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Out West Arts
Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond
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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.
3 years ago | |
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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 Erdos 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, Erdos 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.
3 years ago | |
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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.
3 years ago | |
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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.
3 years ago | |
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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.
3 years ago | |
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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.

3 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.
3 years ago | |
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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.
3 years ago | |
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