Sunday, October 31, 2010

The LA Phil Plays with Fire --

in Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven


Photo: LA Philharmonic

Review by Rodney Punt

Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven on the LA Phil's marquee?

Ho hum.

But wait a minute. This weekend’s fare proved something of a deceptive cadence. To begin, we were not talking of “Bach” as in the ubiquitous Johann Sebastian, but rather of his son, Carl Philipp Emmanuel. And while Mozart and Beethoven are over-exposed, their works here were anything but hackneyed.

Selections from an infrequently performed ballet by Beethoven on the Prometheus myth capped a program that had begun with a rarely heard concerto of C. P. E. Bach and a Mozart concert aria featuring mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, with frequent LA Phil guest Christian Zacharias conducting and doubling as pianist in the latter two. The Casual Fridays program I took in was a slightly shortened version of those to follow over the weekend.

The younger Bach was a curious, quirky fellow. As the most talented and exploratory of Sebastian’s many children, he followed his own path, sometimes to his father’s annoyance. Yet he would, during his lifetime, become better recognized, rewarded, and emulated than his father (as performer, composer, and the author of a treatise on keyboard performance), remaining influential for decades after his death in 1788.

Where Sebastian had been the great summarizer of the Baroque era, Emmanuel looked forward in his art, a major proponent of a style that would depict emotional fluidity within a musical composition, in contrast to the singular "affect" of a Baroque movement.

Known as the Empfindsamer Stil (Sensitive Style), the trend would anticipate the later Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress), initially a literary and later a musical style best known in C.P.E. Bach’s late keyboard works and the symphonies of middle-period Haydn. The new style would pave the way for the Classical sonata form that flowered with the mature Haydn and his younger contemporaries, Mozart and Beethoven.

These trends were evident in embryonic stages in Emmanuel Bach’s Concerto in D minor for Keyboard and Strings, Wq.23, composed at age 34 in 1748, two years before his father's death. As might be expected, it is a transitional piece. Call it a "missing link" between the Baroque and Classical styles.

Like C.P. E. Bach’s later keyboard music, this concerto is characterized, in its two outer movements, by rapidly pivoting thrusts and parries, some of them stopping on a dime as if in a cul-de-sac, commencing again with another motif. Dynamic contrasts, unstable harmonies, an extensive minor mode in the first movement, and unexpected emotional outbursts in all of them jar equanimity. No wonder young Bach’s music gave his father pause. He was on to something. (Maybe just ON something?)

Emmanuel Bach's quick flashes of musical temper anticipate Beethoven, or, in a more jovial mood, Haydn’s playful surprises. There is also something proto-Brucknerian in those mid-phrase cul-de-sacs. This Bach was feeling his way into a sensibility that challenged the perfection of Enlightenment bromides, searching deeper into human psychology and discovering contradictions that can burst forth unwillingly in the middle of the most rational of arguments. (Tea Party antics, anyone?)

Zacharias had the concerto firmly in his flexible fingers, with a crisp touch and a free use of dynamics that modernized musical lines but remained true to their expressive intent. His piano’s lid was removed but its tone balanced with the vibrato-less string forces in sharply defined, contrasting phrases. The nearly inaudible harpsichord continuo (against the sonorities of Zacharias’ pearly modern Steinway) played homage to convention, but was unnecessary here except for purists. The slow middle movement’s aria-like melody was forward-looking, having a Mozartian grace in its descending paired-note sighs, nicely brought off between piano and strings.

Talk about feelings. Mozart’s great concert aria, Ch'io mi scordi di te? (You ask that I forget you?), K. 505, is a "declaration of love in music," according to Alfred Einstein. Resurrected from an earlier insertion into the opera Idomeneo, it was tailored for a star mezzo-soprano of the time, Nancy Storace, who was departing Vienna in 1787, and may have been carrying on a love affair with the composer.

The text is full of amorous frisson, with musical clues as supporting evidence. Two soloists, a coloratura mezzo-soprano and a vigorously interacting piano, carry on like shameless lovers in the presence of the soft-pillowed orchestra, with Mozart deploying two of his beloved clarinets in entwining phrases with the sultry bassoons. It was all gorgeously realized in the seamless velvet of Susan Graham's emotive coloratura, complemented by Zacharias’s seductive, singing piano.

As if the climate was not warm enough, Zacharias concluded with a selection of eight of the eighteen purely orchestral numbers from Beethoven’s second ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus, op. 43, composed in 1800-01. (You read correctly; the juvenile Ritterballett was the first, composed a decade earlier in Bonn.) Prometheus was, of course, the Greek titan who stole fire from Zeus and gave it to mortals, an irresistible subject for the titanic Beethoven who was to shake his own heavens shortly thereafter.

One can hear the flickering flames depicted in the oft-performed and thoroughly charming overture, far and away the most developed movement in the score. But there are also other sections of interest. One of the adagios has the sole appearance in Beethoven’s oeuvre of a harp, used quite idiomatically. The work’s finale provides the second outing for a tune Beethoven was to employ four times, starting with an orchestra contredanse. Its peroration would come in its varied treatment for the Finale of the heaven shaking Eroica Symphony in 1803.

The additional colorations of trumpets, flutes, oboes and four timpani (added to those in the earlier works), not to mention a lovely basset horn solo from Michele Zukovsky, helped sustain interest in the pleasant but repetitive score, designed as it was for the formal patterns of dance. The orchestra mustered a reasonably committed performance, an intonation problem here or there noted, as from a solo cello taking Casual Fridays too much to heart on this occasion.

The earlier Upbeat Live lecture from pianist-conductor Lucinda Carver provided an informed and witty introduction to the program, with a number of interesting anecdotes. Here’s one I particularly liked, from an unidentified source. It seems the towering technique and rigidity of Johann Sebastian Bach could have stifled the creativity of his children, many of whom were to become musicians. Of necessity, according to one wag, they “scattered like billiard balls escaping their triangular foundation.”

That's how it looked Friday evening as the audience departed the triangular Disney Concert Hall (pictured above), with the prospect of even more phantom flickers on Halloween Sunday.

Note: The term "basset horn" above was corrected from the original "bass clarinet" after publication. RLP

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Monster mash

At UCLALive, a jumbled Gorenstein Miller

Sandra Chiu in Beautiful Monsters............
PHOTOS: PAUL RYAN



By Donna Perlmutter

Call her Laura in Wonderland. After all, she’s got creepy-crawly fantasy streaming from every corner, the innocent speaking voice and song of young children (her own) wafting in the darkness, mysterious creatures going bump in the night, the Shrek Three director Chris Miller (her husband) contributing film animation.

Need we go on?

When Laura Gorenstein Miller brought her Helios Dance Theater to UCLA’s Royce Hall, in this piece titled Beautiful Monsters, it was clear she’d come a long way, baby. Eleven years ago, the choreographer danced with her little company at Cal State Northridge and showed us an amusing, marvelously inventive social documentarian at work, life-stage pictures melding into antic choreography.

Yes, she boasts a pronounced talent. At least that was the case when Gorenstein Miller choreographed for others and herself. But now that she no longer performs, the director has gone all new-agey on us -- and gone the way of sleekly sausaged dancers undulating jointlessly from top to toe, their every muscle outlined in spandex while impersonating butterflies, upright inchworms, toads, grasshoppers and various other creatures of the insect/animal world.

But what does it all mean?

Not much that visibly relates to her stated childhood obsession with vampires. Oh, there were episodes of wing-flapping (bats?) but those also inevitably conjure up ballet’s famous swans. Still, I got the feeling that Gorenstein Miller let her notable collaborators, including the dancers, walk away with the overall look and feel of this phantasmagoric mishmash.

Mishmash exactly describes the score, credited to composers Paul Cantelon and David Majzlin, who perhaps were given only individual segments, with no one music director pulling the unwieldy thing together. That made for a harmonically clever, even charming but peculiar stroke of imagination, like putting side by side a piano piece as accompaniment (Chopin’s e-minor Prelude) with a vocal (Eden Ahbez’s “Nature Boy”). Throughout there was an attitude of anything goes, the more disparate the merrier.

Even designer Rami Kashou’s costumes couldn’t leave simple enough alone, but had extra adornments strapped and layered on everywhere you looked.

Yet for those packing the hall – many of them students lured by the bargain half price – the whole thing was uproariously delectable. Hoots and hollers rang rang out, not only at curtain calls, but at the end of each one of these ecstatic, slithery dancercises. And who would guess otherwise?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Glowing Roméo et Juliette of Berlioz Charles Dutoit with the LA Philharmonic



PHOTO CREDIT: Mathew Imaging

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Charles Dutoit, conductor
Lauren McNeese, mezzo-soprano
Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, tenor
Jonathan Lemalu, bass-baritone
Los Angeles Master Chorale, Grant Gershon, music director


Review by Rodney Punt

When Richard Wagner, a brash young composer of then little distinction, attended one of the first performances of Hector Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette symphony in the Paris of 1839, he was knocked off his feet. It may have been in the work's Love Scene that he learned tonality could be a sometimes thing, to be stretched almost beyond recognition. It is highly unusual, for instance, to introduce a theme in A Major by setting up its harmony in C# Minor, but then again genius never likes to play by the rules, especially when it sets out to express the searching, irresolvable pangs of love.

Wagner would remember the encounter when he composed his own Tristan und Isolde twenty years later. The arching sixth leap and stepwise fallback leading to the Tristan chord comes directly from Berlioz's opening phrases of yearning in the Romeo Alone sequence of his symphony. When you remember that Wagner borrowed his famous chord from Franz Liszt, you have, in the span of a few measures in Tristan, the conjunction of the three greatest musical proponents of progressive Romanticism in the nineteenth-century.

Although the Los Angeles Philharmonic has never been known as a “French” orchestra, as was Charles Munch’s Boston Symphony of the middle of the last century, or Charles Dutoit’s Montreal Symphony in more recent decades, the orchestra has always been athletic, quick to learn and perform well in many styles. Under Esa-Pekka Salonen’s leadership, it gained considerable skills in executing sharply gauged, pointillistic effects, so important in Gallic orchestral works.

Reports on last week’s performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie under Gustavo Dudamel confirm the orchestra’s superb execution of the twentieth-century French masterpiece. We should not be surprised, then, that it also excelled last Friday under the experienced hands of the Swiss-born Charles Dutoit in Roméo et Juliette. A quintessential conductor of French works, Dutoit had championed Berlioz at Montreal and recorded Roméo, a "dramatic symphony with solos and choruses" a quarter century ago to excellent reviews.

I was as impressed with this performance as I was disappointed 13 years ago in a similar one by the LAPO under the direction of Valery Gergiev. The otherwise fine Russian conductor had a willful, rough way with Berlioz on that occasion, a fatal approach; Roméo positively resists being manhandled. For all of its grand moments, the work is more characterized by a nuanced emotional climate, with subtly balanced colorations, ethereal effects, and quicksilver rhythms that must be finely gauged.

(To be fair and balanced, Gergiev excelled yesterday with Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, which I caught in a live national broadcast from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera.)

Roméo is a curious work, with operatic or cantata-like elements that can make it difficult to conceptualize and expensive to produce. It only briefly outlines the Shakespeare play’s main scenes in vocal and choral statements prior to launching into purely orchestral reflections on its emotional highlights, and closing with a sermon and reconciliation scene between Friar Laurence and the warring Montagues and Capulets that he never engineered in the original Shakespeare.

Some puzzle as to why the work is called a symphony at all. The LA Phil’s program booklet does not help matters when it organizes Roméo’s sprawling episodes into three parts (as it did also in the program of the 1997 performance under Gergiev). Berlioz himself arranged the work in five parts, which Upbeat Live pre-concert lecturer Daniel Kessner correctly identified, to the confusion of the assembled who saw a three-part description in their programs.

Understood as the composer intended, and clearly outlined in his score, Roméo is a cyclic five-part work, containing a prologue and and a four-movement symphony, as detailed below:

I. Prologue (outlining and commenting on the story)
II. Andante, Allegro (Romeo alone, the Ball at the Capulets)
III. Slow Allegretto (the Love Scene)
IV. Scherzo, Andante, Allegro (Queen Mab, Juliet’s Funeral, Tomb Scene)
V. Choral Finale (Families quarrel; Friar Laurence reconciles)

Once we grasp the work’s master plan, rather than complain of Berlioz violating symphonic structure as many have in the two centuries since its premiere, we stand amazed that he has so respected the received symphonic tradition.

Laying aside for the moment its Prologue, Roméo’s standard symphonic treatment begins with Part II above: a slow introduction with a fast main section looking back to Haydn’s London symphony; a second movement taking a cue from Beethoven’s Ninth; a third fast-slow-fast scherzo patterned on Mendelssohn (and where Berlioz out scherzos him for sheer gossamer grace); and a last movement's counterpart in Beethoven's Ninth, even to the shared baritone role preparing the way for the choral apotheosis.

Berlioz’s only deviation from the standard four-movement symphonic form is the introductory vocal Prologue that precedes it. Some find this part expendable. I disagree.

Few in early nineteenth-century Paris knew the Shakespeare plays, and the Prologue served the practical purpose of introducing the story of Romeo and Juliet. Even with our own full acquaintance in modern times, it is helpful, as Berlioz wrote, to have themes introduced in embryonic states so that their instrumental appearances later can be understood in context. Additionally, by giving us a foretaste of his vocal and choral forces, the composer prepares our ears for their occasional employment in the middle sections and extensive use in the finale.

Most importantly, the Prologue completes the work’s cyclical aspect. Understood in this context, the third part’s Love Scene sits at the epicenter of a five-part work. It should not be forgotten that Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique was also in five parts, unified in a proto-cyclical way by the use of his idée-fixe, its movements even having a similar placement to the five of Roméo et Juliette.

Parenthetically, Berlioz’s cyclical inspiration may have come via Beethoven’s forward-looking song cycle, An die ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved) which was to influence many works in the Romantic era, especially those of Schumann, a huge admirer of Berlioz.

Lastly, something extraordinary takes place in the Prologue. In the vocalizations of his contralto solo and chorus, Berlioz confesses his credo on Art and Love. The open declaration is all the more touching coming from the vulnerable composer, a religious skeptic who endured much of his life and its cruel whims with an ironically detached melancholy.

Mezzo-soprano Lauren McNeese was the warm-toned conveyer of these sentiments, making a convincing case for the Prologue’s value. Tenor Jean-Paul Fouchécourt effectively delivered the Queen Mab vocal scherzetto’s tricky rhythms at lightening speed. In the last scene, New Zealand bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu’s imploring sermon of Friar Laurence was as dark and resonant as the ocean’s reverberations in a sea cave.

The Master Chorale as a whole, and its division into several parts, showed itself to good effect as well: the Capulet men singing farewells after the ball, the combined forces intoning the funeral chant at Juliet’s funeral, the warring clans in an agitated fugato at the tomb of the two lovers, and finally the combined oaths of reconciliation between the families.

But the evening was even more Dutoit’s and the orchestra’s to relish. From the very first viola and cello agitations signaling the rivalries of the two families, Dutoit’s tempi, dynamics, and balances where spot on. His Allegro fugato intro was deliberately enough paced to clarify textures, making the follow-on trombone entrance to impose the Prince’s discipline on the crowd perfectly clear and commanding.

It continued upward from there.

A few highlights of many from the orchestra: the cellos and horns together intoning the love theme; the English horn’s version of the same against a downward stepping counter-melody, like vines dipping low from the balcony; the flute and English horn in octaves for a segment of the Queen Mab scherzo with the clarinet and triangle sporting later in the same movement; the infinite colorations of Juliet’s funeral music mixing with the choir; the awakening clarinet of Juliet with the violas, cellos, and basses of Romeo in the vault scene (in the David Garrett version of the play used by Berlioz).

The list could be extended indefinitely.

Like the Prologue, the last movement’s resolution can seem long-winded when not put across convincingly. On this occasion, it was the catharsis needed to bring us back to reality from such intensity. And its sentiment of reconciliation between intractable camps is a lesson particularly useful in these times, with our nation painfully divided along political lines and world tragically divided along religious ones.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

A Call to Arms for Gay & Lesbian Community A Casting Call for Everyone


People of all ages – gay or straight, talented or not – are invited to participate in an extraordinary video event this Sunday, October 24, 3 to 5 PM.

The GAY MEN'S CHORUS OF LOS ANGELES will tape what is anticipated to be the nation's most ambitious anti-gay-bashing video message. It will be a music video involving hundreds - perhaps thousands - of people from across the Southland, and it is for the internet's IT GETS BETTER PROJECT -- aimed at LGBT youth who are at risk during these tense times.

The music video will feature CYNDI LAUPER'S inspiring anthem TRUE COLORS.

The video will be made at, and you are invited to come to:

Immanuel Presbyterian Church Gym
3300 Wilshire Boulevard, 4th floor
Los Angeles, California 90005

(located on the corner of Wilshire Blvd., & Berendo; enter side door on Berendo -- free parking available on first come first served basis)

Additional details:

The critically acclaimed Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles (GMCLA) - a leading artistic force, staunch advocate of civil and human rights, and the first gay men's choir to perform for a sitting president (Bill Clinton) - is producing the video.

Many LGBT youth can't picture what their lives might be like as openly gay adults. They can't imagine a future for themselves. The music video is designed to be a community response to send the message - "It Gets Better" - that anti-gay hate must stop. NOW!

The music video will be posted to the "It Gets Better" website and on You Tube. Among the videos currently posted on “It Gets Better” is a message from President Barack Omaba.

The stellar production team for the music video - all volunteers - includes Brian Braden, former President of Programming at MTV, VH1, CMT and the LGBT channel Logo and named one of the most influential executives in reality programming; Emmy Award-winning producer/director/producer Tim Atzinger; and John Lavin of Bloodrush Films. Gay Men's Chorus' Chris Verdugo is producing the video message, and the chorus' Michael Alfera conducts the massive choir.

Let's show up and participate in this important event and stand up for the GLBT community!

Posted by Rodney Punt
Photo above courtesy of Gay Men's Chorus

Thursday, October 21, 2010

World Premiere by Composer Peter Golub at Chamber Music Palisades



Susan Greenberg and Delores Stevens
(All photos courtesy of Chamber Music Palisades)

Review by Rodney Punt

A world premiere and three works of venerable vintage opened the 14th season of Chamber Music Palisades Tuesday evening. A series that prides itself on juxtaposing the old and new noted two significant birthdays, the 100th of American composer Samuel Barber and the 200th of German composer Robert Schumann, both of whom were represented on a full program at St. Matthew’s Parish in Pacific Palisades.

Co-founded and directed by flutist Susan Greenberg and pianist Delores Stevens, the series naturally favors works for those instruments. On this occasion, virtuoso oboist Anne Marie Gabriele also joined in, as well as the Lyris String Quartet (Alyssa Park and Shalini Vijayan, violins; Luke Maurer, viola; and Timothy Loo, cello) in their series debut as an ensemble.

Featured was a work by composer Peter Golub, director of the Sundance Film Music Program, and known as a specialty composer for ballets (The Gilded Bat, The Lost World, etc.) and film (the award-winning Stolen, American Gun, and Wordplay, among others). The versatile Golub also specializes in the slender but important genre of incidental stage music.

As might be expected from his theatrical background, Golub favors atmospheric, accessible music, suggestive of programmatic associations, all of which were apparent in an evocative new score receiving its world premiere, the Quintet for Oboe, String Trio and Piano. It was performed with great flair and sensitivity by oboist Gabriele (pictured to the right), with members of the Lyris and Stevens.

The composer’s program notes had mentioned the depiction of human “affects” in works from the Baroque, Classical and Romantic eras, suggesting this work would also examine various emotional states. His remarks prior to the performance provided no narrative in the piece, but did reveal the composer’s affinity for lyrical musical treatments that exploit sonic possibilities between the instruments.

This Trio’s three movements are titled “Passages I”, “Passages II” and “Epilogue.” The first movement’s Impressionistic landscape featured a piquant, upward soaring melody with a series of falling thirds from a protagonist oboe, flitting above a feather-bed of sustained string harmonies and bass piano, and punctuated with a walking-like figuration in the piano’s treble register, all becoming more urgent toward its close. The second scherzo-like movement had syncopated, imitative strokes between the piano and oboe, with pouncing dissonances and pizzicato obbligati on the strings. Tone clusters and a rocking rhythm continued the mood of light-hearted jeu d’esprit, with tingling chimes in piano octaves. The third movement’s elegiac mood was more wistful than tragic, with additional chiming effects in the piano and a series of searching lines from the oboe wrapped in the warmth of the strings.

There is a gentle sensibility and wonder in this work, in its last movement a feeling of nostalgia. Overall the musical treatment was more suggestive than definitive, and its clear instrumental writing, including a number of jewel-like dissonances, registered well in the otherwise slightly tubby acoustics of the parish sanctuary.

The program opened with Impresiones de la Puna for flute and strings by Alberto Ginastera (his last name pronounced with an English “J” sound, as pointed out by KUSC-FM host Alan Chapman, who provided the evening’s running commentary, and who should know a thing or two about pronunciations).

The Puna is a cold, arid region in the Argentinean Andes, and indeed this early work (composed at age 18) invokes still and windy heights. Greenberg’s flute was again the protagonist, with its lonely bird in flight supported by the strings in the “Quena” movement, a languorous singer in its “Canción,” and a Latin lover, alternating between rhythmically hot and smolderingly warm, in its final “Danza” movement - overall a colorful nationalistic set from the precocious composer.

Samuel Barber, a Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer who was born just one hundred years ago, is best known for his Adagio for Strings (originally a string quartet movement), a work so popular the composer felt compelled later to set it for vocal forces. Ms. Greenberg returned the gesture in a short song cycle for voice and piano, the Mélodies Passagères of 1952, by transposing its voice part to flute. The five short lyrics by Rainer Maria Rilke were printed in the program as a guide. The transcription worked beautifully in Ms. Greenberg’s sweetly articulated renditions, supported by Stevens on a rapturous piano.

Lyris String Quartet

Robert Schumann, born just one hundred years before Samuel Barber, was featured in his Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 44, a complex work of big-boned, symphonic dimensions with thick sonorities. Schumann was keenly aware and made the most of the heroic connotations in the key of Eb (as with Beethoven’s Eroica symphony and his Emperor piano concerto). But as just one of its many felicities, the rondo-like slow movement’s steadily paced march theme is also eerily reminiscent of similar ones by the composer’s other beloved predecessor, Franz Schubert.

Pianist Stevens and the Lyris Quartet made the Schumann the most arresting of the evening’s performances, with Stevens prominent among the five star performers. The piano part is Herculean in its running passagework, but everyone gets a workout in this pinnacle of early Romantic era chamber music. It was to become a model for many similar works to come. The only reservation in the performance related to the church’s acoustics, which overemphasize bass and middle-register overtones. In a work as densely scored and passionate as the Schumann, that led to an almost deafening racket in the confined space of the parish chamber. But no one was heard complaining in the presence of such a masterpiece.

Chamber Music Palisades is a worthy series. Its musicians, all regulars in the Los Angeles film and TV music scene, provide L.A.’s Westside with a surfeit of concertizing energies that amplify the good fortune of America’s creative capital.

Further details of the performance and upcoming events can be found on the Chamber Music Palisades website, or by calling 310-463-4388.

Rodney Punt can be reached at Rodney@artspacifica.net

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Merry Wives of Windsor from Globe Theatre

Broad Comedy at Santa Monica's Broad Stage


Review by Rodney Punt


Falstaff is the original dirty old man. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare unsparingly ridicules old Sir John’s simultaneous amorous pursuits of two married women. But he also preserves our sympathy for him. As the only play set in the England of his own day, Merry Wives gives us our best window into the barely exaggerated foibles of the Bard of Avon's middle class neighbors, his family, and probably himself.

This "Moft pleafaunt and excellent conceited Comedie" as it was described in its first published version, anticipates today’s TV sit-coms, and is ripe for a contemporized theatrical treatment. But the London-based Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre entertains no such revisionist notions in the charmingly old-fashioned touring production that opened Friday and runs for ten days at Santa Monica’s Broad Stage.

The emphasis is on broadly drawn characterizations that confirm time-honored conventions of the fat knight and his retinue. It is brought here by the company that recreated the outdoor Elizabethan theatre by the Thames some years ago to present plays in the manner enjoyed by its first audiences. Given the seductive frothiness of this Merry Wives, one cannot argue with their approach.

Christopher Benjamin’s Falstaff is, however, no stereotypical rotundity à la Orson Welles. His is a surprisingly thin-legged erring knight-errant, admittedly heavy of paunch, but also with the aquiline nose and glinting blue eyes of a true aristocrat, if more than past his prime and short on scruples. Still nicely attired for a man down in his chips, this Falstaff’s sartorial splendor contrasts sharply with the one seen this past summer in Henry IV, Part I at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. That rag-tag, fly-encircled debaucher possessed a decidedly bad humor entirely lacking in this merry Falstaff. Hope springs infernal for this swain to whom ladies supposedly give “the leer of invitation.” His three-times-frustrated amorous pursuits pose but momentary setbacks, impervious as he is to humiliation. We can’t help admiring the naughty old coot.

Controlling the play’s pacing are the colluding wives pursued by Falstaff, Mistresses Page (Serena Evans) and Ford (Sarah Woodward), who manage to impose their wills as easily as the levelheaded mothers on the TV screens of our youths. Their version of a secret handshake by itself earns the two actresses their eponymous roles. Messrs. Ford (Michael Garner) and Page (Andrew Havill) are as ineffectual at channeling their offspring or controlling their spouses as any father or husband today. Havill’s blond wig disguise as ‘Brook’ amusingly leavens his unfounded rage at being cuckolded.

Ceri-Lyn Cissone’s Anne Page is all adolescent purity and calm determination with a pretty singing voice adding to her charm. Gerard McCarthy is her attractive and eventually successful suitor, Fenton.

Supporting characters are giggle-inducing eye and ear candy. Will Belchambers’ pale green and red-trimmed Slender conveys a leggy effeminacy tailored to the ambiguously written dialogue of his character. Sue Wallace’s busybody Mistress Quickly is the perfect plotter; Gareth Armstrong’s Welsh Parson Evans is convincingly fortified with God until challenged to a duel; and Philip Bird’s Dr. Caius is full of pun-laden put-downs at the expense of the French language. Various servants, pages, and others hold up the honor of English-trained actors everywhere.

Christopher Luscombe’s direction keeps the action moving along and he has nicely etched his characters and their encounters. He is aided by Janet Bird’s colorful period costumes and efficient set, the latter an elevated square platform with a rotating ring for outdoor promenading and an inner rotating circle with a narrow vertical rise for two sides of indoor locations. On the balcony above sit five versatile musicians who provide occasional mood elevations to the action in composer Nigel Hess’ clever pseudo-Elizabethan score.

The only drawback of this production is an occupational hazard of touring companies. The acoustics of The Broad Stage’s gorgeous jewel-box theater have not yet been fully adjusted to the actors’ voice projections. There is a pronounced sweet spot at the dead-center middle of the stage that, when approached, throws the volume of the voices into overdrive as if amplified. This and the general tendency of the hall to project vowel tones over consonant articulations occasionally obscure Shakespeare’s fast-paced language, as do the musical instruments when they accompany speaking voices.

The laugh-a-minute confection of Shakespeare’s Merry Wives imposes no lasting consequences for the serial transgressions of social mores. Falstaff picks himself up after embarrassment and is invited back to town.

Like many a sit-com, the play's giddy conceit is really about nothing substantial at all. One could imagine, if time were no object, that Shakespeare and Seinfeld might shake hands on The Broad Stage as kindred comic spirits.

Merry Wives runs this week, except tuesday, October 18, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24 at various times. See www.TheBroadStage.com or call 310.434.3200. The Broad Stage is located at 1310 - 11th Street, Santa Monica. Parking is free.

Rodney Punt can be reached at Rodney@artspacifica.net

Monday, October 4, 2010

Annie Gosfield in Concert

The Industrial Age Goes Avant-Garde


Photo source: Wikipedia

Club Fais-do-do, Los Angeles
Saturday, October 2, 2010


Review by Rodney Punt

Our manufacturing base has long departed for China, but composer Annie Gosfield makes new music from the odds and ends of the old Industrial Age.

Some years ago she encountered an out-of-tune calliope on a riverboat in New Orleans and, as she describes, became fascinated with “old mechanical instruments, and the odd, detuned sounds that they produce as they deteriorate. As time takes its toll on these great beasts, the tunings become increasingly random, pipes warp, hammers wear out, and tempos slip and slide as their timing mechanisms fluctuate.”

This early epiphany tapped deeply into Gosfield’s aesthetic DNA, and she expanded that initial impression into a full-blown obsession with the sounds of all kinds of utilitarian hardware, from tiny typewriters to titanic factories.

The pompadour-coiffured, diminutive composer has since created several musical analogues of clanging, wheezing, sputtering, and chugging contraptions. She has assumed the role of a musical Charlie Chaplin trapped in the giant gears of Modern Times, as well as a keyboard-sampler artist with the deadpan efficiency of Buster Keaton commandeering The General.

Gosfield was in town for a five-day residency produced by two local presenters, In Frequency and People Inside Electronics, also partly sponsored by Meet the Composer. She gave talks at various sites, and one of her recent works was included in Aron Kallay's imaginative faculty recital at USC's Newman Hall last Thursday, a fascinating look at alternative keyboard literature.

Five of her musical-machine compositions were presented Saturday night at the club Fais-do-do. Gosfield’s peculiar remembrance of noises past was introduced with a video projection from 1999, Shoot the Player Piano (The Treasures of San Sylmar). The video was made at The Nethercutt Collection in Sylmar, California, a museum of pneumatic instruments gathered over the years by the developer of Merle Norman cosmetics.

These machines – calliopes, nickelodeons, and German jahrmarkt organs – were visually juxtaposed in fast crosscuts, their sounds mixed with those of the more conventional violin, piano, accordion and banjo, all of them deconstructed via musical sampler that detuned, altered, and arranged the rhythmic whimsy into an “imaginary orchestra” soundtrack.

The gentle lunacy continued in Four Roses for cello and sampler (1997), a study in harmonics as the cello’s “A” string was tuned “80 cents flat,” just enough to throw off odd overtones as the instrument interacts with a prepared piano, tuned to a scale with 32 notes per octave (normally twelve). Four Roses suggests a three-sheets-to-the-wind romance. And, as the composer explains, the title “is the name of a rather inexpensive whisky favored by my parents while they were courting.” Maggie Parkins was the cellist with the composer holding forth on a sampler.

Flying Sparks and Heavy Machinery, for string quartet and a battery of percussion (2000), is a monumental compendium of industrial manufacturing sounds, appropriately inspired by Gosfield’s residency at the factories of Nuremberg’s Siemens Corporation. (Interestingly, Gosfield chose heavy-industry exporter Germany, not the once thriving industrial USA, for her sound-laboratory residency.)

One hears the scraping of steel surfaces in the quartet’s micro-tuned strings, the heaving, irregular start of massive engines in sputtering drum riffs, and the sonic echoes of a warehouse of machinery on octaves alternating up and down between violins, viola, and cello. Gosfield has a way in this and most of her other pieces of cranking up power through a gathering rhythmic intensity and then letting it dissipate, as if on lunch break, only to crank up again after a buzzer signals time again for work.

A crack unit of something like forty percussion instruments (M.B. Gordy, Nicholas Stoup, Lauren Kosty, Andrea Moore) was assembled for the evening, joined by the virtuosic Eclipse Quartet (Sarah Parkins, violin; Sarah Thornblade, violin; Alma Lisa Fernandez, viola; Maggie Parkins, cello) in a tour de force performance worthy of recording.

EWA7 (1999), named for a factory in Nuremberg, was inspired by the same Siemens residency, and further explored the musical possibilities of “scrapes, squeaks, and bangs of metal, the ambient buzzes and whines of electric devices, and the imperfect rhythmic repeats of heavy machinery.” Composed for sampler (Gosfield), wailing guitar (Roger Kleier), and virtuoso drums/percussion (Joe Berardi), the musical feel was of a powerful but cruder variation of the above Sparks, this time in a rock-inflected heavy metal style, like a long Grateful Dead instrumental from the 70’s pounding relentlessly to conclusion.

Lost Signals and Drifting Satellites (2003) for violin (Mark Menzies) and prerecorded sounds of satellites, shortwaves and radio transmissions had a back to the future, lost in space feel, like an old science fiction movie, with the violin signal at first oblivious of its static filter, but then interacting with the accompanying space sounds as the composition progressed.

Although she was inspired by her own chance encounter with real-life phenomena, Gosfield is a direct successor to such twentieth century futurist composers as Edgard Varèse, Luigi Russolo, and John Cage. The three had embraced the everyday clatter of America’s machine-age as a periphery of noise to be shaped into expressive sound worlds. Gosfield’s contribution has been to capture and organize, with her pointillistic montages, the precise colors, energies and consequences of the world of function as unintentional but beautiful form.

Gosfield’s aesthetic of harvested noise reminds me of a gig I once had using electronic music to open a modern music marathon at the Hollywood Bowl. In those days, selling an audience on such fare in the concert hall was tough sledding. But out of doors, the “random” sounds of Edgard Varese, Morton Subotnick, and Pauline Oliveros were as normal and therefore accepted as birdcalls, traffic noise, audience chatter, or wine bottles dropped carelessly on cement.

In the music of arranged noise, context is all.

Rodney Punt can be reached at Rodney@artspacifica.net