Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Into The Black

April 28, 2010


Tuesday saw the end of the Piano Spheres season at Zipper Concert Hall downtown with a program dedicated to the late Alan Rich who had been a big advocate of the series for many years and will be greatly missed by many in the L.A. music community. Perhaps it was appropriate, though coincidental, that the program featured the music of Olivier Messiaen, a composer who wore his spiritual and romantic heart on his sleeve most times. The single piece on the program was Harawi, a song cycle for soprano and piano based on the Tristan and Isolde myth with Messiaen’s own devout, yet psychedelic take on things. (To hear a sample listen to the clip below.) Like the best of all his music, Harawi eventually enters that space where time seems to stand still and the heavens themselves threaten to open up.

That the players achieved this is a testament to the prodigious skills of pianist Vicki Ray and soprano Elissa Johnston, two figures well known in L.A.’s contemporary music scene. Johnston took a somewhat subdued approach to the vocal lines, keeping them light and understated. While at times I yearned for more of a piercing clarion call in the performance, the strategy paid off more in the other-worldly moments of these 12 songs. Messiaen mixes nonsense syllables in with his text in passages with a more urgent and darker edge and Johnston and Ray made the most of these.

Also of interest in the performance was a video work by Lars Jan that was presented in conjunction with the performance. Jan took footage from two different films both entitled “The Holy Mountain” in English: Leni Riefenstahl’s 1926 silent feature (see the top video clip) and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s surreal 1973 art film. The pieces were spliced together to enhance the Tristan elements as well as the more psychedelic overtones in Messiaen's music. There were beautiful moments where the film and performance meshed perfectly, the Tristan figure in Riefenstahl's film lost on a freezing mountainside hallucinating in technicolor about Jesus and toads. Video of this sort is always a risk in that it can overwhelm one's perception of the musical performance, but Johnston and Ray were not cowed on Tuesday leaving the audience with a glimpse of something from above.


Forbbiden Love

April 26, 2010

Alexandra Loutsion (center) and the cast of Das Liebesverbot
Photo: mine 2010

Is there anything more heartening than a “student” opera production that turns out to be better than a lot of “professional” productions? That’s how it was here in L.A. last weekend where the combined forces of the USC Thornton School of Music presented Wagner’s Das Liebesverbot, of all things. In conjunction with the all-things-Wagner festivities around town, USC decided to get into the act by offering something that even Wagner-loving audiences aren’t too likely to get anywhere else. (And if that isn't enough, Lyric Opera Los Angeles will offer Wagner's first opera Die Feen at the Pasadena Playhouse in June) Granted, this early Wagner opera is not part of the standard repertoire for a reason. It owes much more to Weber and the bel canto contemporaries of Wagner’s early career than the music easily identified by most listeners of his mature works. Das Liebesverbot is a loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and milks for laughs the rather odd situation of an interim ruler of Palermo banning all enjoyment and love from the city. The details are irrelevant but involve a number of early 19th-century stock characters, including a wily young common woman and an inept toady who fails to muster the resolve of his villainous boss. But Das Liebesverbot is no less ridiculous or musically interesting than a dozen bel canto operas I can think of that show up on stages around the world all the time.

Perhaps the biggest and best surprise of the evening was the quality of the musical performances. The USC Thornton orchestra under Brent McMunn was scrappy but spirited, never flagging throughout the three and a half hours that presage Wagner's longer-is-better philosophy of opera. The vocalists were exceptional and reminded me of the joy in hearing young performers take on these kinds of roles. Even the chorus seemed to sing with boundless enthusiasm as if this was the opera of a lifetime. No one was note perfect, but nobody tired out over the course of some pretty demanding parts. It’s tempting to think that these are names that will show up again on opera stages of the future, and I hope they do, considering some of the far more painful to listen to performers that seem to have no problem maintaining gainful employment in opera. Let’s start with a baritone: Kyung Teak Lim sang the role of Friedrich, the villainous German overseer who bans Carnival and all the commensurate festivities. Lim was commanding, colorful, and well controlled throughout his range. Soprano Alexandra Loutsion sang the heroine Isabella, and while she had to spend the whole show in a rather over-the-top nun’s habit, her voice was large enough to be heard easily over the orchestra and provided more than a few moments of great singing. I was also thrilled with Eric Hanson’s Luzio and Sophie Wingland’s Dorella. One might expect some rough patches in a school-based performance such as this, but it was frankly shocking how good this sounded from beginning to finish.

The unit set production, which was directed by Ken Cazan, was not unpleasant if a bit predictable. The black-on-red two tone set design has been done to death, but the lighting was effective. A little more acting guidance for the ebullient chorus might have been wise, but considering the limited resources available for the show, to complain feels like nit-picking. Plus the show was a steal at eighteen dollars a ticket. It’s a shame that it couldn’t have been done on a bigger scale to give more people an opportunity to see a work that, though loathed by the composer later in his career as a youthful experiment, clearly shows signs of brimming genius.


And The Beat Goes On

April 25, 2010

Osvaldo Golijov and Maria Guinand embrace at the conclusion of La Pasión Sugún San Marcos
Photo: mine 2010

Nearly a decade after its premiere, Osvaldo Golijov’s La Pasión Según San Marcos arrived in Los Angeles last night as part of the L.A. Philharmonic’s “Americas and Americans” festival. In some ways it’s a wonder that it has taken so long for the piece to arrive here. San Marcos is arguably the most successful piece of contemporary “classical” music yet this century. It was famously written at the request of Helmuth Rilling, who commissioned Golijov and three other composers to create latter-day Passions in memory of the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death. What Rilling got was a huge surprise and an almost instant hit altering Golijov’s career trajectory radically upward. Golijov took segments of the St. Mark’s Passion and infused his music with Latin folk and dance rhythms. Actually, “infused” is not the word so much as imported wholesale. The revolution to that first audience, and many Western European and American audiences since then, is the contrast between a very familiar sacred story and music that European culture has rarely associated with it. La Pasión Según San Marcos was a natural fit for the L.A. Phil’s festival, looking specifically at composers and works originating in the Western Hemisphere. And unlike the festival’s prior program, is much less indebted to European musical conventions outside of the subject matter.

On Saturday night, the work continued to create new enthusiastic fans, and it is very hard to resist its many, many charms. It is both intensely spiritual and ironically joyful at the same time. The large chorus in augmented with a number of dancers and solo vocalists including Luciana Souza, Roeynaldo González Fernández, and, in these outings, soprano and previous-Golijov collaborator Jessica Rivera. There are a range of vocal traditions presented here and the performers were necessarily miked. A small group of players enacted some elements of the story through dance in a manner not outside of the tradition of Passion plays with an actively involved chorus dressed in white and purple. It’s quite a sight, and luckily for those who weren’t in attendance, the cast is the same as that on a new DG studio recording of the work released just this month that includes a DVD of a live performance in Amsterdam under the direction of Robert Spano in 2008. It's the next best thing to being there.

However, many of the questions that have dogged the piece from the beginning are still there. Is it kitsch? It may well be. But even if it is, to paraphrase the legendary Sandra Bernhard, “this is good, quality kitsch. The kind of kitsch you want in your home.” Perhaps the other great limitation of the work is that it relies on forces not typical for most organizations that regularly present high art music in the West. To date virtually all the performances of Golijov's Pasión around the world have been conducted with variants of the same groups present at the premiere, the Schola Cantorum de Venezuela and the “Orquestra La Pasión,” a band of string players, percussionists, dancers and other musicians who travel largely to perform this work. The evening’s conductor, Maria Guinand, was also present at the premiere and, alongside Robert Spano, has led nearly all of the piece’s major performances. Guinand is the Artistic Director of the Schola Cantorum and a close, long-time colleague of L.A. Phil music director Gustavo Dudamel. And, while it is a wonderful performance, it’s hard to see it having a life outside of this particular group of performers. But for two days in L.A. it is back again and the not-sold-out hall did have a family atmosphere on Saturday. Whether La Pasión Según San Marcos represents the future of “classical” music or a very-successful momentary side bar in its history remains to be seen. But last night, it didn't really matter.


Keep Moving On

April 24, 2010

Dudamel, Kelley O'Connor and members of the L.A. Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2010

The Los Angeles Philharmonic entered the final weeks of a season that has been as much about marketing as it has about music on Thursday and Friday with one of a handful of orchestral programs in their current “Americas and Americans” series. The concept here is an examination of the musical connections between North and South America. Or in the words of music director Gustavo Dudamel, "This festival is one that is meant to link us as a people, so that borders dissolve, and we find those common threads and musical moments which unite North and South America as one. This is our music". And while the composers over the next few weeks are exclusively from the Western Hemisphere, at least on Friday, the influence was still decidedly European in terms of both composition, format, and instrumentation. Granted these were not pieces in the standard repertoire of any major symphony, but they owed much more to their European ancestors than any indigenous influences in the Americas. All of this was under the direction of Dudamel who led with a much calmer and more subdued hand than in any of a string of unsatisfying shows last Fall.

First this evening was the Toccata for Percussion form Mexico’s Carlos Chávez, a surprisingly lyrical work for six percussionists. Chavez was able to produce some beautiful lines in between the beats with instrumentation that more often than not plays a background role on the concert stage. This was just a warm up, however, for the evening’s real centerpiece, Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs. The fact that the Philharmonic programmed this work at all five years after its debut here in 2005 is particularly daring. It appeared then in a performance conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen featuring the late, great Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, the composer’s wife for whom it was composed. Her performance is virtually unassailable as perhaps one of the most moving things ever to have appeared on the WDCH stage. This was undoubtedly a lesser performance, but Lieberson’s work is masterful and if its beauty is to live on, it will have to be performed by others. The L.A. Philharmonic should be applauded for bringing it back in the face of such a challenge. The soloist was the dark-toned Kelley O’Connor who has wowed local audiences in any number of pieces of new music. She gave a strong performance and certainly has one set of balls taking this project on given the circumstances here.

The concert closed with another bit of daring, but far less interesting, programming in Bernstein’s Symphony No.2. Pure mid-Century Americana, Bernstein’s symphony-cum-piano-concerto deals with the search for a spiritual center in the modern world. The soloist was a game Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and he and Dudamel made the best argument they could for the work. Its indebtedness to Copland is clear, but more often than not, it sounds like warmed-over Shostakovich raging along in a chaotic mass that finally arrives in one of those big swirling show-stopping finales. The orchestra sounded particularly tight tonight, especially in works with a fair amount of rhythmic challenge to them. So, even if the overall idea of a characteristic music from the new world seemed elusive on Friday, it was a well played and smartly planned program.


You Are There

April 20, 2010


Oh this modern age we live in. Just when you begin to come to grips with the digital trace you leave around here and there around the internets and such, another outcropping of your past peaks its head from around the corner. Even in the world of opera, the increasing presence of video equipment has left us with a (nearly) permanent record of moments we may or may not want to remember forever. Stranger yet, this preservation has created a peculiar situation in which the average opera goer may find themselves the unwitting participant in a filmed extravaganza as an audience member. Granted actually being seen in the audience of a filmed opera performance is highly unlikely. But still, the actual record of something that you were there for is unusual for the commoner like myself unaccustomed to performing. So just for kicks, I’ve compiled a list of a few of the opera performances that I was physically in the audience for during at least one of the live taping sessions. And while this list is not intended to be exhaustive, nor would I recommend all of these DVDs or specific performances in every case, it probably does say something about me as an opera-goer. So have at it.

Above I’ve featured the excellent new Virgin Classics DVD of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia staring Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Florez at he Royal Opera House in London from July 2009. This may not be the best item to start my list with in that technically it is cheating since I actually attended the performance immediately prior to this one. However, I include it here for two reasons. The performance I attended was the one in which DiDonato actually broke her leg in an accident during the show, but continued to performance with a crutch, unaware of the extent of her injury in incredible pain. She continued the run without missing a show in a cast and in a wheelchair making headlines around the world. And while I did not care for the production itself, this was musically the best Barbiere I’ll probably ever see and DiDonato and Florez are forces to be reckoned with. It’s a spectacular performance, and the video editing helps spice up the hum drum production.

And speaking of great vocal performances, how about Renée Fleming’s Violetta, and Rolando Villazon’s Alfredo (pre- vocal crisis) in Verdi's La Traviata. This performance taped live at the opening of L.A. Opera’s 2006/2007 features both singers in particularly good moments in their careers under the baton of the house’s then new music director James Conlon. Again no one benefits from the rather plain-jane staging from Martha Domingo, but this disc will always bring back fond memories for me.

Sometimes the staging can be good though. On my trip to Amsterdam in 2008, I was fortunate enough to be in the front row for Pierre Audi’s new production of Messiaen’s Saint Francois d’Assise with Rodney Gilfry in the title role at De Nederlandse Opera. Ingo Metzmacher led the orchestra which was onstage throughout in a beautiful mind-altering performance. I didn’t have the best view of the thrust stage for the show, but this great DVD makes my memories of the performance even more exciting. It's still a must-have DVD.

Of course The Metropolitan Opera in New York has more or less cornered the market in opera DVDs especially now that their live HD broadcasts of select Saturday matinee broadcasts have become so popular. I have been present in the live audience for a handful of these productions and the ones that make it to DVD are instant keepsakes regardless of the quality of the performances. Perhaps my favorite of these is Humperdink’s Hansel und Gretel from December 2007 in the Richard Jones’ production staring Alice Coote and Christine Schäfer under the baton of Vladimir Jurowski. It’s a beautifully sung staging of one of the most beautiful operas. (I'll add that I'm also in the audience for the Met's release of the overly-maligned Mary Zimmerman-directed La Sonnambula from 2009 with Nathalie Dessay.)

One of my favorite European opera houses is the Bayerische Staatsoper and I’ve had the good fortune to catch a number of operas that were being taped for posterity during my visits there including a 2007 Kovanshchina and Unsuk Chin's Alice in Wonderland. Just last summer, I saw the performance featured above of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia starring the legendary Edita Gruberova. And while these Cristoph Loy productions sometimes have the feel of a victory lap for Gruberova, she’s still pretty amazing and nobody pulls a wig of their head like she does.

And if you think the cameras only follow me around in the opera house, you’d be wrong. I’m also way up on the side in the DG DVD of Gustavo Dudamel’s inagural concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic that was shown on PBS in the Fall of 2009 and has subsequently been released on DVD as are most things Dudamel. I didn’t think much of Mahler’s 1st Symphony in this performance and the world premiere of John Adams’ City Noir seemed a little too familiar, but the recording is still there. And who knows, someday maybe I’ll watch it again and change my mind. In any event, this recording, and the others are there as a sort of track record of my own concert-going life which is just part of the world we now live in for better or worse.

We Close Our Eyes

You get the idea
Photo: mine 2010

Or, Further Adventures in Concert Going. Here’s a new one. I arrive at the season-closing performance of the Monday Evening Concerts series on time and enter the hall handing over my ticket and my signed waiver form. Yes, in order to attend Monday’s program I was required to sign a waver releasing probably everyone from essentially anything that could possibly happen to me during a performance of Georg Friedrich Haas’ String Quartet No. 3, subtitled In Iij. Noct.. The unique, and arguably risky, part of this venture is that the piece is performed in complete darkness. And by that I do not mean that the hall lights are turned off leaving only cracks of light from around door frames and the like. I mean sealed-off-in-a-coffin, can’t-tell-whether-your-eyes-are-open-or-closed total darkness for a playing time of around a hour and ten minutes.

The venturesome audience had gathered at the Neighborhood Church of the Unitarians in Pasadena. (Insert Garrison Keillor-inspired joke here.) Special permission was granted by the local fire department for all of the emergency exit light to be extinguished for the show, and a local fireman was on hand to oversee the proceedings. We were given a one minute tester of the darkness prior to the actual performance as a last warning for anyone who wanted to bail and were told that if we did want to leave during the performance, to raise our hand high in the air where it would be spotted by one of four infra-red goggle wearing volunteers who would grab us by the arm and escort us from the hall through a maze like pitch black entry passage. No, I’m not making this up.

At this point in the evening we were joined by the JACK Quartet, a rapidly rising ensemble best known for a superior recording of the Xenakis string quartets in 2009 as well as other forays into new music. The members stationed themselves in the four corners of the hall surrounding the audience, and then the lights went out. The idea, according to Haas, was to meditate on the less Romantic qualities of darkness, those associated with hopelessness and isolation. He directly references in the work’s title tenebrae masses, which are services that take place on Good Friday and Maundy Thursday of Holy Week where minimal candlelight is extinguished one step at a time until the congregation is left in darkness to represent the devastating loss with the death of Christ prior to his resurrection.

Haas’ music is indebted to the spectralists and has a floating otherworldly feel to it. My only other exposure to his work was at the world premiere of his second opera, Melancholia at the Opera National de Paris in 2008. That tale of an artist’s slip into madness had much in common with the themes of In Iij. Noct. including a lot of spiritual and physical darkness. Perhaps the most amazing quality of the string quartet though, is how powerfully it can bring about the lost art of listening. Haas’ score is divided into several sections of indeterminate length that can be repeated, elongated, or shortened by the performers. Since the players cannot see one another, or a score, to communicate, they must rely on their own sounds to cue one another. Haas notes that he intends there to be some struggle as different members suggest different directions to move in between the repeating segments of the piece. A musical discussion ensues that forms the work itself. Now, I realize that ideally listening to one another is the hallmark of any great musical ensemble of any size. But playing in the dark brings the experience to a whole new level.

Of course, this creates a new atmosphere for the audience too, as many of us not accustomed to blindness or vision impairment were challenged with really listening to the music independent of any distractions or visual cues. And despite the sadness in the music, it was also very beautiful in its own way. The JACK Quartet played splendidly and MEC once again rises to the occasion with something unique and off the beaten path.


Stravinsky/Mozart - Part 2

April 19, 2010

Jeremy Denk and members of LACO
Photo: mine 2010

It was a week for classicism on L.A. concert stages. Almost eerily so, as the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra appeared at Royce Hall on Sunday (which I attended at their invitation) in a program that paralleled in many ways last Wednesday’s appearance by the Saint Louis Symphony at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Both programs featured works of Stravinsky and Mozart, pairing a concerto and orchestral piece from Stravinsky’s neo-classical period with a concerto and symphony from Mozart. Both ensembles were led by affable American music directors, in this case Jeffrey Kahane, and were joined by affable American soloists. On Wednesday LACO employed the services of pianist Jeremy Denk for Mozart’s Concerto Rondo in D major for Piano and Orchestra and Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments. Both shows ended with a later Mozart symphony as well, with LACO taking the ever present 41st over SLSO’s choice of the 36th.

But with so many similarities, the two shows couldn’t have been further apart in outcome. As if in a mirror image response, LACO delivered impressive turns in Mozart which felt limp in the SLSO’s hands under David Robertson. Meanwhile, LACO's Stravinsky was somewhat manhandled. Which may speak to the different strengths and repertoire the groups are accustomed to. At the WDCH, the SLSO was a larger orchestral outfit parading as a chamber ensemble last week. And certainly while the orchestra is no stranger to Mozart, their docket is filled with lots of other larger, romantic fare. By contrast, LACO's size prevents as many performances of great big 18th and 19th century fare much more common with a larger ensemble. LACO, however, has spent more than a little time with the works of Mozart and other classical composers used to much smaller ensembles. Kahane and his players gave the Mozart a scrappy feel that fills Mozart's music with a real life flavor I for one love.

Of course, this was a big visit from Denk as well, who played the uncommon Stravinsky Concerto that eschewed strings in the Post-WWI milieu of its composition. And, although Denk's playing could get lost in the Royce Hall acoustics, it was an enjoyable dark and detailed performance. LACO's season continues with a chamber performance hosted by stage director Peter Sellars on April 29 at The Broad Stage and their next full concert the weekend of May 15.


Ride It. My Pony.

April 18, 2010

from Truth, Revised Histories, Wishful Thinking, and Flat Out Lies
Photo: Steven Gunther/John Jasperse Company 2010

Squeezed between a number of other events this weekend was an appearance by the John Jasperse Company this weekend at REDCAT with a new dance work called Truth, Revised Histories, Wishful Thinking, and Flat Out Lies. It’s a piece commissioned by a consortium of groups and it’s receiving a premiere in locales around the country including Minneapolis and New York later this year. According to Jasperse, the two-hour long work examines “what we believe, what we don’t, and why.” Fair enough. Though I’m not sure I quite got all of this out of Truth, I will say that it was an evening of extremely engaging movement and theater.

Truth features five dancers; two men, two women, and Jasperse himself in two segments separated by an intermission. The men and women often operate in same sex pairs contrasting to the other group. In the first half, a dark stage is bordered on the left by a floral patterned L-shaped space. Women in black-sequined mini dresses and men in see-through tanks and go-go shorts appear and soon launch into Jasperes’ unique movement vocabulary. The sequences can look unstable and off the cuff in a way that is at times reminiscent of teens dancing to their stereos alone in their bedrooms. The tone varies from serious to broadly comic, often changing on a dime. In one unexpectedly funny highlight, the dancers disrobe to a blaring recording of Ginuwine’s 1996 hit Pony leaving the bare-breasted women to gyrate as if in a sex club as the two men now clad only in jock straps writhe on the floor, their rear ends completely exposed to the audience. Jasperse often acts as a court jester in the proceedings inserting copious amounts of comic irony. He appears later covered head to toe in a black body suit slinking almost imperceptibly along the back until reaching the floral patterned wall where he makes a sudden run for the other side in a comical failed attempt to maintain a certain mystery. Serious moments have a way of being instantly deflated here with lighter-toned interludes.

The second half flips from a black room, to a totally white one. In this instance four members of the International Contemporary Ensemble appear at the rear of the stage to provide live musical accompaniment to the performance. The dancers appear all in white like some summertime Banana Republic ad and fall to the floor in positions as if they were currently falling from the sky. Later Jasperse appears with a cut out arrow pointer in his hand and engages in a wordless argument with one of the dancers, the arrow serving to identify the flow of the conversation. This later devolves into a slow-mo cat fight. Things become more structured again later on as events move to their final conclusion. What works so well about Truth isn’t just the comedy. Jasperse often seems to intentionally avoid both lyrical fluid movement and bursts of athleticism. Yet, he still manages to extract grace and beauty from something that is still about something more than the small gesture. In my book, funny and beautiful aren't easy things to do at the same time. Even if it doesn't get you any closer to the truth - whatever that is.


The Man With The Golden Gun

April 17, 2010

Hrach Titizian as Uday Hussein and Arian Moayed as Musa
Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2010

With L.A. Opera in the throws of its great Ring cycle and accompanying festival and the L.A. Phil about to welcome Gustavo Dudamel back to the Walt Disney Concert Hall next week, it might be easy to forget other things that are going on around town. But there is a play at the Mark Taper Forum that should not be overlooked. Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo returned to L.A. this week after a run last spring at CTG’s Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City. Joseph was recently robbed of a much deserved Pulitzer Prize by a myopic executive committee last week as reported by Charles McNulty. But you don’t have to make the same mistake they did, you can actually see the best new play of 2009 right here in town. Bengal Tiger has arrived at the Taper almost untouched from its earlier run with the same cast and under the masterful direction of Moisés Kaufman and it is just as affecting.

The play is many things – ghost story, war story, buddy picture, and gritty urban thriller. Joseph harnesses a magical realism in the first scene and doesn’t let go. The play revolves around two American soldiers stationed in Iraq in 2003 and some looted golden trophies from the fallen house of Hussein. One of the pair shoots a captive tiger in the Baghdad zoo after it bites off the hand of his buddy thereby creating the first of several ghostly narrators that haunt this war torn city. Soon, the platoon’s local Iraqi translator is drawn into the action when his own connection to a looted gold-plated pistol, formerly belonging to Uday Hussen who also appears in the play, comes back to haunt him. The cast is better than I remember. Kevin Tighe plays the narrating tiger ghost with a deadpan urgency. The two soldiers, Kev (Brad Fleischer) and Tom (Glenn Davis), were steadier and less cartoonish than I remember from before. But the heart and soul of this play is the superb Arian Moayed as Musa the translator. He carries the weight of the world here, providing the conflicted moral center in a work filled with the philosophical musings of more than a few ghosts.

Bengal Tiger is by turns funny and profoundly disturbing. It is not necessarily a political play. It doesn’t spend time rehashing American arguments for or against going to war at the time. It’s a play that like many other great works of art asks the big questions: Why are we here? Where is God when we really need him? How can we continue to do what we do to one another? The real mark of Bengal Tiger’s success, though, is that it asks these questions in such a way that it doesn’t feel like you’ve heard them a million times before in similar contexts. Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo will continue at the Mark Taper Forum downtown until May 30. It’s worth seeing more than once.


Here Comes That Sinking Feeling

April 16, 2010

Anja Kampe and Placido Domingo in Die Walküre
Photo: Monika Rittershaus/LAO 2010

I always miss out on the drama. On Thursday, L.A. Opera music director James Conlon was under fire at the Museum of Tolerance by a heckler. He was giving a talk on Wagner and anti-Semitism as part of the Ring Festival LA, a series of public arts and educational events around town taking place in conjunction with L.A. Opera’s presentation of the visionary Achim Freyer-directed production of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Niebelungen this coming May and June. The heckler, one of a specific handful of seemingly unstable folks who’ve been working to generate controversy and derail the festival and opera performances, reportedly shouted down Conlon and later found himself in verbal confrontations with both L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and Museum of Tolerance Director Liebe Geft over his behavior before being escorted out by security. This was just the latest in a series of manufactured media events to draw attention to Wagner’s well-known anti-Semitism – a topic that has been under more civil discussion in numerous venues throughout several Ring Festival events.

One of those festival events was in fact taking place simultaneously downtown at the Museum of Contemporary Art where a panel of USC faculty and others were speaking under the auspices of the USC Master of Liberal Studies Program. The presentations, which were grouped under the title “From Nietzsche to ‘Star Wars’: The Wagnerian Power of ‘The Ring’,” allowed a number of faculty to speak about trends in 18th and 19th century literature and art that were reflected in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Wagner’s anti-Semitism was a topic of discussion here among members of the panel as well, though with much fewer histrionics. But the piece that really got me thinking, especially in light of all the local “protest” over the Ring Cycle, was from Roberto Ignacio Dìaz, Associate Professor of Spanish and Portuguese and Comparative Literature. Entitled “Wagner and the City”, professor Dìaz’s presentation made an argument that the mounting of Wagner’s Der Ring des Niebelungen has become a signifier used by cities to validate their own relevance, not only as cultural centers, but as cities in their own right. One knows a city by its ability to produce art, and in this logic, the Ring Cycle becomes much more than just a series of operas for the companies and persons involved in its production. The Ring becomes a marker of a city's place in the world.

Which brings me back to all the purported hubbub over Wagner’s anti-Semitism as a source of consternation in the mounting of the cycle here in Los Angeles. Ring Cycles have been mounted all over the U.S., and the world, with far less concern in both larger and smaller cities including San Francisco, Seattle, and Chicago. Even Long Beach produced a reduced chamber version of the work a few years back without anyone pouring out into the streets in distress. And, while New York prepares yet another update to its own Ring production with no one being called a Nazi, in Los Angeles, the production engenders major soul searching over a well-known fact about the composer’s prejudices. Furthermore, while Los Angeles often seems to have cornered the market on oddity, the fact is there are people who share the same sentiments everywhere in the world. Certainly there is no shortage of people who detest Wagner and his music because of his anti-Semitism in New York as well as San Francisco. Yet they haven’t enjoyed any of the publicity their Los Angeles counterparts have in the recent weeks.

Which suggests that maybe the protest and its coverage really tell us something else. Wagner’s anti-Semitism is a fact. But much like the date of the signing of the Magna Carta or the identity of who is buried in Grant’s Tomb, once you know it, you know it. Diaz’s reading may suggest a broader issue. That concern over Wagner’s anti-Semitism in the context of presenting the Ring for the first time in Los Angeles may speak more to the city’s and its residents’ own anxiety about the standing of their metropolis in the rest of the world. Does discomfort over the Ring correlate to unease or uncertainty that our home is in fact more of a provincial outpost in the world than we care to admit? L.A. seems hesitant and wracked about doing something that other cities do without so much as a passing thought to the “controversy.” It’s sometimes easy to forget given L.A.’s size how young the city actually is. Yet, despite rising to the world stage over the last century, we still aren’t completely sure that we deserve to be where we, in fact, are. In this model, detesting the Ring may represent a sort of civic self-loathing. But ready or not, L.A.'s Ring is here. And whether or not it's what anyone expected, it is ours.


Stravinsky/Mozart - Part I

April 15, 2010

David Robertson, Gil Shaham and members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
Photo: mine 2010

I have an attachment to the city of St. Louis, MO. I spent many years there while in graduate school and although my visits to the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra were few and far between back then, I will admit being excited about seeing them on tour here in Los Angeles. However, sadly, although not unusually, I found myself in a minority. Arriving at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on Wednesday, I discovered a much smaller than usual crowd for a visiting orchestra, and worse yet was forced to give up the seat I had chosen when purchasing my ticket to move to another section of the hall. I was told this was due to the “technical constraints” of the performance, but the reality is that so few tickets were sold that rear and side sections of the hall were closed off and people were reseated elsewhere. (Note to L.A. Philharmonic: I don’t know who is laboring under the idea that a Terrace seat is preferable to a Terrace West or East seat, but moving into the rear of the peanut gallery from a closer side seat is by no means an upgrade.) Stranger yet, the audience that did show up seemed completely naïve to classical concert-going etiquette, filling any moment of silence with their insistent and insincere clapping.

Luckily, the SLSO and their director David Robertson, gave a much higher caliber performance than this particular audience may have deserved. The evening featured a number of nearly chamber orchestra-sized works by Stravinsky and Mozart. Stravinky’s Danses concertantes and Mozart’s Symphony No. 36 were paired with a violin concerto from each composer. And, if this mirror image programming wasn’t enough, the pleasant and affable David Robertson was paired with his brother-in-law, the pleasant and affable soloist Gil Shaham making it rather a Southern California evening by way of St. Louis. The neoclassical Stravinsky pieces were lovely. Danses concertantes is best known as ballet music, although it was originally written as a concert piece. It had the briskness and accuracy that was also reflected in the Violin Concerto that Shham drove into with abandon. Robertson and Shaham managed to make the small ensemble sound much bigger than they were, but were never overreaching. The Mozart fared less well in one of those overly polite, Romantic readings from the mid-20th century that could easily put you to sleep with a little warmth or something to drink. The Mozart Violin Concerto also sounded like it was playing in the background of some other activity that was otherwise missing. So it was clearly an unfaair fight between these two composers, but the SLSO gave a well polished and admirable performance. If only more people would have taken the chance to come hear them.

Between Heaven and Hell

April 14, 2010

Louis Andriessen and Reinbert de Leeuw
Photo: mine 2010

Tuesday brought the U.S. premiere of Louis Andriessen’s expansive, genre-bending opera La Commedia to the Walt Disney Concert Hall stage. Boy, were we lucky to have it. Andriessen's take one Dante’s Divine Comedy actually has a pedigree here in L.A.; two of the five acts in the piece had prior performances on this very stage – Act II, Racconto dall'Inferno, as part of the 2006 Minimalist Jukebox festival, and Act I, The City of Dis or:The Ship of Fools, by the L.A. Master Chorale in 2007. The full work had its premiere in a fantastic production during the 2008 Holland Festival where the live performance was augmented with a production conceived by American film director Hal Hartley. Then, Andriessen's score was accompanied by a film with a completely different narrative made by Harley that ran intermittently throughout the performance on one of a number of screens hanging at various angles around the Amsterdam hall. That performance, one of my personal highlights of the last few years, created a circus like atmosphere of sensory overload with images and sounds coming from all sides. Tuesday’s performance in L.A., which included the almost identical ensemble from Amsterdam, was a wonderful chance to revisit the work, this time in a concert performance that allowed a fuller appreciation of its complex and interesting score on its own substantial merits.

Marcel Beekman, Jeroen Willems, Claron McFadden, and Cristina Zavalloni
Photo: mine 2010

Andriessen revisits Dante’s trip to hell and back in a format that is preoccupied neither with plot or character development. There is direction however as Dante moves through the horrors of hell into the Garden of Earthly Delights and finally paradise in the five acts in La Commedia. The multi-lingual text is taken from numerous sources including Dante with various roles assigned to a cast of four soloists and two choirs. The music is a polyglot that gleefully moves from foreboding and dissonant to cheekily dabbling in any number of contemporary popular musical styles. As we get closer to paradise, tongue-in-cheek jazz and Latin rhythms appear in the music and in the end, everything begins to shine and twinkle. The ASKO/Schönberg Ensemble under the direction of Reinbert De Leeuw produced a formidable and piercing sound in a score that at times recalled a Charlie Kaufman screenplay with dizzying changes of direction and context. Synergy Vocals and the L.A. Children’s Chorus provided clear and assured backing throughout. The soloists were all spectacular and each performed from substantially different technical perspectives. Claron McFadden, who played Béatrice, a sort of guardian angel, is a well known opera performer in Europe whose interest in Baroque and contemporary repertoire have deprived her of a deserved large following in the U.S. Her clear and piercing tone was set against the unique vocal gymnastics of Cristina Zavalloni who dominated the stage with her sexy, dramatic Dante. Zavalloni has made a number of appearances in L.A. over the years, and as before, it was impossible not to watch her with nearly awe-struck admiration. She is the kind of performer who makes me want to use words like "elemental" in her description. Actor Jeroen Willems lends his movie star looks and a supremely sardonic attitude to the mostly spoken role of Lucifer. His closing monologue, Cacciaguida, was delivered in English instead of his native Dutch and was an absolute hoot. Andriessen’s devil gets all the laughs in La Commedia and Willems harangued lord of the underworld was a perfect complement to his costars and the score. The cast was rounded out by the brief, but memorable appearance of Marcel Beekman as Casella.

Andriessen received an enthusiastic standing ovation from the audience at the conclusion of the intermissionless two hours. He may not fit easily into one of the boxes composers often are forced into, but he is a lion of contemporary music and showed why with this amazing and ambitious two hour trip through the underworld. The only sad note in the evening is how little effort and heart the L.A. Philharmonic, who sponsored the evening’s performance, put into promoting this show, perhaps the most important piece of new(er) music in their entire season. There was zero stage or pre-performance presence by anyone from the organization and nary an advance word about the show outside of some random tweets earlier in the day and the standard e-mails. Apparently a few bucks could not be squeezed out of the budget after the three-quarters of a million dollars spent to fete the arrival of their new boy-blunder, Gustavo Dud-amel earlier in the season. Apparently Andriessen falls short in the “Electrico” department. But you wouldn’t know that by actually listening to his spectacular music, and the substantial crowd at WDCH on Tuesday reaped the benefits of seeing a major work from one of the most important living composers.


Give Me That Old-Time Religion

April 12, 2010

Tom Bogdan, Kimberly Switzer, Meredity Monk, Grant Gershon, Theo Bleckmann, Allison Sniffin, Katie Geissinger, and members of the LAMC
Photo: mine 2010

Meredith Monk and members of her ensemble returned with their other-worldly music to L.A. on Sunday for a performance with the Los Angeles Master Chorale. The show, which also featured music from Arvo Pärt, was a follow-up to a successful appearance the composer made with the chorale a few years back. However, despite this desire for collaboration, the chorale itself felt strangely absent from much of the music for the evening - typically playing a secondary or supportive role to others. The centerpiece of the night was a new commission from the LAMC for Monk, WEAVE, which received its West Coast premiere at the concert. WEAVE, like many of Monk's more recent works involves increasingly large amounts of instrumental music in addition to soloists and a choral ensemble. Two members of Monk's ensemble, Theo Bleckmannn and Katie Geissinger, performed the solo parts consisting more of vocal sounds than actual "singing" which is not unusual in the composer's sonic world. The seated chorus murmured along in the background. Monk’s program note for the composition refers to “layers” of music and sound that intersect and change one another, which sounds as apt a description as any I could come up with. However, despite the presence of several capital letters in the title, the work seemed rather non-committal to me like much of Monk's more instrumentally intensive music. It's pleasant enough, but often feels focused on process over content - kind of like watered-down Steve Reich. Or is that the other way around?

Things dramatically improved on the outskirts of the rather long evening with Monk herself and her ensemble performing excerpts from Songs of Ascension, a theater work she and collaborator Ann Hamilton developed over the last few years. Ascension was seen here in a fully staged version at REDCAT in 2008 and was not particularly memorable. But here, the music seemed alive and new. While I’m sure it has been refined over time, I think the piece also benefited from the removal of some of the more pretentious elements of the theater piece including a wandering string ensemble which was now stationary, and a dance component that was reduced to a very small amount of movement for ensemble and chorus. Songs of Ascension was also beefed up for a much larger chorus here, which gave the LAMC a chance to shine in an evening where they were sometimes overly sidelined. The work makes clear references to eastern spirituality and connecting with a higher power. It's lovely and engaging music that suffered only one misstep in the semi-staging at the end when the ensemble members rearranged themselves on the stage taking supine lying positions on the stage as they continued to sing. For some odd reason, Grant Gershon, who had been at the rear of the ensemble conducting the chorale, also took a siesta on the floor evoking laughter from the audience in what was otherwise a serene and uplifting moment. But outside of this one bad call, it was the highlight of Monk's works on the program.

Truth be told though, the best music on Sunday came in the form of Arvo Pärt’s Miserere. The chorale had limited involvement here, too, providing only two short segments of light in a rather somber and dark arrangement for five soloists and a handful of instrumentalists including organ. Pärt is also a composer with an interest in the spiritual, one heavily influenced by his own experience with the Eastern Orthodox Church. But despite its own Eastern influences, the spiritual comes off in his work as something more structured and tradition bound. In comparison to Monk's Songs of Ascension, Pärt's Miserere sounded like the B Minor Mass. But whatever your belief system, it was a night of some lovely music making.


Make It Work

April 11, 2010

Robert Brubaker, Martin Gantner, and Anja Kampe in Die Gezeichneten
Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2010

So, you know that moment on Project Runway where Tim Gunn enters the workroom at the end of a long day where contestants have just barely completed their “looks” for, say, a group of six-year-olds, only to announce the bad news. Now, he says, they all have to come up with a companion look for the kids’ dowdy mothers based on the first outfit with virtually no money to do it with. This is more or less the situation Los Angeles Opera and director Ian Judge find themselves in with the final production of the 2009/2010 season, Franz Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten. This is a U.S. premiere and the third in a series of productions under the banner of “Recovered Voices,” which revisits some of the 20th-century composers whose careers and lives were adversely affected by the rise of Germany’s Third Reich. As if this set up wasn’t a tall enough order, Judge was faced with the challenge of developing a production that would fit within the constraints set forth by the concurrently running new production of Wagner's Götterdämmerung designed by Achim Freyer. The steeply raked set with circular turntable and large scrim covering the stage are fixed elements that Judge had to design around and according to other reports, had to do so with very little money.

Robert Brubaker and Anja Kampe
Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2010

But, just as there’s always a TV designer who rises to the occasion to win the “mommy-and-me” challenge, Judge took what he was handed and ran with it for a visually engaging and very affecting evening of theater. In fact, this production marks another milestone in that it officially makes Judge the closest thing L.A. Opera has to a “house director.” He has now directed more original productions for the company than anyone else in their 25-year history, including such works as Tosca, Le Nozze di Figaro, Tännhauser, and Don Carlo. Much has been said about the cost of L.A. Opera’s new Ring cycle. And for those who can’t conceive where the money went, you may want to start with Die Gezeichneten. The company invested in hundreds of thousands of dollars in state-of-the-art video projection equipment for the Ring, and they are just now getting to show off the myriad of other uses these elaborate new toys have. There are virtually no sets for Die Gezeichneten and only occasional pieces of furniture make it to the stage. But the video projection onslaught that covers the front scrim, stage floor, and back curtain is a work of art in and of itself. Images appear, move and alter themselves in a shifting sea all congruent with the stage action. Judge even makes use of the rotating floor, providing an opportunity to shift scenes with virtually no pause in the music. After last season's disappointing production of Braunfel’s Die Vögel, where director, Darko Tresnjak, fought the constraints of Freyer’s Ring design every step of the way, Judge comes to the rescue proving that a minuscule budget and numerous design restrictions don’t need to limit one's artistic vision.

But Judge wasn’t the only one whose vision saved he day. James Conlon stuck with this project and advocated for it in the face of economic troubles, insisting on a complete, full staging of Schreker’s score. And what music it is. Schreker’s late romantic stew is not unrecognizable, but his indebtedness to Strauss is matched by an awareness of Schoenberg in an opera that is as much Lulu or Salome as it is Rigoletto. All the Wagner-playing as of late has provided the orchestra one hell of a workout, it appears, because turning to Schreker’s score seems second nature to them. I don’t think I can recall ever hearing such lovely playing from the orchestra under James Conlon. Pair that with a singular performance from Anja Kampe in the role of Carlotta and you have an evening with first rate musical values regardless of the rest. There are many other fine vocal performances, though, including Robert Brubaker as the hunchbacked Alviano and Martin Gantner as Count Tamare.

A scene from Die Gezeichneten
Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2010

Like Strauss’ Salome, however, all that beauty comes with strange bedfellows. In this case it’s a libretto that is so depraved that one spends the first hour asking oneself, “Is this really what the opera is about?” Yes it is. And no, this is definitely not an opera to bring the kids or family to. It can be pretty graphic at times, although I never felt it was in a distasteful way. The action of the show is updated from 17th-century Italy, to the early 20th century and roughly concerns a wealthy, but physically deformed, landowner who is planning to give up his private island off the coast of Genoa over to the people and the city in an act of generosity. The problem is that the island has been used, unbeknown to Alviano, by a group of young nobles as part of a ring to kidnap and sexually assault the daughters of local aristocrats. It gets messy from here, and let's just say it's not a happy ending. But there's nothing in Die Gezeichneten that’s any more disturbing than some of the storylines in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. And, while it may not quite live up to that standard, this is one performance that is completely worth seeing.


Instant Replay

April 10, 2010

Thomas Adès and Anthony Marwood with L.A. Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2010

To judge by the frequency of his highly regarded visits with our local orchestra, Thomas Adès loves Los Angeles. And Los Angeles loves him. Or at least I do. Even with a show he’s largely reprising from prior appearances here, his program this weekend with the L.A. Philharmonic outshines much of what has appeared at the Walt Disney Concert Hall this season. The first half of the program consisted of his own works – the overture These Premises Are Alarmed, a suite of dances from his chamber opera Powder Her Face, and his Violin Concerto. It was a brief but nice summary of Adès career so far in less than an hour of music. But virtually every note of it was pretty exciting. He’s got a flair for the dramatic and can incorporate other musical idioms into his compositions without them overwhelming the bigger project. His “dance music” from Powder Her Face is blown up here from the original chamber orchestra of the opera score to a much bigger ensemble. There is plenty of story contained in these movements far beyond the waltz and tango rhythms they ape. The music effortlessly recalls Britain in the 60s and its ability to evoke such a distinct time and place is the hallmark of a composer who knows what he’s doing. The Violin Concerto, which was played here by Anthony Marwood, as it has been from the piece’s inception, was again a lovely puzzle with the orchestration providing punctuation to the soloist’s ongoing monologue. Marwood and Adès last performed the piece here in 2006 and seeing it again under such great circumstances seems like an embarrassment of riches.

Another thing I love about Adès is his apparent respect for composers that don’t necessarily have the biggest cache of gravitas. Two seasons ago he gave us a slew of chamber works by Francois Couperin. The second half of this weekend’s program was devoted to Respighi’s Feste Romane. This is showy music meant to please with large rumbling crescendos and organ and brass for days. Adès makes no apologies for any of it, giving a lovely theatrical performance with the orchestra. It was a crowd-pleaser in the best sense of the phrase. Adès unfortunately is gone all too quickly this season after this weekend, however he plans to be back for much more extensive involvement next season. So, until then, we have this reminder of his story thus far.


The Other Madame Butterfly

April 09, 2010


In Memoriam

A Festive Occasion

April 08, 2010

Sketch of Loge by Achim Freyer for the LA Opera production of Wagner's Ring Cycle

So L.A. Opera has put together a ground-breaking one of a kind musical theater experience with the new Achim Freyer-directed staging of Wagner’s Ring cycle. So now what do you do? Well first and foremost, if you don’t have tickets to one of the cycles that start on May 28th, you should get them. There are virtually no excuses not to, now that the company has made “design-you-own” cycles available that allow you to see all of the four operas on the weekends, and better yet, at a much reduced cost over the initial ticket offering. Having seen all of the operas if there is one thing I do know, it’s that you do not want to miss this. This is especially true if you have any passing interest in cutting edge theater. Or even if you don't.

So now that you have your tickets, what do you do between now and June? Well, luckily, not all of the Ring excitement is in the opera house this year as L.A. Opera and a large consortium of local arts organizations have put together Ring Festival L.A. with coordinated events related to this unique local undertaking. There’s a lot of events to choose from between now and the end of June, so here’s my guide to the festival events that should be highest priority. More details for all of these events including details about any potential cost (many are free) and need for reservations or tickets can be found on the festival’s website.

Sketch of Erda by Achim Freyer for the LA Opera production of Wagner's Ring Cycle

Why not start by hearing straight from the proverbial horses mouth. Of course Wagner is dead, so start with the production’s legendary director, Achim Freyer. He’ll be making two appearances at the Goethe Institut on Wilshire in conversation with music journalist Matthew Gurewitsch on April 12 and June 4 talking about his concepts for the Ring production. If you’d like to hear more about Wagner and his music, you couldn’t do much better than L.A. Opera’s Music Director James Conlon who’ll be speaking all over town in numerous venues. Conlon has proven to be the city’s biggest musical asset since the departure of Esa-Pekka Salonen, and his desire and ability to communicate with the public about music is unparalleled. And where won’t he be. Conlon will appear in lectures both individually and part of larger conferences at the Hammer Museum on April 13, the Museum of Tolerance on the April 15, downtown’s Central Library on April 19, USC’s Bing Theater on April 20, LACMA on June 5, American Jewish University on June 6 (on a panel that includes Gottfried Wagner, the composer’s great-grandson), the Huntington Library on June 9, and the Getty Museum on June 19. The topics of these presentations vary from music and myth to Wagner’s anti-Semitism and some are part of longer day-long symposia, so you may want to check the particulars of each event before you go.

There will also be a number of noted academics and artists in town to talk about the Ring and different philosophical and artistic issues that stem from it. Most notably UCLA and the Hammer Museum will present a conference on June 1 and 2 and a lecture on May 28 with Alain Badiou, Fredric Jameson, and Slavoj Žižek. Yes, Slavoj Žižek. His book on Mozart and Wagner Opera’s Second Death comes highly recommended for those of you interested in a Lacanian perspective on Wagner's operas. On a very different end of the spectrum, REDCAT downtown will host a panel on all things Ring with legendary opera director Peter Sellars, video artist Bill Viola, and neuroscientist Antonio Damasio on May 30.

Sketch of Siegfried and Brünnhilde by Achim Freyer for the LA Opera production of Wagner's Ring Cycle

Ring Festival events aren’t all talk, though. There’s performance, too, including James Conlon conducting the Colburn Orchestra on April 12. There are two modern takes on Wagner’s music, one from Daedelus who performs a remix at the Broad Stage on April 17 and another from daKAH Hip Hop Orchestra at California Plaza on June 19. The Jacaranda concert series in Santa Monica will present “Prussian Blues” on May 22 looking at Wagner’s precursors and followers. Lyric Opera Los Angeles will return after an extended hiatus with four performances of Wagner’s first opera, Die Feen starting in June 11. And, if you can't get enough early Wagner, the musicians of the USC Thornton School of Music will present three performances of Das Liebesverbot starting on April 21. Meanwhile the Domingo-Thornton Young Artist will present recitals in various locations on May 23, June 18, and June 25. Perhaps the non-Ring performance I’m most excited about in the festival, though, is the recital appearance from American soprano Christine Brewer who will close out the 09/10 L.A. Philharmonic season at Walt Disney Concert Hall with, among other things, Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder. And, even if you can’t afford to see any of the Ring Operas in June, take heart. All four will be broadcast on KUSC starting on May 29 over the next few weeks. So, don’t let the parade pass you by.


Awake and Sing

April 06, 2010

Carson Elrod and Heidi Schreck
Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2010

One of the unique features of American liberals is how much they seem to enjoy, or at least feel the need to experience, the skewering of their own perspectives in the theater. Typically, this takes the form of a comedy where cartoonish liberal hypocrisy is milked for laughs as in Bruce Norris’ recent The Pain and the Itch. But this guilt can be accomplished in drama as well, as evidenced in Lisa Kron’s The Wake, her latest play that is now onstage at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City. The story concerns a loose nit family of young New Yorkers on the Lower East Side and follows them through the trials and tribulations they face over the course of the Bush administration from the contested election of 2000 through 2007. During that time, Ellen, a particularly politically engaged writer, faces a series of increasing personal challenges mirrored in the eras political changes that roil her sensibilities. Ellen has a live-in boyfriend, Danny, who stands by as she makes a decision about whether or not to leave their relationship and friends in New York to take up with a woman she has started an affair with in Boston. Meanwhile there are a number of subplots concerning Ellen’s friends including an older international relief worker who has returned to the U.S. to care for a troubled niece. Ellen follows the course set out by her own belief system at virtually any cost. And even when she gets her way openly maintaining both her relationships with two different lovers she fails to recognize the damage she is leaving in her own wake. (And thus the title of the play.) Soon, though, the emotional traumas inherent in her decisions come back to haunt her. Ellen talks about having an intellectual blind spot; the notion is that living strictly within the confines of one’s moral system can result in an inability to recognize bad choices. Ellen’s own life is paralleled by a similar pattern on the other side of the political spectrum in the events that would shape the first decade of the 21st century under the Bush administration.

Kron’s project is an ambitious one, and the point is well taken – that life is always more complicated than simply holding firmly to a set of moral or political principles. But despite this rather sophisticated idea, the play is far from ideal. Kron lets her characters ramble a bit much at times and great stretches of the two hours and 45 minutes is filled with the kind of philosophical relationship conversations that only people in plays have. Everyone's got a lot to say about their feelings, but strangely enough no one seems to act on them in the destructive or impulsive ways that people in the real world often do. Plus there is so much else going on. The subplots in The Wake are so thick that it sometimes feels that not enough time is spent making any of the central relationships between characters believable. The acting was quite good overall. Special mention needs to go to Heidi Schreck who played Ellen. After a lengthy performance in which she is in virtually every scene with lots of dialog, Ms. Schreck’s closing monologue in Sunday’s matinee was interrupted by the recent earthquake felt here in Southern California. After clearing the stage and house for safety reasons, the audience returned as the somewhat shaken Ms. Schreck pulled herself together to get back into character and finish the play. Perseverance works and it endeared her to everyone in attendance. Here's hoping next time around she's in something a little more substantial. Performances continue in Culver City through April 18.


Love Potion No. 9

April 04, 2010

Richard Paul Fink as Alberich and Eric Halfvarson as Hagen
Photo: Monika Rittershaus/LAO 2010

On Saturday it came to pass that Los Angeles and its opera company finally have their own Ring cycle. With the public opening of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, the company has completed a major achievement by mounting a totally unique and artistically ambitious production of one of the true masterpieces of Western culture. They did it on their own without the help of a co-sponsoring institution and with just about everything being built from scratch under the guidance of director and designer Achim Freyer. They have gone their own way, and I would argue, have a great deal to show for it. With the size of the undertaking to date and the three excellent opera productions that have preceded it, this Götterdämmerung runs the risk of being an afterthought. It is not; however, it may, admittedly, be the toughest to like.

Götterdämmerung is by far the most doctrinaire of Freyer's Ring operas in terms of his fondness of Brechtian theater principles. He relies on many of the same tactics he has throughout the cycle. All of the Gibichung, including Gutrune and Gunther, are masked throughout the whole show. There is an irreverent sense of humor at times. When Siegfried drinks Hagen's love potion, his boorish traits rise to the surface. He lunges at Gutrune, who like the rest of the cast stands behind a life-size cut out of her costume, pulling down the front of her dress and exposing the molded breasts underneath. This "Gutrune Gone Wild" moment doesn't stand alone, however, and the juxtaposition of the primitive and cheap with the highest of high tech provides many more such moments. There were still technical problems at times, particularly with the video feed, but this haphazardness is, in part, by design. Freyer seems more wary of spectacle this time around. Götterdämmerung is the most static of his Ring stagings with the cast largely at the foot of the stage throughout and the large central turntable only firing up once in the whole five and a half hours. The stage is dominated by the large white, neon lit floor of the Gibichung Hall. The first Act takes place largely behind a diagonal split screen with Brünnhilde waiting on the mountain top concurrently with Siegfried's initial meeting with Hagen and Gunther. And if your desire for spectacle is tempted by the opera's big end-of-the-world conclusion, you should be warned that this global conflagration is more of the whimper than bang variety.

Musically, this was a very satisfying evening. Conductor James Conlon continues to be the hero of the show leading a rock solid performance from the orchestra who sounded great. With the exception of Waltraute's narrative, things never dragged. And with a stage full of big voices, everyone pulled their weight. Linda Watson's Brünnhilde is superbly acted and consistently well sung. Treleaven, the Siegfried, seemed a little slow to warm up, but was delivering by Act III. Eric Halfvarson, who sang Hagen, and Richard Paul Fink, as Alberich, were perhaps the two strongest performances in the whole cast and provided a stirring start to Act II in Hagen's dream of his father. I would also be remiss not to mention the wonderful Alan Held who managed to given a convincing performance with his face covered throughout the whole show.

But, as important as all these artistic contributions were, it's hard to ignore Freyer's stamp on the proceedings. He arrived at the final curtain call without an ounce of timidity. He was greeted with the loudest response from the audience that was equal measures of bravos and boos. He left the cast line, approaching the foot of center stage soaking up the response with what appeared to be great satisfaction. He should. He's produced something here alongside James Conlon that may be many things, but it is far from boring or irrelevant. There are four more performances in April before the full cycles are staged in May and June.


The Playboy of the Western World

April 03, 2010


Sometimes it’s difficult to know what to make of a rarity. There are some performances that are so unrelated to everything around them that it’s hard to know what to make of them. Or at least that’s the feeling that came back to me on Friday when REDCAT presented Canti del Capricorno, a 20-song cycle composed by Giacinto Scelsi for Japanese soprano Michiko Hirayama. Scelsi's music is not commonly heard in the U.S., and this performance was all the more unusual in that Hirayama, now in her 80s, performed the 90 minute cycle written expressly for her between 1962-1972. Scelsi had a pedigree and a disposition made for controversy in the music world. Largely self-trained, Scelsi was born into the aristocracy in Italy in the early 20th century. He developed a reputation as a playboy in addition to one for his love of music. He did not like to talk about his music or give interviews, although he developed many admirers in the later half of the century, including Ligeti, and was influential on later spectralist composers like Gerard Grisey and Tristan Murail.

Scelsi was interested in microtonal music and in some ways was the original one-note Charlie. Many of his compositions were notable for their use of single notes only rarely moving in small steps away from the central tone. His music relies more on timbre and dynamics as a source of variation as his musicians plays the same note again and again. Scelsi found a muse for his vocal writing in Hirayama for whom he wrote multiple pieces including Canti del Capricorno. Hirayama performs these songs with very little accompaniment; three of the songs use percussion, one a bass, and one a saxophone. Otherwise she is left on her own in these wordless pieces that can vary from chant to wailing to barking at the moon. They are not pretty and the vocal writing is not meant to be. There is something more primitive about the pieces and Scelsi's focus on very restricted ranges of tone is clearly related to a much earlier period of Western music including chant. Hirayama has these songs in her blood and in her 80s the Canti take on a whole new life. She has the voice of an elderly woman, but the unsteadiness and variability that comes with a normally aging voice seem custom made for this context where the music is not about perfectly hitting a variety of notes as much as the sound that is produced in the natural variance of always trying to hit the same one. For a taste of what I mean see the video above taken at the 2008 Ravenna Festival. Friday's appearance at REDCAT was fascinating. And while I'm not sure Scelsi's Canti is great music, it certainly was memorable in its own way.


The Big Show

April 02, 2010

Semyon Bychkov and the L.A. Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2010

I’m back from New York and my first stop is at the Walt Disney Concert Hall for this weekend’s L.A. Philharmonic program featuring conductor Semyon Bychkov and Mahler’s 5th Symphony. If my memory serves me, the last time this particular piece was heard on this stage was an auspicious if generally unpleasant occasion when Gustavo Dudamel led the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra through an overwrought thrashing of the score. And while I wasn’t having to dodge escaping audience members this time around, I can’t say the Bychkov’s approach was a decidedly preferable alternative to that particular sideshow. (I saw a handful of audience members bail on this one as well though there were far more empty seats to begin with on this evening.) Bychkov is no stranger to Mahler, but I’ll admit he is not the first conductor that jumps to mind when you think of this pinnacle of German Romanticism. In fact he doesn't leap to mind with most things, although he makes the rounds at major stages around the world including several West Coast appearances both here and in San Francisco. I’ve heard him conduct Shostakovich in the past with a fair amount of bombast so I entered the Mahler with some trepidation.

To my surprise, this was a remarkably restrained account of the 5th Symphony. In fact maybe it was a little too restrained. There were some lovely moments tonight, particularly in the second and fifth movements. There were certainly a clear sense of dynamics throughout. However, particularly in the first and third movements, I often felt like the overall line of the music was lost amidst a million little pieces. Phrases were left unconnected as if they were all independent entities and not related in a larger whole. If the 5th Symphony is in fact a journey, there will certainly be stops along the way, but there should also be a sense of actually going somewhere. There were some really wonderful contributions from the many fine L.A. Philharmonic players. Principal Horn William Lane sounded especially clear and warm and the brass overall was on top of their game. The program repeats Friday and Saturday.


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