Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Death and the Maiden

July 31, 2011

Richard Paul Fink Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2011

Wozzeck returned to Santa Fe Opera on Saturday for the first time since 2001 for four performances under conductor David Robertson. Wozzeck is not an easy opera on any level, nor should it be. It’s about as far away from Menotti’s The Last Savage as you can get musically or thematically. The revival of Daniel Slater’s well-received production from the opera’s last run here is hugely successful and, a decade on, it still impresses particularly with the forces at hand. The staging doesn’t take a breath to pause between scenes and barrels toward its inevitable conclusion right from the start. (As a comparison, this is one of the major problems with Mark Lamos’ Metropolitan Opera production, which drops the curtain between every scene change in its brief 90 minutes ruining the rhythm of the work.) There is a real clarity of focus in Slater’s version on the relationship between Wozzeck and Marie, and her eventual murder comes as far more of a shock than one might expect. The production also underlines Wozzeck’s own decline into madness with a progressive misalignment of the set, with different slices of it tilting in either direction as the night wears on. The fool, a small role in Act II, is greatly expanded in terms of stage time in order to provide Wozzeck with a haunting death-like character pointing the way to his inevitable end. The fool’s painted facial death mask soon spreads to the other patrons of the bar by Act III further accenting the doom in the air. And if all of this wasn’t great enough, the New Mexico skies opened up with one of their famous lightning flashes right before Marie’s first appearance in one of those moments that makes Santa Fe Opera unlike any other opera-going experience in the world.

Nicola Beller Carbone Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2011

Musically and vocally the show has much to recommend it. The cast includes two of the world’s foremost Alberichs: Eric Owens as the doctor and Richard Paul Fink as Wozzeck. Both have large, well-controlled instruments that came across beautifully in the outdoor theater. Fink is a superb Wozzeck who is able to project a nebbishy desperation for his character who seems more confused than angry about his actions both before, during, and after Marie’s murder. Robert Brubaker was a mocking, cruel captain. I’m particularly fond of tenor Stuart Skelton’s Drum Major as well. Skelton, who has performed this role at the Met Opera, is great as the lascivious john who seduces Marie. Skelton will be performing Parsifal in Seattle according to bio material in the Santa Fe program, which should be something to look forward to. (The program also notes that Paul Groves will be singing the same role in Chicago in future seasons for what it’s worth.) The cast is rounded out by Nicola Beller Carbone as Marie. She has sufficient power and an easy clarity over the dense orchestration and brings out Marie’s highly conflicted character. She could turn the slightest bit shrill at the top end, but this was formidable by any measure.

Robert Brubaker and Eric Owens Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2011

This performance was also the local debut of St. Louis Symphony Music Director and Southern California native David Robertson. He took an approach reminiscent in my mind to the performances given by the Vienna Philharmonic in Berg’s Lulu at last year’s Salzburg Festival. Robertson brought out surprisingly lush Romantic underpinnings to a work one rarely associates with them. There is a tradeoff here in terms of lyricism over a more jarring, percussive sound. I sometimes felt I had lost the strings in the mix over the horns and winds as well. But the coordination between stage and pit was solid.

And so, an excellent and disturbing Wozzeck concludes the opening part of the 2011 Santa Fe Opera season. Of course, starting Monday, things kick into high gear with 6 performances a week until the end of August. There are a number of great shows to see this year, but with only three more performances of Wozzeck plan your time carefully, before it is gone.


Something New

July 30, 2011

The Calder Quartet with Christopher Rouse Photo: mine 2011

It wouldn’t be summer in Santa Fe without new music. And while the newest thing on offer from the typically trail blazing Santa Fe Opera this year is Menotti’s 1963 opera The Last Savage, the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival is bringing a number of recent commissions to local stages as is their annual tradition. The piece I was most excited to hear (although there are several other great offerings in this month’s schedule) was Christopher Rouse’s String Quartet No. 3, which received the final two performances of its rolling premiere here. Rouse composed the work with the support of the Festival and other organizations specifically for the young and extremely talented L.A.-based Calder Quartet who performed it on both Thursday and Friday in the St. Francis Auditorium. Rouse describes the work, his first chamber piece since 1996, in his notes as perhaps one of his most personal compositions calling it music that has been in his head a long time, but never before now finding expression due to the limitations in rehearsal time and other logistics in writing the piece for a full orchestra. Thus when the Calder commission for a quartet came along, it was the perfect time to offer up this music in a chamber format to a group that could make the long term commitment to what Rouse warned would be a particularly difficult piece to play. He likens the work to a seizure and it’s a bracing, forceful, and jarring single movement. Much of this is played in unison by the quartet and despite a quieter middle section, the work does come out swinging. The Calder Quartet showed amazing skill in managing the work’s coordination challenges as it reels from moment to moment.

It was unnerving in a good sense and seemed to have that effect on the players as well. In Thursday’s noon time concert, which included Haydn’s "Joke" String Quartet before and Beethoven’s No. 11 Quartet after the Rouse, the emotional force of the new piece spilled over into the Beethoven for a raw and rather edgy turn. The whimsical Haydn, served as a double joke in that it actively avoided setting the stage for what was to follow. It was well played and increased the impact of Rouse's new work. On Friday’s “Masters of Modern Music” program the quartet closed the show and came off more unwound and less tense than on Thursday. That may have been in part due to the quartet’s bedfellows on Friday. That show opened with the Calder Quartet playing Peter Eötvös’ Korrespondenz, a setting of communication between Mozart and his father during Mozart’s turbulent Paris years. And while there is no vocal music in the piece, it bristles like a heated conversation and ends with issues unresolved much like real arguments.

The other two pieces on Friday’s program featured some prodigious playing and guts from the harpist Bridget Kibbey. First she paired with flutist Tara Helen O’Connor for Toru Takemitsu’s Toward the Sea III with its take on the American New England coastline from a Japanese perspective. This haunting and lovely moment was followed by Kibbey alone playing the smallest snippet from R. Murray Schafer’s magnum opus Patria. This monumental multi-day expansive musical drama rivals the Ring cycle in scope and this 15-minute solo derivative is like playing the horn solo from Act II of Siegfried on a program by itself. This re-orchestrated passage from Patria No. 5: The Crown of Ariadne, which was originally scored for at least 15 players, is reduced for harp and percussion both of which Kibbey played at the same time. In between moments of playing her specially tuned harp she would suddenly strike out at a bell or chime only to return to the harp in the next beat. At one point she tied on anklets of bells to accompany her playing as well. It was fascinating to watch her level of concentration and the music evoking Ariadne was a pleasure. Sure it wasn’t performed on the beach as the original score calls for with the full ensemble, but you can’t have everything. But on this afternoon, one got some lovely recent music and its significant local premiere from a great late 20th Century composer played by one of the most exciting yong string quartets. And that's plenty.


Follow the Lieder

July 29, 2011

Dawn Upshaw receives flowers as Inon Barnatan looks on in Santa Fe Photo: Ken mine 2011

One of the reasons I love Dawn Upshaw as a performer is that every performance from her brings something new and unexpected. Just when you think you know what she can do, she surprises you with something entirely different. There are few vocalists like her and her appearance in Santa Fe this week as part of her time as Artist-in-Residence at the 2011 Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival is proving to be as memorable as any of her other stage appearances. On Thursday, she performed one of three programs she is doing for the festival this year focusing on the works of Schumann. Now admittedly, Upshaw is not the first name I think of when it comes to Lieder. She has recorded a variety of German Lieder with Richard Goode and toured in support of it. But it is often French, English, or Italian that she is best known in. So the power of her performance of seven of Schumann’s Lieder on Thursday came as a shock to me for the extent of their emotional power. Upshaw’s German may not be flawless, but her sense of the dramatic, her ability to establish narrative, and the way she can get inside of a song made these seven various works build to an overwhelming crescendo. It all started brightly and pleasantly enough with “In der Fremde” and “Er ist’s”. But as the minutes wore on a darker and eventually more impetuous sense of love shone through. By the time she reached “Mignon/Kennst du das Land?” and the concluding “Widmung”, the profound sense of being overwhelmed by emotion shone through in the dramatic pairing of these songs. Upshaw was steady and certain throughout without any gravel or missteps.

She was accompanied by young Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan who’ll be appearing on Saturday in a solo piano recital for the festival. He was a last minute replacement for Gilbert Kalish who had been scheduled to appear. Barnatan was quick on his feet and interacted beautifully with Upshaw as he did with the other performers on the program. The show started with Three Romances from Clara Schumann played by Barnatan and violin soloist Jessica Lee. They provided a lush and lovely introduction to Upshaw’s performance that followed. The evening concluded with Robert Schumann’s Piano Quartet, which included Barnatan, violinist Soovin Kim, violist Choong-Jin Chang, and L.A. Phil principal cellist Peter Stumpf. Again the sound was polished, warm and lush. It was hard to believe that Barnatan was a last miunte sub given the quality of coordination in the performance. The quartet served as a sort-of response to Upshaw’s performance, as if the intensity of the love in the songs had eclipsed even the words themselves, leaving only this instrumental music. It was a lovely evening and, luckily, Upshaw will be around into next week giving two performances of Golijov’s Ayre on Sunday and Monday at the festival. Even when the opera isn’t performing, there is plenty of fabulous music to hear in Santa Fe.


Rumble in the Jungle

July 28, 2011

Anna Christy Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2011

The standard opera repertoire is filled with works that overcame bad starts. Works that were considered horrific flops would sometimes go into hibernation for long periods only to be revived decades later to great acclaim and popularity. Unfortunately Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Last Savage isn’t likely to become one of them. There is a window of opportunity for such an event right now. Santa Fe Opera opened a new production of Menotti’s notorious, early-60s flop last week and, true to form, they gave it everything they’ve got. Of course, that was also the story in 1964 when the Metropolitan Opera premiered the recently completed work in the U.S. with a starry cast that included Nicolai Gedda, Roberta Peters, and George London. The Last Savage was savaged then in the press as it had been in its Paris premiere just months before. Outside of only a handful of appearances since then, the opera has largely been put aside. But when Santa Fe Opera and its director Charles MacKay went looking for an English-language comedy to round out the 2011 season, a chance to revive this piece seemed like just the ticket.

Anna Christy and Daniel Okulitch Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2011

And they almost get away with it. It’s a wonderful production directed by Ned Canty that visually recreates the heady early 1960s. The Last Savage focuses on Kitty, a Vassar student who has come to a make-believe part of India to capture and study the last known savage human living in the wild. Her father and the local Maharajah are more intent on arranging her marriage to the Maharajah’s son, but she won’t have it until achieving her goal. A plot is hatched by the parents to pay a country bumpkin, Abdul, to pretend to be the fabled savage who Kitty subsequently captures and takes back to Chicago to train him in the ways of the world. Canty keeps the visual humor of these scenes percolating along. The show is colorful and sharp with plenty of comic activity. The Act II cocktail party, which alienates Abdul from the ways of the West, is particularly pleasing with its neon-lit Chicago sign and parodies about modern art, science, and religion.

Anna Christy and cast of The Last Savage Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2011

The cast is excellent as well. Anna Christy is Kitty and manages the gymnastics of the opera’s most challenging vocal part with ease. Daniel Okulitch is a robust and funny Abdul. Okulitch is once again costumed without a shirt more often than not, which enjoyable as it is to watch, makes me worry that audiences don’t take his formidable vocal ability as seriously as they should. He's got a lovely baritone and excels in so many roles, particularly those of Mozart. The supporting roles were all well done, including Jamie Barton’s Maharanee, Sean Panikkar as Kodanda, the Maharajah’s son, and Kevin Burdette as Mr. Scattergood, Kitty’s father. One couldn’t have asked for more from the pit, which featured the orchestra under George Manahan who has few rivals in leading this sort of American material.

Anna Christy and Daniel Okulitch Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2011

But with all of this TLC and despite some genuine smiles, The Last Savage can’t escape Menotti’s bland score. On the one hand it is often outright melodic and accessible, but it isn’t particularly memorable most of the time either. This is supposedly the kind of music that audiences were crying out for in the early 60s, as they were alienated by the academic trends in composition lauded by music critics who were not kind to Menotti's more conservative approach. But not being modern wasn’t enough to guarantee an audience for this particular opera then or now. There is a septet close to the end of Act III that comes closest to providing something musically interesting, and feels Mozartean in the way it stands out in a work that contains almost no ensemble moments and little chorus work. The vocal writing seems uncertain at times as well. There are a few coloratura flourishes for Kitty, but much of the libretto doesn’t beg to be sung. As for the libretto itself, the story line is clever enough and solidly moves along. But this sort of early-60s comedy about modern romance and the changing role of the sexes does seem dated. Imagine an operatic treatment of a much stronger story, Pillow Talk, and you’ll get the idea. Except without Rock Hudson. Or Thelma Ritter. One can’t fault Santa Fe Opera for not putting its best foot forward, though. Menotti’s The Last Savage has a history of artists giving it the benefit of the doubt, but sometimes, love is not enough. The opera runs through August 25.


Summer Thaw

July 27, 2011

Vasily Petrenko and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Photo: mine 2011

On Tuesday I kicked off that peculiar L.A. summertime ritual of hearing an orchestral performance at that most iconic if acoustically unwelcoming of American concert venues, the Hollywood Bowl. Besides the legendary bad acoustics and amplification, there is the profoundly middlebrow classical programming that makes the Proms look radical by comparison. But the Bowl overall is a cash cow for the L.A. Phil, so the lighter pop fare of the summer is the price one pays for the regular season’s “Green Umbrella” new music series I suppose. Still, a few worthwhile evenings creep up in the schedule every summer for the orchestra, and Tuesday was the first of those this year. The occasion this week was the return of Vasily Petrenko to the podium in the first of two performances of Sibelius and Dvorák. He's one of the most exciting young conductors in the world and we're lucky to have him in Los Angeles as often as we have in recent seasons. The night started off with a lively and exuberant turn of Dvorák’s Carnival Overture. This was quickly followed by Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 played with soloist Alexander Gavrylyuk. It’s one of those pieces that’s so familiar that I sometimes experience some dread when it shows up on a program. It’s as if all I can think about is all the ways it can go wrong. But what a pleasant and exciting surprise Petrenko and Gavrylyuk provided. The concerto sounded light and nimble, tripping along like some French work. Gavrylyuk showed some restraint at crucial moments like the concerto's opening bars that kept the performance from becoming farcical. That’s not to imply that the Petrenko or the orchestra skimped on the more dramatic moments, but the immediate quality of the performance overcame the obstacles of distance, video and amplification splendidly.

The anchor spot of the evening went to Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2. Petrenko started off with an almost machine-like approach. By this I don’t mean that I found the first movement perfunctory, but instead marked with a somewhat cold precision and exacting approach. Slowly, things began to loosen and warm up over the subsequent movements. By the final Allegro, it sounded like a full-fledged romantic symphony, lush with beautiful playing from the strings. It was a nice showpiece for principal flutist David Buck whose proving to be an especially exciting addition to the orchestra. Petrenko’s precision is a welcomed quality in the unruly acoustics of the Hollywood Bowl. His appearances here in Los Angeles are more and more impressive, and I for one can’t wait for his next trip to Los Angeles. His Thursday concert, which features Martin Chalifour playing the Sibelius Violin Concerto, and Dvorák’s Symphony No. 9 should be worth catching as well if you’re in town.


Not Getting Married Today

July 25, 2011

Sharon Omi and Willie Fortes Photo: Odyssey Theater

Federico Garcia Lorca’s play Blood Wedding cries out to be an opera. In fact, it has received at least two opera treatments that I know of, and it continues to be popular as a stand alone play. The story is compact and emotionally intense: a young bride abandons her groom and their families during the evening celebration following their nuptials to abscond with her former lover. That lover’s family has a history of violence with the groom’s kin and the inevitable violence and retribution ensue as the many mothers, sisters, and wives of the two clans look on. But all that passion and action does not automatically mean that Blood Wedding is easy, or straightforward to mount on the stage. The language is an issue if a company plans an English-language production and there is a large cast filled with at least two major supernatural characters that tug at the edges of the play’s realistic family drama. That Los Angeles’ Odyssey Theater Ensemble makes such a reasonable showing of the play despite these challenges is commendable despite some significant flaws.

The Jon Lawrence Rivera-directed version of Tanya Ronder’s English translation handles the magical realism and more symbolic elements of the play well. John H Binkley’s simple circular stage is both inviting and focuses the attention where it needs to be. All of this is dominated by a gigantic moon that slowly crosses a portion of the rear of the set. Rivera also employs his large cast in a number of choreographed scene changes that highlight the sense of inevitability in the work as if everyone is heading toward their fated destination. When Death and the Moon arrive, they seem completely at home in this world of tragically colliding families. On the down side, Rivera and his cast are tripped up by the language. Ronder’s translation attempts to preserve what it can of Lorca’s poetry in a modern English translation, but it can come off as prosaic at times. The large ensemble cast sounded restrained down from a full boil to more of a simmer with the text. Nothing ever felt that it was all that dangerous or that there was that much at stake in the end. I've seen more volatile Springer episodes. Some of the performances were clunky, although I was taken with Donna Pieroni’s Neighbor and Sharon Omi as the mother of the groom. But as much stage time as they had, there were plenty of other haphazard moments that made this a long 90 minutes. However, if it’s a work you aren’t familiar with, the production doesn’t take away from Lorca’s sense of the dramatic. Blood Wedding, even a clunky one, can make you feel that you’re watching something that is outsized and bigger than life. The Odyssey Theater production runs through August 14.

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Death

July 23, 2011

Anna Deavere Smith Photo: Joan Marcus

I graduated from Miami University in Ohio in the spring of 1990. Before I left, I was in the final seminar taught by Linda Singer, a philosopher, author, and for me, hugely influential intellectual force. (Her final work Erotic Welfare was published posthumously in 1993 after being edited by her friend and colleague Judith Butler.) Singer’s work on sexual theory and politics was informed by the traditions of post-structuralist/post-colonial theory and she could be a daunting figure on many levels. She did not tolerate fools easily and I can remember her bringing more than one philosophy graduate student to tears over A Thousand Plateaus. She heavily shaped my distaste for humanism and pluralism. My time as one of her students was also marked by the fact that she was dying. It was widely known she was being treated for cancer and throughout the many weeks the small seminar met, we watched her continue to physically deteriorate. She was a small woman to begin with and looked thin and grey by the end of the course. I recall seminars where she would drift off asleep in the middle of a forceful soliloquy on Foucault or Derrida. We students would look at each other with concern, but she would snap back to and carry on without missing a beat. Her illness was never spoken of. It seemed inappropriate and she never gave off any signals to indicate that she cared to discuss it with us, so it was left aside despite our knowing what was happening. Of the many things she said, one that I still carry to this day was a response to the consternation of a philosophy grad student who inquired in disbelief that there must be some things we have in common by simple fact of our humanity. Singer rejected this idea outright. “We share nothing,” she said, “except perhaps death. And even that we don’t experience in similar ways.”

She didn’t expound on this, but her words have haunted me. I still think of them as immensely brave. And I thought of them again last night while watching the powerful and ground-shaking Let Me Down Easy, the 2008 work from dramatist Anna Deavere Smith. The show is travelling the west coast and has arrived at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica this week. Let Me Down Easy is quintessential Smith, a single act consisting of her re-creations of verbatim dialog from a number of different people she interviewed as part of her research for the project. The names and subtitles of each vignette are projected above the stage on a screen, which is helpful for the sake of clarity. Ostensibly the show is about the American medical care system, but that isn’t really the case. It’s about death. And in particular, it’s about the way we think about death in the everyday sense. Her interviews with doctors, clergy, everyday people, and celebrities cover many topics, but they always come back to the kinds of death the great majority of us (at least in the West) will experience. This is not about being murdered, or dying in combat or a car accident. These are deaths from cancer, renal failure, and infectious disease - the kinds of things that lead people into the medical care system and eventually their own ends.

Let Me Down Easy is not all doom and gloom, however. It is very funny at several times. This is particularly true of the handful of celebrities Smith channels in the show including Lance Armstrong and Lauren Hutton. Her portrayal of the sharp wit of Ann Richards during cancer treatment is particularly hysterical. But in perhaps the most humanizing of ways, there is no escaping the uninvited guest in the room. Whether the subjects are cancer patients, their doctors, or people who have survived life-threatening illnesses, Let Me Down Easy always comes back around to what we all must come back around to. The last few monologues in the show are perhaps the most moving. One is from Smith’s own elderly aunt, Lorraine Coleman about the death of her own mother, and the other is from an interview from the recently deceased Rev. Peter J. Gomes. It’s impossible to watch this through anything but tears.

Smith’s recreations of these 20 some characters are flawless. She’s as amazing to watch now as she has ever been. As she moves through the show she takes and then abandons a variety of props to represent each one. Soon the stage is littered with coats, trays, and glasses like some party instantly abandoned by all the guests. But what I admire most about Smith isn’t simply her accents or the masterful physical mimicry of her subjects, it’s her keen eye as a curator. Smith is able to cull through hundreds of interviews to find material that works together in a beautiful and dramatic way. Some of these interchanges, like that of Hutton’s, on the surface seem banal and unengaged. There is no great anecdote here, but Smith sees the conversation in a much larger context and shows us the meaning in it by its relation to the other pieces around it. I can’t recommend the show (running through July 30) highly enough. Smith and her characters provide a powerfully moving case for what Linda Singer suspected might be true: the one thing we humans may have most in common is our certain, yet unknown end.

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In Search of...

July 22, 2011


This month’s issue of Gramophone features a cover story on the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s current music director Gustavo Dudamel. It’s a somewhat odd piece that reads mostly as damage control over the continuing questions about Dudamel’s musical sophistication and the presence or absence of any broader artistic vision. Editor James Inverne notes in his own commentary that so much of what has been written about Dudamel focuses on his work with “El Sistema” and young musicians in general. “Almost all the media tend to want to ask [Dudamel] about El Sistema. That’s dangerous for him, because it takes away any real sense of interpretative vision, of a through-line to his performances. Then when the media descend on some big concert with the LA Phil, for instance, it becomes a one-off judgement as far as headline writers are concerned. Put crudely (it often is), it’s ‘Is he worth the hype?’” Thus Dudamel has become the victim of his own hype with the music press overlooking his musical ability as they are blinded by stories of his own enthralling personal story and many good works. It’s clearly time to buttress that musical image, so the Gramophone, turns to Dudamel and the LA Phil’s cheerleader-in-chief, the Los Angeles Times’s Mark Swed, for its story on that purported “interpretative vision.”

Of course, the irony that Swed, and the Gramophone, are two of the chief architects of that hype to begin with is besides the point for the article that ensues. Much of the piece recounts Dudamel’s experience with Sweden’s Gothenburg Symphony and his first experiences conducting Nielsen, Sibelius and Bruckner. There is talk about his love for this music that he had no virtually no exposure to prior to arriving in Gothenburg in 2007. (Swed notes he had conducted Sibelius as a student on a few occasions.) We are reminded how Dudamel prefers to conduct from memory and how he can sing parts of scores apparently on command.

But nearly a third of Swed’s article is a defense against the major criticisms Dudamel and the L.A. Philharmonic have faced during his tenure with the orchestra. First is the matter of the decidedly mixed reviews the orchestra received in its first American and European tours where Dudamel’s penchant for histrionically slow or fast tempos were called out by many professional music writers. This decision, according to the interview, was a conscious one intended at least in part, to make the tempo changes between movements even more dramatic. And while Swed, and Inverne in his quotation above, suggest that critics’ negative reactions to these performances were somehow unfair due to a perceived bias in people not familiar enough with Dudamel’s work, I’m here to tell you sometimes a first impression is dead on. Dudamel’s through-line in L.A. has been a tortuous one to listen to, plagued with balance problems and an effort to instill drama into music in a way that ironically has the effect of often destroying it in the process. The Brahms' series that concluded the season went nowhere with half of the new works scheduled for the show evaporating into nothing and none of the Brahms symphonies rising to the point that one would considered them memorable.

The other defense made in the Gramophone article concerns the criticism that Dudamel has little experience and interest in new or recent classical music. Swed points to the Gothenburg, and subsequent L.A. premiere of Sofia Gubaidulina’s Glorious Percussion as an example of a new piece that Dudamel took on and liked. “He didn’t know what to make of it when he first looked at the score, but now he is in love with the work and with doing new pieces. Already in Los Angeles Dudamel programmes substantially more new and recent music than any conductor of a major U.S. orchestra.” Or at least he used to. I’m not sure what data Swed is basing that assertion on, but I can tell you Dudamel is leading almost none of the new and recent music in the L.A. Phil’s 2011/2012 season. And Glorious Percussion aside, he has had little to say about or has shown little advocacy for new music in Los Angeles in his haphazard tenure here thus far.

As much as Swed’s defense of Dudamel in the latest Gramophone would like to suggest that the more one is exposed to Dudamel’s conducting the more one appreciates it, the exact opposite is actually the case. The more you hear, the more you realize this young man whose “…accelerated rise to fame …clearly out-paced his professional conducting experience” is still learning his craft day-by-day at the most unlikely and inappropriate of places, as the head of one of the world’s greatest orchestras. Nice work if you can get it.


10 Questions for...
Dawn Upshaw

July 19, 2011

Dawn Upshaw Photo: Brooke Irish/Ojai Festival

There are few living vocalists who’ve left as great a mark on contemporary music as Dawn Upshaw. Name a major new work of the last twenty years and there’s a fair chance Upshaw is one of the collaborators that brought it to life. She's got shelves full of Grammy awards and the first MacArthur Fellowship ever awarded to a vocal artist. She has certainly been a part of some of the most affecting musical experiences I’ve had as a listener from Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de loin, Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar , and John Adams’ El Nino to Messiaen’s angel and Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen. She’s an artist who has gone her own way on both the operatic and concert stages, and her commitment to the collaborators and issues that she cares about have yielded great music and great art. She’ll be making several appearances at this year’s Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival the week of July 25 singing Schumann and Golijov’s Ayre, which he composed specifically for her. Needless to say, when I got a chance to pose 10 questions to her for this little ol’ blog in advance of her time in Santa Fe, I jumped at it:

  1. You'll be making appearances at this summer's Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival where you'll be performing Osvlado Golijov's Ayre among other works by Schumann and Bach. What is the best thing about working with a living composer?

    It is a true privilege and honor to work side by side with the creator of a new piece—to try and understand and realize to the best of my ability what he or she is hoping to say through the music, and then to find my own true expression through that. It's also a joy, when I become very familiar with a composer's particular and unique musical "voice", to live in his or her musical world. In essence, it feels good and right to me that I keep my music-making vital and fresh in this way. It's what turns me on, and it's why I love singing.

  2. What piece of music, or role, would you most like to perform, but haven’t yet?

    I don't have such a "list".... I don't think like that. I am constantly responding to what is around me—to what I hear, to what is shared with me by my close colleagues, to wherever my interests lie at any given moment. I am quite content and gratified. I don't have a "wish-list".

  3. What piece of music, or role, would you never perform, even if you could?

    Again, I don't think like this, so I have no way to answer this question.

  4. Dawn Upshaw in Golijov's Ainadamar Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera

  5. What’s your favorite on-stage memory?

    Too many moments to list just one.... my favorite moments may last a second, they may last an hour, but they are always connected to very special experiences with particular colleagues that move and inspire me very deeply. Colleagues such as Peter Sellars, Gilbert Kalish, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Gerald Finley, ....the list is long!

  6. Some of your most memorable performances (and certainly some of my personal favorites) have been in collaboration with director Peter Sellars who has managed to convince you to perform in all sorts of atypical circumstances. What’s so special about your artistic collaborations with him?

    Actually, Peter doesn't ever have to "convince me" of anything! We know each other so well and respect each other to such a degree that "convincing" does not ever need to enter the process. Peter is one of the most generous directors I've ever worked with, and is most definitely the most musical director I've ever worked with. And he knows me so well—there's total trust between the two of us.

  7. What would you recommend for my summer reading list?

    Hmm... that's a little tricky since I don't know you! :) I guess I could tell you what I'm reading at the moment?: I am looking at the books of Atul Gawande, having first been so astonished and intrigued by his articles in The New Yorker; I am reading poetry by Lucia May; and I am just starting a new novel by Aimee Bender (The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake), whose short stories I have so enjoyed in the past.

  8. You’ve had music written for you by the world’s greatest living composers from John Adams to Kaija Saariaho. Which composer would you most like to have a new commission from whom you haven’t worked with before?

    Well, I don't know. Again, hard to answer that...and in fact, lately I tend to approach a composer if I'm wondering about a collaboration possibility. The most recent being the Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy (Nonesuch just recently released a CD of his music, which includes of a piece he wrote last Fall for me and his ensemble CRASH). He's writing 2 more pieces for me! I think he's really extraordinary, and I am wild about his music. Very exciting!

  9. What's the best thing about being a soprano?

    Will you be surprised if I say again (sorry!) that I don't think like this? That I have a bit of difficulty relating to the question? I actually don't identify at all with an idea of "being a soprano". I do identify with the idea of being a "musician". And in that case, I do love to find expression—personal expression, often times—through music. It is also, in a very big way, healing and comforting. And when I am moved by my colleagues, when I celebrate life, or even when it is outrage or pain that is expressed through music, ...well.... I often feel blessed.

  10. What's your current obsession?

    Trying to simplify my life.

  11. What can we look forward to next from Dawn Upshaw?

    ???? who knows! :)


Up All Night

July 18, 2011

Christine Brewer, Frank Porretta, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Master Chorale Photo: mine 2011

Well, it’s that time of year again: opera night at the Hollywood Bowl. In recent years, the Los Angeles Philharmonic has put on a one-night only concert performance of an opera as part of their summer season. In the last two years, this has caught the interest of music director Gustavo Dudamel who is taking advantage of the chance to conduct staple operas that have yet to come under his baton elsewhere. Last year it was Bizet’s Carmen and this year, when given the opportunity to work with soprano Christine Brewer again, Dudamel suggested Tosca according to a recent interview with her in the Los Angeles Times. Wisely, Brewer passed on this and counter-proposed Turandot instead. The role would seem like a natural choice for Brewer with her strong, powerful dramatic soprano voice. But, alas, things did not work out as perfectly as planned.

The Bowl is not the ideal venue for any classical music, much less opera by a long-shot. The sound, including all vocalists, is amplified, losing any subtly or nuance in the performance. The audience is all but encouraged to make extraneous noises with food, drink, and constant coming and going from the seating area. The L.A. Philharmonic technical folks can't seem to wrap their head around how to do readable supertitles on the four giant monitors on either side of the amphitheater. The show starts before the sun sets making the screens unreadable. Later when the sun goes down, the white lettering vanishes against the white in the coats and dresses of the performers in the video feed it shares space with despite the supertitles' semi-transparent background. Yet, despite these hurdles, Dudamel and the orchestra persevered with a big, brash sound that almost compensated for the many acoustic hurdles. The Los Angeles Master Chorale and Children's Chorus also gave wonderful performances in an opera that relies heavily on their contributions. Dudamel's tendency toward emphatic overstatement is almost perfectly suited for operatic works and large outdoor venues and for once his presence wasn't obtrusive to the musical performance at hand.

However, Dudamel and the orchestra were not blessed with vocalists who met the quality of their performance on this particular night. The originally announced Calaf, Francesco Hong, called in sick and was replaced by Frank Porretta. Porretta is capable in the part and delivered "Nessun Dorma" with enough warmth to satisfy a Hollywood Bowl audience. He was noticeably breathy through most of the evening and his tone could fairly thin. The big name on the marquee, though, was Cristine Brewer, and many in the half-full Bowl had come to hear her role debut as Turandot. Now I'm a very big Brewer fan, which means going out of my way to catch her relatively infrequent appearances in fully-staged complete operas. She is increasingly a creature of the concert stage despite having one of the most powerful and beautiful dramatic soprano voices around. I'm sad to say, Turandot did not go especially well for her on this evening. She struggled with the highest passages in Act II often scooping into the climaxes and shouting at times. The middle and lower parts of her range were lovely, but this was not a beautiful sounding performance overall.

Which left the laurels for the best vocal turn of the evening to the chronically under-appreciated Hei-Kyung Hong as Liu. Hong amazed with bright warm tone and easy heartbreaking beauty. And for a moment everything worked and was one with the operatic gods. Too bad there weren't a few more moments like it, but maybe next year.


Everything's Gone Green

July 17, 2011

Meredith Arwady, Paul Groves and Yuri Minenko Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2011

Following a recent performance in Ojai with Dawn Upshaw singing George Crumb in a semi-staged production directed by Peter Sellars, a friend of mine commented that while he’d enjoyed the evening overall, he was tired of “the whole Peter Sellars thing.” I believe what he was referring to mostly was the director’s tendency to infuse everything he does with direct references to contemporary social and political issues and his boundless exuberance, which opera-goers in the U.S. have become familiar with over his long career. But I felt this summary judgment unfair at the time, and even more so after seeing the new production of Vivaldi’s Griselda which opened at the Santa Fe Opera on Saturday. Taken together with his recent production of Handel’s Hercules at the Lyric Opera of Chicago last spring, Sellars’ work is anything but static and is evolving in new directions. Now, two events don’t make a trend, and the concern for contemporary social issues are still a big part of what is going on. But Griselda, like Hercules, has a surprisingly sparse look and feeling to it, focusing almost exclusively on the interpersonal interaction between the vocalists at the expense of everything else. Furthermore, strong painterly visual elements dominate both recent shows suggesting a greater abstraction of time and place than say projects like Doctor Atomic. Sellars’ Griselda uses no scenery or props other than three guns, two chairs and the giant single wall that makes up the set surrounding the vocalists. If this year is a guide, Sellars is streamlining his productions to the barest elements, leaving his performers completely exposed amid a visual world that is less diorama and more abstract art. It is a move that deconstructs an overdetermined work of art, opening it up to greater numbers of audience interpretations. But, it can also run the risk of getting dull if the visual artistic elements are not as strong as the musical and acting elements in the production.

Isabel Leonard as Costanza Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2011

Luckily, Santa Fe’s new Griselda is as visually striking and theatrically engaging as anything I’ve seen this year. It is by no means a stand-and-deliver production despite its simplicity and it is blessed with a set painted by fellow L.A.-based artist Gronk that could fill an evening of viewing in its own right. Gronk has collaborated with Sellars before, most notably in 2005 in Santa Fe with Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar. His abstract painting covers all sides of the stage in intense colors –red, white, and black- but mostly, and above all else, endless shades of green. The stage floor is also painted green and it radiates most of the evening under James F. Ingalls glorious lighting, which causes the massive painting to repeatedly express new colors and forms in conjunction with the performances. Often it is more the painting than the actual vocalists that is directly lit while performers sing in the shadows during moments that make dramatic sense for them to do so. The cast is similarly dressed in colorful, contemporary outfits from Dunya Ramicova including Gaultiero’s polo gear, Corrado’s lime green suit and Costanza’s white and pink quinceañera dress. Griselda’s hapless suitor Ottone appears in street clothes Ramicova stated were influenced by the early look of pop music act Usher.

The cast of Griselda Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2011

The abstract visual elements of the production provide an interesting parallel for the dramatic and theatrical elements of the opera, which are similarly complicated, evocative and open to multiple conflicting interpretations. Griselda is not the kind of story contemporary audiences are accustomed to. It’s most famous instance occurs as the final story in Giovanni Boccaccio’s 12th-Century Decameron, although it also appears as “The Clerk’s Tale” in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. (It even appears in Petrarch as well.) The story was immensely popular well into the 18th Century and by the time Vivaldi and his youthful playwright collaborator Carlo Goldoni got their hands on Apostolo Zeno‘s 1701 libretto in the 1730s, the story had already been set for the operatic stage many times, most notably by Alessandro Scarlatti. In Vivaldi's opera Griselda is the wife of Gaultiero, King of Thessaly. She was born poor and Gaultiero’s reputation among his people has suffered for having chosen a wife of such low origins. He elects to test Griselda’s honor and faith in him by putting her through a series of increasingly unbelievable humiliations that include divorcing her, banishing her (and her son separately) from his palace, and claiming to have murdered their daughter to avoid further dissatisfaction among the populace. The list goes on and the opera can be a grueling testament to Griselda’s suffering as Gaultiero brings their daughter Costanza, whose origins are unknown to anyone except him and his servant Corrado, out of hiding and announces his plans to marry her. However, Griselda’s faith and love in Gaultiero are never shaken and she refuses to act or even speak out against him, accepting each increasingly horrific dictum with resolution until Gaultiero proves to his people her worthiness through her boundless deference and restores her to her husband, throne and children.

Amanda Majeski as Ottone Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2011

Needless to say, it’s a story that is problematic, but Sellars, like others before him, invites the audience to see Griselda as a more complicated figure. Griselda’s endurance and fortitude against a world of injustice create a psychological power for her in their own right, her self-denial becomes a source of strength in this argument. She refuses to despair or abandon what she truly believes despite what is going on around her. This notion of transcendence through suffering has Catholic overtones and Sellars puts a point on this by suggesting in his own notes that Griselda may represent a female Christ figure. He musically underscores this with a canny change to the musical score. Vivaldi cast his probable mistress Anna Giró in the title role for the opera's premiere and while she may have had many positive attributes, singing was not one of them. All of Griselda’s arias were therefore written in an aria parlante form being a little bit closer to recitative than air and leaving Santa Fe’s formidable Griselda, Meredith Arwady, with some of the evening’s most unattractive music. So in an act of musical and theatrical redemption, Griselda’s final aria is replaced with the first aria from Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater. Sellars’ Griselda closes her vocal performance with a reflection on Mary and her suffering at the foot of the cross. It is a touching moment and works well in the opera, although Sellars take on Grisedla’s story is certainly not the definitive or only one.

Meredith Arwady and Paul Groves Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2011

Griselda is unusual in other ways as well and stands out even for lovers of Baroque music. Vivaldi was in his 60s when he set Goldoni’s revision of the libretto and decided to go along with the younger man’s forward thinking for the time about musical drama. Goldoni cut nearly half of the arias from Zeno’s original libretto and added recitative, creating a work that has unusually large amounts of what most contemporary audiences would see as filler in a Baroque opera. There are lengthy passages of recitative that both begin and end the performance, and the emphasis in the revision was on theatrical values. The end effect is a performance where the vocalists have a lot of acting to do outside of their actual singing and they uniformly succeed at it. Vivaldi’s music tends to be more straight-forward harmonically than one might think of from Handel or other Baroque composers. But there was still plenty of wonderful music to be sung, and Santa Fe has brought together a wonderful cast.

Besides Arwady’s dark contralto which dominates the stage if not the whole opera, there were superb performances from nearly everyone in the cast. Isabel Leonard sang Costanza’s big aria “Agitata da due venti” with remarkable technical skill and excellent volume and control. She clearly distinguished herself musically from everyone around her in an ensemble cast with its share of heavy hitters. She shared the biggest ovations of the evening with Amanda Majeski who sang Ottone, Griselda's unusually threatening other suitor, with a beautiful lyrical ease. There were excellent countertenors galore. Yuri Minenko sang Gaultiero’s henchman Corrado with a bright and shining tone. David Daniels, cast as Costanza’s love Roberto was announced as ill, replaced on opening night with a very young and handsome Jason Abrams who availed himself spectacularly given the short notice of going on. Perhaps the only vocally under-performing member of the cast was Paul Groves’ Gaultiero who sometimes sounded unsteady though never pitchy. This sort of Baroque performance is not Groves’ typical rep, but he made a good go of it and was completely committed to a very mean spirited role. All of this was conducted by another L.A. artist, Grant Gershon in his Santa Fe Opera premiere. Gershon’s star continues to rise and he gave a fleet, careful turn through the score with a contemporary orchestral approach. It's exciting to see his face show up increasingly on other podiums around the country.

As a lover of Baroque opera, I found it a hugely successful evening with a thoughtful and visually exciting approach to the material. And while the interpretation may not please everyone or resolve all the conflicts in the way some people like, it is a production that takes a stand, has a point of view, and runs with it. It is not a museum piece despite its age, and any opera company that produces that kind of work is doing the right thing. And any show that is as visually pretty as it is acoustically deserves to be seen. Sellars' take on Vivaldi's Griselda will be onstage in Santa Fe through August 19.


The French Revolution

July 16, 2011

Bryan Hymel and Ailyn Pérez Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2011

The currently unfashionable Faust made its way to the stage at Santa Fe Opera for the first time this season. I say unfashionable because I've found an unusual number of opera lovers have a disdain for this once most popular of operas. This may stem from the fact that even though Gounod’s once omnipresent masterpiece still shows up regularly on opera stages, it is often mistreated with less than imaginative productions and sometimes B-list cast and conductors. Often unintentionally, opera companies approach Faust like more of a chore than a hot ticket and I think audiences pick up on that. So it is refreshing to see Santa Fe take this opera seriously, making it one of the cornerstone productions of its 2011 festival season in a new production by Stephen Lawless conducted by the festival’s Chief Conductor, Frédéric Chaslin. Santa Fe has had long-standing relationships with the works of Strauss, Mozart, and Puccini. Verdi is no stranger here and new music and world premieres are a regular occurrence. Yet with the exception of Carmen and some popular Offenbach revivals, the company has comparatively little track record with the French repertoire. But with the appointment of Chaslin, this is hopefully about to change, and as this run of Faust demonstrates, he has a lot to offer in this arena.

Act V of Faust Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2011

Chaslin and the orchestra gave one of the most musically satisfying performances of the score I’ve yet heard live. His loving attention to dynamic contrasts were clear with a slow, thoughtful, and luxurious introduction to Act I. The remarkable detail could be seen later as well with chorus numbers and marches that were light and full of movement. This opera bogs down easily in lesser hands and oom-pah-pah lurks around every corner. Chaslin and the company have also preserved Gounod’s beautiful ballet music from Act V, which is regularly axed for time by most companies these days. With this kind of care, Santa Fe could bring about a new renaissance for French opera here in the U.S. and 2012’s planned production of Les Pecheurs de Perles is looking increasingly promising following this Faust.

Ailyn Pérez Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2011

Chaslin’s collaborator, Lawless, has created a rather dark and sometimes strange if not always creepy version of Faust’s world. With the exception of Marguerite, and an occasional dancer, the cast is entirely dressed in black throughout. The late-Victorian look of the costumes and props stands in contrast to rows of lights and the otherwise blank shiny walls and floors of the set. There is a preoccupation with giant display cases that characters are often wheeled in on as if dioramas at The American Museum of Natural History. Marguerite’s jewel box in Act III is one such case marked “Bijouterie” with a counter and display stands with jewelry. In the Act IV church scene, a display case serves as a confessional for Méphistolphélès where he reaches through the partition and steals away Marguerite’s bastard child. Lawless can produce some great visual moments including a coffin that Faust and later Marguerite inscribe their names upon. Perhaps the most fascinating moment for me was the reinstated ballet where the women who’ve come to tempt Faust in an orgiastic dance are represented with the most famous femme fatales of opera—Carmen, Cleopatra, Manon, Dalila, Salome, and Helen of Troy—who enter in their own labeled display cases. They take turns seducing Faust who resists when the back wall parts to reveal the image of Marguerite, alone on a chair, awaiting the noose for a planned suicide. But as much as I enjoyed Lawless's visual sense of the work, there were times that dragged and some of the interpersonal chemistry between Faust, Marguerite, and Méphistolphélès was lacking in key moments.

Mark S. Doss and Bryan Hymel Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2011

Of course, some of that could arguably be due to the cast itself, who were overall more vocally than dramatically assured. Marguerite was sung by Ailyn Pérez, who has been singing this role everywhere lately. She has a lovely and powerful voice, and her performance in the role has grown since seeing her in San Diego earlier this year. Her mad scenes were truly distraught. I find her vocally a bit darkly-hued for the part overall and the top notes do get pressured at times. But she looks the part and often sounds quite lovely. She was adequately matched with Bryan Hymel’s Faust. The young American tenor gave an athletic vocal performance with a pleasing top voice. He could get lost in the lower part of the range, but it was a solid, respectable performance. Mark S. Doss sang Méphistolphélès. He had quite a bit to do here and wields hyperdermic syringes throughout as instruments of his magical powers. This is a Satan who is as much demented surgeon as warlock, and Doss went for it physically. I found his bass rather muddy most of the evening, but he got the job done. The chorus sounded strong and I was especially appreciative that Lawless found a way to actually keep them on stage at all times when they were singing, which helped musically.

Even with a well-done Faust like this one, the opera will probably still not be for everyone. But what opera is? The good news is Santa Fe continues to maintain its high standards and is giving the kind of musical attention to this and hopefully other French operas that may make the number of people who think they dislike French opera much, much smaller. The show is on hiatus for two weeks, but will return on Aug 1 and run throughout the entire coming month.


Tender Comrades

July 15, 2011

Paloma Herrera and Marcelo Gomes Photo: Rosalie O'Connor

The downside to American Ballet Theater’s visit to Los Angeles this weekend is that it comes amid the biggest traffic jam scare campaign this city has seen in three decades. And if all the fear about traffic congestion on the west side of the city this weekend keeps audiences away from downtown, it’s an utter shame considering they will miss out on what is likely the best dance program L.A. will see all year. ABT is a company that can be mighty stodgy as evidenced by last year’s visit with a moribund Sleeping Beauty. But that was not the company here this weekend, when ABT presented the newest addition to their repertory, The Bright Stream with choreography from Alexei Ratmansky and music by Dimitri Shostakovich. The ballet has been seen in Southern California before when the Bolshoi Ballet, whom Ratmansky choreographed the piece for, brought the show on tour to Orange County in 2005. But this is the first time that ABT has staged the work and it was a hit in its premiere outings earlier this year on the East Coast.

Gillian Murphy and Marcelo Gomes Photo: Rosalie O'Connor

As well it should be. It’s an outright funny, attractive, and exciting production that honors the company’s classical traditions without a note of cynicism. It is neither pandering nor syrupy sweet, although it is decidedly light-hearted in its approach to material that’s a bit unusual for U.S. audiences. Premiered in Leningrad in 1935, the work didn’t amuse Stalin, and Shostakovich and his librettists paid the price. The work wasn’t seen again until 2003 when Ratmansky picked up the score and sensing the zeitgeist, which favored a warm nostalgia for Soviet Russia, replaced the lost original choreography with movement of his own design. He chose wisely and a hit was born. The story is set on a collective farm where workers are preparing to celebrate the harvest festival. A troupe of artists including a ballerina (Gillian Murphy on Thursday night) and her partner (Cory Stearns) arrive to join the festivities creating tension between the ballerina’s old school friend Zina (Paloma Herrera) and her flirtatious husband Pyotr (Marcelo Gomes). It's a riff on a comic theme popular throughout the cold war—think, or better yet see, Heisser Sommer.

Yet, despite its genteel nature and nostalgic setting, The Bright Stream feels very contemporary, especially when the entire second act revolves around the two dancer characters appearing in drag as they play off the misplaced amorous overtures of a pair of retirees. There are beautiful lyrical moments as well between the old school friends and Pyotr who is tricked into making a pass at his own wife in disguise à la Le Nozze di Figaro. Thursday’s cast was superb throughout and in addition to ABT's biggest stars mentioned above, Victor Barbee and Martine Van Hamel managed the comic roles of the retirees with masterful timing. Gomes’ Pyotr was dashing and full of bravado while Stearns’ turn as a ballerina looked effortless despite some very challenging sequences that took direct aim at the gender lines in this sort of classically-influenced performance. Or as my friend Robert noted, it was like Matthew Bourne, except with competent choreography. Herrera and Murphy made a superb pair floating about the stage in everything you could wish from a ballet performance.

Victor Barbee and Martine Van Hamel Photo: Rosalie O'Connor

Shostakovich’s score for The Bright Stream is closer to his film and popular scores than his more “serious” orchestral and chamber works. But it both clearly fits into the tradition of Russian ballet music and it is unmistakably from Shostakovitch’s 20th Century with it’s maniacal marches and moments of sober reflection. There are folk touches here and there as well. Best of all, this is dance presented with an honest-to-god live orchestra conducted by Ormsby Wilkins that added to the vital energy of the evening. Granted, there aren’t many shows at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion using a curtain framed with the hammer and sickle insignia. But it is certainly less charged now than it would have been at the time of L.A.’s last traffic crisis during the Soviet-boycotted 1984 Olympic Games. And while this city may still thrive on periodic threats of congestion catastrophe, some things do change. ABTs new production of The Bright Stream and Ratmansky’s choreography reclaim a forgotten piece of Soviet-era art in the most graceful and beautiful of ways. Leave now to get downtown for this show if you must, but I wouldn’t miss it in one of the several other performances this weekend including both a Saturday and Sunday matinee.

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UR Doing It Wrong

July 13, 2011


This week, the Los Angeles Times’ “Culture Monster” “blog” waded into commentary about Twitter by naming 25 folks interested readers might want to follow in various areas of the fine arts - Art, Architecture, Classical Music, Theater, Dance, and Jazz. The list reads something like the nominees for the Grammy Awards, a few contenders with legitimate merit mixed in with name checking acknowledgement of popular best sellers and familiar faces. Of course, the LAT has not been known for its savoir-faire in the realm of social media. But rather than parse the dos and don’ts of this particular list of Twitter picks, what caught my eye most was the list of contributors to the selections at the bottom of the article.
-- Marcia Adair, with David Ng, Charles McNulty, Christopher Knight, Christopher Hawthorne and Chris Barton.
Notice anything? That’s right. The LAT solicited input from all of its major critics in the various mentioned fields except for its primary classical music critic, Mark Swed. Why that’s the case is unknown to me. But I might guess that it could do with the fact that Swed has expressed a disdain for social media and on-line communication generally. He stated as much in person during a 2010 panel discussion that he and I sat on in 2010, so the notion that he might actually not know who is worth following on Twitter when it comes to classical music would fit in with such a world view.

Which raises the question, is having that kind of knowledge important? If your work is writing about music or art in a public forum, is it part of your duty to stay up on what’s going on, on-line? Certainly I think everyone would agree that staying up on developments in your area of expertise, like music, is a necessity. And one might also argue that being up to speed on what colleagues are writing about might be part of that job as well. But what about what is going on in social media? Certainly many of the artists involved in producing the work under discussion are participating actively in arenas like Twitter and Facebook. And while not every word of it is newsworthy or worthwhile, some of it is. And avid followers of the arts, many of whom are the primary consumers of a critic's work, are certainly following all of this information right alongside what is being written in the inches allotted for criticism in the LAT. I guess my feeling is that in 2011, writing about music and art also means keeping up with some awareness of what is being said in the virtual world as well. And in the meantime, go out there, and follow whoever you want. If you want some additional Twitter pics for classical music I'd start with @JoyceDiDonato, @amandaameer, and @nightafternight. As for me, I’ll be here and maybe on Google+ as well.

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Who Sang It Better?
Griselda Edition

July 12, 2011


The Santa Fe Opera will open a new production of Vivaldi’s Griselda this weekend. An operatic rarity, the work is mostly known today by a handful of arias popular on the concert stage. Perhaps the best known of these is “Agitata da due venti” a coloratura showpiece popular with those vocalists who’ve got the chops to manage its quick pace, trills, and elaborate detail. In perhaps the first of a recurring series, above and below are two prime examples of the work in performance – Cecilia Bartoli (above) and Vivica Genaux below. The question at hand: Who sang it better?

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At the Movies

July 11, 2011

The L.A. Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl with A.R. Rahman Photo: mine 2011

Sunday was my first visit to the Hollywood Bowl for the summer. It was the usual bundle of nostalgia-fueled expectations dashed by the bottle dropping, stack parking, acoustic disaster reality. Classical events here must be selected with great caution, and music from other genres tends to fare better in the haphazard concrete sound garden. The show was one of the Bowl’s world music events, which hosted another return visit from the beloved South Asian composer A.R. Rahman. Rahman has headlined previous India-themed programs at the Bowl as recently as 2006 and 2009. His Bollywood hit list is often mixed with appearances from other ensembles meant to highlight a variety of musical traditions from the Indian subcontinent. This year’s outing, however, offered less variety and despite the presence of a game and musically articulate Los Angeles Philharmonic, it was a sizable dud.

Last time around in 2009, Rahman led an ensemble through any number of his high-energy dance numbers and several high-voltage romantic power ballads complete with film clips and light show. But Rahman has been moving outside his Bollywood backyard more and more with American and International assignments like 127 Hours and Couples Retreat. As if to underscore this transition, the second half of Sunday’s program featured exclusively orchestra arrangements of Rahman’s film scores. There were still plenty of Bollywood favorites, but several compositions stemmed from films familiar to a broader audience including Lagaan and Slumdog Millionaire. The orchestra, conducted by Matt Dunkley, who made new orchestrations and arrangements for the scores specifically for concert performances, sounded lovely and rich as the highlight reels rolled above. But for the most part, the crowd seemed to be snoozing.

I couldn’t blame them. Rahman’s scores are beautiful and lush, but they are also surprisingly unvarying. It was difficult to distinguish one from the next as the night wore on. Applause was fitful when it came about and there was audible restlessness from some quarters of the crowd. Rahman at one point thanked the audience for supporting something other than a "rock show", but the dye was cast. Repeated calls for Rahman’s Slumdog Millionaire hit “Jai Ho” were heard. And when it arrived in a clunky uncoordinated version at the end, it couldn’t have been more disappointing. Apparently the folks at the sound board had drifted off by this time of night as well, as one could alternately hear the vocalists or the orchestra or the prerecorded beats, but never all three at the same time.

Rahamn was joined on the program by the Bollywood Step Dancers of the Sher Foundation and the ensemble “Rhythms of Rajasthan” both of who were reprising their colorful and energetic 2009 performances. Sandwiched between them was Karsh Kale, a tabla player and film composer in his own right. His easy listening take on South Asian rhythms had a contemporary feel, but I couldn’t shake the feeling of being at a mid-90s Bruce Hornsby and the Range show. In the end what was most disappointing about the show was not that any of the film music wasn't professionally done, it was that it was barely distinguishable from anything else you might hear on any other film soundtrack. And sometimes, it may in fact be better to give the people what they want - especially at the Hollywood Bowl.


10 Questions (or so) for...
The Calder Quartet

July 07, 2011

The Calder Quartet

When it comes to the exciting young chamber music ensemble sweepstakes, there are few collectives quite as exciting as Los Angeles’ hometown heroes, The Calder Quartet. Comprised of violinists Benjamin Jacobson and Andrew Bulbrook, cellist Eric Byers, and violist Jonathan Moerschel, the members have risen rapidly since their days at the Thornton, Colburn, and Julliard schools to become one of the most in-demand ensembles for a variety of music, both new and old. They’ve had a major hand in new music circles playing new commissions from the likes of Christopher Rouse, whose recent String Quartet No. 3 will be reprised by the quartet along with other works when they appear in Santa Fe, New Mexico, this summer as part of this summer’s Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival on July 28 and 29. They’ve made recordings of the work of Rouse and Thomas Adès, and later this year will see the release of a new recording with quartets from California legend Terry Riley who has also had a long standing relationship with the quartet. And if that isn’t enough, they’ll be back in Southern California this September for the latest installment of the Carlsbad Music Festival, which they helped found with composer Matt McBane and is rapidly growing into a major new music event in California. The adventurous Calder players aren’t afraid to cross musical boundaries either and have performed with a number of independent popular music acts including Airborne Toxic Event and Vampire Weekend in between their appearances at venues like Carnegie Hall. Luckily the Calder Quartet’s Jonathan Moerschel was able to take some time out to sit down for the Out West Arts 10 questions.

  1. You’ll reprise your recent performances of Christopher Rouse’s String Quartet No. 3, a work you helped commission, at this year’s Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. What’s the best thing about working with a living composer?
    It is always very informative to be able to ask the composer questions about the sound or character they were going for. In the case of the Rouse quartet, there was a section that Chris said should sound like Soupy Sale's character, White Fang. It was much easier to find the right sound when we knew what image to visualize.
  2. What do you miss most about LA when you’re on the road?
    The food! Los Angeles has the best food of any city I've ever been in. You can find any kind of cuisine here. I think I miss the Mexican and Asian food in LA the most.
  3. You recently had your very well received debut at Carnegie Hall. Are there other major stages or venues you’d like to play but haven’t yet, or is it all downhill from here?

    Though we've played in many great halls in the US, there are still so many out there, particularly in Europe that I would love to play in. There are always some interesting venues out there, many off the beaten path.
  4. The Carlsbad Music Festival, which you helped create, is becoming the California summer music destination of choice. What’s your goal for the festival and can you give us a sneak peek about what to expect this year?

    The Carlsbad Festival has grown a lot since it was started. We have had a composition competition for the last 5 years or so, which has allowed us to commission at least 1 new work every year. This year's winner is Jacob Cooper, who is in the process of writing us a piece for this year's festival in September. We haven't seen the piece yet, but are thrilled and excited to start work on it.
  5. When should I clap?
    One should clap when they like what the musicians are doing, but preferable not while they are playing. It never bothers me when the audience claps after a movement is over because it is really nice to know that they are enjoying themselves. It's fun going to a jazz concert because you can clap after one of the players takes a solo.
  6. You’ve worked with a dizzying array of other artists from Gloria Cheng to Vampire Weekend and Airborne Toxic Event. Who is on your wish list for future collaborators? 6b. And may I suggest Joanna Newsom?

    There are so many great musicians and collaborators out there, that it is hard to say. I think we enjoy working with anyone that shares the love of the literature, and the interest in finding ways of taking our audience on a musical and artistic journey.
  7. What made the four of you want to play music together as a group full time?

    I think it was a mutual love of the quartet repertoire, both old and brand new, that inspired us to continue exploring that music together. We seem to have a shared sense of taste when it comes to this music. We also enjoy finding interesting ways to present the music.
  8. Having performed music drawing from so many different traditions and genres, is there anything musically that the group is not interested in trying its collective hands at?

    We are always interested in getting better at improvising, arranging, and composing, but learning the music of old and new composers takes a lot of our time.
  9. What’s the next big thing we should be looking for from the Calder Quartet?

    We look forward to new commissions by composers Peter Eötvös and Andrew Norman, and are releasing a limited edition vinyl LP of two early string works by Terry Riley. The record and jacket include artwork by LA artist, Dave Muller. We are releasing this record in honor of Terry's 75th birthday.


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