Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Other Voices, Other Rooms

March 31, 2008

Adès maxing and relaxing

A bewildering amount of publicity surrounded the Metropolitan Opera at the end of last week for events that really seem more markers of failure than success to my eyes. The house finally delivered on a Tristan und Isolde with the cast it used to advertise a series of performances for the last show of the run on Friday and the following night managed to inspire some people to travel from half a world away to see probably the most tired opera imaginable, La Bohème, in a woefully out-of-date production with a cast that has sung it before, better, and elsewhere. Will wonders never cease?

So it should be no surprise that my week in New York ended on an entirely different and more forward-looking front with two excellent shows in Zankel Hall, featuring the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group under the baton of British composer Thomas Adès. We here in LA are no strangers to Adès’ compositions but seeing him again in such an intimate setting was a real pleasure. The first night featured a concert performance of Gerald Barry’s chamber opera The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit in a reprise of an excellent outing of the same work in LA in 11/06. At least two of the cast from that prior event, Christopher Lemmings as Beauty and Stephen Wallace as Pleasure returned in Barry’s high-intensity tongue-twister. It was again rousing, if a little less refined, in the confines of Zankel, compared to the WDCH, but the argument for Barry’s work on this side of the Atlantic came across clearly to the receptive audience. You can also read more on the very excellent, but sadly under-attended show here.

Saturday saw a program of Adès own compositions as part of the “Making Music” series where the performances, led by the composer himself—who also played piano when called for—are accompanied with brief conversation between the composer and host Ara Guzelimian. The program consisted mostly of some of Adès earliest compositions from the 90s including Op. 1 Five Eliot Landscapes for piano and soprano, Op. 2 Chamber Symphony and its successor Living Toys from 1993. That the earliest of these compositions were submitted when Adès was a student for competitions and that they continue to offer a myriad of joys and excitement is remarkable. This is especially true when the composer in question is under 40. Adès himself was witty and charming on the stage, reminiscing at one point that prior to setting the five T.S. Eliot poems for his Op. 1, he had begun to set The Hollow Men for full orchestra and 30 percussionists. He slyly noted that this alone may have doomed the project after the first stanza.

The highlight of the show for me personally, though, was the brief 8 minute Court Studies from The Tempest, which consisted of brief pieces of incidental music he composed as part of the revision of his second opera based on Shakespeare’s play. This was a brief snippet of the dark and beautiful music making up one of the first major operas of the new century and it was all too short for this evening. However, it is this very music that reminds us that things may be looking up for New York’s storied opera house as Peter Gelb has already announced plans to program The Tempest for the 2011-2012 season. Funny how things change.

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Jet Lagged

March 30, 2008

Dudamel, Simon Trpceski, and the LA Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2008

So I’m back in LA and, while I still have some New York stuff to write about (which I’ll get to later), I rushed back today primarily to hear our beloved LA Philharmonic in the last of this weekend’s shows under the direction of Gustavo Dudamel. These were his first appearances with the full orchestra since the announcement that he will take over the music director’s position here in 2009 after the departure of Esa-Pekka Salonen. It was a big show at least in terms of expectations and if nothing else is clear, the city has already warmly embraced our young new intended music director, if Sunday’s audience was any indication. Even the musicians themselves seem to love him already. So, how come I can't seem to bring myself to jump into the love-fest?

Let me continue to go on record as saying that, while there is plenty to be excited about with Dudamel, I, for one, am still far from won over. This may be more psychological than anything in that he seems to have been given the easiest ride imaginable in the press, which always raises my suspicions. There seems to be an awareness of his shortcomings but they are always presented as somehow charming and youthful. The fawning seems nearly without end.

This weekend’s shows included Esa-Pekka Salonen’s own Insomnia, as well as Prokofiev's first piano concerto played by Simon Trpceski, and Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique. All of the pieces were given enthusiastic and admirable performances, cranked up to full crowd-pleasing mode. There were certainly more of a dynamic range here than with anything played by the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra under Dudamel last November. But as enjoyable as this all may have been, it still seems to me that Dudamel has one approach to virtually everything and he’s sticking with it. Everything is taken at its full-bore, juiced-up enthusiastic best. It’s certainly a fun, dramatic, and exciting way to take in the world of music, but one that lacks an amount of subtlety and texture. Salonen’s piece suffered the most under this weight, and while Dudamel’s rendition had much to recommend it in terms of energy and tension, it paled in comparison to Salonen’s own approach to the work which we here in LA have had the benefit of hearing first hand on a number of occasions.

Still, I suppose overly energetic is preferable to dull and lifeless any day. I guess I just wish there seemed to be a little more middle ground here. Dudamel will return for more shows next weekend featuring Debussy and Ravel but it appears that these programs are sold out already as were this weekend's.

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Deal Me In

March 27, 2008

Vladimir Galouzine as Alexei
Photo: Marty Sohl/Met Opera 2008

It’s just great. Of all the production’s I’ve seen at the Metropolitan Opera this week, the revival of Prokofiev’s The Gambler that opened on Thursday night was easily the most all around satisfying, musically and theatrically. Forget all the endless Tristan PR, this is the real deal. Prokofiev's 20th century masterpiece is back for the first time since 2001 under the guidance of Valery Gergiev and many of his Marinsky stars in a production directed by Temur Chkheidze with set designs from George Tsypin. This Russian dream team and the excellent cast including Vladimir Galouzine as Alexei and Olga Guryakova as Polina have done a masterful job in capturing the complex mix of dark tragedy and irreverent humor integral to Prokofiev’s score as well as Dostoyevsky's original work.

Granted this opera is not everyone's cup of tea. The narrative is disjointed and more concerned with underlying psychodynamic issues than the clarity of plot points - but in this lies its beauty. Everyone involved in The Gambler is not very nice and no one has any way out of their predicament. And while no one dies in the end, it's probably about the most tragic opera one could imagine. The production has a Wizard of Oz feel and while it can't escape the giant slanted round gambling table that always seem to make it into gambling themed operas like Pique Dame, it is both sly and dreadful. A green crush velvet curtain, a flying horse statue in flames, and a giant rotating steel framework all create a sense of the fantastic and surreal. If there is any criticism of the staging, it may be that it doesn't go far enough in its willingness to dispense with the literal aspects of the libretto. Still, it can be more than cheeky when it needs to be, right down to a wink and a nod from the chorus.

Musically, it would be hard to imagine a more passionate, inspired performance of this often discordant score. Gergiev has a real love for this work and it shows. Galouzine is marvelous. He commands the stage with his rich tone and thoughtful, detailed performance. Olga Guryakova is completely believable which is a task, given that the conclusion rests on the audience's recognition of Polina's underlying psychological state. The rogues gallery of a supporting cast were strong with an exceptionally deft turn from Larissa Diadkova as the grandmother who gambles away her fortune more or less to spite her family.

So here lies a gem not to be missed. Sandwiched between the huge press campaigns for two other 20th century works, Peter Grimes and Satyagraha, The Gambler may run the risk of being overlooked, which would be be a shame because it really is wonderful. Which makes me think. A woman in front of me noted is disdain that the only reason the Met programmed this opera was at Gergiev's insistence. And while that may have originally been true, given its proximity on the schedule to works by Britten and Glass, it may no longer be the case.


The rain in Spain falls mainly in the plain

Thomas Hampson and Sondra Radvanovsky
Photo: Marty Sohl/Met Opera 2008

With two twentieth century operas and Tristan on offer at the Metropolitan Opera this week, there had to be something from the kitsch department in the mix as well, so it is no surprise that Verdi's Ernani is currently being revived. Despite all of the excitement brought to this company over the last two years, it is still a house that has run on formaldehyde for a long time and so the coffin doors were swung wide on Wednesday for this dusty old relic from Pier-Luigi Samaritani. However, rather than stage the opera around a modern day scientific team working in a humongous archaeological dig, which would have made more sense, the powers that be instead went for a 1960s version of a "straight" performance. Actually, having Ernani play back-to-back with Tristan is fairly appropriate since they both concern notions of honor taken to the extremes. However where the latter is often spun in the sublime direction, Verdi’s opera often ends up going in the other direction.

Ernani may have the most ridiculous plot of any opera outside of…well, Rigoletto. There is much in it that thematically suggests many of Verdi’s later works, of course, both musically and thematically, so there is much to enjoy. Still, while opera is certainly an art form with more than its fair share of the ridiculous, I often felt like laughing more at what was going on than necessarily with it.

Of course, if you’re talking kitsch at the Met, you’re likely talking about Thomas Hampson, who seems to get dragged into these things more often than not. However, he seemed appropriately restrained to me last night, which was good, in that he was one link in a rather excellent cast. I was especially glad to see Sondra Radvanovsky back as Elvira after she missed last week's second performance due to illness. She and Ferruccio Furlanetto were their typical brilliant selves. Her Leonora, which was spectacular in LA a few season's back, should be one of the highlights of next season without a doubt. Marcello Girodani, the evening's Ernani, was surprisingly the weakest of the four and sounded a little wobbly at times, but he more than made up for this with his truly excellent acting chops and his sheer stage presence. In any event, Ernani will be this Saturday's radio broadcast from the Met, which may be the ideal way to experience this production - there one can bask in the sheer pleasure of Verdi's music without succumbing to the giggles.


Under cover of the night

March 26, 2008

A vague general scene
Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2008

In case you're wondering why I've chosen such a distant vague picture to go along with this post, it's because it's the only one I could find vague enough to represent all the various casting permutations that have plagued the Metropolitan Opera's run of Tristan und Isolde. I'll admit I was curious to see what would transpire after all of the unusual cancellations and replacements leading up to tonight's performance, but I didn't expect this surprise - Heppner actually showed up. Of course the down side is that Voigt didn't. Despite all the clucking from various quarters about whether or not she is an ideal Isolde, the Voigt/Heppner pairing was the major excuse for seeing this somewhat silly production in the first place, so I must admit I was a little bit disappointed to see that Janice Baird had been called in again to cover. Of course, on the bright side it appears that no one else has gotten to see what they initially paid to see in this run, though Friday may be yet another story entirely.

In any event, Heppner was back from Canada for the first time in the run and now apparently sans pelvic abscess. Now let it be said that nothing that results in a pelvic abscess is going to heal quickly. So considering Heppner had not been around to benefit from all of Isolde's magic healing potions over the last two weeks, it should be no surprise to anyone that he was less than stellar. By Act III he was quickly unraveling with lots of cracking throughout. He was obviously working very hard to pull this off and in some ways this played into his hands because this was one Tristan who clearly looked like he was hanging on for dear life. It was a relief when he made it to the end, and it must be said that his ability to manage the performance he did for the first two thirds of the evening is a testament to his stamina and mastery of this role.

Ironically, the evening will stand out more in my mind due to Janice Baird’s first complete performance of the opera in this particular run. Although she had previously gotten a couple of good acts in when Voigt bailed mid-way through last week, Baird had yet to get a chance to go all the way through here on the Met stage. She was an unknown quantity to me and, I imagine, most of the audience, and she was actually quite good. She hit the notes and had sufficient volume and staying power throughout. She is certainly better than some other Isoldes I’ve heard recently in that she is expressive despite the fact that her singing and acting are fairly mannered. She has a myriad of open-handed gestures that can be used as a rough guide to what’s about to come out of her mouth, but she did have plenty of honest-to-goodness feeling in there as well. Hell, I'd pay to hear her again.

Of course the supporting cast, which included Matti Salminen, Michelle DeYoung, and Richard Paul Fink were all excellent. James Levine and the orchestra were first class all the way and, as it has been noted by others, are the main reason to see the show at this point. The Diter Dorn production is a low-rent Robert Wilson knock-off that is evocative and modern in the most inoffensive way, which still makes it better than 80% of the Zeffirelli-like garbage that is regularly trotted out on the Met stage. So while it wasn’t the most engaging Tristan ever, it was far from painful or a waste of time. And who knows what surprises may lie in store for Friday’s audience in the last performance of the run.


Attend the tale of Peter Grimes

March 25, 2008

Anthony Dean Griffey
Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2008

Monday saw the final performance of the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Britten’s Peter Grimes, which I caught with some trepidation. I usually don’t like seeing the last performance of an opera for many reasons, one being that by this time I’ve read everything everyone else has written and it unfairly raises or lowers my expectations. In this case, I had heard a lot of negative things, particularly about John Doyle’s staging, so I guess it’s no surprise that I actually really enjoyed the whole thing. Yes the two-dimensional set with its giant wall and the total lack of color doesn’t leave one with much to look at. Doyle seems to miss some of the biggest opportunities in Britten's score to wow the audience with stage craft. But there is some motion throughout and it does create the intended sense of claustrophobia on a stage that is known for anything but that. It seems to me that Peter Grimes suffers from the same problem as Fidelio - how do you make an inherently dreary setting interesting to look at for several hours in the course of listening to a masterpiece?

But let’s be clear, even if this were the concert performance it more or less turns out to be, musically it is a masterful one. Runnicles and the orchestra were fantastic and this was nothing short of a dream cast. The real star in any Britten opera, though, is the chorus and I can’t think of enough positive things to say about them here. Anthony Dean Griffey manages creepy where you least expect it which is pretty magnificent given his dough-boy looks. Plus, there isn’t a rotten apple in the entire supporting cast. Felicity Palmer seems to be making a specialty of the “old bitty” roles these days and she is wonderful. Anthony Michaels-Moore and Patricia Racette are superior as Peter’s only friends, and don’t get me started on how much I love Jill Grove who sinks her teeth into Auntie’s rather small part with total zeal. And not only are these great vocal performances, the acting is superb. Everyone is totally believable throughout, and the entire evening was blissfully free of the stock silent-film gestures that pollute most of what comes across opera stages these days.

But perhaps even more inspiring to me were the events around me in the audience. The extremely elderly couple next to me in the 6th row center failed to return from the first intermission after their just completed power naps to be replaced by a very young woman from the standing room who had picked up their tickets for the rest of the show. She was clearly new to the opera experience and commented on how strange it was to hear an opera sung in English, this being the first time she had done so. She was excited to see we were seated immediately next to John Lithgow, although she didn’t know who Stephen Sondheim, seated in front of us, was. In any event, she was completely thrilled by the whole thing making me envious of that time when everything in opera first seemed big and exciting and new. Apparently even Peter Grimes can inspire that feeling in people with this kind of production. Maybe it’s not all about dreamy romantic period costumes to be “transported” after all.


Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?

March 24, 2008

Scott Cohen and Samuel West
Photo: Joan Marcus 2008

No, not really. In fact I’m not sure that anyone could consume enough alcohol to make them love Caryl Churchill’s one-act play currently in its US premiere at the Public Theater in New York. However, as is usually the case, a little social lubrication could make it easy to have a brief fling with the show. Churchill’s two-hander uses the impetuous affair between two men as a metaphor for the US seduction of Britain over the last few years in foreign policy and specifically the Iraq war. Guy, played by Samuel West, has left his wife and family to be with Sam, played by Scott Cohen. However, after the first few minutes the dialog swerves from affairs of the heart to affairs of state making it clear that Sam, the American, has much more on his mind. The entire forty-minute play is delivered in a series of interrupted half-sentences that often seem more like lists of atrocities than actual conversation. Guy jumps into the geo-political tryst despite reservations that repeatedly creep up.

All of this transpires on a couch that is raised farther and farther above the stage over the course of several scenes. Around them is black space from which coffee cups and cigarettes magically appear and vanish. It is a sharp looking production and can certainly be admired for James Macdonald’s direction despite any weaknesses in the work itself. There has been some minor tweaking of the play since its London premiere last season with the Samuel West character being renamed from Jack to “Guy, a man.” This may be intended to make the criticism less time or country specific but the project remains the same. Churchill’s point is an angry one, but not at all unfair. Drunk Enough has received a lot criticism both positive and negative that seems more directed at Churchill's political beliefs than the work itself. As usual, the truth lies somewhere in between. Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? is by no means great, it does drag on and its one point is made rather quickly and from there it really has nowhere else to go. Still, it is a point well made in a good-looking production with two very strong performances. Samuel West deserves an even bigger career than he has and was great here. Mr. Cohen takes a part that could easily disintegrate in a number of ways and somehow manages to keep it all together.

Oh yeah, that reminds me - do we really need another vision of gay male relationships where a predatory male seduces an otherwise straight male into a relationship? I have less qualm with America being cast as the bad guy as I do with the it being the more "out" member of the relationship. Just a thought.


One horse town

March 23, 2008

Janine Jansen and Edo de Waart with the LA Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2008

Before I took off for New York this week, the LA Philharmonic treated me (and everyone else fortunate enough to be in attendance) to a surprise. This came in the form of 30-year-old virtuoso violinist Janine Jansen who visited in a series of performances this weekend. It seems these days that young, attractive musicians with glossy marketing campaigns are a dime a dozen and Jansen is no exception. The surprise however is that not only is she talented, but she projects a sense of earnestness without a note of the arrogance or histrionics that plagues so many of her peers. And what's more – she did this playing Tchaikovsky of all things. On Friday, Jansen joined members of the LA Philharmonic in a chamber music program where she led an amazing performance of Souvenir de Florence. Certainly nothing radical here but the sheer spirit of the work shone through without an ounce of cheap sentiment. And for a follow-up, Jansen performed the very tried and very true Tchaikovsky violin concerto with the entire Philharmonic under the leadership of Edo de Waart. Again Jansen played the mustiest of numbers with a remarkable freshness. LA tends to be a town quick on the standing ovation, but these were two evenings where they were well deserved.

Speaking of LA audiences and our local arts institutions, the LA Times published a rather lengthy and at times interesting round-table discussion between the leaders of LA’s five major arts organizations – LACMA’s Michael Govan, the Getty Foundation’s James N Wood, Center Theater Group’s Michael Ritchie, the LA Philharmonic’s Deborah Borda, and LA Opera’s Placido Domingo. The questions generally concerned LA’s development as a major cultural center and the challenges local organizations face particularly compared to other major US cities. The group raises many important points about the need for improved arts education in developing future audiences and the city’s need for a richer and more sustained practice of arts philanthropy. The most interesting point, however, comes at the very end of this long discussion when our hero, Placido Domingo, brings up the issue of the local media.

After literally pages of the Times hemming and hawing over the role “Hollywood” does or doesn’t play in the city’s cultural organizations, Domingo boldly, but also politically, notes that an actual problem may be the relative lack of an involved, local media culture that is engaged in a critical way with these institutions. He notes that cities such as Chicago and New York have much richer and varied media outlets that engage the work of their local institutions whereas LA is almost exclusively reliant on the Times. LA is certainly lucky to have the many wonderful arts critics it does have at the Times including Mark Swed, Charles McNulty, Lewis Segal, and Christopher Knight. However, outside of the LA Weekly’s staff including Alan Rich, this is about it. When there is a big arts event in LA, you can bet that more will be written about those events by out-of-town media than anyone local that should have an investment in the community as a whole.

And what’s worse, the Times continues to run under the control of out-of-towners whose vision of LA, its role in the world, and its people, seems more informed by the movies made in Hollywood than any familiarity with reality. A constant call to cut back through reduced staff reporting in many areas threatens virtually the only major source of coverage of local arts as well as other news. While Mr. Domingo is wise to be politic in his comments, the truth is that the Times is not sufficient to cover the arts in a city as diverse and alive as Los Angeles, and it itself is threatened by the short-sighted desire to improve its bottom line in an industry under pressure.

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Sweeney and Me

March 20, 2008

Cast of Sweeney Todd
Photo: DavidAllenStudio 2007

The Ahmanson Theater downtown is currently hosting the touring production of Sweeney Todd from John Doyle’s 2005 Broadway revival. Seeing it this week, three years after my exposure to the Broadway outing, was somewhat bittersweet and an interesting time to reflect on Doyle’s rise as a theater director on this side of the Atlantic. Since that original evening, which featured Patti LuPone and Michael Cerveris in what was a fresh, inventive and vital evening, I’ve had three other run-ins with Doyle’s work – the similarly staged revival of Sondheim’s Company on Broadway, LA Opera’s 2007 staging of Mahagonny, and more recently the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Peter Grimes. (Granted this last example was primarily through the live HD broadcast, but I will be taking in the full experience next week and think that the writing is already on the wall.) Given how weak both of the opera productions have been, it’s beginning to make Doyle look like a one-trick pony. I hope this isn't true, and this touring Todd came as a nice reminder of how forcefully Doyle stormed these shores in the first place. His take on Sondheim's masterpiece still has the same spark it did before. So how come Doyle no longer seems to know what to do with people who are singing on stage?

Sure, not everything in this touring production is quite as sharp as before. The whole white baby-sized coffin that Todd, Lucy, and Mrs. Lovett pass around at the climax now seems forced and overbearing. The performances aren’t bad and there are several holdovers from the Broadway cast including Benjamin Magnuson as Anthony and Lauren Molina as Johanna. In fact, virtually everyone in the current cast has been associated with either of Doyle's Sondheim adaptations as either a principal or an understudy. Judy Kaye takes on Mrs. Lovett here and, while she can be funny, I found her too broad and nowhere near menacing enough. David Hess plays the title role and can be foreboding at moments but is vocally weak at other key junctures. Of course, this is one of the great scores of the 20th century, so performance weaknesses are often easy to overlook and the general claustrophobic creep of the production can overtake some overly bright performances.

Besides the images of Doyle's recent stage disasters to contend with while enjoying this evening, there are other mental hurdles to overcome. I found myself also struggling to forget Tim Burton's tepid film version of Sweeney Todd from last year. The very weak vocal performances from Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Cater were inescapable, creating a less than enthralling legacy for this work for a mass audience. I had to listen incessantly to the people seated behind me drone on about how much better Depp and the movie was throughout. Of course not everyone will agree with me, including Sondheim himself, who made an appearance in LA just days previously as part of the UCLA public performance series where he was featured in interview with columnist Frank Rich. Sondheim waxed poetic about his love for Burton's film and his distaste for the film version of West Side Story, which mostly had to do with his concern over the flow of the story. Go figure.

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No excuses

March 17, 2008

Thomas Adès
Photo: Emi/D.Thompson 2001
Yes, I know I’ve been very delinquent in posting lately. Trust me, you don’t want to know. I’ve seen some worthwhile things, though, including rather lovely French and Russian programs with the LA Philharmonic, Dawn Upshaw's return to Southern California with Golijov's Ayre and more than a few plays. But the big thing on the horizon is the upcoming trip to New York starting next week, which will include four operas, two musicals and one straight play. I may just luck into seeing Deborah Voigt and Ben Heppner actually perform Tristan und Isolde together and I will also get to see the opening performance of Prokofiev’s The Gambler. You can read more on the details in the sidebar and I'll be posting while I'm out of town.

But perhaps the actual highlight of the week will be two shows at Zankel Hall, where composer, pianist, and general gay dreamboat Thomas Adès will be leading two programs. Saturday the 29th will see a bill of his own works as part of the “Making Music” series, which will include Five Eliot Landscapes, Court Studies from The Tempest, and Living Toys. On Friday 28, Adès and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group will reprise the concert performance of Gerald Barry’s opera The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit, which was one of LA's musical highlights of 2006. Much of the same cast who appeared with the Los Angeles Philharmonic will be on hand as well. Barry's work has been too little performed in this country, and Adès should be commended for advocating his work on this side of the Atlantic. So, don’t miss out - I wager the operatic event for March will not involve Wagner no matter who shows up at Lincoln Center next week.

The Armenian Problem

March 03, 2008

(l-r) Céline Ricci, Florian Boesch, Isabel Monar, Martin Haselböck, Marina Rodriguez-Cusi, and Jordi Domènech. Photo: mine 2008

You know those fleeting moments we all have where suddenly we question everything we believe in? Well I have one every time I see a Handel opera. I think to myself – after Handel, why did anyone even bother to attempt writing an opera. He did it all and frankly outside of Massenet, I don’t think anyone ever had anything more to say on the subject after that. Of course, later I come to my senses, but memories of the high still linger long after the drug is gone. As performers enter and exit over the hours for their various turns at the aria mill in an endlessly convoluted plot, time ceases to exist for me in some way.

Needless to say, it is an extra treat when the performance is as good as the one the Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra held on Sunday at Schoenberg Hall on the UCLA campus. The work was Handel’s Radamisto (or is that Radamsito as the typo on the cover of the free libretto everyone got that afternoon proclaimed?) and Musica Angelica gave a performance under Martin Haselböck far superior to what one might expect given the comparable scarcity of resources available for this concert performance. The playing was crisp and dynamic – a sheer joy to listen to. The cast was quite good overall. Sure there were no A-list celebrities here, but no horrid slouches either. My favorites were Céline Ricci’s Fraarte, Isabel Monar’s Polissena, and Florian Boesch’s Tiridate. Boesch did pull this brief air guitar stunt toward the end, which I wasn’t 100% sure what to think about, but he exuded the kind of fun-loving menace one might expect from an Armenian King in love with his brother-in-law’s betrothed. The countertenor who sang the part of Radamisto, Spaniard Jordi Domènech, was a bit of a sidler when it came to hitting the notes but he was cute in a cro-magnon way and delivered on more than a couple of his arias despite his shortcomings. But what do you expect from a guy who won’t kill his girlfriend when she begs him to, thereby forcing her instead to throw herself into the river. (Although you know she won’t drown because it’s only Act II, and this is the 18th century).

But, of course, love conquers all and all that good stuff, and it was a great afternoon. So, for all you wimps who gave up in the home stretch around the end of hour two just to return to your "lives" and your "families," eat your heart out - you missed it, at least until Santa Fe Opera mounts a fully staged version of this work this summer with David Daniels in the title role. In the meantime, remember, Baroque opera may leave a body count in the average audience and is not for the faint of heart, but there is nothing else quite like it.

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Where the Bears Are

March 02, 2008

Grizzly Bear are (l-r) Chris Taylor, Edward Droste, Daniel Rossen, and Christopher Bear

One of the most popular tactics for getting butts (particularly young, firm ones) in American orchestral hall seats these days in a post-music education world is the indie-rock collaboration. Take an orchestra, create some reason for them to play in or around an independent pop-rock outfit and presto – instant event. The Oregon Symphony proceeded into these grounds this year to much clucking by opening the door to what could be described as an endorsement with the possibility of other collaborations with Portland hometown hero Thomas Lauderdale and Pink Martini. The Los Angeles Philharmonic is no stranger to this tactic either and in the last several seasons has bent over backwards to add shows during their major programming initiatives, which include a wide variety of independent rock, electronic, folk and other artists. So this weekend's one-off concert that paired the Philharmonic with the lo-fi indie outfit Grizzly Bear is no surprise. Brooklyn-based Grizzly Bear, under the guidance of founder Edward Droste, has made a reputation for playing loosely structured pop with a heavy dose of electronics but not necessarily big beats. (And for those of you needing clarification they should not to be confused with Bear Force One.) Saturday's show was conceived as an “intimate evening of sensory immersion” with both organizations playing individual sets. The show began with the LA Phil playing “selections hand-picked by Grizzly Bear and the LA Phil, reflecting classical music’s influence on the band’s sound.”

Nor Grizzly Bear (Bear Force One)

OK, whatever. I’m not sure exactly how true this is, especially since Daniel Rossen and Philharmonic conductor Joana Carneiro made no attempt to argue either before or during the show how works in either half were related to one another. When he came out on stage with Caneiro at the show’s start, Rossen was clearly surprised to see the near capacity crowd filling the hall, but his pre-show commentary was restricted mostly to a “wow, we’re glad to be here” moment. Still, both sets were quite strong and there are certainly connections that can be drawn between Grizzly Bear’s music and the pieces chosen for (or by) the LA Phil. The show started with a Berio arrangement of Boccherini’s Ritirata notturna di Madrid that employs some of the same layering techniques that Grizzly Bear has a fondness for using: in the latter's interpretation, recorded loops of flute or clarinet to augment a song's arrangement. Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes followed and is atmospheric and arguably loosely structured in a way reminiscent of the band as well. Finally, Caneiro led a very lively version of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite that was enthusiastically received by an audience that clearly was not as experienced with this kind of music as many that have filled the WDCH over it’s first few years. If the goal was to get a young crowd in the house and impress them with some very well-played accessible bits of 20th century music, the strategy seems to have worked.

After the break, Grizzly Bear took the stage and delivered a number of favorites from Friend and Yellow House. The amplification was a bit of a problem and the vocals sounded echoey at times but this hardly seemed to matter in these low-key unstructured songs. The set ran for just over 90 minutes and was stronger than what one might expect given the results of such acts in this venue over the last few years. The group's quirky and open-ended sound filled the space, making the band seem much bigger than it actually was. Things never exactly rock or take off, but the songs have enough hooks that they draw one in, not unlike the super hits of the 70s at times. It was actually a very enjoyable evening all around. And even if the programming idea was just a cheap excuse to throw everybody together for one night, who cares when the results are this good.

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