Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Worlds of Wunderbaum

April 30, 2012

Members of Wunderbaum in Songs at the End of the World. Photo by Fred Debrock
While I'm in New York this week, a number of OWA's team of roving eyes were out and about. Among them pianist Richard Valitutto who stopped by REDCAT to see what some of the Dutch have been up to and filed this report.

This past weekend, the Dutch theater ensemble Wunderbaum returned to REDCAT following 2010's spectacular Looking for Paul which took on the L.A art scene from the group's own unique perspective. This time around they appeared alongside the Dutch multifarious music trio Touki Delphine in a theater/concert called Songs at the End of the World, inspired by the quasi-eponymous Werner Herzog documentary. The advertisement showed the performers at the top of the show, standing in front of a bright white scrim in full-body parka suits. Knowing very little about the ensembles or the documentary, and my interest piqued by this strange mash-up, I was ready for anything.

And on Sunday night, I was unexpectedly seduced. True to the nature of seduction, I initially resisted a little [shyly looks away], but a beautiful wonder-tree had ensnared my heart for the night. It all started with the LED display that effectively and immediately obliterated the fourth wall, silently informing the audience at the top of the show that the ensemble members were (mostly) 32 years old, the Antarctic wind soundscape would be made with their mouths, and the full-body parka suits were, indeed, quite hot. I was intrigued as we got to know each actor/musician and the pervasive adolescent character that belied their proclaimed ages. But personally, the infatuation was complete with the all-English text – well-spoken and well-sung – in that uniquely charming, aurally intoxicating, Dutch-inflected way (“you had me at ‘photo-sin-teases’”).

The performance was very, very good, magical even. Equal parts indie-rock/electro-pop show, boisterous monologues, intimate childhood memories, eccentric small-town legends, and – le coup de grâce – a visually stunning and unexpectedly emotional staging of an underwater scene that suddenly plunged the audience in Herzog’s film, complete with huge, glowing jellyfish and a singing diver. The show had beautiful transitions, and a virtuosically shaped emotional arc. The alternating musical numbers and spoken scenes were placed in such a way as to allow for a healthy balance of that inner-drama between personal need and fear of (desire for?) isolation. I could never quite tell which performer was a “musician” or an “actor”; they all transitioned freely between roles with scruffy, unashamed styles. Similarly, it was hard to predict that those flaccid, colorful garbage bags on poles could become beautiful wings which would carry the actress into flight, and the audience along with her, to the end of the world.


Sometimes It Doesn't Get Better

Stephanie Blythe and Bryn Terfel Photo by Ken Howard/Met Opera 2012
It was nearly a year ago this weekend. I had come to New York and was attending a Saturday Matinee performance of Wagner’s Die Walküre at The Metropolitan Opera, part of the company’s new production of the entire Ring Cycle directed by Robert Lepage. The production was a disaster, and still is, but on that afternoon, I couldn’t have been more thrilled. An opera took place, and a great one at that, seemingly against all odds. After a delay of over half an hour, the audience was finally seated as ongoing technical problems with the set were again corrected. On top of this, the Met’s Music Director, James Levine, whose health had been spotty for months raising questions about what if anything he’d be able to conduct, climbed into the podium for a whizz-bang performance as if to say “take that haters”. Another artist who’d been suffering slings and arrows, Deborah Voigt, delivered a solid, high-quality performance as Brünnhilde proving that she could in fact sing the role and do so notably well thank you very much. It was an afternoon that reinforced that fragile human quality of opera: despite the multitude of forces involved in any single performance, everything can go one of several ways on the turn of just an issue or two.

As exciting as that performance was, a year later I sat through the same show on a Saturday matinee as part of the Met’s second performance of the complete cycle. (I had seen Das Rheingold just two nights before.) And just like that, everything turned the other way. The production is still a dud and I have little more to say on that topic than I have previously or above what everyone else has said to the same extent. This time around there was no unexpected delay to create false drama. The mammoth set creaked to life and churned through its paces with a noisy certitude and a complete absence of excitement like a well-maintained Honda. The company and director Robert Lepage have been involved in a damage control campaign in recent weeks as voices big and small of a variety of different artistic leanings have banded together in their expressed disdain for the staging. We’re reminded the show is revolutionary, which I suppose I agree with to the extent that the set does in fact rotate at times around a central horizontal axis.

And then there was the insult to injury of the many replacements due to illness that have been plaguing the company in recent days. Some of these are longer term issues as in the presence of Levine’s ongoing stand in, Fabio Luisi, who conducted the performance as he has all of Levine’s previous assignments since the maestro’s last appearance in the Met pit for that same Die Walküre matinee a year ago. Luisi’s is a fine conductor, but this didn’t have the kind of fire that would make it stick out in your memory. Vocalists were dropping like flies including some of the cycle’s best. Stefan Margita called in sick for Rheingold on Thursday with an exuberant Adam Klein stepping in. On Saturday, it was superstar heartthrob tenor Jonas Kaufmann taking the hit. In an interesting twist, the house recruited Frank van Aken to sing Siegmund opposite his own real-life wife, Eva-Maria Westbroek, who was already cast as Sieglinde. While it made for a great story, it didn’t make for a great performance with van Allen being chronically underpowered and cracking along the way.

Granted it wasn’t all disappointment. Bryn Terfel finally came alive for Act III with more spirit, energy, and delicacy than I’ve heard him deliver at any point during his involvement in this cycle. Perhaps it was his pairing with Katarina Dalayman, the Brünnhilde for this cycle that made the difference. She’s alluring in the role with a clear, steely tone that contrasted nicely with Terfel’s natural warmth. Of course so far in this cycle the most exciting players continue to be Eric Owens as Alberich, Stephanie Blythe who again captivated as Fricka, and Hans-Peter König who sings the role of Hunding. But there’s so much more that’s missing. And even when one arrives at the beautiful image that ends Die Walküre with one of Lepage’s acrobats dressed as a Brünnhilde double suspended from above on the mountain top the overwhelming feeling continues to be, is this all there is? We’ll find out later this week when Siegfried and Götterdämmerung fill out the rest of cycle 2.


Still Got It

April 29, 2012

Matthew Polenzani and Natalie Dessay Photo by Ken Howard/Met Opera 2012
Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet. Except what you read here, of course. I was reminded of this universal truth last night at the penultimate performance of Verdi’s La Traviata this season at The Metropolitan Opera. This is the well-regarded Willy Decker staging the Met imported from the 2005 Salzburg Festival for the 10/11 season as part of the company’s ongoing efforts to stage opera that is actually worth seeing as much as it is hearing. I loved this production when I saw it with Marina Poplavskaya in the starring role on New Year’s Eve in 2010, and decided to see it again while in town for the current Ring cycle performances (more on that later). Another big motivating factor was a chance to see Natalie Dessay as Violetta, a stunt I’d seen her perform before in Santa Fe in 2009. But heavens she’s taken a beating on the old intertubes over this one as it seems she often does when it comes to New York. She was ill at the opening of this run missing the first performance. She hasn’t been able to finish at least one other show and scorn over her appearance in the Met’s HD Live broadcast in the run is just a click away online.

So while she and the company may have benefited from lowered expectation on Saturday’s outing, I can say the show and she were pretty awesome. Whatever ailment she may have been suffering from earlier on had cleared up by Saturday. Admittedly, she is not the first voice that leaps to mind for Violetta, but she brought plenty to the role vocally. Her coloratura is still in great shape and she certainly produced more of the notes in Violetta’s big Act I closer than I’ve heard in quite awhile. And as for the rest, there was nothing to be ashamed of whatsoever. With Dessay, though, the package always includes first-rate acting and it did so here as expected. She was a touching, believable Violetta from entrance to exit. What surprised me most is that despite the noticeable contrast in height between her and especially Dmitri Hvorostovsky who portrayed Giorgio Germont, Dessay was able to avoid simply lapsing into a child-like innocent portrayal of the heroine. It was a richly-hued and ultimately very touching performance. I know the haters gotta hate, but I don't get it. She's fascinating to watch on the stage and invariably produces first rate performances as she does here. I know that I for one will be eager to see her again.

As for the rest of the team involved in the production, the show went from strength to strength. Conductor Steven White filled in for Principal Conductor Fabio Luisi who was taking an unbelievable night off after conducting just about everything on the Met stage over the last month including Die Walküre earlier the same afternoon I was there. Yes, the Met Opera orchestra can play Traviata in their sleep, and yet they never sound that way with a performance Saturday as spirited and polished as you’d hear anywhere else. Hvorostovsky didn’t disappoint with flawless turns in both his Act II arias. Returning from last season’s cast was the Alfredo, tenor Matthew Polenzani. And as last year, I was taken by how much this production seems to pull out of him acting-wise. He’s lusty, angry and his stage slap from Hvorostovsky in Act II was so well played that some people in the audience gasped in response. Frankly I didn’t know that a slap onstage could still do that, especially in an opera, but there you have it. So why haven’t you seen this already? The show has one more outing this year on Wednesday May 2, so ignore what you’ve read elsewhere. This is a performance to see with one great singing actor in Natalie Dessay - believe it.


Keep Reaching for the Stars

April 28, 2012

Brett Ryback and Matthew Arkin in The Prince of Atlantis by Steven Drukman. Photo by Henry DiRocco/SCR 2012

Thanks to Ben Vanaman for the following report on two recent theater offerings from Orange County

Each Spring, Orange County’s Tony Award-winning South Coast Repertory theater company hosts the Pacific Playwrights Festival, a three-day event where new plays receive staged readings. Among the notable plays that have been launched at the festival are Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel, Nilo Cruz’s Anna in the Tropics and David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole just to name a few recent examples. In addition, SCR simultaneously mounts full productions of plays that have previously appeared at the festival. This year, there are two, both world premieres: Steven Drukman’s The Prince of Atlantis which concludes its run Sunday on the Segerstrom Stage, and the musical Cloudlands from dramatist Octavio Solis and composer Adam Gwon on the smaller Julianne Argyros Stage which continues through May 6th.

The Prince of Atlantis is set in the Boston suburb of Nonantum, whose denizens spout colloquialisms specific to their neighborhood, an arcane language mixing Italian, English, Romany, and street slang from the 1930s and 1940s. “Divia mush,” for instance, translates to “crazy guy,” and this play is full of crazy men, like Joey Colletti (John Kapelos), a wealthy fish merchant who’s serving a nine-month sentence for selling tainted fish, which has resulted in casualty. Adding to his woes: a son named Miles (a sympathetic Brett Ryback) who wants to meet him for the first time. Joey asks seemingly unstable brother Kevin (Matthew Arkin, in the production’s strongest turn) to run interference, leading to unanticipated complications and poignant payoffs.

The plot’s primary focus is the awkward meeting of Kevin and Miles, an intellectual who owns a small publishing imprint and is appalled by the décor of Joey’s estate, where Kevin is staying while awaiting his brother’s release. The Neptune-themed kitsch prompts Miles to quote from Oscar Wilde: “either the wallpaper goes, or I go.” But of course Miles is compelled to stay, as this is a tale of the central role that family plays in the formation of identity. It may not hurt that Miles is intrigued when Kevin announces that he’s been reading Hamlet, a play about sons and fathers and pretend fathers, deliberation versus action, the essential if elusive self. As yet incapable of making critical decisions about his own heart, Miles seeks guidance and approbation from floundering Kevin while flirting with Joey’s streetwise girlfriend Connie (a delightful Nike Doukas), and the startling results are equal parts pleasure and pathos.

Addi McDaniel, Robert Mammana and Katrina Lenk in Cloudlands. Photo by Henry DiRocco/SCR 2012
The other former Playwrights Festival offering currently getting the full treatment, Cloudlands, is far more problematic. It's also the one that lingers, though not necessarily for the right reasons. You don’t want to discuss the meaning of this musical after exiting the theater as much as you may seek to exorcise the spirit of it. You don’t care to dissect its ideas as much as you would like to talk about the mission of the American musical theater itself. You might well ask: “has it come to this?”

Cloudlands leads to a shocking climax and a disturbing resolution that are equally anticipated by the time they arrive. However, this makes recapping the synopsis an exercise in judgment. I will say this much: the story takes place in present-day San Francisco for no particular reason; it is about a not quite next to normal bourgeois American family at a moment of impending crisis; it identifies ethnic conflict and then arguably reduces this conflict to caricature; its theme of how the past is inextricably bound to the present mirrors the action next door on the Segerstrom Stage while making one yearn for the company of Drukman’s more relatable characters; and its tragic outcome feels less earned than rigged. Teenage heroine Monica shoulders the burden of her family’s dark legacy while keeping her head metaphorically in the clouds, and she sometimes feels more like a representation of the ethereally troubled teen than flesh and blood. Yet, one commends the young actress portraying Monica –Addi McDaniel- for making her reasonably sympathetic.

There was a time when you went to a musical to have a good time; to be lifted up. That time may be over. Where musicals (and comedy, for that matter) were once at least in part about resilience –when life throws you a curve, you sing and dance, spin patter- today’s musicals seem increasingly to be about knocking over taboos, the downward spiral, characters sprinting toward self-annihilation. And, still, the tunes are pretty, in Cloudlands creating a tonal disconnection with the overheated action that I think accounted for some of the tittering at the end of the show. Overall, I found Adam Gwon’s score to be melodious but lacking distinction, a series of pop anthems and ballads sounding more or less the same: melancholy suffused with longing. This music enters the brain, lodges there briefly, and then dies a quick death. Pop ballad scores; jukebox musicals: more than anything, I think the American musical theater needs a new musical language and Cloudlands, while struggling to find it, hasn't quite arrived there yet.


Witness for the Prosecution

Karita Mattila as Emilia Marty Photo by Ken Howard/Met Opera 2012
Spoiler alert: Death, or perhaps the relative brevity of life, is precisely what gives human existence its joys and meaning. Without it the differences between good and evil, happiness and sadness, and even life and death itself become increasingly meaningless. Or at least this is the realization Emilia Marty, the diva at the center of Janáček’s opera The Makropulos Case, comes to in her devastatingly beautiful final aria. She should know given that she has lived more than anyone else - well over 300 years. But the potion that has spurred her longevity, which she has misplaced, may be wearing off and she is embroiled in someone else’s elaborate legal proceedings to try and sort all this out. Of course real vocal artists are only too human. However if you’re looking for a soprano who may lie just outside this category on the “super” end, it would be Karita Mattila who stars as Emilia Marty in the revival of The Makropulos Case which opened Friday at The Metropolitan Opera. All the power and joy of Marty’s final reflection is delivered by Mattila with more intensity than any artist has produced on the Met stage throughout this entire particularly dismal opera season at the Met. Whether she is channeling world weary cynicism, big screen glamor, or frank sexuality, Mattila’s got it all in this pristine comprehensive performance that occupies nearly every moment of this show.

Her primary collaborator in achieving this singular success is conductor Jiří Bělohlávek, the world’s current leading authority on Janáček’s operas. He and Mattila worked alongside to overwhelming effect in San Francisco with the same opera in 2010, and the Met got the memo, bringing their own 1996 production from Elijah Moshinsky back as a vehicle for the pair. And it almost works as well. Bělohlávek and the Met Opera orchestra plumbed great articulate sound from Janáček’s at turns lush and concise score. Certainly Mattila delivers another superb interpretation of the role of Emilia Marty with a piercing upper register and her trademark physicality. There's just a whisper of that weariness she manages to project in that sound that makes her a perfect fit for this part. But she is somewhat let down by Moshinsky’s production that is visually immersed in an old-style Hollywood glamor which emphasizes the bitchy diva aspects of Marty's character over her more fragile and exposed self which is still struggling with potential mortality after all these years. There are some beautiful tableaux. Marty lounges around on an empty opera set in Act II which includes the giant bust of a reclining sphinx. Again in the opera’s closing moments she is confronted by a pixilated version of her own image on a billboard that bursts into flames much like the lost formula of her, until now, endless youth. But these images score more points for their beauty than for their meaning in a profound and challenging opera.

Mattila is surrounded by a seasoned cast, some of whom come off quite well. Bass-baritone Johan Reuter sang the role of Jaroslav Prus, the litigant who discovers who Marty is and attempts to use it to his advantage. His vocal ease and power argued the case that his upcoming Wotan in Munich should be worth anticipating. Tom Fox was certainly believable as the lawyer Dr. Kolenaty. The evening also marked the return of tenor Richard Leech to the Met for the first time in seven seasons as Albert Gregor, Emilia Marty’s descendant from one of her many previous incarnations and another litigant. Leech could slip between singing and yelling at times, but he was convincing enough on stage as the most incompetent of suitors under Marty’s onslaught. But this is not an opera about a diva's boys on the side. And no matter what else the Met's revival of The Makropulos Case doesn't have, it does have one of the most intriguing divas alive in a signature role. So if you've been disappointed with this year's opera season at the Met, here's your chance to put a positive cap on the last nine months with a truly unparalleled performance. The show runs through May 11.


Drums Along Grand Avenue

April 24, 2012

Aldo Clementi Photo: Mario Clementi/Edizioni Suvini Zerboni
The longtime Los Angeles outpost of 20th-century art music downtown, Monday Evening Concerts concluded its current season this week with a show dedicated to percussion performance. Percussionists have had their artistic field expand more dramatically than that of any other musical specialist in the last decade with an overwhelming array of instruments and techniques placed at their disposal by just about every major composer you can name during the last half-Century. But this program, which focused on performances led by Bang on a Can All-Star alumnus Steven Schick and the music of composer Aldo Clementi was not what you might expect. Thunder and high drama are stock-in-trade for percussionists, but this show was devoted to works that intentionally played against type with quieter blooming subtitles of gentle oscillating rhythms and slowly unfolding patterns.

The night started off with an early work from Helmut Lachenmann, Intérieur I. Lachenmann is best known for his works for piano and string ensembles so this piece for solo percussionist may be an outlier in terms of instrumentation, yet it speaks clearly from the composer's sound world. Schick gently struck, swiped and tapped the collection of gongs, drums and other instruments for a collage of muted, almost meditative, rhythmic sound. It was this meditative sense that would infuse the rest of the evening, growing increasingly important in each of the works. Schick’s most arresting performance of the night followed with an adaptation of Kurt Schwitter’s Ursonata from the 1930s. Schwitter’s original performance work calls the performer to repeatedly utter various sounds familiar in German speech patterns, but never actually forming words thereby emphasizing the natural musicality of speech while divorcing it from linguistic meaning. Of course, no separation is ever that easy and words will tend to congeal from the flow of sound or at least words emulating those of non-English languages. Schick, along with video artist Ross Karre and electronic processing from Shahrokh Yadegari, created a massive wall of sound and images making those human beatbox tricksters seem like little more than rote amateurs. The visual elements of the performance could overwhelm the sound at times. But Schwitters himself was a mutli-media artist of his day, so such a collaboration certainly made artistic sense and was engrossing to watch.

And then things got mysterious. Aldo Clementi died almost exactly one year ago and MEC paid tribute with two percussion works - Madrigale for a prepared piano four hands and L’orologio di Arcevia for a small ensemble including pairs of piano, celestas, glockenspiel, vibraphone, and chimes. Clementi’s works have a simplicity and particular preoccupation with musical symmetry. They avoid the emphatic in favor of the sustained and modulating over a period of time. Both pieces were hypnotic, an unusual thing for the particular instrument combination with ringing patterns fading in and out of focus all under the guidance of Schick and his slowly pulsing gong. It produced one of the sensations in music that I most love, the feeling of something natural that is following a predetermined path of development and eventual decay via its own set of predetermined rules. They were the kind of works that feel like they contain whole worlds just underneath the surface, busily moving along talking about one thing while harboring something else just below the surface. The performance from the percussion ensemble red fish blue fish tapped into the unexpected mysteries of Clementi’s work making for a fascinating if subtle evening. Those mysteries and their memories will have to last a long time, however, while the series goes on hiatus for the rest of the year.


Moments of Clarity

April 23, 2012

Heretics, burning. from Don Carlo Photo by Felix Sanchez/HGO 2012
Happiness is going to see Don Carlo. Of course, even happiness can be improved upon when it comes to casting and other particulars. And then there is that pesky “s”. Admittedly I should have been paying closer attention, but it wasn’t until I had planted myself in my seat and the lights went down that I realized this was not Don Carlo, the Italian language version of Verdi’s greatest opera (yes, I said greatest and if you don’t agree, you’ll just have to live with your wrongness) often performed in a shortened four act version, but was actually Don Carlos the entire five act version sung in the original French. Such was the case when I caught the penultimate performance of Houston Grand Opera’s run of the show on Sunday. Of course, it did take me a few minutes to figure this out in that French diction didn’t get much of the respect it deserves from a cast that often sounded like it was in fact singing in Italian. But if one is going to have that problem, this may be one of the better operas to have it in. Language aside, the show effectively communicated the glory of Verdi’s score and often achieved remarkable things.

Whether or not the language was a source of anxiety for anyone on stage, there was evidently some worry that the audience might not get everything. Director John Caird went for a staging that flushed out any ambiguities in the characters’ motivation or emotional state. King Phillipe II, a robust Andrea Silvestrelli, was more certainly a bad guy and his wife, Elisabeth de Valois, the lovely Tamara Wilson, didn’t let her concerns over her honor and duty stand in the way of expressing her anger and rage at her husbands demeaning behavior in both Act II and Act IV. Princess Eboli, the rejected suitor turned villain is more typically the most drastically drawn character in this bunch, but in this world she was just one of the gang hard driving towards her own id. Prior to Phillipe’s poignant aria that opens Act IV she appears with Elisabeth’s jewel box and demonstrates her affections just to clear that business up. The costumes were mixed in terms of period, but there was a heavy 20th-century streak in the show. And if the supernatural elements are part of the reason you love this opera, you might be disappointed in the representation here as little more than a feverish dream Carlos himself has in his final moments before meeting his own maker. Life is brutal and short in the physical look of the production as well with its enclosed U-shaped configuration of black risers lit in blood reds and harsh whites. This did set off the many red crosses the chorus carries in the final acts, but it strained the outdoor effect in Eboli’s entrance in Act II. On the plus side the crypt of Charles V was ready to go at any moment.

Conductor and HGO Music Director Patrick Summers elected not to pick a fight with the severe visuals of the show, instead steering the orchestra down a middle path that kept the musical dynamics in a cooler range without necessarily going for something one might think of as a lighter French sound. The vocal artists themselves seemed to hang back early on, which isn’t a bad idea in so long an opera, saving their more emphatic singing for the home stretch. This was especially the case for Christine Goerke’s Eboli who seemed a bit slushy in Act II, but caught fire after her character’s gig is up in Act IV. Now that Eboli has found religion, so to speak, her pledge to protect the lovers ripped through the hall receiving the biggest ovation of the afternoon.

The Rodrigue, Scott Hendricks, also delivered just a bit more in his character’s final moments adding an increased poignancy to his sacrifice for his friend Carlos. And then there was Brandon Jovanovich who always seems game to sing just about anything from Don Jose to Siegmund to the title role here. And good for him, bucking against the ever-increasing tendency to pigeon hole vocalists into increasingly small areas of repertory specialization. He was solid throughout, lusty and heartbroken if not especially convincing in Carlos's more overtly political moments. When he holds the point of his sword to his father’s throat in Act III, you know he means business. And considering this is a Don Carlos that doesn’t want you to miss anything by way of subtlety he availed himself nicely. On balance the winning portrayals by Goerke, Wilson, and Silvestrelli helped carry the day over any excesses of the production. You can see all of this varied cast for one more performance on the 28th.


This Must Be The Place

Gabriel Kahane
So what happened while I was away? Next we hear from OWA's editor and musical consultant Jeffrey Langham on Gabriel Kahane's return to the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra stage on Saturday night.

The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra was at the Alex Theater in Glendale Saturday night, April 21, for a program, as musical director Jeffrey Kahane announced from the stage, devoted to music composed to evoke a "sense of place." Indeed, all three pieces mention places in their titles, but two pieces in particular, Ive's Three Places in New England and Gabriel Kahane's Crane Palimpsest stood out as stunning exemplars whereas Haydn's Symphony No. 104, the "London," was apparently the carrot dangled at the other end of the intermission to lure the regulars back to their seats. It would have suited me better to have my vegetables first and finish the evening with the real treats.

The first half of the program was dedicated to the two American pieces. From the stage, Jeffrey Kahane offered some insight by comparing the Ives with Gabriel Kahane's project, noting that Three Places could also be considered a palimpsest* in light of its layering of musical textures.  It is broken up into three sections, each focusing on a particular place in New England. The first section, "The 'Saint-Gaudens' in Boston Common," recalls the monument dedicated to Colonel Shaw and his all black regiment who fought for the Union in the Civil War. The Chamber Orchestra's playing was stirringly plaintive, still lingering into the second section, "Putnam's Camp, Reading, Connecticut." It is perhaps this section most of all that that may have led Jeffrey Kahane to consider Three Places a palimpsest. It is a multilayered slice of American musical idioms, at times martial, recalling the bands on a warm Fourth of July in the park, all playing over and through each other, in a convincing American turn at the Bakhtinian carnivalesque: the awesome heteroglossia that Ives hears and shares of his own New England. The final section, "The Housatonic at Stockbridge," pulls us away from the town and into the musical landscape of the countryside, the ethereal sounds of the river underscoring the other musical offerings from a lovers walk that Ives successfully captures. The orchestra under Kahane was hardly at a handicap with this material and played the Ives with great warmth without losing their attention to detail.

Gabriel Kahane gave an enchanting solo performance in his own composition, Crane Palimpsest, with his father leading the orchestra. The work which was receiving its West Coast premiere, is a love letter to the Brooklyn Bridge, drawing from Hart Crane's poem as the primary text upon which Kahane layers his own textual response both to Crane and to the borough itself. Here, Kahane as performer plays both guitar and piano while singing with orchestral accompaniment. He is a consummate performer, and his heady confusion of vocal styles worked perfectly to reinforce the thematic project of his piece. Again, the orchestra proved themselves well above the task of handling such challenging material. They appeared to flourish outside of their comfort zone and seemed to enjoy the opportunity to prove they are not just about the chamber music canon. The audience was enthusiastic at the conclusion, so much so that Gabriel Kahane returned to the stage for an encore, playing the title track from his latest album "Where are the Arms."

Coming back from the intermission for the Haydn seemed like a superfluous exercise. Yes, the orchestra played wonderfully under Jeffrey Kahane's assured hand. It was not a dry affair. The second and third movements, especially, came to life, reminding us why Haydn was the toast of the town when it was first performed in 1795 in London's Haymarket. Yet, despite the beautiful execution, the final piece on the program was a real thematic stretch. Both the Ives and the Kahane were personal meditations, engagements with the places that fed them musically. The London Symphony, on the other hand, only references the place where it was performed. Rather, it is supposed to recall for a late 18th-century London audience the land where Haydn came from, not where he was visiting. If the Croatian folk motif in the final movement is any indication, a land as far away from London as possible.

*Google it.

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To The Hilt

April 22, 2012

Olivier Messiaen
So what happened while I was away? First we hear from OWA's man-about-town and bon vivant Ben Vanaman on the scene at Jacaranda Music in Santa Monica

Saturday’s penultimate concert of Jacaranda’s 2011-2012 season, performed at the First Presbyterian Church in Santa Monica, was a feast for the senses: Messiaen, Gubaidulina, Dutilleux. Simultaneously an observation of the 20th anniversary of Oliver Messiaen’s death, the 80th anniversary of Sofia Gubaidulina’s birth, and a nod of gratitude that Henri Dutilleux is still alive today at age 96, the program was titled “Rosary Mantra,” a conflation of terms that acknowledges the multi-pronged spiritualism reflected in Messiaen’s transcendental compositions.

The program in fact began with Messiaen, Meditations II and V from Meditations sur le mystere du Sainte Trinite, from 1969. At the organ console was Mark Alan Hilt, whose nimble dexterity was all the more remarkable given the fiendish difficulty of these pieces. Meditation II, a contemplation of “sacred purity, distinct and inviolable in the person of Christ through the grace of union” –a paraphrase of the composer’s words from the evening’s program notes- begins with a declamatory “alleluia” that soon gives way to alternating passages of bird song and haunting, chromatic chord clusters that, as in the somewhat more dramatic Meditation V, are at once massed and clotted, otherworldly and transfigurative. The heralding of Christ’s birth is the subject of Messaien’s 9-movement La Nativite du Seigneur. On this occasion, Mr. Hilt performed the final movement, titled “Dieu Parmi Nous” (God Among Us),” a toccata of increasingly feverish atonal chord progressions that enveloped the sanctuary in waves of frenzied exaltation before tapering off to a conclusion of ineffable poignancy as befits the divine mystery embedded in the composition’s subject. The organ at First Presbyterian is a luscious instrument, clarion without sounding overly reverberant, and Mr. Hilt played it masterfully, creating an aural tapestry of remarkable color and dynamic range.

Mr. Hilt returned for the program’s second half in two compositions by Sofia Gubaidulina: a short work from 1976 titled Light and Darkness that is the only piece she’s composed for solo organ; and the West Coast premiere of 2001’s Risonanza (or “Resonance”) for organ and a small but mighty ensemble of brass and strings. Resonance indeed. Beginning with the shrieks of a piccolo trumpet that are a demented echo of Messaien’s paradigmatic bird sounds -thus bringing the concert full circle- Resonance is a dense mash-up of nervous syncopation, antiphonal restlessness, and jittery ostinato, the organ often resonating at the lowest end of its sonic range. The piece builds at times to a convulsive wall of sound that shook the rafters and travelled from the floor up through one’s central nervous system. This was palpably felt music, literally as well as emotionally. Although not on as grand a scale, Light and Darkness, a short piece of dexterous virtuosity, gave Mr. Hilt another workout, earning him a well-deserved ovation for his traversal of the work’s zippy compositional progressions and its shifting, oppositional textures as thematically delineated by its title.

Dutilleux’s Trois Strophes sure le nom de Sacher for solo cello, commissioned by cellist Mstislav Rostropovich to commemorate the 70th birthday of noted conductor and arts patron Paul Sacher, and composed from the letters of his surname, provided both a contrast to, and a respite from, the two Gubaidulina works surrounding it. Its three short pieces, creating numerous technical challenges for the cellist, are by turns plaintive, agitated, whimsical, tremulous, even gossamer-like, and dare one say almost sacred in keeping with the program’s occasional theme. Soloist Timothy Loo gave a fine reading of the score on par with the excellent work from the other instrumentalists, a tribute to Jacaranda’s estimable ongoing role in bringing serious contemporary music to Southern California.

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The Real Housewives of 16th Century England

Joyce DiDonato as Mary Stuart with chorus Photo by Felix Sanchez/HGO 2012

Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda is an Italian opera, based on a German play about an English Queen and her rival. This weekend it got a Texan accent as well when Houston Grand Opera presented the work along with superstar mezzo Joyce DiDonato in the title role. Donizetti’s trilogy of operas about Tudor family values have been getting another wave of revivals in America in recent years and some big companies including the Metropolitan Opera and Houston, are presenting these works for the first time. DiDonato was making her role debut in a precursor to performances she’ll give in a brand new production from David McVicar starting on a Gala New Year’s Eve in New York later this year. From one perspective, this is another major step forward in her currently white hot career. She’s best known to American audiences for her comic bel canto roles and staple mezzo pants parts in Mozart and Strauss. But while her Cherubinos and Rosinas are unquestionably superb, she’s often a show stealer in a larger ensemble cast or playing the crafty side kick or second banana. This comes with the mezzo territory, but Maria Stuarda is straight-out drama and DiDonato is the name above the title this time around and the prime ticket draw. As well she should be. And if you’re wondering if the price of admission in this case is worth it, the answer is undoubtedly yes.

Maria Stuarda is based on the Schiller play of the same name. It fills the public’s need for Tudor porn, a cottage industry for over four hundred years, structuring an entire opera around two imagined meetings between Elizabeth I of England and her Catholic cousin and queen of the Scots Mary Stuart. While there is no evidence such meetings took place, they make for some great confrontations and reinforce the excuse for a love story with both queens in the thrall of Robert, Earl of Leicester, who was sung on opening night by Eric Cutler. As you might guess, things don’t go well for Stuart who is in prison the whole opera and goes to meet her maker in the closing scene. DiDonato is a first-rate actor and inhabits the role with a nuance any of her stage peers would envy including the non-singing ones like Janet McTeer. The look in her face and tone in her voice when she defiantly defends her faith and reputation in the face of Elizabeth’s accusations are priceless. Vocally there’s almost nothing more you could ask for. She dispatches colouratura runs with detail, can float pianissimos and leaves the audience hanging on every breath. There is still some room for her to grow in the part. She doesn’t always make the most of some of the role's darker vocal shadings, but make no mistake, it’s a performance you’ll want to see more than once, so hearing her sing it after some more stage time is an event to anticipate.

She is surrounded by a well suited cast. Elizabeth I never gets top billing in Donizatti’s two operas which have huge roles for her. Her lover gets the title in Roberto Devereux and she misses out on those honors here again. Elizabeth is sung by the young American soprano Katie Van Kooten and she too has formidable vocal chops. Her scenes opposite Cutler and Oren Gradus who sings Cecil are involving and well-proportioned. Her interpretation of Elizabeth can get overly shrewish at times especially when set against DiDoanto’s Stuart, but this is still an exciting introduction to a young artist to watch. Cutler also gives one of the finer performances I’ve heard him give in the smaller role of the lover Robert.

Sadly though, all of the cast are hampered by a dull, under-directed production helmed by Kevin Newbury. The stage is dominated by a single set piece, a huge architecturally decorated ceiling panel. Once every so often, molding gives way up there and pillars or small walls hurdle stageward to suggest various interiors and exteriors. There are a few inexplicable moments as well. In the concluding scene, Stuart is blindfolded downstage then left to walk upstage alone and then go up a few steps to get to her final position on a small riser after everyone else has already departed in a sort of DIY execution. Many in the cast are repeatedly burdened with various silent movie gestures to perform as well, in a staging that seems more like a suggestion for an opera production than a completed project. The costumes also struck me as rather unattractive despite their aspirations to authenticity and could be ill fitting here and there. In the pit was Houston Grand Opera’s Music Director Patrick Summers who fared much better with a tight, well coordinated performance from the orchestra that didn’t drag and was largely deferential to the vocalists.

So whether or not this particular Maria Stuarda transports anyone to Tudor England , it will undoubtedly get you very close to some first class singing and an exciting career highlight performance from one of today’s biggest stars. The show runs through May 4 in Houston.


More Die of Heartbreak

April 21, 2012


The big show in the sublime Goerne festival with the Los Angeles Philharmonic wrapped up the week on Friday with conductor Christoph Eschenbach. This time the two were joined by the orchestra but the program remained focused exclusively on works by Schubert. And why shouldn’t it? After two evenings of devastatingly beautiful singing from Goerne, there was little reason to mess with a successful formula. The first half of the program was again dedicated to Lieder, although this time around the songs were all orchestrated by a hodge-podge of different composers building on Schubert’s foundations. These songs weren’t part of a single cycle and didn’t benefit from an overarching narrative or concept to link them in some other way. Some of the songs, including “Der Wegweiser” (The Signpost) and “Tränenregen” (Rain of Tears), came from the cycles performed earlier in the week. (In this case Winterreise and Die schöne Müllerin respectively.) These two songs, both orchestrated by Anton Webern, were highlights and recast the poetry in entirely different light from the piano versions heard just days before with bits of sunshine poking out in this dark night of the Romantic soul. Brahms and Max Reger also contributed to the upcycling, and the contrast from piece to piece said as much about the orchestrators as it did Schubert. The unifying thread of course was again Goerne’s lush, beautiful sound and exquisite phrasing. His tragic, tearful version of “Erlkönig” (with an orchestration by Reger) about the death of a sick child packs all the pathos of a work like Lang’s the little match girl passion in a matter of minutes. Sublime indeed. No one wanted it to end and even after two encores it felt like he had only just started. Sometimes the most beautiful things seem the most transitory.

And then for the first time all week, Schubert got the stage without Mr. Goerne. Eschenbach led the Philharmonic in a big, maximized tour of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9. The hour-long symphony unwinds with a predetermined precision that can sound as much like Mozart as Beethoven in some hands. Eschenbach, as is his usual preference with this orchestra, for a bright Romantic approach that looked more forward in music history than back. This Schubert never sounded tortured in the way so many of the characters that populated his songs do. And the performance served to provide all the contrast you could want even in a week of music from no one other than Schubert. It was another hugely successful appearance for Eschenbach, a musician who has had his detractors here in the U.S. over the years but has consistently been one of the best and most musically compelling of maestros here in Los Angeles during his visits season after season. Even when he’s working with a soloist of the stature of Matthias Goerne, he carves out his own space and leads the L.A. Phil players to some superior evenings. This program repeats Saturday and Sunday and comes highly recommended.


Return to the Latin Quarter

April 20, 2012


Opera returned to Orange County on Thursday. Not that it was ever that far away, but audiences there have been forced into longer treks both north and south for years now since the untimely financial collapse of Opera Pacific back in 2008. Given the enthusiastic near sell out and audience response to Thursday's opening performance of Puccini's La Bohème with the Pacific Symphony, it appears some have still been starving for this particular kind of musical theater right in the heart of Orange County. Music director Carl St. Clair led the orchestra in the first of four semi-staged concert performances that evening for a crowd that was far from disappointed. Although concert performances of entire operas are not typical for this orchestra, this particular idea shouldn't come as a surprise. Carl St. Clair has spent plenty of time in the orchestra pit, and it wasn't oh so long ago he was music director of the Komische Opera Berlin before their split over the proverbial artistic differences in 2010. (There's also a DVD set of an entire Ring Cycle conducted by St. Clair for Weimar Opera from 2010 as well.)

And as you might expect from this, St. Clair was perhaps the most critical component to the evening's performance on Thursday, and the Pacific Symphony players sounded especially dynamic and responsive under his guidance. The opera's collection of young artists finding love in a hopeless place was a well chosen mix of young up-and-comers and more established vocal artists. Foremost among these was Mexican tenor David Lomelí who is rocketing onto major stages after big competition wins and time in some California young artist development programs. Here he's singing Rudolfo, as he will in Glyndebourne this summer before moving on to the Duke of Mantua at the Hollywood Bowl in August and San Francisco in the fall. The lucky OC crowd got to hear what those other audiences can look forward to - a bright, easy sound complete with an Italianate flair. He's got good stage presence and a confident grip on his upper register that doesn't sound tight or labored. There are still traces of a youthful hesitancy here and there in both his acting and vocal performance, but make no doubt he's on his way to big things.

He was paired with the somewhat more seasoned Maija Kovalevska who has sung Mimi in the area before including Los Angeles in 2007. She's attractive if perhaps a little too worldly in this particular stage arrangement with a dash more Manon than is necessary. Her voice is large and almost Strauss-like at times and she delivered many lovely moments, though her voice could spread a bit turning pitchy in parts. There were other notable performances including Hyung Yun's Marcello and Georgia Jarman's Musetta. A. Scott Parry's stage direction was straight forward and appropriate for the allotted space in front of the orchestra. There were some sight-line issues as was to be expected when the cast is in front of the orchestra facing away toward the audience while relying on monitors for their musical cues. There were several video projections used to evoke a sense of place but they were difficult to make out when projected against the Segerstrom Concert Hall's pipe organ and chorus. But no one seemed phased by these relatively small issues. They were at the opera on their own home turf and that was occasion enough to celebrate. The celebration will continue Saturday and next weekend, but hurry, there aren't many tickets left.


Follow the Lieder


All this week the Los Angeles Philharmonic is presenting programs in a mini-festival under the moniker “Sublime Schubert.” And while the powers that be in our beloved local orchestra have a penchant for some hyperbolic and outright non-sensical marketing slogans (Schubert doesn’t require unbinding apparently), this is one instance where the series title couldn’t be more fitting. But that isn’t necessarily just due to Schubert. Oh, it’s profoundly beautiful music, but the sublime part really rests in the hand of two artists who’ve left jaws gaping at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on Monday and Wednesday this past week – pianist Christoph Eschenbach and bass-baritone Matthias Goerne. Now Goerne is world-renowned and he’s appeared here in Los Angeles before. In fact he’s even sung some of the same Schubert pieces here before including the song cycle Winterreise with Alfred Brendel in 2004, which surfaced again on Wednesday’s program. And yet none of that prepared me for just how intensely unmooring these two shows, which also included Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin on Monday were.

Goerne has unearthly beautiful phrasing, meticulous control, masterful dynamics and power to burn. This goes without saying. He’s also known as a vocalist who doesn’t so much sing with accompanists as perform with other top tier pianists in collaborative projects. A number of these have been recorded over his career, and Goerne and his current collaborator, Eschenbach are currently in the midst of a major recording of Schubert’s songs for Harmonia Mundi. This well regarded series recently increased by one with the release of Goerne’s second go at Schwanengesang last week. They are all wonderful recordings that highlight what the live audiences discovered here: Goerne is a modern master of Lieder, but the combined artistry of these two performers raise the stakes to something much, much greater.

Take Monday’s performance of Die schöne Müllerin. This pastoral series about a young man who falls in and out of love with the miller’s daughter is undoubtedly beautiful but can bear a reputation as being quaintly youthful and oafish. Not so on Monday when Goerne and Eschenbach not only transcended any negative stereotype of the work, they produced a song cycle that was nothing short of operatic in its proportions. A friend of mine described the experience as akin to listening to Wozzeck. The motifs that recur and change over the course of the cycle took life as grand leitmotifs in their own right. The non-stop emotional drama of the work demanded the kind of rapt attention that musical theater does at its grandest and very best. I’d give you specific highlights, but it would be pointless. Each and every song was filled with such perfect shape, such pristine, focused emotion that any moment could bring tears to your eyes.

Of course, Winterreise, which sort of picks up where Müllerin leaves off, is much darker fare. The already spurned lover slowly descends into madness until he is haunted in the almost chant-like closing “Der Leiermann” by a spectral organ grinder calling the protagonist into a world he will never return from. Show flew with Goerne and Eschenbach working together, sometimes almost at the total exclusion of the audience, as they carved out that dark wintery space of the soul. All of this drove home on of the things I most love about classical music. It has nothing to do with relaxing, or escape, or even being transported from somewhere to somewhere else. It’s about artists’ ability to take something familiar, and with often relatively few changes to the source material, create something unfamiliar and new. When that new product is something as surprising and shocking as these recital were it suddenly makes the whole endeavor of listening into something more mysterious and precious. Goerne and Eschenbach delivered just and will hopefully continue to do so into the weekend when they’ll appear alongside the full L.A. Phil for more Schubert songs this time arranged for a full orchestra starting today. Don’t miss this one.

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Cheerfully Arrayed

April 19, 2012


Stile Antico, Photo by Marco Borggreve
Astute readers may have noticed a few guest writers showing up recently here at Out West Arts. It's been a bit of an experiment for me, since this place has always been primarily a site for my own thoughts and views about performance that I've experienced first hand. But Out West Arts has also been very much about all the great and varied music and theater in Los Angeles and the West Coast as well and frankly, try as I might, I'm only one man. So starting with this post I'm going to be welcoming a variety of new contributors to Out West Arts in addition to myself who are going to be my eyes and ears, and perhaps yours as well. So let me start by welcoming another new contributor - chorus master, man-about-town, and all around great guy Dan Keller to the OWA family with this post. I hope you enjoy reading him and other OWA contributors that will be joining me as much as I do.

Stile Antico, winner of the 2009 Gramophone award for early music for their Harmonia Mundi recording Song of Songs, performed last Wednesday April 18 to a full house at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Los Angeles. The concert, entitled “Treasures of the Renaissance,” featured sacred polyphonic music from the Renaissance, plus one recently commissioned work by John McCabe.

The conductor-less twelve-voiced ensemble stood in a semicircle reading from hand held scores. This approach, though straying from the Renaissance practice of singers gathering around a single music stand to read from part books (a technique recently revived by early music groups such as Capella Praetensis), resulted in a remarkably nuanced interpretation of the music as a result of the visual energy between singers. They sang with impeccable tuning throughout, and an impressive attention to detail, particularly when unifying the articulation of the texts. The gems of the concert were Clemens non Papa’s “Ego flos campi” and an encore performance of Campion’s “Never weather-beaten sail” featured on the group’s latest Harmonia Mundi recording Tune thy Musicke to thy Hart. Contrasting dynamics and delicately tapered phrase endings highlighted changes in mood in both pieces. Most striking was the way in which the group proceeded from collective breath points—allowing the tempo to pause briefly so that the reverberation could more fully decay in the vast acoustical environment of the Cathedral.

Several of the pieces performed featured as many as twelve parts, among them Tomkins’s “O praise the Lord” (also featured on their newest recording), and Praetorius’s polychoral “Tota pulchra es.” In the case of the Tomkins, the individual voices were allowed to stand out as a vehicle for expressing the complex counterpoint. In the Praetorius they took further advantage of this variety by grouping voices by timbre into three quartets standing at a distance apart on stage. The contrast in tone between each quartet enhanced the antiphonal setting of the text. Despite this cohesion, or perhaps because of it, parts of their performance suffered from a lack of forward motion. In the case of “Magnificat primi toni” by Gombert, whose style is notorious for its uniform texture, one might forgive the occasional stasis. But in “Veni dilecte mi” by Lassus, whose music is full of tonal ebb and flow, the lack of distinction between phrases left the performance a bit flat.

The group sang from a variety of editions, both scholarly and otherwise (apparently including some from the online choral public domain library), which meant that several pieces might have been transposed to a higher pitch level than originally scored in order to accommodate female sopranos and altos. (Boy sopranos and adult male countertenors would have been standard during the Renaissance.) The added power of the women’s voices in the higher range resulted in occasional treble-dominated passages that were incongruous with the otherwise flawlessly balanced sound.

While the chosen repertoire was fitting given the program’s title, it likewise suffered from a lack of stylistic diversity. A bit of relief was provided by John McCabe’s “Woefully arrayed,” a 2009 setting of a sixteenth century text attributed to John Skelton. This work, reminiscent of Pärt and Tavener, is an ingenious nod to Renaissance polyphony within a modern harmonic framework. Here the talents of the group were fully exploited. They provided the widest range in dynamics and articulation of the evening. They also took full advantage of the textual imagery by emphasizing dissonances and changes in rhythmic density.

Overall, the group provided a solid performance. They interacted musically as a chamber ensemble, allowing for a degree of spontaneity. Rather than presenting the repertoire exactly as it occurs in their recordings, they reacted to the performance environment—a refreshing change from the too often over-rehearsed approach to choral music. Furthermore, the members of Stile Antico engaged with the audience in a way that displayed their fondness for the music. This in turn elicited an equally enthusiastic reception.

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Cleveland Rocks

April 18, 2012


The Cleveland Orchestra at home in Ohio
Is it possible for a major American orchestra to tour these days without programming a work from a living composer? Of course it is. And yet, if a look at the ensembles on the road over the last two seasons is any indication, surprisingly few do. Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Boston. You name it, American orchestras now tour with new(ish) music as standard practice. This is a good thing, even if it doesn’t always mean that the ensembles involved are doing progressive or cutting edge programming in the particular instance or even in their regular hometown seasons. In yet another example of this practice, The Cleveland Orchestra was the latest ensemble to stop in Southern California this week as a guest of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County. The evening was built around Kaija Saariaho’s Orion, a work commissioned by the orchestra under its current music director Franz Welser-Möst during the early years of his tenure there. It was an excellent choice. Saariaho continues to be perhaps the most musically satisfying of living composers and the expansive rich textures, often darkly hued, always amaze. She is also perhaps the most sophisticated composer of orchestral music around, and the expanse of these other-worldly three movements that oscillate between furious storms of sound to the quiet reaches of something more inward was profound.

But I did get the nagging feeling that perhaps something was missing, even in this most interesting work on the evening’s program. The rich, certain sound of the Cleveland players is much what you would expect from the legendary orchestra. But conductor Welser-Möst sometimes exhibited a certain rigidity of pacing and overall lack of drama. He’s a particularly curious maestro with a great deal of physical restraint on the podium. It’s tempting, though likely unfair, to assume this physical restraint translates directly his musical interpretations. But I couldn’t help feeling timidity plagued much of the rest of the program. The evening started with Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 where the orchestra sounded polished with a lovely rich string sound. But the performance was flat and surprisingly uninvolved. That’s one thing with Mendelssohn, but the same sort of abject stance is harder to take when in comes to Shostakovich. The finale of the evening was the Russian composer’s Symphony No.6, three movements with all the grandiose sorrow and maniacal speed associated with his best work. Welser-Möst dug in here to a much greater degree for a performance that was emphatic if not at all marked by the kind of folk sensibility one commonly gets from Russian ensembles. The performance worked mostly, but it had the feeling of poetry translated from another language, somehow a step removed in the current context. Of course, I could pontificate about how this performance does or doesn’t relate to the many controversies that have swirled around the Cleveland Orchestra in recent years, but that kind of analysis is really rather facile in the end. This is a single performance and has all the real successes and failures real single performances have. The orchestra is still very much embedded in their familiar legacy of superior sound and they can play the heck out of many things including an important piece of recent music.


Who is Sylvia?

April 17, 2012


While it may be true that you can see forever on a clear day, depicting therapy sessions on stage is a tricky business. Oh sure, they creep up on stages and screens all the time, but the show that uses a therapy session to structure a narrative risks failure more often than it does success. It’s the golden rule – therapy is usually interesting only to the person receiving it. Which is I was so pleased on Sunday to see a new chamber opera on Sunday night entitled Sylvia by the young composer and librettist Julia Adolphe. Ms. Adolphe had set up shop in a La Brea Blvd. art studio over the weekend along with seven instrumentalists, four vocalists a director and a conductor to produce one of the most ambitious and defiantly audacious pieces of musical theater I’ve seen this year. There are so many things about this one act, one hour piece that shouldn’t work, and yet they all do from both a theatrical and musical perspective.

First there is that therapy session issue. The opera takes place entirely within an hour long psychodrama therapy sessions of a patient named Sylvia sung here by a powerful and affecting Sophie Wingland. Besides Sylvia there are two doctors, mezzo Jessica Mirshak and baritone Mario Diaz-Moresco, and another patient, Matthew Miles. Sylvia is exploring issues of sexual abuse she experienced as a young teen at the hands of a family friend. Strike two – direct recounting of childhood sexual abuse tends not to go over well when sung, Benjamin Britten aside. And just to make everything a little more complex, strike three, the four characters in the opera are repeatedly acting out the characters in Sylvia’s story as she recounts her abuse. Sometimes the characters will switch the roles they are playing within the reenactment of the abuse narrative from scene to scene, too, with Sylvia at times playing her mother, father, self, and others.

And yet Adolphe’s work by no means strikes out. In part due to her lucid, direct libretto and in part due to the clear-headed logical direction of Maureen Huskey, Sylvia manages to be abundantly watchable. Despite its billing, the esoteric psychodrama of the scenario is played down in favor of an emotional narrative. It’s rather powerful, as well, considering the fact it deals with material not typically treated in this manner operatically. There is no question about what happens to Sylvia, unlike those young men of Benjamin Britten’s nightmares, and the story gives a singing voice to the silent. Adolphe’s music is smartly written as well. The sound, like the libretto, is accessible without being arch or overly dramatic. At its best moments it reminded me of Samuel Barber at his illustrative best. Sometimes Adolphe relies too heavily on the libretto to communicate the emotional context of scenes, and the music, while pleasant and always there, more often than not accompanies the action and actually explain it without words. All the young soloists gave solid performances especially considering their demanding roles that would constantly shift between different characters and attitudes.

If Syliva is any indication, Julia Adolphe is a composer who’ll continue to be worth following as her career develops. This weekend she demonstrated a knack for taking difficult unwieldy material and turning it into something with a real dramatic narrative and a compelling sense of development. She’s proven she can write about things others are wary of, and its that kind of ambition with the talent to back it up that makes musical careers.

10 Questions for...
David Lomelí

April 16, 2012


David Lomeli Photo: Kristin Hoebermann
It’s always nice to start big. And that is exactly how tenor David Lomelí kicked off his operatic singing career with an audition for Placido Domingo and eventually two big wins at the 2006 Operalia competition. He’s participated in the Los Angeles Opera Domingo-Thornton Young Artists Program and has been an Adler fellow at San Francisco Opera. But now the exciting and warm-voiced tenor is everywhere and likely on an opera stage near you. He won raves for his performances as Nemorino with New York City Opera last year and is in the process of making major debuts with opera companies across the globe. He’s appeared alongside Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in concert, which he’ll do again this summer at the Hollywood Bowl as the Duke of Mantua in a concert performance of Rigoletto on Aug 13. But before then he’ll return to a role that won him accolades last year in Santa Fe, Rudolfo in Puccini’s La Bohème. He’ll be singing the role at Glyndebourne this summer, but if you live in Southern California you don’t need to fly to Britain to catch one of opera’s rising stars, as he’ll be giving three concert performances of the same part starting this Thursday the 19th in Orange County with the Pacific Symphony under Carl St. Clair. First, though, the magnanimous tenor took a moment to reflect on the Out West Arts 10 Questions.

  1. What role would you most like to perform but haven't yet?
    Well, I am making a debut next year in two new Donizetti roles that I am very much looking forward to. Leicester in Maria Stuarda with Oper Frankfurt and Percy in Anna Bolena with Oper Köln. I love to sing bel canto and so far Donizetti really makes my voice very happy. I love these Tudor intrigue operas. I love these stories and books because of the complexity of emotions mixed with raw and powerful music. It's really an experience I'm looking forward to.
  2. What role would you never want to perform even if you could?
    Well I am still very young in my artistic path. So I refuse to say a definite “no” to anything – especially since you never know where the voice will take you. But, I can say that I am not spending a lot of time studying for Tristan or Tannhäuser at present.
  3. You’ve already worked with some of the greatest artists in the opera world at this point in your career. Whom have you not had a chance to work with yet, that you would most like to?
    I would love to work with many artists, but what comes to my mind immediately are two beautiful mezzos that I adore and admire -- Joyce DiDonato and Susan Graham. They are thrilling artists. Also I'm very excited to soon work with the young Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado in Berlin next season. He's a fantastic guy that I also admire.
  4. Your iPod is destroyed by a vengeful mezzo. Which lost tracks would you miss most?
    Well, I hope it wasn’t destroyed by Joyce or Susan!! I would dearly miss all of my salsa tracks, my full discography of Wunderlich, Björling, Gigli, Pavarotti and Di Stefano and some obscure electric dance music I like from my club days in Ibiza, Spain. But I have back-up so I am not too sad.

  1. You will be appearing in Orange County later this month with the Pacific Symphony as Rodolfo in Puccini’s La Bohème, a role you will also sing at Glyndebourne this summer. What are the challenges in portraying one of the opera stage’s greatest young lovers?
    Well because it is such a popular opera, people already have so much in their imagination. They can already hear Pavarotti or Caruso or they can see in their minds the newer versions like Rent. I do not worry because I can make my own stamp on this. But, another thing is that people make the mistake of thinking that because this is about young lovers, that it is a perfect opera for young singers. Really, it is a very difficult piece requiring much experience – with big orchestration and hard music. It is difficult both for singers and conductors. But I love this opera and this role and look forward to share my interpretation with my friends in Los Angeles.
  2. This summer, you'll be appearing at the Hollywood Bowl as the Duke of Mantua in Verdi’s Rigoletto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under conductor Gustavo Dudamel. Does appearing in a concert performance of an operatic role make things more or less difficult for you as a performer than in a fully staged one?
    Though I love the full staging, I confess that I also really enjoy the concert performances. In concert, you have the chance to focus just on the music and on your own voice. I can really connect my artistry with the audience when I sing in concert.

As the Duke of Mantua with the Canadian Opera Company Photo: Chris Hutcheson 2011

  1. What music most inspired you to sing opera?
    Because I was born in Mexico, it has to be our mariachi singing and the zarzuela that I heard a lot from a young age. It’s fantastic yet difficult music that requires a high and free passagio freedom and good top to be able to do it well. It's so full of sentiment and raw emotion that it was an easy transition from that to opera.
  2. 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 would like to do an opera based on The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. It would be fantastic to play a tenor Gandalf or a tenor Jon Snow!!! It would be awesome to sing Gandalf’s phrase from The Lord of the Rings "you shall not pass" in a high C.
  3. With which of your operatic roles do you have the most in common?
    Rodolfo's romanticism, Werther's sensibility and Nemorino's simplicity are the pillars of my own character.
  4. What’s your current obsession?
    My current obsession is my new bride, of course, the soprano Sara Gartland. And a far second to that is the game of golf!!! I got married in Pebble Beach and my wife’s family is very passionate and quite good at golf. In particular my father-in-law is very good – he is president of Avis, a sponsor of PGA. So he gets to play and go to places like Sawgrass and Doral and meet pros like Steve Stricker. I learned that golf is very much like singing. The technique is quite easy to understand but to master it takes years of constant practice. I love it even though I have a very high handicap.



April 15, 2012


And just like that the Los Angeles Philharmonic serves up arguably the second greatest performance of their 2011/2012 season so far. It was this past weekend and hopefully you didn’t miss it. Like many of the orchestra’s best performances these days, it can creep up at unexpected times with unlikely personnel. But for perhaps the first time since Salonen’s leadership during last Fall’s performances of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 4 and fragments from Orango the orchestra achieved a certain unassailable height that didn't require a fancy PR campaign to convince anyone of its value. (On a side note, that great performance will be included as part of the L.A. Phil broadcast series on KUSC on May 13 at 4pm PST, so mark your calendar.) This time around the conductor was Herbert Blomstedt and the program featured one work, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. It’s an astonishing piece of music that stands apart even from the composer’s other late works. The choral writing is fiendishly difficult and runs nearly the entire length of the performance. There are four soloists who don’t really act so much as soloists as they do a vocal quartet constantly interacting with one another exchanging musical elements back and forth. And at an uninterrupted hour and a half it’s a large piece of music with a high level of integration between performers and a constant wellspring of constantly changing musical material.

Blomstedt delivered an incredibly well proportioned performance that achieved success in nearly every category. He knows that the chorus is the centerpiece here and his attention to the amazing members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, building on the work done with their Music Director Grant Gershon, was clear. They outdid themselves this weekend with an at times thundering and at others heart-wrenching performance. Their contribution to the success of this performance cannot be understated. The four vocal soloists meshed perfectly without an ounce of sourness. Soprano Ruth Ziesak, mezzo Gerhild Romberger, tenor Richard Croft, and bass Hanno Müller-Brachmann are not necessarily household names, but the beauty of their ensemble singing put such issues out of anyone’s mind. The orchestra was warm and relaxed, and while there were some sloppy attacks here and there on Sunday, the orchestra seemed tuned into a kind of mysterious quality at the heart of this mass. Even Principal Concertmaster Martin Chalifour got into the act with the flawless and stirring high violin solo in the Benedictus. Beethoven famously finishes the work rather unceremoniously, but on this afternoon with the quality of performance the assembled players and Blomstedt had just presented proved a bigger finish wasn’t really necessary. Most everyone had long ago been blown away.

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A Soldier of the Great War


Mikhail Baryshnikov and Anna Sinyakina are In Paris Photo: Maria Baranova
People want to see Mikhail Baryshnikov. It doesn’t really matter what he’s doing. Of course at 64 he can’t deliver the dance performances he did at 24. Nobody could. But yet his star shines on and he’s continued to have a successful career as an actor in all kinds of settings. People will pay significant sums to see him live and he’s the primary reason that In Paris, a production of Dmitry Krymov’s Theater Laboratory is receiving a huge national U.S. tour this year. The show is currently on The Broad Stage in Santa Monica and will be seen later on at Berkeley Rep in the Bay Area and eventual reach New York as part of the Lincoln Center Festival in August. Yet despite Baryshnikov’s name and even a dance step or two here and there along the way, In Paris bears the stamp of its creator Dmitry Krymov far more prominently. And with his decidedly visual sense of storytelling one hopes audiences here will remember his work and name after a visit to this one act 80-minute story. In Paris is based on a short story by Ivan Bunin, the first Russian author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1933. It’s a simple love story about two Russian expatriates who meet in Paris between the wars. Baryshnikov play a former Russian Army general whose been abandoned by his wife and now lives alone in Paris. He accidentally meets a young waitress, played by Anna Sinyakina, in a nearby Russian restaurant who has also been left in the city far away from her husband and soon the general starts visiting the restaurant daily until he ventures to meet her away from work. There’s little story here and the deeper political and psychological aspects of the story are largely ignored including the way the characters deal with their substantial histories of war and loss. In Krymov’s world this is beside the point.

Krymov and his ensemble are more concerned about developing a series of powerful visual images that leave their own impressions. Krymov spent many years as a purely visual artist in between his stints in the theater and the painterly visuals permeate every inch of this show. The look evokes black and white photographs of the early 20th century as if everything on the pitch black raked stage could be pulled from a shoebox in your great grandmother’s attic. Characters drag around huge photographic cut outs that serve as scenery and even physical objects like table and chairs are more symbolic than functional. At one point the general and his love take a car ride in a life-sized postcard of a car complete with doors that open and a chauffeur leaning from the cut out window. The car rotates on the huge turntable set that is frequently augmented by video projections of supertitles that are also produced to augment the visual effect of the entire scene. (The spoken language of the piece is primarily in Russian and French.)

These images can be striking, but they aren’t always enough to counterbalance the tepid story and odd tonal juxtapositions. Krymov packs the love story with extended scenes of absurdist humor and slapstick. A lengthy bit where Baryshnikov repeatedly must get up to replace either his coat or hat that take turns falling off of their pegs grows tiresome quickly. A fake dog urinates on the stopped car the lovers are riding in as the audience watches the liquid trickle down the entire surface of the lit stage. It’s whimsical all right but there’s a fine line between funny and tedious. There’s a good bit of music, some of it performed live by the five or six ensemble players, including, oddly enough, opera arias. While the waitress readies for her date, a lovely mezzo performs Cherubino’s “Non so più” from Le Nozze di Figaro as the score is projected at the rear of the stage. Then as the score scrolls by, the music changes to Bizet’s “L'amour est un oiseaux rebelle” from Carmen. And just to maximize the "whatever" quotient, the show returns to Bizet again in the deus ex machina conclusion. Krymov’s visual allusions are far more solid with those concluding scenes drenched in the images of Chagall if not his color palette. So if you like to look, the show has a lot to offer. And if you like to look at Baryshnikov, whether he's in motion or not, this may be right up your alley. The show runs at The Broad Stage until April 21.

In Living Color

April 14, 2012


From Les Sylphides choreographed by Benjamin Millepied Photo: GTG/Vincent Lepresle
It was a particularly bad weekend to be colorblind at The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, which welcomed Ballet du Grand Théatre de Genève for three performances under the auspices of Dance at the Music Center. General Director Tobias Richter and Ballet Director Philippe Cohen toured a program of works dear to the company’s heart – three collaborations with Benjamin Millepied, arguably one of the world’s best known living choreographers and one who’s had a strong working relationship with the Swiss company. Millepied has a long and very successful career as both a dancer and choreographer particularly during his time with the New York City Ballet, even though his marriage to Natalie Portman, and his work with her on the Darren Aronofsky film Black Swan, may be the thing that most Americans associate him with. But none of that was a concern on Friday when love, or at least the choreographed version of it, was in the air. All three works on the program featured scenic and costume design from frequent Millepied collaborator Paul Cox who repeatedly contrasted minimal geometric patterned sets with eye-scalding bright primary colors on his dancers. And all three works dealt more or less with young love of the whimsical beautiful variety at the expense of the tortured and dark kind.

Most of the evening was also a nod to staples and classics of ballet history. But first the company offered perhaps the most completely modern work on the program with Amoveo which premiered in Paris in 2009. The overriding influence here was the music of Philip Glass. Several prerecorded snippets from Einstein on the Beach were paired with a geometric and slowly modulating video backdrop to set the mood. But as late 20th century as this felt, the movement Millepied contributed to the performance was definitely half a century earlier in the New York of Jerome Robbins. A young couple meets and falls and love and then proceeds to find their place again in the larger community of their peers. All the while they fly and burst open arms spread or zip across the ground like latter day Jets and Sharks.

This not unpleasant opening was followed by two works where Millepied’s choreography provided reworkings of legendary ballet works. Le Spectre de la Rose, a short piece best known as a staple of the Ballets Russes. In it a young woman falls asleep and dreams that the spirit of the rose she was given earlier in the evening has transformed into a man that enters her bedroom window and dances with her. Millepied alters this purely romantic version of the tale into a more jocular one with the young woman, performed by Sarawanee Tanatanit, pursued by three suited and Zorro-masked Don Juans. The men arrive all pelvic thrusts and comic poses until they animate the sleeping woman with assisted movement until she awakes and continues the dance.

The genteel humor of the Rose was a harbinger of the other modern update that followed, a reworking of the Paris Opera Ballet’s 1832 Les Sylphides. Ten women, each in a different radioactively hued dressed chase and are chased by an ensemble of suited, sometimes befuddled young men. There are a number of small subtle narratives here including a sequence where a set of movements is repeated again and again with several more dances being added with each repetition in a Rube Goldberg-inspired bit of zaniness that answers the question of how many dancers it takes to screw in a light bulb. Again the feeling overall was light and romantic, which more likely made for memorable dates than it did for memorable dance or theater. And while the sampling may not have been Millepied at his best, it did offer a number of virtuoso showcases for the members of the traveling Geneva troupe. The show repeats both Saturday and Sunday in downtown L.A.


People Needing People

April 13, 2012

Marylouise Burke, Sara Botsford and Jane Kaczmarek in Good People Photo: Michael Lamont/Geffen Playhouse 2012
Great plays don’t have to be about great questions. But, it doesn’t hurt when they are. David Lindsay-Abaire’s recent New York success, Good People, which opened this week in its West Coast Premiere at The Geffen Playhouse, opts for this approach to greatness in an unpretentious way with a variant on the fate or free-will debate. More accurately, the issue at hand is whether or not people succeed in their lives due to good luck or by hard work and good choices. Sometimes that central premise in the play gets cluttered with any number of other concerns including the tropes of the American situation comedy. But at heart, Lindsay-Abaire is aiming for questions close to the heart of much contemporary American political debate and thought. Can those with little succeed simply by the force of their hard work and ambition, or are the cards stacked in a way that everything that rises must do so by the shifting tides of fortune.

There are two sets of candidates for the titular good people in Lindsay-Abaire’s story. Both have roots in Boston’s historically Irish-working class South Boston neighborhood. Margie, an excellent Jane Kaczmarek, has just been fired from her job as a dollar store cashier quickly bringing the wolf and an eviction notice to the door she shares with her adult physically and mentally disabled daughter. Her escalating desperation serves largely as a backdrop for good TV jokes with a dash of blue language until she's made aware of a former flame, Mike, played by Jon Tenney, who has recently returned to town. Mike grew up in the projects and is as much a Southie as Margie by history. But Mike, who is now an OB/GYN with a family and an expensive home has had much different fortunes. Margie noses her way into his office looking for work, but only finds a Pandora's box of thinly veiled resentments bundled up with reminiscences of summers long ago. She eventually finds herself invited to Mike’s upcoming Birthday party, which she decides to attend in hopes of hitting up a colleague of his for a job even after he calls to tell her the party is canceled the following day. She arrives to find the party is truly cancelled and spends an emotionally momentous evening with Mike and has young wife where all those prejudices and histories again bubble to the surface leaving the audience to decide if it is Margie and her friends or Mike and his family that are the good people.

The answers are not simple or especially clear even when the curtain falls, and Lindsay-Abaire has packed his drama with complex multi-faceted characters that can feel very real even when they do yammer on at times. The scenes between Margie and Mike, representing a good 70% of the evening, are the show’s strongest points and argue much more strongly for Lindsay-Abaire’s prowess as a chronicler of contemporary lives than his prior big success, Rabbit Hole. There are still some soft spots here. The scenes between Margie and her friends Dottie, a remarkable Marylouise Burke, and Jean, an equally fine Sara Botsford, can be a bit too comically pat. Not that the jokes aren’t funny. They are and there are many of them. But it’s at these moments Good People most sounds and acts like a play. But the bigger fish do swim back around in this tank, and director Matt Shakman gives the cast latitude to explore the complexities of these lives in a way that both draws the audience in even when we’re learning things that aren’t so nice about them and perhaps about ourselves. It’s a strong showing for the Geffen and comes recommended. Good People runs through May 13.

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