Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Past the Mission

June 30, 2012

Sappho Island, 2011. Photo: Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine
Yes, I'm still in Paris. No, I haven't forgot about Los Angeles. And just to show how much I care, I sent gadfly and maestro of the bon mots, Ben Vanaman, over the REDCAT this week to take a look at one of their most anticipated shows of the summer from Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine. Don't say I never did you any favors.

In 2009, L.A.-based actor/activist Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine (Biro) travelled to his native Uganda to interview a variety of remarkable men and women in that nation’s LGBT community. At the time, Uganda became a world flash point of anti-gay politics following the passage of its notorious Anti-Homosexuality Bill that same year penalizing homosexuality by imprisonment and “aggressive homosexuality” by death. From these interviews, Mwine has assembled a captivating one-person show titled A Missionary Position that is playing this weekend at the REDCAT in downtown Los Angeles. During the course of the performance, Mwine portrays a soldier of the government, a sex worker, a priest, and a lesbian pressed into activism. Although the performance skirts agit-prop, this inclination is balanced if not undone by the actor’s total immersion in each character as he slips seamlessly from one role to the next.

A Missionary Position twines Mwine’s impersonations with actual footage from Uganda adroitly orchestrated by video designer Carole Kim. It begins with a narrator asking, “This is Uganda?,” and concludes with an on-screen assertion that one could never leave Uganda because it’s home. This conundrum, of leaving/staying, flight/resistance, is resolved in words from the priest stressing the African idea of “Ubuntu,” meaning “I am, because we are,” a riposte to the self-serving individualism of Western democracies. The idea, made both implicit and explicit during the evening, is that Uganda is worth fighting for, a fight that makes the accounts of those on the front lines blisteringly affecting.

The performance begins cheekily with Mwine dressed in military garb as a Ugandan soldier named BigamAnus whose “unwitting” sexual double entrendes deconstruct the language of bigotry with caustic effect. Patrolling the stage in swaggering opposition to an audience of spectators he rightly assumes are unsympathetic to his country’s heinous mission, the soldier soon begins to undress, during a breathtaking transition, into Serena, a transgender woman sex worker whose tale of victimization and survival –many of her fellows meet untimely ends- is harrowing. There was a particular moment, where Serena describes the melee that ensues when she’s caught servicing a “john” in a public rest-room, that perfectly encapsulates the duality of bleakest farce and sheer horror that characterizes the razor’s edge insanity of this nation’s anti-gay program.

Disappearing through a curtain behind the main stage, Mwine soon returns as a man who, kept in a zero-sum relationship with a German named Klaus in Rome, returns to Uganda via Tanzania, is reunited with an old boyfriend who’s joined the brotherhood, then himself becomes a priest, refusing to contradict his parishioners who refuse to believe the rumors about him being gay. Emotionally riven by his own closeted-ness, the priest’s anguish is laid bare at news that defiantly “out” activist Bob Kato has been murdered. This crime becomes a rallying cry for Uganda’s LGBT community, leading to Mwine’s final portrayal, of a lesbian who opened Uganda’s first public gay bar, Sappho Island, its later forced closure bringing the evening to an ambiguous conclusion.

Under the steady hand of director Emily Hoffman, Mwine, through each guise, addresses the audience with such measured elegance that one is transfixed by every utterance he makes. By turns combative and reflective, flamboyant and circumspect, Mwine lays bare the tragedy of his subject. One point that was particularly jarring: the dedication of American evangelist Scott Lively in fomenting Uganda’s anti-gay zealotry, and the equal commitment of those opposing the legislation crafted in his wake, from outsiders like Gordon Brown and Hilary Clinton to the real heroes of the Ugandan LGBT community, still living and working, playing and loving in a country that would do well to heed the true meaning of “Ubuntu.” One’s only regret is that the evening didn’t last longer, that Mwine didn’t bring even more of these heroes to life.


Going for Baroque

June 29, 2012

Andrea Hill and Jaël Azzaretti with chorus Photo: Opéra national de Paris / Agathe Poupeney 2012
I started my European opera tour this summer in Paris where the young guys are all coiffed like Usher circa 2001 and wear high-top sneakers. It’s a look, regardless of whether or not its au courant, and it works for many of them. Which is kind of how I felt about the first opera I saw on my current European trip, Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie at the Palais Garnier. Of course, the similarity in the above comparison falls apart when it comes to the “works for them” bit since Ivan Alexandre’s production, which is new to Paris after being created for Toulouse, is a throwback to something that may not be worth revisiting.

Rameau’s first opera is a Baroque gem filled with mythological characters including gods, sea monsters, and young lovers. It revisits the story of Phèdre and her love for her stepson Hippolyte. He meanwhile has a chaste love for Aricie, which is blessed by the goddess Diane, but is also put in jeopardy by his father Thésée. Alexandre and the design team have gone for something old-fashioned. Very old-fashioned, in fact, in their attempts to recreate the look and theatricality of an 18th-century opera production from the costumes, to the painted backdrops, to the gods who are lowered from the fly space on clouds suspended by ropes. The flat lighting mostly from the foot of the stage reinforces this visual style. It’s pretty to look at, and despite its contrast with the Garnier’s hyper 19th-century surroundings, it looks at home on the stage. Sweet Jesus, is it ever boring, though. In another throwback to the period, principal performers come to the foot of the stage, strike poses and stay there. They’ve got singing to do, but none that requires pesky movement. Even the stage trickery used to create mild surprises here and there fell mostly flat.

What’s worse, this notion of an ersatz recreation of a 18th-century staging isn’t even a new idea in the last thirty years. The Metropolitan Opera regularly trots out a few of Jean-Pierre Ponelle’s productions from decades ago that are essentially the same thing. Those shows (and I’m talking to you here La Clemenza di Tito) are painfully dull much of the time, and Alexandre does an amazing job of recreating that sensation in this Hippolyte and Aricie. Blogger Zerbinetta has had some great points to make recently about production teams not taking Baroque Opera seriously enough to really make it work well. And while gag-filled cynicism some Baroque operas face today can kill them (And I'm talking to you here The Enchanted Island), this kind of almost perfectionist reverence for something that may have never been in the first place isn't doing the genre any favors either. Alexandre and his team need to take Hippolyte and Aricie by trusting the drama at the material's core in order to actually interpret it instead of simply turning it into some kind of museum piece or treating it as something that needs to be apologized for.

It’s not totally a lost cause, though. Emmanuelle Haïm and her Le Concert d’Astrée give a lively period-informed performance of Rameau’s score. She makes room for the vocalists without being overindulgent and produces a great dynamic range with this kind of ensemble. The vocalists themselves were a mixed bag. The best was Stéphan Degout’s Thésée who was sizable and certain enough for a king. The other big name in the cast was Sarah Connolly who sang Phédre with lovely tone and enough fire to bring Racine to mind. Jaël Azzaretti had some lovely detail in her passages as L’Amour and got a warm ovation at the curtain calls. Anne-Catherine Gillet and Topi Lehtipuu were the lovers Aricie and Hippolyte respectively but weren’t particularly engaging and had sloppy attacks here and there. Despite some good musical moments, it wasn’t enough to shoulder the weight of a strange, almost willfully naïve staging that mired everything down for the long evening. The show has four more performances in Paris through mid-July.


Love Among the Ruins

June 26, 2012


Quinn Kelsey, Diego Torre, Feruccio Furlanetto, and Lucrecia Garcia in Act III of Attila Photo: Cory Weaver/SFO 2012
There is a lot of crumbling in San Francisco Opera’s current production of Verdi’s Attila. It’s a co-production that comes by way of La Scala and director Gabriele Lavia, but the debris and decrepit facades that fill all three acts of this show look like they could have just as easily been leftovers from the company’s recent Ring cycle with its abandoned freeways and littered riverbeds. What any of the the crumbling facades now onstage have to do with Attila the Hun, either the historical figure or the mythological one Verdi uses in his opera, is anybody’s guess. Lavia notes the metaphor of destruction is central to the opera and that each act, set in a different time period, reflects such destruction being acted out on one of a series of theaters. In Act I, Attila and his 5th Century army occupy the ruins of a Roman amphitheater. In Act II, the stage is partially surrounded by a three-tiered remnant from a 19th Century European opera house complete with audience and updated soldier costumes for the hordes. And in Act III, the pieces of both of these previous sets are mixed in with an abandoned movie theater complete with damaged screen where scenes from two different films about Attila the Hun, including the 1954 Jack Palance vehicle Sign of the Pagan, are projected. Got it? Me neither. The destruction of the theaters over an open-ended imaginary time frame may be a metaphor for the destruction of Attila himself, or Attila’s desire for the destruction of the Roman empire, or for the destruction in the many lives of the other characters in Verdi’s opera.

Which, if any or all of these, is the case isn’t clear, but no matter how you slice it, the ideas behind this production are bigger than the inept execution of them on stage. Lavia manages to fill the stage with interesting baubles, but then instructs the cast to go out of their way to ignore them. In the end, SFO’s Attila is little more than everyday ordinary stand-and-deliver opera. The vocalists could be standing anywhere singing anything among this particular rubble and it is the lack of integration between players and the physical space they inhabit that is most disheartening about the show. It's 2012 people - you've got to give audiences more than a string of ideas and lovely sets no matter how unusual they may be.

Luckily, the company has managed to gather together a remarkably good cast and with music director Nicola Luisotti in the pit, there was some lovely gutsy Verdi playing to listen to. The star is Feruccio Furlanetto as the Hun who is both a destroyer and the sympathetic heart of the show. Perhaps the most sympathetic interpretation of this mess of a show is that Attila, despite his warlike nature, in the end is himself a victim of the march of history, destined to be forgotten other than as a warlord stock character for Hollywood films. Furlanetto certainly is capable of injecting major amounts of pathos into a character with his voice and he does so brilliantly here even in a part that doesn’t quite always get as much of the center stage as it should. The biggest new surprise for me was Venezuelan soprano Lucrecia Garcia as Odabella. She blazed through this role with a dark, lustrous rich Verdi sound with evenness and agility throughout her range. See her now folks, she's going to be an increasingly familiar name on opera stages and i for one can't wait to hear her again. Quinn Kelsey had his shining moment as well, particularly at the front of Act II as Ezio the Roman general bent on the Hun invaders destruction as much as anyone in this decidedly dark assemblage of characters. Diego Torre's Foresto was a little less certain, but in no way a deterrent to the rest of the proceedings. Of course he, like the rest of the cast, appeared to be largely on their own among the ruins of so many centuries.


The Yinzer Diaries

June 24, 2012

August Strindberg
While I've been here and there this month, fellow OWA correspondent Richard Valitutto has been busy celebrating the 100th anniversary year of August Strindberg's death in Orange County and filed this report.

After a successful New York run in January earlier this year, Robert Cucuzza’s off-kilter adaptation of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie returned to the West Coast for a third brief appearance this past weekend as part of the South Coast Repertory’s studio series. In L.A., Cattywampus was previously presented at Son of Semele Theater in August 2011 and again at REDCAT’s NOW Festival in September 2011. I saw it this Friday, opening night at SCR.

Though it would seem safe to assume that writer/director Cucuzza is laying low while his show is presented for a fourth time, this would be a mistake. Cucuzza has been fiercely involved with the continued development of the work with small rewrites and edits, not least of which being the renaming of Jean’s counterpart, the car-detailer, from Donnie to Jodie (an adjustment whose parallelism, if only for alliterative purposes, pleases me more). This in addition to the fact that the SCR Studio performances featured fresh, new actors playing both Jodie (Jacob Loeb) and Julie (Lola Kelly), though still just as well-directed and acted as their predecessors. Loeb brought to the role a fantastic kineticism, matched well by Kelly’s execution of neo-Julie’s profoundly weird sexuo-deferential entanglements. Jenny Greer once again convincingly played the true down-n-out yinzer Chrissie. Combined with the subtle and polished bluegrass lounge-rock continuous underscore – performed with joyful ease by composers Juli Crockett (guitar) and Michael Feldman (electric organ) – and the keen, economical design elements, the show’s energy was palpably crackling: pratfalls, F-bombs, Pittsburghese, and all.

Cucuzza’s tragicomedy still remains true to a lot of what is already written about its previous runs. Like Strindberg’s 1888 tragedy, this version is lean, antipodal, provocative, and weird. Cleverly adapting the work to present-day Pittsburgh pauperdom, Cucuzza is a master of parallelism. Calling it an adaptation is actually slightly inaccurate, as the rewrite follows Strindberg’s plot details and dialogue so closely it feels more like a very thorough translation done by an academic Myron Cope. This “mirror effect” sometimes lends itself to hilarious conflagrations, such as when Jodie reveals his 10-year plan which will ultimately lead him to the same object of 19th-century Jean’s desire: Roumania. But it also has more abstractly poetic parallels as well: Julie’s caged finch is now a Phoenix-emblazoned kite. One element from Strindberg’s play which was curiously absent (though not conspicuously so) was the fascinating explanation of Julie’s family troubles stemming from her mother’s failed attempt to challenge gender norms, the continued repercussions of which are evident in her and her father’s behaviors.

The one thing that does not readily correlate is the element of class-struggle in a naturalist’s deterministic society. It is a bit hard to accept that Julie and Jodie are as socially and morally conflicted as Julie and Jean. But as one translator of Strindberg’s play Edwin Björkman explains in his preface, the title “Miss” in “Miss Julie” really is just that (originally the Swedish fröken, like the German Fräulein), despite her being the daughter of a count. She is no royalty, just a fatefully positioned person of privilege. If anything, the transferral to American life may be most successful in that where Strindberg’s characters display seditious undercurrents influenced by and contributing to changing socio-economic conditions in the Swedish post-monarchy, Cucuzza’s characters are borderline sociopaths symptomatic of a failed cultural and economic system. In short, Cucuzza’s show is just that much crazier. The emotional extremes of the show were not necessarily virtuosically executed, but they communicated the spirit of passion and confusion which I’m sure Strindberg would have enjoyed. And as all good translators and interpreters know, the spirit of the word, not the word itself, is everything.

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The Eagle Has Landed

June 23, 2012

Chen-Ye Yuan, Maria Kanyova, and Brian Mulligan Photo: Cory Weaver/SFO 2012
It took 25 years, but John Adams’ Nixon in China finally made it to the stage of San Francisco Opera this month. It’s an unusual oversight considering that Adams, a composer with deep roots in Northern California, has had other major premieres here already with The Death of Klinghoffer (which SFO helped commission and originally staged in 1992 after runs in Belgium and New York) and Doctor Atomic in 2005. But Nixon in China, Adams’ most known and revered work, had to wait until SFO General Director David Gockley, who commissioned the work originally for Houston Grand Opera in 1987, decided to bring the opera here. Gockley has perhaps the greatest track record for commissioning new operas, often from young, first-time, American composers both in Houston and San Francisco. That’s noble and important work, though frequently fraught with failure. But Gockley’s risk on a young, untested creative team including Adams, librettist Alice Goodman, and director Peter Sellars, will likely make Nixon in China his greatest legacy to the world of opera after all is said and done.

On Friday night, I saw the fourth of seven scheduled performances of Nixon in China and would agree with many others that Gockley and his company have brought a near perfect production of this landmark of musical theater to the stage. The 2010 production is from Vancouver Opera and was designed and directed by Michael Cavanagh. It’s the kind of opera whose time and setting strongly dictate the physical look of the show, but Cavanagh and production designer Sean Nieuwenhuis have created something absolutely thrilling to watch despite the inevitable giant portraits of Mao, red furniture, and giant Boeing VC-137C. Like so many opera productions these days, there is copious use of video projections. But unlike most, the video, designed by Nieuwenhuis is spectacularly done, functioning as much more than scenery. At times the images reflect unseen action going on in other parts of the scene. At other times they contain images of the characters themselves as if projecting their own internal thoughts while the story unfolds. The images arrive in unexpected places and don’t just fill a backdrop that here is often comprised of swirling interlaced Chinese and U.S. flags. Note to Robert Lepage - this is how video on stage is done.

But I digress. All this video would mean nothing if it weren’t for another young gun of new(ish) operas, conductor Lawrence Renes. He did himself and San Francisco proud with Adams’ most doctrinaire minimalist score. (Yes, I’m making that last bit up.) The orchestra and vocalists are tightly controlled and in sync throughout despite the score’s frequent repetitive elements. The vocalists are all excellent. Who wouldn’t be in love with Brian Mulligan after his performance as an ebullient almost child-like Nixon. He’ fully engaged and is well paired both with the Mao Tse-Tung of Simon O’Neill and Patrick Carfizzi’s Henry Kissinger. Carfizzi has some of the most brutal stuff in this opera especially in the Act II ballet sequence where Pat Nixon imagines he has become part of the ballet being performed, taking over the role of the cruel, sadistic overlord. Maria Kanyova gets some of the best arias in the whole opera as Pat Nixon, and she made all of these highlights special. When Hye Jung Lee’s Madame Mao shoots Kissinger in the head in this feverish dream sequence, there were at least two shouts of support and applause from this mostly silent and mostly liberal audience. Ms. Lee, of course, get the big Act II closer, “I am the wife of Mao Tse-Tung” and she milks it without any strain or uncertainty. A spot-on performance. But as usual, I was most taken with the character of Chou En-Lai, the Chinese Premiere who was played here by baritone Chen-Ye Yuan. Yuan’s phrasing was superb for Goodman’s gorgeous, poetic libretto.

There were issues that kept the show from being 100 percent on the mark, though. The nasty business of amplifying the singers was one. I’m not opposed to such amplification generally, but I do think that if one is going to do it, the amplification should actually help the balance of sound and not make it worse. The chorus was strangely inaudible for the first thirty minutes and by mid-point the soloists were a bit too loud in contrast to the orchestra. Cavanagh’s directorial choices weren’t always on target either. One of the best parts of Nixon in China is the way Goodman’s lovely libretto slowly pushes the described events into a world of dream-like surrealism. People start to lose it, but they don’t start out that way. Cavanagh, however, couldn’t resist a fair amount of jokiness in the first act, however, with Nixon deplaning with almost cartoonish energy and mannerisms. The table spinning drunken brawl at the end of Act I plays many of the opera’s cards way too early, killing the slowly developing tone of the piece. Still, successes of this size have been rare at SFO this season and the long awaited arrival of Nixon in China is not to be sniffed at. It’s a show worth seeing more than once and it runs through July 3.


East Meets West

June 22, 2012


While last weekend brought a memorable performance from one example of those most modern of musician collectives, the percussion quartet, this coming weekend has me thinking of another. With the explosion of music written for an ever-increasing array of percussion instruments both foreign and domestic, ensembles of percussionists have increasingly struck out on their own, commissioning new works from composers happy to do so and building careers out of playing them together.

Perhaps the most prominent of these ensembles on the West Coast is the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet, which is now entering its fifth season with its original line up of Matt Cook, Justin DeHart, Nick Terry, and Eric Guinivan. The group has played 20th and 21st-century works on most of the major stages around town but they passed a new landmark recently with the release of their first major label recording on Sono Luminus entitled, Rūpa-khandha.

The recording is notable for many reasons, but first and foremost because it is focused heavily on the legacy that West Coast composers have left on the percussionists' art. Ensembles like Brooklyn’s So Percussion have made a name for themselves commissioning works from the likes of New York-based composers Steve Reich and David Lang. And while the LAPQ are no strangers to this work, the material on Rūpa-khandha is decidedly different, featuring four newly commissioned works from composers working on the West Coast with an eye toward the percussion legacy left by those California giants of 20th-century composition Harrison, Riley, Harry Partch, William Kraft, and others.

One of those legacies is an interest in Eastern percussion instruments and their use in religious and folk settings. The first two pieces on Rūpa-khandha refer to those elements in direct if not always specific ways. LAPQ member Eric Guinivan’s Ritual Dances imagines music for folk rites of some imaginary tribe of the Pacific Rim. African and Arabic drums are joined by “found instruments” over five movements that emphasize the ritualistic sounds of ceremonies both solemn and celebratory. This is immediately followed by a similar companion piece from Sean Heim, Rūpa-khandha. The title refers to the first of Five Aggregates or “khandras” that constitute the human being in Buddhist philosophy. The allusions in this single movement are taken from a variety of other cultural traditions including the notion of the five basic elements and Native American musical traditions. The music evokes a sense of spirituality separate from the kind of urban transcendentalism common among works coming out of the late 20th century school of American Minimalism.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s current Principal Timpanist and composer Joseph Pereira follows suit with Repoussé, four movements inspired by his travels and instrument collecting while still playing with the New York Philharmonic. The title here, and those of the four separate movements refer to techniques of production in visual arts. Repoussé specifically refers to hammering out low-raised decorative embellishments in a malleable metal. It's an intriguing piece and it speaks to Perira's increasingly higher profile in this region as a composer. The recording concludes with a single movement from Jeffrey Holmes, Occasus.


St. Louis Blue Black

June 21, 2012

So Percussion play David Lang at The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis Photo: mine
Music critic Alex Ross, among others, has noted the strange disconnect in the public’s mind when in comes to 20th-century art forms. As he so eloquently argues in The Rest is Noise and elsewhere, while art forms of many genres became deeply involved in various abstract and conceptual movements in the 20th Century, visual arts from the period now fill top tier museums selling tickets to legions of adoring fans, while Western art music has taken a very different course. Those same decentralizing, avant-garde trends that are beloved in the visual arts are seen by many in the public as anathema when it comes to music. Classical music audiences in the U.S. are still prone to prize works of the 18th and 19th Centuries above all else, although many in those same audiences would have no problem waxing poetic on the beauty of a Pollock or a Donald Judd sculpture.

So it was with great joy that I attended two of three programs while in St. Louis last weekend as part of Retrospectives and Innovations: A Celebration of The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts. The mini-series was a look back at 8 years of music programming sponsored by The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in their Tadao Ando-designed museum in the heart of St. Louis. The music programming at the Foundation sprung from the mind of Richard Gaddes who recognized an acoustically desirable space in the museum’s galleries at the bottom of a wide descending staircase positioned strategically in front of Ellsworth Kelly’s Blue Black, a painting commissioned by the Foundation in 2000. With the support of the Foundation’s Emily Rauh Pulitzer, the museum’s board approached the St. Louis Symphony and their musical director David Robertson about a 20th-century and newer music series to be held in the galleries of the museum dedicated primarily to 20th-century and newer art.

David Robertson, of course, a brilliant music director and advocate of music from that period, jumped at the chance to bring more of this kind of music to St. Louis audiences. Robertson is one of the great American maestros and he was central to last weekend’s concerts which revisited works from concerts over the last ten years since the Foundation's physical space opened in 2001, while also including works new to the series and St. Louis. It was an inspiring set of shows not necessarily because of the specifics of any of the particular pieces or performances, but because of the unavoidable connection being emphasized in the galley between movements in both the visual and musical arts of the 20th Century. It was about an arts organization supporting art music from the same period without apology, a more revolutionary idea sadly than it should be in this country.

On Saturday evening, the series welcomed visiting percussion quartet So Percussion, who performed Steve Reich’s landmark works Clapping Music and Four Organs, as well as two of their own commissions: Reich’s Mallet Quartet and David Lang’s the so-called laws of nature. Robertson himself joined in on the clapping after some introductory comments welcoming the players to town emphasizing his personal involvement in the curation and presentation of the music programming at the Foundation. It was a show that not only highlighted percussion’s meteoric rise to prominence in Western art music in the last century but also captured both the raw primacy of the earliest minimalist works alongside the legacy those works left behind. Lang’s three movement piece which finds the ensemble moving with their mallets from blocks of wood, to metal tubes, to flowerpots and teacups was both witty and inspiring in its everyday resourcefulness. Lang has the four percussionists play identical patterns throughout the piece which each movement using a different set of mostly handmade instruments in a sort-of musical science experiment about the sound of different objects played under identical circumstances.

The following Sunday afternoon headed off in a much different direction with players from the St. Louis Symphony who began the final program with Donatoni’s equally cat-and-mouse game of a string quartet, La Souris sans sourire. This “mouse without a smile” alludes to Boulez Le marteau sans maître with an ironic if still reverent sneer as cellos and violas moan with decaying tones which are less Tom and Jerry and more Felix the Cat. The show ended with one of Olivier Messiaen’s monumental works, Visions de l’Amen, played by pianists Peter Henderson and Nina Ferrigno. This was muscular sounding Messiaen with the skies crying out from above that made the most of the indeed excellent acoustics of the Foundation’s space. But perhaps the most intriguing piece on the program that afternoon, and a highlight of the festival was Unsuk Chin’s Fantasie mécanique from the mid 1990s. Robertson conducted the small percussion, piano and brass ensemble, as he noted, less because of interpretive issues and more for simple guidance for a work that rapidly swerves and changes as it goes along from pounding machine like forces to bare stripped cries from various corners. As Robertson also pointed out, it reflected many of the same musical qualities that recommended the composer’s concurrently running Alice in Wonderland across town at Opera Theater St. Louis. It was exciting playing from members of one of America’s great if underrated orchestras. It, and all of the weekend’s shows, was also a testament to the great and forward-looking work that David Robertson is doing in St. Louis and around the country. And all in a singular, lovely architectural space in a city known for its singular artistic gestures.


Bach This Way

June 19, 2012

Simone Dinnerstein
The Philharmonic Society of Orange County closed its current season on Monday with a wild card – pianist Simone Dinnerstein. Much has been made of her rather DIY career trajectory. She came to wide acclaim, at least among the recording and ticket buying communities, following the release of a self-financed disc of Bach’s Goldberg Variations in 2007. More conventional success in the classical music field followed with a recording contract from Sony and appearances all over the globe. She has remained popular, and for good reason, more often than not as a solo performer who makes appearances on an eclectic group of stages both big and small. Monday was the first time she had appeared on a major stage in Southern California and it was to a mostly full house at the Segerstrom Concert Hall.

The program consisted entirely of her beloved Bach, French Suite No. 5, English Suite No. 3, and Partita’s No. 1 and 2. The French Suite here was one that I’d previously heard her play at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival in 2010, a more intimate venue that played more to her strengths. She’s a quirky player and her performances do lie outside of the mainstream for most world-class soloists. She is unique, but her playing is also rather mannered. On Monday she exhibited neither an academic restraint that favored clarity nor a period sensibility that brought out the dance rhythms underpinning each movement in all the suites. Instead she takes an impressionistic tack that views Bach’s line as broad strokes of color as if it was something Debussy had written that was long since overlooked. At times, particularly in the faster movements, this approach can verge on cacophonous distortion towards unclear ends. At other times there is a beautiful glow and warmth although never much of a sense of stillness. Ironically this penchant for broadly colorful impressionistic playing may seem last suited for the music of the composer she is best known for. But it is also one of the things that sets her apart from the pack and keeps her so popular with audiences.


After Alice

June 18, 2012

l-r: David Trudgen, Ashley Emerson, and Aubrey Allicock Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL 2012
In 2007, James Robinson, the current Artistic Director of Opera Theater of Saint Louis, had the good fortune to see the world premiere of Unsuk Chin’s opera Alice in Wonderland while on a visit to Munich. According to his own report, he was mightily impressed and became convinced it was one of the most important operas written in the first decade of this Century. I was there too, and shared his convictions about this daunting, beautiful opera, which had been slated to premiere in Los Amgeles, but was later redirected with then music director Kent Nagano’s departure from L.A. to Munich. Fortunately, Robinson was soon in a position to get Alice to the U.S. and after asking Chin to adapt the opera for markedly smaller forces than those called for in the German premiere, the Saint Louis debut was set.

I was thrilled when I first hear about this, though admittedly before seeing Sunday’s performance, I had grown wary of the potential outcome. The world premiere of the opera had been staged by German artist Achim Freyer and was filled with his trademark visual tricks, masks, and perilously raked stage. It was a perfect fit for Chin and her librettist David Henry Hwang’s take on the story which focuses exclusively on the dream material of Lewis Carroll’s story eschewing Alice's life outside of Wonderland entirely. Freyer’s vision, which reportedly was not well-liked by Chin herself, was as vivid and visually powerful as a dream and looked nothing like you’d expect from a century’s worth of Alice adaptations. Freyer used the story as a springboard to talk about the lost innocence of youth which evaporates not unlike the most fantastic of dreams. In contrast, Robinson and his design team are't plumbing such great depths. Despite protestations to the contrary, Robinson and his collaborators have gone with a show that looks and feels very much like the Victoriana you’d pick out of dozens of films or printed versions of Carroll's story. Furthermore, the questionable marketing of the show focused on the performances as being something that the whole family might enjoy. Which I suppose could be true if you’ve got the kind of 12 year-olds who go to summer camp at IRCAM.

But, I’ll admit I was pleasantly surprised at first to hear and see this production of a musically adventurous and very smart opera. The set is filled with giant cupboards and dressers that are painted gray, but open to reveal any number of more fantastic rooms and interiors for characters to pop out of. All of the closed surfaces are used for elaborate filmed projections that indicate the most difficult events in the opera to stage such as Alice swimming in a pool of her own tears or her dramatic post-prandial size changes. The contrast between Chin’s amusing but very modern, dark score and a visually accessible and familiar staging was a brilliant contrast in the end. Robinson uses moments of pantomime and physical humor in clever ways to bring characters like the caterpillar to life as well. But this is a long show, with a fantastic and episodic plot and while Robinson leads the audience down the rabbit hole he doesn’t know what to do with them once he gets them there in this intermissionless two hours. The second half of the opera nearly unravels with bad decisions suggesting Robinson may have lost the strength of his convictions. The large crowd scenes toward the end of the show including the Knave's trial are far too big for the tiny cramped Loretto-Hilton Center stage. The cast is reduced to waving their hands about for acting and the dreamy flow of the show freezes up. Worse yet, signs of desperation set in and Robinson allows some characters including the dormouse and the Duchess to engage in mawkish pandering by serving up the kind of clichéd hip-hop inspired movements and delivery that produces applause and perfunctory laughter but kills the show by betraying trust in the source material’s ability to do its job without cheap stunts.

Chin’s reduction of the score continues OTSL’s recent string of successes of very listenable reduced versions of larger modern works including Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles and Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer. Michael Christie, the show’s conductor, continues here to build his reputation as one of America’s foremost advocates for contemporary operas. He easily maintains focus through turns in the score that go from sparse and economical to huge walls of black shimmering night. The whimsy is there too including the extended bass clarinet solo which serves as the voice of the caterpillar and Chin’s take of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” for the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. The huge cast is fronted by St. Louis favorite Ashley Emerson as Alice who is nimble and projects a necessary child-like pluck and sense of adventure. She handles both the sung and Sprechstimme passages convincingly. David Trudgen excels in the countertenor parts of the White Rabbit and March Hare. And that vanishing Cheshire Cat is never overlooked onstage as sung here by a winning, feline Tracy Dahl. When these performers are onstage in small groups with one another and the visual expanse of the dreamscape is given room to breath, the show is absolute magic. And that’s a big deal for an opera uninterested in presenting a logical narrative storyline, instead investing itself in the power of the illogical fantasized world of dreams. Chin’s Alice in Wonderland continues in Saint Louis through the end of next week and it’s a solid production worth seeing, especially for your hard-to-please Boulez-obsessed pre-adolescents.


Stick to Priest

June 16, 2012

Rod Gilfry as Sweeney Todd Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL 2012
Sometimes, a new performance of a familiar piece of musical theater can be great for showing you something that you didn’t recognize before. But then again, there may be some things in this life that one really doesn’t need to know. Opera Theater Saint Louis is in the midst of their 37th season, and among the English-language Mozart and Carmen performances is Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd. The new production of Christopher Bond’s adaptation was directed by Ron Daniels and has a cast with Broadway star Karen Ziemba as Mrs. Lovett and Rod Gilfry as Sweeney Todd. The trend in staging this show in recent years has tended toward the lean, and very, very mean. Whether it’s Tim Burton’s movie or John Doyle’s bare bones mental ward, the show has gone creepy as can be. But not so for Saint Louis, where Daniels has cleaned up the streets of Victorian London a bit and gone for the big laughs. There’s nothing much changed with the text, of course, but while Daniels delivers something outside of the current practice, I’ll admit I’m not sure that the world needs a Saturday matinee type of chuckle-fest when it comes to the demon barber of Fleet Street.

Of course, it takes two to, well…, you know. And the audience I saw the show with on a self-same Saturday afternoon sounded ready for a good old fashioned musical and they weren’t about to have it any other way. I’d never noticed so many laugh lines in the opening number before, but there they were. In fact it wasn’t until Rod Gilfry got to the word “shit” (in reference to London and the world generally) that it seemed to occur to some viewers that this wasn’t The King and I. Even Sweeney’s eventual murders got big guffaws each and every time in Act II as the design team elected to go with forcefully spewing fake blood from the necks of his victims covering a good portion of the stage. The production is sparse, dominated by a back wall with an oven in it that is sometimes covered with a plastic blood-stained curtain. Even Sweeney’s infamous barber’s chair doesn’t quite function as it typically does with each body being pulled from the chair's farthest back reclined position by two costumed extras after each murder as the body is whisked offstage.

Karen Ziemba Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL 2012
But there are strengths here, particularly in the cast. At the top of the bill is Gilfry who can sound as warm and beautiful as he has at any time in his career. He glowers with the best of them, but the overall tone of the production sometimes works against him. (I’ll admit that it’s also somewhat strange that this particularly tall and devilishly handsome Sweeney is still so difficult for the denizens of his old neighborhood to recognize.) Ziemba, on the other hand, is lock-step in line with the show with a bubbly, attractive Mrs. Lovett who comes off as more whacky and bemused than predatory. She delivers a fantastic version of A Little Priest, however, and vocally was always up to Sondheim’s tricky, precision-demanding lyrics.

There were both veterans and new faces in the supporting roles. I was particularly thrilled about a young man named Nathaniel Hackmann who was a magnetic, sweet voiced Anthony Hope. He may be among the best I’ve seen anywhere in the role and came off sincerely earnest and in love. More of him, please. Deanna Breiwick was a clear, bright-voiced Johanna who stayed clear of some of the simpering and camp aspects of that thorny role. And Kyle Erdős Knapp, as the doomed young Tobias Ragg, gave an unnerving wiry performance of perhaps the darkest of all the show’s roles. Of the three, Erdős Knapp is a current Gerdine Young Artist. It speaks well of the company that they’ve amassed three such compelling performances in this staging.

The members of the Saint Louis Symphony that play in the festival orchestra continue to be one of the company’s biggest assets. Here they were conducted by OTSL music director Stephen Lord who could let things go a bit sluggish here and there, but the stage-pit coordination in this challenging score were always on target. And he did the most important thing in letting Sondheim’s most brilliant songs speak for themselves plainly and directly. You could do worse than this Sweeney Todd and if you don’t mind all the yucks in the middle of your Victorian bloodbath, it may be the show for you. It's onstage now through the 24th.


Gold Soundz

June 15, 2012

Gary Eister, John Schneider and members of PARTCH  Photo: mine 2012
It’s become an annual rite at REDCAT - the late spring/early summer appearance by PARTCH, the ensemble that bears the name of California composer and perpetual musical outsider Harry Partch. The shows are always special occasions if for no other reason that they are the rare occasions where Partch’s music is performed on the group’s painstaking replicas of the composer’s unique instruments designed to challenge the tonal hegemony of his early 20th Century world. This year’s performance, entitled Bitter Music, was even further removed from what the players have presented in the past by honoring Partch the man and artist apart from his music. They accomplished this through a reading of Partch’s unexpectedly preserved diary from 1935-1936 which recounts not only his travels to Europe to work on a variety of his avant-garde microtonal projects, but also his years living as an itinerant “hobo” wandering the West Coast guest of the government-sponsored camps for the dispossessed, at times begging for food, and working whenever and for whatever he could.

It is this rough and unpredictable life that is reflected in the diary’s title and the intention in its performance, largely a dramatic reading by PARTCH’s John Schneider, is also meant to capture the composer’s interest in the everyday music of human speech. The text contains more than just written text, but also drawings, bars of music, a few songs, and specific intonations for some of the quoted dialog. Schneider’s reading was accompanied mostly by pianist Gary Eister, who joined in with segments of dialog he would sing and simultaneously sound out on the piano. On four occasions, the two were joined by members of the ensemble to perform full-fledged if brief compositions either referred to in the text or reflective of its content. Some of these, including the two vocal line version of Barstow that concluded the evening were some of the most poignant music the ensemble has brought to REDCAT over the years. The performance and music were recorded by the ensemble and released last year in an excellent set by Bridge Records under the same title, Bitter Music.

These diary entries and Partch's lovely, poetic writing impart an intensely personal view of the artist at a critical time in his development. In his own words, Partch sounds like a young man on fire with exploring the world, musical and otherwise around him. He cares passionately about music and changing the musical world. He is concerned about a uniquely American sound and tradition he sees bound up in the lives of everyday people, and there is no doubt from his tales of the Depression years that he is not speaking of them as an outsider. Partch’s drawings of the natural world and the men he lived with during these years have their own beauty, and they also reflect his homosexuality with a frankness not typical for the time. These were not always great times for Partch who could go days without eating and have his work ignored or rejected even when he had the financing to pursue his dreams for a period in Europe. But while this may have provided the bitterness in his music of the period and afterward, much of the diary reflects the composer’s joy for the world around him and his commitment and belief that music and art could be different than they were at the time. What was bitter for him, seems inspirational now and the audience quickly found themselves caught up in this two and a half hour reading with music which was daring for doing the one thing most composers dread – communicating with audiences about the world outside of their musical art. Partch himself thought the diary had mostly been destroyed and it is much to our benefit it survived, unexpectedly copied as part of another project, and given this life by those Californians dutifully keeping his work alive today.

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Piano Men

June 12, 2012

Leif Ove Andsnes and Marc-André Hamelin Photo: mine 2012

One of the hallmarks of Leif Ove Andsnes tenure as music director of this year’s Ojai Music Festival that wrapped up this past Sunday before heading north for a week full of shows in Berkeley as part of Cal Performances Ojai North, was how willing he was to share the spotlight. And by this I mean almost eschewing being center stage all together. This wasn't an act of artistic modesty. Instead, it showed a keen eye to integrated and collaborative programming that Andsnes picked up in his many years leading Norway's Risør Chamber Music Festival. In fact, Andsnes enlisted the services of another world renowned pianist, Marc-André Hamelin, to perform alongside him for much of the festivals’ six main stage programs. Hamelin is well known for his explorations of the more unusual corners of the solo piano repertory. He's just released the third volume of his excellent examination of the Haydn Piano Sonatas on Hyperion. But he also took a more often than not supportive role in the festival's many concerts. Hamelin and Andsnes each performed only one or two solo or starring performances over the weekend, Hamelin took on Ives’ “Concord” sonata on Thursday and Andsnes played Beethoven’s “Waldstein” sonata on Saturday morning with the solo part in Sørensen’s Piano Concerto No. 2 that same evening. Pianists can be some of the most notable lone wolves of the classical music world, but in Ojai either Andsnes or Hamelin were onstage nearly the whole festival typically in supporting roles of one of the many song cycles performed by Christianne Stotijn or as a as members of some trio or quintet.

Yet in the two concluding concerts of this year’s festival, the two came together in some of the most best moments of the whole weekend. Perhaps the highlight of the whole festival for me outside of John Luther Adams’ Inuksuit on Thursday, was a small chamber concert performed for a group of donor’s on Sunday afternoon. The program included 14 of Gyorgy Kurtág's musical miniatures form various collections interspersed with three short pieces from Kurtág's countryman Franz Liszt. Andsnes’ piano solos were set in contrast to other miniatures for viola played with a beautiful tone and touch by the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra’s Antoine Tamestit. Intermittently, Hamelin and other players from the orchestra would join in for an unbroken hour that was by turns brooding, playful, or jarring. It was the kind of program that felt like it had the whole world of human emotion tied up in it with the performance bookended with Kurtág’s Ligatura- Message to Frances-Marie (The Answered Unanswered Question). In each of these segments a pair of cellos is answered by offstage violins in yet another of the weekend’s invocations of Ives.

Members of the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra Photo: mine 2012
The two pianists were the central focus of the weekend’s final concert that craftily pulled the festival’s many loose ends back together. After Debussy’s Danse sacrée et danse profane the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra gave a moment to the other John Adams, (not to be confused with composer John Luther Adams) whose Shaker Loops was their parting gift to the festival. The work’s embrace of minimalism made my memory of the recent world premiere of his oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary seem like an even more radical invention by contrast. But the final word would belong to Andsnes and Hamelin who returned to John Luther Adams’ music which had also opened the festival. Dark Waves for two pianos and electronics paralleled the slowly arcing movement of both Inuksuit and Red Arc/Blue Veil from Thursday. It also provided a contrast to the showstopping festival closer, the duo’s adaptation of Stravinsky’s two-piano version of Le sacre du printemps. This adaptation is world’s away in some aspects from the familiar full orchestral version. It is by necessity more mechanical sounding with the two pianists acting as one against an external force as opposed to engaging each other in musical sparring. Like Adams’ Dark Waves the energy flowed outward together grabbing the audience and pulling them in. It missed some of the mournfully quiet touches of the bigger version but it brought the two artists out into the spotlight still collaborating but now in a combined starring role.

In the end, Andsnes version of the Ojai Festival was one of the stronger in recent years. True, it was not always packed with the latest and greatest of new music. But it did re-examine important relationships between 19th and 20th Century music and it did provide one of the most integrated and collaborative groups of artists the festival has seen in a while. None of the programs felt isolated or unconnected to the rest, and the logic of the overall festival program could be clearly seen from show to show. There are many reasons to love Ojai, but experiencing the musical festival when it is this well executed rivals most of the place’s other charms. Nearly all of the programs I’ve written about will arrive in Berkeley this week and are worth seeing. And, of course, it’s never too early to start thinking about next year when choreographer Mark Morris will take over leadership of the Ojai Festival with evenings that do promise something a bit different.


Divine Interventions

June 11, 2012

Henryk Górecki
While I was out of town in Ojai, correspondent and man about time Ben Vanaman caught the concluding performance of the Los Angeles Master Chorale season and filed this report.

Henryk Górecki was the featured composer of the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s final concert of the 2011-2012 season. The program featured three a cappella pieces –Lobgesang, Five Marian Songs, and Miserere- each sharing the composer’s noted compositional style marked by dense yet delicate homophonic sonorities in building repetition. These works, like the composer’s famous Symphony No. 3, are haunting and elegiac. Their texts are devotional, but the sorrowful music evokes a lament for man’s suffering, no doubt a reflection of the composer’s hardscrabble upbringing in a repressive political environment. This undercurrent was most pointedly evident in Miserere which was composed as a protest against the Polish government’s crackdown against the “Solidarity” social movement of the 1980s when the piece was composed.

For the program’s first half, Lobgesang and Five Marian Songs, were paired with Brahms’ Psalm setting Schaffe in mir, Gott, en rein Herz sandwiched in between. Music Director Grant Gershon upended the usual configuration or choristers, placing the singers instead, male and female in all voice groups, amongst each other, creating an extraordinary blended sound. This arrangement was particularly effective in the motet-like Lobgesang (“Song of Praise”), which was commissioned by the city of Mainz in 2000 to celebrate the sixth hundred anniversary of its honored son Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press. The composer’s text, a psalm of praise to God, is certainly a tribute to Gutenberg’s role in bringing the Bible more vividly to life. It’s a robust work, still infused with melancholy or solemnity: man’s humility against the divine.

The Five Marian Songs are musical gems, soon to be recorded by the LAMC for the first time, along with Lobgesang and the already-recorded Miserere, for the Decca label for a fall release. And if this concert performance was any indication, it will be a must own recording. Each of the five songs –all odes to the Virgin Mary- has a unique character while embodying the composer’s iconic sound. The first, “Mother of the Heavenly Lord,” is lilting and looping and spry, suggestive of a folk song, such tunes bearing an imprint on Górecki’s work from when he heard them as a child. The entrancing third song, “Hail Mary,” is almost a lullaby. The fourth, “Oh! How sad it is to part,” paradoxically ends on a note of major-key uplift as the chorus intones, “we wish to serve you always in this life and forever after.” The fifth song, “We shall sing your praises forever and ever,” continues in this spirit of jubilation. However, it is the dolorous second song, “Most Holy Mother,” that lingers, a beseeching cry for God’s mercy that gathers force through the iteratively downward trajectory of the musical lines.

The entire second part of the program was devoted to the eight-part Miserere, an epic appeal for God’s same mercy, here in the face of man’s inhumanity, that became the program’s emotional bookend to “Most Holy Mother.” The music, which evokes the first movement of the Third Symphony in its unrelenting and inexorable crescendo, grows from the ground up, basses providing the foundation for the entrance of the tenor and then alto and soprano voices. The chorus intones “Lord our God” over and over until the very end, when the piece ends with a whisper: “miserere nobis (have mercy on us).” It was a sublime moment, and the chorale has rarely sounded better, perhaps a reflection of the group’s commitment to their upcoming recording of this material. The more conventional harmonic structure of the Brahms piece was an effective contrast, yet both composers share an affinity for dense, dark musical textures. Conductor Gershon jokingly referred to the Brahms piece as a “cheese course,” if it’s a bit difficult to think of Brahms’ music as a palette cleanser.


Morning Fröst

June 10, 2012


After the Romantic hue of the last few days, Saturday evening’s program at the 2012 Ojai Festival took turns into decidedly more modern territory with living composers occupying the major parts of the program. It also moved the spotlight toward clarinetist Martin Fröst. But just before that transition were two notable and entirely serious concertos. Haflidi Hallgrímsson’s Poemi a single movement violin concerto was played by the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra with Artistic Director and soloist Terje Tønnesen. The work references three Chagall paintings, all on Old Testament stories. Tønnesen has done pivotal work all weekend here as “leader” of this frequently conductorless ensemble, and Poemi was his moment to show off his own virtuosic skills. (There was a conductor for this performance, Per Kristian Skalstad.) This served as prelude to the U.S. premiere of Bent Sørensen’s Piano Concerto No. 2 subtitled “La Mattina” (morning). After the teasers of Sørensen’s lullabies on Friday night, it was exciting to hear this equally satisfying large-scale work. Sørensen’s morning isn’t a cheerful or sunny one. It’s fraught with uncertainty and from the opening moments, the orchestral part which ran in tandem with the piano solo reflected a certain decay. Tones drifted and collapsed under Andsnes’s searching solo part. Things get brighter as they go along, and there’s a suggestions that everything may turn out OK despite it all. This was especially true as Andsnes’s technical skills were called upon more and more toward the conclusion. Undoubtedly the piece was one of the highlights of this year’s festival.

Leif Ove Andsnes with members of the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra Photo: mine 2012
Another Nordic composer, Anders Hillborg, provided a very different concerto for clarinetist Martin Fröst, which followed after the break. Peacock Tales has proven popular enough that Hillborg has produced several versions of the piece (one of which you can take a look at in the video at the top of this post) for Fröst. Each version uses different orchestrations, but all maintain the clarinet solo part and the choreography Fröst performs over the course of his solo. Fröst is a fairly mobile performer to begin with often moving like a snake charmer. But this was something entirely different. The 10-minute version for Ojai called for him to don a three-horned mask which he wore for most of the solo. He twirls, poses, and points fingers at his head like some puckish prankster – Till Eulenspiegel with a clarinet solo on top of prerecorded tape. It elicited giggles at times from the audience, but no matter what else it was, Peacock Tales left no one doubting Fröst’s willingness to take some risks.

The rest of the evening, and all of Sunday morning’s program, focused on much lighter fare frequently featuring Fröst. There was Mozart’s Trio in E-flat Saturday evening followed the next day by two works written for Benny Goodman, Bartok’s Contrasts and Copland’s Concerto for Clarinet, Strings, Harp and Piano. All were well played and Fröst’s power as charmer and musician clearly affected the crowd. He sounds comfortable with Copland’s jazzy shadings as well as in the familiar Klezmer encores he repeated in Ojai. There was something rather light-weight about it all, though, on Sunday in particular, and the performers seemed ready to let their hair down. The Norwegian Chamber Orchestra players arrived in sun dresses and shorts for Grieg’s From Holberg’s Time: Suite in Olden Style. In the end, one of the bass players danced with his instrument downstage in a comical turn. Even Christianne Stotijn got in on the fun with a selection of Bolcom’s familiar Cabaret Songs with the support of Marc-André Hamelin. She seemed to be enjoying herself with songs like “Black Max” after so much Mahler and Wagner earlier in the weekend. It was an understandable morning of some levity, but after the previous night’s newer material, Sunday morning did find Fröst marking his time a bit. Stay tuned for a final report on the closing evening of the festival tomorrow.


German Romantics and the Festival Audiences Who Love Them

June 09, 2012

Reinbert de Leeuw and Lucy Shelton with members of the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra in Ojai 2012 Photo: mine 2012
As the 2012 Ojai Festival moved into its second day, the order of business was the continued legacy of German Romanticism in the 20th Century and beyond. Granted this is not a revolutionary theme here or elsewhere for music audiences, but if you want to hear whining about some lost idealized free-spirited California hippie community past, read the Los Angeles Times. Those of us not gnashing our teeth have enjoyed three programs so far where the greatest of Lieder have served as a stepping off point for 20th-century and newer work. On Friday night, members of the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra were joined by conductor, composer, and pianist Reinbert de Leeuw and soprano Lucy Shelton for that evening’s cornerstone performance, de Leeuw’s Im wundershonen Monat Mai. Yes, that is the same Lied that opens Schumann’s Dichterliebe and this is no off hand subtle reference. Instead, de Leeuw has crafted a large, almost 90 minute, song cycle out of Lieder not only from Schumann, but Schubert as well. But the guiding force here isn’t so much the long history of great Lied recitals as it is Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. The 21 songs in Im wundershonen Monat Mai are expanded and altered with edits both in the text and score. The piece begins in the dark with de Leeuw playing the opening bars of the first song as with any recital, but as Mr. Shelton entered, he was joined by the dozen or so strings and winds of the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra whom he’d adapted parts for. This was not a radical reimagining of the music, and throughout the songs were recognizable and familiar with modernist touches here and there. The ordering and sampling of songs not only from Dichterliebe and Schubert’s Wintereisse allowed for some thematic changes with darker toned songs kept together and more sunny ones placed elsewhere often to more ironic effect.

But perhaps the most radical invention in de Leeuw’s new multi-part cycle was the elimination of the actual singing in favor of something closer to the acted Sprechgesang of Pierrot Luanire. Schumann and Schubert first and foremost were setting great poetry and de Leeuw wanted to capture the immediacy of that by enlisting an actress for the works premiere, the legendary Barbara Sukowa. (An early performance of de Leeuw with Sukowa and the Schonbert Ensemble has been filmed and is available on DVD.) Sukowa was originally announced to appear on this program in Ojai, but withdrew at the last minute to be replaced by American soprano Lucy Shelton. Though a professionally trained singer, Shelton is no light-weight at milking the dramatic potential out of texts and she threw herself into this rather last-minute assignment with abandon. However, while I greatly respected the project and performance, I must admit that it wasn’t necessarily all that engaging throughout. At times there was a dark, cabaret feel to the songs, and at others the music seemed to wander in no particular direction. Shelton relied on a score for the performance, understandably, given the circumstances. But I couldn’t help feeling there was something missing from these songs that were more orchestrated than their piano and voice versions but not necessarily more revealing than when they are well sung in their original context.

One of the new initiatives at this year’s festival besides the streaming webcasts of the performances the whole world can listen to, has been the addition of late night mini-concerts with the performers following the evening’s main program. On Friday night, Festival Music Director Leif Ove Andsnes returned with three pairings of quiet lullabies written by Bent Sørensen each played without pause with one of three other pieces- Busoni’s Berceuse élégiaque in the orchestrated version, Schnittke’s Piano Quintet, and Mahler’s Rückert Lieder. Christianne Stotijn returned as vocalist for the Mahler songs which served as the heart of the program. It was a beautiful, contained afterthought on the preceding evening. Each larger piece seemed to grow out of Sørensen’s quiet, child-like enducements to sleep with something decidedly more complicated and adult. Sleep becomes more complicated physically and metaphorically with age and these sly pairings hit nerves at every turn. Stotijn became most convincing at the end of the set with “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” where the overwhelming sense of letting go filled her voice, which displayed the most warmth.

de Leeuw, Stotijn, Andsnes, and Fröst with members of the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra in Ojai 2012 Photo: mine 2012
She was just getting started, though, and by Saturday morning she had returned for more of the German Romanticism again paired with more recent works for contrast. Saturday morning’s program was all about the legacy of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. No actual music from that greatest of scores crept into the program, but it haunted everything, frequently in direct if unsustained quotations. The show started with Eivind Buene’s 2003 Langsam und Schmachtend which referenced much more than the musical notation for Tristan’s overture. Buene follows the inevitable and logical decomposition tethered together so precariously in that landmark piece of music and the brief piece had more a sense of inevitability than nostalgia. Stotijn performed Wagner’s Wesendock Lieder with support from the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra - each song intercut with a movement from Alban Berg’s Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano. Andsnes was joined by soloist Martin Fröst for these islands highlighting Berg’s debt to Wagner. Stotijn seemed more comfortable here than in the previous evenings with clearer phrasing and more even tone. She followed the Wagner with Berg’s Four Songs Op.2 accompanied by Marc-André Hamelin and sounded every inch a first rate Marie.

The morning concluded with a respite and a movement away from these later romantics by revisiting Andsnes’ current obsession and the forerunner of all that had gone before, Beethoven. He played the “Waldstein” Piano Sonata, which could not have sounded more polished or appropriate in the midday summer air of Ojai. All the world seemed to sing along with Beethoven, and Andsnes seemed to put a period on the music of the last 24 hours as if to say it’s time to move on. It wasn’t an evening and afternoon of breaking ground, but it was certainly one that revisited well known histories and linkages with lovely world class performances. It might not be scrappy and dangerous like some musical laboratory, but it was excellent playing from collaborative performers that engaged.


This Is Planet Earth

June 08, 2012

Musicians performing Inuksuit in Ojai 2012 Photo: mine 2012
The 2012 edition of the Ojai Music Festival, California’s biggest and most historic summer music gathering, got underway Thursday night with its trademark sense of adventure and community spirit. Ojai has always proved a beautiful setting for this festival dedicated to 20th-century and newer music. But this year, more than previous ones, the location makes all the difference for concerts that were concerned about geography and place. The opening programs on Thursday prominently featured works by the Alaskan-based composer John Luther Adams, an artist who is perhaps as influenced by geography and his natural surroundings as any composer can be. One could cast him as a sort of musical Robert Smithson, turning landscapes into art. And if that albeit insufficient comparison catches your fancy, Inuksuit, Adams’ 80-minute work for percussion ensemble, could well be his own personal Spiral Jetty. The piece, which was designed to be played outdoors, opened the festival on a late sunny California afternoon in its West Coast Premiere where it occupied the expanse of Ojai’s Libbey Park. Inuksuit takes its name from stacked stone structures built by Inuit peoples in the empty expanse of the Alaskan countryside as route markers. Literally translated it means “to act in the capacity of the human” and it is this idea of human interaction with a expansive and overwhelming geography that forms the basis for the piece. All music is about space, but Adams’ music, and Inuksuit in particular, takes on real spaces in a more direct way. This isn’t about examining the sound and silence within a concert hall. It’s about a physical place and the sound that place makes integrating into a larger musical text.

Musicians performing Inuksuit in Ojai 2012 Photo: mine 2012
The piece which was directed by Steven Schick, began with 48 musicians, all percussionists with three piccolo players, gathered in a small circle in the park. Slowly, quietly, many began to blow through paper megaphones creating the sound of a gentle wind that barely stood out against the day-to-day sounds of children playing, birds, and other inhabitants of the park including the sizeable audience. Soon, the players began to swing plastic tubes and rattles and slowly disperse, step by step across the expanse of the park. Eventually, they reached widely dispersed stations with all variety of drums, gongs, conch shells, air raid sirens and any number of devices. The crowd, initially clustered around the center of the park, almost jostled against the dispersing players. But soon, the audience was surrounded and left to move, sit, wander, and do whatever else they pleased. The music built at first with the call of blown conch shells and cymbals as if the musicians were crying out to one another on each side of the park. The music then transitioned into a middle section dominated by gongs and drums. No matter where one wandered or which corner of the park one stood in, the majority of the sound was reaching out from elsewhere across the distance. The sounds of the park slowly were drowned out and each percussionist stood as if holding their own court with a sub-audience while communicating at a distance with their fellow musicians. In the climax, sirens were heard and the sound crashed in waves on close and distant shores. Finally, high metal sounds- triangles and xylophones- dominated. Three piccolo players, all stationed in trees above the park called out like birds to the tinkling of some coming night. The sounds of the world slowly rose again to prominence as the percussion faded away like the end of a dream or waking. It was a beautiful mysterious moment and something like a miracle.

Musicians performing Inuksuit in Ojai 2012 Photo: mine 2012
Hours later, the festival presented the first of the regular staged concerts of this year’s festival which has been organized by pianist Leif Ove Andsnes. But before Andsnes made his own appearance on stage, an important connection was made with the prior overwhelming musical experience. Schick came to the stage for a duo with the festival’s other major pianist this year, Marc-André Hamelin to perform John Luther Adams’ Red Arc/Blue Veil. This decidedly shorter piece is deeply rooted in musical color as the title suggests and pairs the single arc of the piano and percussion's rise and fall together with processed sound in a wash of multiple, complex layers. As my friend Ben remarked, it’s the kind of thing you could listen to all day, though it feels like it disappears all to quickly. After this, Andsnes appeared with mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotjin for her first appearance of several at the festival for Shostakovich’s Six Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva. Shostakovich has a way of changing the mood of an evening suddenly and dramatically, and this work from late in the composers life was no exception. The sparsely scored piano part heightens the burning, passionate content of these pieces. Stotjin’s Russian was good and her voice secure and nuanced. But I couldn’t help feel that hearing these songs outdoors under the requisite amplification of the setting didn’t strip something from them.

To close the evening, Hamelin returned with Ives’ “Concord” Piano Sonata No. 2. It’s a piece familiar to Ojai audiences and it was presented (as it usually is) to highlight an independent American spirit composers to this day strive to lay claim to. The best of them, like John Luther Adams, have no trouble doing so, and the particulars of an early 20th-century New England are just as important to Ives here as the Alaskan expanse is to Adams. Hamelin gave a wonderful, richly warm and almost Romantic performance of the work. Ives’ asides into popular music genres in the piece came off as dreams as distant as the wailing conch shells from the other hill in Inuksuit. The performance couldn’t have been more well-suited for the evening and it reinforced Hamelin’s reputation as one of the greatest pianists around, and one I'd argue is still underrated. Best of all, he and all the artists mentioned above are just getting started this beautiful Ojai Valley weekend.


An Accident Waiting to Happen

June 06, 2012

Julio Monge Photo: Craign Schwartz/CTG 2012
Los Otros, the new musical from Ellen Fitzhugh and Michael John LaChiusa now onstage at the Center Theater Group’s Mark Taper Forum, attempts to grapple with a number of contemporary struggles including immigration, race relations, sexual politics, and singing in key. And while there’s a lot of battling in this 90 minutes, it’s the audience that is losing the war. In fact, more pointedly Los Otros raises the question of whether or not anyone at Center Theater Group was involved in vetting this material during the development process before it landed on stage in a full-scale production. There’s a lot wrong with Los Otros, and it’s hard to believe that no one thought this show wasn’t going to be anything but dreadful.

The concept is an exploration of the interactions between Anglo and Latin cultures in the personal lives of Southern Californians during the 20th Century. The single act is divided into two parts, each focusing on a lengthy sung monologue by a different character. The show opens with a white woman, performed by Michele Pawk, who recounts how as a young girl, she and her friends fed a family of illegal immigrants living in a nearby cave. If that’s not enough disturbing cross-cultural whimsy for you, don’t worry. It’s just an appetizer for the woman’s drunken seduction of an 18 year-old virgin Mexican day laborer in the 1970s. He’s kind enough to have her damaged car fixed up after the tryst, which is observed by many of his fellow laborers. No, I’m not making this up. Pawk has a free and easy association with pitch, which makes this bit a constant source of surprise. The mildly less offensive second part is told from the perspective of a 75 year-old first generation American son of Mexican immigrants, played by Julio Monge. The man now lives with his white male lover, but he’s got heart-warming childhood fieldwork stories to tell. Still, much of his time onstage is occupied with hand wringing over storage of the couple’s expansive art collection. Monge is more vocally assured with a text that is mostly sung-through with few self-contained songs.

Michael John LaChiusa’s music for Los Otros is pleasant enough. The ambitious long musical arc of each part is impressive. Fitzhugh’s book and lyrics are bewildering at times in their ham-handed dealings with complex real-life cultural issues. All of this transpires on a sand covered set with a junkyard full of chairs, dolls and other debris suspended above the stage and audience for some unknown reason. The desert set is filled with debris that serves as props, but often makes the show look like it transpires in a garbage dump. Director Graciela Daniele shows her choreographer side by giving her performers plenty of graceful movement to perform, but the show is too far gone from the outset for her to be able to accomplish much. Los Otros attempts to connect with the real multi-layered lives of Californians, but few in the audience recognized much that was familiar in this off-kilter blunder of a new musical.

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In the Wings - June '12

June 04, 2012

As the gray of a Southern California June settles in, the Spring performing arts season sighs its last sigh before our real summer months kick in. There’s still a lot to take in around town, but it's also one of the prime times to consider getting out of town. The prime example of this is right up the Pacific Coast Highway where this year’s Ojai Music Festival will kick off for four days of adventurous 20th Century and contemporary music on June 7th. This year’s music director is Leif Oven Andsnes and he’s put together a great program that includes the West Coast premiere of John Luther Adams’ Inuksuit which will open the festival on Thursday with its dozens of percussionists spread throughout Liibbey Park. (The video above will give you an idea of what the show was like indoors at the Park Avenue Armory in New York last year.) There’s so much else though, and you can read further about the program and the festival's many guest artists who’ll be visiting Ojai in my interview with Mr. Andsnes from last month.

Further up the road in the Bay Area, there are some other high priority out-of-town events for the month. San Francisco Opera will present Verdi’s Attila starring Ferruccio Furlanetto in the title role on June 12th. But perhaps the bigger temptation will be John Adams' Nixon in China which will receive its company premiere on the 8th with an excellent cast that includes Brian Mulligan as Nixon. And if you are in town the weekend I will be, you’ll likely want to see the San Francisco Symphony who’ll be performing Bartok’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle for three nights starting the 21st with Michelle DeYoung and Alan Held under Michael Tilson Thomas. (P.S. If you missed Kander and Ebb’s excellent The Scottsboro Boys in San Diego, don’t make the same mistake when the show comes to A.C.T. in San Francisco starting June 21st after finishing its run down south this coming weekend.)

From the Vancouver Opera production of Nixon in China Photo: Tim Matheson
If you want opera closer to home, June’s big offering down south will be Long Beach Opera’s production of Michael Nyman’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat which will receive the first of two performances on the 16th. There’s other music in town to put on your calendar. The PARTCH ensemble will return to REDCAT on the 14th with Bitter Music, another evening of music from the quintessential American outsider composers, Harry Partch. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Mater Chorale will honor another revered composer with a tribute to Henryk Górecki at Walt Disney Concert Hall on the 10th. Meanwhile in Orange County, the Philharmonic Society welcomes Simone Dinnerstein who'll play on all Bach program on the 18th. There’s dance too when the Bolshoi Ballet comes to the Music Center starting on the 7th for five nearly sold out performances of Swan Lake.

There’s theater big and small of course. Center Theater Group’s Mark Taper Forum will present the world premiere of a new musical from Michael John LaChiusa, Los Otros starting on the 3rd. The Porters of Hellsgate will mount Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor starting on the 15th. Further south, the Old Globe Theater will kick off its summer festival season with Shakespeare’s Richard III on the 3rd, As You Like It on the 10th, and just for contrast, Inherit the Wind on June 17th. This year’s festival and two of the three productions will again be headed up by director Adrian Noble. Also in San Diegp, the LaJolla Playhouse will present the West Coast Premiere of J.T. Roger’s Blood and Gifts starting on the 12th. And if you’re looking for something even more adventurous, there is the return of Robert Cucuzza's take on Miss Julie, Cattywampus on the 22nd and Theatre Movement Bazaar's Anton's Uncles on the 8th both part of the South Coast Repertory Studio series. You may also want to consider one of the dozens of theatrical events this month that will take place this month as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival focusing on the breadth of experimental theater in Los Angeles. I'll be constrained from participating myself this year and there are far too many shows to mention, but you can peruse their website for details. And before the month is out, you’ll want to see Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine’s A Missionary Position at REDCAT starting the 28th which examines the particular conflicts of gay identity in certain parts of Africa.

From Robert Cucuzza's Cattywampus
As for me, I’ll be catching up on some out of town opera in two very different locales. I’ll be in St. Louis Missouri for Opera Theater St. Louis’ festival season to report on the American premiere of Unsuk Chin’s spectacular Alice in Wonderland which starts June 13 as well as to catch their revival of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd with Rod Gilfry in the title role which continues through the 24th. After that it’s off to Europe for 10 days which will stretch into July where I’ll be sampling a variety of offerings including the Royal Opera House’s now Kaufmann-less premiere of Berlioz’ Les Troyens on July 1 to be followed by Billy Budd and the new opera from Blur’s Damon Albarn, Dr. Dee both at English National Opera. In Paris, Emmanuelle Haïm will return to the Garnier to conduct a new production of Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie while the Bastille will welcome Renée Fleming in one of her signature roles as Strauss’ Arabella. The time away will be capped off with a regisseur tour de force all brought to us by the Komische Opera Berlin who’ll give us a Stefan Herheim vision of Handel’s Xerxes, Calixto Bieito’s double barreled view of Der Freischütz, and Andreas Homoki's takes on both Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen. Hopefully there's something here for a sunny start to your own performing arts summer.


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