without having to take in so much of nothing. You know McDonald did have some pretty choice outfits too.

Which reminds me. Someone recently asked me to comment further on the Metropolitan Opera’s HD broadcasts last season noting that while I had addressed trade-offs in the visual aspect of the project, I hadn’t said much about sound quality. In some ways this is a little more difficult to reflect on in that I imagine there is much more variety in audio quality across various theater venues than in video quality. All of the screenings I’ve attended were at the AMC 16 in beautiful downtown Burbank and I've though the overall quality of sound was quite good. Not as good as live, but good. Since the Met transmissions are all in HD and the HD equipment is not standard on all screens in most theaters, I wager that most of the screens where extra dollars have been sunk into the HD equipment probably have higher end sound capabilities as well.

Personally, though, I don’t think this should be such a big issue. If there are any audio concerns about broadcasts they have less to do with transmission and more to do with the social norms of audience behavior. What is really different about the theaters is that people treat the performance like a movie in that a significant number of people suddenly feel that they can make noise and engage in otherwise rude and distracting behavior since “no one can hear them” in New York. Of course, as is the American Way, everyone must be eating at all times so there are wrappers and popcorn and the like to contend with outside of the usual cacophony of talking and side comments. Of course, a live performance isn’t always free of this stupid behavior either, but at least there is some social pressure in that setting to keep a respectful quiet. If one wants to guarantee high quality sound, the first task is to get the audience to shut up and listen.

Puppet Master(s)

October 22, 2007

Bunraku puppeteers
Photo: H. Kawahara/Bunraku Kyokai 2007

I go forever without seeing any type of performance that involves puppets, so you can imagine my surprise when not one but two predominantly puppet oriented events showed up in this week’s calendar. The first was one of only a handful of US performances of Bunraku from The National Puppet Theater of Japan and the other was The Fortune Teller, a recent work from the mind of Erik Sanko. Despite centuries separating the two and radically different aesthetic values, it's surprising how much the two events had in common. Despite all of the wonder and gargantuan magic that Julie Taymor has wrought, puppets still tend to be smaller than life and both shows struggled with ways to make the often beautiful and fine detail of their work visible to an audience from the stage.

Bunraku, the centuries old traditional Japanese puppet theater, returned to Los Angeles for the first time in two decades and played to sold out audiences here and across the other four cities on the tour. The performance included not only scenes from two different standard works, but a substantial didactic component where the many artists involved in the performance explained their craft through a translator. Of course Bunraku is technically musical theater so there are both musicians playing the shamisen, a stringed guitar-like instrument which is repeatedly tuned and retuned during the performance, and "chanters" who provide narration and dialog for the puppets in a quasi-sung, quasi-spoken fashion. If anyone needs evidence of the power to portray emotion with the voice in the absence of superior singing talent, here it is. These chanters make the fetishization of vocal performance seem as ridiculous as it truly is. The pieces were both meditative and clearly related to Kabuki in the use of stylized movements. Of course from the back of the house where I sat, much of the detailed facial movements and motions of the puppets were lost. Still, there was plenty to admire especially in a scene from "Oshichi's Burning Love" where a young maiden perilously climbs an icy fire watch tower ladder with seemingly no support during an evening snow storm.

The gluttonous cook
Photo: Oliver Dalzell

Meanwhile at UCLA, Erik Sanko and colleagues reprised their 2006 New York performances of The Fortune Teller. The strategy for dealing with size here involved creating a mini-stage that a small audience clustered around, not unlike a Punch and Judy show. Which was a good thing because it too was packed with elaborate detail essential to its aesthetic. The work itself was an overly structured morality tale springing out of the Edward Gorey/Tim Burton/Quay Brothers tradition. A wealthy dead man, a mysterious fortune teller, and seven morally flawed guests (get it?) combine to form one of those spooky but whimsical tales for adults. While visually intriguing, however, too much of the piece relies on formula over narrative. There is music here as well from (you guessed it) Danny Elfman, although in this instance it is prerecorded and not as integrally related to the drama. To make matters worse, the few times the performance strays from the framework, things rapidly fall apart such as in a strange coda where Sanko comes out on stage disguised as the devil and tells a few bad jokes in what apparently is an attempt to find some way to get him out from behind the curtain without completely destroying the mood of the piece at its conclusion. The puppetry here, although stylized, is far less technically detailed and routinized, leaving the power of the story more vested in its creepy images than the actual physical performance of any of the puppeteers or puppets. Luckily at only an hour, The Fortune Teller doesn't overburden its flaws more than is necessary. It runs at UCLA's Freud Playhouse through Sunday October 28th and there are still a few tickets left.


Don't it always seem to go...

October 21, 2007

Another victory
Photo: mine 2007

What more can I say to convince anyone of how great the LA Philharmonic’s current Sibelius series is. Saturday saw Salonen lead them through Pohjola’s Daughter and the First and Third Symphonies in what Lisa Hirsch aptly coined a “corker” of a show. Everyone in London and Paris who has a chance to get tickets for the groups upcoming European tour should be snatching up the tickets if they know what’s good for them.

This Saturday I couldn’t help but feel a little bit bittersweet however when I thought about Salonen’s upcoming departure. Sure there has been a lot of excitement and heaps of praise over Gustavo Dudamel coming to town, but it's nights like this Saturday that I start to have my doubts. Does he really have Salonen’s interest or chops in new music? Will the group maintain its gorgeous clarity and detail? Could he pull of a series of Sibelius symphonies like this one? Maybe not, and maybe there are great things in store for us here in LA that we don’t have now, but I for one will greatly miss what we do have and no amount of excitement about the next big young thing is likely to ease that anytime soon.

There are two more shows left in this series. Tuesday Salonen will conduct the Sibelius Academy Orchestra in the composer’s works as well as those of Magnus Lindberg and next weekend he will lead the Philharmonic in Sibelius’ 5th and 6th symphonies as well as lieder performed with tenor Ben Heppner.


Night Schiff

October 20, 2007

András Schiff
Photo: Chris Lee
As a few faithful readers have noted my lack of comment on some recent performances around town that were listed in the calendar section. This is partly due to my adherence to that old adage about what to do if you have nothing nice to say, but it is also simply due to scheduling conflicts. I do want to say a little bit about András Schiff, however. Mr. Schiff appeared twice at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in the last two weeks on a touring supporting his ECM recordings of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. The shows on October the 10th and 17th here in LA (that alternated with two identical shows in San Francisco) featured the first eight sonatas and he will return for two more performances this season and another four next season to complete the cycle.

Probably the most notable thing about last Wednesday’s show was that Mr. Schiff completed the program without leaving the stage in the middle of a piece. He notoriously walked out of a solo recital of Mozart sonatas last year when frustrated by audience noise in the acoustically hypersensitive WDCH. Frankly, I was surprised when the LA Phil announced he would make eight more solo appearances over the next two years after that event, but here he was back on the 10th for the first of the Beethoven programs which, lo and behold, was interrupted by a “medical emergency” in the audience that brought everything to a halt mid-sonata leaving Mr. Schiff with the only option of taking a break while EMT folks resolved the situation. Of course, that was all the excuse I needed to leave. I made no comment at the time feeling that although the part of that program I did hear seemed stiff I would wait to see what happened next week.

Now of course it’s hard to appreciate something when there is an air of tension around it, but I have to say that while Mr. Schiff’s approach to these works is intellectually rigorous and technically remarkable, I felt little connection to anything. His playing is about as fussy as you can imagine and so didactic in execution that the air seems to drain out of the room. And just in case you didn’t get the point, he finished both programs with excessively lengthy encores – in this case, an entire Bach keyboard partita with repeats.

In some ways it seems Mr. Schiff’s timing is off all the way around. He is releasing a major set of Beethoven sonatas at a time when the market is flooded with high quality new recordings of the same works from the likes of Angela Hewitt and Paul Lewis to name just two. Furthermore, his non-user friendly approach swims against much of what is currently popular. Not that that is always a bad thing. Think of it this way – Andras Schiff may well be the anti-Lang Lang – prickly and uningratiating. And while I would agree that no one should aspire to be anything like Mr. Lang, I think there is a middle ground somewhere.


The dark night of the soul and all that

October 18, 2007

LA Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2007

The LA Philharmonic rolled into the second concert of its “Sibelius Unbound” series on Thursday night with a program that featured symphonies number 4 and 7. Things kicked off with perhaps the single most depressing piece of music in the standard repertoire, Sibelius’ 4th Symphony, in a performance that was both well thought-out, detailed, and oftentimes quite pretty if in an albeit sad way. You know you’re in trouble when program notes start throwing around the word “cathartic,” but kudos must be given to Salonen who made some insightful remarks before the performance inviting the audience to dismiss any claptrap about the work being a reflection on the natural world. The emphasis here was on internal pain, but sometimes it's good to be sad and this was certainly one of them. Oh, and forget Schoenberg. If you want a fount for 20th century music and modernism, Salonen can give you a reason to believe that Sibelius may in fact be your man.

How do you follow this? Well the answer here in LA was a new commission from long time friend Steven Stucky entitled (what else?) Radical Light. While the very pretty and enchanting twenty minutes that followed were certainly “light,” “radical” is a completely different matter. The work seems composed of nearly every orchestral cliché of “shimmering” and light-evoking sounds you can imagine from chimes on down to some of the standard John Adams’ tricks of the trade. While not unenjoyable, it wasn’t really clear to me what all of it amounted to.

For a finale, Salonen and the house band whipped out an exquisite performance of Sibelius’ own 20 minutes of heat and light in the 7th symphony. It was jaw-droppingly good in these masterful hands. The Sibelius series continues to be a real event and you should not miss out on either of the remaining two performances this weekend and next at the Walt Disney Concert Hall.


You're not rid of me

October 16, 2007


Monday marked the return to town of PJ Harvey in a sold-out show at the Orpheum Theater on Broadway in downtown L.A. It was one of only two U.S. dates she had set up (the other being in New York) to coincide with the release of her latest recording White Chalk on October 9. I was more than a little intrigued to see what Ms. Harvey had to offer last night given that White Chalk is such a radical departure from her prior work. Gone are the rough-hewn blues bass lines and ferocious guitar work and in its stead is a wisp of a recording. All tinkling out-of-tune piano from the next room and high falsetto vocals fill Chalk which has not a single rocker on it. The song remains the same with Harvey covering much of the same tainted love themes as before and her song structures are not really all that different than before. It’s more of a matter of orchestration and production.

Clearly her long time collaborators Flood and John Parrish have wielded some influence with substantially different results from To Bring You My Love. This point was made even more clear in her set at the Orpheum where about half of the material was taken from White Chalk including the title track, “The Devil,” and “When Under Ether.” Suddenly these songs were larger and bolder with more vocal power behind them though with no more accompaniment than on the recording. In fact perhaps one of the most intriguing things about the set as a whole is that it was in fact a solo set. Just Harvey and her myriad of tools from guitars and piano to dulcimer with nothing and no one else. She strode the stage in her ersatz white prom dress with puffy sleeves that seemed more like Jane Eyre than Courtney Love (thank god).

There were plenty of the old favorites here as well from “Rid of Me” and “Man-sized” to “Water” and “Angeline” and the crowd responded with commensurate enthusiasm to her raw unadorned delivery. She seemed at ease and clearly having fun. And who can blame her? She remains one of the rare rock artists who seems always at the top of her game. By the way, White Chalk is worth checking out even though it doubtless will be disappointing to some of the already initiated. Easy listening, it ain’t.

On the courthouse lawn

October 14, 2007

Andrew Shore as Ulysses S. Grant and Dwayne Croft as Robert E. Lee
Photo: Terrence McCarthy/SFO 2007

On Sunday I caught the third performance of Appomattox, the new opera from Philip Glass currently on stage with the San Francisco Opera. It is an ambitious, intelligent work with numerous strengths that will likely outweigh its weaknesses in the long run. This two act work concerns events leading up to and during the surrender of Confederate forces under Gen. Robert E Lee to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, VA, in 1865. However, there is a lot of other stuff going on or at least Glass and librettist Christopher Hampton want to draw out far broader cultural and historical implications from these events than the actual elements of narrative may immediately suggest. Or, in other words, ending the war is easy while waging the peace is hard.

The second act consists of a single extended scene where Lee and Grant negotiate the terms of the Confederacy's surrender, which Lincoln and Grant have insisted be generous to help establish and sustain a post-war peace. These exchanges are interrupted multiple times by various vignettes and characters who reflect on events in the civil rights movement throughout the following century and a half. The last of these interludes consists of a racist tirade from Edgar Ray Killen as he recounts his role in the murder of three civil rights workers during the 1960s. The point here is that the horrors of history and war can’t be easily unraveled in the terms of a peace, even if that peace is a generous, fair, and respectful one. What is perhaps most remarkable about Appomattox is how bleak and negative its world view is. Not that it may not be true, but agency is not on the agenda here. Ironically, Appomottox may be the anti-Adriana Mater, Kaija Saariaho’s dark opera about redemption and forgiveness in the face of war and unspeakable trauma.

The music is quintessential late-Glass, which given the unfair assumptions much of the public hold about Glass’ work, may be the biggest obstacle to the works wider acceptance. Which is a shame considering how great music is here. The performances were quite good including Dwayne Croft as Lee and Andrew Shore as Grant. But, if the performances prove anything, it is the overall strength of the Adler Fellows program since virtually all of the other roles in the work are held by current or former Fellows who are uniformly great. Rhoslyn Jones’ turn as Julia Dent Grant almost steals the show as do Elza van den Heever’s Mary Custis Lee and Heidi Melton’s Mary Todd Lincoln. The San Francisco Opera Chorus gets several opportunities to shine. Dennis Russell Davies expertly led the orchestra in his own San Francisco Opera debut.

The production is modern and contains some intriguing visual elements including four life-size horse carcasses that hang from above throughout much of the First Act and return at the end of the Second. The look is mostly minimal but the costumes are period. Director Robert Woodruff actually keeps everyone moving without cluttering up the stage with needless activity. Probably the biggest problem with the work is in the needlessly wordy libretto, which could use a little retooling especially in Act 1 where things start to drag about half way through. Appomattox is not about poetry as much as it is about ideas and the weight of history. And certainly there is art and beauty in that.


A little bit of this...

October 13, 2007

Ingrid Fliter
I’m in San Francisco this weekend to catch the new Philip Glass opera Appomattox on Sunday and decided I’d stop by Davies Symphony Hall to catch up with the San Francisco Symphony. This weekend's show was one of those standard fare things that passes for programming across much of the US these days. The major pieces included Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto and the Saint-Säens’ “Organ” Symphony. Luca Francesconi’s recent Cobalt, Scarlet: Two Colors of Dawn was thrown in for temporary contrast, I suppose, as well. Now I’m not usually one for this sort of romantic dreck, but there was a light here that made the concert worth seeing- namely one Ingrid Fliter. Fliter is a young Argentinian prtogeé of Martha Argerich who shot to some notoriety after winning the Gilmore artist award last year. She is undoubtedly quite talented and plays with gusto as she did earlier this year in Los Angeles where she was a last minute fill-in for an ailing Argerich in Beethoven's First Piano Concerto. She will be making debuts with several organizations around the US this season and she is definitely a young talent worth getting to know.

But for tonight, though, it’s a shame she didn’t have something just a little more interesting to play. Fliter and the conductor Roberto Abbado are both quite capable of making something out of nothing and they almost got away with it here, but both the Saint-Säens and the Chopin proved too impervious in their hard inert romantic grooves. Pretty grooves mind you, but not much more. The Fracesconi of course is a different matter. Written as a commission is Oslo, Cobalt is one of those things that comes as advertised, an Italinate take on a Nordic Sunrise – or perhaps a Spaghetti Bergman, if you will. Glowing with warmth in the face of the darkness and the cold, Abbado and the orchestra really sunk their teeth into this and, given the rest of the program, did in fact provide some much needed contrast.


Getting down to business

October 12, 2007

Salonen and the LA Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2007
Whenever a new Fall Philharmonic season starts here in LA, I feel there is this period of adjustment. It may just be me, but at first it seems everything is settling in like there’s too much energy in the air or that performers and/or audience are re-adapting to their surroundings. The season will start and usually the first few programs may seem uneven in various ways, but then something will just click and you know you're there. Tonight was that night as the LA Philharmonic under Esa-Pekka Salonen opened up their “Sibelius Unbound” series revisiting the Finnish master's symphonies and tone poems over a series of weeks. This sequence will be repeated in London next month at the Barbican. If the rest of the series pans out to be as good as tonight was, it will be a crowning achievement for Salonen on the eve of his departure from the LA Philhamonic.

The program and series began, appropriately enough with Finlandia - a familiar 8 minutes whose placement here acts as prologue inviting the audience to think of what they know—and how much more they may not—about Sibelius. This was followed by Salonen’s own Wing on Wing emphasizing this series’ interest in Sibelius’s influence on modern composers and a chance to make a direct connection with the local audience here who have had numerous experiences over the last few years to hear this piece commissioned in honor of the opening of Walt Disney Concert Hall. On my third outing, the group have clearly grown more comfortable with the work making it sound less elemental and more biological. It throbs along like some animal driven and crying with the soprano voices of Stacey Tappan and Anu Kosmi. It was wonderful and the LA audience responded with great enthusiasm.

After the intermission, the group and Salonen set out on a detailed and brisk account of Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2. Here Salonen kept with the composer's wishes eschewing more programmatic impulses and allowing the work to simply be what it is. The emphasis here was to think of Sibelius not simply as a Finnish composer but an early 20th Century master casting a shadow onto what follows. Involved but not in any way bombastic it sets an excellent tone for the coming weeks. It was a great evening at WDCH and a strong start to a series of programs that promise to be quite exciting. Tickets are still available for this program which will repeat on Saturday and Sunday as well as for the other shows in the series over the next two weeks.


Consolation Prize

October 10, 2007

Lionel Bringuier, Jennifer Koh and the LA Phil new music group
Photo: mine 2007

With no Passion de Simone last weekend, those of us who consider ourselves big Kaija Saariaho fans here in LA (I’d like to think I’m not the only one), had to make do with tonight’s opening program in the LA Philharmonic’s “Green Umbrella” series at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Originally scheduled as a companion program to the larger oratorio, this smörgåsbord of shorter works became the main attraction. The first half consisted of two works for solo instrumentalists and electronics composed during the early 90s. Six Japanese Gardens featured percussionist Steven Schick in a piece that sounds pretty much like what its title suggests. NoaNoa for flute, played here by Catherine Ransom Karoly, makes reference to a series of Gauguin woodcuts. In this case, the electronic accompaniment consisted of both prerecorded and processed live sounds of Karoly not only playing but also whispering and breathing into the instrument creating a quiet and ethereal feel. Both works were accompanied by video art installations from Jean-Baptiste Barriére, a frequent collaborator of Saariaho’s. The video images, like the music, were based on a combination of pre-taped and live images mixed with a variety of other special effects. These psychedelic visions probably fit better with the latter piece which is influenced by some of the primitive imagery so integral to Gauguin. The music was delicate but marked by the Saariaho touch of beauty and menace.

After a brief interlude in the form of a short piece from Dallapiccola, the program concluded with Saariaho’s first real masterpiece prior to her operatic works, the quasi-violin concerto Graal théàter performed here in the small scale chamber version. The piece has a blazingly difficult and dramatic violin part, originally written for Gidon Kremer, which was dispatched this evening by the remarkable Jennifer Koh who was making her LA Phil debut. Her playing was amazing and she undoubtedly stole the show with a work that highlights Saariaho’s hallmark gestures of fragile rising and crashing lines that can be both peaceful and foreboding. This later work was under the guidance of the LA Philharmonic’s newest Assistant Conductor, 21-year-old French wunderkind, Lionel Bringuier. As I’ve noted before, we like our young hot shots here in the City of Angels, and Bringuier will hopefully get the opportunity to shine in some other main stage performances here over the next two years.



October 09, 2007

Photo: Simon Fowler
Why wasn’t I in San Francisco for the Appomattox premiere you may ask? Simply because there were more pressing matters in southern California this weekend and primary among those was a pair of solo performance from Angela Hewitt. Specifically, Hewitt appeared at the Segerstrom Concert Hall in Orange County as part of her Bach World Tour – 18 months of shows around the world featuring her well received recordings of Bach’s major keyboard works. Many of these stops, as the one here in Orange County, feature performances of both books of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier over two nights. The show will move on to Berkeley this week and Carnegie Hall next month. If you don’t have tickets for them, you should get them now.

Hewitt has developed quite a reputation for her Bach interpretations in no small part due to the avid support of a cadre of Gramophone editors and the British media more generally. And considering that, outside of a shrinking number of American journalists, they are virtually the only ones writing in the English language about classical music, that is saying quite a lot. As on disc, her playing here was remarkable. Not necessarily ground-breaking, radical, or avant -garde - but remarkable nevertheless. Her interpretations are clear and appropriately dramatic. They do exactly what a marathon performance of this type should: provide a hypnotizing flow and sense of wonder around the exquisite detail of these Bach miniatures. Perhaps you won't be gripping the edge of your seat throughout, but that isn't really always necessary anyway.

Bait and switch

October 08, 2007

Salonen in motion
Photo: Lawrence K. Ho/LAT 2007
Sorry about the brief posting pause, but it’s been a busy week. Good, but busy. And one big reason it’s been a good week is that the LA Philharmonic Season finally kicked off last Thursday, and getting back into Walt Disney Concert Hall to hear this country’s greatest orchestra is always a cause for celebration. I did not attend the super-pricey opening gala on Thursday at which Reneé Fleming did that which is her wont. But this is just party music for the once a year see-and-be-seen crowd, so it's no big loss. The real business was to begin this weekend with the American premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s La Passion de Simone, which was rescheduled after a prior postponement earlier in the year. However, this was not to be, in that director Peter Sellars convinced the Phil that the program would be better presented with the staging intact from its London and Vienna runs. Since dancer Michael Schumacher and a lighting director could not be available this weekend, everything has been put off again until next season.

Needless to say this state of affairs left me feeling not unlike Dawn Davenport on that fateful Christmas morning in Female Trouble. Despite my fondest wishes for this special day- no cha cha heels. But rather than run away from home with a trucker, as Dawn would have in this situation, I persevered with an evening that included the Berio arrangement of Bach’s Contrapunctus XIX, Strauss’ Metamorphosen, and the ever-present Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. Salonen made an argument for this program from the stage beforehand noting linking themes of mortality and loss in the earlier works (whether or not intended by the composers themselves). However, whether it was opening weekend jitters or my inability to contend with disappointment, this consolation prize of a concert didn't really live up to expectations. The playing was good overall, but I felt the Strauss sounded a little sloppy and the Beethoven was overly-ecstatic. Saturday’s not quite capacity crowd seemed pleased, though.

Of course, the Saariaho would also have been nice as a lead-in to a whole month featuring works from two of Finland's other greatest composers, Salonen and Sibelius. From here on out, the Phil will be focusing on a run through of all the symphonies, several of the tone poems, and lieder to be performed by Ben Heppner, all under the moniker of "Sibelius Unbound." So despite an arguably soft start, there is plenty to look forward to. Not the least of which is a new music program tomorrow night that will focus on smaller works from Saariaho that should not be missed.


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