Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Norman, My Love

April 30, 2009

The cast of The Norman Conquests
Photo: Manuel Harlan 2009

There is more than one multi-day episodic theatrical event going on in New York right now. While the Metropolitan Opera is in the midst of their rather sleepy revival of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, there is a far more exciting large time commitment going on at the Circle in the Square Theater on 50th Street. It's a new production of Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests, a British import from London’s Old Vic Theater that involves three separate plays running about 2 and a half hours each - Table Manners, Living Together, and Round and Round the Garden. What’s most interesting is how much The Norman Conquests has in common with Wagner’s Ring Cycle in the end. True the Ring is steeped in Norse mythology and Conquests is a 1970s sex comedy, but otherwise they couldn’t be more similar. Regardless of outer appearances, at their core, both works are really very precise and enthralling studies of family dynamics. Ayckbourn’s plays are very, very funny – often to the point of tears. But they are also very serious in their dissection of the pain and inner workings of three couples (two married and one not) each containing one adult sibling from the same family. Also like Wagner’s opus, after sitting through seemingly endless hours in the theater, you end up leaving wanting it all not to end or at least to see even more from these characters that you feel you’ve come to know.

Ayckbourn has always had a preoccupation with structural games in his plays and the conceit here is that the 12 scenes in the plays occur over a single weekend in an English country home in one of three rooms. The plays are divided up based on which room each scene takes place in, but all three plays cover the whole weekend. The entrances and exits of characters in one play directly correspond to their arrival or departure in the next. While each of the plays stands on its own with the same general narrative, each fleshes out scenes that are only referred to or imagined by the audience during the others. Seeing them together as I have over this week is most satisfying not in that it unravels a narrative mystery (since there is none really), but because you get to learn more and more about these six very fractured souls and their not too uncommon ways of suffering.

Amelia Bullmore, Paul Ritter, and Amanda Root
Photo: Manuel Harlan 2009

Speaking of these six characters, their current incarnations rest in no small part in the hands of an incredible cast I will mention here by name. Jessica Hynes is Annie, left to tend her invalid mother in their country home. She is planning a weekend affair with Norman, played by Stephen Mangan, behind the back of his wife and her sister, Ruth, played by Amelia Bullmore. Of course the weekend falls apart despite the arrival of Annie’s brother Reg, played by Paul Ritter, and his very uptight wife Sarah, played by Amanda Root who are there to do the mother-sitting that is not to be. To round all this out is the neighborhood vet and Annie’s inept paramour, Tom, played by Ben Miles. Miles is perhaps best known to American audiences for his performance in the BBC television show “Coupling” where he played the sexy lothario Patrick. In Ayckbourn’s world he is cast as "against type" as possible for maximum effect. But all of the cast are superb in their ability to bring out the abundant depth in what appears to be incredibly light fare on the surface. And, of course, at the center of all this is Norman, the unbridled bubbling id in this cavalcade of neurotics. He’s as seductive to the audience as he is to everyone else in the play and despite his very real problems, it is impossible not to succumb to his charms. The subtlety of this is surprising to me even though it's all under the direction of Matthew Warchus. Warchus is behind numerous supremely funny imports in New York in recent years including the recent Boeing Boeing. But with a play in his hands that is more than just light farce, he proves he can do much more than get big laughs. So if your looking at spending 7 hours in the dark, you may want to forego the German romantic music for a change and seek out this fantastic alternative and save yourself a few bucks while your at it.


The Once and Future King

April 29, 2009

Now you're in trouble, Act III of Die Walküre
Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2009

And on the second day there was Die Walküre. It occurs to me that there may be nothing more difficult to do on stage than look girlish while drinking mead from an animal horn. (Or perhaps mixing a mickey into the mead by swishing the horn around in big circles before putting the big sleep on your hunter hubby could be a close second.) In any event, I’m not going to belabor the point about the hopefully soon to be incinerated Otto Schenk production of the Ring. Instead let’s talk about something positive like Placido Domingo. He’s simply electrifying. Here he was again doing Siegmund as no one else can in the world right now, creating far more flames than all the red lights, smoke and paper in Act III. The audience is wild for him and I must admit, despite the ridiculous wig, he was mighty, mighty impressive singing circles around everyone else. It's the fourth time I've heard him sing the part this month, and it's still amazing. He’s unrestrained here, able to expressively act his heart out, which he does. He’s onstage with Adrianne Pieczonka as Sieglinde most of the time who is a reasonable foil if lacking in some of his warmth. Even the magnificent René Pape is relegated to second fiddle in his presence, but I’m sure we’ll hear much more from him in the Wagner part of the repertory as time goes by.

The biggest problem with tonight’s Walküre is that there is only so much opera for Domingo to sing in this part. The other half of the evening is primarily occupied by a much less illustrious pair. Albert Dohmen was Wotan again tonight, but I often felt he was holding back a little. Throughout much of Act II, he seemed to lose the overall line to staccato bursts of phrasing. He would often get run over by the orchestra, which was not having the best of all possible nights either. There were several mishaps in the horn section over the course of these 4 or five hours, which, granted, is not unheard of either in this particular marathon. Then there is the matter of Katarina Dalayman, the official third or fourth choice for tonight's Brünnhilde after at least two other cancellations. I found her voice a little low for the part overall and the middle seemed to be absent altogether. She could hit the high notes and had a fair amount of power behind them, but could get screamy on her way there. Act III pretty much unraveled, but not to the point that things were painful, just a little boring. Let’s put it this way, the real wonder of Wagner is that you can leave Die Walküre after 5 hours wanting to immediately go back in for more of the story. Tonight, I’m just glad to have a day off.

Back to Domingo… You may want to pick up his latest DVD release as Bajazet in Handel’s Tamerlano. It’s a role he’s been doing around the world and will reprise in a production originaly from Washington in L.A. later in the fall. This time it’s a Graham Vick staging in Madrid recorded for Opus Arte. Check it out.


Farewell to the Gold Rush

April 28, 2009

Richard Paul Fink and the Rhinemaidens
Photo: Beatriz Schiller/Met Opera 2009

The focus of my New York trip this week is a visit to the Metropolitan Opera, which is wrapping up their 125th season over the next two weeks with the 6th and reportedly final revival of Otto Schenk’s production of Der Ring Des Nibelungen. It’s been a busy and tough season here, as it has been everywhere for arts organizations. But the company is continuing to gain ground in finding new ways to connect with potential audiences. This weekend, in fact, the house will offer up a free trial of their online Met Player service, which means you can watch one of several dozen videotaped performances from either the company’s HD series or historic broadcast archives as well as many more audio broadcasts, all for free. (Parterre Box is taking a poll of the best of these for those of you who might be interested, but there’s no contest – it’s the Karita Mattila Salome performance from last fall.) If you've missed any of these great performances, this is an excellent chance to catch them online at no cost between Friday at 5pm eastern time and midnight Sunday.

But a filmed performance and a live performance are very different animals. And, while I'm here, there’s a lot of live Wagner to attend to, which I started on Monday with Das Rheingold. The casting has been super slippery around here lately with various and sundry illnesses, so I was quite surprised how well sung the whole evening was with the cast that did show up in the end. Albert Dohmen appeared as a stentorian Wotan in a house that has had virtually no one besides James Morris sing this part in the past two decades. Morris may be a crowd favorite here, but Dohmen provided some needed new energy to the part. Kim Begley was Loge and Richard Paul Fink continued his very well received run as Alberich. Both were exemplary. René Pape made a warmly welcomed Fasolt, of all things, to John Tomlinson’s Fafner. Yvonne Naef sounded much less brittle as Fricka than I remember, based on my last couple of brushes with her. All in all a good showing considering that outside of the singing, there was little else for this cast to do.

The conclusion of Das Rheingold
Photo: Beatriz Schiller/Met Opera 2009

Then of course there’s that James Levine touch. Despite his slower than molasses Wagner idiosyncrasies, he does deliver remarkable performances from this world-class orchestra. Granted, this pacing plays out better in Tristan and Parsifal, but it's not completely unreasonable here. In fact its amazing how things don’t sound more plodding than they could given this deliberate pace. And following Levine's sick day last week, there continues to be a lot of love flowing towards the stage. But how do you solve a problem like that horrendous Otto Schenk staging. It’s almost the steam-punk equivalent of an opera – except less cool. The amount of technical wizardry that goes into something that looks as drab and out-of-date as this is astounding. It's clearly time to move on, and wisely the Met appears to be doing so. No matter what the Robert Lepage staging looks like when it is first rolled out this fall, it will certainly be better than this.

Das Rheingold did get me to thinking a lot about this whole notion of what makes a “static” production, however. Following the premieres of Achim Freyer’s take on Das Rheingold and Die Walküre in Los Angeles recently, I heard a lot of people complain that parts of the productions were “too static.” And while it’s true that his scenes can be marked by little person-to-person interaction, I think there’s little static about them. There is almost constant motion from one of a variety of elements on stage, even if it’s not the primary vocalizing characters in the scene. This activity is nearly always either furthering the narrative or commenting on it in some way. Sort of Freyer's own leitmotif system. In almost direct contrast is the Schenk production, where a very ornate and beautiful room is set for a scene that the cast is placed in. There is plenty of interpersonal contact, but virtually nothing happens. There’s a lot of hand wringing and arm waving, but in the end it’s really just stand-and-deliver performance amidst kitschy scenery. Everything is exactly what it is and no more or less. And while sometimes a cigar, is just a cigar, I can't help but want something much more.

Of course, with so little going on, this might be the ideal staging to watch on video. Sometimes the necessity of changing camera angles can fill a visually dead production with life that isn't there in the flesh. And luckily with the free Met Player weekend, this might just be your chance to take in these operas in a format likely to spice them up a little so check it out while you have the chance.


Forbidden Planet

April 27, 2009

Scott Shepherd and Judson Williams in The Wooster Group's La Didone
Photo: Paula Court/NYT 2009

When you’ve been at the forefront of the experimental theater scene for 30 years touring productions all over the globe, what’s left to conquer? The Wooster Group provided an answer to that question throughout April with their first operatic endeavor, which wrapped up last night at St. Ann’s Warehouse. The opera in question was a rarely performed 17th-century work from Francesco Cavalli, La Didone. This classic story of the love between Dido and Aeneas has been familiar terrain for centuries and has found its way into virtually any form of artistic expression you can think of. Given that the Wooster Group has managed to come up with something new to say about this story is remarkable and it may have more serious implications for opera stagings than anything I’ve seen in quite a while.

Or maybe not. The Wooster’s La Didone is about as far from opera as you can get while still having enough similarities to legitimately call yourself one. Cavalli’s work has been cut down to a sleek 90 minutes. Moreover, what remains has not only been fused with another narrative, but one as far removed from Baroque opera as you could imagine. The other piece playing out simultaneously is a 1965 Italian science fiction film Terrore nello spazio, or under its English moniker, Planet of the Vampires. The space-suited cast of actors and singers recreate scenes from the film by mimicking the actual shots from the film which are simultaneously played back on monitors around the stage. Meanwhile the events of the opera continue, either directly integrated into the space events or running concurrently with them. It’s a heady, rapid-fire mix that verges on stimulus overload throughout. There are dueling supertitles for the film’s English language dubbing and the opera’s Italian libretto. The re-orchestrated music, provided by keyboard, accordion and lute, is often accompanied not only by singing, but also by dialogue, electronic beeps and other ambient noise from the film. When the gods speak, electric guitar is added to the mix. Everyone is amplified to different extents at different times.

What does all this mean? I'm not exactly sure. There are connections between the two narratives about coming back from the dead, the reception of travelers and other themes. There is also an implication that Dido and Aeneas can be read to a modern ear as easily as space aliens as they can classical figures. Director Elizabeth LeCompte and her cast take a stance that can be both bemusing and seriously devoted to both opera and B-movie science fiction as they are tangled together in the performance. There are real moments of laughter, but the tone is never "disrespectful" in any way to either primary source. It's a kind of theatrical mixing more directly akin to common practices in the popular music world for almost a decade. Not that dramatic texts haven't been modified and adapted this way for centuries, but perhaps not before with so much technological flair and with such willingness that all the seams of the junctures highlighted in ways that they can't be ignored by the spectators. In fact, The Wooster Group's La Didone may be more similar to Baroque practice than anything passing for Baroque opera today. It was not an uncommon practice for works like Cavalli's to be presented in conjunction with other dramatic pieces breaking up the action of one another as the evening wore on in an effort to keep all the guests entertained. And while I can't say that I necessarily found this moving on first pass, I did find it incredibly interesting and worth far greater attention.

The Group has brought on a small cast of very qualified vocalists including Hai-Ting Chinn as Dido, John Young as Aeneas. Andrew Nolan, and Kamala Sankaram who also smartly plays accordion, round out the vocal end of the cast. Yet everyone is expected to sing at least a little, as everyone must act in both components of the piece. And, while it may be easy to recognize the trained voices, the cast was otherwise integrated seamlessly, doubling for roles in both narratives. Best of all, while the vocal performances are strong, the intention is not that they are honored and preserved above all else. They are often interrupted by other activities and sometimes accompanied by other sounds. They can be either enhanced or played down depending on the circumstances. It's this interest in the larger objectives of the work that make La Didone interesting from an operatic perspective considering how conservative and uninteresting so much traditional opera performance has become at least in this country. The Wooster Group is again stepping forward and raising the bar on everyone else. It's remarkable and well worth seeing. Luckily, we in Los Angeles will get our own chance to see it this coming June when, I'm told, The Wooster Group will be visiting REDCAT with the same production June 11-21. Keep your eyes open for more details.


Getting It Off of His Chest


I'm in New York this week. (Those posts are about to start coming your way.) But in the mean time, my friend Jim sends this report of some interesting goings on at Walt Disney Concert Hall last evening:

The Krystian Zimerman recital was quite eventful.

He comes out and glares at the audience and plays the first half of the program at a break neck speed. He was professional, but indifferent to the audience and rather unengaged with the music. I was quite surprised. Something was very wrong.

Right before he comes out for the second half an announcement is made that he will not be performing the Brahms, but instead will be playing an unknown piece from an unknown Polish composer who wrote the sonata in 1952. He plays this piece with an incredible amount of passion and verve... he is possessed.

When he comes back for the final Szymanowski piece he slumps in front of the piano for about a minute. He then turns around and starts to talk to the audience. He states that he has been forbidden to talk directly to the audience, but is going to do it anyway. He says that the evening has been very difficult for him because this will be his last recital in the US for some time. He then starts to make a speech where the first words out of his mouth are about the mistreatment of prisoners in Guantanamo and then starts taking about the US military industrial complex. At about this time a small handful of the audience start yelling at him, booing, swearing at him, and noisily leaving. He then starts talking about the fact that the US has a lot of great things to import to the rest of the world but it should leave it's military at home. He then demands that the US removes their weapons of mass destruction from his country. More booing and yelling from a handful and then supporters of Zimerman are yelling at the dissenters in the audience. Zimerman then thanks the audience for starting to support democracy again and then plays the Szymanowski.

He played as if his life depended on it. He was quite simply played like a animal. On a number of occasions his feet left the ground and flew into the air. Unbelievable! The audience went stark raving mad when it was over. Stunning. I've never heard piano playing quite like it. No encores, but he did put his hand over his heart quite a few times and looked visibly moved at the wild audience response.

Quite an evening.


In the Wings - May 09

April 26, 2009

Rusini Sidi, Eko Supriyanto, Astri Kusuma Wardani, Jessica Rivera, Russell Thomas
Photo: CAL Performances 2007

May is always a strange month on the performing arts calendar. The season is more or less over with, but the summer offerings—festival and otherwise—aren’t underway yet. It’s kind of a clearinghouse period, but there are some rewards to gather if you keep an eye out for them. Perhaps the organization with the best example of what I mean this year is the Los Angeles Philharmonic that carries on in the final lame duck, post-Salonen month of its season. Serious effort has gone in to scheduling interesting programs and guests for this dirty work, however. Foremost among these are two shows conducted by composer John Adams who will present local premieres of his Son of Chamber Symphony on May 12 and the semi-staged Peter Sellars-directed version of his most recent opera A Flowering Tree the following weekend. Adams’ music will also feature prominently on the weekend of the 9th when NY Philharmonic Associate Director Xian Zhang will conduct it, as well as Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano Concerto with Yefim Bronfman and Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin. The season ends with two weeks under Christoph Eschenbach who will lead more Prokofiev (Symphony No 5) and Julia Fischer in Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto over Memorial Day weekend. The last show will feature Bruckner’s 7th Symphony starting May 28th.

From LAO's La Traviata
Photo: Robert Millard/LAO

All of this music will be bookended by two performances from the magnificent L.A. Master Chorale. On May 3rd, they will perform Haydn’s Heilig Mass paired with Messiaen’s Trois petites liturgies and they will wrap everything up on May 31 with the West Coast premiere of Roberto Sierra’s Missa Latina. Both are excellent chances to see this equally esteemed resident of the Walt Disney Concert Hall. And while we’re in that building, it’s worth noting one other musical event downstairs at the REDCAT where the annual celebration of the idiosyncratic world and instruments of Harry Partch takes place on May 29 and 30. There are a smattering of opera offerings to consider. Most unusual is the program from Long Beach Opera which will pair two one act works, Viktor Ullman’s Der Kaiser von Atlantis and Carl Orff’s The Clever One, for three performances to take place in the hull of The Queen Mary in Long Beach May 8 and 17th. On the more predictable side, L.A. Opera will kick off a revival of the first Martha Domingo production of Verdi’s La Traviata on May 21 with Marina Poplavskaya while San Diego Opera will get involved with Madama Butterfly starring Patricia Racette on the 9th. Just in time for all of the philistines whose senses have been so offended by Achim Freyer’s Ring productions last month. I will also be travelling up to Seattle for business on the 16th allowing me to catch their production of Le Nozze di Figaro with uber-hottie Mariusz Kwiecien as count Almaviva.

Ballet Preljocaj

Away from the music center, UCLA Live will present a return visit from Ballet Preljocaj on May 1 and May 2 with their always visually interesting take on things – this time out it's Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. There’s also quite a variety of theater to take in during May that I’ll be attending too. (Though, admittedly some of this opened up in April). The incredible shrinking CTG season roles on with a revival of Ain’t Misbehavin’ at the Ahmanson theater, David Mamet’s Oleanna at the Mark Taper Forum, and the world premiere of Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo at the Kirk Douglas Theater. Since it appears two-thirds of L.A.’s major theater operation will be dark this summer due to the economy, this will be about all we’ll be seeing from them for a while. But there are plenty of other theater games here in town. Odyssey Theater will be staging Caryl Churchill’s A Number this month on the West Side, while downtown the East West Players will offer a double bill of Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years with a Sondheim review, Marry Me a Little. The Geffen in Westwood continues to offer up Conor McPherson’s excellent The Seafarer while the smaller theater continues with Louis and Keely Live at the Sahara. In Glendale, A Noise Within is currently mounting
Anouilh’s The Rehearsal and down south, South Coast Repertory will revive Donald Margulies Collected Stories. And not to be forgotten, the Theater at Boston Court in Pasadena will present the world premiere of Laura Schellhardt's vampire drama Courting Vampires from May 9th.

So while it may not be a blockbuster, May certainly has its charms. And if all else fails, keep in mind that Fleetwood Mac will reignited some of their Southern California magic at the Staples Center on May 28th.


Soldiering On

April 24, 2009

Lionel Bringuier, Joshua Bell, and the LA Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2009

I suppose it was inevitable that, with all of the superb and historic programs at Walt Disney Concert Hall over the last two weeks, the hangover was bound to kick in. And on Thursday it did in spades as the lame duck season with the Los Angeles Philharmonic got under way following the departure of former music director Esa-Pekka Salonen. So what do you follow that up with the following weekend? How about an evening of lesser known French romantic works with an overrated soloist under the young, but very competent hands of Assistant Conductor, Lionel Bringuier.

Well… maybe not. But that is in fact what we got and, despite everyone’s best efforts, it didn’t prove to be a winning combination. Most of the program consisted of French works playing with other cultural traditions such as Ravel’s Alborado del gracioso. Ravel seems easy, but tonight was evidence that in fact it isn’t. Bringuier and the orchestra seemed all over the place, uncertain of where to go. It was a short stint, though, followed by Joshua Bell playing Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole. Lalo’s version of Spanish flair didn’t fare much better, although Bell energetically flew through the work. Things seemed to be missing a certain light fleetness of spirit that would have helped. Sometimes I think maybe I’m judging Bell too harshly, but then he’ll play a souped-up version of Yankee Doodle, as he did this evening, for an encore and that usually takes care of that.

The balance of the evening was dedicated to Florent Schmitt’s La tragédie de Salomé, a work and a composer overshadowed not only by the more musically important opera on the same subject, but also sadly by the composer’s pro-Vichy stance during WWII. The music is big and bright and sometimes quite interesting. But this off-the-beaten-path nugget wasn’t really enough to turn the tide of things. By the time we arrived at the final piece on the program, Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No 1, the crowd was clearly restless and ready to move on. But the band did play on and rightly so. There was a part of me that was just glad to be there to see our beloved orchestra moving on, even if it wasn’t the orchestra’s most shining moment. The program repeats Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.


Crazy About the Boy

April 22, 2009

Anthony Dean Griffey and Spike Sommers in Peter Grimes
Photo: Ken Howard/LAO 2009

Although it may be a bit premature to say so, San Diego Opera’s current production of Peter Grimes is clearly the highlight of the their 2009 opera season. More specifically, Anthony Dean Griffey’s performance in the title role is world-class and riveting. He was widely lauded for his performance of the same role at the Metropolitan Opera in early 2008 which has now found life on an excellent DVD. But there is really no comparison to seeing him live, and San Diego is offering its audience a big treat by staging this 20th-century masterpiece when other California companies of less nerve have backed away from Britten’s admittedly dark work in the coming months. Griffey brings a tragic innocence to the part in an interesting parallel to the very boyishness he’s accused of murdering by the community in which he lives.

Of course, Griffey isn’t alone on stage, and San Diego has delivered on the challenging and quite beautiful choral music Britten calls for. Grimes’ never-to-be paramour Ellen Orford is sung by American soprano Jennifer Casey Cabot who warms up over the course of this production starting out a little more schoolmarmish and developing into a loving, and sadly abandoned, woman as all her good intentions unravel around her. Rod Gilfry was a dignified Captain Balstrode, and Kristopher Irmiter’s Ned Keene hit just the right combination of sly and warm. I must say that I was really pleased with Greg Fedderly’s Bob Boles as well. A thankless role of a zealous townsman who whips up religious fervor and negative sentiment against Grimes, Bob Boles is far less showy than Mrs. Sedley, a character who serves a similar function but receives much more attention. Fedderly proves you can make the most out of even the seemingly smallest part and he made the loathsome Boles very menacing without resorting simply to shouting in the town’s square.

Not everything is perfect. John Copley’s well traveled production is less than ideal. While not as bad as some of his Handel and Mozart monstrosities, he still can’t completely lay off the kitsch. The chorus too often is directed into unnecessary histrionics during crowd scenes and the dark and somber mood of the piece is often marred by what look like sitcom antics. There is some effort to focus on the placement of light and color, but the stage images veer towards the cartoonish at times. There seems to be an uncertainty about entrances and exits with Grimes just wandering on and off the stage whenever he’s headed into or out of the sea in a show with a paradoxical absence of a maritime feel. Worse yet, Britten's beautiful sea interludes, which were handled so well by the orchestra under Steuart Bedford, were treated as little more than scene change music with the curtain down and lots of rumbling backstage. The audience delivered plenty of applause in these stretches, effectively squashing perhaps some of the loveliest musical moments in the whole show. Still there’s too much to like here to miss, and you may want to check this out if your in town during the last two performances this weekend.

I also noted that San Diego Opera announced its reduced, four-production 2010 season this week. After months of talk about all the cutbacks and financial woes of the organization, they should be lauded for a very smart, if not necessarily daring, schedule next year. Wisely counter programming what’s left of its nearest large competitors, San Diego is going with big Italian staples while San Francisco Opera is dark and Los Angeles Opera is on hiatus from its reduced schedule before diving into all German programming in Spring and Summer 2010. San Diego will start with La Boheme starting in late January starring German superstar Anja Harteros as Mimi and the rapidly rising Piotr Beczala as Rudolfo. Following this will be Verdi’s Nabucco, which hasn’t been around these parts in a while and featuring the talents of another very impressive lead, Zeljko Lucic, in the title role. March will bring Gounod’s Romeo And Juliet with Stephen Costello before ending the season with Elizabeth Futral taking another swing at La Traviata. Times being what they are, what’s not to like?

UPDATE 4/23: I was just informed by a reader that all tickets for the last two performances of Peter Grimes this weekend on the 24th and 26th are 50$/25$! That is one great bargain.


All Over But the Shouting

April 19, 2009


There was hardly a dry eye in the house. Esa-Pekka Salonen’s final concert as music director took place this afternoon in Los Angeles and, despite our beloved maestro’s disdain for self-aggrandizement, it was finally quite a touching affair from those who loved him most, the member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

It was a capacity crowd filled with Salonen’s musical, artistic, and actual families – Yefim Bronfman, Dawn Upshaw, Peter Sellars, John Adams, Steven Stucky, Bill Viola, Frank Gehry, and so on. The afternoon started with Deborah Borda and board president, David C. Bohnett, announcing that Salonen had been appointed conductor laureate for the organization in recognition of their relationship both now and into the future. Salonen didn’t appear on stage at this point, but arrived for the fourth performance of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex and Symphony of Psalms this weekend. The program seemed to work better than it did on Friday and Saturday to my mind. The orchestra seemed to be playing with every ounce of love they could for their departing leader, creating perhaps the most monumental and warm Symphony of Psalms I think I’ve ever heard.

The audience clapped and clapped through bows from the cast and design team. Finally, a seemingly reluctant Salonen arrived for a solo bow to thunderous applause and a surprise impromptu fanfare from the brass players on stage.

There were the requisite flowers presented by several of the musicians and Salonen looked noticeably moved from where I sat. And then the orchestra members stood and, encircling him as a group, took turns hugging him one by one.

He made no comments from the stage but stood surrounded by his colleagues as the audience clamored on and on. And then it was over. He left the stage, and we all very sadly went our own ways. There will always be music in L.A., but it won't ever be quite like this again.


Then We Came to the End

April 18, 2009

Salonen with the LA Philharmonic and members of the LA Master Chorale
Photo: mine 2009

There’s no avoiding it. We’ve reached the end, and it’s time to say goodbye. Esa-Pekka Salonen completed his tenure as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic this weekend with one final program. The good news is that he did not go out with an overabundance of sentiment or a lazy sop to nostalgia or his own ego. Instead, it was as it always has been with Salonen – an eye to the horizon, lots of ambition, and thoughtful, detailed music. The program was a big production in just about every sense featuring two major works by Stravinsky, the short opera Oedipus Rex and Symphony of Psalms. Although the works were separated by an intermission, the intention of director Peter Sellars was to create a single experience with the Oedipus story's denouement occurring in the latter piece. Together the two works are presented as a tale of redemption that allows for a closer spiritual examination of both Oedipus and Stravinsky himself. It's a thoughtful project and, while I wasn't completely satisfied with this particular program on this particular evening, it was still something to admire.

Oedipus Rex opens with Antigone, here voiced by actor Viola Davis, recounting the general events of the story in a new English-language text written by Sellars replacing the Jean Cocteau script in Stravinsky's original. Davis gives a very engaging performance and fits in nicely with the rest of the singing cast, which included Rodrick Dixon as Oedipus and Anne Sofie von Otter as Jocasta. Ryan McKinny and Daniel Montenegro rounded out the cast in the smaller parts. The soloists were seated at the rear of the stage on the highest riser with the men's chorus below them and the orchestra in front. The chorus was dressed in causal street clothes in hues of blue and the soloists were given thrones to sit on. These were no ordinary chairs, however, but instead art works from Ethiopian sculptor Elias Sime who recently wrapped up an exhibit in Santa Monica. All the cast performed their parts with a series of sharp and repetitive hand gestures to emphasize the content of their speech. And, while all of this was interesting, it was frustrating that, despite rather mild amplification of the speakers and soloists, it was often hard to hear them over the orchestra. The chorus was a big highlight, though, providing most of the hour's biggest drama. At the end, a blinded Oedipus is led across the stage by his daughter Ismene in front of the chorus with their backs turned. Following this, the entire cast, conductor, and orchestra left the stage deferring any bows until the end of the evening.

In Act II, Antigone begins again with a monologue accounting the events that led up to Oedipus's eventual death after his exile including his disappearance into nothingness. As before, the events are acted out following this descriptive passage, this time in pantomime since there are no solo vocal parts in the Symphony of Psalms. This time out, the chorus began divided into four groups on the various staircases within the auditorium and then slowly moved to form a large circle around the entire stage and part of the audience. Oedipus is led to an enclosure of neon lights where he lays down and later vanishes following the return of his daughters. In the end, he has transcended this plane for another. Salonen again led a wonderful performance of the piece with this orchestra he's come to know so well. Here was redemption, not in a heroic, romantic 19th century way, but something less familiar. It was a distinctively more modern version that encapsulated quite well Salonen's larger project here in Los Angeles - keeping art music relevant by showing us all how things have moved on after 1900 while still maintaining connections to its own history.

So what's my problem? It was really one of expectations. It's unreasonable to believe that the final show will be the best one Salonen ever led with the orchestra, just as it is to believe that the last show should sum everything up in a nice and clean way. I wanted something more cathartic that recognized my own sense of loss for our beloved music director. But as always, Salonen avoided placing himself at the center of attention and ended his run here in L.A. amongst a large cadre of artistic collaborators including the orchestra and chorale. There was a rapturous standing ovation for his solo bow, but he remained one of many here in his closing moments. An important reminder that regardless of his own contributions to this orchestra and this city, he has left us with things much greater than himself. No matter who is at the helm of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, we are a community much richer than we were before. And I for one will miss Esa-Pekka Salonen's regular appearances here greatly.


Bang on a Piano All-Stars

April 14, 2009

Marino Formenti, Christian Dierstein, and all those bassists
Photo: mine 2009

The Monday Evening Concert Series wrapped up for the season this week at Zipper Concert Hall with another near capacity crowd. It looks like the city’s go-to folks for contemporary music are going to have to find some bigger quarters sometime soon or tickets may get a little bit harder to come by. The show featured MEC’s patented combination of fare new to Los Angeles and the world played by leading stars of 20th century and newer music. The program, entitled “For Galina Ustvolskaya” was just that and featured a return performance from Italian keyboard great Marino Formenti who last dazzled local audiences with an unforgettable performance of Messiaen’s Des Canyons aux étoiles in January 2008. Well-regarded percussionist Christian Dierstein joined him for performances of Ustvolskaya’s dark and sometimes dirge-like works that can make Messiaen sound like Mozart, but simultaneously lend credence to her own claim that “there is no link whatsoever between my music and that of any other composer, living or dead.”

Maybe not, but this is unusual stuff particularly considering that it was written for the most part in the mid-to-late 20th century. Ustvolskaya lived a bit of a double life as a composer. Having studied under Shostakovich, she embarked upon a career of conventional and digestible works for a number of public forums all the while composing very different works that remained unheard until much later in her life. In fact much of her work didn’t surface at all outside of the USSR until the 1990s even after it was given public performances in her home country in the 70s and 80s. Monday’s program featured this more "personal" work and it is indeed bracing stuff. Formenti performed two Piano Sonatas, Nos. 4 and 6, which were followed later by Ustvolskaya’s Symphony No 5 “Amen” and Composition No 2, “Dies Irae” for piano, percussion and eight double basses. Ustvolskaya holds all notes in esteem and often dwells on them individually as if giving each and every one its due. The music is often played loudly at full bore and the piano parts can devolve into what seems like little more than banging large sets of keys with forearms and fists in regular and very repetitive sequences. The “symphony” involved tuba, trumpet, oboe, violin, percussion and a speaker who read the Lord’s Prayer in plaintive and dramatic Russian. Both this piece and the “Dies Irae” also call for a large wooden box that is rhythmically struck with various mallets, again often loudly. It’s interesting stuff if for no other reason than the level of intensity called for on the part of the players who all rose to the challenge here. Formenti in particular took no prisoners and made a great case for the relevance of the works if by not rendering them into something that was readily recognizable and immediately pleasurable.

It wasn’t all about the program’s namesake, however. There were two world premieres on the schedule as well. First up was Klaus Lang’s "The Whitebread Man. The Six Frogs" for piano and percussion. It was well set in these environs in that while it is persistently soft and fading, it embraces the same halting respect for its individual tones as Ustvolskaya's works. Later, Dierstein performed Pierluigi Billone’s Mani. Matta for solo percussion. This piece, one in a series referencing visual artists, is largely centered on a marimba the performer plays in non-standard ways that allow him to attenuate the sound either by direct dampening with the hands or using atypical mallets for the job. And while it did seem to stretch on a bit longer than I might have liked, I must admit I was taken by a bit of darkened wistfulness among its charms.

In any event, the show was another example of how MEC continues to stay ahead of the game. And in a city that is about to lose its most visible proponent for new music when Esa-Pekka Salonen wraps up his tenure with the L.A. Philharmonic later this week, Monday may become an even more important day in the near future for those of us who love and follow this music.


An Affair to Remember

April 13, 2009

from l-r: Matthew Arkin, Jenny O'Hara, Marin Hinkle, Arye Gross
Photo: South Coast Repertory 2009

Playwright Richard Greenberg’s long relationship with South Coast Repertory theater in Orange County continues to bear fruit with yet another world premiere there this month entitled Our Mother’s Brief Affair. It’s in line with much of his recent work, lightly tweaking the liberal middle class for its apparent hypocrisy by thrusting his characters in a situation that pushes the very buttons they are quick to point out in others. In this sense, Affair is perhaps most kindred to 2002’s A Naked Girl on the Appian Way, but this time the issue isn’t race as much as it is loyalty to one’s moral convictions.

It’s a sparse 90-minute, 4 character affair where two fraternal twins, brother and sister, cope and complain about new revelations from their now elderly mother about a 10-week romantic affair she had in her fifties while still married to their father. The characters deliver most of the dialogue as expositions, though funny expositions, aimed directly at the audience with brief asides to one another to actually flesh out the scenes they are describing. Greenberg is no stranger to this tactic, though he seems more enamored with it than ever here giving Affair a rather didactic flair. There’s more than a little sentiment as well, but things can get long winded. In perhaps the riskiest gambit, though, the whole plot revolves around a bit of detail from American history I won’t reveal here. Let it be said, however, that it’s obscure enough that the characters spend a good 10 minutes during a break in the “action” to acknowledge and fully explain all the history around the not-actually-dramatic twist. It doesn’t exactly work. I mean, it’s understandable in its explanation; it’s just a little far to reach in such a slim wisp of a theater piece.

The set consists only of a concrete enclosed New York park that the characters inhabit moving from bench to bench to represent scene changes. The acting is quite good. Arye Gross and Marin Hinkle play the twins to Jenny O’Hara’s mother and all of them are utterly convincing with the neurotic bits they’re given. It’s a psychological play, but not deeply so and none of them get too carried away when they don’t need to be. It’s very pleasant and warmhearted. And while it’s not likely to change anyone’s life, Our Mother’s Brief Affair might get somebody to stop and think—even if only for a very short while. It continues on stage in Costa Mesa through May 3.

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For the Birds

April 12, 2009

The cast of LAO's Die Vögel
Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2009

With all of the exceptional music in L.A. over the last few weeks, I was a little unprepared for what turned out to be the markedly disappointing opening of Walter Braunfel’s Die Vögel at L.A. Opera on Saturday. This operatic rarity is part of James Conlon’s “Recovered Voices” project revisiting composers whose lives were adversely affected by the Nazi regime in the early 20th century changing the course of an esteemed German musical tradition. It’s a fantasy piece based on Aristophanes' play in which the world’s birds are talked into making a power play against Zeus and the gods by a couple of humans named Good Hope and Loyal Friend. Unlike the Greek play, the Birds lose their standoff against Zeus in this one, and Good Hope is separated from his bird love, Nightingale, as the newly erected avian empire in the clouds crumbles. Of course, the work is heavily informed by Braunfels’ own experiences during WWI, and the folly of war and revolt are central themes here.

And in the good news department, it is a very pretty opera. It’s not Strauss, though at times it may aspire to be, but it can have a very romantic sweep. Sadly, though, all of this and an excellent cast of very, very talented young singers were poorly served by perhaps a thoughtless opera production that descends into kitsch after the first ten minutes and never returns. The design team, under director Darko Tresnjak has fallen into virtually every trap in staging this opera. They have gone for a child-like fantasia ignoring the much darker and serious implications of the work creating something that is equal parts Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy and The Electric Company. The unit set is laid atop Achim Freyer’s highly raked Die Walküre stage, but unfortunately none of that excellent production's magic is able to seep through to the empty cloud field that fills the stage. All this might not have looked so bad if it wasn't for costumes that were apparently supposed to look both Greek and birdlike simultaneously in all the colors of the neon rainbow. Think Susannah Hoffs in “Walk Like an Egyptian.” There, now you’ve got it. It’s one of those things that, as it goes along, minor elements that one would normally just ignore become increasingly hysterical. Toward the end of the second act when Prometheus arrives in a filthy gray robe and long Jesus hair to warn the birds of the consequences of their defiance, one begins to wonder how Jochannan ended up in this opera, as my friend Jim noted. Sadly, neither he nor I were going to find Salome here but only more of the same kitsch.

Still there are some consolations. Conlon and the orchestra played the score with real skill and conviction. Plus it was blessed with a cast of young singers who read like a who’s who of legendary singers 20 years from now. There was not a weak link in the bunch. Tenor Brandon Jovanovich stars as Good Hope, and his steady and athletic tone was riveting even if things around him weren’t. It also helps that he’s one of those vocalists the New York times' Anthony Tommasini likes to refer to as “strapping.” The female lead, the Nightingale, was sung by Désirée Rancatore who has one of those super-high soprano voices that seems like it might not be real. She’s worked mostly in Europe, frequently with Ricardo Muti, and here in Los Angeles, she made quite a good impression. Brian Mulligan’s Prometheus was another one of those moments where suddenly a voice seemed to pull everything together. Reviving Die Vögel for a U.S. audience seems like a good idea and I too think this is a worthwhile project on many levels. Sadly, Braunfel's opera didn't get the fair shake it deserves through this staging. The show has three more performances through the 26th.


Everybody's All-Canadian

April 11, 2009

Leonard Cohen from Live in London

When it’s not raining ash, shaking, or causing you to sit motionless in your car for hours on end, Los Angeles is pretty much heaven. This is especially true this month, which has been filled with a wealth of incredible musical events in a city where world class music is an everyday thing. We’ve got a first rate Die Walküre on stage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion that is quickly separating out the men from the boys. We’ve got mind-blowing performances from Esa-Pekka Salonen and the LA Philharmonic including the debut of his new violin Concerto this weekend. And Friday and Saturday we have a once every other decade visit from Leonard Cohen at the Nokia Theater downtown.

It feels nearly impossible to write in any intelligent way about someone as skillful with words as Cohen, so I don’t think I’ll even try. But let me note that the show was sublime. Cohen at 74 may not have the voice of ..say, Placido Domingo, but he has virtually all the expressiveness of opera’s living legend. The show is so much more than a “greatest hits” evening, though all the songs are all here - Anthem, In My Secret Life, Everybody Knows, Tower of Song, Dance Me to the End of Love, Suzanne, I’m Your Man, Hallelujah, etc. Every turned corner reveals another wonder. And Cohen's lion in winter imbues songs with so many layers of meaning, the show can ofte be a little overwhelming. Sharon Robinson and other long-time collaborators are on hand for a special evening to be sure. Cohen is on tour all over America and Canada this Spring so watch for him. In the meantime, get outside and enjoy the beautiful things.

Never Can Say Goodbye

April 10, 2009

Leila Josefowicz and Esa-Pekka Salonen with the LA Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2009

The penultimate (I love that word) program from Esa-Pekka Salonen and the L.A. Philharmonic arrived Thursday and it was one excellent show. All of the L.A. music glitterati were there again including the likes of Peter Sellars, Bill Viola, Frank Gehry, and John Adams. It seemed all of the few remaining big print music journalists were present such as Tommasini, Alex Ross, and our own local crew creating a World Wildlife Fund-like tableau of creatures at risk of vanishing from the face of the earth. Needless to say it was turning out to be a Big Occasion. The evening started off with the Salonen tribute video the Philharmonic put together and he was again met with a standing ovation, an experience I’m sure will be repeated frequently in this next week, although tonight there was even more reason for such responses in that the centerpiece of the evening was the world premiere of Salonen’s Violin Concerto written especially for soloist Leila Josefowicz.

Before that business, though, the audience got to revisit Ligeti’s Clocks and Clouds one of a multitude of twentieth century works Salonen introduced to L.A. audiences. (In fact, the commemorative programs distributed at these shows contain a huge multi-page list of exactly what all of those newly introduced works were.) It was Salonen at his astral and haunting best and another reminder of all that we’re losing with his departure. In many ways, there couldn’t have been a more appropriate intro to Salonen’s own composition than the Ligeti in that while they are musically dissimilar, his impressive new work is cut from the same cloth on a more emotional level. The Violin Concerto appears to be blazingly difficult, and the dexterity that Josefowicz showed in nearly non-stop flights of notes in the first and third movements at break neck speed should make one re-evaluate exactly where she stands in the hierarchy of violin greats.

The four movement work starts with “Mirage”, one of these virtuosic spans that is all about the string sound, not just that produced by the soloist, but from the orchestra as well. Unlike Salonen’s recent Piano Concerto, he gives Josefowicz plenty of room to roam, and the orchestration, while often accenting her part, is not constantly eclipsing it. The piece then slides into two middle sections “Pulse I” and “Pulse II”. Although very different in attack, the movements both are based around the soloist's response to a somewhat regular rhythm laid out in the percussion. Salonen refers to this as akin to a heartbeat in the program notes, and in the first “Pulse” section the tone is quiet, steady, and glowing. There is an intimacy here, although the music is never exactly delicate or fragile. The second “Pulse” is diametrically opposite in its aggressive tone and flight of noise. Salonen references pop music idioms by incorporating a standard drum kit to underscore the tone. The soloist now fights to keep in the mix, but not in a bad way at all. The final movement, “Adieu” again returns to an astral oscillation of sorts with the soloist returning to a position more like the Ligeti piece. Salonen notes that the movement references a natural process of transition between beginnings and endings. There is certainly a drama here, and, though the piece never seems to have a distinct direction from A to B in a narrative sense, it’s a frequently beautiful reflection on time and process. I rather liked the Violin Concerto overall and found it much more interesting than Salonen’s Piano Concerto. I felt mesmerized by this piece over its thirty minutes. The collaboration between the composer and soloist in developing the work has created something special and, I would argue, very memorable.

The evening ended with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in a juiced-up, muscular performance that never lost its cool. It was really good and again seemed a perfect fit for Salonen’s own composition considering its reliance on some of the same rhythmic elements to set the stage for other activity. The crowd was highly enthusiastic and gave Salonen huge ovations at every point in the evening. It’s going to be such a let down when all this comes to an end. But there is still time to get in on some great shows and this one will repeat on Friday morning and Saturday night.


The Bigger (the Art), the Better

April 09, 2009

Photo: Mark Tusk/Big Art Group 2008

One of the most salient features of the manic are their charm and ability to sweep up those around them into the fervent, if uncontrolled, good mood even when things are falling apart. Thus it is no surprise that SOS the new performance piece from Caden Mason and Jemma Nelson’s Big Art Group that opened at REDCAT downtown yesterday is perpetually charming and very funny. This is a return visit from the ensemble who appeared a few years back in the same venue with a piece entitled Flicker, and now with another very enjoyable oddity that will travel next to San Francisco. SOS is also nearly three sheets to the wind in its unbridled speed and intensity. Like much of the troupe’s work over the last decade, the work is first and foremost a cultural critique and in particular one that concerns the ways media fit into that culture. The primary tactic involves what the group calls a Real-Time Film technique where the live performance of the cast is shot with a number of fixed cameras and simultaneously projected on a number of screens around the theater. Forced perspective and other decidedly low tech methods are used to recreate the feel of edited video and various camera shots. The point is not always authenticity, but more a sense of disorientation or what Mason, Nelson and their colleagues refer to as being "forced to choose". Images are simultaneously available in a number of formats and its up to the audience to assimilate them or not. Needless to say these choices have implications in terms of meaning and provide some of what the group consider the "transgressive" nature of their work.

There are several quasi-narratives unfolding in alternating vignettes in SOS. The first concerns a group of cartoon animals adrift in the woods in a horror movie knock-off. Self-mounted cameras are used by all the cast members to generate a Blair Witch-sort of experience in these sequences. Meanwhile, a group of “terrorists” operate a public access TV show called "Realness" in which the rebels intend to become pregnant with ghost babies and start a revolution from a landfill ...or something like that. The third segment involves a pair of brand-obsessed vacuous teens having a rapid fire conversation about their consumption which is both filling and emptying their lives. Sound confusing? Oh, yeah. But it’s also highly amusing with its breakneck riffs on just about anything and everything you can name. All five of the male cast members (there’s also one woman) appear in drag throughout and the sheer feminine exuberance soon blurs the gender lines in the work. Slowly things escalate as the sort-of narratives intersect and eventually the landfill becomes ground zero for the delivery of a huge mutant airblown inflatable holiday lawn ornament to a troupe now encased in body-covering carapaces of neon colored interlocking balloons. It’s a striking image and one filled with such over-the-top energy you can’t help but smile. And all in under an hour. I'm not sure if SOS is brilliant, but it's hard not to look at and be drawn in which makes it better than most performance so if you can fit it in this Easter weekend, I highly recommend it. SOS runs through and including Sunday.


The Begining (of the End)

April 08, 2009

Fang Man and Esa-Pekka Salonen with the members of the LA Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2009

So this is how it goes. The final Esa-Pekka Salonen-led shows at Walt Disney Concert Hall kicked off on Tuesday with the “Green Umbrella” series for contemporary music. It’s particularly bittersweet in that not only are we losing Salonen, but also composer Steven Stucky, who was also making his last appearance in association with the series since his start with it in 1987. Sadly, it’s unknown whether Salonen’s replacement will have anywhere near the level of interest in this music and whether or not the “Green Umbrella” will be set adrift against the broader scope of L.A. Philharmonic programming remains to be seen. But we still have tonight, and rather than make it some melancholy affair, Salonen and Stucky put together a forward looking program featuring four world premieres from four composers under 35 as well as one of Salonen’s own works. If this was any indication, these final shows will clearly be "events." A packed house showed up filled with out-of-towners from music writer Alex Ross, to the young British composer Thomas Adès.

First up was Enrico Chapela’s Li Po, a 10-minute piece structured around Chapela’s own recording of a poem by fellow countryman José Juan Tablada about the eponymous Chinese poet. Chapela attempts to recreate the sounds of his own voice in the recording for a small ensemble of strings, winds, and percussion. The sound is further augmented with electronic bits from his recorded reading. It’s a bit of a whirlwind that cleverly plays on the original poem, which is written in a way to mimic Chinese calligraphy. Form becomes substance and sound is taken at its word here. Next up was a piece from British-born Anna Clyne entitled Within Her Arms. Written following the death of her mother, this quiet, but surprisingly expansive piece focuses on the resources of a 15 member string orchestra. There was no electronic augmentation in contrast to the rest of the evening, but Clyne still managed a particularly layered effect in taking bits of very pretty melody bordering on folk tunes and overlapping them against one another over and over between different sections of the ensemble. It’s a subdued piece with a big sound and won over many in the crowd. California’s own Emily Gee rounded out the first half of the evening with Mouthpiece XI. Gee had made a reputation for herself with this series of works that exploit non-lingual vocalizations à la Berio and Cathy Berberian. Unusually, Gee often performs the vocal parts in much of her work herself, clicking and popping while cascading out a series of nonsense syllables. It's meatier than one might have expected, creating a sort of beat-box effect for a classical music score. Again amplification and electronic augmentation are the rule here, but the distinctive incorporation of vocal material is unique.

Kandinsky's Deluge

Probably the most ambitious of the new works on the program, though, was Fang Man’s Deluge, a work inspired by the Kandinsky painting of the same name. The music is evocative of the discordant but beautiful structure and color of its inspiration, and the composer noted that she was thinking of incorporating water elements into the music as she went along. But rather than take this in a literal sense, Man often goes instead for a sort of liquid transition between elements in what is often a loud and raucous piece. There were again electronic pre-recorded augmentation to the small orchestral ensemble she had gathered. But here the electronic elements were much more tightly bound to the live material leaving for a smooth flow between them. It was rattling, but with no loss of subtlety. Hopefully, there will be much more to hear from her in the not distant future.

Just for the record, though, there was a little "looking back" allowed during the evening. The evening ended with Salonen’s Floof, a work for five musicians and soprano based on the writing of Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem. It was the first piece of Salonen’s played in the “Green Umbrella” series and it returned here with hysterical and precise vocals from Grammy-winner Hila Plitmann. She cooed and babbled throughout the piece, which takes some glancing blows at pop music idioms. It’s funny stuff with some serious underpinnings. In some ways it was telling at the end of the bill to have a piece summing up much of what the younger composers had laid out earlier in the evening. Salonen’s been there. He’s done that. There will be plenty more to hear over the next two weeks, and given the crowd’s standing ovation following a brief tribute video the Philharmonic aired before he came out on stage, it’s going to be quite a time.


In the Dark, but not Alone

April 06, 2009

Bernard Labadie, Martin Chalifour, and
Richard Paré with the LA Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2009

There is life beyond Wagner, and here in L.A. that meant the show going on across the street this weekend at the Walt Disney Concert Hall with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In the last show before the final concerts under Esa-Pekka Salonen, the orchestra was joined by Canadian conductor and early music specialist Bernard Labadie who brought us works from Handel and Haydn in an enjoyable if not always a barn-burning evening. The order of the day seemed to be moderate curiosities or at least not completely obvious choices. First up was Handel’s Organ Concerto in D minor with soloist Richard Paré. The work is unusual, as Labadie explained from the stage, in that Handel wrote it primarily to perform himself leaving stretches of the organ part to be played from memory or improvised later on as he saw fit. Additionally, Handel would borrow both from himself, or in this case Telemann, as necessary to get the point across. In this version, Paré augmented with bits from the Messiah in a solid and brisk run through. The French Canadian influence continued into the next piece, Haydn’s Violin Concerto in C played by L.A. Phil concertmaster, Martin Chalifour. On the heels of Johannes Moser’s very lyrical and impressive performance of Haydn's Cello Concerto just last week, it was a tough comparison. But Chalifour is no slouch, and Haydn’s music was well served.

After the intermission was the second trip off the beaten path with an orchestral version of Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross. Like The Creation this is Biblical material given the full 18th-century treatment with all the restraint and polish of a royal visitation. Labadie set up a scenario to evoke the original performance context where the piece was given on Good Friday in a cathedral darkened save for one chandelier. Here, all the house lights were dimmed for the next hour and a speaker, William Christian, was hired to read relevant Biblical passages to accompany the movements in the work. While the Disney Concert Hall has been used for maximal effect in theatrical ways to augment performances of nearly everything, it was a nice reminder that over-the-top theatrical tendencies are hardly new. Again, the performance was well controlled and passionate. But this is music from a different era and all things being equal, "stirring" today is not what it was 200 or so years ago. Labadie made the most of the evening, though, and deserves recognition for putting together a program worth thinking about as well as hearing. He’ll return to L.A. later this year to reprise performances of the Messiah with Les Violons du Roy and La Chapelle du Québec featuring David Daniels around the Holidays.


Like a Record, Baby

April 05, 2009

Linda Watson as Brünnhilde and Anja Kampe as Sieglinde
Photo: Monika Rittershaus/LAO 2009

That’s the thing about opera. Once in a while, it's pretty amazing. Take LA Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Die Walküre which opened on Saturday in the second installment of a new cycle directed and designed by German theater legend Achim Freyer. It's a truly unique production and most impressive in that it rivals the complexity of Wagner's work with a visual system all its own that offers an immense amount to think about on numerous levels. It is a production that is often exciting, epic and generates actual I-can’t-wait-to-see-what-happens-next anticipation. And it is almost as often starkly beautiful. It builds on the techniques laid out in last month's Das Rheingold with a minimal set and characters stationed around a large, steeply-raked, circular platform that serves as a locus for all the activity as well as a symbol in its own right. There is frequent use of doubles for the major characters as well as a broad array of masked and carnivalesque figures that participate in the action. Most of these folks wield one of a variety of light poles at some point to represent swords, spears, or other implements. Every so often the whole stage takes off and rotates. All of this takes place behind a giant scrim used for video projections of racing clouds and colorful washes. The production will probably continue to cause a small cadre of people to write missives IN ALL CAPS on the Los Angeles Times' “Culture Monster” blog threatening to cancel their subscriptions. But, I doubt we'll be so lucky. Artistically, Freyer's vision is a huge success with stunning and engaging visuals and a nearly impeccable musicality.

There are some noticeable changes over the approach used in Das Rheingold that are worth mentioning, however. Where Freyer was focused more on totemic imagery for the primary characters in Rheingold, here he places much more focus on the primary relationships between characters. In both Act I, with Siegmund and Sieglinde, and in Act III, with Wotan and Brünnhilde, Freyer allows for the performers to completely leave their stations around the circular stage and simply interact with one another directly. Wotan and Brünnhilde's interaction in Act III is both beautiful and heartbreaking - just as Wagner intended. Just as Wotan prepares to circle his daughter in a ring of fire, huge arms reach out from either side of the stage toward her only to pull away at the last minute as he does in pain over his decision to punish her for acting out his own will. Freyer provides a real intensity and dare I say humanism in the midst of an aesthetic that can be arch and obtuse at times. It's not all melodrama, though. In perhaps the most remarkable sequence in Act II, Wotan relates the events of Rheingold to Brünnhilde while they are seated in the center of the large rotating stage. During the extended monologue, all of the characters from the previous opera, as well as many of those yet to come, including Siegfried, appear and circle around the pair creating a dreamlike sequence full of foreboding. It’s spectacular. There are so many gripping and whimsical images, it’s almost impossible to take it all in - from the backward running clock taking up the stage in Act I to the upside down bikes that serve as horse sculptures for the Valkyries in Act III.

As with Rheingold, the singing is surprisingly good throughout. Of course the big star is Placido Domingo in his almost death-defying turn as Siegmund. His ability to sing this well at this age is simply astounding. Vitalij Kowaljow returns as Wotan and seemed noticeable stronger and more assured here. It’s often said that Wagner thought he was writing bel canto vocal lines for his characters, and hearing Kowaljow you’re likely to agree with him. His voice is supple and frankly lyrical more often than not. Michelle de Young also seems increasingly assured as Fricka here never turning shrill. Then there is Linda Watson as Brünnhilde. Now I’ve complained on prior occasions that she may not be the most exciting Wagnerian around, but her Brünnhilde is significantly better than her Isolde, and she gave a sincere, solid and pretty performance with no shrieking. Sieglinde was handled masterfully by Anja Kampe who has done well here in recent seasons as Fidelio and Giorgetta in Il Tabarro. She received a heroic ovation at the curtain call for her beautifully sung performance this evening. But most of all, as before, James Conlon is at the center of this success with an admirable and extremely high quality performance with the orchestra. They may be buried beneath the stage, but they’re doing the heavy lifting and doing it wonderfully.

This is turning into quite a cycle and it is a testament to Freyer and everyone involved that one can sit through five hours of this opera and leave overwhelmed and yet sad that you can’t immediately carry on with more of the story and the next chapter in these characters lives. The production runs through April 25th and most of the weekend performances are sold out so hurry. Please note the last two performances will not feature Mr. Domingo. However, they will feature British tenor and Wagner specialist Christopher Ventris who is also imminently worth seeing and a surprisingly good choice for a replacement during the run. The whole run and especially the weekend performances are heavily sold, so you may want to hurry if you don't already have tickets.


In the Wings - April

April 02, 2009

Elias Sime, Enat 5, 2004
Photo: SMMoA 2009

This is the moment we've all been waiting for. Or maybe it would be better to say the moment we’ve all been dreading with anticipation. April is here, and on top of the list of performing arts events here in Los Angeles will be the final performances from the Los Angeles Philharmonic under outgoing music director Esa-Pekka Salonen. It’s still hard for me to believe that this era, which has revolutionized our local orchestra, is really going to end. But end it will over three sets of shows. The “Green Umbrella” new music series next Tuesday the 7th will feature four world premiere compositions from four different young composers all picked by Salonen for the occasion. The following weekend, Salonen will lead performances of his new Violin Concerto along with Ligeti and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The following weekend will feature four performances of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms paired with a nearly fully staged version of Oedipus Rex. The buzz is that this evening, directed by Peter Sellars and featuring thrones and other design elements from Ethiopian artist Elias Sime, will be quite a production and is sure to be a very emotional event for everyone involved. The programs on both Saturday April 11th and the final concert on Sunday April 19th will be broadcast live on KUSC.

Perhaps the only thing crazier than reaching the end of this road is that while all of this is going on, Los Angeles Opera will be barreling into the highlights of its current season when the second installment of Achim Freyer’s already highly regarded version of Wagner’s Ring cycle, Die Walküre, opens on April 4 with none other than Placido Domingo singing Siegmund. (SPOILER ALERT: I saw the final dress rehearsal last night and it's spectacular, one for the record books.) And if you’re wondering why there are so many out-of-towners there, it’s because the company will simultaneously be presenting Walter Braunfels’ Die Vögel as part of James Conlon’s “Recovered Voices” project. These productions will both wrap up by the 26th of April, and ticket sales have been strong with most of the weekend performances of Die Walküre already near capacity, so act now. (And in perhaps the deftest bit of replacement casting this year, Christopher Ventris is scheduled to take over for Domingo in the last two performances, which may warrant an additional listen in its own right.) And not to be forgotten in the opera mix is the opening of San Diego Opera’s production of Britten’s Peter Grimes starring Anthony Dean Griffey in what is becoming a signature role for him. If you didn’t get to see him perform the role recently in New York, this is your Southern California chance to do so.

Placido Domingo as Siegmund and Anja Kampe as Sieglinde
Photo: Monika Rittershaus/LAO 2009

With all that, you might not have time for much else, but there are some worthwhile options. The L.A. Philharmonic will also feature performances of Handel and Haydn under Bernard Labadie the weekend of the 2nd, and Joshua Bell will return with Lionel Bringuier on the 23rd. The Monday Evening Concert series will wrap up its season with a show on the 13th dedicated to Galina Ustvolskaya at Zipper Concert Hall downtown. There will also be a visit from the Australian Chamber Orchestra at Walt Disney Concert Hall on the 21st. Down in Orange County, Musica Angelica and the Pacific Chorale will join forces for Bach’s St John’s Passion on the 11th. Oh, and also on the not-to-miss list is a visit from Leonard Cohen in a rare live performance at the Nokia Theater on the 10th.

On the theater beat, the Mark Taper Forum will present Octavio Solis’ Lydia starting on the 2nd and a revival of Ain't Misbehavin' on the 17th. Across the street at REDCAT there are several exciting May events including appearances from Gamelan Burat Wangi on the 5th, Caden Manson and the Big Art Group on the 8th, Neil Greenberg‘s Really Queer Dance program on the 15th, and Marc Bamuthi Joseph on the 22nd.

I’ll be checking out for a brief jaunt in the end of the month to New York to catch the swan song of Otto Schenk’s Ring cycle at the Metropolitan Opera. While there, you can also expect updates on the Wooster Group’s staging of La Didone at St. Ann’s Warehouse, and a concert performance of Berlioz’ La Damnation de Faust with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Simon Rattle with Thomas Quasthoff, Eric Owens, and Magdalena Kozena. I’m also schedule to catch opening performances of Ayckbourn’s three part The Norman Conquests on Broadway as well as the Donmar Warehouse production of Schiller's Mary Stuart and the current revival of Ionesco’s Exit the King. That should do for now. If you’re going to be in L.A. this month, this is not the time to be sitting at home.


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