Friday, August 27, 2010

The Mortal Thoughts of Lady Macbeth

A Chamber Opera of Horrors at Fais Do-Do

Photo : Joe Hill

Fais Do-Do
Los Angeles, California
August 26, 2010

Review by Rodney Punt

The Mortal Thoughts of Lady Macbeth, a chamber opera by Canadian composer and USC Thornton Music professor Veronika Krausas, with a libretto by Thomas Pettit (after Shakespeare's play), received its Los Angeles premiere on Thursday night in a staging at the Fais Do-Do, a club on West Adams Boulevard.

Shakespeare’s Macbeth has the reputation of a problematic, even unlucky play, but its fantastical elements -- a bewitching tug of war between outsized ambitions and abnormal genders -- give it terrific potential for operatic treatment. Verdi’s early opera has enjoyed recent revivals and other works on the subject since are plentiful.

Krausas’ take on the story premiered in concert version two years ago at the New York City Opera’s VOX Festival and was performed again last year in San Francisco, winning awards at both, but the theatrical production this evening was its first.

Entering the Fais Do-Do club venue was half the fun. It's a dark relic of a space, atmosphered Thursday evening in murky stage-mist, the middle of its floor weirdly disarranged with a collection of sinister objects. Cobwebby riggings hung overhead. Perimeter booths hugged the walls with cocktail tables near the central set pieces.

The evening launched with artful recitations of three of Macbeth's soliloquies by actor John Walcutt, interspersed with virtuosic guitar solos; the eerie “Mad Lady Macbeth” movement from Hans Werner Henze’s Royal Winter Music was broken into sections and effectively performed by Michael Kudirka.

Immediately after came the curious production of Mortal Thoughts, with the sound of opera and a look of cabaret spectacle. Viewers at the tables closest to the central staging were soon twisting heads as the action unfolded all around them. Think of it as a thirty-minute Roger Corman horror film in 3-D live action.

Distilled from the original play is Lady Macbeth’s mental trajectory from initial power-lust and murderous urgings to the guilt-ridden pangs that hound her soul and disintegrate her personality. The grisly trip was engrossing in director Yuval Sharon’s spooky-campy staging. (He just last month assisted Achim Freyer in the direction of LA Opera's Ring Cycle.)

Reprising her award-winning role from San Francisco, Michelle Jasso was a rich-toned Lady Macbeth when singing, but not always clear when speaking, the orchestra’s churnings tending to overbalance her. The three witch prophesies were delivered by speaking and singing sopranos Carmina Escobar, Alexandra Loutsion, and Kalean Ung, draped in ghostly white gauze as they emerged from canisters. The four sopranos together produced a decidedly plummy coloration.

Marcus Herse and Matt Hooper Pennington’s production design was Gothic and attic-relic cluttered, with floating objects everywhere – a knife, the severed head of King Duncan, and dangling baggage. Particularly gruesome were the umbilical cord ripped from Lady Macbeth’s body (“unsex me here…”) and the silken web strands that emerged from her fingertips. Supporting lighting effects were by Ryan Bona.

Choreographer Bianca Sapetto, with experience as both a Cirque du Soleil aerialist and an Olympic gold-medaler, ensured a silky-smooth execution of the evening’s fated queen. Three Weavers - silent, spider-like aerialists performed by Sapetto herself, Karl Baumann, and Gregg Curtis - slither down from regions above, and slowly smother Lady Macbeth in her own web. Thus tangled below, she is soon dangled above.

Swinda Reichelt’s costumes enhanced the evening’s over-the-top theatricality with her ghostly-gauzed witches, sinister-striped spiders, and especially the tri-colored costume changes of Lady Macbeth: evil black, blood red, and deathly white. James Sartain's make-up paled its victims appropriately.

Marc Lowenstein was an alert leader of the Los Angeles-based Ensemble Green, configured on Thursday with strings, percussion, and the double-reed woodwinds. Krausas’ music pushed no boundaries in technical innovation, but evoked well the fantastical elements of the play. Irregular canonic imitations in both spoken and vocal lines gave the witches initial shuddering presence. Eerie string effects, ominous meditation bells, off-balance meters, triplet snarls for the floating dagger, and odd intervallic leaps in instrumental and vocal lines kept the audience tingling. The employment of the ethereal oboe and English horn worked better for me in this version than the open-throated clarinet I heard employed in the recording of the work’s New York premiere from 2008.

In formal structure, Mortal Thoughts blends two rich but infrequently employed musical traditions: the chamber operas of Benjamin Britten and his musical descendants (characterized by the use of small orchestral forces) and the experimental, edgy opera monodramas of composers like Schoenberg, (Erwartung, Die glückliche Hand) and Poulenc (La voix humaine).

The evening’s slant toward high-class entertainment over traditional proscenium-projected opera seemed in step with the leaner formats of the above composers, whose experiments emerged, like this production, in times after war when resources were lean. Not incidentally, eminent English composer and now LA resident Thomas Adès, who has written a few chamber operas himself, was in attendance on opening night.

Writing a work in such distinguished company, past and present, as those above could well have inspired Veronika Krausas to muse, "That which hath made them drunk hath made me bold."

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

But what does it mean?

Eli Broad doubles down on Grand

by Joseph Mailander

"Modern sculpture is what you back into when looking at modern painting," Ad Reinhardt famously said. Let's back up a little to see the bigger crazy picture, and maybe bump something over while we're at it.

While everyone is doing the math of the sweetheart deal Eli Broad received downtown (and it is fun math to do, as Tim Cavanaugh demonstrated yesterday), Edward Goldman of KCRW wonders aloud, sotto voce anyway, about what it will be like to have two Broad-beholden museums downtown across the street from each other, even when the already-resident one seems to be in decline.

It seems as though everyone is expecting for Broad to live another twenty years--even if so, it's not likely that he remain so active as the pilot of the once and future institutions he bestrides. His second (de facto) museum on Grand will give us, hopefully, a little more than the first one has; MoCA began promisingly enough but has been sleepy in recent years, and even has missed some big LA painters as the patrons (including Broad) use the space to promote what's in their own collections. Goldman tacitly suggests that Broad try to do better.

On the egoseum itself, the selection of Diller Scofidio + Renfro to build it is a little more nuanced than the typical Broad browbeating of architect as mere ink-stained compass-spinner. Christopher Hawthorne says that "The most dramatic element of the firm's proposal — its wow moment — is a lobby space that will bring pedestrians entering the museum from Grand Avenue face to face, through glass, with drivers on their way down to the museum's parking garage." That is redolent of an exhibit that featured maquettes of Thomas Mayne's recent work at the Beaubourg a few years ago, when the Paris museum mounted an LA show.

Also, the architects wrote: "The public entry to the museum welcomes pedestrians through its Grand Avenue frontage yet still acknowledges the beloved car culture of L.A., refusing to condemn either to a back-door status. … Visitors can either walk into or drive onto the lobby surface." DS+R did a very good job with their New York High Line appropriation.

Broad's chosen firm may show a decent sensibility for public space, but DS+R (and that plus sign, a legit part of the name, is just so A+U, isn't it?) also has very elitist tendencies, and Broad will likely, as he so often does, bring out the worst in it.

It is likely to do so because Broad is no Ira Yellin, though he seems to want to be. It was Yellin who made monuments to last through the ages downtown. He showed artistic sensitivity when redeveloping Grand Central Market; he showed civic understanding when spearheading the Angel's Flight restoration; and as master of the Cathedral competition, which produced the most exquisite spirit-tempered space in the city, Yellin did the very best for a hard-headed Cardinal. (It is no accident that the Cathedral snubs its own Grand Avenue elevation, choosing not to flaunt anything at all on the street it sideswipes, nor that Broad's Central High School for the Performing Arts across the freeway appears to flip the Cathedral off in a characteristically juvenile, jealous gesture.)

Goldman notes that already LA hasn't been inclusive enough of its own artists at local museums, and mentions a couple deserving wider recognition. It will be interesting to see if KCRW, now Ruth-less, gets as angry at Goldman for airing his views the way the station got pissy at Sam Hall Kaplan for airing his about the Disney Hall--well, more than pissy, as Sam was shown the door. Meanwhile--is anyone sick of John Baldessari yet? I sure am...the show is all about visual puns, trite onion layers of conceptualism, and mostly marginal issues, and great artists worthy of museum shows don't exclusively hang out on the margins. But that's precisely where Baldessari hangs out, and that's where Broad hangs out too. He's assembling a street full of baubles.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

L.A. Jewish Symphony Presents ‘Cinema Judaica’ at the Ford Theatre

Photo Credit: Guy Madmoni

Ford Amphitheater
Los Angeles, California
Sunday, August 8, 2010, 7:30 pm

Review by Rodney Punt

It was a curious tale of two local orchestras. A week ago Saturday at the LA County Arboretum, the Cal Philharmonic’s pops-to-classics program offered something for everyone. Call it "Y'all come!" The following night at the County’s John Anson Ford Theatre, the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony's second installment of “Cinema Judaica” for its insider audience was so focused on its subject it had the air of parochial ritual. It was certainly helpful if you knew Yiddish.

Author Neal Gabler’s well-regarded 1988 study, An Empire of Their Own, chronicles how a century ago Jewish retailers from New York City virtually invented the Hollywood film industry - a leadership that remains largely intact today. Less known has been a preeminent line of Jewish film composers from the beginning of sound in film to the present era. Artistic Director and LAJS conductor Noreen Green was thus easily able to cull more gems, many of them Oscar and Emmy winners, from a rich library of Jewish composed, Judaic-themed films.

Most of the Golden Age film composers, unlike film producers, did not hail from New York. They arrived on our shores courtesy of the horrors of European fascism in the middle of the last century. But it was later composers, from the so-called Silver Age of film (1950s-70s) and Bronze Age (from the 1980s), who were responsible for most of the music on Jewish subjects, and it was they who were represented this evening.

Two greats from the Silver Age generation launched the survey. Elmer Bernstein’s suite from The Ten Commandments met the splashy, Technicolor requirements of its mid-1950’s era with notable brass fanfares, but also an unusual theme introduction from the trombones and drum-roll effects on the timpani.

Bernstein’s suite from 1981’s The Chosen reflects the composer’s growth from a talented craftsman to just this side of genius in the quarter decade that separates the two scores. Set in Brooklyn in the 1940’s, the film traces the relationship between an Americanized and a Hassidic Jew, with Bernstein’s music employing a jazz combo for the former and a klezmer ensemble for the latter. The film suite concocted from the score had its world premiere here, arranged by Victor Pesavento and Zinovy Goro, the latter also performing idiomatic klezmer clarinet.

Jerry Goldsmith’s suite from the TV mini-series drama, QB VII, consisted of five shorter pieces corresponding to scenes in Leon Uris’ novel of guilt and accusation in the post-war United Kingdom. The emotional climate was well captured in the variously colored fragments – electronic zither for the “Main Title", hootchy-kootchy belly dance at “A Visit to the Sheik”, melancholy cello and violin dialogue at “The Wailing Wall”, plaintive oboe for “The Holocaust”, and an uplifting “Kaddish for the Six Million” sung by the Ford Festival Choir.

John Williams’ haunting theme from Schindler’s List was sensitively performed by the orchestra’s concertmaster, violinist Mark Kashper, and became the evening’s emotional high point.

After intermission, a younger generation of composers supplemented additional selections by Bernstein and Goldsmith. While the level of craftsmanship remained high, some repetition of musical material and a slackening of originality after the first half’s three musical titans inevitably gave the rest of the evening an anticlimactic feel.

Charles Fox’s Victory at Entebbe Suite for piano solo, performed by the young Israeli pianist, Andy Feldbau, impressed as an extended study in minor-key arpeggioed dissonance. Danny Pelfrey’s suite from Joseph: King of Dreams, lushly scored and with coloristic choral effects on vowel sounds, nods nonetheless to already redundant middle-eastern musical accents on the program.

Bernstein’s wailing clarinets from his Thoroughly Modern Millie score encouraged soprano Ariella Vaccarino's easy bravura in the “Trinkt L’Chayim” (Drink to Life) toast in the Jewish wedding scene.

Stephen Schwartz, composer of the hit musical, Wicked, was here represented with the Oscar winning solo song from his The Prince of Egypt, yet another variant of middle-eastern atmospherics. Hannah Drew, the 13-year-old daughter of conductor Green and LAJS President Dr. Ian Drew, was the soloist. Wearing the most strikingly stylish gown of the evening, Hannah exhibited musical poise and promise, if not the ultimate in articulation and suavity at this tender age.

Yuval Ron’s charming West Bank Story Suite seemed easy-going and a bit derivative to these ears, almost a pan-Mediterranean take on an earlier classic score, Zorba the Greek. Yuval Ron’s oud and Jamie Papish’s drum, however, lent authentic instrumental colorings to the cheerful score. The evening concluded with a stirring suite from Goldsmith’s Masada.

The otherwise savvy placement of musicians on the Ford's stage risers might have showcased various instrumental families with more successful colorings and interpretive shadings were it not for the limitations of the amplification system and undoubtedly a need for more rehearsal time. Given that, sparkling orchestral effects were still often achieved, with more subtle felicities inherent in the scores, however, only occasionally realized.

Green had decided not to screen film clips, so the context of the music was not always apparent. Making up for this lack of visual reference were Green’s pithy commentaries on each of the numbers, allowing more attention for the unadulterated impressions of the music itself.

The more than fair sampling of musical Judaica, while confirming the subject matter as ritual for the audience, on purely musical terms flirted with too much of a good concept. Given the creative range of these hyper-talented composers, the all Jewish music format became repetitious in part. This seemed to limit the potential range of the otherwise singular and vivid musical voices represented.

The program had commenced with a rendition of Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem, immediately after the Star Spangled Banner. (According to management this is de rigueur at every LAJS concert.) Although the political implications of such an insertion might have surprised a few in attendance, the soulful anthem had deep resonance with the majority present. One is reminded of the effect of Verdi's Va, Pensiero on 19th Century Italian audiences, and how relevant that same piece happens to be today to the Jewish diaspora.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

California Philharmonic Goes Alfresco in Pops and Classical Fare

Photo courtesy of CalPhil

LA County Arboretum
Arcadia, California
August 7, 2010

Review by Rodney Punt

It is just past 7:30 pm on a balmy Saturday, and picnickers have finished their cucumber salads and curried chicken and savored a few glasses of wine. As they munch on chocolate Éclairs, the crowd's animated dinner conversation is suddenly interrupted with the appearance of a rotund and bearded gentleman coming on stage, dressed in an old-fashioned black three-piece suit, replete with a gold watch-chain that spans its two waist pockets like an enormous inverted rainbow.

In appearance he is a blend of the late television actor Sebastian Cabot and 19th Century French composer Camille Saint-Saëns, as he lumbers across the stage and gingerly lifts his enormous girth upon a central platform. Turning to the audience of about four thousand seated and sated souls, who at this moment recall they are here for a concert, he greets them like a favorite uncle come home from a shopping trip with a slew of good tunes to introduce and share around.

It is Maestro Victor Vener, conductor, impresario, and Chairman of the Board of the California Philharmonic (aka Cal Phil), and we are at a concert of his “festival on the green” evening series at The Arboretum - the latter best known as L.A. County’s botanic home for camellias and azaleas. The concertgoers sit at tables, in chairs, or on lawn blankets; the informal ambience resembles that of the Hollywood Bowl’s early days. Facing them is a summer bandshell with a large orchestra. To the rear, as dusk settles into the Arcadian landscape, is a stunning view of the San Gabriel Mountains.

Thus the setting last Saturday when Maestro Vener asked the crowd to kick off the program singing ‘America’, and only an isolated few were able to recall the words.

Tagged as “Frank, Tony & The Maestro” the program turned out to be a grab-bag affair, the sort of musical clash of high, low, and in-between that, just not incidentally, characterized many a 19th Century European concert.

The musical fare ranged from Rodgers & Hammerstein and selections from the American Songbook to orchestral pieces by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, the aforementioned Saint-Saëns, and Edward Elgar. Two popular singers would contrast the traditional mellifluous Broadway style of a Howard Keel with the more parlando style of a Frank Sinatra lounge act in Las Vegas. Vener attempted a half-hearted explanation of how the eclectic program fit together, but just as soon gave up trying, deciding to let it all hang out.

The orchestra began with an arrangement of Rodgers & Hammerstein hits from The Sound of Music, with Rodgers’ evergreen, lighter-than-air tunes sounding a little thick in these orchestrations under Vener’s deliberate pacing. A bass-heavy sound amplification did not help matters.

Baritone Kevin Earley joined the orchestra for two songs, but his Broadway stage voice, not yet warmed up, betrayed a wide vibrato and some strain in the upper reaches of “Climb Every Mountain” and a forced, dry bottom register at the beginning of “New York, New York.”

Additional song selections by baritone Michael B. Levin with the orchestra fared much better. A musical mimic (as well as stand-up comedian and impressionist in Vegas), Levin delivered a virtual replica of Frank Sinatra’s voice and style in songs like “Come Fly With Me”, “Ice Cream”, “Summer Wind”, and “They Have an Awful Lot of Coffee in Brazil.” He connected with the audience, and Vener and his orchestra wisely got out of his way, letting him take the lead and do his own flying.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade followed. Vener related the story of how the eponymous character in the tale keeps the king’s death sentence at bay night after night with her thousand stories, until he finally falls in love with her and makes her his queen. Vener introduced his concertmaster, Pavel Farkas, whose violin would depict the voice of Princess Scheherazade. The orchestra’s run-through was only fitfully effective, however, with Farkas’s otherwise lovely tone in the solos consistently a hair under pitch.

And so it went.

After intermission, veteran Russian violinist Daniel Shindarov, age 86, gave a remarkably nimble rendering of the finger-busting Introduction and Rondo Capriccio for Violin & Orchestra of Camille Saint-Saëns. The orchestra did their best to keep up with this former concertmaster of the Bolshoi Opera and Ballet, but again was not particularly aided by Vener’s heavy-handed approach. Vener reminded the audience before and after the performance of the violinist’s advanced age, garnering further applause from the already enthusiastic crowd.

The return of Mr. Earley found him in more pliant and open a voice, and with a song selection well suited to his innate stage lyricism. “As Time Goes By”, “My Way” and especially “Bring It Home” (from Les Misérables) were affecting, the latter especially poignant.

What was clearly planned as the pièce de résistance, Elgar’s Enigma Variations came across as lugubrious and imprecise, and the orchestra’s under-rehearsed state apparent in the work’s otherwise brilliant score. There were fine moments here and there, but Vener’s long pauses between the variation movements further slowed down momentum and chopped what might have been a cumulative, unified impact into isolated fragments, resonating something like those singular ice-chunks off Greenland we are seeing a lot of in nightly news broadcasts.

Vener had punctuated each of his musical selections with cheerful introductions aimed at the musically uninitiated. His is an easy, unpretentious and enthusiastic pitch, and it resonated with his audience. Unfortunate then that he felt so often compelled to engage in applause-milking remarks for his musicians, as if he were a cheerleading coach trying to buck up an unsteady team.

If success were measured by a lovely setting, a lot of people in attendance, and a balance sheet in the black, Maestro Victor Vener and the California Philharmonic would appear to have a successful operation. Grant him that and good for him and his orchestra. This is no mean feat in a crowded musical field coupled with a bad economy. But that still leaves some reservations in the musical aspect of this program.

Will this quibble matter to the vast majority of the audience who sat under the Arcadian stars of the Arboretum last Saturday evening? Probably not. In today’s world a satisfied audience may be all that matters, and this audience seemed well satisfied indeed.

Monday, August 9, 2010


Maestro Dudamel pops tops at the Bowl

Maestro, miming...

by Donna Perlmutter

In case you haven’t noticed, it’s a whole new game at the Hollywood Bowl. Thank you, Mr. Camerman. Thank you for pointing your equipment at what everyone wants to see on those big screens at the mammoth showplace: the man of the moment, Gustavo Dudamel.

Of course it would take a dunderhead to ignore the magnetism of our L.A. Philharmonic music director and not let the hordes in on his irresistible way with the players and the music. It would take a lamebrain to keep pursuing the old standard of panning rote to each orchestra section as it plays its featured few bars before turning for seconds to the podium-meister, who shapes the whole – yes, the whole -- of what we hear and, therefore, should get maximum viewing time.

So successful and audience-gratifying is this updated camera strategy with its new angles and protocols that I wonder if the Philharmonic might not think of instituting it in Disney Hall too -- where, so far, only those in the less-than-optimal seats behind the orchestra get to see Dudamel wield his wondrous baton.

Even from far, far away, up in the Bowl’s outer-reaches, with the sky still not quite dark, a person in front of me nudged her neighbor and murmured “there’s the guy,” as he unceremoniously strode onstage, without a spotlight, wearing black pants and black shirt for his Carmen concert performance. That seat-holder couldn’t think of his name but she sure knew he was “the guy” and not some stage hand.

Whether she also knew how special he is hardly matters – because his celebrity drew her to the grand amphitheater. And he and the orchestra gave that listener, as well as the 13,000 others of us, what for.

Dudamel, himself, simply loves the music.

He shows it over and over. Here, in Carmen, which I have seldom heard played with so much warmth, fluency, lilt and delicacy – along with the plangent swelling surges, fast and powerful on the exciting dramatic accents – he did just that. Even the composer’s juxtaposition of the calvary march against the Seguidilla came across with brilliant irony. Never mind the few, small lapses of coordination with the singers (not much rehearsal time here).

If there is an opera score that can stand alone, without a staging, this is it. The music can creep into the coldest heart. Its melodies sweet, its drama gut-busting, Carmen is Bizet’s most treasurable gift to the world. Dudamel and the glowing Philharmonic know it.

Probably the international singers, who varied in artistry, sensed it also. But the titled femme fatale, Natascha Petrinsky (left) had her shaky moments – both as to pitch and vocal agility. Her Don José, Yonghoon Lee, dispatched his smoky tenor with a soft ending to The Flower Song, as the composer wanted, while Kyle Ketelsen, as Escamillo, actually hit his treacherous low notes dead on in the repeat. Alexia Voulgaridou, as Micaëla, sang with pleasing assertiveness. The choruses, melding with the orchestra, were fabulous.

From high up in the nose-bleeds, though, where two tickets can set you back $80, the screen titles could barely be read.

Smoking: Yonghoong Lee, Petrinsky

Down in the boxes, for Dudamel’s third night at the Bowl, everything on the Jumbotrons was much clearer. And, in his white jacket and bowtie, he even served as charming narrator for those unknown items on the cleverly chosen song-and-dance bill. Call him the next Lenny, giving, well, not a Young People’s Concert, but a just-as-engaging edu-tainment for adult revelers.

It was summertime programming that ignored the evening’s chill. What’s more, he made it an occasion of infectious fun. First, with Bernstein’s Divertimento, short pieces ranging from jaunty to aggressive to melancholy and expertly showing off the composer’s love affair with cross-rhythms (absorbed from his love affair with Brahms’ music), his adulation of Ives and his harkenings to Sousa at the Boston Pops, where he grew up.

But just in case you didn’t know it before, Dudamel is the Marcel Marceau of the bandstand and, arguably, there is no better interpreter of this music and the South American works that followed.

He told us about Villa-Lobos’ "Little Train of the Caipira" from Bachianas brasilieras, how it stirred the composer’s reveries of the Brazilian rain forest and the sound of that train gently chugging through the dense, lush terrain. He told us how easily and naturally Villa-Lobos composed, the way Mozart did, (the way Dudamel conducts, with the music coursing through his body). And then he made us hear it as described.

With uninhibited pleasure he next explained the milonga and tango pieces, one based on a young girl’s flirtation with an old guy, the other as “a man planning to woo a girl with a slow simmer,” adding, “Enjoy your wine,” while listening and imagining. His winks, his shoulder shrugs, did their own dancing and cued the players masterfully.

Besides the program’s best-known entries, Falla’s Three-Cornered Hat Suite No. 2 and Ravel’s Bolero (what else?) there was a winsome guest artist, Isabel Leonard, whose acting gifts matched her lusciously light-voiced mezzo as she sang Falla’s Seven Popular Songs to stunning effect.

But just after the printed closer, Bolero, Dudamel sprang his surprise: a galvanizing rendition of Tico Tico. Forget that he’d been born decades after the Xavier Cugat-Carmen Miranda era – his spirit brought them back and the exuberant crowd went Tico Tico-ing into the night on an infinitely rhythmic Cugie-Carmen wave.