Friday, May 29, 2009

Full-fledged swoons across town

LA Opera's Traviata and Preljocaj Ballet's Les 4 Saisons close a feverish spring

By Donna Perlmutter

There she was, being denounced by her abandoned lover before all those horrified guests gathered at the elegantly risqué party. But did this Violetta end up on the floor, flung there by her hurt and angry young man? A repeat of that awful operatic cliché we see, coming and going, in “La Traviata?”

Not with Marina Poplavskaya, who sang the Parisian courtesan this time around in Marta Domingo’s 2006/07 production for Los Angeles Opera (originally staged for Renée Fleming), which is a quite ordinary mounting otherwise. No, what the Russian soprano gave us was a full-fledged romantic swoon onto the divan behind her. And how right she made that one epic moment -- as though Alfredo’s outrage, signaled by his sudden flinging of money at her was the gust that blew her over. (Nothing like Fleming’s merely contrived faint on the stairway.)

In fact, Poplavskaya’s handling of the role was right all around. Especially in the singing department – for, apart from some touch-and-go moments in the coloratura treachery of “Sempre libera,” she made Verdi’s expressive intentions clear and his music effortlessly natural, one phrase flowing organically to another, a stream of tonal beauty with a dark-hued mid-range (including those Slavic-styled covered vowels) and a blooming top that sounded almost like a different voice.

She far outshone her cohorts. Massimo Giordano was an Alfredo who inhabited off-the-rack histrionics to portray the spoiled but naïve young aristocrat. He rose to bursts of tenorial splendor but otherwise his voice lacked focus and nuance -- a disappointment compared with memories of Rolando Villazón, a truly impetuous lover. Nor did baritone Andrzej Dobber, a stiff, not just proper Victorian patriarch, manage more than a display of well-schooled singing. But L.A. Master Chorale director Grant Gershon, in his first foray with the company, was a model conductor: exceedingly sensitive to the cast without being indulgent, and grasping the overall arc of Verdi’s musico-dramatic effects.

° ° ° ° °

Indulgence was the watchword, though, at Royce Hall, when UCLALive! brought us another return of Preljocaj Ballet, this time “Les 4 Saisons,” using Vivaldi as the basis for what could be dubbed “A Day at the Beach!” – given all the seashore scenes. What the choreographer formerly focused on -- a contemporary “Romeo and Juliet” in dark, gritty, hard-edged reality, for instance – has been replaced by this whimsical romp, a series of vignettes that sample a little of this-a, a little of that-a, all designed to fill out an overly-long but audience-pleasing night out.

Not to sell Mr. Preljocaj short, there were some keenly arresting moments: a trio, for example, in which a masked man dances slowly from one stage side to the other while the two women take turns slipping into the mask attached in kissing-closeness to his -- all of it rife with metaphor.

Then there were bursts of bright physicality in bikinis, Paul Taylor-esque bent-knee brio dancing, a rope-jumping exhibition framing a tug o’ war contest, a bare-legged glam strutter in high heels yelling out non-sequiturs (this was a direct steal from Pina Bausch, but without the depth of personality) -- all sexual cartoons. There were even Achim Freyer-like mobiles hanging overhead that bounced onto the stage from time to time. Hand it to the choreographer, he knows how to send ‘em home happy.

° ° ° ° °

On another UCLA stage, the Freud Playhouse, things turned otherworldly when the Los Angeles Ballet, under the fine coaching hand of Thordal Christensen, mounted that 19th century hallmark of Romanticism, Bournonville’s “La Sylphide.” As a former Royal Danish Ballet Dane director he could not have excused himself from this labor of love. But one hardly needs to know that to wonder about those times so long ago, namely, at how men’s minds were so messed up by the idea of an elusive feminine spirit, the notion of naiads and dryads, faeries and sylphs, appearing and disappearing in the moonlit glade, ever out of physical reach.

This ballet, though perfectly poetic in its images, could serve as a handbook on the obsession with those spirits, circa 1830’s – in contrast, these days, to fantasy as the stuff of graphic sexuality.

Well, the three-year-old company had the whole period thing in hand – no easy task – with this lovely, scenic production borrowed from the Houston Ballet. What’s more, it had the key talent: Corina Gill, in the title role, danced with apt delicacy, her arms framing her head so as to make just the right rounded composition, her shoulders sloping, her elbows bent, her little butterfly wings, diaphanous glimmers. And Eddy Tovar, as the tormented Scotsman James, ever chasing his supernatural reverie, executed chiseled entrechats, his pointed toes, as he jumped in place, like daggers of passion, his whole body an integrated whole in elegant turns and leaps. Colleen Neary, co-director, took on Madge the Witch, gesticulating and grimacing her way expertly through the role.

All the others performed admirably. The only quarrel, and it could have been answered with a bigger budget, was the canned music. Oh, how needed was that live accompaniment!

° ° ° ° °

But there were no quarrels with Tim Miller’s new show at Highways, “Lay of the Land.” Once more the widely acclaimed performance artist found new paths, taking us from the little boy in Whittier with parents who – despite trying to put him in a gender re-education program – were kind and empathetic folks, to the mature man with that deeper, more modulated voice. Somehow he always taps into a meaningful metaphor for his life experience, while expecting Damocles’ sword to fall on his head.

It was, as always, a light into another’s soul – comedic, thoughtful, whimsical, and, yes, pained at the prospect of our often uncivil society.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

No nonsense glissandos

Xian Zhang thrills WDCH crowd

Xian Zhang~~~~~~~~~~~~~~PHOTO: Rosalie O'Connor for LA Philharmonic

By Donna Perlmutter

There was a single, deep question stirring when Xian Zhang, an already stellar debutante, took the podium of the Los Angeles Philharmonic this weekend (May 9) at Disney Hall:

Would the 35-year-old maestra, born and educated in China, rise above gender politics and prove herself – as she’s done before the New York Philharmonic and other formidable ensembles – the equivalent of that male authority so embedded in our collective unconscious as the be-all and end-all of baton-wielding?

Without any doubt.

Of course, her long list of glass-ceiling shatterings attests to that: she’s just been named as first woman music director of Milan’s Verdi Orchestra (in conservative Italy, only men have held these posts to date); first woman to lead the Staatskapelle Dresden (while the Berlin Philharmonic struggled for years just to appoint the stray female instrumentalist). All in a day’s work, up to and including her months-old infant in the wings.

Angelenos with memories know that the Philharmonic has “come a long way baby.” It was just a few decades ago when the briefly resurrected Antonia Brico stood before the band at Hollywood Bowl, skirts swaying in the breeze, her nose buried in the “Bolero” score, beating time -- while then-concertmaster Sidney Harth signaled his rehearsal-mates to mockingly flip pages from their stands to the floor.

But Zhang, who strode onstage smartly, (dare I say authoritatively?) in her Mao-like pants-suit uniform and thick high-heels (which she changed to flats after intermission), took absolute and no-nonsense command from the first upbeat.

Her program, which featured Yefim Bronfman playing Prokofiev’s knuckle-busting Third Piano Concerto, focused on two big, bold works as Chinese-referenced bookends -- so bold, in fact, that even if the audience had not wondered whether a small woman could manage a mammoth orchestral challenge, it would now be forced to. And end up marveling at her power, a power to test anyone, regardless of gender. Maestra-watchers can look for the top-most ceiling to crash from this moment on.

Zhang’s calling card came with fellow Beijing Conservatory graduate Ms. Chen Yi’s “Momentum,” a 10-minute work grand in its drama, taut in its austerity. suave in its thunder – all captured by the fabulously concentrated players who were clearly in thrall to their guest conductor in her first time at Disney. Her stick technique is unerring, compelled by some inner attunement and pulse, as though the score had been suffused throughout her body, its shape and design an organic entity.

Here was a wallop-packing experience, a thing of sonic dazzlement studded with dissonant brass assaults and glassy skittering strings that edged into lyric glissandos of Chinese origin. The piece, which had its premiere in 1998, goes on an eerie and contemplative quest from choir to choir with several searing solos before developing into large-scale blocks of stunningly mountainous sound and sweeping all before it.

This was not the only time the hall rocked, though, Saturday night. Not with Bronfman exploding Prokofiev on the keyboard. This big bear of a man consolidated his reputation once again, owning the piece as he grabbed up ten hands-full of notes that came rocketing out like a stream of glittering fireworks. He and the fearless Zhang seemed to be on a course of their own momentum together, taking the fast tempos ever-faster until, at the end of the first movement he literally flew off the bench. Spontaneously, he jumped up to acknowledge the heightened applause. Thereafter, he took the theme and variations quietly, though without the sighing, romantic lyicism others often capitalize on.

The only light and jaunty moments came with John Adams’ foxtrot from “Nixon in China,” “The Chairman Dances,” which Zhang treated as a gently rocking motor ride, focusing on its rhythmic repetitions until they became a lift-off from grounded reality. She ended with Bartók’s suite from “The Miraculous Mandarin,” realizing the work's hellish ferocity, its depiction of evil as a graphic thing, its sense of looming threat, its sensual longing -- all of this by calling out the various soloists in glorious array and without allowing the lapses that programmatic music can sometimes invite.

With Chen Yi and Xian Zhang a thousand female flowers have indeed bloomed, as Chairman Mao turns, no doubt, in his grave.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Preview: Ojai Festival’s blackbirds to be let loose

By Rodney Punt
Be unafraid. Be very unafraid.

General audiences not so many years ago used to be really afraid of the Ojai Festival. The prospect of sitting hours on hard benches listening to the likes of Milton Babbitt and Elliot Carter sent thrills only into the hearts of true believers, hard core avant-gardists, and wannabe musical elitists. For the rest of humanity it was more like chills up the spine or fingernails down a chalkboard.

No more. In recent years, programming trends at Ojai have gone decidedly big tent and user-friendly. Hearts that were once curdled are now hearts cuddled. "Icy and thorny" is so yesterday. Now it’s "Wheeeeee, this is fun."

The group “eighth blackbird” comes to Ojai’s Libby Bowl, June 11-14, 2009 - in the valley just north of Los Angeles that was once used to depict Shangri-la in the movie Lost Horizon. These blackbirds and some of their guests will sing in the dead of night and the light of day.

According to Tom Morris, Artistic Director of the Ojai Festival, “eighth blackbird” will hold forth in a number of combinations with other guest artists in plenty of musical thrills. “eighth blackbird' is made up of six astonishing musicians: Matt Albert on violin and viola; Nick Photinas on cello; Tim Munro on flute; Michael Maccaferri on clarinet; Matthew Duvall on percussion; and Lisa Kaplan on piano. With the exception of Tim Munro, who replaced the original flutist in 2006, they all met while students at Oberlin almost fifteen years ago and have been together since. They have achieved the amazing distinction of being a full-time, professional, and successful contemporary music ensemble.”

Take a look at Morris’ recent preview talk and make plans now to attend at least some of this eclectic musical fare. Just one example that shouldn't be missed, Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire. But to mention one is to neglect others, so they're all listed below. I’ll have more to say about it in a few weeks, after I return from China.

In the meantime, you might also call the Festival ticket office at 1 (805) 646-2094 e-mail: info@ojaifesti or go on line at and book early and often, just like you vote. And remember also to book your motel in Ojai or if not there in nearby Ventura.

Here’s the run-down of the musical fare:

Thursday, June 11, 6:00 p.m.
Free demonstration of Trimpin sound sculptures
“Sheng High” and “Giuter-Toy”

Thursday, June 11, 8:00 p.m. – Opening Concert
Libbey Bowl
Lisa Kaplan/Jeremy Denk, piano
Greg Beyer/Matthew Duvall/ Todd Meehan/ Doug Perkins,
THIERRY DE MEY: Musique de Tables
GEORGE CRUMB: Music for a Summer Evening
(Makrokosmos III)

Friday, June 12, 1:00-4:30 p.m.
Matilija Auditorium
Ara Guzelimian, symposium director
Symposium Session I: 1:00-2:00 p.m.
Steven Mackey and Rinde Eckert – The Creation of Slide
Symposium Session II: 2:15-3:15 p.m.
eighth blackbird – The Creation of a Festival
Symposium Session III: 3:30-4:30 p.m.
Jeremy Denk – The Creation of a Performance

Friday, June 12, 8:00 p.m.
SLIDE: World Premiere
Libbey Bowl
eighth blackbird
Rinde Eckert, singer/actor
Steven Mackey, electric guitar
Tin Hat, contemporary ensemble
Selections by Tin Hat - TBA
World Premiere –Ojai co-commission

Saturday, June 13, 11:00 a.m.
Libbey Bowl
Jeremy Denk, piano
IVES: Piano Sonata No. 1
J.S. BACH: Goldberg Variations

Saturday, June 13, 2:00 p.m.
FREE BONUS EVENT- “Trembling Air”
Ojai Theater
Tim Munro, flute
Alexis Kenny, flute
HAROLD MELZER: Trapset for solo flute
BEN BROENING: Trembling Air for flute & mixed media
ROSS EDWARDS: Ecstatic Dances for 2 flutes
BRETT DEAN: Demons for solo flute
HELENA TULVE: Soaring for 2 flutes
STEVE REICH: Vermont Counterpoint for flute & mixed

Saturday, June 13, 4:30 p.m.
Ojai Theater
Preview of upcoming documentary on the life and music of

Saturday, June 13, 8:00 p.m.
Libbey Bowl
eighth blackbird and friends
Lucy Shelton, Sprechstimme
Elyssa Dole, dancer
Mark DeChiazza, director
DAVID M. GORDON: Quasi Sinfonia-West Coast premiere
ARNOLD SCHOENBERG: Pierrot Lunaire-Premiere of
semi-staged version

Saturday, June 13, 11:00 p.m.
Ojai Theater
QNG, recorder collective
FULVIO CALDINI: Beata viscera
PAUL MORAVEC: Mortal Flesh
ÉRIC MARTY: New Work-World Premiere

Sunday, June 14, 2009, 11:00 a.m.
Libbey Bowl
STEVE REICH: Music for 18 Musicians

Sunday, June 14, 2009, 2:00 p.m.
Libbey Park - Second free live demonstration of the interactive sound installations “Sheng High” and “Giuter-Toy.”

Sunday, June 14, 2009, 4:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.
Libbey Bowl
STEVE REICH: Double Sextet
JOHN CAGE: Third Construction
Newly commissioned work for Trimpin and his sculptural creations

Recovered Voices: LA Opera presents Die Vögel (The Birds)


Die Vögel (The Birds)

Opera in two acts (1920) by Walter Braunfels

Sunday, April 26, 2009 - 2:00 pm, LA Opera
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles Music Center

James Conlon, conductor

Darko Tresnjak, director

David P. Gordon, scenery

Linda Cho, costumes

David Weiner, lighting

Peggy Hickey, choreographer

Grant Gershon, associate conductor & chorus master

Brandon Jovanovich, tenor, as Good Hope

James Johnson, baritone, as Loyal Friend

Désirée Rancatore, soprano, as the Nightingale

Stacey Tappan, soprano as the Wren

Martin Gantner, baritone, as the Hoopoe

Brian Mulligan, baritone, as Prometheus

Matthew Moore, baritone, as the Eagle and Zeus

Valerie Vinzant, soprano, as the First Thrush

Daniel Armstrong, baritone, as the Raven


Review by Rodney Punt

Last Saturday night, the blazing brass fanfares of Die Walküre conveyed Siegmund, the opera’s tormented hero, to his oblivion. Just fifteen hours later, birdcalls from the opera Die Vögel (The Birds) coaxed the mid-20th Century German composer, Walter Braunfels, from his heroic oblivion.

The verboten composer’s opera was the latest installment in the estimable Recovered Voices series. Under the committed guidance of conductor James Conlon, it is dedicated to works of composers, most of them Jewish, who were suppressed by the Third Reich.

The juxtaposition of The Birds with Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre, in alternating repertory, is laced with historic irony. Wagner was the idolized composer poster-boy for the heinous regime (though unwittingly appropriated a half century after his death). But he was also the aesthetic godfather for many of the banned composers, and especially for Braunfels. Wagner’s influence on The Birds, directly and through successors like Richard Strauss, is apparent from the first to the last note.

Braunfels might have been among the honored composers of National Socialism had he only gone along with their request to provide theme music in the form of a Nazi anthem. Although partly Jewish by inheritance, he had been raised a Protestant and converted to Catholicism as a result of the First World War. He fit the mold of an acceptable social conservative.

Problem was Braunfels couldn’t abide the Nazis, spoke out against them, and refused their importuning. Having lost his teaching position in Cologne, he kept a low profile throughout the war. At its end in 1945, the combination of Germany’s severe economic slump and Braunfels’ by then old-fashioned compositional style doomed him from further public interest. The Nazis effectively banned not just his music, but his moment in history.

A verifiable hit at its Munich premiere in 1920, The Birds is a late-Romantic comic charmer by virtue of exotic novelty and fluency rather than originality. Based on the Aristophanes comedy of the same name, it abounds in clever musical birdsongs, comic scenes, mock heroics, and heavenly temper tantrums. Think Magic Flute meets Ariadne auf Naxos, with a dose of Salome. But its plot drags with musical excursions into ballet and trivial plot cul-de-sacs.

Braunfels adapted his own libretto from the ancient Aristophanes comedy. The plot has two buddies, disillusioned with the complications and bickering of urban life, searching for a better world. They decide it can be found in the realm of the birds. The idealistic “Good Hope” immediately falls for birdland beauty queen “Nightingale”, while the earthy “Loyal Friend” finds enterprising pursuit in setting off the birds against the gods by refusing to convey human food to heaven. Loyal Friend soon becomes the power behind the bird-throne until haggard Prometheus arrives and warns against defying the gods. Soon enough jealous Zeus thunders his wrath and restores the old order. Exit all in status quo.

It is a pity Braunfels chose to shape his version of The Birds more to the ending of Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King rather than the original Aristophanes. In the latter, the birds and their human manipulators, with the help of Prometheus, cause the gods to capitulate. The wily Greek’s play thus anticipates by two millennia the spirit of the Renaissance, in which human ingenuity overcomes heavenly superstition.

The conservative Braunfels apparently couldn’t take that step. Turning Aristophanes on his head, he restored the old deities to their supremacy just as he had clung to his inherited religion and musical hand-me-downs. This conservative proclivity of the composer, more than the suppression of the gun-clinging Nazis, has probably consigned him to just an honored footnote in musical history.

Still, The Birds, with judicious cuts, has appeal. It could become an occasional alternate to, say, Hansel und Gretel as a fairy-tale introduction to opera for young people. This production, with its splashy color and charming naivete, seemed already to have been targeted to young people, or the young at heart in all of us. For all its static plot elements and deflating denouement, it was a gorgeous production to see and hear, not the least because of its production elements and fine casting.

Given the constraints of a steep-raked Walküre set underneath his own stage, I thought Darko Tresnjak’s direction was delightful. The Birds set was like a Happy Face sticker applied over the circle-of-death clock of Die Walküre underneath. In accord with the production’s concept of innocence were David P. Gordon’s fairy-tale scenery (especially his brilliant “bird castles in the air” props – see illustration above), Linda Cho’s sumptuous and fanciful bird costumes, David Weiner’s full-spectrum lighting, and Peggy Hickey’s quirky bird choreography.


The vocalists were uniformly good, and included a couple of company debuts: tenor Brandon Jovanovich as a resonant and fresh-voiced Good Hope, and his ladybird-in-waiting, soprano Désirée Rancatore as the Nightingale, a pretty soubrette with a slight wobble the evening I heard her. Baritone James Johnson’s Loyal Friend carried with aplomb the traditional duties of the shrewd side-kick. Soprano Stacey Tappan’s Wren was a stand-out, encapsulating the quick, angular motions of her avian species. Baritone Martin Gantner was the properly befuddled Hoopoe whose pretense of leadership masks his inner coward. Brian Mulligan’s baritone channeled the stentorian role of Prometheus, modeled on Salome’s Jochanaan. Baritone Matthew Moore well accounted his two high flying roles, the Eagle and Zeus, and the Young Artist Programmers, soprano Valerie Vinzant as First Thrush and baritone Daniel Armstrong as the Raven, are safe to quoth opera arias evermore.


As we have come to expect, James Conlon and his orchestral forces, like the super professionals they are, rose to the occasion of their challenging duties less than a day after an exhausting Die Walküre performance. Conlon’s own batting average with this opera company is so high, I am beginning to fear a draft pick from the L.A. Dodgers at Chavez Ravine across the freeway.