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Ailyn Perez and Stephen Costello Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2012.
Sometimes its hard for those of us who love opera to the point of obsession to remember that its an art form like any other. And one of the things opera shares with other art forms is that it is an expansive and diverse practice that encompasses more things than it may be possible for one person to love, admire, or find challenging. You and I both may love films and know a great deal about them. But that doesn’t mean we love the same films, and we may not go to the movies for the same reason or even to see the same things. People who love opera tend to think of the art form as a much smaller world with shared interests in the same rarities and love of many similar works as other opera lovers. They love to read about new productions of Verdi and Wagner operas and talk about specific challenging roles. They assume that all opera lovers share their interests despite disagreements about this singer or that production. But when it comes right down to it they, and that’s a they I would include myself in, are often wrong. Opera is as big an art form as any other and peoples’ interests in it are varied and they come to it with wildly different expectations and desires as they would painting or sculpture or anything else.

This is where the quandary of Puccini’s La Bohème comes into the picture. People who see a lot of opera, and people who write about opera, often dread it. They dread it even if they like it, because it is so familiar and omnipresent in the opera world. No matter how good the cast is, or how good the direction is, its familiarity often makes it a challenge to see the show and finding anything exciting or new about it. Negative La Bohème reviews by opera critics are easy to come by, especially for productions that have seen multiple revivals over the years. And yet, the show is a favorite for opera company’s because first and foremost it sells tickets. People want to see this opera and it fulfills many of the desires that certain opera goers have about what they want from the art form. It doesn’t matter what critics write, the tickets sell anyway just like a summer action movie that does incredible business despite a consensus of negative critical reaction. La Bohème, regardless of a production’s overall quality, represents what a lot of people want from opera.

In Los Angeles Opera’s current run of Puccini’s classic, these audiences are getting what they want. The second performance on Saturday was sold out, as are many of the shows in the run. The audience members around me that afternoon couldn’t have been more thrilled by the show. People wept openly as Mimi died at the end. Granted my reaction to the show was not anywhere near so strong, but I can’t deny that the show makes people happy, even through their tears, and that my feelings about it don’t matter a hill of beans to them. LAO’s production is in its sixth revival of a 1993 show directed by film legend Herbert Ross who was responsible for such movies as The Turning Point, California Suite, and The Goodbye Girl. He died many years ago, the current director to bring his staging to life is Gregory A. Fortner. The show looks surprisingly well kept for its operatic age, the cinematic scope of Ross' original can still pack a punch at times.

The typical way one goes about sprucing up an older production is to hire a fresh young cast. LAO has done that many times before with Ross’ show over the years and does so this time as well. The Rodolfo and Mimi are real-life husband and wife and Richard Tucker Award winners Stephen Costello and Ailyn Perez. They look the part of young lovers and give strong worthwhile performances. Costello’s career continues to expand with progressively bigger assignments and his athletic tone is attractive and certain. Perez has had her share of attention as well and though I was less taken with her on Saturday, she was well matched with her husband and has definite stage presence.

But vocally I was most impressed with LAO Domingo-Thornton Young Artist and recent Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions winner Janai Brugger who is singing Musetta in the first three performances of the run. The energy skyrocketed when she walked on stage and she gave one of those performances where you think, yes, I remember there are in fact all of those notes in this part. Her technique was beautiful and her sense of comic timing superb. She promises to be a thrilling artist to watch and I hope LAO can find more for her to sing in their regular productions very soon. Artur Rucinski sang Marcello with strength and personality as well. In the pit, Houston Grand Opera music director Patrick Summers was making his company debut. He led an energetic performance overall, though he did indulge some of the vocalists a bit more than was necessary dragging out some passages to the verge of tedium.

But these details probably only matter so much to many in the audience who came to relive a tragic love story set in the most romanticized version of Paris. And for those who wanted to fall in love or have their hearts broken, even if vicariously through the players on stage, it was a successful evening. And if you share their interests, I imagine you will to. La Bohème runs downtown for four more performances through June 2.
3 years ago | |
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UPDATE: Or then again, maybe we will.

BEFORE: Or at least that would seem to be the wish of Peter Gelb’s Metropolitan Opera. Though ironically, his actions seem to keep the headlines, and online outrage, coming. The latest kerfuffle: according to a report by the New York Times Dan Wakin, Gelb requested, and got, the editors of Opera News to agree not to publish any further reviews about productions at the Met after feeling the sting of some not so positive remarks in the magazine about the company's much maligned new production of Wagner's Ring Cycle this spring. And thus the drum beat of why on-line arts criticism, warts and all, matters continues unabated. But there is another issue here that bears some attention. Wakin quotes Opera News Editor-in-chief F. Paul Driscoll as clarifying that only productions of the Metropolitan Opera will be excluded from the pages of the magazine while other companies can continue to expect the kind of critical coverage they produce.

Now let me say that I’m not necessarily concerned so much here about this loss of coverage as some sort of censorship. To be honest, the place of Opera News in the world of opera generally has always been tepid and highly problematic with conflicts of interest. The most faithful of readers may recall that I wrote about this topic (albeit somewhat tangentially) in one of the very first posts here at Out West Arts. Opera News has long been first and foremost an advertising supplement for the Met Opera. It is, in fact, published by the Metropolitan Opera Guild: a support organization for the company. That Gelb would see a conflict in a support group of the organization being critical of the Met's productions makes sense to me and broaching that subject with them would make sense.

But distinguishing Opera News as an advertising supplement from an in-house support organization, as opposed to an outlet of independent journalism has other implications that don’t seem to have been fully explored, at least based on what Mr. Wakin reports in the Times. Specifically, if Opera News can write critically of other opera companies' works, but can only speak in glowing, non-critical terms of its sponsoring institution, what value does its criticism have to begin with? Under the scenario laid out in Wakin's article by the editors, Opera News is now more or less about the Met passing judgement on the world of opera while its own house is beyond question and examination. This is neither fair nor necessarily wise. Is the rest of the opera world so desperate for coverage that they need the Met’s advertising supplement to come around and bless or disapprove of them? Given the Met's recent track record, one wonders how the company, and its advertising supplement is in a position to tell anyone what kind of job they are doing. If I were in charge of a regional or major opera company, I’d think long and hard before inviting anyone to review my work on behalf of Opera News again. By eschewing work at the Met but continuing to publish reviews of other houses, the magazine and the Metropolitan Opera generally have cast a pall over their credibility if not their ethics. Or in the words of Mama Morton, whatever happened to class?
3 years ago | |
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Members of the Los Angeles Children's Chorus and the Jacaranda Festival Orchestra Photo: mine 2012.
Santa Monica’s Jacaranda Music series wrapped up its season Sunday night in a big way. That’s not unusual for this rapidly expanding predominantly 20th-century music series that brings rarely programmed works to the far west side of town. The big part on Sunday was about scope of performance. Jacaranda has mostly been about chamber works during the course of its existence, but this time around, the group recruited a 39-member Jacaranda Festival Orchestra who played alongside the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus atop a riser covering the altar right up to edge of the first row of pews at Santa Monica’s First Presbyterian Church, the group’s usual home. Artistic Director Patrick Scott acknowledged that this was specifically a test to see if Jacaranda could pull off much larger scale works than they had previously, and the evening’s results indicate that the group is headed into exciting new programming territory.

The evening’s theme was California mavericks and consisted of two rarely performed large-scale works from Lou Harrison and Terry Riley. Harrison’s Suite for Violin and Strings was presented first in a maximal version that included all the different movements associated with the work at different points in its development. Harrison originally composed the work for violin and the American Gamelan, an instrument he helped create to further explore his interest in Asian musical traditions. However, the complications of maintaining the instrument limited the work’s frequency of performance and eventually, Harrison and his student Richard Dee helped craft a version orchestrated for a more conventional chamber orchestra. The resulting work, which includes parts for harp and celesta, attempts to capture some of the same ethnic overtones as the original. But it doesn’t quite achieve it at all times, giving the feel of a big budget movie soundtrack here and there. Soloist Alyssa Park gave a fluid and sometimes meditative performance that proved popular.

But the show’s concluding performance of Riley’s Olsen III was a hypnotizing wonder. Riley composed the work for young musicians of the Royal Academy of Music in Sweden in 1967. The notorious premiere was recorded for radio and includes the catcalls, shouting, and angry exits that greeted the work then. It’s still the primary reference recording of the piece, and to rectify that lack, Jacaranda recorded Sunday’s performance. Olsen III shares many similarities with Riley’s In C in its open ended approach to the size and composition of the performing ensemble and the overall length of the performance. Sections of repeating structures change slowly based on a conductor’s signal and after the initial performance of all the composite parts, the group returns to them in canonical format with different, performer-determined entrances and alignments. In addition to the orchestra members, the Los Angeles Children’s Choir provided the vocal accompaniment for the piece. The music starts big and stays there, oscillating between different combinations of sound for something that grows with warmth and energy over a period of about 40 minutes in this instance. This music is not as straight forward as it sounds and music director Mark Alan Hilt alongside Anne Tomlinson and her choristers gave a wonderful first-rate and very well coordinated performance. It was simply thrilling to hear. One of the things that always strikes me about Riley’s work is how accessible it seems. The most fascinating versions of his works I’ve heard are often by either young ensembles or ad hoc groups suggesting that a sense of community takes precedence over the kind of individualist virtuosity that’s the hallmark of so much Western art music. The big wonderful wall of sound swelled the church and filled my mind with the promise of the many larger works this successful evening promises for the future of Jacaranda. Of course, we’ll learn more about that when the group introduces their plans for next season later in the coming week.
3 years ago | |
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Mariusz Kwiecien as Don Giovanni with the L.A. Phil. Photo: Autumn de Wilde/LA Phil 2012.
The opera education of Gustavo Dudamel entered its latest phase on Los Angeles concert stages this weekend. When the Venezuelan PR sensation took over the musical reins at the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009, it was popular to note how much of the standard orchestral repertoire the young conductor was already intimately familiar with (often to the point of outright memorization) from his time with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. The exception to that rule of course was opera, and since his tenure here began, Dudamel has jumped on most of the available opportunities both at the Hollywood Bowl and the Walt Disney Concert Hall to lead concert performances of the most basic staples of an opera season. We’ve seen him lead Carmen and Turandot, and this year at the Bowl he’ll give a whirl at Verdi’s Rigoletto for the first time as well. So when the L.A. Phil announced a little over a year ago that the orchestra would embark on a three year “project” of semi-staged performances of the three Mozart/da Ponte operas, the point largely went without saying. The orchestra management then spent much of the next year breathlessly repeating the starry names it had lined up to help with this endeavor like Maiusz Kwiecien, Frank Gehry, and fashion’s sisters Mulleavy of Rodarte.

Aga Mikolaj as Donna Elvira. Photo: Autumn de Wilde/LA Phil 2012.
Well all the talk finally translated into some fairly surprising if not necessarily revelatory action on Thursday when the assembled forces opened the first production in the series, Don Giovanni. The biggest and best news is that the orchestra under Dudamel sounded great. Mozart is a composer that has provided substantial hurdles to our maestro. Some of the most tedious and grotesque music to come out of his tenure here so far has involved mangling the music of Austria’s favorite son. But the possible musical outcomes of Don Giovanni raised intriguing questions in that Dudamel has repeatedly shown himself to be a first-rate opera conductor. His relative lack of familiarity with many of the scores combined with his typical deference to collaborating musicians tends to tamper down the interpretive excesses prone to derailing his orchestral performances. I’m happy to report his first Don Giovanni was lively and mostly well paced. It was big band, mid-20th century Mozart, certainly not the kind of thing Rene Jacobs would be caught doing on any given day. But given the reality of the musical resources involved it was a brisk, well-detailed and outright inspiring performance from Dudamel and the orchestra. Hearing them play should erase any doubts anyone might have about the sense of doing such a cycle of operas over the next few seasons.

Carmela Remigio as Donna Anna in Act II. Photo: Autumn de Wilde/LA Phil 2012.
Unfortunately, the staging elements of the show will likely have the opposite effect. Calling the show semi-staged really isn’t accurate. All-but-completely staged might be more in order. American director Christopher Alden was hired to coordinate activities with set (and concert hall) designer Frank Gehry, lighting designer Adam Silverman, and costumes from Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte. Given the names, the show looked like what you might guess it would, but there was admittedly quite a bit more of it than you might expect. The full expanse of the WDCH stage was flattened out with the orchestra view bench seats removed for the evening. The orchestra and Dudamel filled the bench space, with the cast and set occupying the orchestra’s typical dominion up front. The orchestra was surrounded by a black wall of asymmetric crags of crumpled paper. But everything upfront was starkly white. In fact, outside of four costumes everything in the performance area was a shade of white and lit in a way to emphasize the starkness of it all. The set consisted of four or five white risers of various heights that could be wheeled around and mountains worth of giant sized wads of crumpled up white paper big enough to hide under. Walls of the stuff created paths for characters to enter and exit or just hide inside. One’s first reaction was that the production team had created the first Don Giovanni set in an office wastepaper basket. But when the principals arrived in their form fitting white jeans, boots, and white glossy plastic encrusted outfits one realized this wasn’t so much set in a wastepaper basket as it was Takovsky’s Solaris. With the men all garbed in modern updates of the original Starfleet uniforms and Alden’s direction, which called for blank, disengaged stares into nothingness and choreographed posturing like some down-market Robert Wilson, the show had a distinctly outer space feel. Stark lighting would suddenly fill the stage as if Tarkovsky’s slowly rotating spaceship had come into view again of some distant sun. Performers, including four or five set movers, slowly wandered on and off with little regard to when those entrances and exits might normally be expected in the libretto. Characters more often sang about one another than actually to one another. For instance, most of Zerlina’s original seduction by Don Goiovanni is carried out with her staring directly into Masetto’s eyes. Don Ottavio spends most of Act II supine at the front of the stage for reasons that are never made clear.

There were moments of levity, but these were few and felt like they had crept in from the libretto against the director’s will. The costumes for the women were decidedly post-apocalyptic and definitely straight off the runway providing the only moments of color, albeit in the most predictable and cliché ways. Donna Elvira is in heavily sequined black as if to emphasize her age and position while Zerlina gets a subtly lavender number with ornate headdress. Donna Anna originally all in white with a blond wig, returns in a shredded gray dress with bright red accents in case you missed the attempted assault in Act I. And if all of this isn’t obvious enough for you, Alden keeps most of the women up above it all on the risers as if on pedestals throughout much of the evening. Performers are splayed across these white steps like a 90s Calvin Klein ad, which pretty much captures the emotional depth of the interpretation. It’s not that any of these elements in and of themselves are unattractive. In fact the whole thing does come off as rather an unusual surprise. The bigger problem is that it doesn’t have much to offer in terms of interpretive insight overall. In fact the disparate elements of the design often seem blissfully unaware of one another as if each artist came to the table with their own ideas and said “there it is, take it or leave it.” One can draw unmistakable connections between each design element and its creator, but the show never feels that it has a single vision or purpose of being.

The ball scene that closes Act I in Don Giovanni. Photo: Autumn de Wilde/LA Phil 2012.
The vocal cast for the show consisted of names largely unfamiliar to an opera-going public with one very big exception – the Don Giovanni of Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien. He’s undoubtedly one of the best in the world in this part and he did not disappoint with one delicate, warmly sung scene after the next. Not an ounce of bluster or crooniness, this was a Don to remember. The other well-known face in the cast was tenor Pavol Breslik as Don Ottavio. His U.S. engagements are not as frequent as Kwiecien’s and his tone tends to the dry side, but he delivered two lovely arias here and excels as a young if frustrated lover. Of the women in the cast, most impressive was Aga Mikolaj as Donna Elvira who gave a rounded yet agile voice to the spurned lover. Carmela Ramigio sang a Donna Anna that didn’t quite completely navigate around some unwanted softness in parts of her range. Anna Rohaska sang Zerlina with pluck and good consistency and the athletic if restrained Leporello here was Kevin Burdette. He gets probably the worse deal in the show with a part that calls for broad comedy and playfulness in a production that works hard to stop him from expending precious air and water on such commodities at the space station.

In a way it’s exciting to see the L.A. Phil go for opera in such a big way. The evening doesn’t skimp on ambition. It’s a long night at three and a half hours and the 8 pm curtain will get you out pretty close to midnight with only one intermission resulting in a fairly high abandonment rate at the intermission. And while it’s not your same old stale everyday Don Giovanni, the start of Dudamel’s Mozart opera experiment could stand for something a little deeper that actually feels a bit more like Solaris instead of just looking like it.
3 years ago | |
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Oguri, Morleigh Steinberg, Dani Lunn, Roxanne Steinberg. Photo: Steven Gunther 2012.
Cold Dream Color, a dance piece from Morleigh Steinberg and her international collaborators Arcane Collective, is one of those bold works that attempts to translate a physical object d’art into a performance piece. It’s not an unusual strategy, but one that can produce a myriad of results. Paintings have long been a popular choice for the stage and film. Figurative works often invite the introduction of narrative, producing results ranging from The Girl With the Pearl Earring to Sunday in the Park with George. It doesn’t have to be that way though. There are approaches that are more purely visual in their tenor going as far as the kind of tableau vivant found at the Pageant of the Masters each summer in Laguna Beach. Cold Dream Color, which opened at CalArts REDCAT theater downtown on Wednesday, is somewhere in between. It’s a dance piece performed by Steinberg and six other members of Arcane Collective based on the paintings of 20th-century Irish artist Louis Le Brocquy who died less than one month ago. The work features choreography by Steinberg along with Liz Roche and Los Angeles-based dancer Oguri and an original soundtrack composed by Paul Chavez and U2’s The Edge. The goal is to evoke the images and feeling of Le Brocquy's painting while incorporating physical movement and the passage of time, though not necessarily narrative.

Morleigh and her dancers do construct some amazing images. And even more remarkable is how strongly they evoke so many specific visual images from Le Brocquy’s often abstract paintings across his seven-decade career. Not unlike the paintings of his friend Francis Bacon, Le Brocquy’s image world is filled with deconstructed bodies in muted non-flesh colors. Dance might not seem to be the easiest format to recreate this visual sense but Morleigh does so, both by relying on sets and lighting that add little color to the made-up ashen faces of the dancers, but also by relying on a movement vocabulary that is constrained, slow, and sometimes epileptic in its gracefulness. Things rarely boil over into speedy fleet footedness, and dancers collapse, roll, and writhe as if falling from the sky or hobbled. The works five sections can produce some unnerving recreations at times like a open mouth, the only clearly visible body feature on a dancer behind a sheer curtain. At one point a dancer waves a huge black flag over both dancers and the audience, passing just a foot or two away from various heads at times. Dancers wander into frame from behind more of these same hazily lit curtains all to a soundtrack with ethereal electric guitar noise that at times succeeds in creating a hypnotic state for the audience.

It’s all very attractive and a fitting recreation of the artist’s image world if the evening, which was sold out on Wednesday, did evoke a sometimes overly serious air. Humorous moments are very few and abstraction is the rule rather than the exception. And in this abstraction Cold Dream Color is more akin than not to tableau vivant despite the dancers' movements and the passing of time in the 90-minute program. The show repeats through Sunday downtown and considering how popular its been so far, you may want to get your tickets in advance.
3 years ago | |
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The players of wildUp
There are three things I’m super excited about today. You should be too. In no particular order:

1) Los Angeles’ most exciting young chamber orchestra, wildUp, has just announced they will serve as the first orchestra-in-residence at the Hammer Museum in Brentwood. The orchestra will be involved in a myriad of musical art projects over a six month period that will kick off with the first of three full scale concerts, WEST on July 21st. Although details of the rest of the projects are forthcoming, I’m told there will be dozens of appearances between July and December from various members of the collective all over the museum in conjunction with numerous other projects and installations. If you want to know how orchestras are changing and what the future of classical music may look like, plan on spending time in Brentwood later this year.

2) There are still a few days left to stream the best orchestral concert of 2011 on line. Last Sunday, KUSC broadcast one of last year’s visits from Esa-Pekka Salonen to the Los Angeles Philharmonic stage in December. The program included the world premiere of the prologue to Shostakovich’s uncompleted opera Orango alongside the composer’s Symphony No. 4. The orchestra was amazing in this searing, profound and worldly-wise performance that outpaced anything they done all season. And you can still relive it now online until Sunday. Don’t miss it.

3) And speaking of listening to broadcasts, KUSC will also be kind enough to deliver a double dose of Los Angeles Opera this weekend when they’ll revisit the company’s opening production of the 2011/2012 season on Saturday at 10AM (PST natch’) with Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin from last September. This is followed on Sunday by a live broadcast of the company’s current and final production of the same season Puccini’s La Bohème with a young all-star cast including Ailyn Perez, Stephen Costello, and Janai Brugger. Sunday's sold out performance can be heard on line and on the old-fashioned radio starting at 2pm.

All this and I’m going to see Sondheim’s Follies again tomorrow night at the Ahmanson. There, I've said it.
3 years ago | |
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Leif Ove Andsnes Photo: Felix Broede
Just around the corner is the 2012 installment of the Ojai Music Festival that kicks off north of Los Angeles on June 7. This year’s festival is particularly exciting given that the rotating Music Director post falls to one of the classical music world’s great artists, Leif Ove Andsnes. He’s been a familiar face with the Los Angeles Philharmonic for years, but this visit to Ojai is different in that he’s helped assemble a program of works and collaborating artists that reflect his unique vision and highlight his own interests in 20th Century and more contemporary music. And while he’s no stranger to the ins and outs of festival programming, California and the outdoor stage of Ojai’s Libby Bowl are a unique setting with their own particular challenges. Andsnes has packed the four-day festival with numerous highlights from artist including Reinbert de Leeuw, the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, clarinetist Martin Fröst, mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn, and most intriguingly fellow pianist Marc-André Hamelin.

Hamelin will perform alongside Andsnes in a two piano version of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps on Sunday the 10th as well as John Luther Adams’ Dark Waves. Adams' music will be given prime real estate all weekend including two pieces on the festival’s opening night, Red Arc/Blue Veil and perhaps the highlight of the whole weekend, a free, festival-opening performance of Inuksuit - a huge “spatial” work to be performed by 46 different percussionists and piccolo spread out throughout Libby Park all under the direction of Steven Schick. The piece was a sensation when it was heard at New York’s Park Avenue Armory last year, and Ojai’s outdoor answer to that performance couldn’t be more Californian. (The work was deigned to be played outdoors and can be performed by a group of up to 100.)

Music from Norwegian composers Anders Hillborg and Bent Sørensen will feature in Saturday’s program including the U.S. Premiere of Sørensen’s Piano Concerto No.2 featuring Andsnes as soloist. There’s quite a bit of vocal music in the weekend as well with Stotijn scheduled to sing Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, as well as pieces from Berg, Bolcom, and Shostakovich. Even songs from Schumann and Schubert find there way into Friday’s performance in a reworked version for singing actress Barbara Sukowa arranged by Reinbert de Leeuw titled Im wunderschönen Monat Mai. The composers that clarinetist Martin Fröst will represent are equally as interesting, including works from Berg, Kurtág, Bartók, Copland and Mozart. Of course, Andsnes will be intimately involved in most of these collaborations, although still leaving time for a brief visit with Beethoven’s piano sonatas on Saturday afternoon. It promises to be another great year for music in Ojai, and luckily prior to all of this exciting music, Mr. Andsnes was kind enough to reflect on the OWA 10 Questions prior to a great start to his and our summer.
  1. What music would you most like to perform, but haven’t had the opportunity to yet?
    More Beethoven sonatas, Chopin works, and French music.
  2. What music, if any, would you never want to perform even if you had the opportunity to?
    Lots and lots of music, but I won’t mention names of living composers, as I don’t want to offend hard working composers. Of the older ones, at the moment it doesn't feel like I will ever play any music by Messiaen and Scriabin. Not because I don’t like the music, but because their characters are very foreign to me, and I can only admire their music from a distance.
Members of the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra will join the 2012 Ojai Music Festival
  1. Has your experience as co-artistic director for the Risør Chamber Music Festival influenced your plans for the Ojai Music Festival which you’ll serve as music director for this year?
    Absolutely. I feel that I have lots of experience in programming a festival, after doing it for 17 years in Risør.
  2. You’ve recorded a huge variety of music with much fanfare at this point in your career. Is there a performance saved for posterity you’re particularly proud of?
    This is difficult, because musicians are always terrible in judging their own recordings. But in my own very subjective feeling, I am quite proud of the Rachmaninov Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 3., and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.
  1. You’ve been particularly well known for extended collaborations with other artists including Ian Bostridge, Christian Tetzlaff, and more recently Matthias Goerne whom you’ll tour with this spring. How important are these extended, multi-faceted collaborations to your development as a solo artist?
    For me chamber music has always been important, and an integrated part of my activities, ever since I started studying at the Bergen Conservatory of Music when I was 16, and began playing both with a violist and a mezzo soprano. What could be more normal and fun than two or three people getting together, playing together, discovering a piece together? Then I have, of course, also learned a lot from different great personalities that I have been working with during the years.
  2. What is your current obsession?
    Beethoven.
  3. One of your collaborators, who’ll be appearing in several programs in this year’s Ojai Festival, is pianist Marc-André Hamelin. Since the public tends to think of pianists as lone wolves compared to other instrumentalists, what’s unique about working so closely over time with another pianist?
    Well, working with another pianist can actually be very frustrating, because a pianist’s touch, colouring and rhytmic precision is a very personal thing, and one easily gets annoyed at a colleague who has a different feeling of timing, for instance. With this as a background, I have to say that working with Marc-André Hamelin on Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps has been miraculous. His incredibly precise touch and his exact feeling of colour and tempo is unique, and I have found the concerts we have made with this iconic piece very inspiring.
  1. You’re a regular visitor to California. What do you love most about the Golden State?
    I was in Ojai in beginning February, and having come from a wet and snowy Norwegian coastal climate, picking tangerines from the trees in Ojai was a very welcome change, I have to say. The diversity of plants in the district around Ojai, I find very fascinating—I have never seen so many different trees. I love the wine and the food, healthy and tasty at the same time (not always the case in Europe!). And I love a certain openness to the unexplored, the new, the avant-garde, which the contemporary music scene and tradition in Los Angeles is an example of.
  2. One of the unique aspects of the Ojai festival is that all of the concerts take place outdoors. Are there particular challenges for you as a performer playing outside?
    Sure. The biggest challenge is that it will feel like the sound on stage is extremely dry, and doesn’t carry. I understand, though, that there is a very good amplifying system, so we musicians will just have to trust that the audience hears something much richer in sound than what we do on stage. Then there are the flies... I am interested to see how many of those will "like" our program in Ojai, so much that they will visit us on stage. And likewise the birds, though I am curious to see if they also can contribute fruitfully to the concerts, to make the programs even more weird and wonderful.
  3. What’s next for Leif Ove Andsnes?
    After Ojai, I am playing at the Risør Chamber Music Festival in Norway, where I was one of the artistic directors until two years ago. Then I'm recording Mozart's "Kegelstadt-trio" with Martin Fröst and Antoine Tamestit, and then I will have a good holiday, which I am longing for, especially since I didn’t get a summer holiday last year. It will start with two weeks in the north of Norway, on the miraculous island of Kjerringøy, where my parents-in-law have a summer house. Last time I was there, we saw whales, eagles, reindeer, and felt like one with the silence and nature. I couldn't be more happy.
3 years ago | |
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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.
3 years 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.
3 years 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.
3 years ago | |
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