Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Seeing is Believing

May 31, 2010

Linda Watson faces an angry Wotan with her sisters
Photo: Monika Rittershaus/LAO 2009

On Sunday in L.A., there was Die Walküre. It’s not news, I know, but I continue to be amazed by Achim Freyer’s cabinet of wonders on stage at the Dorothy Candler Pavilion. It is dark yet colorful and filled with light. It is both sharply stylistic and intentionally primitive and rough-hewn. The second day of the first cycle was marked with many of the strengths of the first. Everything looked visually much tighter to me than the production’s prior outing and Act III opened with one of the most effective Ride of the Valkyries I’ve seen. This is much more than eight women standing around shrieking in armor—these are angels of death. Meanwhile, James Conlon and the orchestra again delivered a much more ferocious attack on the score than I remember from last spring. The singing was solid if not transcendent. Placido Domingo continues to be far better as Siegmund than any comparable human ought to be. Michelle DeYoung has taken over as Sieglinde for the cycle from Anja Kampe and managed to stay clear and bright above the fray. Vitalij Kowaljow’s Wotan would fit nicely on any of the world’s biggest opera stages. Linda Watson’s Die Walküre Brünnhilde is not her strong suit with more shrieking than one might like. But she has the requisite power and stays in tune which is nice. I think she typically fares better later in the cycle where her tendency to play all emotions as regal indignation makes more sense in the context of the libretto.

As my regular readers know, I’ve said plenty about my admiration for this Ring. But there is one other name that has not come up as often as it should in the discussion that I was reminded of this weekend. The commemorative programs from each evening’s performance have included a portfolio of Monika Rittershaus’ lovely photographs of the production. Also included is a lovely dedication of these images from Freyer to Edgar Baitzel (the former Chief Operations Officer of Los Angeles Opera and a friend to Domingo and many others in the company) who died in 2007. It was largely through his work and perseverance that this particular production happened at all, and its quality and vision are a testament to his work. Although I’d never met him, I’ve thought of him this weekend as I’ve listened to the highly enthusiastic reception of the audience to these performances. The elderly out-of-town couple sitting next to me on Saturday asked me if I liked the production. I said I did and asked what their thoughts were. They told me that they were very apprehensive about the production having heard “so many negative things” and seeing the pictures of the production they had before hand. They noted how surprised they have been with their enjoyment of the production after actually seeing it live. Freyer and the many artists involved in the production have gotten them to thinking of something familiar in a new way. And while I have no scientific data to prove they are or aren’t in the majority of viewers, I would say that Mr. Baitzel would be very happy to know, this was the end result of his effort to bring Wagner’s Ring cycle here to L.A. in the way that he did. What can I say? If you’re not seeing this cycle, you are missing out.


Before I Say Goodbye

May 30, 2010

Lionel Bringuier and members of the L.A. Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2010

What a difference a season makes. Why, it was only eight months ago that all the cool kids who write about music put together some piece on the changes in classical music in the U.S. with the arrival of Alan Gilbert at the helm of the New York Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel in Los Angeles. Gilbert, we were told, was an excellent choice, but had work to do to get the N.Y. Phil back on track while Dudamel’s choice seemed a no-brainer. Oh, but how things have changed. Gilbert is conducting three universally lauded sold-out performances of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre in New York while Dudamel has been sent back to the showers after leading bloated old-standards all over the country.

Given this reversal of fortune, it was best that the last WDCH performance from the L.A. Phil for the 09/10 season this weekend highlighted what is, was, and always will be the best thing about them, the great musicians that make up the orchestra to begin with. The program which included the Sibelius’ Violin Concerto, Dutilleux’ Metaboles, and Stravinsky’s Firedbird Suite, wasn’t earth shattering, but it was played exceptionally well. All of this was under the guidance of an exceptionally talented young conductor, Lionel Bringuier, who has the benefit of not having to heal the sick, raise people out of poverty, or fix the gulf oil spill. He just got to do what he does well, lead the orchestra in music without having to stretch it beyond recognition in the service of making some statement.

The Sibelius solo was played by Julian Rachlin with accuracy and skill. Bringuier kept it moving, though it probably could have been a bit more focused at times. The orchestra works in the second half seemed more to his liking. Dutilleux’ Metaboles is one of those works that calls for a huge orchestra but only rarely allows them to play together instead focusing on outbreaks of sound from here and there around the stage. There is an organic feel to the music that seems to develop out of its own workings as the title might suggest. The Firebird suite is always a nice way to close a season and Bringuier made the most of an orchestra that knows its way around a Stravinsky score. It was a lovely show and it reminded me of exactly how much I’m going to miss the L.A. Phil until October when they are finally released from the purgatory of the Hollywood Bowl.


Back to Work

May 29, 2010

Outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
Photo: mine 2010

It may not be a cash cow and it may not make all of its star performers happy, but Los Angeles Opera’s Ring Cycle is officially on as of today. It’s been a difficult birth and even on Saturday there were plenty “only in LA” moments including a small band of college-age protesters who circled the music center at least once with signs featuring such slogans as “Wagner. Loved by Nazis. Rejected by humans.” Before they dispersed, I was struck with such envy of that youthful ease of dividing the world into good and evil. It isn’t until much later when we realize how compromised we all are in weighing that balance that we actually get to appreciate art like Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Over those many hours we see gods and humans alike struggle with these very distinctions only to find tragedy and perhaps the hope of redemption somewhere near the end.

But regardless of the circus, there was opera at hand. Das Rheingold returned to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage in its first appearance in over a year with pent up energy and an almost edgy stance from just about everyone involved. Whether this was a response to a constant stream of bickering bad news about the production generated in the local papers, or just the excitement of having arrived at the end of a very long road wasn’t clear. Conductor and music director James Conlon flew at the score with abandon and an almost Gergiev-like intensity. This was not a measured and reflective approach but a "let's do this" take on things. On top of this, three of the principal stars in Das Rheingold, Richard Paul Fink as Alberich, Arnold Bezuyen as Loge, and Graham Clark as Mime all gave high energy and very physical performances proving that even with a mask on all evening, it’s still entirely possible to give a great vocal and acting performance. (A lesson that should be well taken by others in the cast who’ve complained about limitations placed upon their artistic selves with little more than some face paint.)

Alberich and Mime in Das Rheingold
Photo: Monika Rittershaus/LAO 2009

The Achim Freyer staging is still very much a work of art and continues to draw in viewers willing to open their eyes to its beauty. The production has been somewhat streamlined since its initial run with tighter cues, some reduction in stage business in the second scene, and a now uncovered orchestra pit. It still works on virtually every level and couldn’t be more Wagnerian. But don’t take it from me. Perhaps some of the best words describing the staging have come from Freyer himself who provides these notes in the program:
The overarching themes for “Das Rheingold” are pre-history without time, the planes of the elements, [and] horizontal overlapping. For “Die Walküre”: divine circular time and immortality, pursuit and escape, circle and spiral. For “Siefgfried”: parallel and perspective timelines as paths, mortality, waiting and beginning. For “Götterdämmerung: racing inertia, super-space and –time, multiplication and overlapping of all dimensions.

The Tarnhelm, shadows, reflections, doubles and the different forms in which figures appear in any given moment reflect their personality schisms, the search for and loss of identity of all the characters. We are talking here of pre-history, for which there do not exist familiar images or symbols in our everyday world. It is a timeless world only made visible and intelligible through art and theater.

Thmelessness was Wagner’s dictum for the Ring. In his lifetime, he remained unsatisfied with its world premiere and subsequent scenic experiments. Nonetheless, to this day historicizing Ring interpretations have been traditionalized, which has infringed and continues to infringe upon Wagner’s dictum to this day.
Freyer's vision of the Ring takes Wagner at his word about being timeless. This is a vision that exists outside of time in part because it looks like nothing we know right now in either opera or the real world. The audience seemed to connect to the performance and gave one of the most enthusiastic receptions I've yet heard to any of the Ring opera performances in L.A. Best of all, things are just getting started.


In The Wings - June '10

May 28, 2010

Linda Watson and Vitalij Kowaljow in Act III of Die Walküre
Photo: Monika Rittershaus/LAO 2009

Even in the land of the endless summer, there’s something special about that Memorial Day to Labor Day period that sets it apart. And for lovers of live performance, options abound everywhere and don’t always involve being outside. June, of course, is a very big month here in Los Angeles with Los Angeles Opera’s first complete performances of Wagner’s Der Ring Des Nibelungen, which begins over Memorial Day Weekend and runs through the 26th. The company has been through a lot to get to this point, including the recent shameful bad mouthing of the production by two of its stars. But honestly, despite it all, it’s a superior and unique production that will continue to be a respected point of reference for years to come. There are thousands of reasons to go and relatively few not to. And even if the cost is an issue, KUSC will be airing local tapings of all four operas on consecutive Saturday mornings starting the 29th. There are also tons of events taking place around town in conjunction with the Ring Festival—from planetarium shows at the Griffith Observatory to four performances of Wagner’s early rarity, Die Feen, which the Los Angeles Lyric Opera will mount at the Pasadena Playhouse starting June 11. On a personal note, for any readers who’ll be attending the Opera America conference in L.A. June 9th -12th, you’ll get a chance to see Out West Arts live and in the flesh when I appear on a panel about the future of journalism. If you’re there, come say hi.

George Benjamin

There’s worthwhile opera up north in San Francisco this month, as well, including that company’s own staging of Wagner’s Die Walküre with Nina Stemme in preparation for their own Ring Cycles in 2011. Also on the bill are Deborah Voigt’s first performances as Minnie in Puccini’s La fanciulla del West and the Patricia Racette-headlining Gounod's Faust, all of which I’ll catch during the weekend of the 18. June also means this year’s Ojai Festival, which I’ll be forced to take an abbreviated visit to this year due to my schedule. On the 12th, however, I will see Eric Huebner play Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus and the local premiere of George Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill both on June 12.

With all of this, there’s little time for anything else, but you might want to consider the touring production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, which will show up at the Ahmanson Theater this month. There are also a few starry classical concerts to keep in mind, as well, including a Christine Brewer recital at Walt Disney Concert Hall on June 1, and an appearance from Leila Josefowicz playing the Adams Violin Concerto in Orange County with the Pacific Symphony on June 5. And last, but never least, is an appearance by Partch, the ensemble dedicated to the ongoing performance of works from the iconoclastic California composer who’ll appear at REDCAT on Wednesday, June 2. So go get your Wagner on and have a great month.


In The Papers

May 27, 2010

David Sefton
Photo: David Miezal 2008

I was saddened to hear the news today that David Sefton, the long time artistic director of UCLA Live, the university’s public performing arts series, has suddenly resigned. According to the Los Angeles Times, Sefton submitted his resignation to take effect immediately when he felt he could not abide a “restructuring” of the program dictated by the university and its own declining economic fortunes. Apparently the first change in the restructuring will be an end to the International Theater Festival Sefton championed since 2002 and which will not be a part of the upcoming season. It’s just tragic since the series has undoubtedly been the source of the most important programming UCLA Live has presented over the last decade. Sefton notes in the report that without this kind of programming, there is little interest for him in what the entire program has to offer in the future. I know how he feels. And without a replacement in the wings at a time of “restructuring”, it appears that the series risks entering a free fall in the not-to-distant future even though Sefton has reportedly finished booking the 2010-2011 season that is to be announced shortly. They might as well start booking that Steel Magnolias revival with Kathy Rigby as we speak. At least I’ll get to save some money by not renewing my subscription.

Meanwhile, people can’t stop writing about Gustavo Dudamel and his recently completed national tour with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. (So why should I?) Apparently feeling that Mark Swed’s damage control over the copious negative reviews of the recent tours was insufficient, the Los Angeles Times rolled out James Rainey (I know - who??) on the 26th to raise the inherent East Coast bias of those who dared to question the maestro's skills. His most shining moment in the piece, though, was his none-to-subtle implication that racism was a factor in these negative critiques as well. And who knows, maybe that garbage struck a nerve after all when you consider the further musings of Anne Midgette on the topic in today’s Washington Post. Midgette was one of the few critics who were enthusiastically supportive of Dudamel on the tour, but still she felt the need to write more in what is essentially a defense of her view in the follow-up. Yes, she admits, she still thought the concert in Washington was magnificent. But rest assured, she explains, she by no means thinks that Dudamel is the future of classical music. Though, on the other hand she is now certain he is not "falling into [the] trained-monkey syndrome.” Well there's some fair and balanced commentary for you if nothing else. Sometimes I worry that I’m not really qualified to write about the things I do on my blog. Then I read what passes for arts journalism and criticism in the legitimate press.

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New Favorite

May 26, 2010


I’ve always loved Tracey Thorn’s voice and music. Her latest recording, Love and Its Opposite, came out last week and has quickly become this week’s favorite. Thorn’s songs delve into material fairly off the beaten path for pop songs. In particular, they deal with social concerns of the average 40-year-old – dealing with the divorces among your friends (“Oh the Divorces"), coming to grips with your ambivalence about the institution of marriage (“Long White Dress”), or relating to your teenage children (“Hormones”). Her lyrics can still cut to the quick. Ewan Pearson’s production on Love and Its Opposite owes a lot less to electronic dance music than anything Thorn’s done in many years and is fairly straight forward. It’s an excellent grown up pop record that I highly recommend.


Method Acting

May 25, 2010

Robert Mammana and Will Bradley
Photo: Ed Krieger/Boston Court 2010

The Theater @Boston Court continues its 2010 season of world premiere plays this month with the ambitious new play from Tom Jacobson, The Twentieth-Century Way. I’m a sucker for a great title and interesting subject matter and this play has both. Jacobson’s play is based on little-known real events described in Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons’ excellent history of gay and lesbian communities in Los Angeles, Gay L.A. Specifically, it concerns two actors who were hired by the Long Beach Police Department in 1914 to entrap gay men involved in sexual activity in public and private facilities in the city in an effort to root out vice. It’s an episode in local history fraught with multiple layers of political and social tension and has inherently dramatic potential.

Or at least one would think. Jacobson takes a rather elaborate and needlessly arch and complicated approach to the story by placing multiple layers of abstraction on top of one another in the plays events. Initially we are introduced to the two actors, Warren and Brown, who occupy the stage alone throughout the 90 minutes of The Twentieth-Century Way. Ostensibly they are meeting as part of an audition that no one else is competing for and soon they are speaking in a meta-fictional way about the roles they will assume in service of their vice work for the local police department. Soon the actors also take on the myriad of other characters, both real and imagined, involved with these events. Scenes rapidly shift and bleed into one another with the actors returning to prior material without warning or pause. This is also set against recurrent episodes of the characters talking to one another in a more omniscient position, commenting on their own roles in the events and their increasingly homoerotic relationship with each another.

Not that the real life actors in question, Will Bradley as Brown and Robert Mammana as Warren aren't imminently capable of handling the johns, police officers, and other assorted people in turn of the century Long Beach. Both are quite good with the extremely convoluted and pretentious dialog. Jacobson is hugely ambition with The Twentieth-Century Way and wants to reflect on it all - gay history and identity, acting technique, construction of the self, sexual identity politics, homoeroticism, and turn-of-the-century hygienic crusades to name just a few. All of this is done in the most arch and “meta” way. Yet with all of this cerebral gamesmanship, there is surprisingly little tension in the piece, which progressively focuses on Brown's moral misgivings about conducting undercover stings and Warren's own sexual identity issues, until everybody gets naked in the last few minutes. In the end the performers make reference to the real audience and their own real names before embracing in a long-avoided and frequently-discussed kiss.

As much as I admired the idea of The Twentieth-Century Way, I just couldn’t get around the grandiose intellectualization of the piece. Not that there isn’t insight into big issues about sexual identity and the theater, its just that there is never much going on to care about. Even the sexual tension between the two men often falls flat. It’s akin to mental masturbation, only without the masturbation part. The Twentieth-Century Way runs through June 6 at Boston Court in Pasadena. It will live on in August where it will be presented as part of the New York International Fringe Festival.

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I Told You So

May 24, 2010


I really wasn’t planning on saying anything more about the L.A. Philharmonic’s quasi-disastrous U.S. tour that concluded on Saturday in New York. (For the latest bad news, see Justin Davidson's review in New York magazine.) However, following Mark Swed’s further attempt at damage control in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times, I feel compelled to open my mouth again. In his piece, Swed acknowledges that many major reviews of the L.A. Phil on tour have been negative, particularly with regards to the conducting skills of Gustavo Dudamel. (A "drubbing" is the term he used.) He also recognizes that while a “backlash” was not unexpected, the come-down after an unprecedented amount of positive attention was more than anticipated despite its inevitability. Of course, there is zero mention of the fact that Swed himself is one of the primary architects of this wave of hype and overstatement by his penning one breathless, unquestioning review of Dudamel’s performances here in L.A. after the next. The fact is that the sound of the orchestra is no worse now than it has been at any time during this 09/10 season under Dudamel. The difference now is that there are many more critical voices across the country who are unwilling to ignore the real problems that exist for the orchestra under Dudamel’s guidance at this time. Swed's rose-colored glasses seem welded to his head as he continues to minimize and look the other way from the music director’s penchant for histrionic dynamics and lack of precision.

Of course, the response to all of the criticism now that someone from out of town recognizes the emperor’s lack of clothing is for Swed to suggest that Dudamel is doing something groundbreaking and new by presenting old standards in ways that lie outside the expectations of listeners familiar with them. And, although he is clearly in the minority in his assessment of Dudamel's work to date, he goes further to imply that the conductor’s rock star status represents the future of classical music,
And all the excitement seemed too much for uptight Lincoln Center guards keeping me and mob at bay as we tried unsuccessfully to get backstage. Classical music isn’t supposed to be like this, which, of course, is what the reviews had been saying all along.
While this could be the dawning of a new age in Western Culture, I doubt Swed and a surprisingly small cohort of classical music writers at this point are the only ones to recognize it. I’ll agree that Dudamel is certainly bringing new faces and noisy crowds to concert halls unaccustomed to them. However, what Swed fails to see is that there is a difference between changing people’s minds about basic principles and riding on the wave of novelty. Dudamel won’t be the latest model forever. And when he isn’t, whether or not all those new-found listeners will really want to continue hearing Tchaikovsky or whatever else is on the bill seems rather unlikely to me. What we have here, in Gustavo Dudamel’s L.A. Philharmonic is a first, all right—America’s first “classical crossover” orchestra. An ensemble with a popular and enthusiastic following but which garners little respect or interest among people who actually like or follow classical music over the long term. Or, as my friend Jim says, we’ve got Lang Lang with a baton. Who cares what the L.A. Phil plays as long as Dudamel is on the podium? Who will care when he’s not?

So far what I have been saying about the Dud and the L.A. Phil all season long (and even before) is turning out to be closer to the truth than not. So what happens next? If I’m a betting man, the backlash will continue into a European tour next year. Meanwhile at home, as Dudamel becomes less of a topic of the moment, the predominantly novelty-seeking crowds will begin to thin out when they notice that the orchestra will be playing classical music most all of the time. How far civic boosterism will go in supporting this relationship beyond this contraction is anybody’s guess. Maybe things will change. I certainly hope they do. The orchestra has come so far in terms of its reputation to lose so much ground so quickly. Maybe Dudamel and the orchestra will reach some place that they're actually tolerable to listen to when playing together for more than 20 minutes at a stretch. And maybe, as Anthony Tommasini suggested in the New York Times on Friday, Dudamel will spend some time "immersing himself in the repertory."


The Brotherhood of Dance

May 23, 2010

from l-r: Nicole Parker, Josh Grisetti, and Vicki Lewis
Photo: John Ganun/Reprise

Being back in town this weekend, it was time to catch up on some shows before they disappeared entirely. And in most cases, I was glad I did. The Reprise Theater Company wrapped up its 2010 season over the weekend with a revival of Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows’ How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying at the Freud Playhouse on the UCLA campus. Reprise has had a particularly strong season this year, and it appears the leadership of artistic director Jason Alexander is certainly reaping dividends in terms of the quality of the shows overall since he took over the job. Granted How to Succeed is a little past its relevance in 2010. This afternoon pretty much met my skirt-chasing themed theatrical events quota for the year. But musically you couldn’t want for more and director Marcia Milgrom Dodge runs one tight ship. The cast was exemplary, including the always enjoyable Vicki Lewis as wells as excellent regulars Ruth Williamson and Michael Kosroff. I’d be remiss, though, not to mention the superb performance from Josh Grisetti as J. Pierrepont Finch. Visitors to the Freud Playhouse are often stopped in the theater’s lobby by the mini-gallery of memorabilia donated to the UCLA Musical Theater Program by one of its major benefactors, Ray Bolger. The relevance of these artifacts may have seemed greater than normal during the run of How to Succeed because Grisetti’s talent and appearance recall Bolger so strongly at times it borders on the uncanny. One can only hope that he has a career as important ahead of him as that legend.

from Lionel Popkin's There is an Elephant in This Dance

I also caught one of the performances from Lionel Popkin and his collaborators at REDCAT where they brought one of their recent works There is an Elephant in this Dance to hometown audiences after appearances around the country. The title plays with the same kind of irony Magritte used in claiming that “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” despite all visual evidence to the contrary. Popkin’s piece in fact does not have an elephant despite its title, but is instead structured around an unrealistic multi-piece elephant costume. Dancers don parts of it throughout the hour-long work that is often accompanied by video depicting pre-recorded performance of the dancers in the costume as well. The physical movement of the dancer’s can be blunted by the costume either by obscuring their features, or by acting as comic foil by its presence in the video even when the live dancers are not enmeshed in it. Animal movement is everywhere in the piece, though, including a recurrent gesture where dancers attempt to place their fingers in each others mouths similarly to a horse’s bit. There was something fresh in all this, both in its irreverence and avoidance of a sharper focused physicality so common among contemporary choreographers. Popkin’s Elephant is unconcerned with the blurry edges. The piece does drag a little in the middle, and sometimes the dance becomes totally secondary to the background video, but it does suggest the mind of someone with interesting ideas about dance and movement.

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Raw Talent

May 22, 2010

from l-r: José Adán Pérez, Yohan Hi, Hak Soo Kim, Ronnita Nicole Miller, Danielle Walker, Erika Wueshner, Placido Domingo, and Erica Brookhyser
Photo: mine 2010

Placido Domingo is back in town this weekend leading up to his performances as Siegmund in L.A. Opera’s new Ring Cycle starting on May 29th. But before attending to that business, he had another high profile gig for LAO on Thursday and Friday at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica where he hosted and conducted the L.A. Opera Orchestra in a recital featuring the many talented young artists of the Domingo-Thornton Young Artists program. The show was dedicated to the late and well-loved music patron Flora L. Thornton and was attended by a number of dignitaries including L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye. With so many big names in the sold-out audience and the most famous living name in classical music on the podium, it wasn’t surprising that the eight vocalists in the young artist program seemed somewhat nervous as things got underway.

The program’s first half consisted of a grab bag of opera showpieces. Erika Wueshner sang Elsa’s “Einsam in Trüben Tagen” for starters and was then joined by mezzo-soprano Ronnita Nicole Miller for the Barcarolle from Hoffmann. The tension has relaxed a bit by the end of the first half when the same pair delivered “Mira, o Norma” of all things. Both vocalists have sizable instruments and were splendid. Miller has had a number of higher profile gigs with LAO and is also appearing as one of the Rhinemaidens in the current Ring cycle performances. Valerie Vinzant and Erica Brookhyser sang the Flower Duet from Lakmé to a very enthusiastic response as well. There were two ensemble bits rounding out the first half including “Mir ist so wunderbar” from Fidelio and the Act I sextet from Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte. Both groupings featured great moments for some of the males in the program including bass-baritone Yohan Hi and tenor Hak Soo Kim.

The second half of the evening featured zarzuela arias and ensembles of various stripes and the singers noticeably relaxed and had more fun with these pieces. Most notable was the best four minutes of singing the whole night, which belonged to baritone José Adán Pérez. He sang “Amor vida de mi vida” from Torroba’s Maravilla with the kind of expression that made it feel like he was producing all of the sound, both orchestral and vocal, on stage. If vocal performance in opera is about communicating beyond the meaning of the spoken word, Pérez proved he is capable of much greater things. The evening concluded with Danielle Walker and Hak Soo Kim leading the rest of the ensemble, including four young singers from Washington National Opera’s young singers program, in Verdi’s “Libiamo ne’lieti calici” from La Traviata. Perhaps one of the most rewarding parts of the performance was getting to see Domingo work directly with these young singers outside of a competition format. It was a lovely showcase that the company should do more of.

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And The Hits Keep on Coming

May 21, 2010


It appears that the second week of the LA Philharmonic's national tour under music director Gustavo Dudamel is not being received much better than the first. Despite the dispatch of KUSC staff and the Los Angeles Times' Mark Swed in an effort to provide some damage control, the lukewarm reviews continue to roll in from many quarters.

The New York Times' Anthony Tommasini notes there is a lot of work to be done to get the orchestra back to the level of regard it had on an a national stage even as recently as a year ago,
But part of the job description for a music director at a major American orchestra involves fostering the technical skills of the players and giving assured, fresh performances of works in the central repertory. In this regard, Thursday’s concert was a disappointment....

But Mr. Dudamel has to tend to the technical maintenance of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and may need to spend more time, as the Tchaikovsky performance suggested, immersing himself in the repertory.
The word from Philadelphia and Peter Dobrin was not much better,
Here was a slightly unkempt performance of John Adams' City Noir, a signature piece of this orchestra penned by its own creative chair, and an unremarkable Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6. But classical music was winning friends. Did it matter that many came for something other than the music?

With a rags-to-riches story and a media presence of perhaps unprecedented proportions, Dudamel, as leader of a major orchestra at a relatively young age, represents everything right classical music is doing today. Or wrong.

It depends entirely on what you think the field should be banking on as its future. The most cynical listener figures that the Los Angeles Philharmonic has recalculated aspects of the job once considered ancillary (community relations, education, fund-raising) as primary now, and a winsome persona is more important than revelatory interpretations.

I'd rather think that the Los Angeles board, administration, and players really believe they have a great musical thinker on their hands. But that's not who Dudamel is - not now, at 29, not Wednesday night in Verizon Hall.
As some consolation, at least The Washington Post's Anne Midgette was willing to brush aside the serious problems she acknowledged along with everyone else, by highlighting the excitement and high spirits of an enthusiastic conductor and crowd at a classical music concert.
There's no question that Dudamel is a brilliant talent, but there have always been things to criticize in his approach. He is an instinctive musician, but sometimes seems to conduct for the moment rather than with an eye to the whole work. On Monday, one could find plenty to carp at if one was so inclined: balance issues, shaky entrances, lackluster moments from the brass.

Frankly, though, that didn't matter, because Dudamel and the orchestra also offered one of the most involving and compelling performances of Tchaikovsky's "Pathétique" symphony I've ever heard. This was music played by someone who loves music, someone who had an idea where he was going with the piece. And the orchestra opened its collective heart and went right along with him. Perfect? No. Gorgeous? Yes.
So apparently it doesn't matter if the music is any good or not, as long as your heart is in the right place. After having had to listen to the Dud conduct all season in L.A., I'd take a little more skill and a little less goodwill in a hot second if given the chance. As before, these are only excerpts from the reviews, of course, so I’d encourage you to follow the links to read the whole thing yourself. The good news is that the L.A. Philharmonic will be back home next week to finish off the season. this time under the capable hands of Lionel Bringuier.


Au Printemps

May 20, 2010


Missing Yvonne Loriod who died Monday.

Oh The Humanity

May 19, 2010

Renée Fleming and cast in Armida
Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2010

Poor Mary Zimmerman. The theater director just can’t seem to catch a break at the Metropolitan Opera where her third production for the house, Rossini’s Armida just closed out the 09/10 season there last Saturday. Railing on her work has become a favorite pastime for all sorts of folks on the internets, though to be honest, her productions have been much better than she’s given credit for. It hasn’t helped of course that the three works she’s been asked to direct have included two extremely weak operas to begin with, Armida and last season’s La Sonnambula. (The other was Lucia di Lammermoor) Armida is the weakest of her productions for the Met and seems to have a distinct shortage of the vision thing. Given the slings and arrows she may have suffered after La Sonnambula she may have elected to scale back to something a little more digestible to a local audience weened on decades of musty old “magic”. (Of course this was all before Luc Bondy's production of Tosca for the Met in September 09 raised the bar for histrionic consternation at the house.)

Armida takes place exclusively in a semicircular rotunda with a few strategically placed turquoise palm trees or giant tropical birds once in awhile to distinguish one scene from the next. There are occasional fits of whimsy, like a ladybug that crawls along the top of the rotunda walls in Act III, but they tend to be more cloying than charming. The plot is mostly nonsense that sounds more 18th than 19th century and concerns a sorceress who feels the conflicting tug of desires for revenge against a group of paladins and her love for their leader. Things develop on an ad hoc basis from there, but perhaps the biggest stumbling bloc in this revival was the decision to leave the large second act ballet intact dragging the light fare of the rest of the show into an evening of over four hours with very little pay off.

This was a star vehicle of course. But oddly enough it turned out to be less of one for Renée Fleming, for whom it was mounted, and more of one for Lawrence Brownlee, an increasingly important player in the Met's tenor ranks. He sang beautifully and out maneuvered Fleming vocally a number of times calling to mind favorable comparisons to people like Juan Diego Florez. Oh sure there are situations in other works where he couldn't hold a candle to her, but bel canto is still not Fleming's strong suit.

Despite this disappointment at the end of the year though, I still felt that this was a very satisfying Met Opera season. I know it is increasingly fashionable on the East Coast to get all Chicken Little on Peter Gelb and his leadership. Everybody wants to take a pot shot from the keen financial analysts at Vanity Fair to overeager commentators around every corner upset when they aren't enthralled by each and every new production to reach the Met stage. Even Alex Ross got in the act in the Spring by expressing less confidence in Gelb's management after his disappointment in the lack of accessible humanistic content in the company's newest productions. (This seems a particular preoccupation of East Coast critics.) What's a general manager to do? Stick by your guns that's what. Things are better artistically at the Met Opera now than they have been for quite awhile and Gelb is largely to thank for that. The new productions are no more or less "successful" than they were a decade ago and there is now at least some semblance of awareness of music and theater history of the last half-century. Things may not be to everyone's taste - they never will. But it's delusional to think the company is in worse shape now than it has been after years if not decades of artistic stagnation. I for one will be back on several occasions next year.


I Read the News Today, Oh Boy..

May 18, 2010

Photo: Andrew Eccles 2009

As you may have noticed, the Los Angeles Philharmonic is currently out of town on a two-week concert tour of the U.S. under musical director Gustavo Dudamel. Of course, there is never any let up from the L.A. Philharmonic’s tireless PR machine that is bombarding us with everything from a new segment on “60 Minutes” to profiles in American Way magazine. The group hit San Francisco, Phoenix, Chicago and Nashville last week to sold-out houses and enthusiastic audiences at every stop. However, given the decidedly mixed reviews the performances have gotten so far, it seems what was billed as a "eat-your-heart-out" tour is provoking more than anticipated indigestion by people who regularly write about classical music.

The reviews have dutifully noted Dudamel’s energy and excitement and the great work he has done with young musicians. But at long last, critics have begun to notice the fact that while his conducting skills are promising, they are still highly underdeveloped, particularly with an orchestra of this caliber. This is not a surprise to me, of course, considering I’ve been saying the same things since 2007 here at outwestarts.com, but now Dudamel’s slip is beginning to show in other cities as well.

In San Francisco, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Joshua Kosman was “bewildered” by the L.A. Phil performances there:
In appearances presented Monday and Tuesday by the San Francisco Symphony as part of the Great Performers Series, Dudamel and his band offered up a head-spinning mass of puzzlements....

There were readings marked by phenomenal power and inventiveness, and others dragged down into a morass of ostentatious mannerism. At times Dudamel and the orchestra seemed utterly in sync, only to turn the page and come to grief on a simple question of ensemble or instrumental balance. The orchestra itself struggled in parts (the brass was particularly unpredictable) while excelling elsewhere (especially the strings). Where are they now? Where are they heading? Your guess is as good as mine.
Things didn’t much improve in Chicago where Andrew Patner reported in the Chicago Sun-Times on performances of Adam’s City Noir and Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony,
But I’m not seeing or hearing a lot of development. His repertoire of full symphonic works remains small. In a new addition for this tour, Tchaikovsky’s B minor “Pathetique” Sixth Symphony, Op. 74, Dudamel often went more for effect than either deep or subtle understanding. As was the case even more so with the first encore, the Intermezzo from Puccini’s opera “Manon Lescaut,” too often the dynamic choices were two: loud and louder. These emphases made for a third movement march both well-paced and stirring, but not much else in the rest of the work....

Most disconcerting, though, is Dudamel’s continuing difficulty – or lack of concern? – with section balances and ensembling. An experienced conductor should be able not only to prepare and lead his own interpretation of a piece but to detect and fix problems in performance quickly and correctly. Dudamel seemed so caught up in his conception of the work that he appeared not to notice lack of dynamic and rhythmic synch, ragged patches and peculiar drops in tension after big effects.
Patner wasn’t the only windy city scribe who dared to dissent though. The Chicago Tribune’s John von Rhein weighed in with significant negatives as well.
There's no question he is inordinately talented, a brilliant and inspiring podium dervish who can get an orchestra to do anything he wishes while lifting an audience out of its seats. Even so, there sometimes appears to be a disconnect between the musical ends and the means he employs to achieve them. Half-formed interpretative ideas betray a lack of musical depth. The problem is not so much one of faulty instincts as where and how he channels those instincts....

Dudamel looked to be in ecstasy on the podium, slashing the air with his baton, crouching and levitating as he drove the Russian warhorse onward. But that visual show of emotion did not translate into a particularly coherent or deeply felt reading. Pacing was erratic, balances were careless and there were noticeable lapses of tension between melodramatic effusions. Tchaikovsky's final plunge into black despair and death can be a shattering experience; not here. Only the march movement really worked.
These are only excerpts from the reviews, of course, so I’d encourage you to follow the links to read the whole thing yourself. Of course, this is only the first week of the tour, and the L.A. Phil will appear in Washington, Philadelphia and New York this week. Here’s hoping things pick up for them a bit more now that the cat is out of the bag about the hype monster created around the L.A. Phil’s new maestro.


Lest We Forget

May 17, 2010

Pierre Boulez, Deborah Polaski, and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Photo: mine 2010

A final footnote to the Metropolitan Opera’s 09/10 season occurred on Sunday with a bit of a consolation prize. One of the biggest successes of last season was an import of the spectacular production of Janacek’s From the House of the Dead by Patrice Chéreau that had previously appeared to acclaim in several locations in Europe. The Met had gone to great trouble to bring the production largely intact to its stage, but failed to persuade the original conductor, Pierre Boulez, to travel to New York for the run and to make his debut with the company. It all worked out for the best, though, in that Esa-Pekka Salonen was recruited as Boulez’ replacement to great fanfare. But, Boulez did finally make his company debut after all this season in a concert Sunday with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. And while it certainly wasn’t the equivalent of hearing him lead this world class orchestra in the pit, it was a great show and a sad reminder of what this particular company had missed out on by not getting a commitment for his services at some earlier point in his long and illustrious career.

The program began with Bartók’s music for the ballet The Wooden Prince. Bartók isn’t best remembered for ballet music and this is far from the tradition established by the likes of Tchaikovsky. It’s an often dark piece with Bartók’s usual folk music-inspired infusions. Boulez brought out the most modern details in the piece in a sound from the orchestra that was big and very warm. That the Met Orchestra is one of the world’s best is no surprise, but hearing them on stage in this context (where they appear three times a season) is always a refreshing reminder of their power. The ballet’s plot concerns a love between a prince and princess which is thwarted by a jealous fairy who sends a wooden replica of the prince to the princess in his stead. The princess falls for the facsimile at first, but everything has a happy ending. Boulez understands restraint in the context of big and dramatic gestures, a lesson still lost more often than not on younger generations of conductors.

Given these themes about illusions of love, Boulez couldn’t have selected a more appropriate 20th-century counterpart than he did with a concert version of Schoenberg’s Erwartung. This 12-tone monodrama for soprano and orchestra deals with a young woman who has gone to meet her lover. When he doesn’t arrive, she wanders the forest looking for him and eventually becomes convinced she has found his dead body. The soloist was Deborah Polaski who sounded perfectly respectable here if a little detached in the first half of the work. Boulez and the orchestra again gave a fantastically detailed and caring performance of a piece almost too dense to easily consider in its brief 30 minutes. It was more than enough, though, to convey the contradictions and riddles of perception inherent in the work. The Met Orchestra’s time with Boulez was all too brief overall, and while it was sad to think about all the music that could have been made between them, it was wonderful to have this.

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The Party's (Almost) Over

May 15, 2010

Marlis Petersen as Lulu
Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2010

I know I’m late to the party. In fact, as of this writing the Metropolitan Opera’s 09/10 season is officially one for the history books. Nonetheless, I traveled out to New York this weekend to catch the last few performances before the summer break and maybe to reflect on things more broadly if I feel like it. The first night was a rocky one and probably one of the worst things I've seen at the Met all season. In a season where Wagner was almost completely absent, the recently closed revival of Der Fliegende Holländer was doing no one any favors. Virtually nothing worked well from the super-dull production, to Kazushi Ono’s conducting, to the vocal performance. The single bright spot in Thursday’s final performance was tenor Russell Thomas’ turn as the Steersman. He was as fresh and exciting as I remember from appearances in Adams’ The Flowering Tree and I wished he'd had more to do in Wagner’s sea epic. The big star, of course, was Deborah Voigt as Senta, and she did give a competent and solid performance if it was marked at times by some shrillness. Her acting is still very convincing, but she had little help from her male counterparts. Juha Uusitalo was about as distant and uninvolved in his performance as the Dutchman as anyone I can think of in any role in the last year, though Philip Webb’s Erik was pretty stiff competition for the title. Ono’s conducting seemed uncertain throughout, and the lack of musical continuity made the cramped and overly snowy quarters of August Everding’s 1989 production even more claustrophobic. You know it’s bad when you sit there wishing you were watching Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick again.

Deborah Voigt as Senta
Photo: Cory Weaver/Met Opera 2010

Things markedly improved on Saturday, though, with the last of three performances of Berg’s Lulu conducted by the Metropolitan Opera’s new principal guest conductor Fabio Luisi, who was filling in for the ailing James Levine. He gave a lovely reading of the score with the orchestra. (You can never go wrong musically with someone who loves pugs.) The big star here was the Lulu of the moment, Marlis Petersen, who gave as rich and poignant a performance as she had in Chicago in 2008. She dominates the stage, as she should, and manages the physicality of the part very well. Her supporting cast were all quite reasonable, including the woefully underutilized Michael Schade who I’d love to hear in America more often. James Morris sang Dr. Schön and though he’s a little long in the tooth vocally speaking, he could be creepy at times. Anne Sofie von Otter, another vocalist who is trying to find her place in a new decade of her career, sang Countess Geschwitz with a lot of sympathy and not too much gravel. Gary Lehman’s Alwa is certainly a fair site better than his Tristan. The John Dexter production from 1977 is the only one the Met has ever known and it looks threadbare and musty. The comic moments in the production aren't where they should be indicating some tone problems that have crept in over time. That the cast can inject any sexiness into this golden oldie is a miracle at this point and with general director Peter Gelb’s accelerated schedule of new productions each season, it should be a priority for such an important 20th-century opera to get a new look. In fact given the Met’s historic reputation as one of the more artistically conservative companies in the business, it’s odd that their greatest artistic successes this season (e.g. Lulu, From the House of the Dead, The Nose, and Der Rosenkavalier) are all 20th-century operas. Who knew? This revival was musically a great one. Now it’s time to give Berg’s masterpiece the theater component it deserves. We'll continue this later, shall we?


Oh Brother...

May 13, 2010

John Treleaven in LAO's Siegfried
Photo: Monika Rittershaus/LAO 2010

What can I say about this. It shouldn’t come as a surprise really. Historically, it's more the rule than the exception that performers in Ring cycles have long lists of complaints about the productions in which they’ve been cast. It’s really too bad that Linda Watson and John Treleaven’s unprofessionalism may tarnish what is essentially a fantastic and groundbreaking production of the Ring. They are certainly entitled to their opinions about the artistic value and demanding physical challenges in the production. Freyer’s love of steeply raked stages is well known and I imagine maneuvering on it can be pretty difficult. The changing demands on any opera singer’s physical habitus is a well-documented fact at this point in time. And it’s certainly about more than just beauty. We want performers who can sing, act, look good while doing both, and who are able to do more physically challenging feats on stage as well. Treleaven and Watson are by no means in the best physical shape of their lives, based on their recent stage appearances, and the entire casts’ safety should be a primary concern.

As for the artistic values of the production – these complaints are exhibit A why performers are not usually hired to direct their own opera productions. The costumes and masks in Freyer’s Ring may well interfere with the acting and vocal performances of the cast including Treleaven and Watson. I suspect, however, that both artists may be overestimating the quality of those skills generally, considering how mediocre they’ve been here in L.A. in Wagner productions in the past that gave their “acting” more leeway.

It’s too bad that these two opera stars can’t be a little more graceful. Give me Joyce DiDonato any day. She’s suffered through injuries and challenging productions herself in the last year, and has had the ability to talk about them publicly on her own blog with wit, class, and the upmost professionalism.


A Horse of a Different Color

May 12, 2010

David Cole in Palomino
Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2010

It's no secret that American theaters have been overrun in the last decade with solo performance works of all stripes. And with the recent economic constraints faced by most organizations, their popularity with presenters shows no signs of abating. Here in Los Angeles, the solo performance has become a virtual staple at Center Theater Group's Culver City outpost, the Kirk Douglas Theater where such performances have prominently been featured in nearly every season since the venue was opened in 2002. It makes sense for such an intimate venue, but it also speaks to the organization's seeming continued confusion about what to do with the space. While most of these offerings have been marked by virtuoso performances by actors who handle a wide range of characters simultaneously, rarely have they been very satisfying. Works like Danny Hoch's Taking Over and Nilaja Sun's No Child... have been well-intentioned, but essentially polemic presentations on well-worn positions - gentrification is bad and education is woefully underfunded. So it is satisfying to report that CTG's latest solo offering, David Cale’s Palomino, breaks out of the mold by offering something much more developed with deeper currents.

Cale has crafted a narrative about a young Irish horse-drawn carriage driver who is lured into the life of a gigolo. And while this young man is a center of the play's action, the work is just as much about the middle-aged women who pay for his services and other tangentially-related people who cross his path. Cale flirts with a linear narrative by repeatedly returning to events previously described in another character's monologue each time providing more information from other perspectives. What seems obvious becomes less so over time, and I'll admit I was increasingly drawn to the people Cale created on stage. And while there is an overarching narrative, Palomino operates more like a groups of loosely interrelated short stories than a novel. And while this arrangement can lead to a frustrating lack of symmetry in the stories that make up the show, Cale's performance solidifies everything remarkably well. Some of this material is quite delicate concerning people in and out of lust, feeling at times sexy and at time repulsive. Yet he's completely believable, and never once is any of it canned or wince-inducing. By that I mean this doesn't feel like something you'd just run across on TV despite some of the more familiar elements in it. Palomino is solid and worth seeing at the Kirk Douglas Theater where it continues until June 6.


Step Work

May 10, 2010

l-r: Eric Hissom, Claire Brownell, Scott Parkinson, and Ted Deasy in The 39 Steps
Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2010

Five years after it’s birth, Patrick Barlow’s stage adaption of The 39 Steps from John Buchan’s 1915 novel and Alfred Hitchcock’s later movie, arrived in Los Angeles at the Ahmanson Theater. This touring production delivers on the genteel antics that have made the play so popular in both London and New York, with its combination of physical humor and quick-change acting. Barlow took much of Hitchcock’s film and turned it on its head by enforcing a number of restrictions in this stage adaptation. First and foremost, all of the roles are played by four actors who may play multiple roles even in the same scene simultaneously. On top of this, the work is littered with references and in-jokes about Hitchcock’s other films. There is a campy quality to the proceedings, but Barlow never turns against the material in the slightest. In fact, his reliance on low-tech stage magic often creates the feeling of a loving homage with a big smile on its face more than a sharp-tongued farcical send up. A chase scene involving shadow puppet bi-planes coming "North by Northwest" is particularly sweet.

The basic elements are familiar to anyone with a working knowledge of the spy fiction genre, which Buchan more or less created in the early part of the last century. A man, Richard Hannay, walks into an unexplained murder that he is later wrongly accused of and he must go on a mission to clear his name and save his country. Hitchcock, like virtually everyone who has touched this novel in adapting it over the years, added a female lead to the story, played splendidly in this production by Claire Brownell. The broad melodramatic acting provides more than a few laughs, but this is easily accessible stuff. You could easily take younger child to the show and they would likely enjoy it if they aren’t so young to be put off by stage gunshots. But for all the nostalgia, it felt a little perfunctory to me. It kept bringing to mind a much more satisfying project in the same vein, the Kneehigh Theater’s adaptation of Nöel Coward’s Brief Encounter, which visited New York last year. Kneehigh used many of the same tactics to similar comic effect except for the cast size restrictions. But Brief Encounter seemed to tap into something deeper than just a love for movies or Coward by remembering an entire cultural moment that had long since passed. The 39 Steps is enjoyable but at this point it feels like something fashioned for mass consumption. The show runs through this weekend at the Ahmanson Theater downtown.


The Man With Two Brains

May 09, 2010

from Orbo Novo by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui with Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet
Photo: Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet 2010

Art has always depended in large part on the largess of its wealthiest patrons. Although we in the U.S. would like to view this as a more democratic enterprise than it was say three centuries ago, the fact is little has changed. We’re used to seeing the names of a small band of big donors on concert hall doors and stages, but rarely do we appreciate how much of what actually gets done rests in the hands of so few funders in what are still perceived as civic or communal arts organizations. In some ways the Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet is almost a throwback to an earlier era. Founded in 2003 by Wal-Mart heiress Nancy Laurie, the company has wanted for very little financially and has embarked on a decidedly brave course commissioning works from some of the most regarded young choreographers in the world for the troupe under its current artistic director Benoit-Swan Pouffer. Cedar Lake made headlines here in Los Angeles earlier this year when it was announced they were embarking on a periodic residency with UCLA Live!, the University’s public performing arts series, before the group had even opened its first performance this season at Royce Hall.

On Friday, the company finally made its local debut with a work they premiered in summer 2009 by Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui entitled Orbo Novo. Cherkaoui’s own troupe appeared at UCLA in 2008, so the syntax of the piece was not foreign to local audiences. And, while the piece has not been glowingly received in its appearances in New York and other venues, it seemed to be very exciting to the Royce Hall audience on Friday and would appear to bode well for the future of their relationship with UCLA. Orbo Novo is inspired by the writings of Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor who authored a memoir of her own experience having and recovering from a stroke in My Stroke of Insight. Cherkaoui uses Taylor’s neurological-inspired musings on the duality of human nature and a call for the more emotional and less analytical approach to the world as a starting point. And I mean this in the most literal sense in that the piece begins with two of the dances reciting text from Taylor’s book in unison laying out a didactic framework for what’s to follow. It did seem like a lot of dead space right at the front of the 90 minute program, but, admittedly, had a buff hottie in a sailor outfit given my neuroscience lectures I might be working in a different field today.

From here the dancers engage in a variety of groups, solo, and duet segments most of which directly relate to duality and division, not unlike the two hemispheres of the brain. When dancers work together, they tend to be more fluid and “functional” in the undulating animalistic way that Cherkaoui’s choreography often takes. All of this takes place in an empty set divided by several tall panels of red metal lattice work that the dancers move to repeatedly form new spaces and enclosures. The walls are scaled, and dancers (amazingly) pass through the small openings in the lattice crossing the divide. Sometimes they are only partially successful, and are left hanging in midair as if falling in slow motion. The images are striking—especially when the male dancers all disrobe down to nothing but their briefs for the greater part of the middle section of the evening. Nevertheless, all of this seems a little too obvious and direct at times. A little subtlety can go along way, and Orbo Novo had it in too small a supply. The performance itself, though, was quite engaging and bodes well for future collaborations here at UCLA.


Where's Wotan?

May 07, 2010

There's only one week left to The Metropolitan Opera's 09/10 season, and opera fans are already looking forward to the new production of Wagner's Das Rheingold which will open the next one. Director Robert LePage has promised a groundbreaking new vision of the Ring with a predictably all star cast and inquiring minds are eager to get a look at the new production. Can you pick out the Met's future Wotan from the group below?

Neck and Neck

May 06, 2010

Alisa Weilerstein hugs Gustavo Dudamel with members of the L.A. Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2010

It appears that the devastating neck spasm epidemic affecting the classical music world invaded Los Angeles on Thursday night. There had been initial reports of an outbreak yesterday on the East Coast at least if you believe La Cieca over at Parterre Box where it was suggested that neck spasms may have played a role in last minute casting changes on Wednesday at the Metropolitan Opera. Who would have guessed that less than 24 hours later the same shadow would creep across the Walt Disney Concert Hall? The evening started out normally enough. The Los Angeles Philharmonic was performing its penultimate program of the season under music director Gustavo Dudamel before starting off a U.S. tour next week. Originally the program was to have included Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 and the premiere of a new work from composer Stephen Hartke. The Hartke work had been dropped unexpectedly in recent days from the program and replaced with Dvorák’s Cello Concerto, which kicked off the show. The switch was a fortunate one in that it provided an opportunity for the debut of young cellist Alisa Weilerstein who arrived in a red dress with talent to spare. She delivered a splendid performance that was both gentle and rich with the orchestra meeting her at every turn. Dudamel had things well in hand with the orchestra.

Then there was an overly long intermission, followed by unusual comings and goings of staff on stage while the audience and orchestra waited for Dudamel’s return to the podium. Instead, we were greeted with L.A. Philharmonic President Deborah Borda bearing the news that the maestro had become indisposed with “severe pain” from, you guessed it, "neck spasms". Lucky for us, the L.A. Philharmonic is an organization with significant resources of talent, and the consistently excellent Associate Conductor Lionel Bringuier was on hand to take over. Bringuier is no stranger to the orchestra, having led several programs in the past as he will here over Memorial Day weekend in the final L.A. Phil performances of the season. Of course, with such an unexpected switch, some hesitancy is to be expected, and it did sound like conductor and orchestra were getting their bearings in the first movement. But these are world class musicians and things were righted soon enough for another dark and singing performance. The final movement was especially well done with Bringuier holding the audience in silence for several moments. Even with the unexpected, it turned into a lovely night, though clearly there were a handful of folks eager to bail on the show when the promised star was not delivered. It was their loss. But here’s wishing a speedy recovery to Dudamel, whatever the source of his incapacity, and hopes that he’ll return for the rest of this weekend’s programs.


We're All In This Together

May 05, 2010

Esteban Benzecry

Tuesday brought the last performance of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Green Umbrella” contemporary music series for the season, which was notable for also being dedicated to the late Alan Rich who had been one of the biggest advocates for new music and Los Angeles’ place in the contemporary classical world. As to whether or not he would have thought highly of the show, we’ll never know, but as L.A. Phil president Deborah Borda noted, he certainly would have been there. The evening’s program was also the final major program in the Philharmonic’s “Americas and Americans” festival. Despite banal platitudes from music director Dudamel and others about music breaking down borders between peoples of the Americas, the festival has been notable for bringing a lot of unfamiliar music to the Walt Disney Concert Hall stage. The “Green Umbrella” program ran like much of the rest of the festival in presenting equal parts multi-cultural exploration and world-music kitsch on offer.

Music director Gustavo Dudamel conducted three works on the program in his first appearance at any Green Umbrella program this season. He clearly has some interest in 20th- and 21st-century music as evidenced by some of his performances this season, and it was nice to at least see him advocate for a living composer by his presence. Of course, he’s yet to say two words about any of it directly to a local audience either onstage or in a pre-concert venue as of yet. But before he took the stage in either half of the program, there were two solo performances by guitarist Andrew McKenna Lee. The first was a work based on a Bach prelude and the second was Leo Brouwer's Sonata, both of which featured Lee’s exquisite guitar virtuosity. I certainly admired the technical skill of his playing, but I must admit, I’m no connoisseur of guitar music. Listening to this stuff is just as likely to make me feel I’m in some restaurant waiting for a drink refill between the appetizer and main course.

However, there was plenty of other music on the program from other living composers. USC alumnus Andrew Norman’s Gran Turismo provided a lively little race for eight string players in the first half. Written while he was still a student, he noted before the show that the work has continued to garner him an unexpected amount of attention. It was fun, if brief, with its rapid sequences and interruptions between players. Norman has been commissioned for a new piece for the L.A. Philharmonic next year, so there is more to come. After this, Derek Bermel premiered one of the evening’s two new commissions with a work entitled Canzonas Americanas for small chamber orchestra. Bermel was asked to compose a piece inspired by the festival’s theme of musical and cultural integration and he went for broke, throwing in an amazingly wide array of American popular music idioms and Latin rhythms in what sometimes seemed a completely random haphazard fashion. There was a sort of sincerity about the piece, which could be charming, but also naïve in its wholesale incorporation of elements without any irony. The final movement of the work provided a brief vocal solo from Luciana Souza in a lovely coda.

Probably the more satisfying of the two premieres was Esteban Benzecry’s Fantasia Mastay. I wont trouble you with the mythological underpinnings of the piece, but it did concern the same new-agey riffs on peoples coming together across borders. The work slowly grew out of a swirling cacophony of contradicting sounds into a rushing ascending pattern of notes particularly in the percussion parts. Here the influence of musical traditions both Northern and Southern were fused together in a more hybrid way creating a new unitary construct in contrast to a hodgepodge of the typical references. It was by far the smartest work on the program and perhaps the most challenging work in the whole festival in its relatively few brief minutes.


In The Wings - May '10

May 04, 2010

from City Garage's new production of Beaumarchais' The Marriage of Figaro
Photo: Paul Rubenstein 2010

May is admittedly turning into a bit of a catch up month for me. With so much going on in April, I’m just now getting around to some of the things I’ve wanted to see from last month that are still running in theaters around town. Why not start with yet another world premiere play at Boston Court Theater in Pasadena that will present Tom Jacobson’s The Twentieth-Century Way starting on May 8th. The thriller concerns actors involved in the entrapment of homosexual men in public restrooms in 1914 Long Beach, CA. There will be lighter fare as well ranging from the touring production of Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps at the Ahmanson Theater to ongoing productions of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World both at A Noise Within in Glendale. Reprise will return to UCLA’s Freud Playhouse with their final production of the season, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying on the 11th as well. There’s also solo work as the Center Theater Group finishes a haphazzard season with David Cale’s Palomino staring on the 7th. And for a more adventurous turn try City Garage’s new production of Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro in Santa Monica, or the Blank Theater's recently opened version of Michael John LaChiusa’s See What I Wanna See in Hollywood.

Pierre Boulez

Musically, L.A. continues to be under the sway of L.A. Opera’s staging of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen which will start performances of full cycles on May 29th. There are oodles of interesting Ring-related events as well all over town including appearances by Slavoj Žižek which you can read more about in my Ring festival recommendations here. There's also an evening of Zarzuela excerpts led by L.A. Opera's own Placido Domingo scheduled to take place on May 21st at the Broad Stage. Until then, I’m headed back to New York over the May 14th weekend to say goodbye to the Metropolitan Opera season with Renée Fleming in Rossini’s Armida, Deborah Voigt in Wagner’s Der Fliegende Höllander, and one of my all-time favorite operas, Berg’s Lulu. I’ll also be catching the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in a concert performance of Shoenberg’s Erwartung under the baton of Pierre Boulez.

from Orbo Novo by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui with Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet
Photo: Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet 2010

Of course it’s nice to have something orchestra to look forward to as the Los Angeles Philharmonic presents the dregs of their most disappointing season in recent memory this month. There are two Dudamel programs including of evening of guitar-based music in the Green Umbrella Program on May 4th and a Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 performance the weekend of the 7th before the group takes the Dudamel show on the road around the country. There is also the coda of a Lionel Bringuier led program the weekend of the 28th with the Sibelius Violin Concerto and Stravinsky's Firebird Suite. If you want to hear a great music performance at Walt Disney Concert Hall, I’d recommend the L.A. Master Chorale show of American songs on the 23rd. Or better yet, head downstairs to REDCAT for the "Party for Betty" on May 5th remembering the contributions of the late great Betty Freeman to the world of contemporary music.

There are two notable dance events this month as REDCAT presents Lionel Popkin’s There is an Elephant in this Dance starting on the 20th. Meanwhile UCLA will kick off a new multi-year collaboration with Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet the weekend of the 6th with two separate programs.


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