Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Top of the (OWA) Pops

December 22, 2008

from Die Soldaten
Photo: Lincoln Center Festival 2008

Perhaps the most interesting thing (to me at least) about this year’s musical top 10 list is that with one exception, all the music on it was composed in the 20th (or 21st) century. Of course, the outlier is Tristan, which might as well be a 20th century opera anyway. As usual, this list is based on things I saw myself first hand and are not restricted by geography. I chose from 233 live performances I attended in person last year including 66 operas, 86 “classical” musical concerts, and 12 other musical performances. There were another 58 theatrical performances of which 15 could be considered “musicals.” The remaining 11 shows were comedy, dance or something else. The envelope please:

1. Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten at the 2008 Lincoln Center Festival, 7/08. The scale of this production where the audience was moved about on rolling bleachers around the action taking place at the Park Avenue Armory is still somewhat mind-boggling. A chilling, brilliant performance that nearly perfectly achieved the impossible score Zimmermann had created in the first place. A true landmark performance and my top choice.

Marino Formenti, Salonen and the LA Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2008

2. Messiaen's Des canyons aux étoiles with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic with Marino Formenti, 1/08. In a year filled with great Messiaen performances including a very good St. François d’Assise in Amsterdam, Salonen’s take on Messiaen’s tribute to America, and the American West was searing in it’s beauty and intensity. Another testament to the remarkable relationship this conductor has had with this orchestra.

Renée Fleming in Capriccio
Photo: Wiener Staatsoper GmbH / Axel Zeininger 2008

3. Strauss' Capriccio with Renée Fleming at the Vienna State Opera, 6/08. Say what you will about opera’s reigning soprano, but this is a role in which she is unassailable. If there is any doubt why she is where she is, this is exhibit A. A brilliant production from Marco Arturo Marelli and music direction from Philippe Jordan made this an unforgettable performance with an all-star cast. Strauss at its finest.

4. Phillip Glass’ Satyagraha at the Metropolitan Opera, 5/08. No big HD broadcast, but easily the best thing the Met put on stage this year. This was arguably Gelb’s shot-across-the-bow in terms of programming for a house that has been plagued with artistic necrophilia for decades when he announced its placement on the schedule. A huge success by nearly every measure and a wonder to watch.

Jeroen Willems in La Commedia
Photo: Hans van den Bogaard 2008

5. Louis Andreissen's La Commedia, 6/08. Wild and wonderful, Andreissen’s latest opera, a collaboration with American independent filmmaker Hal Hartley was funny and equally hard to describe. With the remarkable Claron McFadden, Cristina Zavalloni and Dutch actor Jeroen Willems, the work made hay with a romp through musical genres and a hell that was more sublime than scary.

6. The Music of Helmut Lachenmann at Monday Evening Concerts, 4/08. The new music concert-series-that-could brought out the composer himself for an evening of fleeting and mysterious sound. A reminder of a syntax that the composer himself helped place into the vocabulary of contemporary composition. Brilliant from beginning to end.

Waltraud Meier as Isolde
Photo: Marty Sohl/Met Opera 2008

7. Waltraud Meter's surprise appearance in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, at the Metropolitan Opera, 12/08. I know this is not news to most people around the world, but Meier’s surprise last-minute substitution for an ailing Katarina Dalayman for her first and perhaps only appearance in this signature role in the U.S. was a big early Christmas present for those lucky enough to be in attendance. An Isolde for the ages.

Marlis Petersen and William Burden in Lulu
Photo: Dan Rest/LOC 2007

8. Berg’s Lulu at the Chicago Lyric Opera, in 11/08. Marlis Petersen, Sir Andrew Davis and a magnificent cast created a surprisingly attractive, likable, and musically first-rate Lulu this Fall. A 20th-century masterpiece gets its due in the Midwest with the help of smart direction from Paul Curran. Not a bad year for Chicago on the whole.

9. Kurtág’s Kafka-Fragmente with Dawn Upshaw and Geoff Nuttall in Los Angeles, 11/08. Peter Sellars brought the latest incarnation of his cooking and cleaning take on the beauty and tragedy of the everyday in this important late 20th-century masterpiece. Profound and moving.

Monica Groop as Adriana Mater
Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2008

10. Kaija Saariaho’s Adriana Mater at the Santa Fe Opera 11/08. Saariaho’s second great opera arrived in Santa Fe with a series of phenomenal performances from Monica Groop and Joseph Kaiser in this bleak but ultimately hopeful piece that is darkly beautiful and musically miraculous.

Honorable mentions: James Conlon's leading great performances of Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg and Puccini’s Il Trittico at the Los Angeles Opera. Thomas Adés’ many fine performances of his own music as well as that of Couperin, Gerald Barry, and Berlioz in Los Angeles and New York. Great performances of Radamisto both at Santa Fe Opera, and by Musica Angelica here in Los Angeles. The Gambler, La Fille du Régiment, Adams’ Doctor Atomic, and Anthony Dean Griffey in Peter Grimes all at the Metropolitan Opera.

Most overrated: Gustavo Dudamel continues to blow away all competition in this category so much so it seems unfair to not share the wealth with anyone else. How about some serious competition from the illness-plagued Ben Heppner who gave two troubled and over-hyped performances in New York this year, which I guess is something since he at least showed up for those gigs.

Most underrated: Adam’s Doctor Atomic at the Metropolitan Opera. See above.

Well that’s it for another year. The theater list should be up here in about a week. Happy Holidays from Out West Arts.



December 21, 2008

I have taken to seeing some of the Metropolitan Opera’s HD broadcasts even in those instances when I’ve seen the same show live in New York. There’s a lot to be learned in this process. This season we’ve already learned that total frontal nudity is out during the broadcasts as evidenced by the cut away from Karita Mattila in Salome.

So here is what I learned by attending this weekend’s broadcast of Massenet’s Thaïs with Renée Fleming. It is not OK to show two women engaged in a lascivious kiss. This rather ridiculous gesture, so prominent midway through Act II when I saw the show live on December 11, was mysteriously absent on the big screen, replaced instead with a meaningful stroke of the hand. I’m assuming the bit was toned down for an easily-ruffled audience who might be upset at the sight of imaginary homosexual desire.

But, while that is strictly forbidden, it is permissible to pronounce the personal importance of one’s real Christian faith, as did Concertmaster David Chan during an intermission interview with Mary Jo Heath. (This protestation of faith was most odd in its utter lack of irony coming as it did smack dab in the middle of an opera about the dangers of religious fundamentalism.) Certainly that wouldn't offend anyone now, would it?

At least we now know what the target audience of these broadcasts is supposed to look like. But, of course, this is an age of pandering, so, if our next president can invite a bigot to his inauguration, who am I to criticize a little white washing of an opera broadcast?

Hand Job

December 19, 2008

Andrew Dawson and Sven Till
Photo: Lawrence K Ho/LAT 2008

The UCLA International Theater Festival wraps up this weekend with a return performance from director, choreographer, and hand model Andrew Dawson. Last seen here in 2006 in his solo work Absence and Presence, he returns with two short works even more stripped down in their presentation - Space Panorama and Quatre Mains. The first, created in the late 80s, was an experiment to develop a “theater piece” using only a table, a piece of black cloth, and Dawson’s own photogenic hands. The work recreates the Apollo 11 moon mission of 1969 through mime accompanied by a prerecorded soundtrack with music, voices, and other noise. It’s clever and very watchable running about 20 minutes. Like most mime, it’s cleverness resides mostly in its ability to evoke sets of other images, in this case mostly ones from TV and film, that the audience has been exposed to over and over. The hands become stand-ins for symbols we are very familiar with and this juxtaposition in the context of a narrative can be both humorous and enchanting.

Spurred on by the success of the first piece, Dawson embarked on the second Quatre Mains to expand and explore ideas laid out in the first. This far less successful and much more tedious work is a grab bag of largely unrelated scenarios, some narrative, others not. Dawson has a collaborator at this point in Sven Till who participates in the geometric gyrations and patterns these four hands go through over the next hour. As simple as the set up is, no topic is too grand as the pantomime wanders through subjects like evolution, film noir, and nuclear war. Sound like a bit much? Ah, there’s the rub. As inspired as some of this is, it seems to wander aimlessly through a series of “gee whiz see what I can do” moments involving a little creative lighting. Where it's all going and what it's building to never really materializes. The very engaged audience in the first half of the show, sat largely silent in the second, wishfully clapping for an ending at a break point in the vignettes twenty minutes before the arrival of the real McCoy.

It’s a soft landing for this year’s installment of the Theater Festival, but not an uninspired choice. As much as fans of classical music or poetry might malign the vanishing cultural clout of their cherished art form in today’s modern media world, fans of mime probably have a lot more to complain about. Dawson is certainly very talented and the amount of imagination and inventiveness is remarkable. If only it amounted to a little more on this particular evening. But, hey, if this is your kind of thing, the show runs through Sunday at UCLA and is relatively inexpensive.


South Pacific

December 16, 2008

Pablo Aran Gimeno and Ruth Amarante in a previous staging of Bamboo Blues
Photo: Ulli Weiss

It wasn’t all about music in New York last weekend. I also got over to BAM to catch the latest U.S. performances from the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch in her 2007 creation Bamboo Blues. It’s quintessential Bausch and while there are no radical departures or huge surprises, it still rewarding to see the choreographer's work considering how unique it is. There is still the interest in non-Western cultural traditions, and Bamboo Blues is firmly rooted in South Asia and the South Pacific. Men in sarongs, tropical palm trees, and voluminous billowing drapery all evoke another place from our own. The stage is filled at times with videos of those same palm trees and stills from jumbo-sized Bollywood films. And while the choreography is not oblivious to these cultural influences, make no mistake that this is still clearly the work of Bausch as they flow back and forth between performers as one leaves off and another picks up a chain of convoluted and nonsensical narrative whimsy.

The resulting images are often quite beautiful. There is also the trademark Bausch humor that approaches a sort of sublime Jacques Tati realm where the laughter resides beyond language in a more universal realm of the physical. There are fewer additional non-dancing performers in Bamboo Blues than in prior works, but the sly smile is still there. Movement-wise there is still the magnificent fluidity and magic. Women with their long flowing hair appear and resurface in long, billowing, brightly-colored evening dresses in what the woman behind me referred to as the world's biggest Pantene commercial. And there is something to that, but it's still a very appealing aesthetic. The piece is a good two and a half hours, but Bausch's work has relied on a hypnotic effect not unlike the films of Jacques Rivette—it's about how you got there, not where you actually arrive at. The show is very good and much worth seeing with performances at BAM through Saturday, though the shows are pretty full already.


A Big Room with a View

December 15, 2008

Blurry Barenboim on the Met Opera stage
Photo: mine 2008

Before leaving New York, I did catch the Daniel Barenboim piano recital at the Metropolitan Opera on Sunday night. It was a gigantic and well deserved love-fest for the Maestro. He’s a living legend who's currently in the middle of a few whirlwind weeks in New York conducting a run of Tristan und Isolde to much acclaim. In some ways this concert seems an afterthought, but to consider it so is to underestimate the maestro’s prodigious talents as well as his history as a performer.

The evening was heavily promoted by the company as a Big Event and in a sense it was. The crowd certainly seemed to think so and there was plenty of excitement in the air. Barenboim selected a program very tailored to his surroundings and audience in that it was operatic to its very core. Consisting entirely of works from Franz Liszt, the two halves considered opera both explicitly and implicitly. The second half of the evening included a variety of transcriptions from Verdi operas. These were played with great love for the source material and were clearly enjoyed as much by Barenoim as the audience. Before that, and perhaps less obvious, were a number of pieces from the Années de Pèlerinage inspired by Italian poetry. And while these pieces were not operatic in content, they were certainly so in terms of temperament. Dramatic in a sentimental way without being explicitly narrative, the works allowed Barenboim to play some luscious, romantic music cut from the same Italian cloth as Verdi in its own way. Additionally, he included St François d’Assise: La prédication aux oiseaux from Deux Légendes. This piece reflects on St. Francis's sermon to the birds and fascinatingly predicts some of the very ground Messiaen would cover in the following century to talk about the same subject matter.

The crowd was wildly ecstatic with the performance, which included encores of both Scarlati and Chopin. All of it played with an intensity and depth of feeling that seemed right at home on the stage of such a large hall for a solo piano recital. So, while this may not have been a traditional piano evening in many ways, it was clearly the right show for the right place at the right time.


Think Again

December 14, 2008

Lorin Maazel, Deborah Polaski and the New York Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2008

Sometimes, it’s all about your expectations. Saturday’s a good example where two performances left me with very different impressions – each quite in contrast to what I thought they might. On the good news side was the New York Philharmonic’s last of four concert performances of Strauss’ Elektra. While I love Strauss, I do not love the orchestra’s music director Lorin Maazel and my prior experiences with him have been highly variable. The cast was first rate and very experienced in these roles including Deborah Polaski as Elektra, Jane Henschel as her mother Clytemnestra, and Anne Schwanewilms as Chrysothemis. But despite my reservations, it was a barn-burning performance from Maazel and the orchestra. Both detailed and urgent, the performance was mesmerizing, holding the audience rapt for the single act work. Polaski may not be the warmest voice, but like Waltraud Meier’s amazing Isolde from Friday night, there is a lot to be said for knowing a role so well that it feels lived in. Polaski is searing with rage throughout. Schwanewilms and Henschel matched her intensity creating a rich and wonderful evening.

Felicity Palmer as the Countess
Photo: Ken Howard/Met 2008

Earlier in the afternoon, however, the Metropolitan Opera had a much harder time selling a work that may have looked better on paper. It was the final performance in the current run of Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades under the baton of Seiji Ozawa making his first appearance at the Met in over a decade. At the center of this painfully dull production was a wellloved, but struggling Ben Heppner. He’s been plagued with health problems all year and after missing the majority of performances of Tristan in the spring here in New York, he successfully made all of his appearances as Ghermann. However, his absence may have been preferable under the circumstances. On Saturday he was again cracking and faltering throughout, though the audience did get a “please excuse my illness” announcement at the start of the second act. Set against this was Maria Guleghina who seems a bit vocally heavy and extreme for the role of Lisa. Nothing here ignited in any way and the dark, dull black and white production from Elijah Mushinsky only exacerbated these problems. There were a few bright spots though. Felicity Palmer continues to be a strong asset for this house (indeed, houses everywhere) and her Countess was chilling. Mark Delavan is always a pleasure to hear, and Saturday was no exception. Seiji Ozawa led the Met orchestra in a really beautiful performance, but the odds were against him with the cast on stage.

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Just My Luck

December 13, 2008

Peter Seiffert as Tristan and Gerd Grochowski as Kurwenal
Photo: Marty Sohl/Met 2008

I can’t think of a prior opera performance I’ve attended where I’ve been excited by a replacement having to go on for an ill performer. But there’s a first time for everything, and my plans to attend Friday’s Tristan und Isolde performance at the Metropolitan Opera turned out to be fortuitous when the reportedly lackluster Isolde, Katarina Dalayman, called in sick only to be replaced by Waltraud Meier. Conductor Daniel Barenboim has been receiving rave reviews during this run for his debut performances here, and Ms. Meier, the current Isolde of choice throughout Europe, is a long standing favorite and colleague of his. So with apparently very little notice, Ms. Meier agreed to travel from Munich the night before and appear on stage less than 24 hours later in her first performance of Isolde at the Metropolitan. I will have to say she was absolutely riveting. All the hype is true. She is an amazing actress who seems to inhabit the part as much as sing it, which of course she also does exceptionally well. It may not have been note perfect, but Meier is easily the best Isolde I’ve heard with perhaps the exception of Christine Brewer. Her Liebestod was heart wrenching and really transcendent. The crowd received her with an ecstatic ovation at the end for her amazing pinch-hitting success.

Of course, this is Tristan at the Met, so the show had some notable unexpected mishaps. Meier failed to completely extinguish the torch in Act II leaving it to smolder atop the prompters box at the foot of the stage next to her just removed robe. As it continued to smoke and glow, a stage hand entered mid scene, crossed the front of the stage and removed the torch, preventing a fire and allowing the show to continue without interruption. Frankly, the show was going so well, I barely noticed. Peter Seiffert returned to the role of Tristan this evening after lukewarm reviews on opening night and two missed shows due to illness. He sounded quite good tonight and while he may have lacked somewhat in power, he cracked no more frequently than Ben Heppner had in the same role earlier this Spring. Above all, he was heroic, which is pretty much a good thing for Tristan to be. He held his own against Meier’s outstanding performance. Michelle DeYoung reprised her excellent performance from earlier this year and Kwangchul Youn proved to be an adequate if somewhat removed King Marke. Gerd Grochowski was Kurwenal and he sounded good despite a little histrionic acting. In fact, no one quite rose to Meier's level in the acting department.

I must admit that between Barenboim and Meier, this was probably one of the overall most satisfying Tristans I've seen. Dieter Dorn's minimalist, geometric set is still attractive and, though it could be a bit more involving, provides an appropriate ambiance. Some of the more meoldramatic red light flashes have been removed, and overall it works well. There are two more performances both of which Dalayman is scheduled to sing in. Even without Meier, the show is worth seeing for Barenboim's performance. Meier may unfortunately not be a part of them, but for one night, we here in the U.S. got to share in one great performance.


The Painted Plywood Desert

December 12, 2008

Alyson Cambridge, Thomas Hampson, and Ginger Costa-Jackson
Photo: Ken Howard/Met 2008

You know you’re in trouble during Act I of the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Thaïs, when Thomas Hampson awakens from a dream of a seductive dancing Renée Fleming with shouts of horror. It’s difficult to suppress the laughter, but you do, persevering through the next three hours of perhaps one of the most unintentionally funny opera stagings I’ve seen in quite awhile. Later in Act II, Thaïs escapes with similarly umlauted Athanaël following a belly dance sequence that ends in a big wet lesbian kiss. Fleming has the good sense to steer clear of that particular moment. But what’s even crazier is that with all this kitsch and purported desire, John Cox’s production, which was imported from Lyric Opera of Chicago, is more tepid, cold, and unsexy than one would imagine for such a tale. The action is kind-of updated into a garish Lacroix-clad 20th-century version of Egypt, but not so much that you'd notice.

Renée Fleming as Thaïs
Photo: Ken Howard/Met 2008

Ms. Fleming is no doubt at the center of this entire revival. And perhaps the good news is that despite all of the silliness (wait until you see the altar she sits and dies on during the final scene), she delivers a very solid and enjoyable vocal performance. She was a little screechy at the top here, but there are so many other charms and it’s all done so prettily, that the other bits, like a desert made of unusually stiff sand, can be overlooked. Speaking of stiff, did I already mention Thomas Hampson? He’s the other key player, and in some ways has the more difficult part in that Athanaël is the pious and inflexible one right up to the end. But I never really believed him in this. He could have been signing Germont for all I could see, but those dreads do make a girly go wild don't they?

Jesús López-Cobos and his very own set of diacritical marks led the orchestra in a performance that heated up as he went along. By the end, the playing was light and quite beautiful, a lovely compliment to Ms. Fleming’s voice. So is it worth seeing? Of course. How often are you going to see Thaïs anyway and it is well sung. Just don’t expect any miracles. Oh, and if you really can’t get enough of Ms. Fleming, she’ll be at the Metropolitan Opera shop on Friday from 12:30 until 2:00 selling CDs and perfume (why not!).

PSS. Fate has turned my way a little with the Met’s recurring Tristan und Isolde surprise performer rotation. I’m apparently seeing Waltrud Meier covering for an ill Katarina Dalayman tonight. Go figure.


Funny Face

December 10, 2008

Pablo Heras-Casado with members of the LA Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2008

I’ve been remiss about writing about Tuesday’s “Green Umbrella” program sponsored by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, so before I move on, I just wanted to mention how great the performance of Ligeti’s Aventures and Nouvelle Aventures was. The evening was a grab bag of late-20th century compositions including Berio’s Sequenza V, Stockhausen’s Kontra-Punkte and Cage’s Sonata and Interludes for Prepared Piano. This was all fine and well (especially James Miller’s clown-suited take on the Berio) but it was the Ligeti that stood out.

Pablo Heras-Casado led the small ensemble, which essentially consists of three vocalists - here represented by Kiera Duffy, Mary Nessinger, and Eugene Chan – and a small back-up band of piano, harpsichord, horn, flute, cello, bass and percussion. The vocals aren’t settings of actual texts, but series of expressive nonsense sounds that often represent various emotional states or actions. Performers gasp, laugh, shriek, cry, gurgle, and whimper in a score with as much stage direction for them as notes. Around them the musicians beat carpets, pop paper bags, and create a general cacophony. It’s very amusing and surprisingly beautiful. The quality of the vocal performances was excellent with just the right balance of irreverence and respect for the music. The work of course presages Ligeti’s operatic writing for Le Grand Macabre and it made me sad that it may be a long time before I get to see that work again.


Daddy never sleeps at night

December 09, 2008

Teodoro Anzellotti
Photo: mine 2008

Monday marked the return and 70th anniversary of one of the pillars of the Los Angeles contemporary music scene, the Monday Evening Concerts Series, entering its third year at the Zipper Concert Hall downtown. Director Justin Urcis’ very unassuming introduction failed to acknowledge what appeared to be yet another near capacity crowd for this series that seems to grow and grow in popularity after being declared all but dead after it’s infamous eviction from the grounds of LACMA. It was another show that exemplified the organization’s commitment to a wide gamut of performers and composers and its willingness to bring new and unfamiliar works to local audiences.

The theme was “The Avant-Garde Through the Ages” which was described as an examination of techniques and strategies in avant-garde musical practice over different centuries. While I’m not sure how well this concept actually held together, it did provide an opportunity to hear some very exciting performances. In the first half of the program, soprano Phoebe Jevtovic Aleander was accompanied by Shira Kammen and Susan Feldman on vielles for a number of 14th and 15th century French songs. Considered radical in approach at the time, the songs continue to have a rather surreal quality. A number of the works make repeated reference to people “smoking” despite the fact that tobacco had yet to be introduced to this part of the world at the time.

There were several contemporary pieces on the program that may have been similar in tactics but with far less melodic results. Michael Maierhof’s Sugar 1, an exploded piano trio, was expertly played by California EAR Unit players Amy Knoles, Eric km Clark, and Erika Duke-Kirkpatrick. Later, Kuniko Kato and Movses Pogossian performed Keiko Harada’s Bone # which features an amplified and retuned kalimba in a variety of ethereal effects.

However, the centerpiece and real star of the show was guest artist Teodoro Anzellotti who has championed the accordion as a player in contemporary music by commissioning several works for his instrument by various major contemporary composers. Two of those works he is most known for were featured here including Berio’s Sequenza XII and Globokar’s Dialog Über Luft. The latter piece in particular was exciting for its playfulness and experimentation with the very idea of the accordion itself. By calling attention to the working of the accordion and playing with the notion of a mechanical “lung”, Globokar’s score calls for a variety of breathing maneuvers from the performer occurring both in and out of sync with the instrument. Anzellotti’s virtuosity eclipses standard perceptions of the accordion and I myself was struck with how little I had imagined was capable from this instrument. And for good measure, Anzellotti threw in a 17th-century work by Froberger recounting a fatal fall by an amateur lutist acquaintance. I'll leave the rest to your imagination.

The MEC series has three more shows in the early part of next year and I would encourage you to check them out on their site and in person downtown.


Climb Every Mountain

December 08, 2008

Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2008

I guess I would be remiss if I didn’t say something about last weekend’s Los Angeles Philharmonic programs. It was the second program led by incoming music director Gustavo Dudamel and it was very good. In fact, it was the best performance I’ve heard him lead here thus far, which, I suppose, is good news if it’s a harbinger of things to come. Of course, the program was centered on a work that fits well with his take-no-prisoners style, Strauss’ Eine Alpensinfonie. This romantic gem is bombastic in its very nature and more than a little theatrical. Dudamel is at home with this kind of drama and the piece came alive in a big, brassy and full-bodied rendition. He may not have much grasp of the delicate, subtle or mysterious but he can drive home a crowd-pleaser with the best of them. This Alpine Symphony was dramatic but still largely obvious, passing by any sense of valediction that can take the piece to another level. It’s yet more evidence that despite his much (and rather blindly) ballyhooed talent, Dudamel still has a long way to go to earn the ridiculous amount of praise he’s currently receiving. (Of course, given the way our local print media outlets are going, I may not have them to kick around much longer.)

The show opened with Kurtàg’s Stele, one of the composers few larger orchestral works. It was solid with a tight, clean ending. It had the eerie glow you’d expect and was definitely the high point of the night. There was also a Mozart piano concerto on the bill with soloist Rudolf Buchbinder that was elegant and polished if not revelatory. The orchestra stayed out of the way which is really the primary thing here.

Luckily, this is the final Dudamel-led program of the season and now we can get back to the main event as Esa-Pekka Salonen returns in January for some much anticipated programs including the West Coast premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s Le passion de Simone with Dawn Upshaw, which will play on January 15 and 17.


The Indiscreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

December 04, 2008

Silvia Rieger in the Volksbühne cast of Ivanov
Photo: Thomas Aurin 2008

It’s been a rough 7th year for the UCLA International Theater Festival. Despite deserved praise heaped on this annual series by critic Charles McNulty in the Los Angeles Times last Sunday, the Festival, under the auspices of UCLA Live artistic director David Sefton, has been weaker than usual this fall. Though certainly not by design, the series started off with a cancellation due to a performer's visa problems, followed by undercooked Synge from the Druid Theater Company, overcooked effects from Robert LePage, and a dance piece masquerading as a theater piece.

So it is a huge relief that a hero has come to the rescue in the form of the Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz in a return engagement direct from Berlin. The troop was last here in 2003 with a mammoth adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Insulted and the Injured, which is high on my list of favorite productions ever. So I approached this return engagement with a lot of excitement and will say that they do not disappoint, offering what is possibly the theater event of the year in Los Angeles. This time, the group has taken on another adaptation of a Russian classic, Chekhov’s early Ivanov, a tale of bourgeois inertia and ennui. (But isn't this really the story of all Western theater?) Directed by Dimiter Gottscheff, the production approaches the work as a bold comic satire of a decaying middle class. It is often funny in a very self-referential way that can be both physical, broad, and at times juvenile.

Make no mistake this is “Regietheater” at its best—the kind of approach that regularly sends opera audiences (and short-sighted critics) into apoplexy in a manner not dissimilar to the effect a buttless chaps-clad leather daddy has on a Proposition 8 supporter. While Gottscheff has not radically altered the plot or characters of the work, he has abandoned just about everything else. This minimal and aggressively modern look is far removed from the parlor pleasantries familiar to those who expect their Chekhov to look like a scene from a Thomas Hardy novel. Katrin Brack’s large empty white set has no props and is marked only by copious amounts of stage fog that pours out of the floor creating a huge wall throughout the entire uninterrupted two hours. Abetted by the superior lighting effects, the fog shifts, thickens and dissipates throughout, containing and at other moments commenting on the action.

Apparently this was also neither a cheap or easy effect requiring UCLA to change over from their regular AC units to some other manner of ventilation for the performance. It forces increased attention on the actors who give a set of amazingly good comic performances. Players preen, wheel, and at times careen off the stage. Much of the dialog is delivered by the cast while standing in a straight line facing the audience. And while this strategy is the death of many an opera production, in this minimalist approach, it underscores the alienation of the work's characters and works very, very well. Far from being boring, this Ivanov is full of life, wit, and is hard to look away from.

I could go on, but I think you get the point. There are supertitles projected above the stage for the non-German speaking audience members. It is a shame that there are only a total of four more performances of Volksbüne's Ivanov left and I would highly recommend you catch one if you can before this is all too quickly gone.


For your (lack of) consideration

December 02, 2008

from Arnold's pièce touchée (1989, 16 min., 16mm, b/w)

It is not news that the Los Angeles Times has long ago ceased to be relevant or publish anything worth reading. The paper has been so decimated over the last few years, there is virtually nothing left to recommend it to anyone. Arts coverage is no exception. And, while there are many fine writers who still work for the organization, with so little space devoted to them, it’s hard to imagine what they do with themselves most days. (And, if you think the L.A. Times web site is any better, you are sorely mistaken, my friend.)

The evidence of this decline is too numerous to detail at this point, but let me offer just the latest example. Sunday’s Calendar section featured an assessment of the REDCAT downtown on its fifth anniversary by three different critics, Mark Swed, Christopher Knight, and Charles McNulty, on the various successes and failures of the CalArts-run performance and art space to date. And, while time was spent on the music, theater, and visual arts programming, not a word was said about any of the experimental film or video programming that represents as much if not more of the facility’s overall schedule. (Dance was also overlooked, but who’s counting?) Of course, not mentioning the film program probably seems predictable in that this is a town with little history or reputation for its interest in film or the moving image.

The excellent REDCAT experimental and avant-garde film program has been co-curated by Steve Anker and Bérénice Reynaud for all of the last five years and has featured a wide array of international artists who often appear in person in conjunction with screenings of their work. This year alone has featured some of the strongest screenings in the series, including works from Kenneth Anger, Ulrike Ottinger, and Paul McCarthy. Monday night’s program was another fascinating event featuring the works of Martin Arnold who presented several short films over the course of the evening. Arnold is mostly concerned in repurposing material from classic Hollywood films through various editing and processing techniques to create new objects that both expose and question not only the original material, but the whole project of film production as practiced in a particular place and manner. In three of the works, short pieces of film of rather mundane scenes are stretched out over many minutes by a process of quick and jerky repeats within these segments often creating chains of brief oscillations between only a few particular still frames. Suddenly menace appears in the peaceful domestic scene and Andy Hardy’s love for Judy becomes an Oedipal nightmare. It’s Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus writ large. The other film on the evening’s schedule was Deanimated an hour-long Bela Lugosi feature in which many if not most of the actors in the film have been digitally erased from each frame leaving only a succession of empty rooms in the context of rather creepy music. This subtraction achieves much the same goals of the shorter material though in perhaps the directly opposite fashion. It's fascinating work and hearing Arnold and the always interesting Reynaud speak about the material was thoroughly enjoyable.

In any event, the REDCAT, in addition to it's fine galley and performing arts series, continues to run one of the most worthwhile experimental film series in the entire city if not the country as a whole. And while our own local paper may not realize this, you can always read more about it at their website.


The kid stays in the picture

December 01, 2008

Julie White as Diane
Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2008

At the heart of Douglas Carter Beane’s The Little Dog Laughed, now on stage at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City, is an amazing performance from Julie White. The play, which transferred up to Broadway in early 2007, now arrives in Los Angeles, the city of its inspiration if not its setting, largely intact. White reprises her Tony award-winning role as Diane, the lesbian up and coming agent whose hottest property, Mitchell Green (played by the very good Brian Henderson), is about to seal the deal on a big new property for himself when he meets a hustler who stirs some of Green’s own deeply-suppressed homosexual desire. Alex, who is played by Johnny Galecki, also straight from the Broadway cast, finds himself a little more (or perhaps a little less depending how you look at it) bisexual than either he or his girlfriend have thought. Rounding out the cast is said sardonic girlfriend, Ellen, played by Zoe Lister-Jones, who stands up well to the other big wattage performances in the cast. Needless to say, the whirlwind romance creates havoc in the primary relationships of both male characters, and soon things are speeding to their not-so-inevitable conclusion.

Brian Henderson and Johnny Galecki
Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2008

The play is hysterically funny, and all of the big lines go to White. Her calculating and ruthless Diane is a marvel and White’s ability to maintain such a high energy level throughout without ever becoming grating or shrill is a master class in acting. To entice the audience into rooting for her schemes at the expense of more sympathetic characters is a very big feat. Especially when two of those are hot guys appearing in the (albeit all too briefly) all-together. Of course, the heart and soul of the story, which is actually as much melodrama as comedy, is the relationship between movie star Mitchell and hustler Alex. It’s affecting even if the whole “things we do for love” storyline is a bit worn and the relationship on the whole is exactly the kind of thing that happens only in stage plays. There is a clever bit of self-referential posturing as well concerning Mitchell and Diane’s cajoling of a New York playwright to sell his gay-themed play to Hollywood for the inevitable heterosexual rewrite. The author of the play, repeatedly referred to as “he meaning him” slyly allows Beane to wink at himself through the characters in the very play he is potentially selling.

But don’t worry about things getting too metaphysical. Little Dog never goes that far astray. But it is hugely enjoyable—a real bright spot here in L.A. right now. It runs through December 21. Oh and BTW, Spring Awakening is also on stage at the Ahmanson theater downtown through this weekend. I saw it again after NY and SF viewings, and it holds up very well. The sound problems from up north have largely been worked out, so take my advice. With so many discount seats available, catch it if you haven’t already.


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