Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

The Young Ones

January 30, 2008

Lionel Bringuier looking much cuter than his LA Phil press photos
Photo: Micke Grönberg/SR

Apparently, the LA Phil press department never sleeps as evidenced by this curious oddity – LA Phil Assistant Conductor Lionel Bringuier was identified by CNN as one of the “Young People who Rock”. According to their website, YPWR is “a weekly interview series focused on people under 30…who are doing remarkable things.” Bringuier is off to a strong start this season with some appearances in the Phil’s new music “Green Umbrella” series where he led performances of the works of Kaija Saariaho. He also survived the Lorin Maazel led performances of Britten’s War Requiem last week with no apparent signs of damage. Bringuier will be fielding questions from the on-line community on "CNN.com Live" this Friday, February 1, at 11:30 AM (PST) per their website. You can even submit a video question if you like – either way it sounds much more interesting than those dreary presidential debate questions.

Speaking of youth and the LA Phil, we’ve another series of Gustavo Dudamel concerts coming up at the end of March and inquiring minds like myself who have been speculating about his interest/aptitude towards contemporary music may finally be getting some hints. The programs he will lead on March 28-30 will include the LA Phil’s own beloved Esa-Pekka Salonen’s composition Insomnia. Now there is some potentially clever programming. FYI – there is a dreadful puff piece interview with Dudamel on the LA Phil website where Gail Eichenthal asks brilliant zingers like “Why do you suppose music is so well-suited to rescue children from poverty on the streets?” Thank you Ms. Eichenthal for exhibit A in my argument about the problems with the media's coverage of (and the public's overenthusiasm to) Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. Western culture saves the great, unwashed masses once again. Who needs global economic justice and peace when you have art?

And on a brighter note, the 2008 Hollywood Bowl season is on its way with Salonen conducting Mahler’s 8th in September, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Thibaudet in the Khachaturian Piano Concerto, and a largely Philip Glass program led by Leonard Slatkin.


In defense of mediocrity

January 28, 2008

Linda Watson and John Treleaven
Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2008

I don’t have the heart to ridicule LA Opera’s current production of Tristan und Isolde. Oh, it could be done. Make no mistake, there are numerous things about the production overall that are mediocre – uninspired but competent vocal performances, silly stage business, etc. Others have detailed fully what some of those issues are. But the reality is, I enjoyed the whole thing very much. In part this is due to the fact that I love Wagner’s operas. I, in particular, love Tristan. And mediocre Wagner is still better than excellent Puccini any day. There are some really good things in this LA outing - Conlon and the orchestra gave a brisk spirited account of the score. The Hockney production is excellent and having him in LA to help with the staging was clearly a benefit over the lackluster presentation his design had in San Francisco last season. (The very notable exception there was the superb Christine Brewer).

My reaction to Tristan got me thinking a lot about how people, including myself, tend to write about opera performance. I mean what is so wrong with Linda Watson or John Treleaven. Sure, they aren't the best in the world and they are far from the best ever. But both deliver mostly competent performances. People seem to dismiss them simply because they aren't "inspiring" or transcendent in some way. Sure it's great to hear the best in the world, but isn't there room for artists who can perform difficult material in a competent way? Frequently, the standard for performers is unrealistically high given the easy to access legendary performances that have been recorded over the course of the 20th century. I think performers get compared, fairly or not, both to everyone we ourselves have heard and to many that we have not due to their continued technological legacy. Soon everyone who doesn’t sound like the two or three best ever Isoldes are just “average” or “competent”. I mean are their really that many more or less artists around today that can sing Isolde than there were over a century ago? If so, how do we actually know that or at least how do we know how good or bad these people sounded outside of subjective second hand written reports at the time?

Still, the necrophiliac tendencies of opera audiences are hard to shake. People love to bitch about artists singing roles that they “can’t” or “shouldn’t” be singing. Netrebko gets heat for not being able to handle the chores of bel canto and virtually everyone is criticized for attempting to sing Norma. But I don’t think this is very realistic or fair. If only two or three performers in the world (or two or three performers ever) can sing a certain role, it doesn’t mean very many people are going to get to hear Norma or at least not very often. Sure, it used to be this way - Norma was an opera that was rarely performed in the first half of the 20th century. But I for one don’t think that is preferable. I don’t want to spend my days waiting for some fantasy once-or-twice-a-century ideal performance to experience seeing some of opera’s great works. So sure, I’ve seen better Tristans and Watson and Treleaven are not exciting – but I got to hear Wagner’s marvelous music and that in some ways is more than enough.

I think that Opera is a living thing meant to be performed and experienced live. Too often critics, both professional and otherwise, tend to forget this. And while I love to hear a standard setting performance in the flesh as much as the next person, I think there is much more to loving opera. Since opera, by its very nature, needs to be performed in order to be enjoyed, that often means working with the performers you have on hand even if they aren't ideal. Baroque composers such as Handel didn't seem to have any trouble getting their heads around this, so what's our problem?


Time's Up

January 27, 2008

The Westside of Los Angeles is not to be outdone, even when in comes to 20th century art music. LA has had an embarrassment of riches when it comes to 20th century music and, in particular, the music of Olivier Messiaen lately, including spectacular LA Philharmonic performances of Des canyons aux étioles and Quatuor pour la fin du temps. Meanwhile in Santa Monica, the Jacaranda chamber music series have put together “The OM Century” – two years of shows dedicated to the works of Olivier Messiaen, those who inspired him, and those he himself inspired. Jacaranda currently operates out of the First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica and Saturday they presented a program entitled “In Captivity” which concerned music that Messiaen studied, performed, and wrote during his time serving in the French army during WWII including his detention in a German POW camp. The stories of Messiaen's performances of Bach on organs during his services and the Quartet's premier in the POW camp are now legendary, but hearing these works now in this modern church in Santa Monica gives them new perspective.

The first half of the program included some of the music Messiaen studied from pocket scores during this period including three segments of Berg’s Lyric Suite and Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye. The program opened with Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor for organ setting an appropriate tone for a composer whose works were heavily influenced by his own spiritual beliefs. The Denali Quartet then performed the Berg with the assistance of soprano Elissa Johnston. Berg’s pieces can be a tough sell, but here they were filled with longing. The Ravel is written for four hands and pianists Gloria Chang and Mark Alan Hilt gave a beautiful rendition of the work.

All of this prologue provided insightful foreshadowing to a performance of Quatuor pour la fin du temps, the centerpiece of the evening. Timothy Loo and Sarah Thornblade from Denali were joined by Chang and clarinetist Donald Foster for the piece, and, while the playing was a little rough around the edges, overall it was highly effective highlighting the spiritual and timeless qualities of the music. Of course the setting helped too in that even with the lights down, the rather modern white interior of the church seemed filled with light as the rain fell against the large stained-glass windows on either side of the hall. It may not have been Portland, but it was an excellent opportunity to hear music far too seldom programmed or played. The Jacaranda series will continue through this year and part of next. You can check out their upcoming schedule here.


There Will Be Blood

January 26, 2008

Benjamin Walker as Andrew Jackson and cast
Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2008

Following the 2006 Broadway opening of Spring Awakening, numerous rave reviews poured in. (Mine among them.) Some of the more excitable critics even went so far as to pull out the old chestnut about the work changing the face of musical theater. Of course, now in 2008 amidst a season of Young Frankensteins and Little Mermaids this call may seem a little premature. However, if you are looking for the true son of Awakening you wont find it in New York, but in Los Angeles at the Kirk Douglas Theater in the form of a raucous, energetic, and almost brilliant new production, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.

With a book by Alex Timbers and music and lyrics by Michael Friedman, Jackson picks up where Awakening leaves off. Here a highly talented young cast are at play in the fields of American History. Timbers and Friedman take a very funny but often pointedly serious reconsideration of Andrew Jackson’s legacy by recasting the 7th president as a sort of “emo” rock star who is burnt in the end by the very populism he rides to victory. The hero of earlier battles is later defeated by his own inability to please all of the people all of the time in a fickle and fractured populace. While the “emo” conceit would seem a stretch it works quite well with Jackson’s well-known belief in blood letting, now translated as a preoccupation with cutting. The events of the show roughly follow Jackson’s own life and rise to power often peppering the action with bouts of adolescent angst. There is liberal use of sometimes broad and sophomoric comic bits, but these begin to fade as the material takes a darker and darker tone as Jackson is elected president. All of this cannily recalls current affairs with subtle jabs at the ins and out of populism.

The look of the show and the performances are fantastic. Early 19th century western wear is paired with some modern and anachronistic touches to delineate relationships and plot points. The saloon-like set features a display case with a large stuffed alligator and a huge natural history diorama filling the back of the stage featuring the “Mammals of North America.” The lighting is superb and the cast makes the most of these wonderful surroundings. The energy level here is great and the cast goes very far with what they have. Benjamin Walker’s Jackson and Brian Hostenske’s Martin van Buren are particularly winning amongst a uniformly strong cast that easily dispatches the singing and dancing chores laid out for them.

My only issue is that their work load is a little lighter than it should be. Probably the weakest link here is the music. One thing Jackson doesn’t have are the kind of big hooks Duncan Sheik can write and many of the piece's lyrics seem forced and underdeveloped. At times the songs seem to disappear altogether in overly lengthy scenes, and the creative team has made strange decisions like to do away with an 11 o’clock number all together. The piece does get bogged down at times by the biographical framework it has chosen which goes roughly from Jackson's childhood until he decides, as president, to forcibly remove Native Americans from their land and march them across the continent to Oklahoma.

Still, Jackson deserves to be a hit and probably an ever bigger one down the line with a little more work. It pulls no punches on everything from issues of race and youth culture to some loving swipes at Susan Sontag of all people. (She was apparently the original topic for the musical which was later wisely reconsidered.) The immense energy and wit are frequently overpowering even against relative weaknesses. It runs through February 17th and it is highly recommended.


This Means War

January 24, 2008

Maazel and his cast of thousands
Photo: mine 2008
In a way it seems unfair to pick on Lorin Maazel these days. This is a popular pastime in print and on the internet and blaming him for any number of ills in performances of all stripes seems all too commonplace. But when you see a piece presented as unremarkably as Britten’s War Requiem was on Thursday night with the LA Philharmonic under his guidance, it’s also hard to avoid. On break from performances of Die Walküre at the Metropolitan Opera, Maazel led the Philharmonic for the first time in nearly thirty years. Also on stage were the combined resources of the LA Master Chorale and Children’s Chorale as well as three soloists including soprano Nancy Gustafson, tenor Vale Rideout, and baritone Ian Greenlaw. LA Phil Assistant Conductor Lionel Bringuier led the smaller chamber ensemble that punctuates the Requiem throughout. But all the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't quite make all the pieces of Britten's massive work come together.

So what went wrong? I’m not exactly sure. It’s just that the whole thing seemed rather stale and mawkish. Maybe it was just the lack of a certain British quality to the proceedings. Certainly the work requires a certain amount of reserve, but tonight Maazel and the orchestra just seemed distant and hollow. Much of the first half came off as didactic – all the elements were there and the music sounded good but it didn't hit the mark. The Wilfred Owen texts, as beautiful as they are, almost seemed farcical at times as if taken out of a bad student play. There were bright spots, though. Gustafson stood out and the Master Chorale and Children’s chorale seemed to rise above it all, providing the lion’s share of the evening's memorable moments. Even the silly fade to black in the final bars with a sole spotlight on the conductor couldn’t detract from the wonderful singing of the chorale. Still, with current events what they are, such a hollow War Requiem seems like a missed opportunity.

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Portland, OR

In Oregon
Photo: mine 2008

My timing is typically not great. Last weekend was no exception in that I had traveled up north to Portland, Oregon on business a week before the highly anticipated reunion of Tashi and their Messiaen/Carter chamber music mini-festival. Still, Out West Arts never rests and I decided to make the most of my time. First up was a performance from the Oregon Symphony in the lovely Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in downtown Portland. The Oregon Symphony is an organization in transition. After decades under beloved music director James DePreist, the artistic leadership of the organization passed to Carlos Kalmar in 2003. This change coincides with the arrival of common pressures facing many arts organizations these days including smaller audiences and decreasing revenue. All of this has resulted in an environment of charges and counter-charges about programming, marketing, and the direction of the symphony. This year, Pink Martini’s Thomas Lauderdale was recruited to help raise the profile of the organization, which has only increased the endless debate about viability and vitality that much of the classical music world seems to thrive on.

But given this weekend’s program, it doesn’t appear that all the squabbling has negatively affected the ensemble's playing. The bill started with James MacMillan’s The Confession of Isobel Gowdie a single-movement work concerning the burning of a woman accused of witchcraft in Medieval Scotland. Filled with both liturgical elements and discordant passages representing the immolation, Macmillan’s piece may be about as far from Il Trovatore as you can get. The Symphony sounded great and Kalmar led a dynamic and colorful performance. This was followed after intermission by Mendelssohn’s incidental music from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As always, the real debate with such a performance is whether or not and how much non-musical framework to give these short but pretty items. Here, two actors, Maureen Porter and Ted deChatelet, were enlisted to deliver the barest bones dialog - often in the most cloying inflection imaginable. What with all the mealy high-pitched fairy voices, the hour felt like more of a battle than a dream, but the playing was still quite good.

Later on and further uptown, I caught Third Rail Rep’s production of Conor McPherson’s Shining City. McPherson's plays are much more difficult than they seem, often resting on actors who can handle extended monologues that are often about things other than what they say they are about. Their delivery must convey a sense of magic, or at least a belief in magic, that will coalesce with the often supernatural events of the story themselves as if in a dream. That this Third Rail production does not ultimately achieve this is disappointing, although it is an admirable attempt with many charms. The heart and primary monologist of McPherson’s ghost story is John, played here by a quite good Bruce Burkhartsmeier. He is certainly believable even if the the rest of the cast does not always match him note for note. Accents are generally stable, but I found the rest of the play here overly disjointed and at times mechanical. Still, McPherson's points are made, more or less, and overall I'd still recommend it. It's too bad I can't hang around and sample more of Portland's wares, but LA beckons.


Now that's what I call music

January 15, 2008

The LA Philharmonic with Salonen and Marino Formenti
Photo: mine 2008

The 20th century music bonanza continues in LA this week as our very own Esa-Pekka Salonen dropped back into town in the midst of the “Concrete Frequency” Programs just in case any of us had forgotten the role he has played in helping develop this city's interest in music from the last 40 to 50 years. As is typically the case, he does nothing half way and tonight he presented a freaking fantastic performance of Messiaen’s Des canyons aux étoiles with the profound and emotional playing of Marino Formenti at the piano. (Check out his excellent website.) Of course this is a Messiaen anniversary year so his wonderful music suddenly is in abundance everywhere. But whatever the reason, the huge crowd at Walt Disney Concert Hall tonight was clearly blown away by a performance that was nothing short of masterful.

Written as a commission for the commemoration of the American bicentennial, Des canyons aux étoiles is Messiaen’s reflection of what is perhaps the most beautiful places in North America – Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks. Messiaen may not have seemed the most obvious choice for this work. Let’s face it – what says America more than birds, stars, and Catholicism? But the French have a long tradition of making spectacular gifts to the US and this is no exception. Strangely, and wonderfully, the heady Messiaenic mix overwhelms with beauty and a true sense of spirituality. The work weaves in and out of material about specific birds, the beauty of the canyons, and the stars over the course of its twelve segments incorporating material for solo piano as well as more concerto-like movements. Salonen held everything in complete control producing a loving performance from his band of Philharmonic regulars including a remarkable horn solo from William Lane. The concluding segments of both the second and third parts were awe-inspiring. Although the piano soloist was originally announced to be Andreas Haefliger, an extremely fortunate substitution was made with the presence instead of Formenti. No stranger to Messiaen or the Los Angeles contemporary music scene, Formenti played with remarkable intensity switching from light and birdlike to darkly celestial without missing a beat. He and Salonen, as well as the rest of the players, received an extended standing ovation from the crowd.

The only bad news would seem to be this – with such a miraculous performance so early in this Messiaen year, everything else may be downhill from such a pinnacle.

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January 11, 2008

The LA Philharmonic with Michael Gordon, Bill Morrison, and David Robertson
Photo: mine 2008

This weekend marked the last two performances in the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Concrete Frequency” series in which our wonderful local ensemble continued presenting late 20th century masterpieces under the guidance of guest conductor David Robertson. All of this continued to be spuriously yoked to the concept that this music has something to say about urban existence. Robertson certainly continued to make eloquent arguments from the stage as to why. But even if this all seemed a bit of a stretch for me, I have no problem with the Phil coming up with whatever flimsy excuses it needs to program this great music.

Probably the most challenging and rewarding of the shows was on Thursday. The theme that night was the role of nightlife in cities so (surprise!) it was filled with smoky, jazz-influenced numbers like Zimmermann’s Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra, performed here with the exemplary assistance of Alison Balsom. The Phil even imported some jazz-band ringers for an encore of Monk's Round Midnight. In an equally forced, but far more successful move, Robertson paired Ives’ Central Park in the Dark not with the typical The Unanswered Question but with Berio’s Sequenza X for trumpet here played by Gabriele Cassone. The usually winning Ives mania worked well in this context creating a real sense of foreboding and tension. But the real prize of the evening was the extremely quiet and jarring performance of Morton Feldman’s The Turfan Fragments. Twenty minutes of these dissonant and shifting pulsations probably said more about the city that is Los Angeles than any of the skyscraper/industry stuff that littered the rest of the program. Here is a city Angelenos know – multiple fragments, never working together, but strangely affecting, each in their own concurrent way. Mark Swed is right, any orchestra daring enough to program this deserves kudos, and this was a performance to remember.

The final show on Saturday started off with a rather Messiaenic sounding …explosante-fixe… from the mind of Pierre Boulez. Robertson didn’t even try to force the whole city rubric here. He just let it rip with the assistance of two sharpies from IRCAM in Paris on the laptop. It was great and very, very pretty. It’s too bad the series had to end in the way that it did with the ultimately disappointing Dystopia, a world premiere from composer Michael Gordon and filmmaker Bill Morrison. Obviously the series was going to end the way that it began. The first piece in the first show was Copland’s suite for the 30s propaganda film The City presented with the film to remind us all about the soulless destructive nature of the urban environment. With Dystopia, "Concrete Frequency" had finally moved away from the East Coast and gotten around to focusing of the urban landscape of Los Angeles. Morrison's combination of local archival footage spliced with his own work was designed around Gordon's score. Sadly, Morrison has little new to say on the topic in the intervening 70 years since The City. The piece heartily embraces every worn out cliché about a dystopian Los Angeles as the modern template for the distressed, alienating urban landscape. Here you have it all – garbage dumps, traffic jams, poverty, and pollution. Morrison was even able to find all five or six skyscrapers we have downtown for some typical empty soulless alien landscape shots. Gordon’s music pulses along in an urgent if pleasing post-minimalism sort of way that nevertheless has its charms. But at the core of Dystopia is a hollow and pointless commentary that apparently still has a market.

If you want to learn about music and the urban experience in the city of Los Angeles, why not start with Charles Burnett’s 1977 masterpiece Killer of Sheep just recently available on DVD for the first time. This is a film I first became aware of through Thom Anderson's 2003 documentary about the representation of Los Angeles in film history, Los Angeles Plays Itself. Anderson explores the problems with "dystopian" views of Los Angeles far more eloquently than I can here. Killer of Sheep may not be Boulez or Feldman, but it may in fact have something to say about a “concrete frequency,” whatever that may be.


More on MEC

January 08, 2008

Donald Crockett, soprano Susan Narucki, and members of XTET
Photo: mine 2008

Is there any doubt that the Monday Evening Concert series is becoming the premiere venue for contemporary classical music in LA? There shouldn’t be. And in a town that has a reputation for broad-based interest in contemporary music to begin with, MEC is a very good place to be. If you don’t believe me, ask the near-capacity crowd at Zipper Hall downtown for last night's show ”Exercises En Route." A show, I would mention, that did not feature a big name "curator" or out of town guest celebrity. It’s hard to believe this series has grown from the ashes of its once-abandoned predecessor over at LACMA in less than two short years.

Tuesday’s program was structured around works developed in the wake of Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire - if not in musical structure, at least in terms of their reliance on similar ensembles. The first half of the program included a number of shorter works starting with Donald Crockett’s witty and energetic Whistling in the Dark that the composer himself conducted. Following this was Oliver Knussen’s Cantata, a string quartet with oboe substituting for the second violin. It was a spot-on performance masterfully handled, as were all of the pieces, by members of XTET. Prior to intermission, an expanded group gave voice to Carlo Boccadoro’s Bad Blood, a work described in the program notes as a sort of jeremiad against an imagined version of the Tuskegee experiments in the US.

All of this was a precursor to the main course, Earl Kim’s Exercises En Route, a 30 minute work for soprano and small ensemble that was perhaps the most direct reference to Schoenberg. The piece sets four texts from Samuel Beckett and captures the enthralling monotony of his language beautifully. The soloist was soprano Susan Narucki who attacked the half-sung, half-spoken passages with glee, fully exploiting Beckett’s text for it wonderful wealth of wordplay.

Do you need another reason to love the Monday Evening Concert Series? How about this – they have made much of the last performance available on You Tube. I’m not much for video in blog posts, but I had to include the three 5 or 6 minute segments that make up one of the big highlights of December’s show (which I didn’t write about due to time constraints) – a performance of Horatiu Radulescu’s Das Andere by violist Vincent Royer. Royer has made Radulescu’s works a specialty and I thought his version of this highly deconstructed sonata was amazing. Make sure to catch the last two MEC shows this season including the March 10th program looking at Harrison Birtwistle and the April 14th program entirely devoted to the work of Helmut Lachenmann who will be in LA for the event.

Das Andere Part I

and Part II

and Part III


Today's News

January 07, 2008


Well, it’s opera season announcement time again – that annual ritual where we all get our hopes up with promises of things that will certainly not come off as planned in the long run. Vainly, those of us who follow such things will hope that the good surprises will outnumber the disappointments. LA Opera threw its hat into the ring today with an 08/09 schedule that contains few surprises given what has been reported in the media over the last year. And while there is still considerable recycling of very recent old material, it is hard to complain about a season that involves five new productions out of a total of nine.

First the bad news. LAO will revive Traviata, Die Zauberflöte, the Robert Wilson Butterly, and Carmen. All but the Mozart have appeared here within the last three years in the same productions. There isn’t too much exciting in the casting here, though the Zauberflöte cast is strong with Nathan Gunn, Joseph Kaiser, Matthias Goerne, and Erin Wall.

Now the good news. The new William Friedkin/Woody Allen Il Trittico will open the season with Sondra Radvanovsky singing Sour Angelica. This will be paired with the US premiere of LAO’s commission of Howard Shore’s The Fly based on the film by David Cronenberg who will act as director for the production with Placido Domingo conducting. It may or may not be a disaster, but it will likely be fun to watch. In 2009, the Recovered Voices project marshaled by James Conlon continues with the US premiere of Walter Braunfels Die Vögel. And just to top things off, LAO will roll out the first two installments of its newly commissioned Achim Freyer Ring cycle, Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, with the previously announced cast to include Michelle DeYoung as Fricka, Linda Watson as Brünnhilde, Anja Kampe as Sieglinde, Vitalij Kowaljow as Wotan, Jill Grove as Erde, and Domingo as Siegmund. Music director James Conlon will lead all of the new productions with the exception of The Fly as well as the Zauberflote and Butterfly revivals.

So there you have it. The company continues to move forward, often in a lumbering way but there is something here to look forward to. The company appears to be looking toward many of its beloved regulars in terms of casting and has eschewed big name stars next season with the exception of general manager Mr. Domingo. But no matter how you slice it, next season looks to be more adventurous than the current one.


January 06, 2008

David Robertson and the LA Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2008
It’s back to business here in LA and the Philharmonic has wasted no time in diving into the new year with one of their major programming initiatives this season. As usual, the marketing people have had their way and come up with perhaps the worst, most indecipherable title for the series, “Concrete Frequency.” In reality, these two week's worth of shows consist of music addressing the experience of urban existence in the 20th century. I suppose this is as legitimate a theme as any, but the really good news is that it serves as an excuse for the Philharmonic to perform a variety of 20th century masterpieces not commonly heard from major American orchestras. The series is under the leadership of David Robertson who is no stranger to this kind of material and his experience was evident in the very strong playing by the Phil as the series got underway.

This weekend was the first of three Philharmonic shows in the series and consisted of Copland’s music for The City, Frank Zappa’s Dupree’s Paradise, George Crumb’s A Haunted Landscape, and Varèse’s Amériques. These are clangy, evocative works filled with wonder and consternation at a densely packed landscape. The high points were definitely in the second half of the show with Crumb’s quiet sounds of isolation and Varèse’s loud booming vision of a new world he arrived in following WWI. These last two pieces provided a nice contrast in that Crumb's Landscape was eerie producing a sense of isolation, a sound that Robertson argued referred to the sensation of a large empty downtown area in the evening. Amériques is maximal music uninterested in melody with everything thrown in to the mix including an air-raid siren. However, while all of this was interesting and enthusiastically received, it was also somewhat disjointed for this audience. With the exception of the short Zappa work, this music is wedded to the vision of a dystopian city filled with skyscrapers, smoke, and the press of people on the streets – a city vision much closer to an East Coast metropolis than anything we in Los Angeles know. “Concrete Frequency” may be about city life, but not about the city we Angelenos live in with its omnipresent sun, large expanses, and physical separation. Not that LA isn't a dystopia, it's just a very pretty and different one.

But no matter how good or bad the playing in any of the “Concrete Frequency” shows may be, they are already in some ways a huge success. The Philharmonic is reasonably filling the WDCH for seven concerts with often challenging music composed entirely in the 20th Century without an obligatory performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. I doubt there are too many large classical music ensembles in the US that would dare to pull this off. The programs continue through next weekend and include at least two other programs of popular music from other artists, all at WDCH.

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Best in Show 07 - theater edition

January 05, 2008

Cast of Philistines
Photo: Catherine Ashmore/NYT 2007

In fairness, and because I love lists, I like to have a separate theater top 10 for 2007 since I am also, admittedly, unfairly partial to performances that involve music. (My Best of 07 Music list is here.) Here’s what I loved most in theater for 2007:

1. Philistines by Maxim Gorky at the National Theater of Britain’s Lyttleton Theater, London 7/07. Wow, and more wow. This is perhaps my favorite simply because it way such a huge surprise to me. A dense and often ideological text was transformed into poetry with ample amounts of humor thrown in. All that, and the first of two masterful performances from Conleth Hill this year.

Rondi Reed, Sally Murphy, and Deanna Dunagan
Photo: Joan Marcus 2007

2. August: Osage County by Tracy Letts at the Imperial Theater, Broadway, New York, 12/07. What more praise can I heap on this already lauded play. No doubt, the awards will soon be rolling in for this remarkable work and ensemble performance that is equal parts bone and flesh. A concise and powerful view of the America we have become.

Anne-Marie Duff as Saint Joan
Photo: Tristram Kenton/Guardian 2007

3. Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw at the National Theater of Britain’s Olivier Theater, London 7/07. It wasn’t just Russian intellectualism that received the gold-standard treatment this summer. The British took care of their own by casting a revelatory Anne-Marie Duff in a fluid and gripping version of what so easily turns to turgid gunk in lesser hands. Kudos to Marianne Elliott for giving Joan back to us.

4. The Seafarer by Conor McPherson at the Booth Theater, Broadway, New York, 12/07. It’s not always necessary to fly to London to sample the treasures being turned out by the National Theater of Britain these days. McPherson’s Faust-inspired work is dazzling and touching in the most surprising ways. Conleth Hill strikes again.

from Ten Chi
Photo: Tanztheater Wuppertal 2007

5. Ten Chi by Pina Bausch Tanztheater Wuppertal at Royce Hall, UCLA, Los Angeles. 11/07. Irreverent and at other times achingly beautiful, Bausch’s troupe amazed audiences all over the West Coast with the US premiere of this work that was both inspired by and strangely oblivious to Japanese culture. Snow and a giant whale tail – what more could you ask from a dance piece.

6. The Piano Teacher at South Coast Repertory, Orange County, 4/07 and Durango at East West Players, Los Angeles, 9/07 both by Julia Cho. While Tracy Letts is grabbing lots of deserved attention, he wasn’t the only American playwright making waves this year. Cho’s fascination with the tricks, both good and bad, memory plays on us seems an unending source for compelling drama. Both of her outings in LA this year were superior.

Frank Langella and Michael Sheen
Photo: Joan Marcus 2007

7. Frost/Nixon by Peter Morgan at the Bernard B Jacobs Theater, Broadway, New York 4/07. Frank Langella’s Tony winning performance was the jewel in the crown of Morgan’s history play. Sharp looking and well-paced, Morgan provided one of the most successful screen-to-stage career moves this year.

8. Yellow Face by David Henry Hwang at the Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles, 5/07. Hwang’s semi-autobiographical send up of race and show business is probably the best work on the topic since Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle. Hoon Lee’s wonderful comic performance was a joy on both coasts.

Finbar Lynch and Lia Williams in The Hothouse
Photo: Tristram Kenton/Guardian 2007

9. Betrayal at Donmar Warehouse, London 7/07 and The Hothouse at the National Theater of Britain’s Lyttleton Theater 7/07 both by Harold Pinter. No doubt Pinter will be remembered for his bite, but there was much, much more to his work than this. These two pieces, early and later, demonstrated both qualities in two highlights of the summer season in London.

10. The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh at Berkeley Rep Theater, Berkeley, 3/07. McDonagh is the world's leading purveyor of optimism in the midst of the most unimaginably dreadful things. This West Coast premiere was hard to look away from despite one's strong desire to.

Honorable mention: Tom Stoppard's Rock' n' Roll; S. Epatha Merkerson in Come Back, Little Sheba at the Kirk Douglas Theater; Sir Ian McKellen in King Lear with the RSC at Royce Hall; medEia from Dood Paard at the Freud Playhouse; and Tug of War at the Getty Villa.

Most overrated: Black Watch by Gregory Burke and the National Theater of Scotland, Royce Hall, UCLA 9/07. Certainly filled with beautiful choreography, this otherwise hackneyed war story seemed to inexplicably throw grown men into tears. There seems more than enough real tragedy around these days to do that.

Most underrated: Yellow Face. See above.

Worst performance moment of the year: Hands down the worst thing I saw that I didn’t walk out of was the inexcusably awful and unnecessary revival of Kismet from English National Opera. Bad in almost every way.


Hearts of Gold

January 02, 2008

Cast of The Seafarer
Photo: Joan Marcus 2007

The weekend in New York was not all about opera and provided an excellent chance to catch up on some theater as well. On the plus side, I took in three of the year’s best plays (stay tuned for my theater top 10 later this week) - Stoppard’s Rock’ n’ Roll, Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer, and Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County. All three are substantial and important works, and at least two disguise big hearts of gold.

Up on 45th Street at the Booth Theater, Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer is running in a production direct from the National Theater of Britain. McPherson plumbs the Faust story for a drunken Christmas Eve tale shared by two brothers, their hometown buddies, and an unexpected visitor. McPherson again dazzles with his gift for dialog, but the true wonder here is how a story laden with clichés can sneak up on you. This boozy holiday evening is rife with humor and dark secrets slowly revealed. But in the end, none of this is the point. Instead, McPherson delivers a sentimental sucker punch that is hard to avoid and unlikely to be presaged by the audience. To deliver something so touching in such a seemingly unrelated package is real mastery. Of course all of this would be impossible without perhaps some of the strongest ensemble acting this year from Jim Norton, David Morse, Ciarán Hinds, Conleth Hill, and Sean Mahon. These are flawless performances that are a sheer wonder to see.

Brian Cox and Rufus Sewell
Photo: Joan Marcus 2007

McPherson is not the only playwright trying to disguise a sentimental heart of gold on Broadway right now. Tom Stoppard achieves similar results via a different strategy at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater in Rock ’n’ Roll. Instead of witty dialog and supernatural twists, Stoppard wraps the tender heart of his story in intellectual discourse and debate. Fading idealism and the loss of political optimism fill a work that is really about waiting for love to come around and the healing power of rock and roll. Stoppard’s play involves much of the original cast from London’s Royal Court Production including great turns from Brian Cox, Rufus Sewell, and Sinead Cusack. The play is structured around songs, mostly from The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd, that are used during scene changes while detailed reference information about them is projected onto the curtain. But this is not High Fidelity, and while there is a very romantic heart, there is plenty here to chew on and think about. I'm not so sure about whether or not rock 'n' roll can save the world, but Stoppard's play is rich and very much worth seeing.

Cast of August: Osage County
Photo: Joan Marcus 2007

With all these bleeding hearts, it becomes even easier to admire the bristling brilliant play that is running right across the street from them at the Imperial theater - Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County. Letts's very funny and very profound reflection on American family life is not at all sentimental. A transplant from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Company, August observes the slow whimpering dissolution of a family following the suicide of its patriarch. But all of the widely quoted insults and witty one-liners disguise a much deeper and thoughtful purpose. Letts repeatedly refers to T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men implying that families rarely unravel in the bombastic ways they typically do in plays, bur rather disintegrate under their own weight in slower more fragmented ways. The performances are so strong and the writing so sharp that it's the kind of performance one watches with their mouth unknowingly agape in amazement. To be sure, August is not perfect — it relies somewhat on the old "magical other" trope in the form of the Native American house maid hired by the father to symbolically marshal the family through its final dissolution. But the play's strengths so outnumber its weaknesses the comparisons to master American playwrights heaped on him in the press seem entirely deserved.

Without a doubt, now is a good time for plays in New York. So get out there and take advantage of these gems while you can.

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