Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Other Marys, Other Rooms

March 10, 2013

John Adams
Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic wrapped up two weeks worth of concerts this weekend at Disney Concert Hall – shows they’ll soon take on the road to Lincoln Center in New York later this month. The shows were an encapsulation of all the things that are working, and most certainly those that aren’t, with today’s LA Phil. And they come on the heels of the orchestra’s announcement of its 2013/2014 season, the eleventh in the Walt Disney Concert Hall which will celebrate its 10th Anniversary in October and has rapidly set the standard for musical venues in the U.S. if not around the world.

The good news is that the LA Phil has maintained its commitment to contemporary music through a robust and active commissioning program and aggressive programming of a variety of 20th and 21st century sounds. This season and next suggest that the orchestra may be developing a stronger taste for young Americans than European modernists in the targets of their commissioning dollars, ruffling some feathers about the seriousness of it all, but this is really splitting hairs for the most part. Dudamel continues to seem like an ancillary figure in this part of the organization’s programming. He’s by no means absent from it, but his heart is more readily on display elsewhere with the tried and true such as Mahler and next year’s Tchaikovsky cycle, which will again feature contributions from the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. (“I love Tchaikovsky music like crazy’” says the maestro during the press conference announcing the season.) And while he won’t be on the podium for the LA Phil’s performance of Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels, which will mark the exact 10th Anniversary of the opening of WDCH, this past weekend he again helmed perhaps the biggest premiere of the orchestra’s tenure since the departure of former music director Esa-Pekka Salonen, John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary.

Mary premiered in a concert version in the spring of 2012 to a surprised and somewhat bewildered audience. Another opera-cum-oratorio riffing on cornerstone genres of the Western Musical tradition, Mary was bigger than anticipated and much different from what one might expect from Adams, suggesting a new direction in his career and musical production. The sound was thornier, more dissonant, diffuse and far less eager to please. It built on the burgeoning fractured narratives in Adams’ larger vocal works developed alongside director Peter Sellars filling the Passion story with the struggle of mid-Century California farm workers and the incarcerated. Texts and language shift through a myriad of sources constructing a narrative that relies on the audience’s familiarity with the story in order to re-tell the tale.

This weekend, the LA Phil presented the work again with the same soloists from last year, Kelley O’Connor as the eponymous Mary, Tamara Mumford as her sister Martha, Russell Thomas as Lazarus and others, and a mini-chorus of countertenors – Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, and Nathan Medley. The forces here are similar to those in El Nino but the music is markedly different relying less on percolating structures that repeat and blossom into grand gestures. Mary is still startling for what it is not and this time seemed more concentrated and directed in its goals. When Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardener at the conclusion, it is both simultaneously heartbreaking and wonderful. It’s undoubtedly a landmark in the career of one of America’s most important living composers. If there was anything that wasn’t fresh and new in the performance, it was Sellars’ overly familiar semi-staging of events that took place at the foot of the stage. The vocalists were joined by three dancers who sometimes acted as doppelgangers and at others represented characters in their own right. Sellars is eager to draw connections between the characters and contemporary people, dressing everyone in various shades of faux denim and giving the chorus, in street clothes, a wee bit of their own choreography, adding to the shenanigans occurring in front of them. This is all highly familiar stuff from Sellars a this point in the game, particularly alongside his work with Adams, and tended to undercut the surprising innovation elsewhere in the performance.

But while the LA Phil showed off its newer music chops this weekend, the other program on their upcoming out-of-town bill was a far more mixed affair with several soft spots. The highlight of the prior weekend was a performance of Stravinsky’s complete music for The Firebird. This, of course, is the kind of thing Dudamel revels in, with lots of places for big, overstated gestures both in terms of noisy flourish and histrionic pacing. The slower sections dragged, but there was an unmistakably satisfying big finish to drive things home. Even if the finale felt disconnected from what preceded it, Dudamel managed to leave the audience believing they’d heard something, certainly with all the flash and fire. But pull out the show-stoppers and he continues to struggle under the weight of over-processed and mannered musicality. Debussy’s La mer, which closed the first half of the first program, was nothing short of a mess. Splashing about here and there left the musicians drowning in this rocky sea, and an overall lack of line and connection between component parts made the performance hollow and empty. Vivier’s Zipangu opened the first evening with its eerie overtones meant to evoke the Japanese music the title alludes to in 15 minutes of shifting colors. The piece felt dead in Dudamel’s hands less colorful and more disjointed and academic. Like the Debussy the overall picture and feel of the work was lost in a series of overworked and disconnected moments. Of course, all of this may sound more worked out when the orchestra hits the road, but it still suggests that despite the many great things about the LA Phil under Dudamel, few of them stem from his own musicality.


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