Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Stop Me If You Think That You've Heard This One Before

October 31, 2011

Susan Graham as Xerxes Photo:Cory Weaver/SFO 2011
Handel’s Xerxes made its way to San Francisco for the first time ever this weekend. It’s too bad its taken so long for a work with so much incredibly beautiful music to get here, but it made it. And if you're a person who isn't particularly drawn to Baroque opera or haven't seen one before, this particular production may be an ideal one to start with. With a solid, enjoyable cast, including Susan Graham in the title role alongside countertenor David Daniels, the show takes some of the usual excesses of the 18th Century and makes them a bit more approachable for a modern audience. That's not to say that anyone has taken great liberties with the score or libretto (it still has one of those elliptical, overly complicated plots), but that the production, originally by Nicholas Hytner and now revived under Michael Walling, plays up Handel's comic elements in a friendly, well-meaning way.

The show is somewhat of an import having been seen most recently in Houston in 2010 with the same two stars as well as Heidi Stober as Atalanta and Sonia Prina as Amastris. Of course, to call this show an import from Houston is not really accurate. In fact, Hytner's production, originally for English National Opera is over 25 years old and has been around the block more than a few times. The show is still frisky and fun, though I continue to feel that it does look rather worn around the edges including its increasingly distressed AstroTurf curtain. Hytner went to some length to capture the spirit of the Enlightenment as opposed to ancient Persia where the admittedly non-historical events of the opera are set. Hytner moves the action into spaces reminiscent of the 18th Century Vauxhall pleasure gardens with the characters milling about as spectators in some public showing of Middle Eastern artifacts kept in a series of display cases between canvas lounge chairs and make-shift cafes. But as when I saw the show last time around, there was a tendency to oversimplify Xerxes into little more than a zany comedy. To be fair, this issue was a controversy for Handel as well who inserted much more comedy into Xerxes than was typical for an opera seria at the time, enraging some critics. But there are still moments of pathos and sincere emotional pain for the characters in the show and they still seemed out of place in this version.

As for the quality of the musical performance, much can be said for both Graham and Stober who gave involved, vocally warm turns. Both showed off their excellent comic timing as did Michael Samuel who gets a great bit of drag to do in Act II. Many in the audience were pleased with the robust Sonia Prina whose dark almost husky tone could be heard easily throughout the auditorium. But in all honesty, while I felt there was no one in the cast who was bad, no one really grabbed me by the throat and shook me up either. The other additions to the cast this time around, besides Samuel, included Lisette Oropesa as Romilda and Wayne Tigges as her father Ariodates. Another new face, ironically enough, was Houston Opera’s Music Director Patrick Summers who is conducting all the performances in the San Francisco run. He’s not necessarily the first name you think of when it comes to Baroque opera, and his approach tends to smooth out rough edges as the expense of tension here, but he keeps things moving in an intricate show. So as an introduction to Baroque opera, you could do much worse than this eager-to-please Xerxes. So if you haven't gotten started on the superb operatic works of Handel, here's your chance.


Meaning It

October 30, 2011

Simon Keenlyside
The great English baritone Simon Keenlyside made a much anticipated recital debut in Southern California on Saturday night at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica. He’s reportedly not a fan of frequent travels far from his family and home these days, so this visit was a treat and an appreciative, large audience showed up for the program. The evening included mostly traditional recital material with songs from Mahler, Strauss, Debussy, Duparc, and George Butterworth, which served as an island of music from between 1880 and 1911 in an otherwise all baroque weekend for me. And probably the best thing about the whole evening was how seriously musical it was. I don’t mean that it wasn’t filled with any charming or lighthearted moments, but that Keenlyside was clearly intent on presenting a thought-out, professional program. This was no celebrity showcase in leather pants and knowing smile, but a bona fide vocal recital. Keenlyside was clearly engaged with all the material and was physically involved in the characters contained in the music. He spoke eloquently about the subtext of the songs from George Butterworth, which he argued are tied to the time leading up to WWI and the tragic loses suffered during war despite the music’s pretty pastoral sound.

But the evening did have some bumps. Keenlyside sounded like he might be suffering from a mild cold although no announcement to this effect was ever made. Mahler’s “Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht” was interrupted midway by an outright cough, with Keenlyside starting over from the beginning. More than that, many of the pianissimo high notes seemed unstable and there was a hint of gravel here and there elsewhere throughout the night. Not so much that it created havoc, but enough to notice. When Keenlyside got louder and more dramatic the issue seemed to subside. But both the Mahler and Strauss were plagued by this despite the baritone’s excellent German. Strauss’ “Befreit” was particularly affecting with its dramatic proclamations of love in the face of death. Keenlyside has always had an affinity not only for his native English, but also French, and the highlight of the night was in the lovely intimate intonation of the Debussy songs. Keenlyside is still one of the world’s leading Pelleases and his affinity for Debussy made for some stirring and outright romantic moments. Things wrapped up with four encores from the likes of George Ireland and Schubert. But Keenlyside's commitment to the material never flagged and the show did leave me wishing we'll have more chances to hear him back in L.A. again soon.


The Sopranist

October 29, 2011

Philippe Jaroussky Photo: Ana Bloom
The California tour of the world’s greatest countertenors continued on Friday with an appearance by the French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky and Cleveland’s own Apollo’s Fire Baroque Orchestra. Earlier this month Andreas Scholl gave a fantastic show with The English Concert and the music of Purcell at Walt Disney Concert Hall, and this Sunday, David Daniels will start a run at San Francisco Opera in Handel’s Xerxes. But not to be outdone, the boyish Jaroussky staked his claim with a collection of Handel and Vivaldi arias at UCLA with a show he and Apollo's Fire will take to Northern California this weekend. Jaroussky’s an interesting vocalist with a very different sound than either of his above-mentioned colleagues. He's technically a sopranist countertenor with his range lying closer to a soprano's than a mezzo's. His voice is bright with very effortless top notes he can float above the audience for days. His coloratura work is significantly more agile and precise than most vocalists of any range and he used that ability for some remarkable moments as with “Con l’ali di costanza” from Handel’s Ariodante. However, the lower end of his range could become weak and fade out even with the small ensemble accompanying him. Yet, when he chose arias that stayed more completely in the upper part of his range he excelled as with “Si mai senti spirati sul volto”. (A sample of him performing this role follows.) Jaroussky trades in a delicate, pristine sound that may not always feel lived in, but is undeniably beautiful.

Of course, it wasn't just the aria selection that showed the singer's acumen, it was his choice of touring partners as well. Apollo's Fire was founded in 1992 by renowned harpsichordist Jeanette Sorrell. The small ensemble of players on this tour managed a delicate sound that perfectly matched Jaroussky's tone, never overwhelming it. Sorrell conducted from the harpsichord and as much as I've talked about Jaroussky, the show was easily as much hers and his. Her playing was exemplary and her control and balance of the ensemble were remarkable on all levels. There were several non-vocal works on the program from the same Baroque composers and her arrangement of Vivaldi's Concerto Grosso "La Follia" rivaled the quality of any other Baroque ensemble you could name. There were the expected tuning issues, of course, with period instruments that were particularly intrusive in the first half of the program. But a little too much scrappiness is always better that too little when it comes to Baroque music and by the second half of the evening everyone had hit their stride. The night concluded with three encores ending with a reduced version of Handel's "Ombra mai fu" from Handel's Xerxes. I'm always amazed how touching this love song to a tree is, and Californians can hear two different remarkable vocalists sing it in the same weekend.


10 Questions for...
Vittorio Grigolo

October 27, 2011

Vittorio Grigolo
Los Angeles Opera’s 2005 production of Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette returns to the stage next Sunday. As you may recall, the last time around the show featured two white-hot young talents, Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon. I personally saw the show five times, and it will likely remain a high water mark of my opera going career for some time. Los Angeles Opera is poised to have that special lightening strike twice with this upcoming revival when two more incendiary young stars will take on the starring roles. One of those vocalists, who will also be making his Los Angeles debut, is tenor Vittorio Grigolo. Grigolo, besides being ridiculously handsome, has had a hugely successful recording career and recently released his latest collection, “Arrivederci” in this country. And at 34, he is taking world opera stages by storm. He’s well known to La Scala audiences and is frequently seen in London, Vienna, and throughout the rest of Europe. He’s appeared alongside Placido Domingo (singing The Duke of Mantua to Domingo’s Rigoletto), and his list of regular costars includes the likes of Gheorghiu and Fleming. (He'll be singing the Duke again in Milan next season under Gustavo Dudamel who'll be making his own La Scala debut at that time.) And he’s just getting started. Best of all, L.A.’s charming Romeo was kind enough to make some time to answer 10 Questions for Out West Arts.
  1. What role would you most like to perform, but haven't yet?

    I would love to perform Werther. I love the music and the character throughout the entire role, and who can resist the gorgeous aria “Pourquoi me reveiller”? Sooooo melancholic but so beautiful at the same time...and I always love to be a poet!

  2. What role would you never perform, even if you could?

    Otello, of course. :-)

  3. You'll soon be making your Los Angeles Opera debut as Romeo in Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette. What are the biggest challenges in playing one of music and literature’s greatest young lovers?

    The challenge is to be a lover...to be or not to be...there is no other possibility. Sometimes opera singers lose themselves in the score and the difficulties of their roles, forgetting the great and unique dimension of the drama. You have to play it as if it were real. It has to be as realistic as possible in order to let the public feel and connect with the play. It is not only about power and projecting and beautiful sounds, it’s about drama—better to call it melodrama— where emotions have to be held in control but still be emotions. The role has many dangerous parts. You need always to be in control and understand how to arrive at the end of the play after three hours with the same fresh sound in the voice as in the beginning....but I always love to challenge myself and the aria is a big, huge deal....soft but passionate and with a high note on the climax. Who could ask for anything more!!!

  1. You’ve had a very successful recording career to date all over the world. What’s the inspiration for your latest Sony recording, “Arrivederci”?

    “Arrivederci” is a very important record. It means a lot to me and where I come from: my background, my taste in the music of my country, and the feelings you get through those incredible masterpieces. “Arrivederci” means “see you soon,” and that is the first point of this album. It starts out very classical and guides the listeners to a magical trip through pure, classical opera to “popera”....Caruso was my example. When the project came along, I wanted to find special music that could express and in a way continue all the great feelings, love and passion my country reflects in music, especially in this century. I am very proud of the results and I think that this playlist creates an intimate relationship with the listeners. We always have to remember, though, that an album is not a real live performance. That is why I am asking listeners to come: "arrivederci...on stage!!!"

  2. Although you’ve performed widely in Europe, American audiences are just getting to know you. What’s the best thing about performing for American audiences?

    They are always happy. I find every theater and country has a very different audience. I have a huge love for Americans and their gratitude, love and appreciation for art. They really enjoy artists when they feel they are committed to them. It is a great feeling to return to the stage for your bow after the performance because you know that if you did well and you gave everything, they will give it back to you. In Washington and at the Met it was like this. I hope it will be the same here.

  3. Which music made you want to sing opera?

    Hmmm, I think it was anything my father would play while shaving in the bathroom.....a huge variety.

  4. A composer proposes a new opera with a part especially for you. What person or character would you most like to have written for you?

    Anything that makes me feel like a gladiator.

Vittorio Grigolo and Nino Machaidze as Romeo and Juliet in Milan Photo:
Brescia and Amisano
  1. You've worked with many of the major conductors and vocalists in the opera world over the length of your career. Is there someone you haven't worked with yet you'd like to?

    Of course, there is always somebody I am looking forward to walking onto the stage and meeting. I am really looking forward to working with Gustavo Dudamel in Rigoletto at La Scala in Milan next season. I think it will be a sensational production! Also, I would like to do music with Daniel Barenboim and Valery Gergiev...incredible musicians!!!

  2. What's your current obsession?

    Forgetting the words while I am performing. Sometimes I jump from an opera to another without much time and sometimes I just feel scared I will not be able to remember all of it...it isn’t funny!!!!

  3. With which of your operatic roles do you have the most in common?

    Romeo, of course! The role I am doing at the moment is always the one I have the most in common with. I have to be happy and always excited even when we repeat those roles. Of course, it’s often in different productions, and here in L.A. it seems to be a very special one. The director Ian Judge is extremely knowledgeable and inspiring. He definitely added a lot to my Romeo. Energy, passion love and drama will not be missed!!!


Le Gay Weekend

October 24, 2011

Angela Gheorghiu Photo: Catherine Ashmore
Don’t ask me how, but I spent quite a bit of time in a movie theater this past weekend. I tend to favor live performances over filmed ones, but the stars aligned and instead I saw perhaps two of the gayest possible things I probably could back to back in less than 24 hours. And since my regular readers know how much I love pretty, sexually ambiguous performers, or so I’m told, it will not surprise you to know that one of these was an encore screening of Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur from the Royal Opera House last December starring Jonas Kaufmann and Angela Gheorghiu and the other was Andrew Haigh’s recent romance, Weekend. The two were surprisingly similar in content with their rampant drug abuse, whispered heart-felt secrets, and male hawtness. Or then again maybe it was just me.

That hawtness in David McVicar’s smart production of Adriana Lecouvreur radiated from Mr. Kaufmann. His hair alone is awe-inspiring and his robust, warm tenor was at its best in the role of the Count of Saxony, Maurizio. Why Olga Borodina and Gheorghiu might be warring over his affections seemed perfectly natural to me. But there is a lesson here Kaufmann-lovers: as with Maurizio, if he promises to marry you, there are legions of other paramours that will no doubt be happy to put a price on your head. Gheorghiu gets a bad rap as a temperamental diva, and I realizes haters gotta hate. But lord can she sing this sort of thing better than anyone going. Even some of the cornier gestures in her acting toolbox seem somehow endearing here. When the curtain on Adrianna’s dressing room is pulled back in Act I to reveal Gheorghiu bent forward in prayer, I was bemused, but soon found myself completely wrapped up in a believable winning turn in this role. Her death scene, having handled the Princess' now poisoned flowers, was especially affecting. Mark Elder led a lush, glowing performance from the orchestra. My only regret is that the camera work didn't do justice to McVicar's dark brooding staging, and the moments that the cameras did pan back to include the full stage were some of the visually strongest images of the whole night. The performance will screen again at several Laemmle's locations around Southern California on Nov 1 if you've missed it.

Tom Cullen and Chris New Photo: Quinnford & Scout/Sundance Selects
Meanwhile, the lovers in Andrew Haigh’s Weekend face a very different contemporary set of obstacles. Two gay men meet on a Friday night in what starts out as a sexual hook-up but soon evolves into something greater in just four extended meetings over a drug-fueled 48 hours. Haigh’s partially improvised script pulls in loads of personal and cultural politics into this blooming intimacy between Glen, a savvy art-student, and Russell, a comparatively reserved lifeguard. The film revels in a low-budget, independent look with shots sometimes partially blocked by architectural features and sound that comes from someplace else. And while I often wondered if renting a boom mic would have bankrupted the production, I couldn’t help but admire the underlying sincerity and honesty of the final product. At times the coincidences in the plot do go a bit too far. There are some interesting meta- overtones to the film as well. Glen, a great Chris New, often pontificates that no one is really interested in gay art. Specifically he notes that straight people have no interest in it at all, and gay men are only interested if it involves explicit sexual content. And yet Haigh’s film, has been placed in a similar position as much of the PR around its American release has emphasized the “universal” nature of its themes in an effort to gain a wider audience. Russell, the equally excellent Tom Cullen, is less politically motivated than Glen and believes in an essential goodness and bravery in love that Glen seems skeptical of. Glen continues to feel that the cards will always be stacked against them. However, given the film’s less than riding-off-into-the-sunset ending, Haigh’s gay romance may not distance itself as much as it would intend to from the long history of tragic endings for gay male love affairs à la Brokeback Mountain. Just as Glen might surmise, the relationship between “gay” and “happy” may still be farther apart than the dominant culture, (or its internalized subcultural variant) is willing to allow. But Weekend is an excellent film and considering how few gay-themed films achieve this level of quality, that is an achievement in itself.


Look Back In Anger

October 23, 2011

The cast of Follies Photo: Joan Marcus 2011
The Marquis Theater on Broadway is one of those products of 1980s architecture that today feels like the Battlestar Galactica (original version) upon entry. I was there recently on my last sojourn to New York and mention it now before it gets away from me. The Marquis couldn’t be farther from the decrepit crumbling turn-of-the-last-century palace where Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s Follies is set. And yet the revival of the show currently running there does a surprisingly good job of getting you to overlook that fact. The entirety of the theater, aside from the seating, is draped in charcoal grey drop clothes remaking the space into something different. This Cylon-like transformation (new version) is also the main order of business for Bernadette Peters who starts as Sally. She must transform from one of the brightest and most glamorous stars into a desperate, middle-aged housewife all too eager to throw away her marriage and family for the memory of 40-year-old never-was romance. It’s a bit of a stretch, and as much as I enjoyed her performance, I could never quite believe that this attractive woman was quite the loser in love she pretended to be.

Elaine Paige as Carlotta Photo: Joan Marcus 2011
Of course the other hard part for Peters and the rest of the cast is managing to take these legendary Sondheim songs back from other performers who hold onto them in our minds with a vice like grip including Barbara Cook and Elaine Stritch. Luckily, many in the cast do just that. The most successful of these belongs to stage legend Elaine Paige who gets the juicy “I’m Still Here” and runs with it. It’s a goosebump moment and everyone in the audience knows it. I was also particularly taken with Jan Maxwell as Phyllis whose bristling build-up throughout the evening barreling into “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” was marvelous. Danny Burstein was a pitch perfect Buddy from start to finish as well. And I would be remiss not to mention the Broadway debut of opera-legend Rosalind Elias who sings "One More Kiss". She shows up long enough to remind everyone exactly how to sing, leaving her own stamp in the night's comings and goings.

TJan Maxell as Phylis Photo: Joan Marcus 2011
But even with these successes as well as a great version of “Who’s That Woman?”, this particular version of Follies felt a little off balance to me. There is both nostalgia and the bitter disillusionment of time in the show of course but Eric Schaeffer goes more for an angry version of the latter than the former. It’s a completely legitimate approach mind you, but one that can be rather cold and meticulous by the evening’s end. There are plenty of ghostly showgirls haunting their latter-day doppelgangers but even this gives off more of a haunted vibe than a fanciful one. Certainly the show is a respectable addition to the storied tradition of Sondheim revivals on Broadway and I would recommend you see it. But it doesn’t quite live up to the quality of several other recent Sondheim revivals including John Doyle’s versions of Company and Sweeney Todd or the last go-round for Sunday in the Park with George. This is a limited run through January 22 and a chance to see one of the great Broadway musicals in a high-end production, so do go see it before it is gone.


Magnetic Fields

October 21, 2011

Johannes Moser on an electric cello
The Los Angeles Philharmonic season has gotten off to a particularly slow start this Fall with five weeks of performances under music director Gustavo Dudamel. Despite two premieres, the shows have featured uninspired programming made worse last week by the cancellation of pianist Yefim Bronfman. Of course, you can still read all of the orchestra’s latest talking points as repeated by the major press organizations in town: Dudamel is a rock star, the orchestra is blowing the roof off of Disney Concert Hall, etc. You can even hear about how Dudamel has won classical music’s equivalent of America’s Got Talent, the Gramophone Artist of the Year Award. But the musical performances have been lacking and the shine of the orchestra’s hot new conductor is starting to fade. Dudamel’s concerts, although still better attended than anything else on the schedule, are no longer certain sell-outs. Or at least there are enough available tickets that somebody felt the need to hire a local social marketing PR firm a few weeks ago to get the word out about all the available tickets for the L.A. Phil shows Dudamel’s been leading this month. Meanwhile inside the concert hall, hype continues to outpace delivered goods at least 2 to 1.

And so it was this weekend with a show the L.A. Phil will take to San Francisco on Sunday featuring an uninspiring performance of Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 and a new work from Enrico Chapela –MAGNETAR, a concerto for electric cello and orchestra composed for soloist Johannes Moser. Following the second John Adams’ fanfare this month, Moser arrived on stage with the instrument in question on Friday and talked up Chapela’s music. We were told that unlike so many contemporary composers who write for the future, a stance that as you might guess is purportedly detrimental to music, Chapela writes for today. And if writing for today means writing short-lived, inconsequential music, in this particular case, I suppose he does. The concerto certainly wasn’t serious music. And by serious, I mean good. MAGNETAR starts out with the musicians in the orchestra rubbing their hands together, clapping, and snapping their fingers. All of this probably sounded cool, but you couldn’t hear any of it over the laughter in the audience on Friday. The following three movements were mostly marked by an indifference to the unique musical qualities of the electric instrument. Outside of a few sound effects, there seemed little about the solo part that couldn’t have just as easily been played on a standard cello and probably more clearly heard by the audience. It was also odd that Chapela’s piece seemed oblivious to the significant literature for electronic string instruments including Adams’ own The Dharma at Big Sur, which helped usher in the Walt Disney Concert Hall itself. The concerto was little more than a musical pastiche of jazzy interludes and watered down Led Zeppelin that neither rocked nor sang.

Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5 in the second half of the program was stronger, but burdened with Dudamel’s many interpretive foibles. The first movement started out inexplicably slowly and the chronic balance problems soon resurfaced. Major themes were just as likely to be buried under supporting material as not in both the third and fourth movements. And the memory of performances from the Mariinsky Orchestra in Southern California earlier this week emphatically underlined the lack of anything even approaching a Russian sound in the performance. Of course, that’s not really a fair comparison, but there is still a tendency under Dudamel for everyone to be playing his or her little heart out without enough regard to the bigger picture. As discouraging as all this was, there were clearly people who couldn’t get enough of it all on Friday, clapping in any available silent space in the performance giving their own unique touch to the iTunes recording being made that evening. But that may be the price of being America's populist orchestra.


No Static at All

October 20, 2011

Rena Butler and Chalvar Monteiro. Photo: Steven Gunther/REDCAT 2011
Quietly but unquestionably, REDCAT has become Los Angeles’ premiere destination for the best in contemporary dance from around the world over its first few years. The list of exciting new dance works that have graced this space grows longer and longer, and a new entry can be made on that record this weekend. Choreographer Kyle Abraham and his troupe Abraham.In.Motion have brought their 2010 performance The Radio Show to town, and it is packed with ideas and ambitions that thrill and seduce over the course of the evening-length performance. Abraham goes deep for a variety of personal references that may not always be explicit, but are closely intertwined with the story of a community, his own childhood home of Pittsburgh, and its relationship with two influential, principally black radio stations AM 860 and 106.7 FM. The two sets in The Radio Show are named for these stations and the music for the program is a pastiche of pop songs from the last 50 years mixed with pops and static from the airwaves. There is also a good bit of recorded dialog reflecting the type of talk that filled these airwaves on topics related to sexual and cultural politics.

But the show is not about celebrities, fame, or the power of pop music necessarily. Set against this soundtrack are references to personal matters including what Abraham describes on his own site as “an abstract narrative around the loss of communication, [in which] he investigates the effects of the abrupt discontinuation of a radio station on a community and the lingering effects of Alzheimer’s and aphasia on a family.” How this translates onto the stage are movements that can be fluid but are repeatedly stopped suddenly in staccato moments of paralysis for all of the seven dancers including Abraham himself. Abraham vocalizes at times with cries suggestive of someone who has lost their ability to speak. But all of this is lodged right alongside sounds for Beyoncé, Slick Rick, and Antony and the Johnsons. There’s a great visual sense to the program in the earth tone costumes by Sarah Cubbage and highly theatrical lighting by Dan Scully. But the show never takes itself too seriously and its points are made obliquely, often with bits of humor as with the faux radio call-in “make it or break it” program like some high-art Showtime at the Apollo. What’s best about Abraham’s work here is the way in which personal and public history are intertwined in a subtle way that mimics many people’s lived experiences. Mass produced popular music feels like a personal soundtrack here and the distinctions between high and low art fuse unselfconsciously. It’s exactly the kind of show that should excite dance fans and it is no surprise that the performances, which continue Saturday, are exactly where you would expect to find them in Los Angeles, courtesy of CalArts in the basement of the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

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All Around the Town

October 19, 2011

Valery Gergiev and members of the Mariinsky Orchestra. Photo: mine 2011
Southern California was one of the many regions on the Mariinsky Orchestra’s current tour of the United States with their long-time music director Valery Gergiev. But, of course, Southern California always manages to put its own unique decentralized stamp on things so the three programs offered on this tour promoting the Mariinsky’s latest release of Tchaikovsky’s Symphonies Nos. 4, 5, and 6 involved performances in two different locations over 2 hours apart by car spread over 6 days. Plus, a three-day trip to the bay area was sandwiched in between the first and second programs and, unlike other cities on the tour, the local concert stops did not include performances of either Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 1 or No. 6. But no matter. The Tchaikovsky they delivered was spectacular and thrilling, and everything else provided plenty of interesting listening.

I missed out on the first show of the Southern California set, which was sponsored by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County last Thursday, while I was in New York. The Philharmonic Society has enjoyed a close relationship with the Mariinsky Orchestra over the last few years and the orchestra played a big role in the inauguration of the Segerstrom Concert Hall in 2006. So it's a special occasion when Gergiev and his players return there and the second program on Monday, which included Tchaikovsky’s Symphonies No. 3 and No. 4, showed off how well things have gone for the hall in the last five years. It was wonder of a program and it sounded great in the space. American audiences in particular may be prone to overlook Tchaikovsky’s Russian heritage. His romantic works are so omnipresent that their familiarity breeds a certain contempt at times among some classical music fans. But if there is any orchestra in the world that can put the Russia back in Tchaikovsky, it’s the Mariinsky players, and Gergiev led these two symphonies in a performance unlike just about any other you’re likely to hear. The rough-hewn, sometimes severe take on even the smallest details imbues the symphonies with an almost folk music-like air. The slow movements have a mournfulness that one might not always think of in these very pretty pieces of music as well. It wasn’t technically flawless playing, but it was undoubtedly exciting. Even the encore from The Nutcrakcer seemed fresh and surprising that evening. The orchestra is not without finesse, and there was an assuredness in these performances that made even the rougher edges seem inspiring.

Inside the Valley Performing Arts Center. Photo: mine 2011
The following evening, Gergiev and his orchestra traveled to the other side of downtown Los Angeles to play a role in the opening of another brand new venue, The Valley Performing Arts Center on the campus of Cal State Northridge. It was my first visit to the very modern looking facility, which is pleasing to look at if a little cold on the outside. The “Great Hall” auditorium of the facility is filled with curving wood panels and grey metal accents. And in a parallel to those early shows at the then new Segerstrom Hall, the acoustic issues on Tuesday's VPAC show weren't quite sorted out yet. The Mariinsky Orchestra program was a thoughtful one that provided a 20th Century antidote to the Tchaikovsky show of the previous evenings. Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite started things off with a sound and perspective that was more mystical than Disney-esque. This piece can come off like movie-trailer music if you aren’t careful, and the Mariinsky Orchestra gave it a sometimes jarring twist that made it clear it wasn’t advertising anything. Next was Prokofiev’s demanding Piano Concerto No. 3 with soloist Alexander Toradze. It’s a furious flight of music, and here the acoustics got the better of everyone. The piano, at the foot of the stage was largely inaudible over the orchestra from where I sat in the loge and in many other places in the hall from reports I heard. Toradze struggled to rise above the orchestra even in the quietest parts. The sound could be cacophonous and harsh in the auditorium as well which continued into the evening's final offering, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1. This is a tough and rather daring early work from a composer with the opposite problem from Tchaikovsky- he's almost always talked about in terms of his relationship with his homeland and the Soviet Union. And like much of his work, Shostakovich fills this symphony with numerous folk themes as well as its looming, dark middle movements. Despite the harshness of the sound though, it was still a fascinating performance with its darker, edgier attitude. And so life goes on in Los Angeles and its environs as well all piled back into our cars afterwards, some for a long drive home. The city is filled with amazing things, it's just a rarity when they are packaged close together.

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A Masked Baal

October 17, 2011

Zeljko Lucic as Nabucco. Photo: Marty Sohl/Met 2011
And on Saturday there was Nabucco. Verdi’s early masterpiece returned to the Metropolitan Opera this season in the monumental 2001 Elijah Moshinsky production. It is above all else a spectacle and by a twist of fate, I somehow ended up seeing the show from the rarified environs of a center Parterre Box. (No not that one, a real one.) And my location couldn’t have been more appropriate for a show that’s one big rotating mountain of an extravaganza. Certainly the Met has other ostentatious productions on its current roster, but few have that Old Testament glamor best seen at a respectful distance. Perched atop it all in these first performances this season is the star who made her mark in that original run, Maria Guleghina. How the past ten years have treated her, I can’t say, but her reprisal of the role, complete with clinging gowns and big blond frizzy wigs, threw itself wholeheartedly into camp. Guleghina has a knack for this kind of performance as seen in last season’s Turandot and she is certainly entertaining on that camp level even if she isn’t always the most pleasant to listen to. She still manages Abigaille pretty well, though her forced, shrieked high notes will tend to knock one upside the head.

Her Nabucco this time around was the popular baritone Zeljko Lucic who gives a younger, sexier take on this king dethroned by God and his daughter’s own plotting. His take on “Dio di Giuda” was more cry of defiance than moment of spiritual enlightenment, but he’s likable here. There were some other fine singers in smaller roles in this cast. Carlo Colombara was a burnished Zaccaria who never succumbed to bluster. Yonghoon Lee was Ismaele a role small enough for this fine singer that it frustrates the audience who is deprived of hearing more of him here. And speaking of big talent in smaller parts, the show also featured the young Amber Wagner as Anna. She stood out in her precious few moments, but she’ll get another big break later this fall when she kicks off performances of the title role in Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos filling in for Deborah Voigt who withdrew from this part of the production.

Of course Nabucco is mostly about the chorus and Donald Palumbo and his choristers delivered a performance up to the company’s overall high standards. Paolo Carignani was in the pit with the orchestra and they delivered some rock ‘em sock ‘em Verdi for a staging that pretty much insists on it. And while all this may not make for a great opera, it certainly makes for an entertaining evening. There are two more performances with Guleghina this week before she steps out for Marianne Cornetti and Elisabete Matos later this month.



October 16, 2011

Fabio Luisi with John Harbison, and Chritine Rice Photo: mine 2011
On Sunday, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra made one of its regular jaunts over to Carnegie Hall for a concert away from the usual prima donnas and what have you that go along with the opera stage. The concert was one of the many events originally scheduled to be led by the Met Opera’s Music Director James Levine and it is also one of the many now being led by their new Principal Conductor, Fabio Luisi. Of course, this is a much-discussed topic in and of itself, and I continue to be bewildered about what the big deal is. Sure questions about leadership can exact a toll on any organization, but this isn’t China, it’s an opera company. The Met is hardly going to cease operation due to this issue. I wish Levine a speedy recovery and would love to hear him conduct again. If it is not to be, Luisi seems like a fine choice from what I’ve heard of his conducting, but there are certainly many other options. Probably the only thing the company could do wrong is to turn everything over to a twentysomething from Venezuela with lots of energy and huge gaps in his conducting experience. But no American arts organization would be foolish enough to do that, would they?

But I digress. Sunday’s program served as a reminder that even one of the world’s great orchestras, regardless of their musical leadership, isn’t infallible in every aspect. There are strengths and weaknesses and any changes in leadership will likely shift that balance. The show started with Mozart’s overture from Die Zauberflöte followed by his Piano Concerto No. 25 with soloist Richard Goode. Both were well played, but I felt overall the performance suffered from the same problems that plagued the new Don Giovanni production that Luisi led at the Met this past Thursday. This was big orchestra, polished, romantic Mozart. It’s sweeping and full-bodied and totally sucks the life out of the music. Maybe Mozart would have loved this kind of contemporary performance and maybe he wouldn’t have. But I’m with those who think Mozart’s music sounds best when it’s just a little scrappy and speaking volumes more than the physical resources of the ensemble playing it might suggest. The sheen on the Met’s Mozart leaves it pretty but ultimately cold and vacant and Luisi did little to alter that trajectory.

The second half of the show was a much better fit for the orchestra. There was Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, which was lush, comical and well balanced. But the highlight of the afternoon, and honestly the whole weekend, was a new commission from John Harbison, Closer to My Own Life. The work is a collection of four songs set to snatches of prose from Alice Munro’s The View from Castle Rock. The title of Harbison’s song cycle refers to Munro’s reasoning behind excluding older stories from prior collections which she then later collected in Castle Rock. And as one might expect there is a certain intimacy to many of the themes and scenarios included in the songs—from childhood memories to finding a breast lump. Harbison took bits of prose and placed them amidst broad, open-ended music that is both disquietingly modern, but accessible. And by that I mean it’s not music that prescribes certain emotional reactions to the material in the text, but at the same time works off recognizable harmonies. All four songs were sung by mezzo Christine Rice, who gave them rich detail with her superb diction. It was lovely and exciting music I know I would love to hear again elsewhere. In fact, they could have performed it again right then and I'd have been perfectly happy, which is how I often feel about Harbison's work. So enjoy the good news. The Metropolitan Opera and it's fine orchestra live on. Regardless of who's in charge.


Wife Swap

October 15, 2011

Stephen Costello and Anna Netrebko Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2011
Oh that Anna. She is something else, isn’t she. Anna Netrebko, that is, who is starring in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena at The Metropolitan Opera in New York this season and whom I saw as part of the in-house audience on Saturday. I make this distinction, because Netrebko’s face and voice may be just as familiar to audiences on the big screen, given that she has served as siren and ultimate icon for many of the company’s Live in HD broadcast series that has been remaking the face of opera since Peter Gelb initiated the program in 2006. To use the old cliché, the camera loves her. And it’s probably for similar reasons as to why she is so fun to watch live. She’s easily one of the best singing actors in the business and her physical presence and expressions contribute as much to her performances as her vocal production. When she exits the stage at the end of the show, her hair held aside in preparation for the ax it's a thrilling moment. She is using more than her voice to communicate, which despite what some people want you to believe, is a strength. Her performance in Anna Bolena should finally silence some of the unrepentant dickering over the relatively minor flaws in her vocal technique. Yes, I realize haters gonna hate, but she was on point scene after scene today making beautiful music and never leaving a doubt about who was the star of this show. She didn’t even have to lay down on the floor to do it.

What was going on around Ms. Netrebko at times lived up to her example. Stephen Costello was the old beau, Lord Percy, and he sang admirably if a little pinched at the top. But make no mistake, when he appeared bare-legged and disheveled on his way to the executioner alongside bass-bartione Keith Miller’s solid Lord Rochefort the cries of “break me off a piece of that” could clearly be heard across the country. Ekaterina Gubanova availed herself nicely alongside Netrebko in their Act II duet and she also paired nicely with Ildar Abdrazakov as King Henry VIII. Abdrazakov is a great villain onstage and he excelled here.

What didn’t work as well was the support from the non-vocal elements. Conductor Marco Armiliato stuck me as overly indulgent of the cast at times and the orchestral performance lacked crispness and drive, getting muddy at times. And then there is that David McVicar production. Of course, seeing this show in the wake of Michael Grandage’s new Don Giovanni for the company immediately made me think, “well, at least it’s not that bad.” McVicar knows what to do with his actors, and in this cast he was blessed with performers who’ve got a clue to begin with. But again the vacant, unchanging set offered little that was interesting to look at. McVicar has pointed out elsewhere that the barren look of these Tudor rooms is historically accurate. Sure. And there were no utensils in Medieval Times, hence there are no utensils at Medieval Times, but even there you can get a refill on your Pepsi. It’s a 19th Century Italian opera about 16th Century British monarchy that plays fast and loose with the facts to begin with – you can swing some more furniture and no one’s gonna notice, trust me. Actually, I must give McVicar props about keeping things moving. He’s against dropping the curtain for scene changes, and rightly so. This Anna Bolena moves along if nothing else. However, the problem remains the same as it has for most of the purely home grown new productions the Met has staged over the last few seasons – they don’t go far enough. The heart is in the right place, trying to give the operas a more modern and theatrical look. But the approaches remain timid, undercooked and still trying far too hard not to offend. How will all this come off without a superstar like Netrebko? We’re about to find out when the much talked about Angela Meade steps into this show on Oct 21 for three performances before Netrebko returns for two more performances in February. And while she's still in it, there is definitely a show worth seeing.


A Don Undone

October 14, 2011

Ramon Vargas and Marina Rebeka Photo: Marty Sohl/Met Opera 2011
The walls are back at The Metropolitan Opera. The company has had a run on homegrown new productions in the last few years with sets dominated by giant walls with shuttered openings for characters to pop in and out of “Laugh-In” style throughout the performance. Peter Grimes comes to mind, as do Doctor Atomic and La Damnation de Faust. But Michael Grandage’s stupifyingly dull new production of Don Giovanni takes the whole concept one step further. The entire set is composed of two giant walls, one in front of the other. Both consist of balconies or entrance ways on three levels, each space shuttered with double doors. The front wall breaks apart to reveal the back one. But oddly, very few of these doors are ever opened and the principal vocalists rarely sing from any of these vantage points. Instead Grandage is about wall for wall's own sake. The great majority of the entire evening takes place at the foot of the stage in front of one of these walls with entrances and exits made mostly from stage right or stage left. The production might seem revolutionary in its deconstructed almost primitive version of stagecraft if it wasn’t so vacant. It's hard to decipher what Grandage has contributed to this staging overall in that the direction is so subtle it borders on the non-existent. Many in the opera world have been critical about the lack of meaningful stage direction in the Met’s new Robert Lepage-conceived Ring Cycle arguing that technical wizardry is supplanting everything else. And Grandage's vision is ironically similar, just without the special effects. Difficulties in mounting Wagner's magnum opus are to be expected and rarely does any one organization get it completely right. But when a company manages to mount a Don Giovanni without an ounce of swagger, sexiness, or sincere laughter, there is really something to worry about.

Potentially any scene from Don Giovanni Photo: Marty Sohl/Met Opera 2011
Of course this long, dull evening had many other weak spots. The show was originally scheduled to be headed by Metropolitan Opera Music Director James Levine and was to star Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien in the title role. Both have suffered from spinal problems (Levine's ongoing, Kwiecien's acute and unexpected in the week prior to the opening) forcing their absence from this show. But I doubt that the presence of either artist could have saved this mess. Nor did the outcome bode well for Levine heir-apparent, Fabio Luisi, who did little in the pit to keep this ship moving fleetly along. The orchestral performance was slow and ponderous. Kwiecien’s replacement, Peter Mattei had a much better evening. He is a compelling Giovanni, even in these least desirable of circumstances, although his summons into this production at the last minute clearly took its toll, and he and the rest of the cast appeared under-rehearsed. Which is doubly ironic considering that they had so little to do besides flounce around aimlessly in period costumes.

The rest of the cast was hit and miss. Ramon Vargas was a beautifully warm Don Ottavio. Marina Rebeka and Mojca Erdmann were both making their house debuts as Donna Anna and Zerlina respectively and both turned in some lovely vocal moments. I was most taken with Luca Pisaroni’s Leporello whose canniness often stole Giovanni’s spotlight in this version of events. Barbara Frittoli was an oddly miscast Donna Elvira crushing some of the more delicate moments in her character’s part. Yet on the whole, these performers never quite seemed to gel as a cast. The relationships were vague and undefined and what characterizations there were, were cartoonish. And even the large ball and dinner scenes were flat and unclear. The concluding descent of Don Giovanni into hell was surrounded in 1980s rock video pyrotechnics and from the near cricket-like silence from large chunks of the audience at the curtain call, it appeared that few were won over with these stunts. Company general manager Peter Gelb remarked in the press recently that the Met was due for a new Don Giovanni and sadly after this most disappointing of opening nights, it still is. The show runs into November and beyond if you’ve got the nerve for it.


Who Sang It Better?
Dido Edition

October 13, 2011


I was so excited and intrigued by Andreas Scholl's performance of "Dido's Lament" on Tuesday that it got me thinking about how omnipresent Purcell's famous aria is. Which made me think it was time again for another edition of Who Sang It Better? - everybody's favorite game where you get to compare and contrast some clips of various vocal stars working over the same material. An example of Scholl's work is above, and below please consider the following offerings from Jessye Norman, Sarah Connolly, Leontyne Price, and a surprise guest. Your comments on these or other possibilities are welcome below.


Music for a While

October 12, 2011

Andreas Scholl Photo: James McMillan
Wow. That was my overall reaction to the performance that Andreas Scholl gave on Tuesday in Los Angeles where he appeared alongside the musicians of The English Concert under conductor Harry Bicket. The visit was part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Baroque Variations series, which this year has an especially strong line up including appearances by Concerto Köln, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, and Europa Galante with Vivica Genaux. But all of those shows have a lot to live up to given the sheer beauty of Tuesday’s performance. The night was dedicated primarily to the music of Purcell, and featured a grab bag of bits from both King Arthur and The Fairy Queen in no particular order. There was also a sonata from Biber and a passacaglia from Muffat. Both highlighted Bicket’s clear-headed period-infused approach to the material. The playing was brisk and spirited with the Muffat standing out especially.

Yet, it was the German Scholl who quickly became the centerpiece of the evening, even with the most English of Baroque ensembles playing the music of one of the most English of composers. Scholl sang a little bit of everything Purcell, covering both excerpts from the larger works previously mentioned, but also three airs and two other works, “Dido’s Lament” from Dido and Aeneas and “O solitude, my sweetest choice” thrown in for good measure. Scholl has an easy and accessible manner that matches his particularly bright and piercing tone. His vocal powers are formidable, and selection after selection he continued to impress. "Music for a while" was touching and good enough to serve as a real encore at the end of the evening. Scholl's take on "What power art thou" from The Fairy Queen was amazing for his ability to convey breathlessness in the most vocally satisfying ways. This wasn't gimmickry, but good old-fashioned technique and it was simply captivating. Even Scholl's version of "Dido's Lament" seemed to buck convention. This wasn't one of those romanticized, bloated renditions favored by too many mezzos, but a simplified, almost stripped down take, notable more for its profound restraint than its excesses.

The English Concert and Scholl are headed around the country including an appearance at Carnegie Hall this month and it's a winner of an evening. And if you miss him there, it's a sure bet that his appearance in Handel's Rodelinda at the Metropolitan Opera starting in November will be largely rewarding. Don't worry if you won't be in New York, though. Rodelinda will make it to the Met's HD Live series across the world on December 3, and Scholl's got a new recording of Bach cantatas just out this week as well. It's your chance to see one of the world's greats, so take advantage of his proximity while you can.


In the Wings - Oct '11

October 10, 2011

Valery Gergiev Photo: Marco Borggreve
What with all that’s been going on lately, I’ve gone and neglected to put up my October performance preview! This is in part because there is just too much going on this month in Los Angeles and beyond to see and do everything that is worth seeing and doing. So I’m going to do my best, but you, dear reader are going to have to make some hard choices. Take this coming weekend for instance. I’m going to be in New York City for Anna Bolena, Nabucco and the premiere of the new Michael Grandage Don Giovanni at The Metropolitan Opera along with Sondheim’s Follies. And as excited about this as I am (along with the de Kooning exhibit at MoMA), it breaks my hear that I’ll be missing a fabulous weekend of shows in Southern California. That would kick off on Thursday with Gabriel Kahane and The Calder Quartet playing music from Kahane’s excellent new recording Where Are The Arms at Largo at the Coronet. (Check out my current favorite track from the set, "LA" below complete with John Baldasseri-inspired video.) Friday night will open the Philharmonic Society of Orange County’s new season with the first of two performances from the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra under Valery Gergiev. The ensemble will play most of Tchaikovsky’s Symphonies (all but No. 6) as well as selected other works in the Southern California part of their tour to promote their lovely new DVD/Blu-Ray of Tchaikovsky's Symphonies 4, 5, and 6 which I’ve seen and also highly recommend. (It’s the kind of tough, folk-infused Tchaikovsky one always dreams about but doesn’t always get.) And just to keep you on your toes, the shows at the Segerstrom Concert Hall on the 14th and 17th constitute the first two in a three-show Southern California visit. The third show will take place at the brand spanking new Valley Performing Arts Center on the 18th. Collect all three.

Which brings us to Saturday the 15th at the Alex Theater in Glendale and the next program from the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra under Jeffrey Kahane, who’ll be leading a Beethoven and Britten program with contributions from soprano Karina Gauvin. Meanwhile, pianist Adam Neiman will kick off a week of performances of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes as the guest of Camerata Pacifica from Santa Barbara on the 14th down into Los Angeles by the 20th. But to round out the weekend, you should strongly consider the season opening show of the Los Angeles Master Chorale on Sunday the 16th which will revisit Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna under music director Grant Gershon. And I suppose if you haven’t had your fill yet of the Gustavo Dudamel kool-aid served up by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, you can check out this coming weekend’s program of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 (again!) and Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with Yefim Bronfman as soloist.

Goran Bregovic and his Wedding and Funeral Orchestra
Speaking of shows L.A. Phil-sponsored or -related, I’ve picked three for the month. First and foremost will be a visit from The English Concert under director Harry Bicket on Tuesday Oct 11, which will include works by Purcell sung by world-renowned countertenor Andreas Scholl. Then on the 26th will be a return L.A. appearance from Goran Bregovic and his Wedding and Funeral Orchestra, a group that gave a thrilling performance at UCLA’s Royce Hall in 2009 and will likely win over even more fans this time around. And even I will get another dose of Dudamel on the 21st when Johannes Moser will join the Los Angeles Philharmonic with a new commission from Enrico Chapela followed by Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5. The Hollywood Bowl still has some notable lease events left in the year and the 22nd will bring a program from Royksopp and Robyn. (Though the guilty pleasure part of me can’t stop thinking about the Journey/Foreigner show on the 11th.) Other big visits on the horizon for the L.A. Phil include Richard Goode who’ll play Mozart on the weekend of the 28th and Hillary Hahn who’ll give a recital on Nov 1 at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Lauren Weedman
Let’s see, what else? There’s dance – the Hofesh Shechter Dance Company will return to UCLA Live on the 19th and 20th with the U.S. Premiere of Political Mother. REDCAT will follow up the spectacular shows from Faustin Linyekula last weekend with ones from Kyle Abraham's troupe Abraham.In.Motion starting on the 19th. Dance at the Music Center will welcome the Scottish Ballet and the music of James MacMillan starting on the 14th, and Orange County’s Segerstrom Center for the Arts will host the tutu-free “Kings of the Dance” show starting on the 21st. On the theater front, the big story will be the opening performance of Burbank’s newest theater company A Noise Within, which will christen its first new performance space on the 29th with Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night after a massive multi-year fundraising and construction project. Boston Court will continue to run the world premiere of John Walch’s The Dinosaur Within while the Center Theater Group will roll the dice with a musical adaptation of Bring It On. The Geffen Playhouse will continue their strong season with the West Coast premiere of Geoffey Nauffts’ Tony-nominated Next Fall with performances starting on the 25th. And I can never get enough of Lauren Weedman who'll be appearing in the Edye Second Space at the Broad Stage on the 29th with No...You Shut Up.

Simon Keenlyside Photo: Ben Ealovega
As for me, I’ll be closing out the month with some highly anticipated Baroque performances leading up to Halloween. (Of course, if Baroque is not your thing, I'd definitely see Wadada Leo Smith's three evening magnum opus, Ten Freedom Summers at REDCAT from the 28th through the 30th.) Countertenor Phillipe Jaroussky will arrive at UCLA on the 28th alongside Apollo’s Fire Baroque Orchestra in an evening of Handel and Vivaldi. And the next night will bring the uber-sexy British baritone Simon Keenlyside for a one-night only recital at the Broad Stage. And on the 30th, I’ll be up bright and early for San Francisco where San Francisco Opera will open a revival of Handel’s Xerxes starring David Daniels and Susan Graham while across the bay, Nicholas McGegan’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra will perform alongside the much admired soprano Vivica Genaux with arias for Farinelli. I know I’ve made my tough choices, so now the rest is up to you.


Into the West

October 09, 2011

Meg Sullivan as Annabellee Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2011
Recapturing theatrical magic can be a tricky thing. Take Austin, Texas’ own Rude Mechs. The theatrical troupe created a sensation in Los Angeles this spring as part of RADAR LA, the first installment in the West Coast version of the cutting edge international theater festival, Under the Radar. Center Theater Group’s contribution to the festival was a short run of The Method Gun by Krik Lynn that was off-beat, funny and surprisingly beautiful in the most unexpected ways. So it was good thinking to bring the troupe back again this fall with a new musical, I’ve Never Been so Happy with book and lyrics from Lynn in collaboration with composer Peter Stopschinski. The work premiered last April in Austin and the show opened Saturday in its West Coast premiere. Even walking into the Douglas reassured one that the night would be something unexpected and exciting. The entire lobby of the Kirk Douglas Theater had been redecorated with Western kitsch from hay on the floor to saloon doors around the concession stand. Audience members are shuttled into a makeshift dressing room and costumed in 10-gallon hats, bonnets and any variety of vests and Western wear.

All this activity made for one amped up pre-show, and, entering the theater, the audience is greeted with a massive multi-level barn floor stage complete with a small pit for four strings, guitar player and keyboards as the cast mills about in a warm up for the promised hootenanny. So what could go wrong? Well even in Texas, it appears the play’s the thing. I’ve Never Been so Happy is reliant on a rather flimsy premise about the host of a family-oriented Country and Western television (or radio?) variety program, which stars his daughter Annabellee, who is eager to get out from under her father’s very overprotective wing. He wants her married before she can leave home and she agrees to let him pick the groom in an effort to make this happen and for her to inherit all of his land in a King Lear sort of twist. The groom-to-be, as it turns out, will be Jeremy, an 18 year-old just evicted from his mother’s wymyn’s commune in the surrounding area due to his gender and age. That mother, Julie, believes tying her son to the last mountain lion in Texas is the way to go to achieve this. As with The Method Gun there are numerous quirky touches here including Lynn’s fondness for anthropomorphism. The mountain lion as well as twin pet dachshunds Siegfried and Siegmunda are all voiced by human actors and have substantial singing parts with their owners. None of this works as well as the roaming unexplained tiger in The Method Gun but the intent is the same.

Paul Soileau and Jenny Larson Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2011
Of course, a sophisticated or profound scenario is not necessary for a comedy, but I’ve Never Been so Happy squanders golden material at every turn like a 12:45 AM SNL skit. Nothing much is ever made of the fact that part of the show is set in a family TV show or that the wymyn’s commune coexists in the same sphere as it. Instead the focus stays on the dogs and the mostly-imaginary love story. All of this might not be such of an issue, of course, if the music could save the day but it rarely does. The closing number, “I’ve Never Been so Happy” and Annabellee’s big Act I number “Everything’s Tied” are the only two that work. Stranger yet, very little of the music references Country and Western musical traditions, instead going for a less-involved Stephen Schwartz feel. At other times the musical choices are puzzling. Both acts start with down tempo duets which douses the audience with cold water from the minute the curtain goes up. The musical production values are off as well with strained and off pitch vocalism from many in the cast. There are exceptions. I was taken with E. Jason Liebrecht's Jeremy and Cami Alys's stage time as Julie. I longed for the sharp word play and irreverence of The Method Gun in Never Been’s lyrics, but until the very finale they were elusive.

There is something to all this I think. I imagine that the show could be construed as a commentary on the Western or perhaps even Texan character. The kitsch of the pre-show provides further commentary on the intimate and conflicting strains that make up the people of the West and the mountain lion serves as a metaphor for the Western spirit that is easily lost in the conflict of ideals that populates so much of today’s world. But this too seemed to slip through the fingers too easily in I’ve Never Been so Happy. CTG has a record of turning out some remarkable hits from the Douglas space and the ghost of Bloody, Bloody, Andrew Jackson fills the theater with this kind of material. But I’ve Never Been so Happy is a long way from that success, I’d wager, even if the promised self-love of the title is the first step in getting others to love you as well. The show runs through October 23 at the Kirk Douglas Theater.

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Thus Spake Zarathustra

October 07, 2011

from more more more... future Photo: Agathe Poupeney
The world of Faustin Linyekula returned to REDCAT on Wednesday for the first time since 2007. It’s a world similar to the one we know, if perhaps a bit better looking and sounding overall. It is certainly just as complicated, enigmatic, and hyperdetermined. The new program, more more more… future, comes straight our of choreographer Linyekula’s Congo (currently the Democratic Republic of... to be exact) complete with all of the politics and conflicted philosophies intact. This show is also about sex and rock’n’roll, and Linyekula makes no bones about the “carnal endeavor” of the movement in this hybrid piece that also is accompanied throughout by a live band. Like 2007’s Festival of Lies the dancers consist primarily of three men- Linyekula, Papy Ebotani, and Dinozord. They spend about half of their time in audacious capes covered in giant ruffles like strange petit-fours with spindly legs. The magnificent costumes were designed by Xuly Bët and provide an ironic contrast to the ripped lithe male bodies underneath. They writhe against one another and individually and sometimes struggle as if wrestling. At others moments they fall to the floor, legs extended into the air as if in mid-fall from the heights above.

And also like its predecessor, more more more… future has quite a bit more going on. The band with drums, bass, two male vocalists and guitar virtuoso Flamme Kapaya plays throughout the evening. They whiz through a variety of musical genres, but more often than not crunch out highly rhythmic rock riffs underneath the poetic, political, and somewhat obtuse text of Antoine Vumilla Muhindo. The texts are political in the most off-hand way referencing the downfall of unnamed idols, hope for the future, and Zarathustra. And while there is a sense of anger at times, there is more often a feeling of confusion or resignation. The energy ebbs and flows into different forms, sometimes with the dancers and band member brawling with one another and later with the entire ensemble joined in a circle at the rear of the space in an a cappella routine with more tribal overtones. It’s a visceral performance that gives one the sense of being out in public in a world where everyone is running off in opposing directions to unclear ends. And while that can feel disorienting at times, it also feels familiar. The show is more than simply a plea for humanism or political reform. It's about living our lives in the most strange contexts and persevering. It's a very worthwhile evening of dance as well, and is worthy checking it out in one of the last two performances this week on Friday or Saturday.


10 Questions for...Andreas Scholl

October 05, 2011

Andreas Scholl Photo: James McMillan
The rise of the modern countertenor and the resurgence in the popularity of Baroque opera have blessed contemporary audiences with some unsurpassed musical experiences. And no one vocalist may have accomplished as much along these lines as Andreas Scholl. He has few rivals in an increasingly crowded field of excellent performers and has excelled on both opera and concert stages. He is one of the most recorded vocalists of his age and next week, his latest Decca compilation of Bach cantatas will be available on line in all the usual formats. It’s a return to one of Scholl’s strengths given that Bach's music played such a large role in the earliest stages of his career. Scholl will be appearing locally in Los Angeles the day the recording becomes available in the U.S. by starting off a concert tour at the Walt Disney Concert Hall alongside Harry Bicket and The English Concert in a show that includes music from Purcell on October 11. The tour will take him to Carnegie Hall and Boston before he settles in for an extended stay at The Metropolitan Opera reprising one of his most famous roles, Bertarido, in Handel’s Rodelinda where he’ll join forces with Stephanie Blythe and Renée Fleming. Best of all, you don't have to be in New York to see it since the very photogenic Scholl will get the big screen HD treatment when Rodelinda is broadcast live in the company's "Live in HD" Series around the world on December 3. And you, lucky readers, get to share in the excitement now as Mr. Scholl was kind enough to subject himself to the OWA 10 Questions this week. Catch one of the world's greatest singers when he swings through the U.S. this Fall.
  1. What role would you most like to perform but haven't yet?

    Any role that Handel wrote for "Senesino" would be wonderful. The tessitura sits well for my voice.

  2. What role would you never want to perform even if you could?

    Maybe some atonal "extreme-singing" contemporary opera role.

  3. You will be appearing in Los Angeles this month with The English Concert and Harry Bicket performing the music of Purcell. How important are concert or recital performances for you as opposed to full-scale operatic roles?

    Concert or recital performances enable me to establish a contact with the audience as Andreas Scholl whereas I have to personify somebody else in an opera-performance. These are two different worlds. I love the intimacy of a song recital accompanied by lute, harpsichord or piano only. This way I can stay with an audience for a while which usually develops a wonderful dynamic in a concert.

  4. What is the best thing about being a countertenor?

    The confusion of someone who hasn’t heard the voice before. There is an element of surprise that blocks the listener from categorizing instantly and ideally lets him receive the music itself and not the performer.

  5. Your newest recording on Decca, a selection of Bach cantatas, comes out in the US next week. What is special about singing Bach for you as a vocalist?

    I would say that Bach’s vocal works for the alto voice are amongst the most challenging works for a countertenor. The compositions are executed in an instrumental manner and there is no place for technical weakness; Bach makes no compromises in his compositions in order to help the singer. On top of that the music has a tremendous depth and sometimes seems to a singer like a steep rockface for the freeclimber. So the reward of mastering this challenge is a wonderful "vision".

  6. As one of the world's most leading vocal artists, you have worked with a variety of the world’s greatest musicians. Whom would you most like to work with that you haven’t had a chance to yet?

    I met the Israeli singer-songwriter Idan Raichel this summer in Tel-Aviv. I am a huge fan and it would be a dream to work with him.

  7. So much of the standard countertenor repertoire is Baroque music. What would be an ideal contemporary music project that you would like to help develop or participate in?

    Any project that breaks with the established standard of music-presentation. It would need to be a project without "dark suit"; it would not take place in a concert hall, explore new spaces for music and combine singing with dance.

Andreas Scholl and Renée Fleming in Rodelinda at The Met Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2006
  1. Later this year you will reprise your performance of Bertarido in Handel’s Rodelinda for the Metropolitan Opera in New York. What do you like best about American audiences?

    That they are open minded about baroque music and haven’t yet adopted the "Baroque-Style-police" attitude which enslaves the performer as well as the audience to the myth of "authenticity." Human feelings and enthusiasm, love and passion for the music we are singing are "authentic." Instruments, choice of strings on a violin, temperaments and so on are empty formulas and not "authentic" in themselves.

  2. What is your current obsession?

    Filmmaking. I produced a documentary film about my singing teacher Richard Levitt. (He grew up in Los Angeles.) It was a wonderful experience to make a film, and I am already thinking about a new idea.

  3. What can we look forward to in the coming years from Andreas Scholl?

    I want to develop not only as a singer, but as a musical and creative personality. So in the future I want to combine different art-forms with baroque music and the countertenor voice in at least one project a year. I have already realized some of these ideas and there are many more to come.

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Slow and Steady Wins

October 04, 2011

Georg Friedrich Haas Photo: Universal Edition AG
Great music can arise out of “too many notes” as Emperor Josef II charged Mozart of using, so the legend goes. But the converse can also be true, and Tuesday night’s return of the Los Angles Philharmonic’s “Green Umbrella” new music series presented works at the opposite end of that spectrum, works that succeed by using relatively few distinct notes to make their points. The four pieces, which were all conducted by Otto Tausk, in his first appearance on the L.A. Philharmonic stage, explored concepts of timbre, microtonal structures, and the placement of sound in space and time. If the name Morton Feldman is leaping into your head at this point, go to the front of the class. Feldman’s The Viola in My Life anchored the first half of the show. The first two parts of the composition were played by the Los Angeles Philharmonic members supporting principal violist Carrie Dennis in the starring solo part. Feldman's chamber size faux concerto couldn’t be farther away from the pyrotechnics usually associated with that term. The tones from all players are typically long and sustained crashing into one another in various slowly evolving patterns. It’s fascinating music that requires a different kind of virtuosity to maintain prolonged stable pitches and mount attacks that fit in perfectly with the other musicians on stage.

These qualities were present in the opening work on the program as well, Zosha Di Castri’s La forma dello spazio. The 26 year-old Di Castri situates a piano, violin and cello on stage with a flute and clarinet on the opposite side of the hall. Again the slow wavering tones are passed between the players at some distance further altering the quality of the sound over both space and time. The audience's physical position between the players becomes important here, and the sound could certainly turn hypnotic. Toru Takemitsu’s Rain Coming made a brief if esoteric appearance in the second half of the evening as a lead-in for the anchor piece of the program, chants oubliés from Georg Friedrich Haas. Haas’ music has been making more and more appearances in Los Angeles recently, and chants oubliés may be the most impressive thing I’ve heard from the Austrian composer yet. Haas builds on the simplicity laid out in the rest of the evening through expansion. chants oubliés uses a fairly sizable chamber orchestra divided into two. On one side are brass and a few winds while on the other is a large string contingent. But far from being a struggle, the music here shimmers and groans in a slowly developing modulation on a very large scale. At times it felt like some dark, serious Close Encounters of the Third Kind. (sans Teri Garr.) The music felt lush and mobile and the players sounded deeply entrenched in their parts. A little bit of Haas’ music will cause you to crave more in the way it subtly draws the listener to it. Here’s a free programming idea – how about a concert performance of Haas’ opera Melancholia at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. You’re welcome. So it continued to be a strong start for new(er) music this fall, and here’s to hoping the rest of the season for the L.A. Phil continues along these very exciting lines.


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