Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Life Journeys

Western sonatas and Eastern reverberations

Glacier National Park, Montana ----------------------------------------- ---Photo: Rodney Punt

Emerson Quartet performs Dvorak string quartets
April 16, ACE Gallery, Beverly Hills

Musica Angelica presents Beethoven and Schubert duo sonatas
April 25, First Presbyterian Church, Santa Monica

Pacific Serenades in sonatas and a new work by Mark Carlson
April 27, UCLA Faculty Center, Westwood

Commentary and reviews by Rodney Punt

Every once in a while, Father Time breaks his silence and speaks to Mother Earth. Musical memories and some recent performances are the subject of this commentary.

The past fourteen music-drenched days also reawakened an ancient friendship, announced an expected but still surprising departure, invoked remembrance of things past, and connected East with West. These random events made sense, as is so often the case, only in retrospect.

Two weeks ago I received one of those e-mail notices: “Ken Clark added you as a friend on Facebook.” Was this the Ken I sang with decades ago in the chorus at Morningside High School? It was. A brunch at my place a few days later with Ken and two other friends, one a New Yorker I hadn’t seen in over a decade, reminded us all of musical experiences in school days, and how quickly time skips by.

We had been raised in the Eisenhower-Kennedy post-war era. In our fortunate state of California, Earl Warren and Pat Brown governed with optimism and an eye to the future. It was before the age of assassinations, before tax anger, before terrorism.

It was Camelot.

We were sitting around the table and remembering, each with his own musical story. My journey began in Inglewood, in its public schools from kindergarten through high school. Already on piano at home, from the age of nine I also took lessons at school on clarinet. Music ensembles flourished at all grade levels. After two years of clarinet in high school band, and another playing oboe in the orchestra, I was ready for something more musically social (that is, with girls) as a senior.

Speaking a little Latin and French from school studies, and with a successful reading of two Shakespeare passages in Bob Doyle's earlier English class, I had joined a nearby church choir over the summer directed by Don Fontana. In his high school chorus when my senior year began, to my surprise I landed a role in the musical, L'il Abner. And then we graduated in 1963, some of us off to college, and for me more singing in the UCSB Glee Club, University Chorus, and The Schubertians. Stints as a choral director at various local churches and a prep school in Los Olivos helped pay the bills.

Camelot, however, had quickly passed into history by the mid-1960's. Stories from those days still haunt us. As Paul McCartney sang to our generation forty years ago, “You and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead.”

Over the many years, we had lost our beloved high school choral director, Don Fontana, and our schoolmate Johnny Carl, also a talented choral director. I remembered a fellow high school senior, Larry Swarbrick, who performed 'L’il Abner' to my 'Rasmussen T. Finsdale' in the De Paul/Mercer musical. He had once memorized Poe’s long The Raven in lieu of an English final. But his would be a life lost to the pointless Viet Nam War just a few years later. In cosmic compensation, it would seem, his younger sister, Carol Swarbrick, went on to a considerable career on the musical stage and television, and is still active today.

Perhaps the most talented of us all, a pianist by the name of Bruce Gaston, fled the USA during the 1960’s to avoid the draft, and settled in Thailand. Taking to its native music, he became a permanent resident and a Thai composer of international reputation. West blended into East. These days it is Thailand that is politically troubled, and concerns for Bruce's safety went around the table. We wondered if we might regain contact with him through an Internet search.

The brunch concluded with promises for more.

Five days later an eminent local music critic died. My old acquaintance - we were sometimes guests in each other's homes - had not gone to the beyond easily, his later years painful for himself and for those who knew him. Inner demons, outer anger, the struggle to stay in the game, the fight against unbeatable odds, and always the battle against an involuntary behavioral affliction that had riddled his personal relationships. But now there was peace; he was somewhere with Mozart and Schubert, and life renewed.

I have always felt that musical forms, such as dances, themes-and-variations, scherzos, rondos, and so forth, are all in some way analogous of the patterns of our own lives. For me, the sonata form is the most encompassing musical analog yet discovered or invented for the portrayal of the life journeys we all undertake. These recent days have been filled with sonata sounds by a variety of groups, with musings on life and death, love and loss, war and peace.

Emerson Quartet in Dvorak string quartets

I wonder what Alan Rich would have thought of the all-Dvorak program at the ACE Gallery in Beverly Hills on April 16. Had he been in good health he surely would have attended; Dvorak was one of his pantheon composers. The Emerson String Quartet, perhaps the most accomplished such today, performed a sampling of their new DG-CD release,
Old World – New World, well worth your attention. Selected Dvorak quartets are grouped with a collection of song transcriptions, The Cypresses.

This evening it was their passionate performance of the
Quartet in G Major, Op. 106, which most impressed me. Dvorak’s long American residency had produced the New World Symphony and other works that deepened the Bohemian composer, ushering in new regions of compositional freedom. This quartet was Dvorak’s first completed work upon returning to beloved Czech soil, and it resonated in the ACE Gallery’s near perfect acoustics like a Slavic music of the spheres.

Historically informed Beethoven & Schubert sonatas

More works in sonata form came nine days later at Santa Monica’s First Presbyterian Church, courtesy of Musica Angelica. The Schubert and Beethoven sonatas for violin and piano, performed by Natalia Grigorieva on an 1829 Broadwood forte piano, with Ilia Korol on a gut-stringed violin, had about them the novelty of antiquity.

Most of us know Beethoven’s
"Spring” Sonata in F major (Op. 24, No. 5), and a few know his Sonata in E-flat Major (Op. 12, No. 3). Anybody who says Beethoven was not lyrical listens too much to his middle period heroic works. Powerful as they are, they show only one side of the many-sided Beethoven, who both launched and rounded off his career with inwardly rapturous and deeply felt expressions, as were the two sonatas on this program.

With the program's Schubertian counterparts, few may be so well acquainted, and more’s the pity. His so-called “sonatinas” for violin and piano are not diminutive in the least; that was a contemporary marketing ploy to make them more attractive to amateur performers. The relatively early works, in D Major D384 and A minor D385, are major efforts, often reminiscent of their Mozartian and Beethovenian models, but full of Schubert’s magical melodies, song reminiscences, and idiosyncratic piano figurations.

Grigorieva and Korol performed the four pieces with exquisite phrasing, completely idiomatic and comfortable in the classical idiom. The delicate tones of each “authentic” instrument were well balanced. The Broadwood’s three distinct sound registers: a buzzy-punchy bass, a slightly metallic but melodious middle, and a soft-singing, pingy top provided ample opportunity to appreciate how these works originally sounded to audiences.

The performance was sabotaged, however, by the forte piano’s inability to stay in tune. Several pauses between movements for retuning ensued (even necessary within movements, but not acted upon). The Broadwood’s owner and keeper, Curtis Berak, explained to me later that moving the forte piano from Pasadena to Santa Monica had unsettled its balance and caused the dizzying migration of pitch. Despite this, it was worth hearing these works played by a pair of knowing professionals.

Duos and trios and a new work by Mark Carlson

And so we arrive at last evening, when Pacific Serenades took on two iconic composers, again Beethoven, but now coupled with Dmitri Shostakovich. Squeezed between these titans was a delicate new work by the artistic director of the series, Mark Carlson.

Beethoven’s
Sonata for Cello and Piano in C Major (Op. 102, No. 1) was a new departure for the composer in 1815, beginning what was to become known as his third period. Just the year before, he put a full stop to his middle "heroic" period with one last regrettable entry, the fraudulent and forgettable victory cantata of 1814, Der glorreiche Augenblick, composed for the reactionary crown heads of Europe and celebrating Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat. Beethoven knew the world’s hero-worshipping days were now empty and over. And his internal world had collapsed with the failure of his last love affair in 1812, followed by the unexpected guardianship of his nephew in the year of this new work.

Beethoven had turned inward to confront and reexamine his existence and to reinvent himself, as deafness closed in, and with no close or distant love he could fantasize might make him a life companion. This and many revealing and profound works would follow. You could almost feel him reaching out from his loneliness to embrace a new lyricism, with a human vulnerability completely alien to his heroic works. He went back in time, to Handel and old musical forms like the fugue, to move forward his art and give meaning to his remaining life. This cello sonata and a companion in the same opus were among the first entries in the new phase of Beethoven's creativity.

Cellist David Speltz gave the sonata only a so-so performance, however, a better contribution coming from his pianist partner Ayke Agus. Speltz possesses a big-boned, lovely tone, but his articulation of passagework was rough and his interpretation in this instance not the most fully thought-out.

Shostakovich’s
Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 67, was an entirely different affair. A work inspired by the human catastrophe of the Holocaust during World War II, and made more intense by the sudden loss of a dear friend, it is one of the composer’s most deeply felt works, full of sadness but also of bitter irony. From an opening of bleak loneliness and loss, it moves on a journey of dialogue between the instruments, here agitated, there despairing, to a destination of sinister resignation. Violinist Roger Wilkie, along with an inspired Speltz and Agus, formed a committed unit, and realized the work's grim implications nobly.

Bravely placing his work in the middle of these two formidables, Carlson’s newly composed
Batik, for violin and piano, held its own and made us momentarily forget its two elder siblings. Dedicated to retiring Pacific Serenades pianist Agus, its title word "Batik" means “Life Journey” and, as the composer explained, it consciously relates to Agus’ journey from her native Indonesia as a musical prodigy to the USA. Carlson employs two variations of pentatonic-scaled gamelan music, pelog and slendro, which help locate Agus’ Indonesian identity in this essentially Western score.

Too free-form to be classified a violin and piano sonata, Carlson's
Batik still has the feel of one. The first of its two movements, Waves, suggested to me a protagonist violin in an alteration between a soaring, dreaming imagination of what the future might hold and the practical work of purposeful travel on a long journey, the latter underscored effectively with a pulsating forward drive on the piano. The second movement, The Homeward Heart, suggested a series of reflections of a homesick young girl, remembering who and what had been left behind.

Carlson knows how to write 'melancholy', not of the neurotic or depressed variety, but that of those lonely and stoic people who occupy Edward Hopper paintings.
Batik is a lovely work and a well-crafted tribute to Agus. Her piano and Wilkie's violin gave its second public performance, two days after its Pasadena premiere, great heart and presence.

Ayke Agus’s life journey has blended East into West. Bruce Gaston’s similar journey in the other direction has blended West into East. We have all logged-in our own miles and memories, and, if we have been lucky, experienced personal transformations as profound for our existence as those of the composers and performers mentioned here.

To Life!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Alan Rich, 1924-2010


by Joseph Mailander


Nobody really knows what to make of the passing of Alan Rich on Friday. That's because the local classical community is very precious and Alan was the most precious member of it of all.

The community knows that Alan tried to hang on far too long, and it also knows that Alan likely deserved to try. It knows that Alan stabbed critics in the back and it knows that lots of critics acquired this behavior from him rather than more sensibly run away from it. Most of all, it knows that even in death as in life, Alan Rich remained bitter about something nobody beyond the sphere could really understand, and yet whatever it was, it was something that every classical critic also feels within, a nagging supposition that classical critics are mere custodians of something brittle and far bigger than themselves and mostly impossible to share with a larger world.

The best line I heard on him in later days was, "That was back when Alan still dressed to go to concerts." Alan was enormously uncomfortable for the last decade of his life, but music seemed to cushion his discomforts. He would groan and grumble until the first air of a performance and suddenly his body would relax, even slink on hearing some notes--any notes.

Last I saw him was at an LA Monthly party on Sunset Boulevard--though entirely out of his element with the hipster crowd and among people fifty years younger than he, he was game, he was alone, he was rocking, he was eating things that were bad for him, and he was sitting there with an insouciant scowl as though to say, "Either worship me or don't talk to me at all." I did neither, which displeased him, as we all have. Now that media are fumbling over what to say about him that might please the living, I'll venture this: all admired Alan's insouciance, because in that quality most of all, the difference between criticism and publicity is measured. If anything, the local classical community could use more, not less, insouciance; more, not less, real criticism. And at bottom, Alan was a real critc.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Give Me Libertine or Give Me Death

Wagner’s early opera Das Liebesverbot
produced by USC Thornton School


Alexandra Loutsion and cast (Photo: Kristina Jacinth)

Das Liebesverbot, a comic opera in two acts
Music and libretto by Richard Wagner
Performed at the USC Bing Theatre, Los Angeles
Produced by the USC Thornton School of Music
Wednesday, April 21, 2010, 8 pm

Additional performances will be:
Friday, April 23 at 8 pm & Sunday, April 25 at 2 pm

Review by Rodney Punt

Among the more intriguing options of the recently launched Ring Festival LA are local productions of two early and rarely performed operas of Richard Wagner. His first, Die Feen (The Fairies), will be staged in South Pasadena by the Lyric Opera of Los Angeles, June 11 to 19.

His second, Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love), received its West Coast premiere last evening at USC’s Bing Theatre, staged by the Thornton School of Music’s opera program. (Written by the 21-23 year-old composer during 1834-6, the work had never been performed in the USA until a 2008 Glimmerglass Opera mounting in Cooperstown, New York.)

Das Liebesverbot, it turns out, is a hoot of an opera, and it was given a high-energy, musically proficient and theatrically sophisticated production by its college-age performers under the direction of an inspired Thornton faculty and staff.

One of three operas of his apprenticeship, Liebesverbot paved the way to Wagner’s finding his own musical voice. Like its early companions, it was written as a stylistic pastiche of the composer’s older musical contemporaries. Die Feen had assimilated the German romantic tradition of Carl Maria von Weber. Wagner’s third opera, Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen (Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes) has often been called the best Grand Opera Meyerbeer never composed.

A big leap forward from Feen, Liebesverbot is Wagner’s valentine to the Italian bel canto tradition, and especially to Vincenzo Bellini, a composer he was to venerate all his life. Along with Bellini’s long-lined melodic influence, the opera is infused with comic elements of Rossini, even as it employs the orchestral structure of operas by Beethoven and Weber.

Liebesverbot is a “numbers” opera par excellence (a style the composer would repudiate later in life as his craft matured into music drama). Wagner's own clever libretto triggers the opera's musical momentum, with extensive recitatives, arias, duets, and over-the-top choral ensembles all in a reasonable facsimile of Italian opera, but set to German. Recurrent melodramatic climaxes come as frequently as Wagner’s reported sensual ones during this fervid period in his life when he was sowing wild oats. Despite excesses, on its own wacky, hyperbolic terms, the work succeeds as musical entertainment.

Wagner crafted the libretto from Shakespeare’s rather sour social comedy, Measure for Measure. In Shakespeare's version, the departing Duke of Vienna leaves a local magistrate temporarily in charge. The latter clamps down on the licentious behavior of the city's youth, but later surreptitiously succumbs to the same blandishments he forbids for others. Though it ends happily, Shakespeare’s play examines tensions between license and responsibility, virtue and hypocrisy: “Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall.”

The young, freethinking Wagner, as unbuttoned as today’s unbridled libertarians, had little sympathy with Shakespeare’s nuances. He reset the action to the more exotic and sensual Sicilian capital of Palermo. Advancing an anarchistic agenda of ribald love, Wagner’s plot conflict between the stubborn magistrate, a dour Lutheran named Friedrich, and his town of titillating teenagers, boils down to something like, “Give Me Libertine or Give Me Death.” Call it a musical offering not so much to humanity as to hormone-ity.

What better forces to mount this carnal caramel than the bevy of talented USC students on the Bing stage last evening? No less than eleven principals, twenty-five chorus members, six supernumeries, and forty-nine pit musicians, as named in the program, accounted themselves admirably in the intimate theater.

Kyung Teak Lim’s plangent baritone and determined brow invested the compromised religious magistrate Friedrich with enough force to (temporarily) counterbalance the amorous leanings of virtually the entire rest of the cast.

Kyung Teak Lim (Photo: Kristina Jacinth)

Alexandra Loutsion (photo at top) brought conviction to the pivotal role of Isabella, who reluctantly wears the nun’s habit that Friedrich wants to inhabit, but eventually exposes his hypocrisy and frees the township from his harsh rule. Loutsion’s rich, near-spinto soprano lacked only a clearer enunciation to achieve its fullest dramatic impact.

Eric Hanson’s lyric tenor was convincing as Luzio, the interlocutor who eventually wins Isabella’s affections. Federico Flores’ comic baritone gave us chuckles as the police captain Brighella, so taken with Sophie Wingland’s Dorella, a quicksilver soubrette with a starlet’s presence.

Sophie Wingland and Federico Flores (Photo: Kristina Jacinth)

Xiaobo Su’s sweet soprano gave convincing pathos to Mariana, a second nun and the abandoned wife of Friedrich. Her Scene 2 opening duet with Loutsion is a lovely precursor to the famous duet in Delibes' Lakmé.

Yuloong Kim's plaintive tenor garnered sympathy for the victimized Claudio whose potential death sentence for impregnating a girl sparks the rebellion against Friedrich.

Other principals included tenor Jon Keenan and baritone Travis Sherwood as Claudio's friends Antonio and Angelo, tenor Jeongmin Wee as the comic Pontio Pilato, and bass Tim Campbell as the innkeeper Danieli. Whether in comic or serious turns, all were effective.

USC’s resident stage director, Ken Cazan, updated the vaguely historic setting to a more edgy 1930’s Palermo. His movement of the cast, including the large chorus and the principals, was fluid and inventive on the intimate Bing stage. A spirit of youthful rambunctiousness reigned. Cazan earns a lion's share of the credit for the work's successful realization.

Cameron Anderson’s beveled-back unit set creates a stage trapezoid that efficiently enters and exits the many performers, and not incidentally helps project their voices into the clear, if non-resonant, Bing Hall.

Jacqueline Saint Anne’s whimsical costumes lent jolly charm, and sassy spice, to the action. David Jacques' lighting set the moods with spinning chaos on a crowd scene, later a melancholy dead-tree assemblage. Lighting and costumes employed three colors symbolically: red for licentious love, grey for the repression of natural behavior, and white for purity of character, notably of the two nuns and a vulnerable Claudio and his pregnant wife.

Conducting a crack USC pit orchestra, Brent McMunn gave the long, sometimes disjointed musical line of this early Wagner work an authoritative thrust, almost preventing the many similar numbers from losing a certain freshness during the course of a long evening. Reportedly only 50 or so of the 500 pages of the original score were trimmed. McMunn also had obvious rapport with his singers, their assurance apparent in the spontaneity of the performance.

Incidentally, Wagner’s orchestration called for a curious low brass instrument known as the cimbasso, which had been employed just three years before in Bellini’s 1831 opera, Norma, so admired by the younger German composer. USC’s orchestra included one last night, reinforcing this production’s overall classy attention to detail.

Major league LA Opera has a top-notch AAA team just down Figueroa Street from the Music Center. With this West Coast premiere of Das Liebesverbot, USC’s Thornton School reminds Los Angeles once again of its status as one of the city's formidable musical treasures.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Homage to Ernst Toch at the Villa Aurora

Ernst Toch at his desk in Santa Monica, California

Villa Aurora, Pacific Palisades, CA
Tuesday, April 6, 8pm

Review by Rodney Punt

The LA Opera's Recovered Voices project may be the most prominent local tribute to composers persecuted by mid-20th century fascism in Europe, but it is not the only one. Another series, low on the radar of the L.A. music scene but earnestly pursued, has been helmed for several years by two musical pedagogues from eastern Germany. Their efforts have brought to light piano compositions by composers once displaced from their homelands, and in some cases even erased from history.

Volker Ahmels and his wife Friederike Haufe, a piano-duo team from the Schwerin Conservatory of Music in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, have shuttled to and from Los Angeles for an impressive eight years, working with local institutions on the revival of works by German and Austrian composers of Jewish heritage. Their latest outing, this past Tuesday at the Villa Aurora, was a tribute to émigré Austrian composer Ernst Toch, active in Los Angeles as a film and art-music composer and educator from the mid-1930s until his death in 1964.

Toch's place of honor has for some years been on prominent physical display at the Villa Aurora, where his personal Blüthner piano graces the living room and where his bust, crafted by Anna Mahler - daughter of Gustav and Alma Schindler Mahler - hovers like a battered but proud saint just over it. The Blüthner has conveyed the works of many an émigré composer to the ears of the home's guests, but curiously just a smattering of Toch's works have sprung from its keys.

Even on this occasion, only one of Toch's works was featured on a program promoted as a tribute to the composer: his slender but charming Sonata for Piano Four-Hands, Op. 87. Composed in 1962, it is a late work that begins with a whimsical Mozartian Allegretto, followed by a languorous, dissonant Andante espressivo, and concluding with a sassy, almost Poulencian, Allegretto amabile leggiero. Following a tradition established a century earlier by composer Arnold Schoenberg in his Viennese salons for new music, the virtually unknown Toch piece was performed twice, to ingratiating effect, as the first and last selections on the program.

The rest of the evening's fare was a tribute of sorts to composers, working within traditional tonality, who influenced or were influenced by Toch's music. An autodidact in excelsis, Toch never had a formal teacher of composition, but learned by studying the many masters that had preceded him. His first exercises consisted of copying out late at night, and under the covers of his bed to avoid the disapproving eyes of his father, quartet scores of Mozart. In that self-taught sense, he resembles fellow émigré composer and friend, Arnold Schoenberg, one of whose works was also on the program.

Schoenberg's Six pieces for piano four hands (his only composition for these forces) is a charming, minor-keyed compendium of classical and romantic styles including those of Schubert and Brahms. Later on, Hans Gál, best known as an author on musical issues, was represented with Three Marionettes for piano duet, Op. 74, accomplished character sketches in a late-romantic style of the familiar characters, Pantalone, Colombina, and Arlecchino. The only living composer on the program this evening, Wolfgang Rihm, was featured with several of his light-hearted Mehrere kurze Walzer, also under the influence of Schubert and Brahms, but with touches of Kurt Weill and Toch himself.

The work that towered over all the others, including that of the evening's guest-of-honor composer, was the centrally placed Fantasy in f-minor for piano four-hands of Franz Schubert. Perhaps the greatest work for duo piano ever composed, it proved to be the most moving performance of the evening.

The Haufe-Ahmels duo are not high-powered virtuosos in the flashy sense, but they know a thing or two about constructing an effective, thematically linked program. It was enjoyable music-making, but it also whetted the appetite for a more substantive exploration of Toch's piano compositions, of which there are many. Toch himself was a masterful pianist.

The recital had been preceded by introductory words on the life of Toch from his grandson (and eventual executor), the noted author Lawrence Weschler, who shared perspectives and wry anecdotes of his childhood interaction with his illustrious grandfather. Weschler later sent me a link to an article he wrote on Toch in 1996 for the Atlantic Monthly with many other engaging stories. It's well worth a read:


In recent years, there has been significant institutional support around the world to memorialize Toch's life and music. This evening's program, organized by the Villa Aurora Foundation, had assistance from the German Foreign Office & Commissioner for Culture and the Media, the Austrian Consulate in Los Angeles, and the Ernst Toch Society.

In Europe, Toch's music is enjoying something of a revival, and there will be a noteworthy exhibition devoted to his life and works at the Jewish Museum in Vienna this summer.

Incidental info: I once met Toch in person, toward the end of his life and at the beginning of my serious interest in music. As a teenager in the fall of 1963, I attended a performance of a Toch symphony at Bovard Auditorium, on the USC campus where he taught for many years.

It was an intriguing but challenging listen for my then novice ears. At its conclusion, the conductor turned to acknowledge the composer in the audience. To my embarrassment, all eyes in front seemed to turn toward me. I was relieved when a short, elderly man, rather gaunt and formal in appearance, stood up from the seat just behind me. It was, of course, Toch.

Approaching the great man at the later reception, with gauche adolescent enthusiasm I asked for his autograph. He looked at me with mock seriousness and declared, "I have come to enjoy this evening, not to work." And with a twinkling eye, "But for you, I make exception."

Unbeknownst to me at the time, Toch was already seriously ill and would die only months later.

So for him and his music, I now make heartfelt advocacy.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Into the Freyer

LA Opera concludes Ring cycle
with unblinking
Götterdämmerung


Images courtesy Monika Rittershaus, LA Opera - click to enlarge


by Donna Perlmutter


When Achim Freyer and the Los Angeles Opera unveiled their final “Ring” entry, Götterdämmerung, or, as German-averse speakers call it, Twilight of the Gods, there was more than a hint of Wagner’s capacity for irony. Yes, the mighty composer could not only see corruption trumping idealism but he could send up the whole kit and caboodle of gnomes and warriors, mortals and gods, in a rousing conflagration and be quite satisfied with the apocalyptic outcome.

How’s that? Well, director/designer/artist Freyer proved the point; he never blinked throughout his brilliantly imaginative traversal of the four-opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen, and by the time he got to its finale, clocking in at five hours and 20 minutes, he made us understand that, like the princely Siegfried, we’re all dupes of universal forces.

You see, Siegfried (left), in Freyer’s hands, is the ultimate dupe. Now we know why this innocent fool gets a comic-book characterization – yellow Harpo Marx wig made of giant plastic-roller curls, trompe l’oeil muscled long-sleeve tee shirt, bearskin baggy pants. He’s a sendup of the hero. And the director’s production is a 21st-century play on the futile workings of man and his gods, be they righteous or otherwise.

All elements from the three earlier installments are in place – a poetry in motion generated by ever-adjusting symbolic props that drift in space (these include a shiny gold top-hat representing the tarnhelm); a steeply-raked stage framed in linear neon tubes that keep re-positioning; posterboard costumes that the characters step in and out of, painted with their physical identifiers (trompe l’oeil breasts for Brünnhilde and Waltraute).

And Hagen (right), for instance, takes on a puppet’s appearance. His empty pant-legs dangle over his posterboard counter – remember he was sired by Alberich solely for the purpose of stealing the gold, ah, that universally sought-after gold, and he’s become a sometime Charlie McCarthy as a consequence.

The only staging quibble I have is with that moment when the divinely happy couple Siegfried and Brünnhilde part, he to do further great deeds and she to await his return. But while we’re now hearing the glorious music of his Rhine journey, we’re left to watch them – now reduced to two teeny, primitive, stick figures, static as could be in their upstage position -- as the orchestra roars forth in momentous motion. Possibly, that’s a miscalculation. Or, more likely, that touch of irony again, another nose-thumbing at 19th-century theatrical naturalism and its Wagnerian vision of triumph über alles.

But there was no let-down in the music-making department. James Conlon, at an achievement level perhaps equal to Valery Gergiev’s or Jimmy Levine’s of a decade ago, culled all the dramatic majesty and lyrical gorgeousness from his orchestra one might want (its suavity, power and dimension broken only by the occasional bobble from an exposed horn).

The cast coped, as all are wont to do, with the extraordinary demands Wagner made on mere mortal larynxes. Linda Watson sang Brünnhilde with fervor and force, if not always the steady column of sound that is ideal. Freyer helped her engender an aura of wisdom and empathy, of course, by positioning the ex-Valkerie on a pivot of grandeur, her towering crown of curls in place – until she confronts Siegfried’s betrayal, whereupon she strips them away, section by section, to reveal a bald pate.

John Treleaven, a more-than-game Siegfried, may not have the leather lungs of his famous predecessors, but his tenor withstood the role’s heavy lifting and, except for some wobbling on high sustained notes, he helped us see the semi-comic naif through sympathetic eyes. Eric Halfvarson made Hagen a nefarious foe, his knife-edged bass a vocal counterforce to Siegfried.

Freyer kept the faces of siblings Gunther and Gutrune enshrouded, suggesting their lesser power in the scheme of things, but both bass-baritone Alan Held and soprano Jennifer Wilson, in those roles, brought richness to the aural picture, while Michelle de Young was a standout as Waltraute, singing her narrative with a sustained strength that both commands and beseeches.

With this offering the company ushers in its grand Ring Festival LA, an extravaganza that spreads itself around the city through the end of June, with every imaginable sort of lecture, novelty, symposium and artifact-array relating to Wagner’s unique contribution to the opera literature – not silliest, among them, Das Barbecü, a country-western parody of the Ring and most controversial, the appearance of Wagner’s great grandson, Gottfried, in a talk titled Music of an Anti-Semite.

All this, a project begun years ago, stands almost in contradiction to the city’s current dire straits. And life goes on.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Range Rover

Hirayama finds lost Scelsi tones at REDCAT

Michiko Hirayama, left; Giancinto Scelsi, right.

by Joseph Mailander

When the chanteuse on the bill is eighty-seven years young, the temptation is to diminish expectations.

When the chanteuse is obliged to sing songs without words that are variously redolent of tortured parrots, secret dolphin communications, fax machines called in error, and being stuck with a drunken aunt in the back seat of a car on a long road trip, the temptation is to have no expectations at all.

But last night at REDCAT, Michiko Hirayama contorted, hobbled, mugged, pounded, and screeched her way through Giancinto Scelsi's cycle of "songs" written for her voice half a long lifetime ago, Canti del Capricorno to an abundantly appreciative audience who were able to acknowledge both singer and cycle as quirky but recognizable masterpieces.

From the opening canto, in which Hirayama, wearing a gong breast-plate, was obliged to sing while pounding alternately with a cupped clapper and her bare hand (it has been recorded; you can listen to an earlier recording here), through several solos and also accompanied by saxophone, bass, or Latin percussion sections, the song cycle kept ratcheting up higher and higher degrees of microtonality even while most segments preserved discernible twelvetone melodies.

It was a special delight to hear the full-winded meta-diva find full voice in the songs that hovered around and above C5. In fact, she only seemed to become stronger as the evening went on. Moving deliberately between various microphone stations and the large unfurling scores, taking the side of a three-quarter bass or a saxophone or the congas and bongos, she found more energy with every cautious step.

Concluding the evening with a vertically-held wind instrument I didn't recognize (but it's in this Ravenna Festival video at 2:46), as she softly pounded the floor with it and left it to stand upright on its muted bell, all comers were satisfied that they had seen some possibilities in the human voice that haven't been emphasized in music before, and rewarded the octogenarian with a lush and sustained ovation.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Hirayama sings Scelsi at REDCAT

Over the course of the sixties through 1972, the avant-garde Italian composer Giancinto Scelsi composed a cycle of "songs" for Michiko Hirayama. The cycle came to be known as Canti del Capricorno.

We put "songs" in brackets because Sclesi left out the words. His compositions for the cycle were written specifically for Hirayama because of her unique vocal range. Obsessed with tone and transition, Sclesi's cycle is all about vocal variance.

Tonight at 8:30 p.m. at REDCAT, Hirayama, now in her 80's, performs Canti del Capricorno once again. As it happens, this is the work's West Coast premiere.

Scelsi should also someday receive an honorable mention in James Conlon's Recovered Voices series. It was Scelsi who kept producing the works of Jewish composers despite the objections of the Mussolini regime, a habit which ultimately caused him to remove to Switzerland for the war.

Tickets are $20 [students $16, CalArts $10].

Thursday, April 1, 2010

LA Phil Folds - Assets acquired by Placido Domingo

Exclusive to Rodney Punt

Breaking News: All the perceived success of the LA Phil, including Disney Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, classical, popular, and world music programs, and even Gustavo Dudamel's contract, is apparently history. The organization has been the victim of a giant financial bubble, which collapsed today, shortly after press time.

LAPO President and CEO, Deborah Borda, announced to a stunned Los Angeles community that the organization short-sold its assets to super-tenor and impresario, Placido Domingo, who acknowledged that his family trust had acquired the LAPO lock, stock, and barrel. (Rumors are running rampant that he acquired them for ten cents on the dollar.)

Separately, the LA Opera has issued a press release extending their highest sympathies to their colleagues across the street on Grand Avenue, and claiming their current production of Richard Wagner's Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods) was no way timed to coincide with the announcement of the LAPO's collapse.

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