Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Risky Business

May 31, 2011

David Kelly, Terri McMahon and K.T. Vogt in The Imaginary Invalid Photo: Jenny Graham/OSF 2011

Never a stranger to inventiveness and new twists on old favorites, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival may even be outdoing itself with the number of interesting juxtapositions and interpretative takes to the most familiar plays on its stage this year. Bill Rauch moved Measure for Measure into an urban barrio with great success, and there were several other transformations to be marveled at even if they weren’t always quite as successful. The festival is currently also offering an adaptation of Molière’s The Imaginary Invalid conceived by Oded Gross and Tracy Young with some intermittent musical numbers from Paul James Prendergast. Gross and Young had a big hit in Ashland previously with an adaptation of The Servant of Two Masters and now they return with their commedia dell’arte take on the classic French farce. From the outset, it is clear that this Imaginary Invalid will be as broad and as generally crowd-pleasing as possible. David Kelly stars as Argan, the titular invalid, opposite K.T. Vogt as his fresh-mouthed maid Toinette. They are joined by a cast of larger than life relations including a hysterical Terri McMahon as Beline, Argan’s gold-digger wife. The actors repeatedly break the fourth wall engaging the audience directly in the set up of very funny if familiar machinations. The setting is moved to a mid-1960s Paris that swings a little more like London of the period with its go-go boots and psychedelic lighting.

It’s a thoroughly enjoyable show that is total eye-candy. It was also clearly an audience favorite as well. The crowd was in stitches, and the audience interaction sequences produced some of the most animated audience reactions I've heard at the festival. There are drawbacks, however. Young and Gross’ adaptation does become somewhat exhausting over time. The extreme frenetic pace starts out at full bore, yet, while enjoyable, soon has nowhere to go but down when the energy level is eventually forced to scale back. When the sentimental bits that inevitably arise do so, the whole thing begins to collapse like some delicate soufflé cooling as it’s removed from the oven. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t taste great however, and even if it isn’t the most reflective time you’ll spend in the theater, the show certainly will not pass without a lot laughs.

Danforth Comins weeps over Vilma Silva as the rest of the cast looks on in Julius Caesar Photo: Jenny Graham/OSF 2011

And if the juiced up antics of Molière aren’t your thing, right across the plaza at the New Theater is OSF’s current production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar directed by Amanda Dehnert. And, though it was a few steps away, the piece couldn’t have been more different in its heavy-handed and politically-minded spirit. Audiences are greeted with a field of banners emblazoned with the faces and quotes of assassinated political leaders from around the world. This is a Julius Caesar focused obsessively on the political aspects of the play and the way civilizations alternately glorify and vilify their greatest leaders. The staging is completely modern dress and almost without any props save some soapboxes, bare wooden work tables, and buckets of stage blood. The cast is dressed up as commandos for some New York Fashion Week assault on the tasteless in their stylish black and Commes des Garçons-inspired wraps. The actors milled about the audience prior to the show, interacting with visitors and eventually coaching the audience on how to chant and cheer on cue when Caesar enters the stage. This populist theatrical maneuver was more interesting as an idea than in execution, however. The role of Caesar is played by Vilma Silva, one of the company’s long-time MVPs. But as commanding and charismatic as she was, the staging left her Casesar as a bit of a cipher. Dehnert missed an opportunity, failing to use this gender-twist as a point of further investigation into the play. Instead Silva’s Caesar was much like most others you’ve seen. Which could be said for the production as a whole. Despite some overly clever lighting with blinding spots aimed this way and that every time you turned around, the show felt inert. Even with strategic cuts, it seemed to drag at times, and the whole audience-as-Roman-citizens ruse never quite jelled. But considering the number of successful experiments OSF is pulling off so far this year, one misstep is hardly a high price to pay for taking interesting risks. Both The Imaginary Invalid and Julius Caesar will run well into the fall.


With A Bang

May 30, 2011

The Cast of August: Osage County. Photo: Jenny Graham/OSF 2011

One measure of a great play is how well it survives when it is produced by theater companies outside of the bright lights of Broadway or part of some national tour. When a work gets out and about among regional theaters large and small, can it still pack the same emotional punch that makes audiences want to return to it again and again? Tracy Letts’ landmark August: Osage County is starting to meet that challenge across the U.S.; and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has been quick to take up the work for their own excellent company. The first thing that struck me seeing the play now away from its original 2007 Steppenwolf/Broadway staging is how large the work is. There is a big ensemble cast of 13, (well at least big by the standards of the current economically challenged American theater) and the majority of them spend most of their time on stage. The script calls for several different interior rooms spread out over two floors and an attic. And the play itself is three acts that runs over three and a half hours. It’s no small undertaking, but the good news is that Christopher Liam Moore’s staging for Ashland demonstrates that a company with the requisite ambition can pull it off. OSF’s August: Osage County manages to be more than a faithful reproduction of a fantastic original. It’s a splendid revival that further argues for the importance of Letts’ masterpiece.

Judith-Marie Bergan and DeLanna Studi Photo: Jenny Graham/OSF 2011

August is a comedy, but a decidedly downbeat one. The three daughters of Beverly and Violet Weston, along with their significant others, have gathered together following their father's unexplained disappearance. They are also joined by Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae, and her family. The Weston’s are an all-American clan of the plains and their own unique brand of dysfunction unfolds deliberately over the course of the performance. Violet is a hard woman, to put it mildly, and the irony of her struggle against mouth cancer is lost on no one. There are lovely, detailed and perfectly packaged scenes that unfold one after another as things fall apart including a superb set piece in the second half of Act II where a large family dinner crosses the fine line from passive to active aggression. And while the play is filled with big laughs and more than a few surprises, it is not a feel good family drama. Letts is after big game here like the American Dream and the myth of American progress like some latter-day Great Gatsby. No one walks away unscathed in this culture war, and all of these characters are ostensibly on the same side.

Bill Geisslinger and Robynn Rodriguez Photo: Jenny Graham/OSF 2011

OSF’s staging manages to arrange all of the Weston’s home on a two level set that maintains the requisite rooms, but envisions a more cozy space where the privacy of any conversation in the Weston’s home is called into question. It’s a nice touch that reinforces the notion of the many open secrets that plague this family. Moore’s approach to the Weston’s softens some of the harder edges of the family. Judith-Marie Bergan’s take on viper-tongued Violet is kinder in its view of her cognitive decline than some of her predecessors in the role. However, this works beautifully in collaboration with Robynn Rodriguez’ take on oldest daughter Barbara, who is decidedly less sympathetic than I’ve seen before, making the relationship between mother and daughter more intriguing and logical.

This is a family of rather unpleasant people, and where the audience places its allegiance and connection is a critical issue. To date, that locus of identification has typically gone to Ivy, the middle daughter whose years of suffering close to her mother have left her numb. Terri McMahon’s Ivy is particularly removed, almost to the point of being autistic. It’s a choice that brilliantly forces more connection with Johnna, played to perfection by DeLanna Studi, the Native American housekeeper Beverly hires to help with Violet, and who serves as the spiritual center of the work. Johnna's ascendance is the final link in shifting the audience away from seeing the Weston’s as a comically exaggerated melodramatic version of their own lives. Instead we are asked to identify with Johnna whose connection to the poetry of T.S. Eliot and stance as an outsider reinforces the loftier and infinitely more piercing aspects of Letts’ critique. Who are we Americans and how on earth did we get where we are, so far away from what we once were?

But perhaps I make August: Osage County sound heavier than it is. I could go on and on about the other wonderful members of the ensemble. Kate Mulligan is the best Karen I've yet seen. Bill Geisslinger's Bill Fordham and Jeffrey King's Steve Heidebrecht are both marvelous. The audience gasps, hearts race, and there are still peels of laughter. But don't take my word for it, go see for yourself. While these laughs may not come easy, OSF’s August: Osage County is surely a highlight of this year’s season; and a visit to Ashland would not be complete without it.


A Full Measure

May 29, 2011

Frankie J. Alvarez and Kenajuan Bentley with Alejandra Escalante and Tyrone Wilson in the back Photo: David Cooper/OSF 2011.

It was cold and rainy when I woke up in Ashland, Oregon, on Saturday. And while it’s not ideal weather for the first weekend of summer, the Rogue Valley is one of those places in the world that retains its beauty regardless. The low clouds wrapped around the mountaintops that surround much of this town. Given the weather though, it was good to be indoors this weekend checking out what's in store on two of the three stages of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. (The outdoor stage kicks off previews of this year's three productions next starting this coming week.) I started at the top with one of the company's the cornerstone Shakespeare productions for the year, Measure for Measure. Directed by Artistic Director Bill Rauch, the production fits in well with the expansive and fresh vision Rauch has laid out for the entire festival. The show veritably crackles with excitement and electricity. Yes, I am talking about Measure for Measure and I know that this is not a description typically associated with this thorny comedy. But I was grabbed from the minute the lights went down and continued to be surprised virtually all the way through.

The play is updated to the late 20th century in a quintessentially urban America that makes you think Shakespeare’s Vienna may well be in Southern California. The action unfolds in a single neon lit room with long rows of windows at the back reminiscent of some institutional meeting room. The flexibility of so stark a space is quickly revealed, however, when the audience realizes that the viewable space behind the set often serves as another arena for related action to play out simultaneously as a myriad of video projections set other scenes on the scrims behind it. Shakespeare's many interiors, from courtrooms to bawdy houses, transition between one another like liquid. But the strong visual sense is only part of it. The show opens with three female mariachi singers who originally enter disguised as cleaning women, but soon reveal themselves as the wandering players that will return on occasion to provide an exclamation point on the proceedings. Claudio, played by Frankie J. Alvarez, and Isabela, a wonderful Stephanie Beatriz, have come from a barrio populated with any number of Shakespeare’s sympathetic bawds including a drag queen Mistress Overdone, the hysterical Cristofer Jean. It’s a diverse urban world that any modern American would immediately recognize.

René Millán and Stephanie Beatriz Photo: David Cooper/OSF 2011.

Yet, despite all these visually sharp modern trappings, Rauch still delivers a rather traditional version of Shakespeare’s play. Some times surprisingly so. Measure for Measure is a comedy, and there is more than a little ribald sexual humor in it. And while anyone can insert a few pelvic thrusts here and there among the actors, Rauch really delivers the goods giving the actors license to produce the kind of amused gasps and groans that were undoubtedly the author’s goal centuries ago. I won’t say more and spoil the fun, but I will say that there is far more punch to this staging than what most modern audiences have come to typically expect from a Shakespeare play. (Or at least come to expect in places outside of Ashland in recent years.) Admittedly though, as faithful as this approach may be, it doesn’t resolve all of the play’s inherent problems. The Duke’s motivations in turning over his authority to Angelo and Escalus still seem overly contrived as does his subsequent plotting over the fortunes of Isabel and Claudio. The testing of Isabela’s virtue by all of the men in the play still comes off as strangely cruel at times. But the play remains relevant especially in a culture where the politics surrounding morality and virtue continue to drive much debate.

I’d be remiss not to mention some of the other great performances in this ensemble cast including Anthony Heald as the Duke and René Millán as Angelo. The comic timing of Kenajuan Bently as Lucio and Ramiz Monsef as the auspiciously named Pompey often stole the show. Productions here in Ashland benefit from the strength of their ensemble casts and this Measure for Measure is a joy to watch from beginning to end. It was equally exciting to see the play as I did on Saturday afternoon with an audience heavily populated with adolescents who seemed just as excited and taken with the show as I was. If Rauch's goal is to get more young people excited about Shakespeare, the anecdotal evidence from this performance suggests that his strategy is working. The show will run the length of the entire season this year until November 6 and should be on the must-see list for anyone visiting Southern Oregon this summer.



May 28, 2011


On Thursday, things finally settled down a bit for Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Over half way through the current enigmatically titled “Brahms Unbound” survey of the composer’s major symphonies and the German Requiem, the orchestra seemed to hit its stride with the first really enjoyable show of the series. Why that is, I can’t exactly tell you. Maybe it’s just that the practice time together during the series is finally reaching a critical capacity. Or perhaps it was the sad circumstances that had led to a change in the evening’s program –the loss of the previously planned new work from the late Peter Lieberson in favor the Requiem–like Górecki’s Symphony No. 3. But it did work right from the beginning. Given the length and scope of the Górecki piece, the other piece on the program, Brahms’ Symphony No. 3, had been moved to the front of the show. It was a wise move in that it took pressure off the performance. Dudamel kept tempi on target and a larger amount of the work’s overall structure could be appreciated. Dudamel still exhibited his tendency to keep the musical CAPS LOCK button down with an urge to treat all details great and small with an equal weight, but this was definitely the most easy-going his Brahms has been throughout the series.

Of course, the reordering of the program was enacted to give the work that is Górecki’s primary claim to fame room to breathe. His Symphony No. 3 has a notable recent history. Composed in the mid-1970s, the work is subtitled Symphony of Sorrowful Songs and features a solo vocal part for soprano. The Polish texts vary, but all three reflect on loss, including the final movement, which concerns a mother’s pain at the loss of her son in an act of political violence. It’s pretty and very quiet, meditative music that’s clean and rather plainly developed. The symphony, like all of Górecki’s music, was largely unknown until 1991 when the London Sinfonietta released a wildly popular recording of the work under David Zinman with Dawn Upshaw. In fact, the work has received so much attention, that it has suffered somewhat in recent years from a critical backlash questioning the work’s musical sophistication and technical merit. But the work is still programmed frequently, often in settings like this weekend’s where it can serve as a reflection for any number of tragic losses in a manner not unlike Verdi’s Requiem or several other memorial themed works. The tragedy of the Bosnian War of the early 1990s may have contributed to the emotional reaction audiences had to the work then, and there are sadly just as many tragedies to commemorate now from the war crimes of Ratko Mladic to the tragic loss of Lieberson.

And under those auspices, it was a very moving performance. The soloist was Jessica Rivera who was planted right in the center of the orchestra, providing both an integration of her sound and a rather dramatic visual effect at some angles. Again the temptation to drag things out beyond their breaking point was resisted by all and a sense of reconciliation permeated the score just as Górecki had intended. If I had any quibble with the performance, it was the somewhat maudlin lighting and theatrical flairs used to augment the performance, with the audience kept in the dark and the orchestra using lights on their stands in addition to the requisite spots for conductor and soloist. It struck me as a step too far, attempting to provide a visual telegraphing of the emotional content of the piece, just in case you missed it, as if the audience couldn’t be relied upon to sort out the point on their own. Still in a show loaded with the kinds of moments that Dudamel and the L.A. Philharmonic have trampled over in recent months, the show was a refreshing and rather touching surprise.


10 Questions for...
Gabriel Kahane

May 26, 2011

Gabriel Kahane Photo: Powerhouse Theater 2011

I was particularly excited this week to get a chance to pose questions to one of America’s most promising and exciting composers, Gabriel Kahane. It’s easy for young composers to get lost in the shuffle. But Kahane is avoiding this pitfall not only by making great music, but doing so with an active and healthy disregard for some of the artificial boundaries that have built up over the years between various musical genres. Equally at home on the concert stage or with musical theater, Kahane has mounted significant works in both areas. He’s also recorded collections of original songs (including 2008's Gabriel Kahane pictured below) that grow out of a long tradition of American singer/songwriters and feature collaborations with the likes of Sam Amidon and Chris Thile. Meanwhile he’s found time to perform alongside the likes of Jeremy Denk and Thomas Quasthoff among many of classical music’s best-known artists. Following an extremely ambitious and satisfying debut, Orinoco Sketches, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic this week, Kahane took a stab at the Out Wet Arts 10 Questions...

  1. You’ve set the poetry of Robert Lowell as well as personal ads from craigslist. What in particular do you look for when choosing a text to set to music?

    I think I'm first and foremost always looking for something that's three dimensional, as well as something that has its own internal rhythmic logic. In the case of craigslistlieder, for all of its irreverence, I think the majority of those texts are funny because of the poignant truths that lurk beneath the surface. There's a lot to do with isolation and social anxiety under the outlandish facade. In the case of Lowell, on the other hand-- well, of course the poetry is just phenomenal-- I had this intuition that while the scansion didn't seem to lend itself to music on first reading, there was some kind of deeper rhythm underneath, and I hope that's borne out in the settings I wrote. And then of course, I think there's just my appreciation of the challenge of setting text that doesn't fall into neat rhyming quatrains. As difficult as it sometimes is, it also provides a resource for fresh rhythmic and melodic ideas that are suggested by the irregularity of the meter of the text.

  2. How important is technology to your creative process?

    I think by comparison to most composers these days, very little. I still write a lot of my music long hand, though I do end up copying it all into Sibelius. I have fallen on the crutch of listening to MIDI playback with the last couple of pieces I've written, but I think it's incredibly lazy and doesn't lead to real creativity. I was talking to John Adams this week about the use of technology in the composition of new music, and he was saying that in student works, he can always identify with a cursory glance of a score which pieces have been written with the computer. There are of course great ways to take advantage of technology in music today, but I think they need to be approached with caution.

  3. When should I clap?

    Whenever the fuck you want to.

  4. What’s your current obsession?

    The iPad 2 on which I'm composing answers to your very thoughtful questions.

  5. You’ve worked with a dizzying array of other artists from Alisa Weilerstein and Thomas Quasthoff to Sufjan Stevens and Audra McDonald. Who is on your wish list for future collaborators? 5b. And may I suggest Joanna Newsom?

    Gosh. As I've delved more into this role of composer-performer, the performer aspect of it has made me want to commission works for me to do, either as singer or singer and instrumentalist. I'd love for Andrew Norman to write me a big piece... or John Adams... or Tom Adès. As far as the pop world is concerned--- I adore Dave Longstreth (of Dirty Projectors) but I'm not really sure what I could bring to that party. Same goes for Joanna Newsom... Sometimes personalities are so strong, that you want to just let them do their thing. But keep your recommendations coming. Collaborating is, for the most part, total joy.

  6. Having written music drawing from so many different traditions and genres, is there anything musically that you’re not interested in trying your hand at?

    I think I'm really interested in drawing from traditions that were a part of my childhood, which is to say that the aesthetic worlds that I've drawn on represent an organic extension of who I am. And while I did listen to Dr. Dre's The Chronic a whole lot when I was twelve, I don't really see myself delving into early '90's rap as a model for new work.

  7. What music made you want to be a composer?

    I don't think I ever wanted to be a composer. I started writing songs during a rough spot after college, and they become more and more through composed to the point where people started asking me to write concert works. I think there's a misunderstanding sometimes about which direction my music flows--- that is to say, a lot of people are under the impression that I'm a composer dabbling in pop music, when in fact it's largely the other way around. Except I'm trying not to dabble--- I take concert music very seriously, but hopefully not too seriously.

  8. What’s your second favorite opera after Berg’s Lulu?


  9. You’ve scored a plum spot in the upcoming season at the Public Theater with the premiere of your newest musical, February House. What’s the best thing about writing music for the theater?

    The best thing about writing music for theater as opposed to writing pop songs qua pop songs is that no one will ever say that something is too heart on sleeve. I think emotional directness is valued in the theater as no where else. And furthermore, I think musical theater is the last arena in which real songwriting values are still prized. And as an old-fashioned songwriter, I really appreciate that. Also, no where else can you have Peter Pears sing a song about bedbugs, so there's that.

  10. What’s the next big thing we should be looking for from Gabriel Kahane?

    Hmm... Well, my new album, Where Are the Arms, is going to be released this fall. You should be hearing more about that relatively soon. And then I'm writing a sort of companion piece to Orinoco Sketches which is going to be more of an examination of what Jewish émigrés did with regard to the adoption of America slash abandonment of Judaism. It'll be almost twice as long as Orinoco Sketches, and will probably draw both on my Grandmother's diaries (as in Orinoco Sketches) but also on the experience of my parents and even myself. Sort of a summit on the American Jewish experience?


You Have to Believe We Are Magic


The composer and current “Creative Chair” of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, John Adams, returned to L.A. this week for the orchestra’s final “Green Umbrella” new music program on Tuesday. It was an exciting night at Walt Disney Concert Hall and the riskiest one musically I’ve seen there in awhile. On the agenda were three world premieres all from composers under 35 as well as a concluding work from the adventurous Steven Mackey. Much has been made out of the fact that all three of the younger composers, as well as a number of others, currently work out of Brooklyn. But this fact tells one very little about who these artists are or what kind of work they produce. All of the works on Tuesday's program pushed boundaries in interesting ways, and even though everything didn’t work, it was an evening that recaptured a sense of adventure, once the cornerstone of the orchestra, which has sadly been placed on the back burner in recent years.

But Tuesday was about music written by people with a pulse, which is exactly what it did. First up was an intricate and fascinating short work from Missy Mazzoli for solo violin. Entitled Dissolve, O my Heart, Mazzoli created the piece for violinist Jennifer Koh as one of a series of works referencing Bach’s solo violin Sonatas and Partitas. Koh wanted Mazzoli to start with the Chaconne from the Partita in D minor. Mazzoli agreed and the resulting work is a wonder of intricacy and understatement taking off from Bach’s opening D-minor chord. Mazzoli would return to this chord throughout the work, but it was otherwise purely her own invention. It’s the kind of piece that slips through your fingers on a first listen, but it lived up to Mazzoli’s reputation as a clever and challenging musical powerhouse.

No shorter on ambition was Gabriel Kahane’s Orinoco Sketches that followed. Kahane has established a reputation as a musical chameleon producing works in a variety of genres from musical theater and pop songs to concert works. Orinoco Sketches is his largest orchestral work to date, but still takes the form of a song cycle, one of his preferred and most successful formats. Kahane used the diaries of his paternal grandmother who passed away recently as source material about her own escape from Europe during the Holocaust and her crossing to America in the late 1930s. It’s powerful stuff packaged in some fascinating music that mashes a kind of singer-songwriter confessional à la Nick Drake with the orchestral writing of Alban Berg. It is music that seems familiar but blooms periodically into something dark and wonderful. Kahane played piano and guitar and provided vocals for the performance. And while the vocals were marred by muddy amplification, it was a starkly moving piece filled with the rhythms of Cuba and New Orleans before ending up on Fairfax Blvd. wondering about a hellish world on the other side of the earth. It was certainly the high-point of the program.

There was more amazement after the break with Andrew Norman’s Try. Norman is no stranger to the Los Angeles Philharmonic stage having had other works performed as part of the "Green Umbrella" series. Try is a sharply funny single movement and a no-holds barred barn burner for fifteen players with central string quartet surrounded by winds, brass, a bass, percussion, and piano. From the start the entire ensemble takes off in a wild disorganized flurry of activity in every direction. Soon this activity is interrupted by the piano which emits a single clear note after a brief pause. This joke produced increasing amounts of laughter on repetition as the calm and collected keyboard refused to join in with the high voltage aerobics of the rest of the crowd. It was a fun piece to see as well as hear, and Norman, who studied at USC among other places was enthusiastically received.

With all this youth and beauty, the concluding work on the program, Steven Mackey’s Four Iconoclastic Episodes was a relative golden oldie. Adams’ conducted this double concerto for violin and electric guitar as with all the other ensembles of the night. Mackey performed the guitar solo parts while Jennifer Koh returned for the violin fireworks. Four Iconoclastic Episodes is aptly titled with its unique blurring of the lines between a sound most associate with contemporary rock and pop music, the guitar, and the concert hall’s concerto for strings. It’s a bold idea and the amplification was kinder to the ensemble here than elsewhere. Admittedly, it was an idea that I appreciated more in concept than execution. I couldn’t quite get over the two electric guitars Mackey used with their pop chart licks and wails. Try as I might, I couldn’t remove that scene from the film Xanadu from my head where Gene Kelly and Michael Beck fantasize about what kind of night club they are going to open. Kelly’s 1940s big band slowly merges with Beck’s 1980s glam rock outfit in a wince inducing mélange that even with the help of a muse, turns into little more than a roller disco in the end. Maybe Olivia Newton-John could have helped out on Tuesday as well, especially when Koh unexpectedly broke the bridge on her instrument in the final movement of the work. And yet I’d take an interesting misfire like this any day along with the boundary testing works of the other young composers over some reheated and “unbound” Brahms. Here’s looking forward to return visits and more music from all of the composers involved this week.


Wagner, As We Remember Him

May 24, 2011


One of the great things about the Metropolitan Opera’s recent expanded presence both in movie theaters, via the Live in HD Broadcast series, and on the radio, via SiriusXM, is the increasing number of great performances from both series that subsequently become available for the first time for closer inspection on both DVD and audio formats. I've featured some of these before, but there are two recent audio releases that bear further attention not only for the remarkable quality of the performances, but also their timeliness in terms of the endless kerfuffle that surrounds nearly all aspects of the Met. Lately the hand-wringing over current music director James Levine, his health, and the fantasies about the Met after he has moved on have reached a fever pitch. As I've written about before, I find all of this attention a bit ridiculous and distasteful. But with all the concurrent hoopla over Levine's 40th anniversary at the house, two of the most recent Sony releases from the company's extensive broadcast archive ironically provide an interesting footnote to the hue and cry.

The two recordings in question are both works by Wagner. The first is a 1968 recording of Die Walküre conducted by Berislav Klobucar who had filled in for an ailing Herbert von Karajan when this broadcast was held. The casting and vocal performances are unparalleled with Brigit Nilsson as Brünnhilde, Thomas Stewart as Wotan, Leonie Rysanek as Seglinde, Jon Vickers as Siegmund, and Christa Ludwig as Fricka. The other Wagner offering from Sony and the Met is a Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg from 1972 conducted by Thomas Schippers. This cast includes Pilar Lorengar as Eva, James King as Walther von Stolzing, Benno Kusche as Beckmesser and Theo Adam as Hans Sachs. Both of these performances aired around the same time as James Levine was making his house debut in 1971. And while Wagner's music had a long history at the Met prior to this time, Levine's recognition as a specialist in all things Wagner was still off in the future. Since then, many conductors have led Wagner's operas at the Met, but there is little question now that Wagner's operas are near and dear to Levine's heart. He has personally helmed most of the new productions and major revivals of Wagner's operas since taking over as music director there in 1976 and his mark on these works at the Met is indelible.

But if one is looking for clues of what the future holds, what better place to start than with these recordings, offering a state-of-the-art view of Wagner at the Met in the years immediately preceding Levine's take over. Of course, the vocal performances are out of this world. Nilsson is at her best as are Stewart, and Rysanek in the Walküre performance. But with these riches, the orchestra performances can be surprisingly scrappy at times with rough tidbits in the most exposed moments. Levine's Wagner legacy at the Met has come mostly from the pit where his attention to the house's world class orchestra has created a richness and shine to the ensemble's sound, especially in this corner of the opera repertory. No doubt this is an asset, but there is something to be said for the vitality in these earlier recordings when the house orchestra didn't necessarily share the reputation it does today. Schippers and Klobucar both manage to produce something that may not be as polished as what audiences have come to expect under Levine's guidance today, but there is no lack of mission or energy in either of their performances. Some grit can be a good thing and both of these recordings avoid the kind of stasis that can plague the more controlled and refined playing that now dominates. Is this what Wanger at the Met will sound like in Levine's absence? Most likely not, because there is no going back. But both of these excellent offerings suggest that there are many different ways of doing things and both come recommended.


Moving On Up

May 23, 2011

From Long Beach Opera's Moscow, Cherry Town Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff 2011

Operetta is not what most listeners think of when they hear the name Shostakovich. The most prolific of 20th-century Russian composers has a reputation for the severe, despite the significant amount of “lighter” music he wrote for films and other projects. So his lone operetta Moscow, Cheryomushki might be hard to place at first glance. Which is likely one of the reasons that go-your-own-way Long Beach Opera was attracted to the piece in the first place. Moscow, Cheryomushki, which premiered in 1959, is a comedy about the bureaucracy around moving into a new public housing project. I’m not kidding. The heroes of the piece are a collective of common workers who have been assigned to live in Cherymushki, the brand new state of the art concrete skyscraper. They are thwarted by a trio of pleasure seeking petty bureaucrats who stand in their way until a collective garden and magic bench intervene. I’m not kidding. It’s madcap in a Russian way that is narratively disjointed even in the English-language version of the libretto translated by British opera impresario David Poutney. But if you want to see for yourself, there is an excellent Russian-made 1963 film version of the piece that is worth seeing.

But it’s really Shostakovich’s great music that is the selling point here. Sure, the music is more easily accessible than his great symphonies and other stage works. But, the catchy songs that make up the score are filled with invention - folk music overtones and rapid dramatic changes in tone and color that are undeniably familiar to anyone who has heard the composer’s work before. Shostakovich knows how to make a common melody sound like so much more with a sardonic twist or subtle internal commentary, and this is one operetta with some bite to it. Artistic director and conductor Andreas Mitisek led a spirited and quite ribald performance from the thirteen member orchestra filled with horns and percussion in excess of the few strings.

Mitisek often wears multiple hats in the Long Beach Opera productions and considering how well they come off, it says a great deal about his talents. This time around, however, he passed the stage business baton to director Isabel Milenski and Set Designer Jian Jung to make sense of Cheryomushki’s peculiarly dated storyline. The Russian constructivist look of the set was charming. However, I did feel that the economic limitations the company always faces, may have gotten the better of them this time around. The single set with its limited number of props left little to differentiate between scenes making it hard to understand what was going on at times. Vocally, it was a strong evening with new faces to the LBO fold. Valerie Vinzant sang Lidochka, a museum guide who hopes to move into one of the new high rise apartments with her father. She's a recent graduate of the Domingo-Thorton Young Artist Program at Los Angeles Opera and has made notable appearances with her bright, easy sound successfully around town including Musica Angelica's recent semi-staged version of Mozart's Zaide. Vincent Chambers sang a solid Sergei, the chauffeur who falls for Liusia, a crafty construction worker. I was also taken with some of the LBO veterans as well, including the very amusing Suzan Hanson and Robin Buck who team up to play the villainous Vava and Barabashkin respectively in some of the comic highlights of the evening. And while a Soviet-style light comedy might not be everyone's musical cup of tea, Moscow, Cheryomushki certainly stands up musically with its operetta kin and LBO made the most of its hummable melodies and familiar comic tropes.


We All Can Get Along

May 22, 2011

Roger Guenvuer Smith Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2011

Roger Guenvuer Smith is at his best on stage when he’s at his most autobiographical. So it’s a reason to celebrate that he is back at the Kirk Douglas Theater in another one-man performance that is as much spoken word as it is dramatic monologue. The new 90-minute piece, Juan and John, digs into Smith’s familiar south Los Angeles childhood for the starting points of his stories as did his 2006 show The Watts Towers Project. And while Juan and John is also preoccupied with the summer of 1965 in Los Angeles, it examines a much broader collection of events than the civil unrest of that year. The new work, instead, takes up Smith’s love of baseball and in particular his hero worship of Dodgers catcher Johnny Roseboro. Now I should state that anyone of a certain age who lived through this time and with a love of baseball and/or the Dodgers of that period will adore this show and its familiar recreation of shared memories and sports banter. However, there is so much more here, that even if you know nothing of sports or this period, Jaun and John captivates you with Smith’s gorgeously detailed storytelling.

1965 was the year San Francisco Giants pitcher Juan Marichal, the first player from the Dominican Republic that would be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, struck Johnny Roseboro’s bare head several times with a baseball bat generating an on-field melée at Candlestick Park in August of that year. Smith details the history of this event both leading up to and for many years following this notorious event, often taking on the voices of both men at several different ages. Of course, all of this is elaborately framed within Smith’s own autobiographical reflections about his boyhood anger toward Marichal, his relationship with his own teenage daughter, and his own aging. He pulls the audience in at times directly quizzing viewers about things they remember and tying in contemporary local issues as well including the unavoidable and tragic beating of a Giants fan in Los Angeles earlier this year on the Dodgers opening day.

As should be clear by now, Smith has a much greater agenda in Juan and John than telling a straightforward, though gripping baseball tale. This is a work about forgiveness, perhaps one of the most difficult themes to pull off on stage. The transition in this tale is a subtle one about how we all learn to get along, even after the most terrible things have happened between us. Juan and John is a bit of a miracle in and of itself given the subtle way it manages to sneak up on the viewer with its bigger points. It is both comforting and challenging at the same time. Smith’s performance here is perhaps less lyrical and overtly dance-inspired than previous outings including The Watts Towers Project. It’s a physical piece to be sure, but Smith is more urgent and direct this time around with less discursive ideas than previously. It works, though, for a story and performance that is more immediately reliant on the artifice of a conversation among long time friends with a shared history. Juan and John may be one of the best original things you see on stage in Los Angeles this year, and it undoubtedly speaks to the city we all live in now. It runs in Culver City through May 29.


Musette and Drums

May 20, 2011


Sofia Gubaidulina’s excellent adventure here in Los Angeles this week didn’t end with the excellent and varied shows performed at REDCAT that wrapped up on Tuesday. In fact, she got one more parting shot, and it was a doozy. This most remarkable of living composers brought her recent orchestra work, Glorious Percussion to the stage of the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel. (You can get a taste of the piece above with Dudamel conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in the same work.) Dudamel had a hand in the work’s world premiere, which he conducted in the fall of 2008 with the other orchestra he serves as principal conductor for, the Gothenburg Symphony in Sweden. The work features an ensemble of five percussionists in addition to the regular percussionists of the Los Angeles Philharmonic who play an incredibly large array of instruments from timpani to Javanese gongs and 6 bass drums. Gubaidulina’s love of percussion and particularly ethnic and folk instruments is at the heart of this work that was so inspirational to the five musicians who played the feature roles in the work’s premiere that they took the work’s name as their own in founding a new percussion group. All five of those players were on hand and they, along with the orchestra, brought this immense work raging to life. Like much of Gubaidulina’s sound world, there is darkness and grating edges mixed in with loud dramatic waves of sound. Bass drums come crashing through in unison at times, and at others the bright tinkling of chimes and triangles flutter about like butterflies. The work is divided into distinct sections where groupings of similar percussion instruments are highlighted and often are accompanied by complementary sounds from the orchestra – the chimes run in parallel to the woodwinds and at one point there is an extended dialogue between a bass and a Yoruba talking drum. This is not some pluralistic world percussion tour, however, and Gubaidulina strives to emphasize the central, almost lyrical, role that the sound of the many percussion instruments play in the piece. It’s stirring and sometimes almost scary, like being lost in the forest of Schoenberg’s Erwartung. It was a thrilling performance and a perfect capstone to Gubaidulina’s time in Southern California.

But perhaps an equally shocking event on Thursday came right before the start of Glorious Percussion when Dudamel spoke from the stage. He noted that Brahms’ Tragic Overture scheduled to start the evening had been dropped from the program for time and logistics. But he went on to give a detailed and spirited explanation of how he came across the piece and why the audience should care about it. I know. You could have knocked me over with a feather. This gesture, an everyday occurrence on the WDCH stage just over two years ago, has vanished into the midst of overworked American orchestral classics more recently. This is the first time the L.A. Phil’s current music director, to my knowledge, has given this kind of personal public consideration to a piece of contemporary music since arriving in L.A. Dudamel stated that when he arrived in Gothenburg as principal conductor in 2007, he was asked to conduct a world premiere commission from Gubaidulina. He stated he was apprehensive about this since in “[his] country” it was all about older music such as Mahler, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky. (Of course why anyone at the L.A. Phil thought that hiring someone with this sort of background to replace Salonen was a good idea is still beyond me.) But Dudamel was won over by the music. It’s great that he was willing to step forward and try to involve the audience in something other than the most predictable concert fare imaginable, and I hope he keeps it up even if his heart isn’t completely in it. But at least there was this one shining moment.

The rest of the evening was taken up with a predictable Dudamel take on Brahms’ Symphony No.2 with all of the requisite slow, dragging tempi and the balance and cohesion problems that have continued to plague this Brahms’ series. Let’s hope the L.A. Phil’s young maestro continues to explore his relatively recent discovery of newer music. It might give Brahms and some of Dudamel’s beloved old masters a chance to breath.


In the Flesh

May 18, 2011

Mark Menzies and Sofia Gubaidulina Photo: mine 2011

Los Angeles has been host to one of the world’s greatest living composers this week, Sofia Gubaidulina. Her story is almost as fascinating as her music. Born in the Tatar Republic of the USSR in 1931, Gubaidulina later studied music in Moscow in the 1950s receiving support from the likes of Shostakovich who knew a good thing when he saw it. He reportedly also knew that the young Gubaidulina’s vision would not win her accolades in Stalin’s world, and she spent the next few decades struggling as did other composers for not conforming to a prescribed artistic agenda. While creating her bracing and unconventional sound world, she worked in other venues producing a variety of film scores to get by. Eventually as political realities changed, Gubaidulina was first allowed to travel abroad in the mid-1980s and with the advocacy of such artists as Gidon Kremer, her international reputation took off. Now in 2011, she is one of he most unique and uncompromising musical artists working, and her appearances are rare and special occasions to be savored. She is in Los Angeles in part for the performance of Glorious Percussion, which will be included in a program along with a Brahms symphony with the Los Angeles Philharmonic this weekend.

But before this, there were four shows in three days dedicated entirely to Gubaidulina’s works performed by the faculty and students of CalArts at the REDCAT space downtown. The shows covered an overwhelming array of her work, touching on most of her major recurrent themes and techniques. The pieces ranged from solo and chamber works to full-scale orchestra concertos all performed under her watchful eye. The excitement during these shows was frequently palpable with young musicians in awe of working with a living legend and receiving direct feedback from her. There was a special feeling that suggested this was much more than just a concert series, but a collaborative labor of love and mutual discovery.

Gubaidulina’s sound world is marked by its own logic. She is fascinated with percussion as well as ethnic folk instruments; and even in her writing for traditional western instrumentation, she will tend to treat most instruments as if they were percussion, pressing the sound they produce to the boundaries of what they are designed to do. Bassoons wail with a reedy strain and piano keyboards are pounced upon with forearms. She writes works featuring unusual combinations of instruments as well, such as 1977’s Lamento for tuba and piano or her 1975 Concerto for Bassoon and Low Strings featuring four cellos and three basses. Musicians who don't often see virtuoso pieces for their particular instruments have a love for Gubaidulina's tendency to shine a light on their particular corner of the sound world. Perhaps the most striking example of this to my ear was the Duo Sonata for Two Bassoons from 1977, which was performed by Archibald Carey and Julia Feves in the Sunday evening program. The two got a workout playing contrasting material filled with multiphonics and microtonal scales. And although her music is filled with spiritual overtones not unlike those of Messiaen, it can also be abrasive and disquieting at times.

Mark Menzies, Christopher Rountree and the CalArts Orchestra Photo: mine 2011

But Gubaidulina is not without a sense of humor and play. The first evening featured 14 miniatures from 1969’s Musical Toys that resemble Kurtág’s Jatekok. These are somewhat serious small games, however, and even music that is ostensibly intended for children can reveal a darker undertone. The first program of the series also featured two animated short films featuring Gubaidulina’s score for the tales from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Here, Kipling’s jungle takes on a surreal quality where a sense of danger is omnipresent even in the more lighthearted moments. Gubaidulina is equally unafraid to highlight her musical influences and her debt to Webern and Shostakovich among others bleeds through time and again. She plays games with other composers more directly, which was evidenced in Monday’s program with Willy Waltzing in the Style of Johann Strauss, which, as promised, tilts some of the most user-friendly of all works on their heads. That same evening brought the composer’s take on Bach and a fascinating piano, bassoon and viola trio, Quasi Hoquetus.

Over the course of the four programs, the musical works grew in complexity and orchestration from solo and chamber works to the three major concertos on Tuesday’s program. And appropriately, the building tension paid off with a huge reward in the closing full orchestra performance of Gubaidulina’s violin concerto Offertorium with soloist Mark Menzies and the full force of the CalArts Orchestra. I was most taken with the wide range of styles and structure over the three concertos that evening, which began with the 1978 piano concerto Introitus. Here the piano solo is intentionally non-virtuoso providing a meditative backdrop of chords to more flashy outbursts from individual players and groups in the larger orchestra. Richard Valitutto gave an intense performance of this most unassuming of solo parts. After this, the cello concerto Detto II flipped the relationship from Introitus with Erika Duke-Kirkpatrick taking over a very expressive solo part that settled in contrast to the chamber sized-orchestra group that struggle to find their peace in the onslaught of the soloist, never quite finishing any of the thoughts they start. But the highlight of the evening—and the whole festival—came with the concluding performance of the richly textured Offertorium. The staccato and jittery violin is often swept away in dark waves of sound from the larger ensemble which was enthusiastically conducted by Christopher Rountree. Huge crescendos are met with stuttering anxiety and individual instruments from the orchestra often get to speak their mind. Menzies’ playing was athletic and viscerally engaging. Here the full force of Gubaidulina’s ideas about faith and music are on display in a work as moving as anything Messiaen wrote. It can be surprisingly lyrical in slashes, but it is filled with the sacrifice suggested by the title as a more general rule. It was thrilling to watch the force of this sound fill the small REDCAT space, and the conclusion was met with a sense of jubilation both in the audience and the face of the composer who embraced many of the players. At times, it was hard to believe that this sweet looking, unassuming older woman had produced such magnificent and sometimes dark and challenging music. But not only had she done this, she had often done so in the most untenable circumstances for a large part of her life. And for at least three days, L.A. and the musicians of REDCAT were lucky enough to have her in their midst sharing a significant part of her legacy with all of us in the flesh.


Later That Same Evening...

May 17, 2011

Kate Royal and David Daniels Photo: Marty Sohl/Met Opera 2011

One would think that after Saturday’s matinee of Die Walküre at The Metropolitan Opera, there wouldn’t be much more to say for the season. But there was. And a mere three hours after one of the most thrilling performances of the Met season, I was back for the final show before the break, Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. Gluck’s masterpiece couldn’t be any more different from the Wagner in terms of length or tenor, so it provided a nice contrast. The evening got off to a humorous start when celebratory cheers went up behind the curtain as the audience awaited the arrival of conductor Antony Walker to the pit. I couldn’t help but wonder if the cheer wasn’t from the stage crew as the 40 minute delay in the start time of that afternoon’s Die Walküre matinee had, in essence, erased the extra hour of time built into the day's schedule to allow for the set to be changed for the evening’s performance, which had been assigned a 9 PM start time. Orfeo got started a little late as well, and was permeated by the sense of relief by a company that had just gotten through a very big afternoon and a very challenging season.

The revival of Mark Morris’ 2007 production with its original star David Daniels is still a smart looking affair. The dance elements are very engaging and the chorus of dead historical figures is still a clever touch. The cast was completed this time by Lisette Oropesa as Amore and British mezzo Kate Royal as Euridice. Daniels gave one of his consistently enjoyable performances and he was well matched with Royal, who was more certain in tone than the last vocalist to take on the role here, Danielle de Niese. Royal has a bright pleasing voice and is more than a little attractive. Oddly enough the weakest part of the show was Walker’s haphazard guidance in the pit. While the vocalists always seemed coordinated, the orchestra was rushed at times and very scrappy sounding early on as if some of them were still feeling peevish from having performed earlier in the day. Orfeo ed Euridice is one of the most beautiful scores around and this was not a performance that luxuriated in those qualities as much as one that was intent on getting its business done. But it is also difficult to complain about a work that celebrates the triumph of love over everything, particularly as the concluding gesture of the Met Opera season.

And an interesting season it was. The company seemed cursed with artistic failures that grew in inverse proportion to the amount of effort the company put into them. While it wasn't Spider-Man: Turn on your Heart Light, the Robert Lepage imagined Ring operas seemed plagued with technical issues, while the company couldn't get the press to stop talking about James Levine's health. Angela Gheorghiu may have made her final appearance with the company for awhile after some last-minute cancellations and Marina Poplavskaya appears all too ready to fill those shoes with ease. John Adams got a second opera on the Met stage, and Simon Rattle made his company debut. Jonas Kaufmann dazzled everyone. I caught 14 of the company's productions this year not including two others I saw in the season's HD broadcast series. These are the five best things about The Metropolitan Opera's 2010/2011 season from my vantage point:

1) James Levine's conducting: With all the hand wringing about health-related cancellations, when Levine was in the pit this year, his conducting surpassed even his own high standard. The supremely exciting Die Walküre this past weekend and an incredible orchestral performance of Wozzeck stood out over everything even when the other elements of the performance were not always up to snuff.

2) Simon Rattle's debut with the company in Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande. A long overdue debut was worth the wait with the devastating beauty of this impressionistic masterpiece brought to life with an excellent cast.

3) Willy Decker's production of La Traviata: Although it was technically an import from somewhere else, this aggressively modern production was still a shocker even after being available on DVD from its Salzburg premiere. It made me rethink my views of Matthew Polenzani and Poplavskaya for the better given their total commitment to a staging that required some real work and physicality.

4) René Pape's performance as Boris Godunov.

5) Lucia di Lammermoor with Nathalie Dessay. Another artist who is overly derided as past her prime who showed up to prove what was what in the revival of Mary Zimmerman's production originally created for her. Probably the single most enjoyable performance all around I saw in New York last year. Yes, it surprises me too.


Better Late Than Never

May 15, 2011

Act III of Die Walküre Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2011

This Saturday's matinee of Die Walküre at The Metropolitan Opera was thrilling in the way opera always is. There are so many elements all unfolding simultaneously that disaster seems to lurk around every corner and moments of greatness stand right alongside those of mediocrity. How it all breaks down is part of the fun. The in house audience, held in the lobby, saw the noon start time come and go with little more than an announcement pointing out that the show was in fact delayed and that we'd all get in when they were ready for us. As it turns out, we got into our seats just before that, as stage crew were still working on Robert Lepage's giant mechanical rotating set trying to coax it back to life as we entered the auditorium. A few minutes later the curtain came down providing the stage surgeons some privacy. And some forty minutes after start time, things got underway as the machine lurched into motion even if the paper thin dramatic vision behind it would never materialize. But more on that "much ado about nothing" later.

The delay was soon put aside for most in the audience when it became clear this would be an afternoon where naysayers would get their comeuppance on a number of fronts. First and foremost of those achieving deserved props was Deborah Voigt. Bitching and moaning about her casting in this role has dogged her in many corners for over a year. Her recent appearances as Minnie did little to cool the flames among the chattering classes that this was not going to be pretty. But her Brünnhilde was nothing but a success. Powerful and steely, she never turned shrill and managed a youthful and very engaging performance. Granted it didn't have the clarity or beauty of say a Nina Stemme, but trust me, if Linda Watson gets invited back to Bayreuth year after year to sing this role, Voigt delivered world-class singing by standard contemporary measures.

Then there was the matter of Music Director James Levine. As I mentioned yesterday, he's been the focus of intense speculation regarding his health and his future in his current job at the Met. There's even been a bit of a counter-offensive going on in recent weeks as well with Levine sitting down with Terry Gross and on SiriusXM to clear the air about his health and other topics. I'm not terribly drawn to this hand-wringing over Levine in any direction. But I can tell you this - he and the orchestra were on fire Saturday. Rich and warm, then forceful and dug in, the orchestra gave twice as much as I remember in the last Die Walküre I heard here. Maybe it was the ongoing HD broadcast that created such urgency, who knows? But it sure sounded like one for the record books from where I sat. Levine stayed in the pit for the curtain calls. But you know what, it's time to give the man a break on this health business. As far as any public information goes, the man has back problems, people. Millions of people do, often missing days to months of work and sometimes with physical limitations that can take a long time to resolve. Get over it. If the U.S. can have a president in a wheelchair for decades, the Met can find a way to get James Levine in the pit to give performances like this one as long as he still cares to do so, I imagine.

If there was an artist who didn't receive any retribution Saturday, it was Robert Lepage. His Ring production and its massive technical wizardry has improved since Das Rheingold earlier this season. There is more creative use of the apparatus and a powerful final image of Brünnhilde hanging suspended from above surrounded by fiery projections on the moving set as if the audience is staring down from the sky. But these moments are still too few and far between in a show where the scene changes are typically the most attractive moments. There remains a major problem with the matter of actually guiding the bodies of human beings on stage. Lepage is a master of the spit-take equivalent. Throughout there are ham-handed gestures that border on the farcical as when Sieglinde drops her bundle of wood on first seeing Siegmund or Fricka's histrionic chair-clutching tears during her argument with Wotan. At times the whole production looks like little more than a Hollywood superhero movie knock off. The show desperately needs some adult feeling injected into it to break up the variation between the boring and the adolescent.

But Thor is not the only show in town with some big hot stars doing what they do best. The Met's Die Walküre boasts some of the finest vocal performances I've seen this year. Stephanie Blythe's Fricka and Jonas Kaufmann's Siegmund were unassailable. Both sang with such power, control and sheer muscularity that they eclipsed whatever nonsense was, or more often wasn't, going on around them. Eva-Maria Westbroek reportedly had a rough go at the start of this run, but she shone on Saturday with all the fear and anguish you could want. Even Bryn Terfel's Wotan came to life. After a rather detached turn in Das Rheingold he seemed more invested this time around. He could still get croony at times and the fabric exploding out of the backside of his costume did him no favors, although he was relieved of the Pete Burns comb over from the fall. But he had me believing what he had to sing more often than not, which is really what matters. And it was really the success of these performances paired with a superb musical performance from the pit that really made this show exciting throughout despite its many shortcomings. It certainly sounded that way in the audience by the time those curtain calls came around. And even if the least interesting element of the show was the one most responsible for the lengthy delay in the afternoon's start time, it still ended up being very much worth the wait.


The Enchanted Island

May 13, 2011

Violeta Urmana and Kathleen Kim Photo: Cory Weaver/Met Opera 2011

It’s the end of the opera season in New York and I’ve headed east to see things wrap up at The Metropolitan Opera. I like being here at the tail end of the season when the pending absence of regular performances finally strikes home with the audience and there’s a tinge of melancholy, if only the mildest and most temporary kind, that sets in. This year is supposed to be particularly interesting in that the popular storyline repeated again and again among the chattering classes has revolved around the Met’s long-time Music Director James Levine, his health problems, his cancellations, and all the projected fantasies about his future with the company and what will come after. It’s a pastime that has spread into the more “legitimate” press with folks like Alex Ross and the New York Times throwing their hats into the chatter ring. It all seems rather silly to me, and I’ll probably have more to say on this tomorrow after seeing the last performance of the company’s new Die Walküre. But on Friday night, it was all about Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos.

Joyce DiDonato Photo: Cory Weaver/Met Opera 2011

There were a mere three performances of this revival, all in the last week and all conducted by Principal Guest Conductor, Fabio Luisi. He’s been the focus of much attention in the Levine health storyline, and several folks have been eager to cast him as the heir apparent, parsing out details of his conducting work here more and more as the seasons go by. And while I’m not sure how much I care about what future job titles he may hold with the Met Opera, I do know two things: you’ve got to love someone who loves pugs, and you’ve got to love someone who knows his way around German opera as well as Luisi does. His Lulu performances at the end of the last season were spectacular and his leadership tonight in Ariadne was first-rate. The playing was sensitive and light but he never backed down from the intensity of the score when it was called for. He isn’t overly indulgent with the singers, and everything seemed perfectly in place musically throughout. He is not a sloppy conductor, but avoids being fussy as well. I for one would happily hear him lead many more works based on what I’ve heard thus far, regardless of whether he's got keys to the executive washroom or not.

Luisi was given a world-class, if somewhat unusual cast. All well-loved vocalists, though admittedly not the ones that might spring to mind in Strauss. Violeta Urmana sang Ariadne with adequate power and good energy. Her voice is a bit darkly hued for the role and she didn’t really have the shimmering effortless upper range you’d want, though she did hit the notes she wanted. Joyce DiDonato meanwhile sang the composer in the prologue. She’s one of the hottest names in opera right now and has a warm approachable personality to boot. Love her as I do, though, this was not my favorite role of hers. Not unlike Urmana, she lacked a certain piercing quality in the most dramatic moments of the score, though I could always hear her above the orchestra. Kathleen Kim was the Zerbinetta. She’s had a banner couple of years here at the Met stealing hearts as Olympia in Les Contes d’Hoffmann and taking names as Madame Mao in Nixon in China. Her Zerbinetta was satisfying with the right balance of savvy and sweet. The men in the cast were a pleasure as well, including Sir Thomas Allen as the Music Master and Robert Dean Smith as Bacchus.

So what's not to love? The production from Elijah Moshinsky for one. It continues to be puzzling. In the prologue there is a fair amount of activity and it’s quite colorful and just off-kilter enough to still be intriguing. The "opera" part of the opera gets off to a good start as well. But the idea mill peters out somewhere around the conclusion of Zerbinetta’s aria when the pro forma commedia dell’arte stuff takes over. The final scene with Ariadne and Bacchus is almost entirely inert with blocking straight out of a soap opera. It’s too bad that the staging gives out just as the music hits its home stretch. But on the whole here was much more to like than dislike.


Gone, Forgotten

From Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire

There was more unbinding of Brahms to attend to on Thursday with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under music director Gustavo Dudamel. But before getting down to that Herculean labor, there was some newer music to attend to: the West Coast Premiere of Steven Mackey’s Beautiful Passing. One of the few premieres originally scheduled as part of the the L.A. Phil’s "Brahms Unbound" series that has actually arrived as planned, Beautiful Passing is a single movement violin concerto composed for Leila Josefowicz who performed it on Friday. (Mackey's work, like Gubaidulina's Glorious Percussion on tap for next weekend, both had their world premieres elsewhere previously decreasing the likelihood of derailment here by events tragic or otherwise.) Beautiful Passing mines traditional soloist vs. orchestra concerto dynamics with the violin playing material in opposition to the orchestra in the first part of the score. The solo violin's more meditative lines are repeatedly interrupted by brash and sometimes comical outbursts from the orchestra. Tennis balls crash against the timpani and Josefowicz played along looking almost irritated by these goings on. After a short cadenza, the order of things changed with the violin now puckishly calling the shots and everyone working together until a peaceful resolution is achieved. Score one for the soloist. I liked the spirit of Beautiful Passing despite Mackey’s tendencies toward sentimentality and its familiar dynamic. Of course, writing music for Josefowicz is always an excellent idea considering her ability to make even the most obvious of gestures seem brilliant and inspired. She made the piece and as usual was great to watch.

Then came Brahms’ German Requiem, which on this evening enlisted the considerable talents of the Los Angeles Master Chorale and soloists Christine Schäfer and Matthias Goerne. This is perhaps one of the thorniest and most difficult to like works Brahms produced. Although it has its advocates, Schoenberg among them, there's a parallel historical litany of great figures who’ve disparaged the work as well, including some of those who generally favored Brahms’ music. There is undoubtedly some wonderful music in it that argues against what George Bernard Shaw saw as an “intolerable tedium” and in the right hands it can shine. Those hands do not belong to Gustavo Dudamel at this point in time. If Shaw was looking for evidence to support his assessment of Brahms’ requiem, Dudamel delivered it in spades. Bloated and laborious, beautiful passages in the score were often left to drift on a sea of dross. Granted Dudamel could produce some lovely Individual moments. The performance certainly had more edges to it than the one given by the Dresden Staatskapelle last fall in New York under Daniel Harding which sank under the impervious sheen of its highly polished but emotionless playing. It almost goes without saying though that the L.A. Phil performance under Dudamel stretched out to ridiculous proportions clocking in at 79 minutes. But worse than any tempo issue, was Dudamel's loss of the bigger picture. There was little of the promised consolation for the living in this performance of Brahms’ uniquely humanistic mass for the dead. The evening often seemed to be running in any number of different directions at once with its rough groupings of big climaxes here and overworked detail there.

There were some saving graces, however. The Los Angeles Master Chorale sounded superb. They are on the go for this whole evening from beginning to end and they never let their energy flag regardless with what was going on around them. And then there is Matthias Goerne. He was devastatingly good with his burnished tone and ease of delivery. He suddenly injected real emotion and drama into the evening every time he stood, pointing the way to the balm Brahms had in mind in the works composition. Frankly he was so good that his appearance alone makes the evening worthwhile. Not everything rose to his level in the performance, but there were moments it came close. So, go prepared to be amazed even if the experience on the whole is at turns brutal and exhausting. The show repeats through Sunday.


The Sound of a Voice

May 10, 2011

French Stewart, Laurie Metcalf, and Maile Flanagan Photo: Ed Krieger

Justin Tanner’s work is never away from Los Angeles stages for long. Given his keen ear for comedy, that’s a good thing. And right now, there’s a chance to see perhaps one of his best received works, 2009’s Voice Lessons, on a return visit to the city at Sacred Fools Theater. Best of all, the original cast and director Bart DeLorenzo have all reassembled for this time-limited revival ensuring that the play lives up to its prior very popular and very funny incarnation. French Stewart plays Nate, a vocal coach at a local community college with a divorce and any number of issues he keeps professionally bottled up below a cool and rational exterior. The play opens when Nate first meets Virginia, played by the hysterical Laurie Metcalf. “Ginny”’s lack of vocal talent is deliciously mixed with an inability to perceive her own shortcomings and her desire for fame and romance. Despite his protestations, Ginny has talked Nate into taking her on as a student against his better judgement. Nate’s initial annoyance at Ginny’s eccentric behavior and particular delusions eventually becomes more complicated as his own flaws are dragged out into the light of day, including an affair with another woman, Sheryl, that creates new conflicts for everyone involved.

Admittedly, the premise at times runs a bit like a skit that has been stretched to a short-play length, but there are too many laughs here to brush Voice Lessons off that easily. Laurie Metcalf is excellent as Ginny and she manages the physical aspects of the role with great skill. Although Stewart often ends up being the straight man, he too gets into the act scoring hits with far more subtle material. Maile Flanagan’s Sheryl provides a great counterpoint to both in this romantic triangle that never quite is. The show is paced well and at just over an hour it’s the perfect size for the laughs it’s after. The show runs through May 29 in Hollywood, so grab your chance to see this L.A. original with its great original cast while you can.


Simply Put

May 08, 2011

From Lucinda Childs' Dance Photo:Sally Cohn Photography 2009

The other half of this weekend’s retrospective of late 20th-century dance landmarks here in Los Angeles took place over at the UCLA campus. One of the few highlights of the decimated UCLA Live performing arts season, Lucinda Childs appeared on a revival tour of her work Dance from 1979. And while it’s creation was less than ten years off from Mark Morris’ L’Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato (which was being performed downtown in a vibrant, exciting revival), Childs’ work couldn’t be more different. Dance is a collaboration between Childs, minimalist composer Philip Glass, and minimalist artist Sol DeWitt. And in keeping with that spirit, Childs’ choreography is stripped down to the most basic of elements. The work, which is divided into three sections, each lasting 20 minutes, features eight dancers in the first and last section and a solo performance in the middle. All three are marked by straightforward, almost pedestrian movement that is divided into short, often-repeated segments. The dancers are all clad in white and enter the stage with a stiffness, as well as arms and legs that are more often fully extended than not. They traverse the stage as if performing jumping jacks or basic spins that vary only minimally from passage to passage. It’s the dance equivalent of the minimalism on display in Glass’ score. LeWitt’s film of the original 1979 performance was projected at times onto a scrim in front of the live performers, creating an eerie double of the action on stage. Most interesting is that Childs herself performs the solo dance in the video giving the work a whole other layer of connection between performers, choreographer, and audience.

It was an exhilarating if intense performance. Glass’ prerecorded music has a more urgent edge here than later works and can seem almost machine like despite its beauty. Both the music and dance had the hallmark hypnotic quality that takes over the viewers sense of time during the show. The repetitive nature of it all was not for some in the dance audience, however, and on Saturday a few people quickly bailed after getting a sense where this already brief program was headed for the next 60 minutes. Dance stood in stark contrast to Morris’ piece from earlier in the weekend whose whimsy and inventiveness could be seen trickling out into so much choreography that followed his. Childs’ Dance seems much more defiantly alone - a statement unconcerned with winning over the masses in its effort to follow through on its vision and purpose. But that is exciting in and of itself. Childs boldness never lags and, even all these years after the original, it seemed defiant, yet engaging. Something about the video images of the past and the contrast with the real moving bodies of the present added another compelling layer to the performance. And while these stripped down dances may not have changed to course of everything that was to follow, they did set a course of inquiry and planted seeds in the minds of other choreographers about where the beauty in movement is located and how audiences access it. Childs’ Dance couldn’t have come back to remind us of some of that at a better time.


Make It Last Forever

May 07, 2011

Leonidas Kavakos Photo: Yannis Bournias

This weekend is the start of a whole month of the music at Brahms with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under its current music director Gustavo Dudamel. The series goes by the obtuse moniker of “Brahms Unbound,” and pairs Brahms' own masterworks with more recent compositions to imply apparent connections between the two in some cases. This weekend's program, for instance, featured Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 paired with a Dutilleux Violin Concerto, L’Arbre des sognes, played by Leonidas Kavakos. Yet, following the decidedly rocky results of this first program under the predictably uneven Dudamel, the series might better be called “Brahms Unbearable.” Two seasons into his Los Angeles tenure, what Dudamel had in store for the Brahms’ Symphony, which anchored the evening, should be no surprise to anyone paying attention: tempos so slow that they defied logic, stressful overworking of the smallest details, and a complete lack of pacing and overarching vision for the performance. It was an arduous though not always unpleasant listen. There was good news. The strings were richer and more lustrous sounding than you could imagine at times. Big crescendos got the rise out of players and audience that they deserved. But much was sacrificed to achieve these effects. The first two movements would periodically grind to a near halt. Granted, such an arrest was a blissful promise the audience was denied as Dudamel dove into another moment or passage like he was desperately rummaging around a junk drawer looking for some vital key. If he found what he was looking for, it was anyone’s guess. Granted there are critics in this town that will attempt to convince you that this glacial approach is a youthful exuberance intent on savoring every musical moment. But don’t believe the hype. Sometimes slow is just slow.

The preceding part of the evening was far more successful. Following a full-bodied turn of Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture came the real highlight of the night, Dutilleux’ 1985 L’Arbre des Sognes which was being played here in Los Angeles for the first time. This seamless four movement violin concerto was played by Leonidas Kavakos and is marked by a sort of nervous energy that eschews long lyrical lines for taut punctuated showers of sound. There are no pauses between the movements, which has an organic feel as if the piece were regenerating itself, growing and changing as it went along. Dutilleux did not intend the work to be a platform for showboating, and the integration between Kavakos and the orchestra was tightly integrated. The performance struck me as having a certain fragility or brittleness that suited it well. One could argue that it was a decidedly un-Brahmsian approach and the concerto provided a nice contrast to the histrionics of the rest of the evening. The shows are heavily sold both for this weekend and the rest of the month. So if you've got a ticket and you like your Brahms stretched out to fill up the maximum time possible, you're going to love this.


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