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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.

2 years ago | |
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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.
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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.
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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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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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Another Mary's Magda
Part of the fun in listening to new music is never knowing exactly what you’re going to get. Sometimes it’s exciting and sometimes it’s disappointing. And sometimes it’s confusing. After attending the world premiere of John Adams’ new massive oratorio/opera, The Gospel According to the Other Mary, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic on Thursday I was mostly puzzled. So much so I elected to wait until after hearing a second performance today before writing about it. And still I’m not sure if the piece is utter genius or something decidedly less memorable. But I do feel certain that this is a major step in a new direction for Adams, and the oratorio is decidedly unlike anything he’s written before. Now that’s not to say that there aren’t bits here and there that evoke familiar pieces from Adams’ prior works. Lazarus’ aria at the close of Act I, “Tell me how is this night” has ties to Oppenheimer’s Act I aria “Batter My Heart” from Doctor Atomic. And there were more than a few times in the choral writing particularly that I was reminded of The Death of Klinghoffer. But despite the obvious similarities between Other Mary and Adams’ prior New Testament oratorio El Nino, the musical differences between the two works, as well as many of his more recent compositions, are striking.

If El Nino is a contemporary take on Handel’s Messiah, The Gospel According to the Other Mary most clearly revisits Bach’s great St. Matthew Passion. Like El Nino, and Doctor Atomic, the text of the Other Mary is compiled from a variety of different sources, both poetic and not, to highlight contemporary connections to the story of the Passion. But El Nino is filled with circumscribed passages moving from one aria or contained musical tableaux to the next. There are scenes backed with grandeur and seat-riveting emotion with large cinematic crescendos. In contrast, The Other Mary is far more subdued overall and musically homogeneous. There are beautiful, and beautifully complex moments, but they are embedded in a work meant to be heard as a cohesive whole. It’s not unlike the contrast between a hit-laden Rossini opera and the stage works of Wagner or Debussy. The Gospel According to the Other Mary is a very far cry from the kind of toe-tapping kitsch of City Noir from 2009 and it makes El Nino sound like The Merry Widow.

If the new oratorio sounds heavy, it is. Surely it should be considering the subject matter at hand. But, Adams and his collaborator Peter Sellars have gone much farther than in prior collaborations in incorporating outside elements into the familiar story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Part of that is clearly indicated in the title. Adams and Sellars have returned to the gnostic gospels to tell the story of Christ’s death and resurrection from the perspective of the women around him including Mary Magdalene, sung in the premiere in a gorgeously dark-hued nearly contralto manner by Kelley O’Connor, and her sister Martha, an equally mysterious and transfixing Tamara Mumford. The events concerning Mary and Martha prior to the crucifixion are familiar ones. What’s new is the grafting of a second, more contemporary storyline on top of this one. In Adams and Sellars’ version, Martha and Mary are also in and out of jail, running a home for unemployed women, and at other times are protesting alongside Cesar Chavez in mid-20th Century California. With all this activity, it’s a wonder they find time to deal with all the Jesus business on the agenda.

The oratorio opens with Mary in prison listening to the screams of her cellmates. The superb Los Angeles Master Chorale gets a crack at the text of court injunctions against the field workers, and Jesus may just come back as a gardener in the end. It’s a bold move and one that certainly ties in strains of liberation theology to the mix of poetry and other texts grafted together for this libretto. But it doesn’t always work very well. The actual sung text rarely captures the level of detail and action in Sellars’ synopsis, and presented as an oratorio, the piece is often confusing outside of the inevitable draw of the well-known passion story. Mary is saddled with chestnuts like “I cut off my hair and toss it across your pillow/A dark towel/like the one after sex.” You may not be able to hum it after the show, but you aren’t likely to forget it either. On the other hand, the new last words that Adams and Sellars have given Jesus to speak from the cross are insightful and moving. The piece cried out for some physical action to flesh out these unclear connections and give the performance cohesion. The Gospel According to the Other Mary may end up being quite a bit more of an opera than an oratorio in the end and next season’s planned stage version of the work with the Los Angeles Philharmonic could prove more revealing.

For every moment in this dark brooding score that hits home, as with Lazarus’ closing Act I aria sung by a chillingly superb tenor Russell Thomas, there are twice as many that are stone cold dull. The score is almost scrubbed clean of the few remnants of the kind of minimalism Adams was associated with in his early career. The trio of countertenors from Adams’ prior oratorio return, the roles sung here by Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, and Nathan Medley, but this time around they are far less unified and take up and abandon many voices in the cast of characters beyond being angels and simple narrators. The orchestra is smaller than one might expect, reaching only early 19th century proportions. But the instrumentation is augmented with some unusual elements including cimbalom, electric bass guitar, and more almglocken than you can shake a stick at. The Gospel According to the Other Mary does indeed have a complex and multi-layered score. Los Angeles Philharmonic Music Director Gustavo Dudamel led these performances and notably cancelled an appearance here just a few weeks ago to allow himself more time to prepare. I can see why he would want to. The coordination required to manage the work’s diverse elements and multiple textual layers is a challenge that I wager not just anyone in the musical world could meet. The choral writing alone is a mountain to scale for Grant Gershon and the members of the excellent Los Angeles Master Chorale. Dudamel didn’t quite make the best case for the work in these initial performances, instead allowing the orchestra to wallow ponderously in orchestral passages where a more exacting clarity could have provided a stronger sense of motion in the work. He reaches for the dark beauty in the score but drowns the piece in doing so amid its many muddy byways in its three hour plus running time.

Audiences all weekend were keenly aware of this feeling of disconnection as performance after performance, the cast returned to significantly smaller audiences after intermission. Adams too frequently crosses the fine line between mesmerizing and tedious. The Gospel According to the Other Mary is a groundbreaking and markedly different work of music theater for its creator. I believe it could turn out to be as big a revolution as Nixon in China was. But it’s not quite there yet. It’s overly long and lacking in focus. The story elements need clarification and the musical direction needs to be more decisive and clear. But there is a beautiful heart beating in this Other Mary. One can hear it in the voices of O’Connor, Mumford, and Thomas who give rich, profound performances of the three central roles. Here’s hoping it sees the resurrection it deserves along the way of its many planned future performances here and around the world in coming seasons.
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Members of the What's Next? Ensemble Photo: mine 2012
Of the many challenges facing a composer, perhaps the greatest is getting your music heard. Even in your own backyard, something so straightforward can be so insurmountable. Los Angeles would seem ideally suited to addressing the problem. There is no shortage of highly talented, creative composers, musicians who love to play new music, and a large, active audience interested in hearing it played. And yet, surprisingly, never the twain do meet. Or at least not very often. Not that it never happens, but living composers stand a much better chance of getting heard on local stages if they are from out of town – and particularly if that town is somewhere in Europe. On Saturday night, the What’s Next? ensemble, a consortium of young musicians under artistic director Vimbayi Kaziboni, mounted their latest program aimed at addressing this very issue in Culver City. It was the fourth installment of the company’s Los Angeles Composers Project, a series devoted to performing chamber works from composers living and working in L.A. or around Southern California. These annual showcases have proven increasingly popular, and Friday’s crowd swelled beyond the capacity of the room in their current home at Royal/T Café. (Sadly this venue will soon be closing soon, forcing the group to look for a new home for performances next season.)

The interesting thing about the show, and the others in the series, have been the diversity of music and styles all held together under a single musical roof. The What’s Next? ensemble sets relatively few limits for the artists who submit works to be considered, outside of geography and available musical resources. There have been pieces from established and successful composers right alongside works from those still in music school. The contrast in terms of content, as you might guess from the preceding, can be vast from experimental descendants of late-20th century European modernism, to more typically tonal works ripped right off of screens both big and small. It’s all part of musical life in Los Angeles, and the What’s Next? players aim to capture at least part of all the different music made right where we live.

There were some lovely moments in Ian Krouse’s flute and harp duet, Air, as well as in Stephen Cohn’s substantial single movement for string trio and marimba, American Spring. Cohn's work, inspired by the numerous uprisings throughout the Middle East last year contained some lovely work from Ben Phelps on the marimba. The most theatrical moment of the evening came at the close of the program with Nick Norton’s open-form AutoSonata Beta, which built as each of 10 musicians entered the room one at a time taking positions surrounding the audience while playing a prescribed rhythm in a different pitch as set out in the rules of Norton’s score as an homage to experimentalist composers of the mid 20th Century. The music built to a crescendo and then subsided as players left one at a time much in the same way they entered like a wave crashing on shore and then receding. The longest title of the night belonged to Jason Barabba’s string trio, A Declarative Sentence Whose Meaning is That We Must Try Harder. Composer Kenji Oh contributed Tsuki No Uta, a setting of three poems about the moon by Ogura Hyakunin Isshu that were sung by tenor Matthew Miles with percussion, flute, guitar, and cello. The mysteries alluded to there were paralleled in more ironic fashion with Veronika KrausasOr for solo violin played here by Sakura Tsai. Series of paired alternating pitches are periodically broken with dramatic pizzicato as the work sways back and forth until ending in the spoken dichotomy, “enlightenment or insanity?”

Perhaps the most poignant moment of the evening, though, belonged to Shaun Naidoo’s Diaraby for solo guitar and electronics. Naidoo, a composer and faculty member of Chapman University, died unexpectedly just weeks before this concert. Naidoo had been a long term friend of many in the What’s Next? ensemble, which has previously performed his works. Naidoo's friend and Chapman colleague Jeff Cogan, for whom the piece was written, played Diaraby, which is based on a West African folk song paired with processed audio of the performance with random changes of the simultaneous playback. And while there is nothing essentially elegiac about the work, Cogan’s heartfelt performance was a reminder of one of the unique qualities of art as something that its creator leaves behind- a living echo of its creator. And for a moment Naidoo, a dear friend to many in the room, was there again sharing with a community of local composers and musicians. For an evening dedicated to the spirit of a local music community, it couldn't have been more fitting under the circumstances.
2 years ago | |
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Sandra Bernhard Photo: Steven Gunther 2012
It was a little less than a year ago that Sandra Bernhard brought her show I Love Being Me, Don’t You? to REDCAT in downtown Los Angeles. Ms. Bernhard herself was the first to admit Wednesday that she was surprised to be back at the REDCAT so soon after these prior appearances. But there she was in all her glory with a show of mostly brand-new material at the invitation of the REDCAT staff for what will be two weeks of shows. The new material is packaged under the title Sandrology, and as the title suggests, there is plenty of the autobiographical material she’s been known for. But things were decidedly different this time around than last year. Ms. Bernhard’s comedy has long operated on the outskirts of traditional stand-up comedy. She doesn’t really tell jokes as much as she creates ironic extended riffs on the American culture of angst and celebrity. She weaves elaborate and decidedly fake tales around songs with just a twinge of irony in their loving embrace. I Love Being Me, Don’t You? extrapolated that methodology to a sophisticated and polished end in an evening that could be as much rock concert as comedy show.

But Sandrology takes off and runs in the opposite direction. There are still songs, six in all, including a finale medley of Apollonia 6’s “Sex Shooter”, Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks”, and Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got a Gun”. I’ll let you puzzle out the critique in that one, but let it be said that any evening that start’s with Neil Sedaka’s “Laughter in the Rain” is going to be a good one. But the majority of the two-hour evening is performed without a band, Ms. Bernhard at the mic delivering full-fledged written comic riffs on everything from celebrity perfume brands, twitter accounts, and the relative social statements of shopping at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. (If you’re wondering, no one gets away clean.) The extended song embedded monologues take a back seat to what comes off as good old-fashioned stand-up. She hits a number of celebrities from Lady Gaga to DeNiro in the 80s. She even manages some sophisticated self-parody for those quick enough to catch the spiraling references. But Ms. Bernhard’s cultural critique is always more sophisticated than it’s packaging and the targets are just as frequently ourselves as they are the rich and famous. She’s got guest stars this time too, who included Kevin Cronin on opening night joining the comedian for a rendition of “Can’t Fight This Feeling”. As with any new material, some of the bits are still a work in progress, but anyone who has ever loved Ms. Bernhard, or even just liked her a little in passing, will be pleased with what she’s serving up at REDCAT over these two weeks through June 10th.
2 years ago | |
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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.
2 years ago | |
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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.
2 years ago | |
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