Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Waxing Poetic

May 30, 2012

Peabody Southwell, Ani Maldjian, Suzan Hanson Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff Stertz
Roving reporter and man-about-town Ben Vanaman caught the final performance of Long Beach Opera's staging of Golijov's Ainadamar this weekend and filed this report.
The Long Beach Opera just concluded performances of its penultimate production of the current season, Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar (Fountain of Tears), a lament “in three images” for the poet and dramatist Federico Garcia Lorca, a progressive who was assassinated by Spanish Fascists at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. A scrappy company known for its productions of contemporary operas and works outside the general repertoire, often staged in offbeat Southern California locales, LBO had intended to perform Ainadamar at the old Long Beach Press Telegram building, but was forced to move the production to the oft-used Terrace Theater when that site became unavailable. Perhaps this accounted for a performance that, while often enjoyable, sometimes seemed a little scrappier and more under-rehearsed than usual for this enterprising company, which can work wonders on a budget (as in a memorable Nixon in China from 2010 and even a surprisingly strong Akhnaten from last year).

One entered the theater to find a raked stage covered in fabric, its focal point a lone raised chair in center stage from which the character of Lorca’s actress friend Margarita Xirgu waxes tragic about the great loss of this man to her student-acolyte Nuria. Golijov’s score, an insistent musical poem of hauntingly lyrical and sometimes jarringly clangorous effect, draws on elements of various colloquial musical styles that have influenced the composer and which are a trademark of his compositional technique. At times, for example, one can almost hear the peal of a muezzin’s call, evoking the Islamic history of Granada, where Lorca lived and died. In one of the most effective moments of this score, Lorca’s murder is punctuated by gunshot-like bursts that transition into flamenco rhythms. The orchestra, hidden behind a scrim at the back of the stage, delivered a compelling reading of the score from first note to last.

Dramatically, however, the production was somewhat inert. David Henry Hwang’s libretto, which is essentially a prolonged reminiscence imposes limitations on what is possible in terms of design, movement, action despite its powerful content. Here, the result was a mixed bag. While the paraphernalia of stagecraft –the chair; the sheet- made it look like the sets came from the Dollar Store, there were some notable effects: striking lighting cues –blistering and brilliant when Lorca is killed; shimmering and ethereal when Xirgu breathes her last at the end- and an elevator that lifted the eight-woman “Greek chorus” from beneath the stage to comment on the sorrow of it all. When Lorca dies, slain alongside a bullfighter and a teacher, three dancers magically appear behind the fallen martyrs, pulled aloft in a striking coup de theater. However, one questions the wisdom of sending Xirgu down the hole at the end, sinking into the abyss rather than rising to join her beloved friend and comrade.

The vocal standouts of the evening were the tormented Lorca of Peabody Southwell and Ani Maldjian’s authoritatively-sung Nuria. Susan Hanson in the role of Margarita Xirgu was commanding in the middle of her range but a bit raggedy at the top, problematically resulting in protégé Nuria coming across as a more bold personality than her mentor. Golijov’s inspiration in making Lorca a “trouser role” has been noted. It certainly provides subtext to the story’s sexual politics, which is more glancingly marked by Hwang –and director Andreas Mitisek- in only one moment where presumed homosexual Lorca is seen flirting with a possible male lover. But the work carries power, from the beginning, where Xirgu prepares to reassume the lead of Lorca’s play “Mariana Pineda” in the final moments of her life, to the poignant conclusion, where Xirgu’s dying memories of Lorca are left in the hands of Nuria. Verbal history is the ranconteur’s trade, and Hwang beautifully draws on this tradition to craft a necessarily outsized portrait of one of the 20th Century’s greatest writers. But the company may have done itself an unwitting disservice by asking Gregorio Luke to read, in vivid and impassioned Spanish, three of Lorca’s greatest poems in a pre-concert talk. This reading took one’s breath away, setting one’s expectations almost too high for what the company could deliver. But that the evening was so generally satisfying overall speaks well of Long Beach Opera and its mission.


What to Expect When You're Expecting (Something Else)

May 29, 2012

Hilary Hahn and Hauschka in Los Angeles Photo: mine
I love a prepared piano. So does German artist Volker Bertelmann who goes by the stage name Hauschka. The instrument has been the cornerstone of his musical output over the last several years. It’s not a new sound, of course, the term being coined by John Cage in the mid-20th Century to describe the various objects and techniques used to physically alter the sounding of strings in a standard piano. And while there were certainly precedents to these techniques long before Cage came on the scene, the tinkling, plunking, shattered resonance of the prepared piano has continued to resonate in a post-WWII mentality over the last half-century. The sound is still associated with Cage and a musical avant-garde. But composers have found ways to incorporate the instrumentation into a variety of music decidedly closer to the familiar or mainstream world of both concert and popular music. I first got hooked on the sound through Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa: music that is indelibly linked in my head with the upside down exploding piano in Rebecca Horn’s Concert for Anarchy (1990) the sculpture in the collection of London’s Tate Modern.

Rebecca Horn's Concert for Anarchy in the Tate Modern
But Hauschka takes all of this post-war angst of decades ago and re-integrates it into something associated more closely with contemporary popular music genres. His piano tinkles and rumbles along melodic and rhythmic lines that would be familiar to any listener of contemporary art rock. The instrumental songs slide along with a beauty that make them highly listenable and fairly addictive. In spring of 2011, Hauschka got a chance to collaborate with another musical figure known for her virtuosity, violinist Hilary Hahn. The pair, who have just seen the fruits of their work, Silfra, released on Deutsche Grammophon, intuitively seem like perfect collaborators. Hahn is known on concert stages throughout the world and not only has been a force in commissioning new music but has a public wit and intellect that sets her apart from others in her field. She’s the kind of solo performer whose self-expression rides more on music than a funny haircut and unusual concert attire. (And you know who you are.)

Hahn and Hauschka created a recording based largely on improvisation and spontaneous musical interaction during their studio time in Iceland. (The recording is named after an area in Iceland where tectonic plates nearly meet by a lake.) Long-time Björk producer, Valgeir Sigurosson, helped shape these collaborations into something unusual, but not unrelated to contemporary pop music. (See the example "Bounce Bounce" below if you can sit through the annoying commercial attached to the front of it.) And in the last few weeks the two musicians have brought the improvisational interaction to live audiences, which happened for the first time in the U.S. at the El Rey theater in Los Angeles on Monday night. The pair, by their own admission, had only played live together on a very few prior outings in Europe and would move on to Seattle and Japan before returning to the East Coast later this summer. And while things could feel a bit unrehearsed in the stage banter department, the musical collaboration flowed easily. The songs were based on elements contained on Silfra, but were still improvised and didn’t follow any rigid pre-planned format. Although each player had a brief solo number, the show was entirely based on their work together.

It was beautiful music, but clearly was an experience that pushed on some of the contemporary social traditions around musical performance. The show took place in a standing room hall more often used for rock concerts. Chairs had been set up for the general admission audiences that was far from capacity in the room. By necessity for balance, both Hahn and Hauschka were amplified. The crowd clearly enjoyed the performance, but many were uncertain of what to expect. At one point an enthusiastic fan took advantage during piano preparation time to directly issue a request to Hahn to break into Bach or Paginini. She politely refused indicating this is not what this show was about. Her rebuke was met with applause, but clearly there were others in the audience drawn to the performance on her reputation that may have gone away disappointed in not getting what they were expecting. Which was a shame, considering the strength of the collaboration.

Instead these two musicians offered unexpected music created from their own mutual exploration. It may not have been revolutionary or changing the direction of art music as we know it but it was sincere and as fiercely independent as anything you could wish for. You can listen to Silfra now, but even better, keep your ears open if you’re lucky enough to have them come your way.

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10 Questions for...
Kelley O'Connor

Kelley O'Connor. Photo: Zachary Maxwell Stertz
Mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor has long been a favorite here in Los Angeles, a sentiment increasingly shared by audiences around the world. She’s made her mark to date singing a number of contemporary works from several high profile composers. She’s particularly well known for her signature performances as Lorca in Golijov’s Ainadamar which she has sung all over the world and will take to Madrid later this summer. Of her many recordings, her performance in this opera under Robert Spano brought her and the company many accolades including a Grammy award. She was hand picked by Peter Lieberson to be the first vocalist to perform his Neruda Songs following the death of his wife Lorraine Hunt Lieberson whom they were originally written for. O’Connor is a frequent guest to the stages of all the major American orchestras in repertoire from Bernstein to Ravel. But even with all this history, she may be stepping into her biggest role here yet when she debuts this Thursday in the title role of John Adams’ new oratorio/opera The Gospel According to the Other Mary with a text compiled by Peter Sellars who will direct staged performances of the work here next season. She and the Los Angeles Philharmonic will again be led by music director Gustavo Dudamel. Despite the challenges of playing Mary Magdalene, Ms. O’Connor kindly found the time to take a crack at 10 Questions for Out West Arts.
  1. What role would you most like to perform but haven't yet?
    My dream role is Hans Sachs, but that will have to wait until I come back as a dramatic baritone, so for now I would love to sing Julius Caesar. This is a very challenging role vocally given all of the coloratura required, but I am drawn to the complexity of the character and the stunning music. There are so many different aspects to this man that I am intrigued to figure him out. Also, I'll take pants over a corset any day of the week!
  2. What role would you never want to perform even if you could?
    Baba the Turk. Does anyone really WANT to be the bearded lady?
Dudamel, Kelley O'Connor and members of the L.A. Philharmonic in 2010 Photo: mine
  1. You’ve already worked with some of the greatest artists in the music world at this point in your career. Whom have you not had a chance to work with yet, that you would most like to?
    You're right, I have been very lucky to work with some of the most amazing composers, conductors and directors in the world!! But one that I haven't had the pleasure to work with is Sir Simon Rattle. I admire his work and vision so much (especially the St. Matthew Passion he recently conceived with Peter Sellars). I feel he has the same goal I do which is to communicate a pure and honest message without any pretense. I think it would just be heavenly to work with him.
  2. You’re particularly well known for your work with contemporary composers including Peter Lieberson, Osvaldo Golijov, and John Adams. What’s the best thing about working with a living composer?
    The freedom! My favorite aspect of new music is that there is no set standard for how everything should sound and you can create your own interpretation. This is very liberating. It's the best part of my job. Actually creating something from nothing is the reason that I do this for a living. So many voices need to be heard and it is our job to sing life into them!
  1. Speaking of your work with John Adams, L.A. audiences will get the pleasure of hearing you return to the Los Angeles Philharmonic this month with Adams’ new work The Gospel According to the Other Mary under Gustavo Dudamel. (An excerpt from Kelley O'Connor's video log while preparing the piece can be seen above.) What can you tell us about your part in this large new oratorio?
    It's a War Horse! I am so thrilled to be part of this new piece. This is the first time that John has written something especially for me, and I am completely honored that he and Peter felt I could perform the role of Mary Magdalene. She is definitely a tormented soul who deals with a lot of doubt. This is something that I feel I can relate to and is really challenging me to bring out deep feelings and portray them to the audience. I cannot wait.
  2. What music most inspired you to become a professional vocalist?
    I have to admit that I am a choral singer at heart. There is nothing like creating music in a group and I think that is why I am always so glad to work with Peter and have such a familial element added to the creative process. I know that it is my experiences in choir throughout my elementary school days and onto my time at USC that gave me the desire to pursue this as a profession. Not only the music but the wonderful musicians and people I met during those times.
  3. Your iPod is destroyed by a tempestuous tenor. Which lost tracks would you miss most?
    Right now...all of my voice memos. I am listening 24/7 to all of my coachings in preparation for the Adams piece. It is the best learning tool I have! Luckily, I have my first meeting with Osvaldo Golijov recorded on tape (that's how long ago it was that I met him!) and that will be preserved for all time no matter what that tenor does!
Kelley O'Connor as Lorca in Golijov's Ainadamar in 2007. Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2007
  1. You’ve had remarkable success with a number of recordings with a variety of major American orchestras in recent years. Is there a performance in particular you’re pleased has been saved for posterity?
    Of course, Ainadamar. That was my first recording and it was made after our magical summer in Santa Fe recreating the piece with Peter. Robert Spano was also the first conductor I worked with outside of school (in the original Ainadamar production at Tanglewood) and recording with him and the Atlanta Symphony is like performing with my hometown band. They have become like family to me and have really seen me grow as an artist and a person. I was lucky enough to record the Lieberson Neruda Songs with them as well. I have too many life-changing memories with them to name them all!
  2. What’s your current obsession?
    Musically speaking it's Bruckner 9 which I just heard at Disney Hall with the L.A. Philharmonic and Sir Simon Rattle. It blew my mind and luckily Gustavo Dudamel's recording came up on my Spotify so I got to hear two amazing interpretations. In life, it's my Vitamix blender. I'm a big foodie and I am obsessed with researching different food trends. I have tried them all! Right now it's Paleo!
  3. What’s next for Kelley O’Connor?
    I am again lucky to get to spend the summer with the amazing Peter Sellars and my best friend Jessica Rivera performing Golijov's Ainadamar in Madrid!


Just Met the New Boss

May 28, 2012

Christopher Koelsch Photo: Rebecca Rotenberg/LAO 2012.
The performing arts season shifts gears here in Los Angeles and around the country as we move into the summer. But a couple of recent personnel changes at Los Angeles’ biggest performing arts institutions in the last few months invite thinking ahead to coming seasons, particularly in corners hardest hit by the economic downturn of recent years. One face, certainly fresh if not in any way new to his organization, is Christopher Koelsch who was announced as the new President and CEO of Los Angeles Opera beginning at the start of the 2012/2013 season. Following the economic downturn and the financial strain of an artistically groundbreaking Ring cycle in 2010, LAO has been digging itself out of a hole in the last few seasons with a reduced schedule heavily oriented towards crowd-pleasers and lower amounts of artistic risk. These developments closely followed the death of the company’s former CEO Edgar Baitzel in 2007. Since then the day-to-day operations of the company that has been headed by General Director Placido Domingo and Music Director James Conlon, has fallen to interim management from other players including LAO Board President Marc Stern and Music Center president Stephen Rountree. Rountree in particular has played a pivotal role as LAO's CEO from 2008 forward managing to complete many of Baitzel’s projects and stabilize the company’s finances in the subsequent economic downturn.

Meanwhile, Koelsch has been working his way up through LAO’s ranks since 1997 when he joined the company under the tenure of founding General Director Peter Hemmings. He’s served as the Vice President of Artistic Planning and in 2010 he became the Chief Operating Officer overseeing the non-financial aspects of the company’s management. His appointment to the top post under Domingo and Conlon is a big step and very good news for a number of reasons. Not only does he have a long history with the company throughout most of its history, but he represents the board’s move towards a stable future after a period of some struggle. Koelsch has taste and vision, which will serve the company well, particularly in the ensuing years, which promises even further changes. For those of you playing along at home, you may recall that 2013 is the year that the contracts of both Domingo and Conlon with LAO will expire. They may or may not stay on board, and even if they do, its highly likely the company will have to make new decisions about its artistic leadership somewhere in the not too distant future. Having Koelsch on board in the top day-to-day financial and operations spot buys the company core stability to ride with whatever punches may come along artistic leadership lines. Here’s wishing him the best and bringing the company back to a bigger and more adventurous seasons in the near future. (And how about a revival of that Ring cycle while we’re at it?)

Kristy Edmunds.
On the other side of town a new director with an even bigger task ahead has come to the performing arts series at UCLA. Kristy Edmunds was named the new Executive and Artistic Director of the series last spring following the precipitous departure of former director David Sefton in 2010. Again dwindling resources were to blame both internal to the University and in the community at large. Things quickly crashed and burned at UCLALive with just about everything adventurous in the once impressive series, including Sefton’s hallmark International Theater Festival, going out the window for very small amounts of the predictable, tried and true.

But in comes Edmunds to revive this moribund organization with an impressive track record both in Portland where she founded the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art and the Time-Based Art Festival, and in Melbourne, Australia where she was head of the Melbourne International Arts Festival for four years. She’s a leader with connections and ideas and she began showing some of those off just last week when she welcomed former subscribers and donors to Royce Hall to announce plans for the coming season at UCLA. She wasted no time with some new initiatives. She quickly suggested that the series completely re-brand itself with a new name and logo replacing UCLALive with the awkward and unwieldy name of The Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA (CAP UCLA). As she explained, while the name seems an odd choice, it’s meant to reflect a new emphasis on the series, functioning in the broader context of an interdisciplinary academic institution where the university community’s access to the study and act of performance is tantamount. This commitment is further reflected in two initiatives that will bring in new and established artists to the UCLA campus often in multi-year terms to develop new work and interact with others in the academic community. There will be CAP UCLA Artist Fellows, who initially will include both Laurie Anderson and Robert Wilson developing new projects during a multi-year commitment at the University, and then there are CAP UCLA Residencies from artists including Meredith Monk, Barak Marshall and Lars Jan. The residencies are already under way, and Monk’s work on campus earlier this year will inform her new piece On Behalf of Nature, which will receive its premiere at CAP UCLA in early 2013.

Edmunds should be cheered for shifting the emphasis of CAP UCLA toward developing more new work over just importing the latest and greatest from elsewhere, which dominates programming from similar presenters around town. But CAP UCLA isn’t out of the woods yet by any means. The fiscal picture, though improving, is still bleak, particularly for the state and University even if they represent only a small portion of the overall CAP UCLA budget. Edmunds introduced an expanded and certainly more diverse program last week than in the last few years that even included an albeit small return of three or four theater events. But the program overall is still heavily weighted toward one-off performances from world, folk, and roots based music outfits and the most familiar of faces. Classical music is particularly hard hit in the schedule with CAP UCLA relying nearly exclusively on the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra for their programming. LACO is a great ensemble and cross promotion that gets more people into their shows is a good thing to be sure. But outside of promoting the Sunday evening programming LACO has typically offered at Royce Hall over the last several years, CAP UCLA will only offer three other “classical” performances including the Monk premiere, an evening with violinist Hahn-Bin, and an appearance from the great Anonymous 4 which will include the premiere of a piece from David Lang, love fail. The dance programming is more promising with visits from Ultima Vez and several programs revisiting the groundbreaking work of the Trisha Brown Dance Company, some of which will take place out of the theater and in the community around UCLA.

Wisely CAP UCLA has done away with any of the specific genre based subscription packages of recent years favoring an almost entirely design-your-own format for people requesting tickets in advance this year. There are signs of life here in the ashes of UCLALive, and one hopes Edmunds finds the support and resources to bring one of Los Angeles’s former premiere performing arts institutions back from the brink in seasons to come.

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Summer Formal

May 27, 2012

The members of the Formalist Quartet
While people were out and about making the most of the holiday weekend Saturday night, one of Los Angeles’ most exciting chamber ensembles was indoors celebrating an anniversary with a performance. The occasion was the fifth anniversary of The Formalist Quartet composed of violinists Andrew Tholl, Mark Menzies, and Andrew McIntosh alongside cellist Ashley Walters. (Menzies and McIntosh trade off on viola parts providing the group with one more unique quirk that sets them apart from the crowd.) In 2006, the 100th anniversary of Shostakovich’s birth, the four players united with an interest in 20th-century and contemporary chamber music specifically with an interest in Shostakovich and Luigi Nono. The temptation of taking the name of an aesthetic movement once used as an artistic slur against Shostakovich and others by Soviet authorities during some of the composer’s darkest days was too great to ignore. And in five years the ensemble has had an increasingly high profile working with the likes of Icelandic composer/performer Johann Johannsson and exploring other 20th-century and newer repertoire in a number of musical venues around town and around the country.

In the last year the ensemble has forged a close relationship with the expanding music programming at Venice, CA’s Beyond Baroque Literary/Arts Center one of L.A.’s true bastions of independent arts spirit and thinking. Saturday’s performance was the Formalist’s third there, and the program pointed both forward and back for the players. Half of the evening was devoted to works by three of the quartet’s four members. Menzies offered a duo for violin and cello with a minimal amount of added percussion called The Kid. The work was a premiere and his latest in a series of compositions related to the birds of his native New Zealand. These are by no means Messiaen’s oiseaux, but a different more abstract breed with sounds less anthropomorphic or naturalistic than you might suspect. Tholl offered two very short solo violin works written for McIntosh, my memories are never an accurate representation and you take your path, I’ll take mine. McIntosh in return presented the appropriately names Two Small Quartets an effort to overcome his personal hesitancy about writing for the genre. Both ended too quickly and were studies in contrast with the first being softly played and nearly absent sounding with the other revolving around long-held tones passed between the players.

But as much as the evening was about their own compositions, it was also about the works that brought them together in the first place. Leos Janacek’s String Quartet No. 1 was a frequent part of the group’s repertoire in their fist two years, and they revisited it here with a lusty swirling performance that made the most out of the folk elements that underpin so much of Janacek’s work. The show ended with Shostakovich. How else could it? The group picked the less frequently performed Quartet No. 5 in celebration of their anniversary. The players easily shifted between the ribald and the lyrical with well coordinated, superb playing from all corners. The sound was precise and intuitive at the same time, which made for a wonderful evening overall. Even in the middle of a holiday weekend.

Take a Ride

May 25, 2012

Charlie Robinson and Montae Russell. Photo: Henry DiRocco/SCR 2012
August Wilson’s play Jitney, which opened recently in a very fine revival at Orange County’s South Coast Repertory, is an odd man out in many ways. One of the first plays written by Wilson, Jitney was reworked and then reworked again for premieres in both 1996 and 2000 following a production in its original version in 1982. It’s one of the 10 plays that make up Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle” which examine the African American experience throughout the 20th century decade by decade, nearly all of which are set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Jitney, an episodic story of the men who work in an unlicensed taxi business, or jitney during the early 1970s, is set in that same neighborhood, although it predates the idea of the cycle itself. Later after the successes of Wilson's Fences and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, the scope of the overall project came into focus and the connections between the plays began to take shape. But Jitney stands alone. While there is still the sweep of socioeconomic, historical and cultural issues that fill the plot, the play's structure is looser and less focused. The magical realism that repeatedly comes up in the later plays has yet to surface with Jitney feeling a bit more like Arthur Miller than Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Powerful emotional scenes tend to run on, uncertain of exactly where to stop and a crush of subplots sometimes leave the greater arc of the show wanting.

And yet the play is unmistakably Wilson’s with its ambition and its real-life integration of multiple conflicting cultural contexts. The South Coast Repertory and director Ron OJ Parson have concocted such a loving, detailed version of the play in this revival that the show succeeds despite the source material's limitations. There's beautiful language here and powerful emotion that shines through within the lives of these men. The ostensible central figure is Becker, the owner of the jitney business, played by the always excellent Charlie Robinson. Robinson has given masterful performances in many of Wilson's plays in the area theaters including superb turns as Troy in Fences at both SCR and The Odyssey Theater in recent seasons. Becker's son Booster, a convincing Montae Russell, is just out of prison for a murder charge, and all the drivers are already aware that the pending reunion is not going to go well. Those drivers have a variety of their own issues. Youngblood, played by the very watchable Larry Bates, is an eager young man with dreams and plans to achieve them that his common sense can't always quite cover. Many of the others have a variety of issues that promise to threaten not only their own functioning but the operation of the business, including the alcoholic Fielding, an eloquent David McKnight, and an armed busybody and shop gossip Turnbo, played by Ellis E. Williams in another superb addition to the cast. Sometimes the set and surroundings for these characters looks a bit too polished and tidy to feel completely real, but the ensemble manages to transcend any off message visual cues with performances that feel lived-in and emotionally authentic. Parson and SCR have produced a vision of Jitney that far from standing apart from Wilson's history plays, feels fully integrated. History and the world seem to flow from these crises and conflicts for a wonderful evening overall. Jitney continues through June 10 in Costa Mesa, and with the holidy weekend, you've got plenty of chances to see it.


10 Questions for...
Rod Gilfry

May 24, 2012

Rod Gilfry Photo: Dana Patrick
Rod Gilfry is one of those artists I sometimes feel I can measure my own opera-going history by. The baritone is tied to some of my fondest opera going memories, which makes me in no way unique in that he is for so many people, particularly here in Southern California. One of the many things I admire about him is his commitment and interest in 20th Century and newer music. He famously created the roles of Stanley Kowalski in Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire and Nathan in Nicholas Maw’s Sophie’s Choice. He was my first St. Francois - a role he received one of his two Grammy nominations for after it was released on DVD in the only commercially available video recording of the work. And his turn as Busoni’s Faust and Prospero in the American premiere of Thomas Adès The Tempest were personal touchstones as well as landmarks in a career filled with great performances. His Don Giovanni, Billy Budd, and Papageno were staples around the world and his work in musical theater has been no less influential. And while he’s taken on academic duties at The University of Southern California in recent years, his schedule is still jam packed with exciting performances. He’ll open in the title role of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd for Opera Theater St. Louis this Saturday (which I’ll be writing about later on.) His latest recording and DVD My Heart is so Full of You of American songbook standards is currently available online at CD Baby. It's just one of many notable performances he's recorded over his great career. Luckily Mr. Gilfry took some time out of his preparation as the demon barber of Fleet Street to answer the OWA 10 Questions.
  1. What role would you most like to perform, but haven’t yet?
    Jokanaan in Salome has always been my dream. I covered the role at the L.A. Opera back in 1986 when I had no business singing it, and thank God I didn't have to go on! After one rehearsal, one of my colleagues said "You know, Rod, some of it is actually sounding pretty good!" I said "Thanks! I just wish I were 20 years older..." My colleague replied "You will be." 26 years later I'm still not sure I'm right for it. But I would love to take a crack at another Strauss role: Mandryka in Arabella.
Rod Gilfry as St. Francois d'Assise in 2008

  1. What role would you never perform, even if you could?
    I never say never. I'm stupid enough to entertain any possibility.
  2. You’ve worked with nearly every major conductor and vocalist in the opera world over the length of your career. Is there someone you haven’t worked with yet you’d like to?
    Gustavo Dudamel is at the top of my current wish list.
  3. A remarkable number of your performances over the years have been preserved on both audio and video. Is there a particular recording you are glad was saved for posterity?
    I did a "semi-staged" Don Giovanni at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam with John Eliot Gardiner that was really magical, and I am really glad it was recorded and distributed as a video. It's some of my best work. You never know how something will turn out, so it was lucky that it all came together the way it did.
  1. You’ve been associated with the works of many living composers including Marc-André Dalbavie and Thomas Adès and created numerous roles for the opera stage such as Nathan in Nicholas Maw’s “Sophie’s Choice” and Stanley Kowalski in Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire.” What’s the best thing about working with a living composer?
    It's much easier to talk to a living composer. But there is a common misconception: you might assume that a role would be "tailor-made" to your voice if you can collaborate. This is not usually the case. The composers that are happy to change what they've written for you are definitely in the minority. I am grateful for the ones that are true collaborators.
  2. Which music made you want to sing opera?
    There was no one piece that got me into opera. In high school, I was deeply affected by the classical music I experienced in the small Chamber Singers group. That lead me to a Bachelor's degree in music, where I encountered opera for the first time. I did some small roles in the university's opera productions, and really enjoyed that. I had done many musicals in high school, and opera was like a musical but with more sophisticated music and foreign languages. I sort of slipped into opera without really deciding to.
  3. As a baritone you’ve gotten to play both saints, like Messiaen’s St. Francis, and sinners, like Sweeney Todd, a role you’ll be singing later this month with Opera Theater St. Louis. Is it more fun being good or bad onstage?
    I always hope to be good, regardless of the role! But seriously, both kinds of roles have their attractions and challenges. Bad is somehow much easier to portray. But I do feel better after a rehearsal of a good guy, like Billy Budd. And it's easier to be a good guy offstage if that's what you've been practicing for 6 hours a day. Once, when I was rehearsing Don Giovanni in L.A., I got irritated with our daughter Erica for her room being a mess. She went to my wife, Tina, and said "I like Daddy better when he's playing Billy Budd!"
  1. Your iPod is destroyed by a vengeful mezzo. Which lost tracks would you miss most?
    Ha ha! I have everything backed up in the Cloud! But what would I miss if the Cloud somehow evaporated? Seriously, it would be the tracks from my son's band American Royalty. He's the songwriter, lead singer and guitarist. His music is much closer to my heart than any opera.
  2. What's your current obsession?
    Spelling everything correctly for this interview. I'm not an obsessive guy, unless it has to do with food. A recent obsession was creating the perfect Thanksgiving martinis. I created Pumpkin Pie- and Apple Pie Martinis that I was pretty proud of! OK, actually, they were fantastic.
  3. What can we look forward to next from Rod Gilfry?
    The CD and DVD version of my one-man show My Heart is So Full of You was just released, and is available online at CD Baby and for purchase during the OTSL festival this year. In July, I'll be starring as "Prospero" in Thomas Adès' The Tempest at the Québec City Opera Festival in a spectacular production by Robert Lepage. And this Fall, I will start work on a Christmas album, which will be released in the Fall of 2013.


Where and When I Enter

May 23, 2012

LeRoy McClain and Pascale Armand in The Convert Photo: T. Charles Erickson/CTG 2012
Ben Vanaman was out and about this weekend catching up on some notable local theater productions wrapping up their runs and sent in this report.

A pair of provocative new plays that just completed their L.A. engagements –Danai Gurira's The Convert at the Kirk Douglas Theater, and Cornerstone Theater Company's production of Lisa Loomer's Café Vida at LATC- explore the essential and eternal human question, “who am I?” Though the two plays take place over a century apart, their narratives and themes are eerily reflective of one another. Each play features a woman of color as protagonist. Both women emerge from fraught social contexts and are forced to determine their place in the world while confronting and/or combating multiple forces acting against them. The actresses portraying these characters undergo an emotional workout that is as harrowing as it is cathartic.

The Convert –a co-production with the McCarter Theater Center and the Goodman Theater- takes place in the late-1890s at the time of tribal revolts against Cecil Rhodes’ British South Africa Company. At issue are land grabs and steep tariffs imposed on the Africans working British-controlled mines. Such matters, however, weigh little on the mind of young Jekesai (a thoroughly committed Pascale Armand), who seeks shelter from an arranged marriage in the home of an assimilationist African Christian minister named Chilford (LeRoy McClain) who dreams of entering the priesthood. Chilford agrees to harbor Jekesai on the condition that she submit to a Christian conversion under his tutelage in scenes, of occasional levity, that have a faint “Pygmalion” air about them.

Chilford gives Jekesai the Christian name Esther, and so thoroughly does she submit to his indoctrination, so unquestioning is her seeming devotion to Christ, that she quickly forgets that she was once an orphan from a polygamist tribe. In her attempts to convert others –Chilford’s “savages”- Esther/Jekesai is branded a traitor (“bafu”) by her uncle (Harold Surratt) and cousin Tamba (Warner Joseph Miller), an epithet set to rights when she must choose between “blood” and her newfound salvation as the past she shut the door on becomes present once more in a brutal turn of foreshadowed events: the tribal insurrection against British authoritarian rule, having hovered in the background of the action, takes center stage in the tragic but poignant conclusion. Jekesai/Esther commits a vicious attack of retaliatory honor that precipitates her seeking Christ’s salvation. Yet, clad in tribal costume again, no longer wearing the corseted dresses that Chilford made her wear as Esther, Jekesai paradoxically refutes Western culture in favor of her own heritage, delivering a riposte to Chilford’s ambivalently-Anglicized friend Prudence (Zainab Jah), who had earlier accused Esther/Jekesai of lacking a clearly-defined identity. In fact, Jekesai and Esther have become whole.

LeRoy McClain and Pascale Armand in The Convert Photo: T. Charles Erickson/CTG 2012
If The Convert ends with its heroine committing a crime, Café Vida begins with the fallout created by its protagonist’s criminal past. The production, a joint venture between L.A.’s community-based Cornerstone Theater and The Latino Theater Company in partnership with Homeboy Industries and Homegirl Café, is part of Cornerstone’s “Hunger Cycle,” which they bill as “nine world premiere plays about hunger, justice and food equity issues.” Though one might expect such a mission to produce polemical writing, playwright Lisa Loomer circumvents heavy-handedness in favor of a loose, free-wheeling style in her telling of the story of an ex-con, drug addict gang member named Chebela, a character based on the life of Lynette Alfaro, the non-professional actor portraying her. In fact, Loomer’s play is predicated on a series of interviews she conducted with various young men and women who form the basis of her characters.

Chebela has many strikes against her, but like Jekesai, her life is transformed via the intervention of a man of God, here a character named Father Tim (Peter Howard) who is based on Father Gregory Boyle, the L.A. priest who created Homeboy Industries as a means of giving ex-gang members the chance to go straight by working their way up from janitors in his café to waiters and chefs. The theme of food, both as sustaining agent and locus of excess, is embodied in Chebela, who introduces herself in a monologue where she plainly cops to being overweight. But this is the tip of the iceberg vis-à-vis her poor self-esteem. Painful memories of incest and the shattering reality of ongoing domestic abuse compete for Chebela’s mental and emotional attention as she seeks to start over and hopefully regain custody of a daughter given up for adoption.

During the course of the play, Chebela parries and bonds with two other Father Tim acolytes, precocious Rafi (Felipe Nieto) and fibrous Luz (Sue Montoya), whose fealty to a rival gang lands both her and Chebela in trouble before matters are sorted and Luz touchingly offers Chebela shelter against the brutal ministrations of her husband. Chebela is additionally abetted by her unbowed spirit and utterly disarming self-deprecations, and Lynette Alfaro delivers one of the most heart-wrenching performances I’ve seen on stage in recent memory. She is in fact so unflinchingly honest in her delivery that I sometimes forgot that I was watching a performer with little professional training. Virtually the same might be said of her fellows.

Both plays investigate the loaded topic of race and, to some degree, the disenfranchisement of women, but at the service of questions of identity -how it is shaped by one’s origins and ties to family and community- that are universally relatable. Can one escape one’s past, or transcend the expectations imposed by it? How are we to be fed: literally, emotionally, spiritually? The social inequity of 19th Century Rhodesia evokes parallel to life in the barrios and ‘hoods of contemporary Los Angeles. Chilford, self-exiled from his “witch doctor” father, and Father Tim, self-styled practitioner of “liberation theology,” are ultimately reconciled in service to man, yet their supplicants, Jekesai and Chabela, draw on tremendous inner strength in determining the outcome of their quest for self-actualization and enlightenment, even if in Jekesai’s case, the weight of the past can never be entirely lifted. Both plays merit attention, but though Café Vida feels more overtly like a message play, The Convert is given a more melodramatic treatment, at the occasional detriment to dramatic effect. Its most powerful moment is the quiet final encounter between Chilford and Jekesai, who stands before the crucible of her own heart, a plea for mercy that is granted to Café Vida’s Chabela in the form of grace.

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I Read the News Today On Line

May 22, 2012

It's been an interesting day. Now I know you've probably had your fill of the Peter Gelb/Metropolitan Opera/Opera News story as have I. But I realized something about this story that I still thought was worth mentioning here because I think everything that has transpired in public says something about the state of arts journalism. I don't know if you noticed or not, but this entire story arc from Dan Wakin's original repost in the New York Times that Peter Gelb had convinced the Met Opera Guild's Opera News to stop reviewing its productions to the Met's eventual recapitulation of the confirmed policy took place in less than 24 hours. And it took place entirely online.

Pay attention to that last part. Wakin's original report, which appeared in Tuesday's print edition of the NYT, showed up on line in the late evening on Monday. The story was carried via Twitter instantly everywhere and within hours there was already a cacophony of responses of concern about the change from authors including myself. These voices were enumerated on sites including Lisa Hirsh’s Iron Tongue of Midnight and Parterre Box. By the next morning, the story was everywhere on Twitter and it inspired parody accounts from @FakePeterGelb and @FakeOperaNews lampooning the decisions. Arts journalists used to seeing their work in old-fashioned ink and paper didn’t wait around till the next edition to comment with the likes of Alex Ross and Anne Midgette jumping into the fray. Both writers, and many others, posted reactions on their own online spaces whether sponsored by their primary big-box media employers or not. None of it in physical print and all of it at the speed of the Internet. Not long after lunch time on Tuesday, the Metropolitan Opera announced that Gelb and the powers that be had changed their minds due to the public outcry via Facebook, Twitter, and blogosphere. After a good old fashioned press release emailed and posted on the Met Opera website, Wakin posted an update to his original story on line. Now while there may have been some old school phone calls and dirty looks mixed in here along the lines of real world experience, this “outcry” didn’t involve killing trees, and took place entirely in the electronic world of posted comments, Internet blogs, and social media.

I doubt this is the first time that an entire news event or story unfolded and resolved almost entirely within the context of the virtual world. However, it’s not an everyday occurrence when it comes to the arts. What strikes me most about how this happened, though, is that as I sit here and write these words, I can still think of numerous arts journalists who view the world of social media and on line existence disparagingly and somehow removed from what they do. These folks imagine their world as solitary writing after reasonable calm reflection in the spaces between their tete-a-tete’s with artists and administrators cultivating their sense of an insiders world of the arts and delivering their missives from on high. This is no longer an sustainable way to do business. Now I’m not trying to argue against arts journalism as it has been practiced well into the past. On the contrary, if it wasn’t for tried and true basic practices, Wakin’s report wouldn’t have existed to begin with. But this story was born, lived, and resolved itself online and in social media, and if you weren’t there in some fashion, you were just waiting for someone else to fill you in after the fact.

Writing about the arts today means knowing what’s happening on line and ignoring it means you aren’t getting the whole story. It’s not everything one needs to do, but staying on top of this activity is no longer optional for people who are relevant in the world of arts journalism. Media organizations (Are you listening Los Angeles Times?) should know that by now, and they neglect it at their own peril.


Giving The People What They Want

Ailyn Perez and Stephen Costello Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2012.
Sometimes its hard for those of us who love opera to the point of obsession to remember that its an art form like any other. And one of the things opera shares with other art forms is that it is an expansive and diverse practice that encompasses more things than it may be possible for one person to love, admire, or find challenging. You and I both may love films and know a great deal about them. But that doesn’t mean we love the same films, and we may not go to the movies for the same reason or even to see the same things. People who love opera tend to think of the art form as a much smaller world with shared interests in the same rarities and love of many similar works as other opera lovers. They love to read about new productions of Verdi and Wagner operas and talk about specific challenging roles. They assume that all opera lovers share their interests despite disagreements about this singer or that production. But when it comes right down to it they, and that’s a they I would include myself in, are often wrong. Opera is as big an art form as any other and peoples’ interests in it are varied and they come to it with wildly different expectations and desires as they would painting or sculpture or anything else.

This is where the quandary of Puccini’s La Bohème comes into the picture. People who see a lot of opera, and people who write about opera, often dread it. They dread it even if they like it, because it is so familiar and omnipresent in the opera world. No matter how good the cast is, or how good the direction is, its familiarity often makes it a challenge to see the show and finding anything exciting or new about it. Negative La Bohème reviews by opera critics are easy to come by, especially for productions that have seen multiple revivals over the years. And yet, the show is a favorite for opera company’s because first and foremost it sells tickets. People want to see this opera and it fulfills many of the desires that certain opera goers have about what they want from the art form. It doesn’t matter what critics write, the tickets sell anyway just like a summer action movie that does incredible business despite a consensus of negative critical reaction. La Bohème, regardless of a production’s overall quality, represents what a lot of people want from opera.

In Los Angeles Opera’s current run of Puccini’s classic, these audiences are getting what they want. The second performance on Saturday was sold out, as are many of the shows in the run. The audience members around me that afternoon couldn’t have been more thrilled by the show. People wept openly as Mimi died at the end. Granted my reaction to the show was not anywhere near so strong, but I can’t deny that the show makes people happy, even through their tears, and that my feelings about it don’t matter a hill of beans to them. LAO’s production is in its sixth revival of a 1993 show directed by film legend Herbert Ross who was responsible for such movies as The Turning Point, California Suite, and The Goodbye Girl. He died many years ago, the current director to bring his staging to life is Gregory A. Fortner. The show looks surprisingly well kept for its operatic age, the cinematic scope of Ross' original can still pack a punch at times.

The typical way one goes about sprucing up an older production is to hire a fresh young cast. LAO has done that many times before with Ross’ show over the years and does so this time as well. The Rodolfo and Mimi are real-life husband and wife and Richard Tucker Award winners Stephen Costello and Ailyn Perez. They look the part of young lovers and give strong worthwhile performances. Costello’s career continues to expand with progressively bigger assignments and his athletic tone is attractive and certain. Perez has had her share of attention as well and though I was less taken with her on Saturday, she was well matched with her husband and has definite stage presence.

But vocally I was most impressed with LAO Domingo-Thornton Young Artist and recent Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions winner Janai Brugger who is singing Musetta in the first three performances of the run. The energy skyrocketed when she walked on stage and she gave one of those performances where you think, yes, I remember there are in fact all of those notes in this part. Her technique was beautiful and her sense of comic timing superb. She promises to be a thrilling artist to watch and I hope LAO can find more for her to sing in their regular productions very soon. Artur Rucinski sang Marcello with strength and personality as well. In the pit, Houston Grand Opera music director Patrick Summers was making his company debut. He led an energetic performance overall, though he did indulge some of the vocalists a bit more than was necessary dragging out some passages to the verge of tedium.

But these details probably only matter so much to many in the audience who came to relive a tragic love story set in the most romanticized version of Paris. And for those who wanted to fall in love or have their hearts broken, even if vicariously through the players on stage, it was a successful evening. And if you share their interests, I imagine you will to. La Bohème runs downtown for four more performances through June 2.


No News is No News

May 21, 2012

UPDATE: Or then again, maybe we will.

BEFORE: Or at least that would seem to be the wish of Peter Gelb’s Metropolitan Opera. Though ironically, his actions seem to keep the headlines, and online outrage, coming. The latest kerfuffle: according to a report by the New York Times Dan Wakin, Gelb requested, and got, the editors of Opera News to agree not to publish any further reviews about productions at the Met after feeling the sting of some not so positive remarks in the magazine about the company's much maligned new production of Wagner's Ring Cycle this spring. And thus the drum beat of why on-line arts criticism, warts and all, matters continues unabated. But there is another issue here that bears some attention. Wakin quotes Opera News Editor-in-chief F. Paul Driscoll as clarifying that only productions of the Metropolitan Opera will be excluded from the pages of the magazine while other companies can continue to expect the kind of critical coverage they produce.

Now let me say that I’m not necessarily concerned so much here about this loss of coverage as some sort of censorship. To be honest, the place of Opera News in the world of opera generally has always been tepid and highly problematic with conflicts of interest. The most faithful of readers may recall that I wrote about this topic (albeit somewhat tangentially) in one of the very first posts here at Out West Arts. Opera News has long been first and foremost an advertising supplement for the Met Opera. It is, in fact, published by the Metropolitan Opera Guild: a support organization for the company. That Gelb would see a conflict in a support group of the organization being critical of the Met's productions makes sense to me and broaching that subject with them would make sense.

But distinguishing Opera News as an advertising supplement from an in-house support organization, as opposed to an outlet of independent journalism has other implications that don’t seem to have been fully explored, at least based on what Mr. Wakin reports in the Times. Specifically, if Opera News can write critically of other opera companies’ works, but can only speak in glowing, non-critical terms of its sponsoring institution, what value does its criticism have to begin with? Under the scenario laid out in Wakin's article by the editors, Opera News is now more or less about the Met passing judgement on the world of opera while its own house is beyond question and examination. This is neither fair nor necessarily wise. Is the rest of the opera world so desperate for coverage that they need the Met’s advertising supplement to come around and bless or disapprove of them? Given the Met's recent track record, one wonders how the company, and its advertising supplement is in a position to tell anyone what kind of job they are doing. If I were in charge of a regional or major opera company, I’d think long and hard before inviting anyone to review my work on behalf of Opera News again. By eschewing work at the Met but continuing to publish reviews of other houses, the magazine and the Metropolitan Opera generally have cast a pall over their credibility if not their ethics. Or in the words of Mama Morton, whatever happened to class?


California Dreaming

May 20, 2012

Members of the Los Angeles Children's Chorus and the Jacaranda Festival Orchestra Photo: mine 2012.
Santa Monica’s Jacaranda Music series wrapped up its season Sunday night in a big way. That’s not unusual for this rapidly expanding predominantly 20th-century music series that brings rarely programmed works to the far west side of town. The big part on Sunday was about scope of performance. Jacaranda has mostly been about chamber works during the course of its existence, but this time around, the group recruited a 39-member Jacaranda Festival Orchestra who played alongside the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus atop a riser covering the altar right up to edge of the first row of pews at Santa Monica’s First Presbyterian Church, the group’s usual home. Artistic Director Patrick Scott acknowledged that this was specifically a test to see if Jacaranda could pull off much larger scale works than they had previously, and the evening’s results indicate that the group is headed into exciting new programming territory.

The evening’s theme was California mavericks and consisted of two rarely performed large-scale works from Lou Harrison and Terry Riley. Harrison’s Suite for Violin and Strings was presented first in a maximal version that included all the different movements associated with the work at different points in its development. Harrison originally composed the work for violin and the American Gamelan, an instrument he helped create to further explore his interest in Asian musical traditions. However, the complications of maintaining the instrument limited the work’s frequency of performance and eventually, Harrison and his student Richard Dee helped craft a version orchestrated for a more conventional chamber orchestra. The resulting work, which includes parts for harp and celesta, attempts to capture some of the same ethnic overtones as the original. But it doesn’t quite achieve it at all times, giving the feel of a big budget movie soundtrack here and there. Soloist Alyssa Park gave a fluid and sometimes meditative performance that proved popular.

But the show’s concluding performance of Riley’s Olsen III was a hypnotizing wonder. Riley composed the work for young musicians of the Royal Academy of Music in Sweden in 1967. The notorious premiere was recorded for radio and includes the catcalls, shouting, and angry exits that greeted the work then. It’s still the primary reference recording of the piece, and to rectify that lack, Jacaranda recorded Sunday’s performance. Olsen III shares many similarities with Riley’s In C in its open ended approach to the size and composition of the performing ensemble and the overall length of the performance. Sections of repeating structures change slowly based on a conductor’s signal and after the initial performance of all the composite parts, the group returns to them in canonical format with different, performer-determined entrances and alignments. In addition to the orchestra members, the Los Angeles Children’s Choir provided the vocal accompaniment for the piece. The music starts big and stays there, oscillating between different combinations of sound for something that grows with warmth and energy over a period of about 40 minutes in this instance. This music is not as straight forward as it sounds and music director Mark Alan Hilt alongside Anne Tomlinson and her choristers gave a wonderful first-rate and very well coordinated performance. It was simply thrilling to hear. One of the things that always strikes me about Riley’s work is how accessible it seems. The most fascinating versions of his works I’ve heard are often by either young ensembles or ad hoc groups suggesting that a sense of community takes precedence over the kind of individualist virtuosity that’s the hallmark of so much Western art music. The big wonderful wall of sound swelled the church and filled my mind with the promise of the many larger works this successful evening promises for the future of Jacaranda. Of course, we’ll learn more about that when the group introduces their plans for next season later in the coming week.


In Space, No One Can Hear You Sing

May 19, 2012

Mariusz Kwiecien as Don Giovanni with the L.A. Phil. Photo: Autumn de Wilde/LA Phil 2012.
The opera education of Gustavo Dudamel entered its latest phase on Los Angeles concert stages this weekend. When the Venezuelan PR sensation took over the musical reins at the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009, it was popular to note how much of the standard orchestral repertoire the young conductor was already intimately familiar with (often to the point of outright memorization) from his time with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. The exception to that rule of course was opera, and since his tenure here began, Dudamel has jumped on most of the available opportunities both at the Hollywood Bowl and the Walt Disney Concert Hall to lead concert performances of the most basic staples of an opera season. We’ve seen him lead Carmen and Turandot, and this year at the Bowl he’ll give a whirl at Verdi’s Rigoletto for the first time as well. So when the L.A. Phil announced a little over a year ago that the orchestra would embark on a three year “project” of semi-staged performances of the three Mozart/da Ponte operas, the point largely went without saying. The orchestra management then spent much of the next year breathlessly repeating the starry names it had lined up to help with this endeavor like Maiusz Kwiecien, Frank Gehry, and fashion’s sisters Mulleavy of Rodarte.

Aga Mikolaj as Donna Elvira. Photo: Autumn de Wilde/LA Phil 2012.
Well all the talk finally translated into some fairly surprising if not necessarily revelatory action on Thursday when the assembled forces opened the first production in the series, Don Giovanni. The biggest and best news is that the orchestra under Dudamel sounded great. Mozart is a composer that has provided substantial hurdles to our maestro. Some of the most tedious and grotesque music to come out of his tenure here so far has involved mangling the music of Austria’s favorite son. But the possible musical outcomes of Don Giovanni raised intriguing questions in that Dudamel has repeatedly shown himself to be a first-rate opera conductor. His relative lack of familiarity with many of the scores combined with his typical deference to collaborating musicians tends to tamper down the interpretive excesses prone to derailing his orchestral performances. I’m happy to report his first Don Giovanni was lively and mostly well paced. It was big band, mid-20th century Mozart, certainly not the kind of thing Rene Jacobs would be caught doing on any given day. But given the reality of the musical resources involved it was a brisk, well-detailed and outright inspiring performance from Dudamel and the orchestra. Hearing them play should erase any doubts anyone might have about the sense of doing such a cycle of operas over the next few seasons.

Carmela Remigio as Donna Anna in Act II. Photo: Autumn de Wilde/LA Phil 2012.
Unfortunately, the staging elements of the show will likely have the opposite effect. Calling the show semi-staged really isn’t accurate. All-but-completely staged might be more in order. American director Christopher Alden was hired to coordinate activities with set (and concert hall) designer Frank Gehry, lighting designer Adam Silverman, and costumes from Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte. Given the names, the show looked like what you might guess it would, but there was admittedly quite a bit more of it than you might expect. The full expanse of the WDCH stage was flattened out with the orchestra view bench seats removed for the evening. The orchestra and Dudamel filled the bench space, with the cast and set occupying the orchestra’s typical dominion up front. The orchestra was surrounded by a black wall of asymmetric crags of crumpled paper. But everything upfront was starkly white. In fact, outside of four costumes everything in the performance area was a shade of white and lit in a way to emphasize the starkness of it all. The set consisted of four or five white risers of various heights that could be wheeled around and mountains worth of giant sized wads of crumpled up white paper big enough to hide under. Walls of the stuff created paths for characters to enter and exit or just hide inside. One’s first reaction was that the production team had created the first Don Giovanni set in an office wastepaper basket. But when the principals arrived in their form fitting white jeans, boots, and white glossy plastic encrusted outfits one realized this wasn’t so much set in a wastepaper basket as it was Takovsky’s Solaris. With the men all garbed in modern updates of the original Starfleet uniforms and Alden’s direction, which called for blank, disengaged stares into nothingness and choreographed posturing like some down-market Robert Wilson, the show had a distinctly outer space feel. Stark lighting would suddenly fill the stage as if Tarkovsky’s slowly rotating spaceship had come into view again of some distant sun. Performers, including four or five set movers, slowly wandered on and off with little regard to when those entrances and exits might normally be expected in the libretto. Characters more often sang about one another than actually to one another. For instance, most of Zerlina’s original seduction by Don Goiovanni is carried out with her staring directly into Masetto’s eyes. Don Ottavio spends most of Act II supine at the front of the stage for reasons that are never made clear.

There were moments of levity, but these were few and felt like they had crept in from the libretto against the director’s will. The costumes for the women were decidedly post-apocalyptic and definitely straight off the runway providing the only moments of color, albeit in the most predictable and cliché ways. Donna Elvira is in heavily sequined black as if to emphasize her age and position while Zerlina gets a subtly lavender number with ornate headdress. Donna Anna originally all in white with a blond wig, returns in a shredded gray dress with bright red accents in case you missed the attempted assault in Act I. And if all of this isn’t obvious enough for you, Alden keeps most of the women up above it all on the risers as if on pedestals throughout much of the evening. Performers are splayed across these white steps like a 90s Calvin Klein ad, which pretty much captures the emotional depth of the interpretation. It’s not that any of these elements in and of themselves are unattractive. In fact the whole thing does come off as rather an unusual surprise. The bigger problem is that it doesn’t have much to offer in terms of interpretive insight overall. In fact the disparate elements of the design often seem blissfully unaware of one another as if each artist came to the table with their own ideas and said “there it is, take it or leave it.” One can draw unmistakable connections between each design element and its creator, but the show never feels that it has a single vision or purpose of being.

The ball scene that closes Act I in Don Giovanni. Photo: Autumn de Wilde/LA Phil 2012.
The vocal cast for the show consisted of names largely unfamiliar to an opera-going public with one very big exception – the Don Giovanni of Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien. He’s undoubtedly one of the best in the world in this part and he did not disappoint with one delicate, warmly sung scene after the next. Not an ounce of bluster or crooniness, this was a Don to remember. The other well-known face in the cast was tenor Pavol Breslik as Don Ottavio. His U.S. engagements are not as frequent as Kwiecien’s and his tone tends to the dry side, but he delivered two lovely arias here and excels as a young if frustrated lover. Of the women in the cast, most impressive was Aga Mikolaj as Donna Elvira who gave a rounded yet agile voice to the spurned lover. Carmela Ramigio sang a Donna Anna that didn’t quite completely navigate around some unwanted softness in parts of her range. Anna Rohaska sang Zerlina with pluck and good consistency and the athletic if restrained Leporello here was Kevin Burdette. He gets probably the worse deal in the show with a part that calls for broad comedy and playfulness in a production that works hard to stop him from expending precious air and water on such commodities at the space station.

In a way it’s exciting to see the L.A. Phil go for opera in such a big way. The evening doesn’t skimp on ambition. It’s a long night at three and a half hours and the 8 pm curtain will get you out pretty close to midnight with only one intermission resulting in a fairly high abandonment rate at the intermission. And while it’s not your same old stale everyday Don Giovanni, the start of Dudamel’s Mozart opera experiment could stand for something a little deeper that actually feels a bit more like Solaris instead of just looking like it.


Finishing the Hat

May 18, 2012

Oguri, Morleigh Steinberg, Dani Lunn, Roxanne Steinberg. Photo: Steven Gunther 2012.
Cold Dream Color, a dance piece from Morleigh Steinberg and her international collaborators Arcane Collective, is one of those bold works that attempts to translate a physical object d’art into a performance piece. It’s not an unusual strategy, but one that can produce a myriad of results. Paintings have long been a popular choice for the stage and film. Figurative works often invite the introduction of narrative, producing results ranging from The Girl With the Pearl Earring to Sunday in the Park with George. It doesn’t have to be that way though. There are approaches that are more purely visual in their tenor going as far as the kind of tableau vivant found at the Pageant of the Masters each summer in Laguna Beach. Cold Dream Color, which opened at CalArts REDCAT theater downtown on Wednesday, is somewhere in between. It’s a dance piece performed by Steinberg and six other members of Arcane Collective based on the paintings of 20th-century Irish artist Louis Le Brocquy who died less than one month ago. The work features choreography by Steinberg along with Liz Roche and Los Angeles-based dancer Oguri and an original soundtrack composed by Paul Chavez and U2’s The Edge. The goal is to evoke the images and feeling of Le Brocquy's painting while incorporating physical movement and the passage of time, though not necessarily narrative.

Morleigh and her dancers do construct some amazing images. And even more remarkable is how strongly they evoke so many specific visual images from Le Brocquy’s often abstract paintings across his seven-decade career. Not unlike the paintings of his friend Francis Bacon, Le Brocquy’s image world is filled with deconstructed bodies in muted non-flesh colors. Dance might not seem to be the easiest format to recreate this visual sense but Morleigh does so, both by relying on sets and lighting that add little color to the made-up ashen faces of the dancers, but also by relying on a movement vocabulary that is constrained, slow, and sometimes epileptic in its gracefulness. Things rarely boil over into speedy fleet footedness, and dancers collapse, roll, and writhe as if falling from the sky or hobbled. The works five sections can produce some unnerving recreations at times like a open mouth, the only clearly visible body feature on a dancer behind a sheer curtain. At one point a dancer waves a huge black flag over both dancers and the audience, passing just a foot or two away from various heads at times. Dancers wander into frame from behind more of these same hazily lit curtains all to a soundtrack with ethereal electric guitar noise that at times succeeds in creating a hypnotic state for the audience.

It’s all very attractive and a fitting recreation of the artist’s image world if the evening, which was sold out on Wednesday, did evoke a sometimes overly serious air. Humorous moments are very few and abstraction is the rule rather than the exception. And in this abstraction Cold Dream Color is more akin than not to tableau vivant despite the dancers' movements and the passing of time in the 90-minute program. The show repeats through Sunday downtown and considering how popular its been so far, you may want to get your tickets in advance.


I Just Can't Hide It

May 17, 2012

The players of wildUp
There are three things I’m super excited about today. You should be too. In no particular order:

1) Los Angeles’ most exciting young chamber orchestra, wildUp, has just announced they will serve as the first orchestra-in-residence at the Hammer Museum in Brentwood. The orchestra will be involved in a myriad of musical art projects over a six month period that will kick off with the first of three full scale concerts, WEST on July 21st. Although details of the rest of the projects are forthcoming, I’m told there will be dozens of appearances between July and December from various members of the collective all over the museum in conjunction with numerous other projects and installations. If you want to know how orchestras are changing and what the future of classical music may look like, plan on spending time in Brentwood later this year.

2) There are still a few days left to stream the best orchestral concert of 2011 on line. Last Sunday, KUSC broadcast one of last year’s visits from Esa-Pekka Salonen to the Los Angeles Philharmonic stage in December. The program included the world premiere of the prologue to Shostakovich’s uncompleted opera Orango alongside the composer’s Symphony No. 4. The orchestra was amazing in this searing, profound and worldly-wise performance that outpaced anything they done all season. And you can still relive it now online until Sunday. Don’t miss it.

3) And speaking of listening to broadcasts, KUSC will also be kind enough to deliver a double dose of Los Angeles Opera this weekend when they’ll revisit the company’s opening production of the 2011/2012 season on Saturday at 10AM (PST natch’) with Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin from last September. This is followed on Sunday by a live broadcast of the company’s current and final production of the same season Puccini’s La Bohème with a young all-star cast including Ailyn Perez, Stephen Costello, and Janai Brugger. Sunday's sold out performance can be heard on line and on the old-fashioned radio starting at 2pm.

All this and I’m going to see Sondheim’s Follies again tomorrow night at the Ahmanson. There, I've said it.


10 Questions with...
Leif Ove Andsnes: Ojai 2012 Edition

May 16, 2012

Leif Ove Andsnes Photo: Felix Broede
Just around the corner is the 2012 installment of the Ojai Music Festival that kicks off north of Los Angeles on June 7. This year’s festival is particularly exciting given that the rotating Music Director post falls to one of the classical music world’s great artists, Leif Ove Andsnes. He’s been a familiar face with the Los Angeles Philharmonic for years, but this visit to Ojai is different in that he’s helped assemble a program of works and collaborating artists that reflect his unique vision and highlight his own interests in 20th Century and more contemporary music. And while he’s no stranger to the ins and outs of festival programming, California and the outdoor stage of Ojai’s Libby Bowl are a unique setting with their own particular challenges. Andsnes has packed the four-day festival with numerous highlights from artist including Reinbert de Leeuw, the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, clarinetist Martin Fröst, mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn, and most intriguingly fellow pianist Marc-André Hamelin.

Hamelin will perform alongside Andsnes in a two piano version of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps on Sunday the 10th as well as John Luther Adams’ Dark Waves. Adams' music will be given prime real estate all weekend including two pieces on the festival’s opening night, Red Arc/Blue Veil and perhaps the highlight of the whole weekend, a free, festival-opening performance of Inuksuit - a huge “spatial” work to be performed by 46 different percussionists and piccolo spread out throughout Libby Park all under the direction of Steven Schick. The piece was a sensation when it was heard at New York’s Park Avenue Armory last year, and Ojai’s outdoor answer to that performance couldn’t be more Californian. (The work was deigned to be played outdoors and can be performed by a group of up to 100.)

Music from Norwegian composers Anders Hillborg and Bent Sørensen will feature in Saturday’s program including the U.S. Premiere of Sørensen’s Piano Concerto No.2 featuring Andsnes as soloist. There’s quite a bit of vocal music in the weekend as well with Stotijn scheduled to sing Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, as well as pieces from Berg, Bolcom, and Shostakovich. Even songs from Schumann and Schubert find there way into Friday’s performance in a reworked version for singing actress Barbara Sukowa arranged by Reinbert de Leeuw titled Im wunderschönen Monat Mai. The composers that clarinetist Martin Fröst will represent are equally as interesting, including works from Berg, Kurtág, Bartók, Copland and Mozart. Of course, Andsnes will be intimately involved in most of these collaborations, although still leaving time for a brief visit with Beethoven’s piano sonatas on Saturday afternoon. It promises to be another great year for music in Ojai, and luckily prior to all of this exciting music, Mr. Andsnes was kind enough to reflect on the OWA 10 Questions prior to a great start to his and our summer.
  1. What music would you most like to perform, but haven’t had the opportunity to yet?
    More Beethoven sonatas, Chopin works, and French music.
  2. What music, if any, would you never want to perform even if you had the opportunity to?
    Lots and lots of music, but I won’t mention names of living composers, as I don’t want to offend hard working composers. Of the older ones, at the moment it doesn't feel like I will ever play any music by Messiaen and Scriabin. Not because I don’t like the music, but because their characters are very foreign to me, and I can only admire their music from a distance.
Members of the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra will join the 2012 Ojai Music Festival
  1. Has your experience as co-artistic director for the Risør Chamber Music Festival influenced your plans for the Ojai Music Festival which you’ll serve as music director for this year?
    Absolutely. I feel that I have lots of experience in programming a festival, after doing it for 17 years in Risør.
  2. You’ve recorded a huge variety of music with much fanfare at this point in your career. Is there a performance saved for posterity you’re particularly proud of?
    This is difficult, because musicians are always terrible in judging their own recordings. But in my own very subjective feeling, I am quite proud of the Rachmaninov Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 3., and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.
  1. You’ve been particularly well known for extended collaborations with other artists including Ian Bostridge, Christian Tetzlaff, and more recently Matthias Goerne whom you’ll tour with this spring. How important are these extended, multi-faceted collaborations to your development as a solo artist?
    For me chamber music has always been important, and an integrated part of my activities, ever since I started studying at the Bergen Conservatory of Music when I was 16, and began playing both with a violist and a mezzo soprano. What could be more normal and fun than two or three people getting together, playing together, discovering a piece together? Then I have, of course, also learned a lot from different great personalities that I have been working with during the years.
  2. What is your current obsession?
  3. One of your collaborators, who’ll be appearing in several programs in this year’s Ojai Festival, is pianist Marc-André Hamelin. Since the public tends to think of pianists as lone wolves compared to other instrumentalists, what’s unique about working so closely over time with another pianist?
    Well, working with another pianist can actually be very frustrating, because a pianist’s touch, colouring and rhytmic precision is a very personal thing, and one easily gets annoyed at a colleague who has a different feeling of timing, for instance. With this as a background, I have to say that working with Marc-André Hamelin on Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps has been miraculous. His incredibly precise touch and his exact feeling of colour and tempo is unique, and I have found the concerts we have made with this iconic piece very inspiring.
  1. You’re a regular visitor to California. What do you love most about the Golden State?
    I was in Ojai in beginning February, and having come from a wet and snowy Norwegian coastal climate, picking tangerines from the trees in Ojai was a very welcome change, I have to say. The diversity of plants in the district around Ojai, I find very fascinating—I have never seen so many different trees. I love the wine and the food, healthy and tasty at the same time (not always the case in Europe!). And I love a certain openness to the unexplored, the new, the avant-garde, which the contemporary music scene and tradition in Los Angeles is an example of.
  2. One of the unique aspects of the Ojai festival is that all of the concerts take place outdoors. Are there particular challenges for you as a performer playing outside?
    Sure. The biggest challenge is that it will feel like the sound on stage is extremely dry, and doesn’t carry. I understand, though, that there is a very good amplifying system, so we musicians will just have to trust that the audience hears something much richer in sound than what we do on stage. Then there are the flies... I am interested to see how many of those will "like" our program in Ojai, so much that they will visit us on stage. And likewise the birds, though I am curious to see if they also can contribute fruitfully to the concerts, to make the programs even more weird and wonderful.
  3. What’s next for Leif Ove Andsnes?
    After Ojai, I am playing at the Risør Chamber Music Festival in Norway, where I was one of the artistic directors until two years ago. Then I'm recording Mozart's "Kegelstadt-trio" with Martin Fröst and Antoine Tamestit, and then I will have a good holiday, which I am longing for, especially since I didn’t get a summer holiday last year. It will start with two weeks in the north of Norway, on the miraculous island of Kjerringøy, where my parents-in-law have a summer house. Last time I was there, we saw whales, eagles, reindeer, and felt like one with the silence and nature. I couldn't be more happy.


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