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Out West Arts
Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond
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L - R: Jared Joseph, Ron Holgate, and JC Montgomery Photo: Henri DiRocco/Old Globe 2012
Want to see an excellent musical? I mean one of the best things you’ll see all year? Well if you're in Los Angeles, of course, you can go see the Tony-nominated revival of Sondheim’s Follies at the Ahmanson Theater. But let’s say you live farther south. Or let’s say you own a car or have access to one. Or let’s say you can walk enough to get yourself on a train. If any of the above are true, you should do everything and anything under your power to see another great show that just hit San Diego’s Old Globe Theater last week. It’s the west coast premiere of the final completed musical from Kander and Ebb, The Scottsboro Boys and it is nothing short of a stunner. It also was lauded with Tony nominations in 2011 including best musical (though cruelly ignored under the Book of Mormon bandwagon proving again that the Oscars don’t have the market cornered on self-serving industry myopia). And now the show has arrived for the first of two California runs with a stint at A.C.T. in San Francisco to follow this summer.

The show is vintage Kander and Ebb. In fact, it is much more so identifiably the heir of shows like Cabaret and Chicago than it is related to the unfinished Curtains that surfaced after a completion in 2006. The Scottsboro Boys, with a book by David Thompson, takes ostensibly weighty material, in this case racism and the early civil rights movement, and gives it that ironic, scathing commentary Kander and Ebb were masters of by dressing it up in immensely catchy familiar folk-influence showtunes. This combination invites controversy, actually inspiring a few protests on Broadway during its 2010 run. The show recounts the real events surrounding the infamous 1930s case of The Scottsboro Boys, nine African-American men who were unjustly accused and eventually convicted of rape charges while riding the rails looking for work from Chattanooga to Memphis. The original trial, where the defendants received little to no representation and were convicted and sentenced to death by an all white jury, became a cause celebre inflaming tensions between the North and South in the earliest years of the civil rights movement.

Clifton Duncan and cast Photo: Henri DiRocco/Old Globe 2012
The highlights of this lengthy decades long story are deftly compressed into an intermissionless 105 minutes for a musical that is clear concise and never drags. The controversy arises from Kander and Ebb’s choice to cast the performance as a single large minstrel show complete with episodes of performers in blackface. It still touches a nerve and I’ll admit to sucking my breath in on more than one occasion when the two stock minstrel characters, Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones, take on any number of the several small ancillary roles in the story not associated with the actors playing the nine accused men. (It’s an entirely African-American cast with the exception of The Interlocutor who serves as judge, mayor and other executive white authority figures.) However, this artistic strategy, using the traditions and images of minstrelsy as a point of departure in examining a legacy of racism and discrimination in the United States is hardly new. Visual artists like Kara Walker and filmmakers like Robert Townshend and Spike Lee have mined similar veins in different ways for decades. But perhaps the most disquieting thing about the juxtaposition in this context is that most American theater goers may not realize how central the minstrel tradition was to developing what would later follow as Vaudeville and what we think of today as the American Musical Theater. The blackface may be gone for the most part, but like all of American culture and history, you don’t have to dig very deep to find some of the horror our modern world was built on.

The songs are among the best Kander and Ebb wrote and they are given superlative performances by this ensemble cast. At the center of the dramatic proceedings is Clifton Duncan as Haywood Patterson who has one of the longest story arcs of any of the accused men. Duncan’s warm effortless voice makes numbers like “Nothin’" and “Make Friends with the Truth” showstoppers. Jared Joseph and J.C. Montgomery also get a chance to stand out from the pack as Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo respectively touring through any number of characters both crude and eerily serious. Director and choreographer Susan Stroman has come with the show to California with its new cast and recreates her sparse, but intensely affecting show, which relies principally on the abilities of its cast to get the point across.

Yes, this is not Jersey Boys. We should all be thankful for that. However, it is great theater and you should not miss an opportunity to see it in either San Diego or San Francisco this year. The Old Globe will continue with the run through June 10.
1 year ago | |
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Kurt Vonnegut
Saturday wrapped up the second full season of performances from Los Angeles’ young new music collective wildUp. I'm going to miss them immensely over the summer (although word has it their plans for later this year involve some pretty spectacular soon-to-be-revealed collaborations.) Why I’ve come to admire this ensemble so much is that they offer something you can't find in too many other venues around town and Saturday’s program was fully representative of that. The group isn’t about just trotting out a few new works that they play for contrast with more familiar bait for potential ticket buyers. Nor is the ensemble simply about revisiting 20th century rarities and and under-programmed European modernists. No, wildUp is about the moment, making the music that they want to hear now and sharing their excitement about it with a community of people interested in living, breathing composers experimenting and finding their way in the musical world. Maybe not every piece comes off as a winner and not every note is great, but the energy and excitement is undeniable. The evenings that the players organize under director Chris Rountree are not about history. They are about playing music now and they are not to be missed.

Saturday’s program played off one of the group’s current venues, the Pasadena Armory Center for the Arts a former armory that has for several decades been home to a large thriving community arts and education program. Rountree and his colleagues couldn’t ignore the underlying implications of transforming such a space from a place of preparing for war to one of hopefully peaceful artistic production. The show built on these tensions with works about war and peace and the sometimes fine line between the two. Four of the woks were new compositions from members of the ensemble, which were joined by another new commission from local composer Nicholas Deyoe. The only dead guy on the program was Igor Stravinsky whose L’Histoire du Soldat rounded out the show in a 1993 version with rewritten text for the score by author and pacifist Kurt Vonnegut.

First up were the guns and ammunition. Andrew Tholl’s Still Not a Place to Build Monuments or Cathedrals kicked things off with an angry blaze of sound including electric guitar riffs that would have made Glenn Branca proud. The mood changed, but the chaotic swirl towards the inevitable didn’t. This was followed by Andrew McIntosh’s Inch and Mile, which, we were told, was written using just intonation, and slowly built from smaller units to more declarative rhythmic ones as an analogy of how small conflicts can lead, by a series of unexpected smaller events to larger ones. I was taken with the manner the work snuck up on the listener bit by bit it one of the night's highlights. Mr. Deyoe’s work, A New Anxiety, was a commission Rountree asked for to be based on the work of death metal bands like Slayer. Deyoe, no stranger to working with electric guitar sounds excitedly dove in and delivered the decibels and joyful exuberance one might expect from such a request.

The “peace” part of the show which followed the break had its most serene moment with Rountree’s own For Allen Ginsberg, which was built around specific chants used in Ginsberg’s own work and offered an opportunity for several performers to offer up flowers in remembrance of both Ginsberg and the peaceful causes he represented. Then came Chris Kallmyer’s Here We All Are Moving Forward. Kallmyer is as much a sound artist as a composer and things are never quite as straight forward as they seem. After receiving the commission to write a piece inspired by Palestrina and the music of William Byrd, Kallmyer wanted to produce a work that was alos political without being too didactic. What he created was a system to translate data about Iraqi casualties during the recent Iraq war into corresponding rhythmic elements that were then used as underpinning for something more reflective of the work's early music inspiration. The work was cleverly open-ended the incessant clicking rhythm constantly hoovering in the back of some beautiful melodic overlay that could be read either as a cause for hope or a reminder of our persistent ability to maintain such a great distance between that quality and our reality.

It was at this point the group turned to Stravinsky’s rude, jarring work about a soldier dealing with the devil. As conductor Rountree pointed out from the podium, it’s a bit of an odd work in that Stravinsky’s soldier, whose story occurs in bursts in between the music, is armed with a violin and not a gun and never sees much combat. Vonnegut saw this as an insult given his own combat experience and set out to replace the work’s original text by C. F. Ramuz with an ironic, more-pointed alternative story based on the life of Eddie Slovik, a WWII U.S. soldier executed for desertion – in fact the first to be so treated since the Civil War. There’s a bitter taste here making Stravinsky’s music sound even more sardonic than usual and a cast of four actors were stationed high above the orchestra on an overlooking balcony where a farcical version of Slovik’s desertion story and execution played out. It's highly reminiscent of Ullmann's Der Kaiser von Atlantis in its direct assault on human cruelty and was a wonderful addition to the program. Rountree did a great job is coordinating this stop-start piece between orchestra and actors even if not all the acting was what one might have hoped for.

And so the wildUp audience, which grows bigger and bigger at each performance, was once again left wanting more. And it appears at this point that wildUp has every attention of providing that into the foreseeable future. It's an experiment that has touched off excitement in a local community of young composers and musicians, and we in Los Angeles are luck to have them.
1 year ago | |
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Gwendolyn Brown as Marie Laveau confronts revelers in Anne LeBaron's Crescent City Photo: Dana Ross 2012
Crescent City is neither Istanbul nor Constantinople. No, the titular setting of Anne LeBaron’s new opera, which premiered on Thursday in Los Angeles, is a futuristic, flood ravaged, pre- and post-apocalyptic New Orleans in all but name. I know that description sounds somewhat complicated, but then again, that’s very much in the spirit of this hugely ambitious and promising world premiere from a new-found opera company that may have changed the face of musical theater in this city overnight. That company, The Industry, is the brainchild of director Yuval Sharon and his producing partner Laura Kay Swanson. Sharon first came into contact with LeBaron’s music during his time as Project Director for New York City Opera’s VOX program for new operas. And after he found the audiences of Los Angeles particularly open to experimentation during his tenure as Assistant Director to Achim Freyer at Los Angeles Opera during their recent Ring cycle, the notion of setting up shop for new operas right here was hatched and LeBaron’s Crescent City appeared to be the ideal substrate for a spectacular chemical reaction.

The show’s story is as elaborate as the production designed around it. There’s one character from real-life, Marie Laveau, a 19th century New Orleans Voodoo queen whose been resurrected in the wake of a near devastating hurricane that has left Crescent City in ruins. But there’s a second one on the way, if you believe the visions people are having, and neither the many inhabitants of the city, nor Laveau’s Loa, spiritual voodoo emissaries to the gods, seem quite certain that it's all worth saving. She enlists her spirit guides' begrudging and uncertain help anyway to salvage the city if just a few souls worth saving can be found.

The scope of the show is enormous for a first-time production from a new, independent company. The three-hour performance takes place in a recovered warehouse art space called Atwater Crossing sandwiched between Glendale and Griffith Park right along the Metrolink tracks. In addition to LeBaron and her librettist Douglas Kearney, the company enlisted a huge cadre of artists. There’s an orchestra of eighteen under music director Mark Lowenstein that includes the members of local band Timur and the Dime Museum. There are eight principal members of the vocal cast, as well as six non-singing “revelers” who play some of the street denizens of Crescent City and perform a variety of acrobatics including managing most of the video cameras used to project in-performance video feeds throughout the show on large screens about the space. Furthermore, six separate visual artists were brought in to design each of the opera’s physical locales, which fill the space, including a cemetery, swamp, dive bar, junk pile, house, and hospital. These locales are separated by two crossroads and the audience is seated around and within the performance area. Ticket buyers have a number of options: there’s a single row of seating around the perimeter, a “skybox” area to watch it all from above, and walking admissions where audience members can move around the outskirts of the space to catch the ever-mobile action. And for the not camera adverse, there’s seating available in beanbag chairs on the floor of the dive bar set to bring you right into the action. The orchestra was situated above the action on a balcony to the side. All of the sound is amplified and supertitles are provided with the video feed. Considering there’s no chorus, it’s a mammoth production team for this type of project, and that they’ve managed to produce something so attractive and professionally done right out of the gate is cause for celebration.

The principal singing cast was exemplary and surprisingly good for a production this size. There are new faces like the contralto Gwendolyn Brown who plays Laveau, with a rich, beautiful tone that galvanized attention throughout. The wonderful bass/baritone Cedric Berry plays The Good Man, a homesteader basically hanging on for what little sanity is left for him in the wake of the devastation of his family. Then there’s veteran tenor Jonathan Mack who is a constant, steady cop providing the last fantasy of order in the town. And atop the tongue-like stage, at the Chit Hole bar in a dress of red condoms, there’s drag queen Deadly Belle (named after the first hurricane), played by Timur Bekbosunov, whose expressive broad range served him well in scenes of both deprivation and redemption. There are several other characters and cast members including a returning homesick woman played by Lillian Sengpiehl, a ghost cop partner, Jesse, sung by Ashley Faatoalia and a pair of twin spirits/dominatrix nurses sung by Maria Elena Altany and Ji Young Yang, all a pleasure to listen to. With a few exceptions, all of the vocalists play both residents of Crescent City as well as various Loa figures, both good and evil across the evening.

There are several beautiful and haunting images in the show. Often the most striking ones involve the most basic theatrical techniques including Marie’s concluding aria as she floats on her boat through the swamp talking to the Loa. There’s not a non-commanding image or uninteresting moment in the show. However, that isn’t to say that the show itself is a complete success. The Industry has called Crescent City a “hyperopera” indicating that its development occurred through an unusually open collaborative process. LeBaron is said to have even rewritten some of the music based on ideas presented by the scenic artists during the design process. This interactivity produces both the positive and negative upshots you might imagine. Crescent City is always visually imaginative and often quite surprising, from the video elements through the physical performance through LeBaron’s use of a plethora of American folk music styles and traditions. However, the show also seems unwieldy at times and in need of a bit sharper eye toward editing and consistent narrative structure.

The show is hard to follow and the projected subtitles are difficult to read much of the time. Though poetic, the libretto is often far more obtuse than it need be. Despite reading the detailed synopsis in the program there are many scenes that seem to go nowhere even if they do so beautifully. With so many characters and storylines in such a small space, many great resources were squandered for the sake of inclusion of ideas that while interesting, don’t actually move the show forward as a unified whole. For instance, why Marie Laveau spends nearly the whole show in a hospital bed outside of her commanding introduction and finale is a mystery. (Just as it is a mystery as to why she’s come back from the dead, what she thinks of this, or why she’s so concerned about saving Crescent City in the first place.) There are several roles that come off as placeholders for ideas more than dramatically involving characters. Just as the individual artists sets hold many wonders in their variety, the overall effect can also veer towards something that looks like the concluding episode of America's next Top Opera Set Designer. LeBaron’s music can be evocative at times and dizzying with electronic elements in contrast to its more vernacular styles, but it lived almost independently of the stage action neither moving it forward nor providing perspective on events. The acoustics of the space weren’t attractive even with the amplification.

Still, Crescent City is quite a funhouse and even with multiple exposures would likely offer up different and changing perspectives. Not everyone might agree - there was a significant drop off in Thursday’s audience size after the intermission which is a shame considering all there was still to see. Most importantly, a band of Los Angeles based artists have come together to produce a huge, elaborate work right here without just emulating a pattern developed elsewhere or with imported elements from whatever worked out of town. One hopes this is only the beginning for The Industry, because with them the future of performance in the city looks decidedly brighter. Crescent City runs for a total of eleven performance through May 27th.
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Alan Gilbert conducts the New York Philharmonic Photo: Chris Lee
Most of the great U.S. orchestras have hit the road this season. And while not all of them have made it to the L.A. Philharmonic’s regular stage (Orange County’s Philharmonic Society has had a much greater success rate there), the New York Philharmonic under its recently appointed music director Alan Gilbert arrived in town Wednesday with one of the two programs they’ve been touring with. Gilbert’s time in New York so far has continued to show great promise, although it hasn’t always been delivered on. He’s injected more 20th-century and newer music into the seasons' programming, but it isn’t quite as comprehensive of a commitment for the entire organization to this repertoire as some might have hoped. There’s still an awful lot of the everyday to be heard in Avery Fisher Hall, despite some extremely well received performances of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre. And the orchestra’s summer appearances at the Park Avenue Armory with Stockhausen’s Gruppen are already the talk of the town.

So when the L.A. program includes Dvorak’s Carnival Overture and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 along with the recently premiered Piano Concerto by Magnus Lindberg for Yefim Bronfman, one couldn’t be blamed for wanting a bit more. But then again, any music can make a great program in the right hands. Just take the Mariinsky Orchestra’s performance of the late Tchaikovsky Symphonies in Southern California in 2011. Gergiev and his players produced surprisingly dramatic, demanding performances of some of the most familiar symphonies to a classical music audience. And fair or not, that shadow continued to hang over the New York Philharmonic’s performance to my ear on Wednesday. Gilbert did get a strong, passionate performance from his players. It didn’t skimp on glossy polish at all and could sometimes even be a bit too much with some of the horn players sounding like they were still trying to play against the dead Avery Fisher Hall acoustics instead of the easy, warm Walt Disney Concert Hall. When a cell phone went off in the silence immediately following the second movement, Alan Gilbert looked around for the offending source of the noise with a disparaging mock-frustrated shrug of the shoulders referencing his recent scolding of a patron in the audience with a cell phone going off in a performance of Mahler's Symphony No 9 earlier this year - an event that made a lot of non-music oriented headlines as well.

Of course, the main course for the night was the new Piano Concerto from the N.Y. Phil’s Composer-in-Residence Magnus Lindberg. Lindberg is no stranger to the L.A. Phil stage either and considering what a good friend Mr. Bronfman has been, you’d could be forgiven for forgetting for a moment that it wasn't our beloved L.A. players onstage. The concerto itself is rather a throw back to music of the mid-20th Century; sort of a concert equivalent of a Mad Men episode. It's tonal and rather accessible throughout and surprisingly unvaried over its three movement and thirty some minutes. I wouldn't go so far to say that it was eager to please, but it also wasn't out to make any waves churning along rather blandly until Bronfman's final knuckle-buster of a cadenza in the last movement. Suddenly his hand were everywhere. And wherever they went on the keys it was loud. But his remarkable virtuosity and its rather forceful presentation in the home stretch didn't quite make this a piece I'm dying to hear again soon. Though certainly the lovely New York Philharmonic, Mr. Gilbert, and Mr. Bronfman are always welcome on the West Coast and for them, we are counting the days.
1 year ago | |
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Joseph Pereira
On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Philharmonic “Green Umbrella” new(ish) music series wrapped up its run for the season with percussion and Luciano Berio’s love for Cathy Berberian. The program was to have been conducted by L.A. Phil music director Gustavo Dudamel who withdrew from the concert just last week due to what was described as his need for more time to prepare for the world premiere of John Adams’ new evening length opera/oratorio The Passion According to the Other Mary just over three weeks from now. So while the maestro was apparently holed up somewhere diligently committing the new score to memory or whatever else it might be that he does to prepare, conductor Jeffrey Milarsky got down to the actual business of music making and performing some challenging new pieces including a commission and world premiere from one of the L.A. Phil's own.

Perhaps the most exciting part of the evening was that world premiere of a new percussion concerto written by composer and L.A. Philharmonic principal timpanist Joseph Pereira. The L.A. Phil has a tradition of composer/timpanists, most notably William Kraft, who achieved similar success with the orchestra not so long ago. (Interestingly, Pereira has performed Kraft’s own Percussion Concerto No. 1 with the orchestra in 2009.) For Pereira’s own piece, he recruited the talents of Colin Currie who was seen recently in Orange County playing the Higdon Percussion Concerto with the Baltimore Symphony. The piece is scored for both strings and winds that are separated into small groups at either side of the stage. There are also two additional percussionists, one for each set of players who accompanied Currie with a wide array of sounds. The idea, as Pereira pointed out in his own remarks, was to have the soloist work from a more restricted range of instruments and allow the back-up percussionists a broader palette in the supporting role. Percussion concertos often allow soloists time with everything but the kitchen sink. Take for example Sofia Gubaidulina's recent Glorious Percussion that calls for an entire group of "soloists" to cover all the instrumentation she calls for. In Pereira's work, the goal was to focus on only a couple of instruments and explore the contrast between "unpitched" drums in the first movement and "pitched" marimba and vibraphone in the balance. The music and its development with the small orchestra plays with the notion of each group being "pitched" or not, and Pereira specifically asks each collection to express itself in the language of the other. For example, in the opening of the second movement the marimba part is restricted to only a couple of tones relying instead on other "unpitched" qualities of the sound for expression. Of course, none of this stayed stable for long, and Pereira played with the tension, passing material back and around with constant commentary from the cornucopia of other percussion instruments in the hands of the orchestra players. The work adhered to a traditional concerto structure which early on moved from bursts of dance rhythms to more esoteric forms and the piece mostly began to cook as it entered its final stretches.

In the first half of the program, Pereira's concerto was paired with Andy Akiho’s Alloy for the 12-member Foundry Steel Pan Ensemble. The work is scored for eleven steel pan players and a drum set. Additionally, the players each had bits and pieces of scrap metal that they would also play. The work cleverly played with the Carribean musical heritage associated with these instruments in an indirect fashion. It bounced along in a regular repeating way reminiscent of something straight out of Stomp that was a crowd-pleaser. Despite its ambitions for something greater, though, it came off as more of a trinket than a part of the crown jewels.

The balance of the evening moved away from percussion and towards more vocal fireworks even if they were still of an unconventional variety. The concert closed with Luciano Berio’s Recital (for Cathy), a 40-minute fever dream inside the mind of a soprano during the course of a recital performance. Written for Berio’s muse Cathy Berberian, the work demands as much acting as singing and playfully quotes a wide variety of composers and musical idioms in a dizzying succesion. Soprano Kiera Duffy was the protagonist and picked up and dropped Purcell, Rossini, Wagner and many more almost as quickly as she found them. Berio's own music from prior works is mixed in as well, and even when the music is immediately familiar, the substituted multi-lingual text, sometimes spoken, sometimes sung, is nonsense. Or at least it's meaning is largely subconscious filled with the musings and wayward madness of the recitalist character. There's a doppelganger that appears to repeatedly try to pull her offstage and even the soprano's own accompanist, in this case a role played by L.A. Phil keyboardist Joanne Pearce Martin, lunges onto the scene half way through. Meanwhile, conductor Milarsky leads his small band of strings and winds like some Greek chorus commenting on the action and egging it on. It was lots of fun to watch, and Duffy gave a very physical and engaged performance. Still, the part plays with this notion of the mind of the diva and its wayward subconscious tributaries which calls for a certain grandeur to give the thing another layer of comic irony that Duffy didn't quite tap into. The performance, which was directed by James Darrah, reminded me of the San Francisco Symphony's recent huge success with John Cage's Song Books and the nuanced insanity from experienced vocalists such as Jessye Norman and Meredith Monk who were able to trade on their own histories and images for another level of meaning in Cage's theatrical insanity. The L.A. Phil needed a little more of that on Tuesday in what was otherwise a solid show.
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From Anne LeBaron's Crescent City Photo: Dana Ross 2012
Four operas will dominate L.A.’s performance landscape over the next month, each as wildly different in its inception as the next. If you have any interest in opera, or think you should have one, there is absolutely something that will likely turn your head this month. Let’s start with perhaps the most traditional offering, Puccini’s La Bohème which will return to L.A. Opera for the 6th revival of Herbert Ross' production starting May 12 with a bevy of young stars including Stephen Costello, Ailyn Perez, and Janai Brugger. Meanwhile across the street, the L.A. Philharmonic will present Mozart’s Don Giovanni under Music Director Gustavo Dudamel, who will continue his ongoing onstage education about the most standard of operas. Mariusz Kwiecien will take the title role for all four performances starting May 18. On the less conventional side, Long Beach Opera will take their undoubtedly different stab at Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar for two performances on the 20th and 26th. But perhaps the most unexpected and anticipated opera event will be the hugely ambitious staging of Anne LeBaron’s Crescent City by the start up company, The Industry LA at Atwater Crossing on the 10th, which you can read more about in my preview of the show.

The other big event this month will be the world premiere of the new oratorio/opera from John Adams, The Gospel According to the Other Mary, which will again take place under Gustavo Dudamel with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It looks to be an immensely challenging piece in that the company announced late last week that the preparations are such a concern to Dudamel that he won’t be able to participate in the “Green Umbrella” New Music program the orchestra is presenting a full 23 days before on May 9 that includes a world premiere percussion concerto by L.A. Phil principal timpanist Joseph Pereira. Dudamel will also lead a smattering of two different mostly Mozart programs in the interim.

Alsan Gilbert conducts the New York Philharmonic Photo: Chris Lee
There is plenty of other music to hear. On top of that pile would be the next program for L.A.’s adventurous wildUp chamber orchestra, which will consider themes military and otherwise on the 12th at the Pasadena Armory. The Formalist Quartet will give a concert celebrating their 5th anniversary on Feb 26 as part of the continuing music series at Beyond Baroque in Venice. For some more established new(ish) music, the place to be will be Santa Monica where Jacaranda will wrap up there current season with a California-based program including works of Terry Riley and Lou Harrison on the 20th. The Southwest Chamber Music 25th Anniversary season will wrap up this month as well with four performances as part of what they're billing as their first L.A. International New Music Festival, which takes place on the 9th, 12th, 24th and 26th at Zipper Concert Hall with programs that take "new" as some time within the last seventy years and composers who may well be international, though only rarely from L.A. The newfound Los Angeles Trombone Collective will give a concert of new works specifically for their unique corner of the musical world at the wulf on the 19th. Pianist Mark Robson will revisit works for the left hand at a recital at Boston Court in Pasadena on the 18th. Camerata Pacifica will wrap up their season as well with Beethoven, Heggie and Mozart in L.A. County on the 10th and the 16th. The always-interesting Brad Mehldau Trio will be at The Broad Stage on May 21. And lest I forget there are two very big musical out of town guests to remember this month. The New York Philharmonic and their music director Alan Gilbert will bring Magnus Lindberg’s new Piano Concerto for Yefim Bronfman to the Walt Disney Concert Hall on the 9th after performances of a different program with Beethoven and Debussy on offer in Orange County with the Philharmonic Society on the 8th. And the legendary Elaine Stritch will bring her one woman Sondheim show to L.A. on the 19th.


Elaine Paige in Follies Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2012
Theater-wise, I should first remind you that you absolutely must see the Tony-nominated production of Sondheim’s Follies, which is now running at the Ahmanson Theater if you do nothing else this month. Center Theater Group will also open a world-premiere musical from Michael John LaChiusa at the Mark Taper Forum on the 23rd entitle Los Otros. In San Diego, the Old Globe currently is offering Kander and Ebb’s The Scottsboro Boys while just a hop away the La Jolla Playhouse will soon open the world premiere musical Hands on a Hardbody (which is currently in previews) with a book by Doug Wright. Pasadena’s Theater at Boston Court will open with a world premiere play The Children by Michael Elyanow on the 3rd. Meanwhile, South Coast Repertory will go with the more tested Jitney by August Wilson starting on the 11th. REDCAT will be offering a number of interesting programs this month including Cold Dream Color, a new dance work from Arcan Collective on the 16th. And with all of this, you won’t want to miss the exclamation mark on American culture, Sandra Bernhard, who’ll bring her new show Sandrology to REDCAT starting on the 30th. And by that point June will be on the horizon including the 2012 edition of the Ojai Music Festival which will be led by Leif Ove Andsnes this year and will kick off on June 7th with the West Coast Premier of John Luther Adams Inuksuit. Stay tuned for a full preview.
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Ron Raines and the cast of Follies Photo: Joan Marcus
Not able to get out to New York during this Tony Awards season? Well for once, if you want to sample a bit of what might garner an award on June 10 this year, you need go no further than the Ahmanson Theater downtown where James Goldman and Stephen Sondheim’s Follies have been imported almost perfectly intact following its recent Broadway run. (And for those of you old enough to remember, this may seem familiar in that almost the exact same circumstances followed the Broadway production of the original production which subsequently ran mostly untouched in L.A. in 1972.) In addition to being nominated for best revival of a musical, the show has (count them) four of this year's nominees in the cast, Jan Maxwell, Ron Raines, Danny Burstein, and Jane Houdyshell. Oddly enough the most marketable star from the show’s Broadway run, Bernadette Peters, is the about the only one who didn't make it out to L.A., leaving the role of Sally Durant Plummer to another Broadway star and prior Tony winner, Victoria Clark. Peters was one of my major caveats to liking the show when I saw it in New York last year, and Clark fits much more naturally into the role of dowdy Sally who may well be losing her mind in her pursuit to rekindle a three decades old adolescent fling.

Often when Center Theater Group imports shows from New York, which sadly represents the majority of their production output these days, the shows often come out watered down or decidedly less focused and smaller in scale. Not so this time around. This production of Follies, which originated at Washington’s Kennedy Center is brasher, tighter and much more ferocious than before. Everyone of those Tony nominees is a winner. Jan Maxwell’s Phyllis is graceful, lean, and worldly. She delivers a scorching version of "The Story of Lucy and Jessie" complete with all the male dancers one could ask for for the heavy lifting. Your heart breaks for her almost as much as it does for Burstein’s Buddy who’ll never fulfill the dreams of the wife he desperately loves. He's vocally warm and provides an excellent complement to Raines performance as Ben, which seemed more comfortable and certain here than I remember. The smaller roles abound with treasures. Soprano and opera star Carol Neblett has joined the cast here in L.A. in the role of Heidi. Elaine Paige still delivers a show-stopping rendition of “I’m Still Here." I'd say it's a unique moment, but it isn't. This show is filled with numbers that elicit tons of enthusiastic time stretching applause. It's loaded with Sondheim's best music sung unforgettably well by a first rate cast.

That Follies arrives amid an Ahmanson season of musicals and plays targeted at people who watch teen movies or music videos is reassuring. The show is an old-fashioned one with its many musical tributes to a bygone era of the theater. Each is a gem with a melancholy heart that gets worn more or less on the sleeve of each performer. The central conceit of the show with its many ghost-like show girls wandering among the living characters underscores the pervasive passing of time that all of the characters are singing and talking about in the show at the most basic level. It's an adult entertainment and admittedly may not be your cup of tea if your idea of a musical demands teen cheerleaders or brooding young rock stars. It's about a generation coming to grips with the passing decades and the choices they've made to get where they are. My advice—see it early, because you'll likely want to go more than once.
1 year ago | |
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Sir Simon Rattle
I flew back from New York a little earlier than I would normally on Saturday for one reason and one reason only - a rare appearance from conductor Simon Rattle on the podium of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It wasn’t always this way. Rattle, perhaps one of the most highly regarded conductors in the world, made his first appearance with the L.A. Phil in 1979 and was Principal Guest Conductor here during the 1980s and early 90s. But in case you hadn’t noticed, those days are long gone and despite a close relationship with our local orchestra in the past, Rattle hasn’t performed with the orchestra now in over a decade and has only performed in Walt Disney Concert Hall on one prior occasion since it opened, with the Berlin Philharmonic during the inaugural season.

Whether or not the L.A. Phil audience still feels a connection to Rattle is unclear. But there is no doubt that these performances were much anticipated regardless given his reputation and a serious, well-chosen program. It turned out to be among the two or three best shows they’ve given all season. The evening started with an unusual pairing, that wound up making lots of sense. Ligeti’s Atmospheres and its rising discordant tones segued into the prelude for Act I of Wagner’s Lohengrin. Wagner’s music always sounds surprisingly contemporary especially when paired with later 20th-century works, and the relationship here in terms of color and sound that seems to coalesce out of thin air from a distance, taking shape as something much greater, was consistent through both pieces, played here without intermission.

Immediately after this, Rattle and the orchestra added voice to the mix in the form of mezzo Magdalena Kožená, Rattle’s wife. She often performs alongside him, and her appearance was a welcomed bonus. She performed Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder, and, having just heard some of these same songs performed by Matthias Goerne and Leif Ove Andsnes last week, I was taken by the difference. Goerne’s rich warmth gave the songs, and particularly “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” a painfully melancholy feel. Kožená's voice, of course, is quite different, and her penetrating and exacting dark sound gave off a very different air making the protagonists of the song sound almost maniacal in their perceived separation from the rest of existence via love. Kožená is a great artist and she gave Mahler’s song the grand scale they deserved with rich, textured support from the orchestra.

But now came time for the orchestra to shine with Bruckner’s unfinished Symphony No. 9. It’s a big, sometimes brutal piece that can be both dark and even angry at times. There’s been a fair amount of late Bruckner on offer here in L.A. in recent seasons. The 9th was last performed here in 2009 by a touring Vienna Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta. Rattle managed an emphatic but well controlled performance from the orchestra. The winds in particular contributed great things throughout these brooding, sometimes troubled movements. While many of the players may have been new faces for Rattle, he was clearly connecting with them in some of the loveliest playing they’ve delivered all spring. As to whether what follows from here lives up to this level will need to be seen, but hopefully Rattle’s face will once more be a familiar one around these parts. It would be great to get to know him once again.

1 year ago | |
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James Morris and Nathan Gunn Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2012
Remember all those things I said about the Metropolitan Opera’s new Robert Lepage-directed Ring Cycle yesterday? Well now I’m having second thoughts. Not so much about the overall quality of the production itself, but how it fits into the greater scheme of things. After seeing the premiere of the company’s final production of the 2011/2012 season, Britten’s Billy Budd on Friday, I’m reminded of of some of what Met Opera General Director Peter Gelb was faced with when taking over the company in 2006 – a roster of dozens of decrepit, ugly, outdated productions that had more or less left the company sidelined artistically and contributed to a slow but steady slippage financially as well. The new Ring may be boring, but at least its an effort to replace a production that should have been gone long ago. The Met’s current production of Billy Budd, originally directed by John Dexter entered the world in 1978, making it older than several of the performers currently appearing in it. It is the only production of the opera that the Met has ever presented and it hasn't been seen here since 1997. And now it has been wheeled out again largely as a vehicle for star baritone Nathan Gunn to perform one of his signature roles for three performances only at the very tail end of the current season.

Dexter’s vision may have been exciting over three decades ago, but now the claustrophobic, dark set looks quizzical despite its many levels which expand and contract when needed to make room for the chorus. All this movement isn’t as noisy as Lepage’s machine set for the Ring, but it’s just as bland. Oddly everything outside of the boat is in pitch-black darkness suggesting all of the depicted events transpire in the middle of a starless night. Maybe so, but how the boat gets around without even the suggestions of masts is something that nags in the back of the mind for the whole show. Ropes are pulled during the first chorus number, but the main activity depicted there isn’t raising the mast as much as scrubbing the deck, which more or less sets the tone for the rest of the evening. Probably the highlight of the whole evening comes at the start of Act II when the chorus appears ready for an attack on a nearby French ship, spreading themselves out on the set like some giant wedding cake and firing cannons. But none of this is particularly satisfying dramatically.

The musical performance on opening night fared only marginally better. As mentioned the show was an excuse to have Gunn perform one of his signature roles, and while that is a great idea, Dexter’s production often sidelines the character. It’s also a performance almost every other opera house offered up over a decade ago. The out-of-date production may have been an issue in hesitating to revive the production for Gunn, and at this point he isn't enough to save it. He is handsome and honey-voiced, and, wig aside, he embodies this role. But there's a lot more to Britten's operas than star turns and musically not everything else fared so well. Again the orchestra and even more concerning, the chorus, sounded decidedly under-rehearsed. Conductor David Robertson elected to take strangely slow tempi throughout making the show feel more like Pelléas et Mélisande than Melville’s tale of morality and duty at sea.

The cast featured another throwback to 1978 as well with James Morris and Claggert, a role he performed in that opening season as well opposite Peter Pears as Vere. Morris has worn a bit better than the production overall and he does project evil well, but the lower range of his voice has thinned considerably since his heyday. The biggest ovation went to John Daszak who dominated most of the evening with a nuanced and detailed performance as Captain Vere. There are a lot of other familiar faces in the cast who were fun to see such as Kyle Ketelsen, Keith Miller, Ryan McKinny, Eliot Madore, among others, but the pleasure in any of these brief solo turns couldn't tip the balance toward a cohesive performance. But sometimes things can improve with a few performances, so if you've missed this show from your childhood, it's back as it always was before with two more performances next Thursday and Saturday.
1 year ago | |
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Katarina Dalayman lights it up at the end of Götterdämmerung Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2012
It’s been done in so many places by so many people that even the New York Times has had to dig a little to find someone on staff who’ll say much good about it at this point. It feel like shooting fish in a barrel. But reality is hard to escape, and I admit after seeing the entire cycle over the last ten days at The Metropolitan Opera with Götterdämmerung wrapping things up last night, that this week has felt pretty hollow and dispiriting as far as opera goes. It’s difficult even to be snarky or witty about the production given how uninspiring this whole show is, defying even the possibility of camp. Lepage offers no insight into the events of Wagner’s lengthy work. He doesn’t even rehash somebody else's. It makes Francesca Zambello’s recent production in San Francisco feel like it came straight out of Berlin with all of its “ideas” and “thought.” Instead, Lepage treats his audiences to days of characters just entering and exiting from the wings directly onto the front skirt of the stage where they stand for hours and sing. Meanwhile opera's noisiest and most expensive backdrop clacks and hisses along during the scene changes before coming to rest in yet another high tech pose it will hold until politely invited to move again. Occasionally the tedium is broken up by the distant shouts of stagehands (as it was Thursday briefly) trying to keep the whole contraption on course, like deckmates on some latter-day Titanic.

The wreck here is only artistic, though. Götterdämmerung is perhaps the worst staging of the four operas in the cycle. The special effects are rarely special and almost always cliché from the crumbling statues of the gods in the finale to the blood washed from Gunther’s hands after Siegfried’s murder which soon stains all of the video-projected Rhine. The biggest and most dramatic moments in the score are largely ignored and instead accompanied by lengthy exits and entrances of various characters as if nobody knew what to do with all that pesky music. Characters pace back and forth on the stage as if waiting for the orchestra to get to their entrance. Sadly, some of this may have rubbed off on conductor Fabio Luisi who gave a polished but oddly unengaged interpretation of the score for most all of the performances. It was the kind of Ring where nobody is pushing anyone towards anything, which may well be the worst kind. Even the drab, quasi-mythological costumes seemed mostly to work to stay out of the way of something bigger that never arrived.

Most of the vocal performances over the four days were not so instantly forgettable. Cancellations for illness abounded as I noted previously, and on Thursday, Eric Owens too, was announced sick and unable to perform Alberich for his brief scene in Act II. Richard Paul Fink, who will sing the role throughout the final cycle this year, covered the part and seemed like a breath of fresh air wandering in wearing a contemporary dark suit. There were heroes. Jay Hunter Morris continued to use his good will and lovely voice to great effect right through the end. Hans-Peter König who had done lots of duty in this show as Fafner, Hunding, and finally Hagen was easily the most assured and beautiful singing of the Ring’s final installment. Even Katarina Dalayman, who sang Brünnhilde, powered down for the cycle’s final opera and was steely and powerful without so much outright shouting as in Siegfried. Owens has becomes a first rate opera star out of these performances as Alberich as he should be. Bryn Terfel seemed best when Wotan became more sentimental and nostalgic as the cycle went on. His performances in Act II of Die Walküre and all of Siegfried were touchingly, beautifully sung. But his characterization of Wotan isn't comprehensively as great given that the god's more stentorian moments come off as blasé.

What the future hold’s for this turkey of a production is anybody’s guess. It certainly will live on next season and for some after that I imagine. It will certainly live on in video and everyone around the world will get another chance to see the entire previously screened four operas as part of the The Met Opera's Live in HD series over the course of the next two weeks. Don't believe all the Chicken Little harping you may have read about the drawbacks of the movie theater presentations. Having seen both versions, the theater presentations are notably preferable not only for their cost, but also because the most stupefyingly dull excesses of Lepage's non-production are improved upon by video editing and the qualities of a multi-camera video production. Any loss in image quality from seeing it live is a small price to pay to liven things up.

It’s been popular to take this Ring’s artistic failure as some sort of bigger indication of the company’s leadership under Peter Gelb, but I’m less inclined towards this sort of overly dramatic interpolation. Everyone is allowed their failures, even the Met under Gelb and I would still argue there have been plenty of success under his tenure so far as well. But I would wager that selling tickets for next year’s planned cycles at the Met aren’t going to go as easily as they did this year, much less compared to how they’ve gone in the past. Much was made over the availability of individual tickets for individual operas during these cycles, a situation not typical of seasons past, and I can tell you that from where I sat in the heart of center orchestra, a zone you’d suspect would have been pretty popular the first time around, the changing faces from night to night far outnumbered those who sat through all four operas. There weren’t tons of empty seats, but certainly lots of people had made relatively last minute plans for the shows I would guess. With less starry casts and cycles that continue to be spread out over 8 to 10 days, I know I for one don’t have a lot of incentive to sit through this one again any time soon. There is one cycle left that starts Saturday night, and there are tickets still available for all the shows, or you can see for yourself what's going on in a local theater starting next week.
1 year ago | |
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