Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

The Secret of NIN

February 28, 2012


Composer Louis Andriessen has amassed quite a following in Los Angeles over the last decade. Just about any ensemble with even a passing interest in contemporary music has programmed his work here and both the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Los Angeles Philharmonic have lured him out to the west coast before most memorably for performances of his Dante-inspired opera La Commedia in 2010. Tuesday’s “Green Umbrella” program with the Los Angeles Philharmonic new music group brought Andriessen back with long-time collaborator, conductor Reinbert de Leeuw. The evening featured three of his most recent works, all multi-media collaborations with other artists. Andriessen made it clear in pre-concert remarks that he dislikes the “bourgeois” term muse, but these pieces all revolved around other artists who heavily influenced the content and shape of the final product.

Life, the first piece on the bill from 2010, was scored for a small group of six players and according to the composer's own notes was intended as a sort of “Pictures at an Exhibition”. Accompanied by four short films from Marijke van Warmerdam, each of these brief movements represented a collision of what Andriessen described as classical Romantic string playing with American minimalism. Perhaps this is so, but the music was unmistakably his own resulting in a mini-symphony constructed of slowly pulsating rhythms and shifting harmonies. The readily identifiable thematic material that recurs throughout parallels the non-narrative but figurative and natural elements of the film. This was followed by the more expansive, La Girò, a concerto for violin and chamber orchestra from 2011. The piece is named after the moniker of 18th Century contralto and favorite of Vivaldi, Anna Maddalena Teseire. However, in Andriessen’s world, musical references are almost always oblique and there is relatively little that is recognizable in these four movements as growing out of the Italian Baroque. What does come out is a fascinating solo part for violinist Monica Germino who not only plays the violin solo, but sings and narrates the piece at the same time. At first the work sounds somewhat like a traditional concerto, but by the time it reaches the second movement, Germino begins to sing and then pauses the orchestra to narrate a story concerning a young woman increasingly plagued by doubts about her own skills as a violinist. The material grows increasingly dark until it is punctuated with repeated high tones and some stirringly visual dream imagery. Germino oscillates between doubt and fury clearly grabbing the audience by the throat by the work's conclusion.

Both Life and La Girò build on the kind of multi-disciplinary music drama Andriessen has favored in recent years filled with striking dramatic images and abstract narrative elements. The culmination of this work may be his 2010 project, Anaïs Nin which closed the evening with its U.S. Premiere. The performance has been filmed and a sample of an earlier version is featured above. Here material form Nin’s “Incest” volume of her diaries is set as a monodrama for long-time Andriessen favorite, soprano Cristina Zavalloni and a small ensemble. Zavalloni, always a fascinating artist to watch, plunged whole-heartedly into the character of Nin vamping about the stage in her period 1930s loungewear. She starts the piece by pretending to cue up the video that depicts her character speaking into the camera and following around the lovers she sings about later on including Antonin Arthaud, Rene Allendy, Henry Miller, and ultimately, her own father. She is obsessed with herself, often rewinding the tape to locate her face taking in the camera as her paramours look on. The text, which is largely taken from Nin’s diaries, is embroiled in the wide ranging emotional extremes that make up her character. They relate some of the details of her relationships of the period. And some of the material about the relationship with her father is fairly bracing.

But ultimately, it’s also rather humorless, morbid and unsexy in just about every way which seemed to bleed into the music. Andriessen makes direct reference to 1930s musical genres here but not in an arch or paradoxical way. In fact the tone of the piece is unwaveringly serious throughout making the work seem longer than it actually is. Anaïs Nin lacks some of the roguish energy and unpredictability of a work like La Commedia and often bogged down despite itself under the weight of its own internal psycho-sexual drama. And while Zavalloni was thoroughly entertaining and committed to the work giving each line plenty of punch, the whole thing came off rather empty. Of course Andriessen’s missteps are more interesting than other composer’s successes so it is equally fair to say that the evening was never dull. But I could have done with a more fleshed out version of La Girò or even a reprise of La Commedia over some of the drama on offer this particular night.


Northern Lights

The members of asamisimasa Photo: Nicki Twang
Chamber-sized ensembles of young musicians interested in new music can be found just about anywhere you look these days. There are thriving communities of composers and musicians everywhere doing things their own way and questioning the old modes of the classical music business. And while places like Brooklyn and Los Angeles may leap to mind right away, you should probably also consider Norway. At least that was the project of the Monday Evening Concert series this week who invited the Norwegian collective asamisimasa to town for one of the most engaging shows of their season thus far. The six member group formed in 2001 with particular interest in new works and contemporary European composers, especially Helmut Lachenmann and Brian Ferneyhough. Given these guiding lights, the wild ride of Monday’s program with its use of electronic elements, unusual instruments, and the most extended of extended techniques went without saying. What was remarkable was how much puckish fun and surprise the players packed into the works, most of which were written specifically for them.

The evening started out with the only piece not being heard in this country for the first time, 3 songs from Alberto Savinio’s Album 1914. These surrealist miniatures were performed by Ellen Ugelvik on piano and soprano Silje Marie Aker Johnsen whose vocal lines were accompanied by her equally ferocious bass drum wailing. While this was easily the oldest work on the program and unrelated in many ways, it set the tone of surprise and aggressive energy. Norwegian composer Øyvind Torvund’s Neon Forest Spaces followed. A quartet for cello, clarinet, electric guitar and percussion, the seven brief moments of the work were all imbued with pre-recorded elements and amplified instrumentation. The percussion part was filled with the woosh of aerosol cans and the bubbling of air blown into a water bottle. Despite the seeming whimsy of these gestures, though, it was surprisingly effective in bringing the sense of endless forest noises to life.

The first half ended with one of asamisimasa’s signature repertoire works, Simon Steen-Andersen’s on and off and to and fro. The Danish composer revels in being a bit of an enfant terrible, and his trio for clarinet, cello, and vibes travels from unusual to bizzare as its sound world is predominated by the feedback and noise created by three electrical megaphones that are initially used to amplify the sounds of the other instruments, but then move on to create comical and sometimes ear-splitting feedback and siren noises. At the climax of the piece, the feedback from one megaphone is fed into the receiver of another in an unusual chain of processing. Yet there was something relaxed and sly about the piece. Instead of being ponderous and pretentious, the idea is given room to breathe and develop making it more playful than deadly serious. Steen-Andersen’s music has been recorded by the ensemble including this work, so feel free to check it out yourself. You can also hear clips of mos of the music mentioned here on their website.

After the break the players returned for Laurence Crane’s sharply contrasting John White in Berlin a quiet microtonal meditation that glowed and grew outward in a Feldman-like fashion. But the spirit that ruled the finale of the show was that of John Cage, who was just one of the many composers mentioned by name in Trond Reinholdtsen’s Unsichtbare Musik. Reinholdtsen joined the ensemble for the performance lending his vocals to the highly theatrical performance. The work begins with Reinholdtsen repeating a series of musical terms and phrases interrupted by single chords from the players. Soon the structure breaks down in both the text, which moves on to include the names of famous late 20th-century philosophers and composers as well as ideas and other items. The music, too, goes awry in multiple directions at once. Unusual accompaniment from deflating balloons and toys contrast against flights from both cello and clarinet. At times passages are recorded, processed, and played back providing the only “music” at any given moment as the live musicians look on following a transition so seamless it almost goes without notice. Reinholdtsen comes to the front of the stage and mimics an epileptic fit which is then followed by clarinet and soprano equivalents of piano 10 hands with all the other members of the ensemble coming forward to touch and alter the sound of the solo performer in each of these segments. Finally, the piece resolves in a series of faked asides or commentary from Reinholdtsen directed toward the audience. He tells the audience of his doctoral thesis and difficulty deciding on endings. He plays a snippet of “classical music” and asks, “Do you know this?” in a friendly conversational way. There’s a pre-recorded parody of a Grieg song performed in a chipmunk voice and a partially faked recording of Cage performing in Europe in 1958 just for good measure.

What all this means, I can’t tell you. But it was immensely fun to watch and was smarter and far denser than it seemed on its off-hand tongue-in-cheek manner. The enthusiasm was admirable, but it was made even better by a sense of polish from the asamisimasa players. This was serious business, but one that still managed to seem spontaneous and off-handed even when it wasn’t. It was also exciting to see a glimpse of what’s going on farther from these shores among another community of young artists interested on building new things in the world of music. Hurray for Monday Evening Concerts for bringing them to these shores and here’s hoping we don’t have to wait long to hear from them again.


The Elixir of Love

February 26, 2012

Alek Shrader as Albert Herring Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2012
On Saturday, the forces of Los Angeles Opera decided to make the most of it. It was the opening of the current season’s fifth production Albert Herring, the second chamber-size opera from Benjamin Britten the company has staged in as many years. Herring is quintessential Britten – a male outsider is further persecuted by a stifling, moralizing community. But unlike Billy Budd or Peter Grimes, Albert Herring is played for laughs. Herring is the virginal son of a greengrocers widow in a rural English village who is unknowingly chosen by the town’s busy-body elders as the “May King,” a young man held up to others as a paragon of moral virtue. Herring is shy and bewildered by the everyday passions of those around him. He plays along without much to say until his friends Sid and Nancy spike his lemonade turning the tables on the upstanding citizens of Loxford and awakening a new world in Albert. The story shares a lot with Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore right down to the Tristan und Isolde references with Britten directly lampooning Wagner’s famous love theme. Of course, Herring, unlike Nemorino, is avoidant of women and his awakening has more to do with throwing off his mother’s apron strings than finding romantic love.

Britten’s opera is a small one written for a chamber-size orchestra and an ensemble vocal cast with few showy solo parts. L.A. Opera does well by Britten’s score and gives the show a huge, luxurious production across the board. James Conlon and his players dug into the score at times like it was Wagner. The production is a very cute, colorful affair, directed by the affable Paul Curran, which originated with the Santa Fe Opera in 2010. It achieves the first goal of comedy by producing real laughs in the audience. Curran gets involved and well-timed performances from many in the cast including Ronnia Nicole Miller as Florence Pike and Liam Bonner and Daniela Mack as Albert’s friends Sid and Nancy. And I’d be remiss in not mentioning some of the others in the cast like Janis Kelly who portrays a rather understated Lady Billows. (The role will be taken over for two performances by Christine Brewer later in the run.) Billow’s chorus of town worthies were all quite accomplished including Richard Bernstein, Jonathan Michie, Robert McPherson, and Stacey Tappan.

L-R: Richard Bernstein, Alek Shrader, Janis Kelly, Jonathan Michie, Robert McPherson, Ronnita Nicole Miller, and Stacey Tappan Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2012
But perhaps the most substantial thing in this evening of light comedy is a wonderful performance from tenor Alek Shrader in the title role. Albert is somewhat of a placeholder through much of the opera, stammering and uncomfortably standing around until his intoxication. But a lengthy Act III soliloquy gives him plenty to say and covers the range of an emotional transformation that Shrader manages expertly. He excels at both the physical comedy and sounds youthful and warm above the orchestra in a sizable house. His portrayal immediately opens Albert up as a likable young man to the audience and makes the weightier parts of the score believable.

Of course, too much attention can be a bad thing and the show can sometimes feel a bit overblown. The music and drama tended to flag in the final act without a certain succinctness. Just a bit to much grandeur weighs the proceeding down and the lovely set looked tiny on the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage surrounded by an awful lot of dark space around its sliver of British springtime sky. But this Albert Herring retains its humor and good heart for the most part and still manages to charm.


Remebrance of Things Past

February 25, 2012

from The Past is a Grotesque Animal Photo: Steven Gunther 2012
How we experience the passage of time has always been one of the topics of great art and performance. Add to the list of names those who’ve produced masterful works on the topic one Mariano Pensotti. Argentinian playwright and director Pensotti and his Grupo Marea arrived in Los Angeles this week with a lyrical, funny powerhouse of a stage work, El Pasado es un Animal Grotesco, that is now on stage at REDCAT. The title is taken from the identically titled Of Montreal song, “The Past is a Grotesque Animal,” but Pensotti’s play is much, much more than a clever wordy pop song. The play and its examination of the lives of four young Argentinians from the period of 1999 to 2009 is about history and the way we live in it while pretending that we don’t. For Pensotti and the four actors that make up his superb cast - Pilar Gamboa, Javier Lorenzo, Santiago Gobernori, and Maria Ines Sancerni – time is not a linear narrative but a circular one that folds in upon itself again and again.

The concept is most viscerally and obviously felt in the genius set design of Mariana Tirantte. The stage for El Pasado consists of a circular platform on a rotating track divided into four equal segments by two perpendicularly placed walls. The stage, and many of the accompanying lights, rotate constantly throughout the two hour performance as the players proceed around the walls from one room to the next. Each change of room moves the narrative between one of the four characters whose lives make up the episodic narrative. These are not necessarily big stories, but small ones told in small pieces. Vicki discovers her elderly father has been living a parallel existence most of his life with two families. Mario dreams of leaving Argentina to become a filmmaker. Laura jumps for one problematic relationship to another, and Pablo discovers a severed hand in his doorway one particular morning.

But while the play makes some reference to the political and historical era in which it is set, these stories are more about the broader themes and obsessions that shape our lives in a broad sense than it is particular cliffhangers or psychologically driven climaxes. For instance the mysterious severed hand that becomes an obsession for Pablo doesn’t destroy everything in his life but becomes a recurrent preoccupation that shapes many things that will happen to him in more subtle ways. Much of the dialog in the play comes in the form of narration where each of the four players take turns moving from room to room describing the mindset, action, and motivations of the others involved in the actual events of each scene. Roles are taken up and abandoned as a hand-held microphone is passed from player to player, narrator to narrator. (The play is entirely in Spanish but there are supertitles on either side of the rotating stage.) The scenes are roughly in chronological order although the overall sequence jumps backward and forward in small increments. And while the rotation alternatively speeds up and slows down, the work never loses the sense of motion and flow.

The play is supremely funny at times. There are some wonderful spoken internal monologues that ignite huge reactions in the audience such as when Pablo is filled with paranoid fears about the morgue worker he questions while gathering information he thinks may be germane to the hand he keeps in the fridge at home. And there are some flashes of insight as well, but most winningly, Pensotti and his cast never give in to sentimentality. There are two brief moments of intersection in these four lives, but those episodes provide more of a sense of symmetry than of psychological insight. El Pasado es un Animal Grotesco is steeped in modern life – a love of media and an awareness of the hyperdetermined, intertextual way that people make up the selves they are. The past here is never absent, and it is never a source of overarching predetermination. However, it glows in the dark, just out of direct sight altering events in an almost imperceptible way yet leaving its certain mark. This is great, engaging theater and if you're interested in such a thing at all, you should see one of the two remaining performances before it is gone. Be advised there were no tickets left to be bought at the window before Friday’s show so get them now.


One Night in Weimar

February 24, 2012

Max Raabe and his Palast Orchester
Max Raabe and his Palast Orchester returned to Royce Hall on Thursday as part of the remains of the UCLA Live performing arts series. Since the departure of former artistic director David Sefton in 2010, the series has lain fallow with little more than return appearances by a handful of annual favorites like David Sedaris, Ute Lemper, and Raabe. (Allegedly the organization also passed on presenting the upcoming revival of Glass' Einstein on the Beach that will be seen at Cal Performances in October after a stint at BAM in New York.) The good news is that incoming artistic director Kristy Edmunds has taken over and will unveil the first season under her leadership this summer with what I’m told will be some exciting early plans. One hopes she can revive this moribund organization, and certainly everyone in the performing arts community in Los Angeles wishes her the best for what I’m sure will be a big challenge. Max Raabe's appearance harkened back to the heydays of Sefton's tenure here and even though the program itself felt mostly recycled from the group's last outing it was great to have them back with their particular brand of nostalgia for the popular music of a century ago.

Now in their 25th year, the group still stays true to its successful formula: big band favorites of the late 1920s and 30s delivered with a mix of sincerity and ironic humor. Raabe and his players are all dressed in dapper evening wear of the period with most of the songs played in their original German language. There are familiar standards by the likes of Cole Porter alongside novelty tongue-in-cheek hits about asparagus and Salome. And though the staging evokes Weimar culture, the performance on the whole rests squarely in an ironic awareness of the present. The outdated and comparatively tame lyrics of the songs are funny precisely because of their contrast to what the audience knows of the modern world. This is more than nostalgia or kitsch. The commitment and level of musicianship allude to something more than just that.

Raabe and his high tenor are one of the attractions of the group. Over the years, the lightness and ease of some of the top notes has diminished, but his sound overall is still quite pleasant. His halting delivery is still razor sharp with turns of phrase that veer this way and that unexpectedly. And he knows how to deliver a song. His insightful, melancholic version of Nena's "Irgendwie, Irgendwo, Irgendwann" with only piano accompaniment was a highlight of the evening. Of course all of the band members are multi-instrumentalists and everyone gets into the act as a soloist sooner or later. If there was any difference between this outing and the group's 2010 appearance, it was the larger, more often oddly costumed crowd. In Los Angeles, it's can be difficult to tell when people are in costume and when they aren’t. Poor fashion sense is a badge of honor. And there was an explosion of women in flapper dresses with headbands and men who stepped out of Cabaret on Thursday. But no matter. It was still funny, still charming, and still a very good time.


10 Questions for...
Alek Shrader

February 22, 2012

Alek Shrader and Christine Brewer in the Santa Fe Opera production of Albert Herring Photo: Ken Howard 2012
Alek Sharder has just about everything a young tenor could want. An agile, beautiful voice, acting chops, and looks that don’t require dressing up or covering over to play romantic heartthrobs on stage. His career started with big screen attention when he won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 2007 under the glaring light of Susan Fromke’s cameras resulting in the documentary The Audition. In the film, he pulls off the rapid fire high Cs of Donizetti’s “Ah! mes amis” with a grin on his face that could have landed him in Hollywood. But his first operatic appearance in the real city of Los Angeles won’t actually occur until this week when he’ll star in the title role of Britten’s Albert Herring for Los Angeles Opera under the direction of James Conlon starting Feb 25. It’s a comic role he performed to much acclaim in Santa Fe in 2010 in Paul Curran’s charming production which you can see here as well. And considering that LAO has made tickets available for only $25 for first-time opera goers between today and Friday, there are even more incentives to go. Shrader is best known for his Mozart and Rossini roles and he’s got a busy schedule these days throughout Europe and the U.S. including appearances in Salzburg and Glyndebourne. Before he takes Britten’s greengrocer’s son, the former San Francisco Opera Adler fellow took a moment to tackle the often imitated, never duplicated Out West Arts 10 Questions.

  1. What role would you most like to perform, but haven't yet?

    Before I stop singing, I really want to sing Duca in Rigoletto, even if it's just once (and potentially totally inappropriate for my voice).

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

    If that role exists, I don't know what it is. Does "conductor" count? I'd never do that.

  3. You'll soon be making your Los Angeles Opera debut as Britten’s Albert Herring a virginal innocent who like Donizetti’s Nemorino breaks loose with the help of a little unanticipated alcoholic lubrication. Is it more fun to play good guys or bad boys on stage?

    Good guys or bad boys, I find the real fun is finding the moments when you can do something unexpected… when the nice pushover finds courage, or when the jerk shows true compassion. I have the most fun as an actor when I'm allowed to enjoy and explore those possibilities.

  4. Alek Shrader as Alessandro in OTSL's Il Re Pastore Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL 2009
  5. You’re best known for roles like Mozart’s Tamino and Rossini’s Almaviva. What’s the secret to playing these romantic young lovers?

    In a very broad sense, I think it's the sense of discovery. Yes, they're in love, but also the world they used to know and live in has changed forever. Tamino and Almaviva happen to be different forms of nobility, and their discovery (of love, or growing up, or facing opposition) comes as a pretty big shock that requires serious attention, but I think all classes of romantic young lovers get knocked on their butts when they meet their true love.

  6. Which music made you want to sing opera?

    I heard Mozart's 'Ich baue ganz' on the radio at somebody's house and was stunned. Then I found a recording of my dad singing 'La danza' and thought I'd like to do that too.

  7. 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?

    I'm certainly open to any project that comes up, and I'd be especially excited to help create something. I find a special personal pleasure when I can play an average guy, a "normal person", or at least express that side of the character. It's not just princes who have a story to tell.

  8. Alek Shrader in Susan Fromke's The Audition Photo: Met Opera 2007
  9. You've already worked with many major conductors and vocalists in the opera world. Who would you most like to work with that you haven’t yet?

    Lawrence Brownlee is a singer I have a ton of respect for. I think on and offstage, he's a shining example of what the modern opera singer should aspire to be. I would love to do a show with him.

  10. What's your current obsession?

    Right now, I'm watching Deadwood marathon-style, with an episode or two of Entourage for breakfast.

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

    The trick is to find as much in common as you can with each one… It's easy for me to say Albert Herring at the moment. Like I said before, I'm drawn to the aspects of the common man (if there is such a thing).

  12. What can we look forward to next from Alek Shrader?

    After Albert Herring, I'm headed to Bordeaux for Oronte in Handel's Alcina, and then to San Francisco for Tamino in The Magic Flute.


Do As I Say

February 21, 2012


There are a few shows this weekend that you might want to consider and may have overlooked I thought I’d point out. First the Philharmonic Society of Orange County is welcoming the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio and Friends to the Irvine Barclay Theater on Thursday the 23rd for a program to include Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet, a Beethoven Trio, and a new Quintet commission from Ellen Zwilich. This is one of the regions ideal spots for chamber music and best of all the Philharmonic Society is currently offering tickets for 10% with use of the code “TROUT10” either online or over the old-fashioned phone lines.

Another show you seriously want to be at if you can is a one-night-only performance of Bach’s Magnificat at the Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena with Jeffrey Kahane and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. The vocalists will include current and recent L.A. Opera Domingo-Thornton Yong Artists Ben Bliss and Daniel Armstrong among other as well as the collective forces of the USC Thornton Chamber Singers.

Of course this weekend will bring the second spring production from Los Angeles Opera, Britten’s Albert Herring which will run alongside their current excellent production of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. The company is making $25 tickets available to most performances of Albert Herring to anyone new to opera. That’s a great deal and little more than what seeing a broadcast in a theater would cost and you get to actually be in the house. I’ve done my part. The rest is up to you.

Going to the Chapel

February 20, 2012

Mary Wilson with Martin Haselböck and members of Musica Angelica Photo: mine 2012
Los Angeles’ own Baroque period practice ensemble, Musica Angelica returned to the concert stage last weekend alongside their much regarded Music Director Martin Haselböck. And though it was the weekend after Valentine’s Day, love was in the air. Or at least a version of it as expressed through matrimony. The program, which I saw in the second of two performances at Santa Monica’s First Presbyterian Church, centered around two J.S. Bach cantatas widely believed to have been written for weddings: No. 202 “Weichet nur, betrübe Schatten” and No. 210 “O holder Tag, erwünschte Zeit.” Both are filled with charming arias and can be as pensive and dark as they are bright and celebratory, perhaps reflecting a very different context on the role of marriage and romantic love in the 18th century. Bach fills each work with clever structural elements such as in No. 210 where the number of players is slowly reduced throughout the work until arriving at “Schweigt, ihr Flöten, schweigt, ihr Töne” (Be silent, you flutes, be silent you notes). Bach whittles away the musical world to just flute and voice in much the way a wedding recognizes an important relationship of two individuals in the context of a greater society.

The musicians who became the “lovers” in these musical pairings all had great moments on Sunday. Soprano Mary Wilson was the soloist in both works and sang with a clear, bright, and even tone. She's known to local audiences for her prior performances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and it was exciting to hear her again in some of the Baroque material that makes up an increasing part of her performance schedule. Her partners in these duets included flautist Stephen Schultz and oboist Gonzalo Ruiz. Ruiz also played in the reconstructed Oboe Concerto in D minor that was included in the program. The dexterity and detail in his performance was thrilling to hear. Bach may have been thinking of many things when he composed, but the need for breath in the oboe player here wasn’t apparently one of them. Ruiz did more than soldier through the rapid-fire ornamentation, and stole much of the afternoon’s thunder away from his fellow musicians. The show started with Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor with soloist Cynthia Roberts. This piece came off a little punchier and rough hewn than one might expect even from a Baroque ensemble, but this edge softened by the conclusion of the piece and left for plenty of wonderful playing that followed.


Anchors Aweigh

February 19, 2012

Ben Heppner and cast of Moby-Dick Photo: Ken Howard/SDO 2012
Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s version of the Pequod sailed into the port town of San Diego this weekend. And while things didn’t go much better for Captain Ahab and his crew, the opera Moby-Dick fared pretty well in its West Coast premiere at San Diego Opera on Saturday. The show first surfaced in landlocked Dallas, TX in 2010 to fairly glowing reviews. (I myself had several reservations at the time.) And despite some fateful changes in casting, this solid, enjoyable show is rolling into California not only in San Diego, but San Francisco as well later this fall. Moby-Dick has all the qualities that should make it as successful as Heggie’s prior opera Dead Man Walking, and on a second viewing, the things that it had going for it before are still clearly assets. It has an accessible score, well written libretto and enough spectacle to please most audiences. It’s undoubtedly an opera in every sense of the word, and though it doesn’t push boundaries, it will undoubtedly make its own fans.

Jonathan Lemalu and Jonathan Boyd Photo: Ken Howard/SDO 2012
I’m increasingly impressed with Gene Scheer’s libretto. It’s smart in so many ways managing to stay clearly focused on a few of Melville’s central themes and creating some dramatic tension around them. He must still deal with the episodic nature of the novel and the fact that nothing much happens in it until the whale shows up for the big rumble in the end. But Scheer shrewdly picks and chooses the story elements that are left behind, giving everyone in the ensemble cast their turn to shine. There is poetry here, but nothing that sounds silly or wince inducing. Then there is Leonard Foglia’s attractive and well thought-out production with sets designed by Robert Brill and extensive projected video material originally from Elaine J McCarthy and revived under Shawn Boyle. The single curved plane that rises into the flyspace is filled with ropes and sail-like scrims that move about with the changing scenes. The video component is extensive using both the sails and the back wall as a surface for any number of scenic elements. Perhaps the most exciting are the boat outlines that the cast appear to be riding in as they lower into the sea to hunt whales. The show is good looking with plenty of motion, and Foglia knows what to do with the large chorus and cast to keep them from looking like they’re just standing around on a boat deck.

Talise Trevigne as Pip Photo: Ken Howard/SDO 2012
Heggie’s music continues to be the weakest thing about the show. That isn’t to say that it isn’t lovely at times, and it has the kind of proverbial “hummable tunes” audiences supposedly want. Conductor Joseph Mechavich who led the opera in its second outing in Calgary, gave the score a very favorable performance with San Diego’s orchestra forces. There are memorable arias for Ahab, Greenhorn, and Starbuck, and well as a tenor and baritone duet in the climactic scene. But the shadow cast by Britten’s Billy Budd can’t be escaped, and while Heggie tries to shake it, the overall sound palette here is comparatively tepid. Moby-Dick avoids being a rehash of Britten, but it doesn’t necessarily strike out on its own to say something different either. The overall strong cast is nearly identical to the Dallas premiere. Morgan Smith makes a very sexy and vocally resonant Starbuck who becomes the centerpiece of the show. His scene debating whether or not to kill Ahab while he sleeps is one of the highlights of the show. Jonathan Lemalu is again Queequeg who opens the show with a prayer in his character’s native tongue. Talise Trevigne reprises her bright sounding young pants role as Pip. She has a lot to do physically here including an aria sung while suspended with fly wires that was quite touching. The new member to the cast was Jonathan Boyd taking over the role of Greenhorn created by Stephen Costello. He’s got one of the trickier bits in the opera with the closing scene and he excelled here making the moment feel weighty and not slipping into unintended comedy.

Ben Heppner and Morgan Smith Photo: Ken Howard/SDO 2012
Of course, there is also the matter of the Ahab, tenor Ben Heppner. Heppner created the role in Dallas and was not scheduled to return to it again in California, with Jay Hunter Morris taking his place. But oh what a difference Wagner’s music makes on fortunes in the opera world. After some exceedingly rocky vocal patches for Heppner including his appearance as Lohengrin at L.A. Opera in December 2010, he began backing out of commitments almost as quickly as Morris began booking them. Morris is now starring as Siegfried on the big screen for the Metropolitan Opera and booking A-cast Wagner roles right and left around the world. Meanwhile, Heppner is back in the role he created now in California. He’s an imposing and troubled Ahab and considering he spends all of the opera hobbling about with his knee on a peg leg, he provides the show with its darker elements. But sadly, his vocal troubles continue. He struggled much more than in Dallas with cracking and strain in much of the upper register. Here’s hoping things pick up for him, but in his current state, it’s hard to imagine how he’s going to pull off Tristan opposite Nina Stemme in Houston in 2013.

Moby-Dick may be the ideal opera for those audiences who don’t think they like contemporary music. It’s not a radical move, and there is pleasant music to listen to. It has a well-written dramatic story with plenty of excitement, and while it’s not a story filled with romance, it does have somewhere to go. And arriving at the end, you do feel you’ve traveled somewhere with these believable characters. There are three more performances over the next several days in San Diego and for those of you up north, you’ll get your chance later this year in San Francisco.

UPDATE: San Diego Opera announced this evening that Ben Heppner has withdrawn from the next performance of Moby-Dock on Tuesday February 21 and the role of Ahab will instead be sung by Jay Hunter Morris.


Electricity So Fine

February 18, 2012

Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Dean Corey was excited. And rightly so. The Artistic Director for the Philharmonic Society of Orange County was not only celebrating his birthday but was also welcoming the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and their Music Director Riccardo Muti to the Segerstrom Concert Hall stage for the first time on their first tour of California in over 20 years. The appearance was a long time in the making, and after hearing one of the world’s great orchestras with one of the world’s great conductors live up to those accolades, I was glad that Corey and his crew persevered in making this particular appearance happen. Say what you will about the music on the program, the orchestra played spectacularly with the kind of sound other ensembles would give anything to emulate. The brass, of course, are legendary. But I just couldn’t get over how polished the strings were overall. The combination of big, bright sound and real precision doesn’t always come together in such a package, but for the Chicago players they live comfortably side-by-side. And while Muti has his detractors, I must say every chance I’ve had to hear him conduct has left me awestruck with the fluidity of his phrasing and ability to command sublime, propulsive performances without any rough edges.

The evening’s program was an unusual one, full of machines and the future. It started out with Honegger’s Pacific 231, a tone poem evoking the power of a steam locomotive. Honneger uses several rhythmic elements to suggest the acceleration and movement of steel. The CSO provided the energy, and you could feel the engine burst to life in the short introduction. This was paired with a new CSO commission from their Composer-in-Residence, Mason Bates. He was certainly one lucky guy to have these particular forces amassed to show off his new work, Alternative Energy. The four movement symphony, which is divided into two parts, doesn’t suffer from a lack of ambition. Each movement refers to a different place and time where human technology has taken a leap forward. That two of these four segments take place in the imagined future is a bold and risky move throwing the material into the realm of science fiction. The first movement looks at the harnessing of combustion engines by Ford for use in automobiles in the late 19th Century. Bright lyrical lines in the strings swirl around the crank of a car's gear shaft - a motif that will be repeated at times throughout the whole work. It’s not a bad idea, but one that sounded a lot like a John Williams movie score to my ear.

Next on the energy tour were recorded sounds from the Fermilab particle collider in Chicago placed over contemporary orchestra fare. All of this was rather loud, and the sounds of the collider were indeed fascinating, evoking both speed and high energy. The last two movements invoked an imagined Chinese nuclear reactor some 100 year down the line and eventually a finale set in "an Icelandic rainforest on a hotter planet" far beyond that. Again recorded elements peppered the score in an intriguing way. The real problems with Alternative Energy was how derivative some of the orchestral music was. Just as the opening movement suggested Coplandesque Americana, the nuclear plant segment was filled with chimes and Hollywood-style Chinoiserie. And if you didn’t see Bjork coming at you by the time the Avatar-like last movement rolled onto the stage, you hadn’t been paying attention.

The evening wrapped up with another unusual piece at least for most contemporary orchestral programs, César Franck’s Symphony in D minor. And while there is nothing technological or mechanical about this work in particular, Muti kept the energetic, propulsive feel high throughout its three movements. It was an enthralling, beautifully paced and intricately shaped performance putting Franck's symphony in the best possible light. But this is the kind of thing the CSO does every day. The other program on this tour which includes works form Schubert and a new commission from composer Anna Clyne will also be presented in Southern California on Sunday courtesy of the La Jolla Music Society. And at the Segerstrom Concert Hall, the great American orchestras will keep on coming with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under Marin Alsop on March 28, the Cleveland Orchestra with Franz Welser-Möst on April 17, the Los Angeles Philharmonic on April 28, and the New York Philharmonic with Alan Gilbert on May 8th yet to come.

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Cage Matches


John Cage performs Walter Walk in 1960 on TelevisionThe centennial anniversary of John Cage’s birth is upon us. Live music loves an anniversary, and considering Cage was a native Los Angeleno who spent critical formative years studying with the likes of Schoenberg at both UCLA and USC, revisiting his work here with local forces seems appropriate. In this vein, the faculty and students of CalArts assembled a two day John Cage festival this past week at the REDCAT downtown. Headed by music faculty members Mark Menzies and Ulrich Krieger the expansive 6 plus hours of programming covered an amazing amount of territory. But like any consideration of Cage’s work, it also barely scratched the surface: Cage’s interest in chance and process leaves his music open to so many interpretations that any selection can seem like a very small window looking out onto a huge sea.

The performances of the CalArts faculty and students that make up the New Century Players and the CalArts Orchestra touched on the most important aspects and themes of the composer’s sound world. The first evening clocking in at four hours focused heavily on Cage’s interest in microtonal sounds and Eastern music traditions. The evening was bookended by two versions of Ryoanji from the early eighties with Rachel Rudich playing the shakuhachi, a Japanese end-blown flute. In between were larger ensemble works including Hymnkus (1986), Etcetera (1973), Renga (1975), and Fourteen (1990). Some of the works were marked by a halting pace of repeated bursts of sound like some microtonal dirge. Others hinted at the process games that underlie their performance but aren’t always immediately apparent to the audience.

Etcetera was a particular highlight in this regard with it constantly reformatting ensembles. The 26 players, arranged themselves in three groupings, appeared along the back of the stage area with three performers including Menzies, seated at the front, each facing a different number of empty chairs. These empty settings included a duo, trio and quartet. Periodically, players from the groupings would leave their seats to take one of the stations up front. When a particular grouping was filled, the “conductor” of that ensemble would stand and lead the players in a brief interlude played simultaneously with the sound emanating from the back of the stage. Horns, violins, car parts, or tuba mutes would find themselves unexpectedly alongside one another. Periodically, players would abandon their assigned instruments to percussively tap on a variety of empty boxes. It was a sort of contemporary chamber music speed dating whose results were surprising and fluid capturing a real sense of playfulness.

This sort of playful theatricality came to an even fuller realization on the second night of the series when the players returned for two and a half hours devoted entirely to Cage’s 1958 Fontana Mix. Fontana Mix isn’t so much of a prescribed piece of music as a template by which a wide variety of other music can be composed using its charts and overlays. All the works in the program were composed using the template whether or not they were Cage’s. The show started with a four-channel recording of Cage’s original audio collage with the work from 1958. With all of its caught radio signals, whirs and beeps it sounded like an invitation to nearly all of the electronic music of the later 20th century. There was also a prerecorded version of a similar piece from Max Neuhaus from 1965 that replaced some of these original sound artifacts with falls of audio feedback. Vocalist Carmina Escobar performed Cage’s ARIA which was further processed through another Cage composition/tool WBAI with the kind of shouts, trills, and other non-word sounds that would litter the works of so many other composers over the next several decades.

Perhaps the most fascinating moments for me, though, were the ones where the sound elements almost completely broke down to give way to a performance piece. Cage was intimately involved in making music for dance in a unique way and in works like 1959’s Water Walk. The Fontana Mix process is fed physical actions as much as sound. On Thursday, Kristen Erickson, arrived in a theatrical, red outfit and activated reel-to-reel machines, submerged gongs, mixed cocktails, activated the pressure cooker, and plucked at a prepared piano like a mid-20th Century avant-garde Betty Crocker. (You can see Cage perform this piece from 1960 on TV's I've Got a Secret above.) 1960’s Theater Piece, also receiving the WBAI treatment, was dramatic in a similar fashion true to its name. There were string players doing yoga, and a bassist bowing the pages of a paperback, all held together by Menzies whose arrangement of papers on an office desk provided a particular rhythmic structure.

The young musicians who make up the CalArts Orchestra availed themselves with an enthusiasm that nicely mirrored the adventurousness of Cage’s work. The music is still shockingly different, but there is a sense of wonderment and playfulness that should never be lost despite some of the elaborate music theory and procedural mechanics behind it. There is something rather American and rather Californian about this kind of exploration and the unexpected mingling of forces, and hearing this particular tribute at this particular place and this particular time made for some wonderful listening.


Tales of Two Cities

February 16, 2012

Brendan Griffin, Frank Wood, Jeremy Shamos, Annie Perisse, and Christina Kirk Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2012

It was a shrewd move on the part of L.A.’s Center Theater Group: providing local audiences a chance to see Lorriane Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun right alongside Bruce Norris’ Pulitzer-Prize winner, Clybourne Park. While Norris’ comedy, which will make its play for a Tony award later this spring on Broadway, is by no means an outright sequel to Hansberry’s masterpiece of American realism, the two plays are unquestionably related. Specifically, Norris follows the story of the unseen white family referred to in Raisin whose former home the Youngers will soon occupy at great personal cost. How that home has come to market is the story at the heart of Clybourne Park and seeing the two plays in close succession, as I did on a recent Sunday, helps highlight the subtle ways in which Norris riffs on Hansberry’s theme from a contemporary perspective. Of course this also invites a more critical look at Norris’ play and points out another relationship between them in their current stagings for CTG: on the one hand Clybourne Park is a great production of a good play, while across town, A Raisin in the Sun proves to be a good production of a great play. And while this may sound like the two experiences are similar, the distinction is a critical one.

The one character the two plays have in common, Mr. Linder, is ancillary character in A Raisin in the Sun. He attempts to buy the Youngers out of their contract to purchase a new home in the heretofore all-white neighborhood of Clybourne Park. In the first act of Norris’ play, he arrives with his pregnant wife, at the home of Bev and Russ, played here by an excellent Christina Kirk and Frank Wood, having failed in his attempt to convince the Youngers not to move. Events move tangentially away from Hansberry’s story at that point, and an awareness of the events in A Raisin in the Sun are not necessary to get everything in Clybourne Park. Soon a whole different set of broken promises and the failure of some American dreams unfurls as Mr. Linder tries to persuade Bev and Russ not to move. As the pleasantries of 1950s suburban life soon recede to reveal a more unpleasant underbelly to this suburban Chicago community, the emotional scope of the play deepens. Bev and Russ’ maid, Francine, and her husband, Albert, are also present for much of this brewing confrontation and Norris revisits some of the points about racism and racial politics of the period Hansberry so eloquently laid out over half a century ago. And while the politics of the period may be familiar, the words can still sting and the play can generate a fair amount of discomfort at times. (This is a popular strategy on Broadway right now and viewers may be revisiting Other Desert Cities again over the course of the evening.) But the project is different from Hansberry's, and the African-American characters in Clybourne Park often play a secondary role to the unfolding events in Norris' play.

After an intense and devastating first act, Clybourne Park shifts and the same set of actors now play two different couples. Jeremy Shamos and Annie Parisse who were previously Mr. Linder and his wife, are now Steve and Lindsey, a young, wealthy white couple who have just purchased the same now dilapidated house in Clybourne Park in 2009 and have made plans to tear it down and build a new home on the same lot. A married African-American couple played by Crystal A. Dickinson and Damon Gupton, Lena and Kevin, have come from the local neighborhood group to discuss a petition filled with the city’s planning commission with them. Lena is a great niece to Lena Younger and she expresses objections over the expansive construction plans for the site with an interest in maintaining architectural integrity to a now predominantly black neighborhood undergoing its own gentrification process. Norris revels in the many inversions and parallels between the two scenarios and makes wry use of the recasting of the actors in roles that diverge in ironic and unexpected ways such as when Brendan Griffin who plays the local priest, Jim, in Act I is now a gay community housing advocate in Act II. Soon the conference begins to unravel in a similar fashion to that prior meeting some 60 years ago. And while Norris wraps up the play with a stunner of a conclusion, the second act feels more conversational and unstructured than the first half. The characters hash out the contemporary veneer that disguises the underlying tensions about racism and economic disparities and Norris takes some glee in doing this in a progressively more blunt fashion. But the whole scene feels contrived and reaching with less natural dramatic development than the searing punch in the gut that precedes it.

Deidrie Henry, Kevin T Carroll, Kim Staunton, Kenya Alexander, and Brandon Davis Brown Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2012
Norris still takes an optimistic tact at the end though, which is an appropriate homage to a similar sense that ends A Raisin in the Sun. As the Youngers leave for their new home, there is sacrifice ahead, but they have their pride an their family intact. Center Theater Group invited the Ebony Repertory Theater in Los Angeles to revive its recent production of A Raisin in the Sun at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City after a well-received run last year under the direction of Phylicia Rashad. The play is virtually indestructible with poetry that still amazes at nearly every turn. One almost gasps to hear Berneatha proclaim that all the tyranny in the world will never put a God in the heavens. Hansberry's play is filled with so much, and so much that is so well written that one still sits almost agape at the play's quality and working.

But as good as the play is, Rashad and her cast don't always rise to its level. Mostly they do and Kim Staunton's Lena Younger and Deidrie Henry's Ruth provide two formidable anchoring performances that seem to keep the rest of the cast on track when they are around. And much like the characters they play, when they are absent some of the smaller parts veer off into more pedestrian realms. But the show gets the job done, filling these characters with the kind of life that leaves them haunting you while watching Norris' Clybourne Park and seeing the world they are about to step into. Though oddly, despite the quality of CTG's Broadway bound production, Norris' characters don't ever enter the mind when watching A Raisin in the Sun. Clybourne Park is a formidable edifice, but undoubtedly one that is at its best due to the foundations on which it was built.

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Articles of Faith

February 14, 2012

Grant Gershon Photo: Ken Hively
Any history of vocal music, and especially choral music, is by and large a history of sacred music. Seeing the text of a mass or a passion printed in the program for a choral performance is as predictable as the rising of the sun. And yet, imbuing those frequently Latin words with feeling isn’t always so easy. Many choruses have the benefit of doing so in a church or other religious setting where the hearts of the faithful can help bridge the gaps left by deficiencies in technique or aesthetics. But pulling this off without the accoutrements of worship is another matter. Producing a superb choral performance of extensible sacred music in a secular environment takes a lot of talent and hard work. The fact that the Los Angeles Master Chorale does this on a regular basis with seeming ease is staggering.

The case-in-point would be this past Sunday’s performance from the LAMC under Grant Gershon coming amid one of their strongest seasons in recent years. The program included both Bruckner’s Mass No. 2 in E minor paired with Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. Granted, these are not your every day church choir pieces. And their relationship to real modern day faith-based services or practice is tangential. But the choral work here was piercingly beautiful. Bruckner, of course, is far better known for his orchestral works than choral ones, but this Mass was unmistakably his. Even with its small ensemble of brass and woodwinds as accompaniment, however, the gestures here tend to be grand in the late Romantic style. From the very opening of the piece, the Kyrie barrels out like any other composer’s Agnus Dei. The power and bright beauty of the music continued unabated for the whole 45 minutes or so, and the chorale had a clean, rich multi-layered sound.

The second half of the evening used a bit of a trick to extend Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms by pairing it with Bruckner’s short motet, Os justi meditabitur sapientiam. The lovely vocal waves of the Bruckner gave way to the percussive entrance to Stravinsky’s piece without pause under Gershon’s direction. It was a clever jump right into the 20th Century with a work the LAMC has proven itself to excel in many times, particularly in collaboration with the Los Angeles Philharmonic during its tenure under Stravinsky specialist Esa-Pekka Salonen. Hearing it again with the same lovely chorus couldn’t help but bring back memories of those poignant and glorious final concerts the L.A. Phil had under Esa-Pekka Salonen in April 2009 – his last as Music Director here. And while Sunday's performance didn't quite reach those heights overall, vocally it was again lovely, mustering spiritual overtones beyond what the occasion might suggest on the surface.

That Gershon and his chorus managed such a show just a week after their collaboration in the mammoth performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, with hundreds of others under Gustavo Dudamel at the Shrine, is further testament to exactly how finely tuned an ensemble this chorus is. We need more of them and maestro Gershon undoubtedly. And, of course, we in Los Angeles are getting some of that as Gershon becomes a larger and larger player in the opera world not only by his guest appearances in such places as Santa Fe, but in his continued alliance with the Los Angeles Opera. One wonders if ever higher-profile podiums aren’t in his near future.



February 12, 2012

Placido Domingo stands in resistance in Simon Boccanegra Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2012
As I was just saying, while Los Angeles Opera is offering far less ambitious programming for the near future, so far the decline in their fortunes has not led to a decline in the overall quality of the productions. And if you don’t believe me, you should check out the first-rate Simon Boccanegra the company opened on Saturday night. This is musically, and more importantly dramatically, compelling Verdi with more than just a pulse, but a raging earnest heartbeat that can be heard and felt at great distances. The marketing for the show, understandably, show’s off one of the company’s biggest assets, General Director Placido Domingo who stars here in the title role. The world’s most famous tenor has moved into singing baritone roles in these late stages of his career, and Boccanegra is a part he’s sung just about everywhere resulting in, count ‘em, three separate DVDs that are all currently available. And his presence certainly filled seats on opening night in L.A. But while the focus on Domingo is warranted, it risks overlooking a wonderful ensemble cast that makes this show more than just a star vehicle.

First there’s Ana Maria Martinez who sounded vocally richer and more assured last night than I remember her previously. She apparently has developed into a bit of a Verdi soprano recently if this performance is any indication. She floats some lovely pianissimos and has a much firmer grasp on the more girlish, innocent aspects of Amelia’s character than most sopranos do. On the bad guy side, Paolo Gavanelli gave one of his always remarkable performances as Paolo Albiani, infusing a character that can take a back seat in some stagings with real pathos. He was well matched with the show’s other heavy, Fiesco, who was sung by L.A. favorite Vitalij Kowaljow. In an evening whose vocal music has been brightened by Domingo’s tenor presence, Kowajow and Gavanelli kept a sense of balance. And then there was the pleasant surprise of Stefano Secco. After some pinched and strained singing as Faust in San Francisco in 2010, he managed to deliver a far more comfortable and varied turn here as Amelia’s lover Gabriele Adorno. Verdi seems better suited for his voice, and much like his Don Carlo, the role of Adorno allowed him to flex some muscle without leaving him overexposed.

Everyone gets their moment to shine in this cast, but the person who holds it all together is James Conlon who again led the orchestra in a propulsive, lusty performance. The players sounded bright and polished closely following the overall timbre of the vocal casting. There was no down time in the show, which seemed to fly by despite its many scene changes. And then there is Domingo himself. As I’ve said before about his performance of this role, what is lost in the darker shadings of Boccanegra’s vocal part are more than made up for by the tenor’s unquestionable acting abilities. He commands the stage and connects immediately with everyone—cast and audience. No one ever looks aloof or disconnected here, and Domingo fully realizes the tragedy Verdi laid out in Boccanegra’s eventual downfall.

If I had any qualm with the evening, it was with Elijah Moshinsky’s rather uninspired staging. He does manage to expertly flesh out the relationships between the characters this time around, but the physical aspects of the staging can be tedious. The production, which was originally staged at the Royal Opera House and was seen in San Francisco as recently as 2008, consists of a single hall bordered on one side by rows of columns, which are open to the sea and sky. And while it places the action in Genoa’s seaside milieu, there is little other change from scene to scene other than a backdrop or two or a table here and there. It’s attractive and functional, but ultimately forgettable. I think it worked a bit better this time around than during my last exposure to it in San Francisco, and this may be largely due to the chemistry between Domingo and the rest of the onstage players. There also seemed to be some difficulty with the lighting on Saturday as some of the scenes were so dark it was hard to clearly distinguish what was going on from a distance. But production aside, this is a winner of an evening with musical and dramatic qualities that outpace any quibbles. And best of all, it bodes well for the highlight of LAO’s upcoming season, which opens in September with most of the same artistic players coming together on a similar project, Verdi’s I due Foscari with Domingo as baritone, James Conlon on the podium, and a promising supporting cast.


Seasonal Mechandise

February 10, 2012

Peter Eötvös Photo: Priska Ketterer
Music lovers in Los Angeles got an earful of the near future this week as two of our major local companies announced what they hope to bring to the stages over the next year a half. Both the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Los Angeles Opera revealed seasons that contained surprises both good and bad. The Los Angeles Philharmonic unveiled their most exciting post-Salonen season to date with more great evenings on offer than I care to count. I for one have spent a lot of time fretting on these pages about the orchestra’s commitment to new and recent music in the last few seasons. And while there are few things in the world that are likely to shut me up, this upcoming season prospectus has.

Where to begin? The most exciting event is undoubtedly a week of programming in January 2013 devoted to Peter Eötvös whose opera Angels in America will be presented as part of the Green Umbrella series with, among others, Measha Brueggergrosman as Harper Pitt. Later that week Eötvös will premiere a new violin concerto written for Midori with both evenings conducted by Pablo Heras-Casado. And then there are a pair of programs in April featuring works by several of the much talked about cadre of young composers currently living and working in Brooklyn. Alan Pierson will lead an evening of works by Samuel Adams, Tyondai Braxton, and Matt Marks to be followed that weekend by a new work from Ted Hearne. Meanwhile, Esa-Pekka Salonen will return to the house he built in November for two weeks of programs featuring his own music as well as that of Lutoslawski, Bruckner, and Magnus Lindberg. Of course the hottest ticket with Salonen’s name on it may actually be his one-night-only appearance with his new outfit, the Philharmonia Orchestra, who’ll perform a concert version of Wozzeck on Nov. 13.

Of course, John Adams will be in town leading another Green Umbrella Program including work from Nico Muhly and Icelandic composer Daniel Bjarnason on the 16th of October. And as much as I’ve not been a big fan of music director Gustavo Dudamel, he will have a significant hand in the new(er) music programming this year with such works occupying nearly a third of his over two dozen appearances. He’ll lead a new commission from Unsuk Chin as well as Oliver Knussen’s treatment of Where the Wild Things Are. He’ll also open the season with a new work from Steven Stucky and reprise this coming spring’s performances of Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary but with a full staging directed by Peter Sellars the second time around. There are many big stars and plenty of wonderful old music, as well that I won’t go through here, but the Countess of Dorothea Röschmann opposite Christopher Maltman in the company’s concert version of Le Nozze di Figaro in May is an absolute highlight.

With all of this good fortune across the street, it’s hard not to be disappointed by one of the softest Los Angeles Opera seasons in years, which was announced by General Director Placido Domingo on Thursday. (In fact taking the four operas mentioned above plus performances of Falla's La vida breve under Fruhbeck de Burgos with the L.A. Phil and you already have a superior opera season to what LAO has planned.) I suppose the glass-half-full way to look at things is that after some tough economic times, L.A. still has an operational opera company producing quality work and is managing to resolve its debts. The casting is reasonable and the season will kick off with the unquestionable highlight of the year, a new production of Verdi’s I Due Foscari with maestro Domingo doing his baritone trick for the second time in L.A. in 2012 in a new role for him. James Conlon will conduct four of the six productions again including Foscari as well as less ambitious Wagner (Der Fliegende Hollander), and requsite bel canto (La Cenerentola). The other half of the company's 36 performances however will be dedicated to three operas they have overly relied upon over the last decade: Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and Tosca both of which were last seen in 2008 and Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which last appeared in December of 2007. To their credit, none of the season's operas will be seen in prodcutions Los Angeles has staged before, but its hard to see the attraction in these plans for longer-standing subscribers who will udnoutedly be struck with a been-there, done-that feeling. With only six operas on the budgetarily constricted schedule, every show carries more weight and while these six operas might seem like a good basis for an 8 opera season, they seem like boilerplate introduction to opera fare as the only six.

But perhaps the bigger question facing the company isn’t just finances or programming, but what this season might suggest about the company’s near future. Given that the contracts of both Placido Domingo and music director James Conlon expire in 2013 the questions remains whether or not this schedule is exit music for the current administration, or if it’s an economic blip for an organization that has abandoned plans as quickly as they’ve made them around the operas of Benjamin Britten or James Conlon's "Recovered Voices" project. Hopefully the new season will seem attractive to new audience members who may be drawn by works they've heard of and a new pricing scheme that makes more affordable seats available than ever before.

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The Age of Reason

February 09, 2012

Leif Ove Andsnes Photo: Felix Broede
After weeks of excessive Mahler, few performances could have drawn as much contrast as the solo recital from Leif Ove Andsnes at the Walt Disney Concert Hall last night. Andsnes is a very familiar face here in Southern California having made regular appearances with the L.A. Philharmonic. And he’ll cozy up to local audiences even more this June when he comes to this year’s Ojai Music Festival as the guest Music Director. His recital on Tuesday was enough to stoke excitement for that upcoming assignment. And while it was not long on recent music, the evening featured the polished, understated playing and clear-headed interpretations that make him so beloved here.

Probably the least endearing part of the evening was the introduction, Haydn’s Sonata in C minor. Compared to the works that followed, this is a rather restrained piece, and Andsnes while technically proficient gave the sonata a machine like quality. Not that it was perfunctory, but overly planned out, unfolding in a way that was predetermined. The temperature soon warmed, though, as that same subdued approach made Bartok’s Suite for Piano, Op. 14. Here the percussive and rhythmic elements typical of 20th-century music made for some brilliant musicality.

But the evening really came into its own with the more impressionistic and Romantic works that made up the rest of the program. The first book of Debussy’s Images was startlingly lush. Andsnes maintained the rather soft hues of the composer’s palette refusing to overstate any of this music and keeping it light but deeply moving at the same time. The second half of the show was composed entirely of Chopin: Four Waltzes, Ballade No. 3 in A-flat minor, Nocturne in B major, and Ballade No.1 in G minor. These are all beautiful, singing, self-contained pieces whether they are plaintive or caught in a flurry of virtuosic speed. Again Andsnes displayed flexibility allowing each work to breath without crushing them into grand or overstated gestures. There was no need to grab the spotlight away from anyone or anything here; and articulate, relaxed playing won the day. Start planning for the summer in Ojai now.

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And You May Ask Yourself

February 08, 2012

Film series and retrospectives are a dime a dozen in L.A. There are a number of venues and organizations around town involved in exhibiting and/or preserving films of all stripes. On any given weekend the revival and repertory film scene in L.A. can be a bit overwhelming. So it is an accomplishment that REDCAT manages to offer something unique, important, and off the beaten path with its own film and video series on mostly Monday evenings in the Fall and Spring. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. The Jack H. Skirball series, curated by CalArts faculty member Bérénice Reynaud and School of Film/Video Dean, Steve Anker screens material you’ll see nowhere else. The screenings focus heavily on experimental works from all over the world and almost completely eschew the type of mainstream commercial or “art house” film production that still dominates much other public film programs around town. Some of my best evenings at REDCAT have been in the film series from the documentaries of Ulrike Ottinger to the salvaged late 20th Century assembled by William E. Jones. Much of this superb and provocative programming unfolds under the watchful eye and sharp, dry wit of Reynaud who is an absolute rock-star of the first order. Half of the pleasure of these programs come from her incisive commentary and intelligent questioning and make these evenings a must see for anyone interested in the art of the filmed images.

The Spring portion of the film series started on Tuesday with an event entitled Music + Image which was presented as part of the omnipresent Pacific Standard Time art collaboration around town. The focus was on short video works made during the early to mid-1980s expressly for television by a variety of American artists. All of these works are included in the Long Beach Museum of Art’s Exchange and Evolution: Worldwide Video Long Beach, 1974-1999, a retrospective of video work shown at the museum over the last 25 years. Exhibit curator Nancy Buchanan was on hand to speak about the films as were several of the artists including Carole Ann Klonarides, Michael Owen, and director and 80s pop icon Toni Basil. The 14 short films shown in the program explored some of the fertile artistic ground that the monstrosity that would become MTV grew out of. While a few of the films could be considered traditional “music videos” most were not although all of them explored a rapidly changing relationship between sound and image in the early years of this kind of video art. Purely abstract visual works like Bob Snyder’s colorful Icron and Tempest from DeWitt, Sorensen, and Winkler gave way to a variety of more narrative and structured works. There were at least two seminal early “music videos” including Laurie Anderson’s O Superman (above) and the Toni Basil and David Byrne-directed clip for the Talking Heads, Once in a Lifetime.

My favorite pieces though were some of the earliest that exploited the whole notion of recording video images to begin with. Cynthia Maughan’s Thank You, Jesus consists of little more than static black and white images of a well-appointed period living room from 1981, The rooms in this suburban home act as imagined settings for a hysterical voice over monologue about a woman meeting Jesus in a dream and rejecting much of what she imagines he has to offer. Dara Birnbaum’s 1978 Wonder Woman (at the top) is exactly what it says – a collection of short sequences taken from the 1970s television program of the same name starring Lynda Carter which are rapidly repeated creating an endlessly spinning Carter responding to staccato explosions in the background. The piece ends with the nearly nonsensical text from a novelty disco hit of the era on the topic of the character projected onto a blank blue screen underscoring some of the sexual politics under critique in the piece.

The screening was followed by a fascinating Q and A where the panel explored the loss of a spirit of experimentation in the video arena by the start of the 1990s. It was a fascinating discussion, but this is standard procedure in the Skirball series under Reynaud’s tenure. There are at least 10 more screenings between now and the end of May including a new work from Lee Anne Schmitt on Feb 13th, works form Daniel Eisenberg and Sharon Lockhart in March and April. And Bill Morrison will bring his collaboration with Johann Johannsson, The Miners' Hymns on April 23rd. Check out the full schedule and mark your calendars now.


In the Wings - Feb '12

February 07, 2012

Alek Shrader and Christine Brewer in the Santa Fe Opera production of Albert Herring Photo: Ken Howard 2012

February in L.A. is one of those months that reminds me why I love it here. The weather of course is one thing. Some fantastic programming announced by the L.A. Phil for next season is another. (More on that a little later.) But as usual, it’s particularly busy on the performance scene around town so here’s what I recommend you get to. There’s an awful lot of opera on the menu this month led first and foremost by L.A. Opera’s production of Simon Boccanegra which opens February 11th with the company’s general director Placido Domingo in the title role. James Conlon will conduct Verdi’s late masterpiece as he will the other offering LAO will kick off on the 25th, Britten’s Albert Herring. This very British comedy about politics and morality stars young tenor Alek Shrader and will also include two performances in the run from Christine Brewer on March 14th and 17th. Meanwhile San Diego Opera will present the West Coast premiere of Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick which won accolades for its star tenor, Ben Heppner as Captain Ahab, in the show’s world premiere in Dallas in 2010. Further our of town there’s a few other items to consider. The Metropolitan Opera will revive Mussogsky’s Khovanshchina on the 27th with a primarily Russian cast under the incoming Bavarian State Opera music director Kirill Petrenko. And in Chicago, the Lyric Opera will present a new production of Handel’s Rinaldo with David Daniels and the very exciting Iestyn Davies starting on the 29th. And if you’re in town you may also want to see the company’s thoughts on Jerome Kern's Show Boat which will open on the 12th complete with Nathan Gunn. And if you won't be close to New York, there are two Metropolitan Opera HD broadcasts to check out including Wagner's Götterdämmerung on the 11th and Verdi's Ernani starring Angela Meade on the 25th.

Johann Johannsson
The L.A. Philharmonic is out of town for much of the month playing yet ore Mahler in Venezuela until they return to their home stage on the 23rd with Charles Dutoit with music of Debussy and Prokofiev, but there are plenty of other exciting music events around town. The Los Angele Master Chorale will present Bruckner’s Mass in E minor and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms on the 14th in on of their most anticipated performances of the spring. And while not coming to L.A., the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will be on tour with Riccardo Muti in Orange County where they’ll play Franck and a new work from composer-in residence Mason Bates before moving on to San Diego. And contemporary music will be front and center about everywhere else from REDCAT where the CalArts players will do a two-day John Cage festival on the 15th and 16th in honor of the composers 100th birthday anniversary. Mx Justin Vivian Bond will bring an evening of cabaret to the same venue immediately after this on the 17th, 18th, and 19th. Monday Evening Concerts will continue its season at Zipper Hall downtown on the 27th with Norwegian ensemble asamisimasa and Reinbert de Leeuw will be joined by Louis Andriessen’s muse Crstina Zavalloni for an evening of the composers works at WDCH on the 28th including the U.S. premiere of Anaïs Nin. L.A.'s Formalist Quartet will perform the music of Johann Johannsson at the Masonci Lodge on Hollywood Forever on the 9th, but if you can’t make it, you can listen to them play some of the material streaming at KCRW where they played live on the 8th. Oh and you won’t want to miss out on the latest performance sponsored by People Inside Electronic’s Aron Kallay and Isaac Schankler present “Nothing is Real” a night of new piano works on Pico Blvd on the 11th.

Camerata Pacifica will present their latest program starting on the 9th at Zipper Hall downtown as well with a program to include the music of John Harbison and Bright Sheng while Jacaranda Music will have an evening of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, and Schnittke on the 18th in Santa Monica. The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra will be joined by the USC Thornton Chamber Singers for one night only in Pasadena on the 25th where Jeffrey Kahane will lead Bach’s Magnificat. And there are a number of other solo and recital performances as well from Leif Ove Andsnes at WDCH on the 8th, Ryan Adams in the same hall for two sold out shows on the 17th and 18th, and Max Raabe and his Palast Orchester at UCLA’s Royce Hall on the 23rd. Oh and Fado singer Ana Moura will be at The Broad Stage on the 17th as well just to make your decision a bit more challenging.

from Mariano Pensotti's El pasado es un animal grotesco
Theater-wise, my pick for the month is Argentina’s Mariano Pensotti who will arrive at REDCAT with the very ambitious and large scale El pasado es un animal grotesco which will run from the 23rd through the 26th. In Pasadena the Theater @ Boston Court will start another season of all world premieres with The Treatment, a dance based narrative work. Orange County’s South Coast Repertory will continue its run of Molly Smith Metzler‘s Elemeno Pea trough the 26th. There' a number of other fine shows running well into the month to consider too including the excellent production of Our Town at The Broad Stage that will close on the 12th and Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park that is continuing at the Mark Taper Forum throught the 26th. Of course what you do from here is entirely up to you.



February 05, 2012


This was a concert with "big" written all over it: one of the most excessive pieces of music, Symphony No. 8, from one of Western art music’s most excessive composers, Mahler, under the baton of a conductor with only a passing familiarity with the concept of understatement. Mahler calls for large forces in his penultimate symphony. The premiere he conducted in 1910 featured about 200 musicians and a chorus of nearly 800 and was billed by the promoter as a “Symphony of a Thousand”. Although the composer disliked the moniker, it stuck. And while modern performances don't typically grow to quite this size, there’s still this impetus to pull out all the stops especially if there’s a grand occasion of some sort. The Los Angeles Philharmonic felt it had just that for the concluding weekend of its Mahler symphony cycle (or Project if you must) and music director Gustavo Dudamel led an enormous cast including both the orchestras he leads, the L.A. Philharmonic and the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, eight vocal soloists and just around 800 choristers comprised of several local groups including the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus.

And that was just the beginning of the grandiosity. Leading up to this big show were performances of Mahler’s eight other completed symphonies that have been meet in the local press with the kind of uncritical hyperbole that would make even a Teen Beat editor blush. Even Norman Lebrecht, one of the few out-of-town journalists with any interest in covering part of the cycle, couldn’t resist pointing out how "historic" it’s all been in between the pre-concert lectures he was brought in to give. And while he is correct in the sense that as of this writing these performances are in the past, he is much farther off the mark in the sense that they might be important or memorable down the line.

And then there was the size and scope of the actual venue. When the show was first announced last year, the scheduled venue was TBA. At the time I feared that might turn out to be the Staples Center, but in a surprising act of restraint, it turned out to be the dilapidated Shrine Auditorium where the stage would be extended out into the auditorium to contain all the participants. And on the night of the show, the seriously understaffed and overwhelmed ushers struggled to get the sold out crowd corralled into their seats by anything approaching the start time in the crumbling auditorium that was mostly dark whether or not the house lights were on.

But as any lover of classical music will tell you size matters, and if you come to play, you better be prepared for the enormity of what you are about to face. So seeing Dudamel take the podium in front of an actual score, a position he's not been prone to take frequently here in L.A., suggested the weight and pressure of it all must certainly have been immense. The fact that he pulled off a solid, reasonable performance of this most optimistic of Mahler’s symphonies is a near miracle. There were moments of stirring beauty in the piece. The thundering conclusion to the Veni creator spiritus Part I nearly shook the hall with the full throttle chorus and organ. The richly textured strings in several sections of the work's second half could be stirring as well. And the powerful conclusion, where Mahler, through the eyes of Goethe’s Faust look heavenward, was imbued with a sense of community spirit with so many voices on stage.

But transcendence, though strongly suggested, was not to actually be had, and the buckling effect of the evening’s weight couldn’t be ignored. The acoustics in The Shrine are horrible and both the soloists and even the large chorus could sometimes sound oddly absent. Woodwinds and strings would vanish without notice despite scores of players sawing and blowing away. You could see them playing on two giant screens on either side of the stage, which created the effect of being at The Hollywood Bowl without the amplification. Only the organ was consistently present throughout. Of the many soloists, only the superb soprano Julianna Di Giacomo, baritone Brian Mulligan, and bass Alexander Vinogradov survived the chipped and worn sound baffle of an auditorium providing three of the evening's true highlights. And, of course, there was Dudamel himself. As with the cycle to date, he continued to match moments of beautiful phrasing and tenderness with an equal number of confused, disoriented ones. There were rocky moments throughout the Part I and at the start of Part II where the focus waned and the massive musical forces seemed to wander off on their own accord. This was not a conductor in charge of monumental forces as much as one struggling to keep things from derailing under their own power. Which certainly has a drama to it. And, given that Dudamel succeeded in harnessing the forces as often as he didn't, it made for something entertaining if not always profound. But don't take my word for it, everyone except the choristers is headed to Venezuela next week where they'll repeat the cycle culminating in another live theater broadcast this time of Mahler's Symphony No. 8 from Caracas on February 18.


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