Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

More Tales Of The City

December 31, 2009

Kate Lindsey in Sher's staging of Hoffmann
Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2009

On Wednesday I arrived at The Metropolitan Opera to see the new Bartlett Sher production of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann to discover that the star tenor playing Hoffmann, Joseph Calleja, had called in sick and would be replaced by Canadian tenor David Pomeroy in his Met Opera debut. Now many people might have found this distressing, but I was not necessarily one of them. I knew nothing of Pomeroy other than the general disparaging remarks one reads about all living singers in the comments sections of Parterre Box. On the other hand, I do know something about Calleja. While he’s gotten good reviews for his performance of Hoffmann in this production, my own personal experiences seeing him perform have been highly variable, but trending toward the unremarkable. So I can’t say I was totally bummed out or anything. And after hearing Mr. Pomeroy tonight, I can’t say that he was any worse than I would have predicted Calleja might have been given my prior exposure to him. Pomeroy was certainly able to sing the part and finished the evening without unraveling. He may not have the size or warmth Calleja has, but from where I sat he was not at all unpleasant and for stepping in to this big role for his debut, I’d go so far as to say it was a pretty solid performance.

That consideration aside, this Hoffman was certainly a reasonable if not completely satisfying evening at the opera. Sher’s production is a bit timid. Sher blends in a variety of Kafkaesque and even German Expressionist elements. It’s dark with rather elaborate costumes, but the sets tend toward the monotone. There are a lot of visual elements that are momentarily interesting to look at, but I never felt that the whole thing went far enough. This is one wild and phantasmagorical opera and while the production is aware of this, it doesn’t really reach for anything as far afield as it might have, even though it was certainly dressed for the occasion. Think warmed over Baz Luhrmann. But all that being said, at least it had a modern look about it. Despite this Hoffmann’s shortcomings, it still looks better than the museum pieces that still make up a too high percentage of the Metropolitan Opera’s schedule throughout the year. Heaven knows I’d rather see this again than sit through another round of something outright laughable such as the current Aida or Turandot.

The rest of the cast on Wednesday all made it in, and there were a number of enjoyable vocal performances. Kathleen Kim’s Olympia seemed relaxed and surprisingly strong. Netrebko seemed a good fit for Antonia and came through in the acting department as she usually does. She still generates a lot of excitement on the stage. Alan Held’s villains were all on target. I think I was most partial, however, to Kate Lindsey’s Nicklausse who haunts the stage throughout this whole evening in male drag, infusing the thing with a little melancholy. She sang splendidly and gave the most emotionally connected turn in the whole opera. John Keenan conducted the orchestra in one of his scheduled nights covering for James Levine who is still on tap to return for Saturday’s closing performance.

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The Elektra Boogie

December 30, 2009

Susan Bullock and Deborah Voigt
Photo: Marty Sohl/Met Opera 2009

Tuesday in New York brought the final performance this season of Srauss’ Elektra at the Metropolitan Opera. And while it didn’t split the earth in two or anything, it was far from shabby and rather fitting for this centenary year of the work's premiere in Dresden. Let me put it this way. Earlier in the day, I’d seen the excellent retrospective of Kandinsky’s work at the Guggenheim. Seeing the radical, increasingly abstract pieces produced by Kandinsky around the time Strauss composed Elektra was a potent reminder of the break these artists saw from what had gone before. And while Kandinsky would move on to become friends with Schoenberg as Strauss headed off in another direction entirely, Elektra is cut from a particularly radical early 20th-century cloth. At the Metropolitan on Tuesday there were some intensely beautiful colors, but it wasn’t exactly a completely new way of seeing things.

The well-regarded Fabio Luisi conducted the orchestra in the most revolutionary part of the performance. The brass alone was worth the ticket price. Dark and brooding but powerfully slashing at others, it was nothing short of world class. There were some things to shout about onstage as well. Primarily Deborah Voigt. I know it’s fashionable to bitch and moan about how her voice has changed over the years, but her Chrysothemis has few serious challengers in the world even now. She gave the most integrated and felt performance of the evening. As for the Elektra, Susan Bullock, despite my initial reservations I must admit she grew on me. By the time Orest showed up, the steel and stamina of her voice were clearly on display and she seemed to actually be fully coming to life. There was the unfortunate bit of her hurdy-gurdy style ax dance, which evoked Rosie O'Donnell in Fiddler on the Roof more than ancient Greece. But a little laughter can be a good thing. Strauss certainly thought so in the long run.

The production itself, another Otto Schenk/Jürgen Rose number, is remarkably pedestrian even for 1992. There is that giant fallen horse statue everyone must stumble around, but it’s an otherwise rather drab jewelry box. Of course, all of the trinkets are being worn by Klytämnestra who looked like Madame sans Wayland Flowers, which cut into the whole feeling of terror around her. But Palmer handled the role well, given the costume cards she was dealt.

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Bernhard's Back

December 29, 2009

Sandra Bernhard doing Whatever It Takes
Photo: Michael Davis 2009

And you won’t be sorry. Especially if you are a fan of her particular brand of sarcasm, biting social critique, and celebrity-filled cabaret numbers. Sandra Bernhard kicked off her week-long run in New York last Saturday at Joe’s Pub. And as Bernhard herself notes, while it is a more intimate space than the big room at Bally’s in Vegas, Joe’s Pub is almost too small to contain the energy and size of her performance. The show is new material she’s been working on over the last several months, but the content and plan of attack are very familiar. There are songs, including one from her most recent all-music release Whatever It Takes, but most of the show is monologue. Compared to her more recent outings, this is a much more chatty show and Berhard at times seems looser and freewheeling. She often digresses from the bigger set pieces for brief asides on her personal life that were often some of the best bits. Bernhard’s parody of celebrity-life and popular culture is often mixed with songs performed in a cabaret style—often for comic effect.

But not always. And this is the beauty of her work. Even when Bernhard speaks of personal topics – her family, her faith – there are many times where it isn’t clear exactly what she’s joking about, and what she isn’t. The ambiguity in her sarcasm is one of the things that make people either love or hate her work, but it is undeniably her calling card. Even her broadsides at celebrities like Kate Gosselin, Brad Pitt, and (oh-yes) Madonna can be as glamorizing as they are eviscerating. Like the work of her comic offspring, Kathy Griffin, she inserts herself in the middle of this celebrity world. But unlike Griffin, she eschews a populist tone. Griffin presents herself as just one of us, sneaking inside the velvet ropes to breathlessly report the ridiculous truth. Bernhard makes up a fantasy world of fictional events she is a character in, operating by a fractured logic that is the main source of the laughs. The references to events past and present can fly by and it isn’t always easy to keep up with the names, places, and things in her routine. But that is part of the fun as well. Sandra Bernhard is not, and has never been, a lowest-common-denominator kind of entertainer. Her performances at Jos’s Pub this week, including two on New Year’s Eve, are a great reminder of that.


And This

December 28, 2009

This has been an incredible year for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. And while the future is probably not as bright as many would have you think, the performances from Walt Disney Concert Hall in the early part of the year marked the greatest of the year. Under the leadership of Esa-Pekka Salonen, who concluded his run as music director this year, the orchestra performed a series of incredible world premieres. Among these were Arvo Pärt's Symphony No. 4, Louis Andriessen's double piano concerto The Hague Hacking, and, most importantly, Salonen's own Violin Concerto written for Leila Josefowicz. Salonen's tenure then concluded with a semi-staged evening of Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex and Symphony of Psalms.

The above video is not the L.A. Philharmonic, nor any of the works mentioned above, but another major composition from Salonen, his Piano Concerto performed by Yefim Bronfman. It's another work Los Angeles audiences were treated to under Salonen's leadership, and the clip is a reminder of what we've lost. It will be a long time before the Los Angeles Philharmonic will sound as good as it has under Salonen again. But at least we have our memories.

This Too

December 27, 2009

David Sefton has been doing a great job as artistic director of UCLA Live, the university's public performance series, since taking over nearly 10 years ago. Perhaps the most exciting events he's brought to Los Angeles during his tenure have been part of the series' International Theater Festival now in its eighth year. The 2009 installment was particularly good with one outstanding performance after another. Plays from Enda Walsh and Poland's TR Warszawa ranked among the year's best.

But perhaps the most exciting evening for me at UCLA this year came during a visit from Romeo Castellucci's Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio. Purgatorio, the single installment of the company's triptych based on Dante's Inferno, was visually beautiful and equally provoking on several levels. Watching audience members walk out of a performance in fury isn't something I see everyday and Purgatorio's go-for-broke content pushed a lot of buttons.

Another Preview

December 26, 2009

Things have been slow these last two weeks and I've been digging myself out of more snow than I care to remember after having lived in Los Angeles for the last couple of decades. Luckily, while it may be cold, the performance calendar will be decidedly busier next week as OWA returns to New York for opera and theater that you can follow here and on Twitter. In the meantime, here's another preview from this year's best of musical performances list I'll be publishing in the first week of the New Year.

The best non-classical concerts I saw last year were from artists with such extensive track records that there is nothing left for them to prove. Leonard Cohen's appearances in Los Angeles in 2009 were nothing short of spectacular and a highlight for a time period much greater than a single calendar year.

Merchant of the Four Seasons

December 20, 2009

Veronika Eberle, Harry Bicket, and members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2009

"Baroque hits week" continued at the WDCH this weekend with a visit from the extraordinary Harry Bicket. Hot on the heels of Bernard Labadie and Les Violons du Roy's rich take on Handel’s Messiah, Bicket and members of the L.A. Philharmonic served up Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” The program also included a Vivaldi concerto for two violins and two cellos and a suite from Rameau’s Les Boreades. There was virtually nothing surprising from the performance. Which is to say it was smartly played and enjoyable. But it also never out of the ordinary.

Bicket is a leader in the period performance movement and does masterful and amazing things with Baroque operas if you’re lucky enough to see him lead one somewhere around the world. But unlike Les Violons du Roy, the L.A. Philharmonic is not a period practices ensemble, so expecting them to sound like one is a bit unrealistic. Instead, they were wedged somewhere comfortably in between the week's earlier Messiah performance and, say, Gustavo Dudamel’s bombastic retro trashing of Mozart Symphonies earlier this season. Bicket's Vivaldi was sprightly paced and lively. But it was also injected with plenty of Romantic feeling and virtuoso flair above and beyond what Baroque specialists usually go for. The soloist for the “Four Seasons” concertos was Veronika Eberle, a 20-year-old German player. It was hard to really assess her from this particular performance, which was a little juiced up over what I personally prefer, but it was in keeping with the tenor of the whole orchestra’s performance so it didn’t seem out of place. So, for the week before Christmas where everyone is thinking of the familiar comforts of home, this may have been the perfect show. Well prepared comfort food. Tasty with no surprises.


Though It's Been Said Many Times, Many Ways

December 17, 2009

Bernard Labadie, Les Violons du Roy, La Chapelle de Québec and soloists
Photo: mine 2009

Bernard Labadie and Les Violons du Roy returned to the Walt Disney Concert Hall this week with La Chapelle de Québec and some splendid soloists. As with their most recent performances here in Los Angeles a few years back, the combined ensembles performed Handel’s Messiah, and, while it may not be original or even unique in Los Angeles for this time of year, when Handel’s music is played this well, it’s easy to forget how familiar it is. As before, the most interesting thing about this troupe of players is how much sound a relatively small number of vocalists and musician can make. With less than 60 people on stage including soloists, each and every voice counts here. But a surprisingly large glowing sound filled the hall and surrounded the audience. It was really wonderful Handel playing all around.

The soloists were a fine group including the countertenor, David Daniels, who was in very good form on this occasion. Daniels is in an ideal environment here and his vocal runs sounded more sure to me than in his last few appearances. I was also rather fond of baritone Joshua Hopkins who sang Ping at the Metropolitan Opera this fall and was both commanding and inviting in his tone. The soprano Rosemary Joshua and tenor, Alan Bennett, rounded out the ensemble that never seemed strained or hesitant. However, the joy here was in the group dynamics. In fact the musicians were so intertwined that after a several minute delay to replace a snapped double bass string, the group picked up almost unflappably carrying on with no loss in concentration. It was a crisp, varied and unusually lush performance and a nice surprise stashed among a lot of friendly holiday fare this month.


Where's OWAldo?

December 15, 2009

In case you're wondering, Out West Arts won't be doing a year end review of the best in music or theater until the year is actually over since I've got a number of new things to see in New York right up until the end of the month. (Plus it just seems to make more sense on principle, doesn't it?) So in the meantime, I'll leave you with some sneak previews of some of my fondest memories of 2009 like this one.

I was somewhat ambivalent about the Lohengrin production when I saw it in Munich back in July. But it was undoubtedly musically unparalleled. I must admit, I've had a hard time shaking it from my memory - in a good way. A DVD was filmed that week so hopefully it won't be long before everyone can see the stunning performances of Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros under the musical direction of Kent Nagano.

The Holly and The Ivy

December 14, 2009

Grant Gershon and the Los Angeles Master Chorale and Orchestra
Photo: mine 2009

Recently James Oestreich opined in the New York Times about the potential benefits of not having quite so many performances of Handel’s Messiah around the holidays in favor of other more Christmas-oriented material. The question seems just as relevant here in Los Angeles where there will be four performances of that work alone in eight days just at the Walt Disney Concert Hall – two from Les Violons du Roy under Bernard Labadie and another two from the Los Angeles Master Chorale. But luckily the LAMC and conductor Grant Gershon had the same thought about alternate programming, and on Sunday presented a varied program of classic and contemporary pieces appropriate to the season. As is usually the case, the chorus was magnificent, even if the material didn’t always live up to their caliber as an ensemble. The LAMC can be modern, and certainly has a firm grip on important choral music of the past. But there’s also a populist streak in the programming that’s hard to avoid, demanding easy-access and even sing-along fare. Sunday’s concert brought all of these impulses bound together in the Christmas spirit.

The best part of the evening was a robust and clear rendition of Vaughn Williams Fantasia on Christmas Carols. There tradition of British choral music has few equals, and Vaughn Williams is an integral part of this history. His adaptations of these four traditional British carols set for strings and organ also has a big baritone solo part that was performed with some power by Abdiel Gonzalez. It was a lovely moment that seemed both nostalgic and reverent without being overly sentimental. The program opened with another strong piece, a Baroque Midnight Mass for Christmas Eve by Marc-Antoine Charpentier. Charpentier took traditional French carols of his time and adapted them to a standard Latin Mass text. It had a real familiarity to it and for once the orchestral accompaniment sounded tight enough to support the excellent vocal performance from the chorale.

There were more contemporary elements in the evening as well. The LAMC has a big commitment to world music, and this program included Ariel Ramirez’ Navidad Nuestra from the 1960s, a setting of the Nativity story transplanted to South America using Latin dance rhythms and traditional instrumentation. The piece was conducted with enthusiasm by LAMC assistant conductor Ariel Quintana. It bubbled along pleasantly, but lacked a certain contemporary drama that probably speaks more to the era of its composition than anything else. But this was a Christmas concert, and given the popular leanings of the chorale, it would be hard to avoid some more commonly known music, which took the form of Conrad Susa’s A Christmas Garland. This medley of widely-known carols invited audience participation in several spots but, along with some additional carols in the encore, suffered from rather pedestrian arrangements. Still, singing like this at the Holidays is as much about a sense of community as anything else, and, to that extent, the evening could hardly be judged as anything less than successful.


Poems For Me (and You)

December 13, 2009


Renée Fleming is a superstar for a reason. That may sometimes be easy to forget when you think about the wide variety of things vocal and otherwise she has dabbled in such as perfume-sponsor, crooner, and Lucrezia Borgia. But as her recital appearance in Los Angeles on Saturday demonstrated, she is also funny, very smart, incredibly tasteful, and, most of all, she can sing circles around most people you can think of. The first half of the evening was devoted almost entirely to avant-garde 20th-century French composers. No, I’m not making this up. There were five selections from Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi and later Henri Dutilleux’ Le temps l’horloge. In reality, neither of these cycles should be a surprise considering that Fleming has been advocating the Messiaen songs everywhere including this season’s New York Philharmonic gala opening concert while the Dutilleux songs were composed especially for her. All of them were splendidly sung making me wish she had more opportunity to sing contemporary opera works. Gerald Martin Moore who was able to evoke all the requisite birds, stars, and clocks in these not particularly easy pieces assisted Fleming quite assuredly. Wedged between these two song sets was a single aria from Massenet’s Cléopatre that again proved German repertoire is not her only strong suit.

Speaking of German, Fleming returned from an intermission in a new angular white dress to serve up five pristine, warm and gorgeous songs from Richard Strauss including “Verführung.” All five of the Strauss songs were elegant and treated with Fleming’s trademark golden, warm tone. It felt like she could float notes forever if she wanted to. The show concluded with a number of lively selections from her current recording Verismo. Wisely, as on the recording, she stayed away from more familiar arias in favor of lesser known works, which included excepts from Leoncavallo's Zazà and La Bohème. The highlight of this section was "No! se un pensier torture" from Giordano's Siberia. And while Fleming did make light of the Romantic allure of St. Petersburg, nothing could have been more lovely than her performance. It's one of those moments where you think, I need to listed to Andrea Chenier again soon.

The only time the recital went all to much was during the three encores. There was another superb Strauss aria, but there was also a de rigeur overblown "O mio babbino caro." Worse yet, the parting shot was one of those cross-over blahs "Touch the Hand of Love" by Blossom Dearie which she recorded with Yo-Yo Ma for a cross-over compilation he put together last year. It's a nice sentiment, but better left in Dearie's hands. Still, with as much great singing as preceded it, it was hardly a deal breaker.


The Gunn Show

December 12, 2009

Nathan Gunn
Photo: Bill Phelps

Nathan Gunn took a break from L.A. Opera’s current run of Il Barbiere di Siviglia and extensive workout profiles in the Wall Street Journal Friday for a recital in Santa Monica at the Broad Stage. The reigning king of the barihunks brought along his wife, Julie Gunn, to accompany him on piano and gave a good program if one that got noticeably better the more cross-over-friendly the material got. He appeared in a thin mustache (I presume it is for the opera production) and a badly-fitting tux which worked against a kind of old Hollywood glamor he might have been able to achieve otherwise. The program itself started out with the two big Papageno arias from Die Zauberflöte - pieces he can sing in his sleep, I’m sure. And while he wasn’t asleep here, he wasn’t bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in them either. Between these book-ends were a number of Schubert lieder. Gunn’s German sounds very good, but I found his voice a bit too bright and warm for these particular songs. None of them quite had the angst or tragedy you might like. He could have used just a touch more Ute Lemper and a touch less Robert Goulet.

Not that he was crooning. He saved that for the cabaret and musical theater songs in the second half, where it was more appropriate and where he really came to life. There were some lovely settings from Benjamin Moore, followed by two songs from Tom Waits, “The Briar and the Rose”, and “Innocent When You Dream.” Though interesting, these were not entirely successful either. Stripped of Waits’ haggard and drunken performance style, the dark undercurrent of these lyrics got lost making them sound oddly sentimental. The most satisfying moments of the evening for me, strangely enough, were the Christmas songs he performed including “White Christmas” and “The Christmas Song”. Together, they sounded like I was at the best holiday party ever and they got me in the Christmas spirit faster than anything else I’ve heard yet this December. Gunn even took a stab at some self-deprecating humor by finishing “White Christmas” with some Bing Crosby inspired ba-ba-booms. There were two superbly acted bits from Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot as well. For an encore, Gunn delivered the two best performances of the evening. First was a raucous version of Bolcom’s “George” that fully plunged into the campy tone of the piece that I’ve not heard anyone else pull off so well. It was very, very charming. And in conclusion, there was Harburg’s “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” Suddenly all the anger and pathos missing earlier in the show came raging out in a very good performance that showed off why Gunn is much more than a pretty face.

The Lunatic Fringe

December 11, 2009

Yefim Bronfman, Zubin Mehta, and members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2009

Watching Zubin Mehta slowly saunter to the podium on Friday night with the L.A. Philharmonic, it might be hard to believe that not so many years ago he was the hot, young, vibrante! music director of our beloved orchestra. And though all of us have changed since then, his appearances here are much loved by local audiences. He was again warmly received on Thursday by a near capacity crowd. And while it wasn’t a top-drawer show, it wasn’t a bad one either. It was a standard program by L.A. and Mehta’s standards. Things kicked off with Webern’s Passacaglia, his Opus 1 that makes no bones about his ties to Schoenberg at the time. It’s pretty for 10 minutes of orchestral writing that seems like it is about to splinter into nothingness, but Mehta didn’t work the material into something more than it needed to be. He may not be electrico!, but Mehta knows what he is doing.

Close on these 20th-century heels was Bartok’s second piano concerto played by Yefim Bronfman. This was a meaty performance that was light on the finesse and heavy on the gusto. I didn’t always feel that soloist and orchestra were together, but Bronfman’s keyboard work was admirable. The evening wrapped with a surprisingly sleepy version of Beethoven’s 3rd symphony. Mehta went at things with a light touch that almost fizzled out in the first movement. Things did pick up, though, with a little more clarity by the scherzo, but this was not a performance that was going to set anyone’s heart ablaze that easily.

Then again, given the high lunatic element in last night’s audience, that might have been a good thing. After listening to the gentleman seated next to me celebrate his few hours of freedom from what I assume is his more natural iron lung habitat, I decided to move into other empty seats across the hall. While that did eliminate the heavy breathing, it left me behind a man with an entirely different set of problems. He perched himself atop his seat back wedging his feet against the low wall in front of his seat. The perched man listened somewhat intently allowing his frenzied autistic rocking to be broken only occasionally for a sip from his thermos or to feed his girlfriend seated next to him what I'm fairly certain were circus peanuts. Actually the thought that she was his girlfriend is only wishful thinking on my part. Hopefully she hadn’t married that lunatic, making escape from his clutches perhaps easier when her sanity returns. I wondered wether he was part of the old audience or the new one the L.A. Philharmonic is trying to attract. The performances with Mehta and Bronfman continue through Sunday.


This Is The Sound

December 09, 2009

Mario Caroli and Alice Teyssier
Photo: mine 2009

Monday Evening Concerts returned for its new season this week in a very rewarding show at Zipper Concert Hall downtown. And in case you were wondering, European modernism is alive and well and living in Los Angeles. Which is good news when you consider that there is less and less competition with the MEC programming from anyone across the street these days. But I digress. Monday's program featured three works, Tempio di fumo by Donia Rotaru, Territories de l’Ouble by Tristan Murail, and Salvatore Sciarrino’s La Perfezione di uno Spirito Sottile. And despite any differences between these composers' techniques or training, all three chamber pieces were closely related in their exploration of the most basic sound elements reproduced in a context where silence often has as big an importance. This was music much less about notes, and much more about sound. Instruments were pushed in ways to produce noises that aren't typically the goal in their use from subtle clicks to ringing overtones.

First up was Rotaru’s “Temple of Smoke” for solo flute played here by Mario Caroli, a musician who has built a reputation for his performance of contemporary compositions. Rotaru is a Romanian composer without much of an international reputation. The ethereal structure of her smoke-filled temple consists of as much subtle clicking of keys as beading notes and vocalized chords. It had a lovely and mysterious quality for a solo flute work. Closely following was Murail’s solo piano work performed by Marilyn Nonken. True to Marail’s "spectralist" label, Territories exploited the resonance of chords played one atop another at the expense of any individual notes or line. Much of the sound is generated at the far ends of the keyboard with broad soft-edged attacks that produced a wash of sound. It was remarkable considering that the piano almost sounded as if it had been "prepared" in a way similar to many other contemporary compositions. But as far as I can tell, this was all old-fashioned technique mustered by the remarkable Nonken.

Then came the main course. Sciarrino’s 40-minute work for solo flute, soprano, and percussion involved more players, but little more in the way of complexity. The flautist, Caroli and soprano Alice Teyssier entered the stage with Teyssier seating herself on the floor facing away from the audience. Behind them hung a white sheet lit with what appeared to be a low hanging yellow sun. Caroli then embarked on a lengthy flute solo punctuated with regular bursts of silence and repeated flurries of single notes. The effect was as if watching a woman seated on sand dunes with the whistling wind flying all around her. Suddenly she sings in similarly repeated syllables as if talking to the wind. After about another 10 minutes or so this combination is joined by soft and subtle chimes emanating from various locations around the hall. The chiming steadily grows to where it is more clearly audible but never loud as the flute and vocals fade away and the room is filled with dusk. Although the sound surrounded the audience, the minimal staging had a way of making you feel as if you were intruding, watching a scene happening that you weren't a direct part of. It was really involving despite the simplicity of it all.

It's exciting to see Monday Evening Concerts back and off to such a strong start this season. They continue to stand out in providing Los Angeles with music that no one else has done before. (The Sciarrino piece was a U.S. premiere.) There's not much else quite like them in town and we're definitely the better for it. Check out their schedule for the rest of the year, which is sure to contain further surprises.


More Government Now!

December 08, 2009

Technical rehearsal image from Achim Freyer's production of Götterdämmerung
Photo: Monika Rittershaus/LAO 2009

Of course the big opera news today was the $14 million loan approved by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors for Los Angeles Opera. As reported in the Los Angeles Times, the company’s chief operations officer made the request at today’s Board of Supervisors meeting stating that the company was in need of the loan to continue operations through the end of the current season. Surely this is not good news, though given the current economic climate for arts organizations, perhaps not entirely surprising. And certainly, as people like Lisa Hirsch have pointed out, it raises legitimate questions about how the organization got into this situation in the first place.

And while the need for such a loan should reasonably cause some concern, there’s part of me that thinks – so what? I mean shouldn’t the state be supporting the arts a little more than it does? It’s a common rejoinder amongst arts organizations and those who care about them in this country, that since art isn’t supported broadly by the state as it is many places in Europe, we Americans often have to accept what the lowest common denominator will allow. With large government subsides, the argument goes, European opera companies have more freedom to create what they will without the worry of always pleasing the masses. I don’t think American art is going to suffer from a little more well-deserved public support. Why are U.S. opera or arts organizations any better off for being dependent on the largess and taste of a small cadre of well-heeled donors than they are to be dependent on the support of the government? If anything, this $14 million loan for L.A. Opera, seems like a drop in the bucket compared to what opera companies outside of the U.S. see in direct funding on a regular basis. It’s about time someone stepped up to the plate here as well, and the L.A. County Board of Supervisors should be lauded for taking the necessary steps to ensure L.A. Opera’s current season moves forward. I for one certainly will not regret voting for Zev Yaroslavsky the next time his name comes around on the ballot.

L.A. Opera has not chosen to take the easy or careful road in all of this. Opera companies throughout the U.S. have been playing it safer and safer, cutting productions and placing what’s left so squarely in the middle-of-the-road that there’s little new or exciting to talk about in the opera world in America right now. L.A. Opera is one of the few companies left in the country that has forged ahead with a unique and clearly independent vision. It may not be to everyone’s taste, and it may not always be successful. But their new Achim Freyer-directed Ring cycle is definitely not like anything else around. And while this may not have been the most advantageous decision considering the state of the company’s coffers to date, it has been unquestionably the right artistic decision to make as L.A. Opera continues with what has easily been the most worthwhile current opera season so far of any company in the U.S. I hope that the company’s financial problems are resolved for the better. But, even if they aren’t, at least the company has carried on for the better cause. For it is undoubtedly better to go out with a bang, not a whimper.


You've Been Warned

December 07, 2009

Joey Arias in Arias with a Twist
Photo: Steve Menedez

So there are just a few bits and pieces I wanted to cover today before moving on. First, if you haven't seen Arias with a Twist over at the REDCAT, you’ve got one week left before this most excellent show closes shop and leaves town. Joey Arias has been taking drag to a new level longer than….well, you know. Now with the puppetry of Basil Twist in the mix, Arias is bolder and funnier than ever. (Twist is about to get sucked into the horrific Broadway version of The Addams Family so you may want to see his work now before seeing it co-opted for big ticket family fare.) Arias with a Twist has been imported completely intact from New York and I don’t necessarily have a lot new to add over my prior comments. There is really something for everyone in this show from fans of Eric Carmen to sci-fi enthusiasts.

In news pertinent to the upstairs of the Walt Disney Concert Hall…Alex Ross proves again that he is the most intelligent and reasoned writer on all topics classical in this week's New Yorker piece on Gustavo Dudamel and the L.A. Philharmonic. Ross is able to give a far more balanced perspective on the young maestros strengths and noticeable weaknesses without being blinded by the charming glint in anyone’s eyes. And while you’re coming up for air, the L.A. Philharmonic have also noted that French electronic outfit Air will perform at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on March 28 with tickets going on sale Saturday, December 12.

And speaking of L.A. and recent events at Walt Disney Concert Hall, superstar soprano Joyce DiDonato relates a very funny anecdote on her blog, Yankee Diva, of her meeting with composer John Adams following a recent L.A. Philharmonic show. “Meeting Mr. Adams afterwards, he asked me what I was doing in LA, and I simply said, ‘Ah, Barber over at the Pavillion.’ ‘Barber?’ he responded, ‘Which one - Vanessa?’" Ms. DiDonato continues as Rosina through the 19th of December with L.A. Opera.

Oh, and before I forget, both Alex Ross, and the Grammy voters agree with me – the DVD of Messiaen’s Saint Francois d’Assise with Rod Gilfry from De Nederlandse Opera and conductor Ingo Metzmacher is one of the years best. Told you so.

California's Gold

December 06, 2009

John Adams, Leila Josefowicz, and members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2009

Winning programs have been in short supply for the Los Angeles Philharmonic this Fall, so it was refreshing to catch the second of two new shows this weekend under the guidance of John Adams. It was the final show featuring the L.A. Philharmonic in the “West Coast, Left Coast” Festival celebrating California’s influence on classical music. And while this series has not been particularly well argued or planned over the last two weeks, the final show seemed to pull together a lot of the themes hinted at in earlier parts of the festival. There was cutting edge technology from Paul Dresher who opened the evening with Glimpsed from Afar, featuring the Quadrachord and Marimba Lumina, two instruments he helped create specifically to achieve their unique sound qualities a la Harry Partch. There was also more movie music - this time the real McCoy. Parts of Leonard Rosenman's score for Rebel Without A Cause was given a modernist treatment and sounded richer and darker than you might expect.

John Adams, Joseph Pereira, and members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2009

But the evening belonged to two living composers and two inspired soloists. Before the break was William Kraft's Timpani Concerto No.1. Kraft, a composer, guest conductor, and former Principal Timpanist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was given a loving reception from the audience and orchestra. Better yet, his music was played with real excitement and flair by the L.A. Philharmonic's current composer and Principal Timpanist Joseph Pereira. A handsome and sharp-dressed man to be sure, but as he whipped off the second pair of gloves in the movements first work, you know he meant business.

The big piece for the evening, however, was a return engagement of Adams’ own The Dharma at Big Sur, a sort-of concerto for electric violin that was commissioned for the opening of Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2003. It was performed several times in that season with Tracy Silverman as soloist under the direction of Esa-Pekka Salonen and this was its first return to this stage. This time around it was played by Leila Josefowicz who is no stranger to contemporary works, and, more importantly, she’s probably the greatest current interpreter of Adams’ Violin Concerto. Josefowicz, along with Hilary Hahn and Janine Jansen, represent the best of contemporary violinists, and it is no surprise that in one fell swoop she made Adams' piece seem her own. The Dharma at Big Sur is a gorgeous piece of music that builds into a gigantic golden glow several times and sharply evokes the California coastline more than you'd think any piece of music could. It's crying, nearly South Asian feel is both instantly familiar and strangely from another world at the same time. The performance under Adams' own baton was certainly not as crisp as it could have been, and certainly has been under Salonen's former guidance. But this was still, a radiant evening of California originals.


Huis Clos

December 05, 2009

Ruth McCabe, Rosaleen Linehan, and Catherine Walsh
Photo: Tom Wilkinson/Druid Theater

The only regret I have about seeing Enda Walsh’s The New Electric Ballroom, which is on stage at the Freud Theater this weekend as part of the UCLA Live International Theater Festival, is that I couldn’t see it sooner. And I don’t just mean earlier in the run, but that it would have been even more fascinating just weeks ago running in repertory with Druid Theater Ireland’s other production for the Festival, Walsh’s The Walworth Farce. The two plays are mirror images of one another in almost every way. Both concern a trio of family members, in Ballroom's case three sisters, trapped in a small domestic scene where they re-enact family myths and dramas until a different gender outsider arrives upsetting the balance. The struggle then becomes how and if the family system will incorporate the intruder or allow him or her to become a catalyst for escape. Both plays are filled with dense and rapid dialog often packaged in extended storytelling monologues by turns hysterically funny and oddly disturbing. And like The Walworth Farce, The New Electric Ballroom is an excellent play, this production being one of the best things I've seen this year.

Where Ballroom ups the ante on its predecessor is in its compactness and subtlety. At just under an hour and a half, Walsh raises many of the same questions with a far less didactic tone. The ambiguities about the relationships between these three supremely enmeshed sisters, two who still harbor daily-revived memories of shared affections for the same young man many years ago, aren't as completely spelled out. When the outsider in The Walworth Farce arrives at the door, she clearly represents the real world the audience knows exists outside of the unfolding family drama. In Ballroom, the local fishmonger makes repeated visits with the tide, but it's quickly apparent that he is already sucked into the family's story with his own rapid fire tales of wit and anxiety long before he's brought into the house and efforts are made to assign him another role in the family drama. The fish monger, Patsy, is played with real excitement by Mikel Murfi, the same man who directed the earlier run of The Walworth Farce for Druid. He's great, but no more or less so than the three other actors, Rosaleen Linehan, Ruth McCabe, and Catherine Walsh who were fascinating to watch.

Ballroom is more directly about love and its power and failings in allowing people to work their way into and out of certain family dynamics. There's still a sense of nihilistic foreboding here, and while no one escapes through the promise of new love, there is decidedly more comfort portrayed in the daily routine that traps these three women together in their single room waiting for tea to go with their few dry biscuits and hot pink frosted sponge cake. Of course, depending how you look at it, this world may be even less pleasant than that of the men in Walworth. In The New Electric Ballroom the cuts will mame you; though, never providing the final mortal blow. Enda Walsh's play, and the Druid Theater's production, are first rate and must be seen. There are two more performances this weekend.


Don't Quit Your Day Job

December 03, 2009

John Adams, the Kronos Quartet, and members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2009

It would only be fair and appropriate when considering the influence of California on classical music to include music written for films. Indeed, take all the Stravinsky you like, the great majority of "classical music" written in the Golden State has been for Hollywood. Of course, rightly or wrongly, music for films has always been the ugly stepsister in the classical music family. The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s current festival of California-inspired programming, “West Coast, Left Coast” tackles this issue by taking the indirect route. The first of two shows this weekend features non-movie related music from composers primarily regarded for their film work. It’s a good thought and a necessary recognition. Sadly, it's just not done in a very interesting way.

The show was originally scheduled to be led by Leonard Slatkin until his recent health troubles forced him to withdrawal, leaving things in the hands of festival curator, John Adams, and former Cleveland Orchestra Associate Conductor, Jayce Ogren. In a pinch, the two did the best they could to make a case for the works on offer, with Adams conducting the newer works and Ogren the shorter pieces that opened each set. First was Jerry Goldsmith’s Music for Orchestra. Not a bad eight minutes, but one that poses no threat to his being remembered as the composer for such films as Chinatown. Next up was a somewhat-symphony entitled Liquid Interface from 32 year-old Mason Bates, the current composer-in-residence for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (and the only artist not particularly known for film work on the bill). Bates has an interest in electronic music, and the four movement work incorporated significant pre-recorded elements he managed from his own computer onstage. This is not an unusual occurrence for the L.A. Philharmonic. However, Bates’ electronic elements are far more substantial than you might expect incorporating beats and other elements more common in popular dance and electronic music into the structure. There are water drips and drops of course, and while it bubbled along I found I was just as likely to think of it as bad Tan Dun than as "the new millennium." It’s not likely to keep anyone up at night anyway.

After the break was Franz Waxman’s Tristan und Isolde Fantasie. And while I love a ten minute Wagner medley as much as the next guy, the point of this was somewhat lost on me. The last piece on the program was a new L.A. Philharmonic commission, Thomas Newman’s It Got Dark, featuring the services of the Kronos Quartet. The unaccompanied quartet version of this work was premiered earlier in the festival and tonight included the full monty with orchestra and amplified Kronos players. Newman notes the works’ relation to the development of Santa Monica Canyon over the last century, and there is a certain quality of memory in the eight uninterrupted movements. It’s pretty. But I still felt like I’d seen this particular film before. Certainly it may be Oscar-worthy, but whether or not it will survive to be put in somebody else’s 10-minute medley of his works later on may be a long shot.


In the Wings - December 2009

December 01, 2009

Rosaleen Linehan in The New Electric Ballroom

It's close-out time for 2009 but there is still plenty going on around town to see and do this month. The biggest stars and excitement are still in the hands of Los Angeles Opera this month. A very enjoyable production of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia, which just opened a few days ago continues downtown with Juan Diego Florez, Joyce DiDonato, and Nathan Gunn. Gunn will also be seen in a solo recital at the Broad stage on the 11th in a program that includes both lieder and the songs of Tom Waits. If you're looking for something a little more traditional in the recital department, Reneé Fleming will appear in recital with L.A. Opera on the 12th. Even though she's touring in support of her Verismo recording, this appears to be a very serious German-focused program and is worth looking forward to. The other opera excitement this month for me will come in the very last week of the year when I'm off to New York and the Metropolitan Opera for new productions of Les Contes d'Hoffman with Joseph Calleja and Anna Netrebko and Carmen with Roberto Alagna and Elena Garanca. Rounding out the opera week will be revivals of Strauss, Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier on New Year's Day. No better way to start off the new year.

Salvatore Sciarrino
Photo: Mauro Fermariello

The Los Angeles Philharmonic will continue its “West Coast, Left Coast” Festival in the first week of the month with varied programs focusing on California-inspired composers such as Franz Waxman to William Kraft. Included on the schedule will be the world premiere of Thomas Newman's It Got Dark on the 3rd and 4th and then John Admas' The Dharma at Big Sur, which he will conduct himself on the 5th and 6th with Leila Josefowicz. Later on in the month Zubin Mehta returns to conduct the Philharmonic in a Beethoven program with Yefim Bronfman the weekend of the 11th and Harry Bicket will appear with much smaller forces for performances of Vivaldi and Rameau the weekend of the 18th. There's also a return appearance from Bernard Labadie and Les Violons du Roy on the 16th and 17th performing Handel's Messiah. The Los Angeles Master Chorale will also be in the holiday spirit on the 13th with a program featuring Christmas music from Vaughan Williams and Ramirez among others. However, the musical performance I'm most anticipating this month is the opening of the new Monday Evening Concerts season on the 7th in a program that will focus on works for the flute and the music of Salvatore Sciarrino. (There's a video prieview of the whole season to come here.)

Joey Arias
Photo: Steve Menedez/REDCAT

On the theater side there are several more performances of a number of worthwhile shows including the Blank Theater’s new production of David Sedaris’ Santaland Diaries. You should also definitely check out Joey Arias at the REDCAT where Arias with a Twist continues through the 13th. But there are some new offerings around the area as well. And while catching Xanadu in Orange County may provide some campy fun, UCLA Live’s International Theater Festival will bring the real noise with performances from Teatr Zar on the 1st through the 3rd with Triptych and a second offering from Druid Theater Ireland and Enda Walsh's The New Electric Ballroom on the 2nd through the 6th. Also of interest (though I won't catch it until January) is the latest original work from LA's own Culture Clash, Palestine, New Mexico which kicks off at the Mark Taper Forum on the 3rd. So don't get too bogged down in all the holiday hubbub. Take advantage of some of the great offerings around town this month.


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