Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Cancer Dance

This alternatively hopeful and despairing and hopeful and agonizing and ultimately peaceful routine on So You Think You Can Dance, which has come to be known as "The Cancer Dance," rendered some otherwise talkative judges speechless last summer:

The poetry of the routine and the fact that it was on network television has caused some involved with dance have called this performance too emotionally manipulative. I disagree. The lift @ 0.49 is astonishing. The protestation @ 1:13 is all physicality. The quiet way the piece ends, with a slow, diminished but still elegant turn into a centering, peaceful lift, is a perfect hushed climax.

The ballerina is Melissa Sandvig, who was classically trained and who has danced locally for LA Opera and Long Beach Ballet. The man is Ade Obayomi, whose original idiom is contemporary dance. The choreographer was Tice Diorio. The sole prop is a scarf.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Gustavo con gusto

LA and its Philharmonic enter affair with Dudamel

by Donna Perlmutter

He used to be the starriest young arrival in the international conductor sweepstakes. That was then. Four years ago – before clinching the win.

But after Gustavo Dudamel launched his first season as podium chief of the Los Angeles Philharmonic -- with18,000 revelers at Hollywood Bowl and then at Disney Hall, which was sold to the walls and thronged with celebrities -- the Venezuelan Wunderkind is on world-watch, thanks to the information superhighway and media pitched to a 24/7 news cycle. And, oh, yes, let us not forget his extraordinary gifts and his charisma, duly captured by the electronic billboards and posters all over town.

Meanwhile, it would be good to remember that Dudamel, the product of an honest-to-god socialist democracy, knows music’s inherent value of community and collaboration. Why, he’s even sat in as an ad hoc string quartet’s second violin for an evening of chamber music with the orchestra players – how’s that for humility and egalitarianism?

All we had to do at Disney was observe his conduct at curtain-call time. No solo bows. Not even a tiny one. Instead he bounded off the podium and rushed to acknowledge his musicians, threading his way through the music stands, rousing soloist by soloist, section by section, to stand for their own deserved ovations. Only together with them, not as a separate being, would he beam back at the audience.

The music-making itself justified the uproarious response it got. First came a world premiere, John Adams’ City Noir, just what its title indicates: an extrapolation of scores written for Hollywood’s 40s and 50s film-noir genre – vaguely menacing, lonely sounding episodes of melancholy that swirl with smoldering languor. The work is a kind of Blues in the Night alternating with eerie, shimmering parts, intricate collisions of winds and strings, accented with Adams’ signature: warmly bouncy, minimalist flirtations.

Dudamel took the piece vigorously in hand and the players more than obliged.

But it was the Mahler First that our young maestro seized on, communicating every scintilla of its pastoral joy, lugubrious shtetl memory, piquant nostalgia and sky-touching exhilaration – which is not to say that he slighted delicacy or subtlety.

It’s all there. And it’s there because he’s in constant contact with the musicians. As though to say, “I’m on the ride of my life and I’m taking you with me. We’re on this ride together.”

What we heard in the Mahler, as well as in his previous outings here, was the Dudamel stop-and-consider moments. As if to underline a word by spelling it aloud he would elongate a passage, stretch it out as though teaching it – both to the players and the audience. And then, in its repeat, breathlessly speed it up as though to say, “Yes, now we know it intimately. Here is its ultimate impact.”

That’s one thing L.A. audiences already know about Dudamel and the Phil: they make fabulously full-blown, gorgeously high-colored music together.

It’s of a different order than what the orchestra yielded with Esa-Pekka Salonen, who, over his 17 years as music director, shaped and refined the band’s performance to a glistening shine. In fact, for all the Finnish conductor’s masterly ways with big, complex scores running multiple rhythms simultaneously, he often managed standard repertory – Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms – as would a sonic engineer, moving things carefully and with perfect balance but staying largely on the surface.

Dudamel takes the opposite tack – the highs are dizzying, the lows rumble – but his marvelous sense of abandon and vitality is undergirded by utter control. That’s what’s so amazing: the combination. And no better example could be heard last season than in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.

It reflects his youth, 28, not just his huge talent. It’s all sunshine, full of character. Even the thunderstorm is a Technicolor close-up. And he dances, involuntarily, it seems: His whole body becomes the music, or at least the medium through which it passes. Nothing is designed here. It’s a case of spontaneity, of riding in the now.

Of course there’s no forgetting Carlo Maria Giulini’s very different way with the Pastoral. The late old-world Italian maestro who led the Phil for a few years in the 80s found, in the Sixth Symphony, a hushed, tensile lyricism – sustaining the slow movement as a single breath. But for all the brilliance of Salonen’s account of the Beethoven Fourth, so full of big architectural sites and needing only to be rocked to a rhythmic fury (which he did), his Pastoral was just a sleepy glide through the park, a place to beat time. Yes, that awful way station for too many conductors who turn into a human metronome.

And while we’re comparing Salonen and Dudamel – maybe the same way the late linguist Bill Safire compared the outgoing Reagan and the incoming Bush 1: the former liked jelly beans, the latter (supposedly) preferred pork rinds, an identifying process called the semiotics of dissimilarity – we might as well pay attention to their opposing physical and sartorial style.

Salonen had become, in these last years of his tenure, surely the hippest baton-wielder. He now wears slim, drapey, long black jackets over black silky collar-less shirts. He moves into action for big climactic moments like a slithery kinetic module. A marvel to watch, by itself, but also, importantly, an expression of the music’s underlying rhythmic convulsions.

Dudamel (who’s being affectionately called “The Dude”) has not lived in the world of fashionistas. His podium attire harks back to the old tradition -- white tie, white ruffled shirt with cumberbund and tails. But one thing he never is: a time beater. He leaps into the music, across the music stands, in an entirely unself-conscious way that still retains a certain body togetherness.

In fact, the orchestra members seem to be in love. They actually watch him, they lock eyes with him – and that’s something seldom seen; more often players follow in their scores and hardly look at the guy up there waving his arms. Really, it’s like the beginning stage of an affair, when every glance is meaningful, every caress observed. And we heard that last season in Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, where they and their inamorata lingered too long, too lovingly over many phrases, breaking apart the continuity.

The love affair will deepen, no doubt, and move onto more familiar ground. This is just the beginning. But what a beginning.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Where music is life

Dudamel era may be simpler than hype suggests

Yesterday's piece in the Wall Street Journal by LA Opus writer Donna Perlmutter discusses the Dudamel phenomenon.
The L.A. media is over the moon. One paper's headline tasks "The Dude" to "save classical music" (not that everyone agrees it needs saving). Several others make feverish references to the "Dudamania" or "Dudamelmania" that's been sparked.

But the man himself appears to hew to simpler values. He comes from an developing country which boasts a music education program called El Sistema, which annually provides a quarter of a million children with free musical instruments and instruction. The system, along with his middle-class musician-parents, nurtured the child prodigy, who began conducting at age 11 and has said: "I come from a place where music is life, where classical music has many faces, where young people know it's not just for sleeping or for grandfathers."
The gala, featuring Dudamel conducting Mahler's First and a new John Adams piece, is tonight.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Hampson shines in Lieder and American songs

by Rodney Punt

Like the lead character in the old TV spy show, baritone Thomas Hampson has led three lives, dividing his career between the contrasting emotional states of Germanic angst in Lieder, American optimism in song, and Italian drama in opera. The first two of those lives were on impressive display at his recital presented by the LA Opera last Saturday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Resuming a US residency after two decades mostly in Europe, the American-born Hampson is a man on a mission. He is reacquainting local ears with the musical expressions of our peculiar, polyglot American vernacular. In a program of thirteen songs (including two encores), a youthful 54-year-old Hampson, with Romanian pianist Vlad Iftinca (left), made a compelling case for revival of the oft-neglected tradition of American song, reminding us also, in the program’s first half, of his credentials in Lieder.

The Chandler audience was peppered with singers, vocal teachers, and accompanists curious as to the state of the singer’s storied lyric baritone. He has been active of late in Verdi operas that can darken and coarsen a voice, his recent roles in La Traviata and Macbeth employing more than usual vocal power. Would Hampson be able to re-summon his famously creamy tone, seamless legato, and floating head voice in a recital of generally lighter-textured songs?

The answer was an emphatic yes.

Returning to the theater that, he told us, started his career (he was trained in Southern California), Hampson’s vocal apparatus proved remarkably fresh, taking just a couple of songs to open up its customarily burnished-copper timbre. Moreover, Hampson was blissfully free from the vocal mannerisms that mar many a middle-aged singer’s evening of exposed song.

Culling from “the largest shoebox on the planet”, as he described it, Hampson began his American set with Francis Hopkinson’s charming My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free, written in 1759 and presumed to be the first art song made in America. Appropriate for this occasion, it celebrates its 250th anniversary this year. Compare its upbeat words “…the little birds that fly with careless ease from tree to tree were but as blest as I” with almost any passage from a German Lied and you will at an instant grasp the essential difference in character between two peoples and their song traditions.

Hampson’s wide-ranging musical journey took us through many a regional stop. He reminded the audience in his introduction that our national motto, E Pluribus Unum, does not imply the homogenization of our people. From the romantic sentimental tradition of European-settled America came Stephen Foster’s antebellum seduction, Open they Lattice, Love, Edward MacDowell’s nautical-death lullaby, The Sea, Amy Beach’s impressionistically nostalgic Twilight, and Elinor Remick Warren’s soul-saving God Be in my Heart.

Other ethnic roots were celebrated more profoundly in Henry T. Burleigh’s Walt Whitman--penned and riveting Ethiopia Saluting the Colors, Arthur Farwell’s Omaha Indian warrior crying proudly in Song of the Deathless Voice, and the poignant lament of the William Grant Still-LeRoy Brant song, Grief.

Regional behaviors and their accents were a source of comic bumptiousness in four songs, brought off as only an American of Hampson’s pedigree and showmanship could, ably partnered by a bemused Iftinca. Two were Aaron Copland charmers, The Dodger with its nod to the great American con-man, and The Boatman’s Dance with its loveable lug of a river man. Two Charles Ives’ songs were similarly inspired, the hilariously droll cowboy yarn, Charlie Rutlage, played to the clump-footed hilt by Hampson (it could have inspired the Beatles’ similarly campy Rocky Raccoon), and as encore, the two-part Memories (Very Pleasant, Rather Sad), a hilarious yet sentimental send-up of an innocent at his first opera.

What these songs brought to the audience was something rare in a recital here: the power of personal memory. As Hampson stated, they tell us “what it’s like to be alive, now.” While we can love deeply the beautiful song traditions of other countries, in one form or another we have actually experienced life in our own songs; they stir us to the very depths of our American soul. Two in particular struck me dumb with wonder this evening, Hampson's renditions of the traditional Shenandoah and, as encore, Foster’s Beautiful Dreamer.

The German set on the first half of the program was an intelligently designed survey on the ubiquitous Austro-German poetic theme of lost or idealized love, ranging from settings by Franz Schubert to the post-romantic Erich Wolfgang Korngold. (The specific repertoire is mentioned in my earlier piece on Hampson.)

Settings by German poet Heinrich Heine were included in both the Schubert and Franz Liszt songs, and another poet, Ludwig Rellstab, set elsewhere by Schubert, was represented here in a setting by Liszt. We usually think of Schubert’s line of song succession as flowing through the Romantic traditionalists, Schumann and Brahms. But there is another, equally compelling line through the progressive styles of Franz Liszt and Hugo Wolf, the neglected songs of Liszt in particular worthy of more exploration and performance. These Lieder and those of Korngold and Richard Strauss that followed ably confirmed Hampson’s claim to interpretative preeminence in the Romantic Austro-German tradition. Here, as elsewhere, Hampson was ably partnered by the stylish and idiomatic pianism of Vlad Iftinca.

Sustained applause for their performance was justified. Looking impossibly tall and handsome, well-tailored, and exuding an eager charm, Hampson retired to the Founders Circle entry area after the recital and signed posters, pictures, and CD booklets for well over an hour. Employing all his resources, he works on overtime for a cause he embraces.


Songs are topical; they bloom and pass away like ephemeral wildflowers. In his Johnny Appleseed quest on behalf of American song, Hampson is launching a vast inventory project on his website, He has also joined forces with the Library of Congress’ Music Division, representatives of which have accompanied him on tour with an exhibition of musical artifacts that appeared at the Founders Circle area before and after the recital. Among the items displayed was an original manuscript of George and Ira Gershwin’s Embraceable You, which I was able to hold briefly in my grateful hands. When you experience genius this close up, the customary boundary between popular and serious art is no thicker than the plastic micro-cover protecting the Gershwin masterpiece from the unintentional wear of mortal touch.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Enter the Dragon

Siegfried brings LAOpera's Ring closer to home

Linda Watson, Brunnhilde; John Treleaven, Siegfried

by Donna Perlmutter

If Siegfried is a scherzo, as some have suggested, then Achim Freyer’s gnomic depiction of it, as the third episode of Wagner’s Ring for Los Angeles Opera, is a race on a running track.

Just picture it: lanes outlined in neon white, then, blue and a sign pointing Ost (east) tell us that the characters, each in search of the be-all-end-all gold and/or love, will stay confined in their blindered paths, trudging toward a goal. And so they do.

Because director Freyer keeps his graphic novel of a concept in hand. He doesn’t stray, but brings back all the same wildly imaginative motifs – Wotan’s giant eye popping out of black spaces within the proscenium arch, his face-covering floppy felt hat and drapey coat (now carried on his spear), the dark background that absorbs bright cartoon-like costumes and fright wigs, the slow-moving, unlit figures somnolently making their way across stage amidst the other action, the raked stage on which the whole enterprise plays out.

Yes, to begin with, we’re in a strange fairyland. The titular hero is a young upstart who knows no fear, and despises and disdains the venal dwarf who raised him. Others wait to see how the race turns out: will Siegfried lead them to their respective desired end?

Freyer mixes it all up and nowhere better than at the end of Act I, when a kind of tumult arises, brilliantly in sync with the full orchestral fireworks, as the floor disc starts to spin with everyone assembled on it while prop embellishments suddenly get swept into the scene.

Traditionalists resolutely abhor Freyer’s cosmic circus, one whose characters operate on somewhat individual trajectories with very little human interaction -- they are not persons, you know, but universal entities. But while he mostly sticks to his conceptual horses, one can see small liberties being taken here compared to Rheingold and Walküre.

For instance, Siegfried’s guardian Mime takes off his head mask every time he wants to address an aside to the audience (and how clever that Freyer seizes on and marks these lines as asides, letting the character step out of the frame to make a wonderfully theatrical point). So, too, does Wotan (aka the Wanderer) carry his head mask rather than wear it, re-defining the all-seeing god as a tad more human.

Even some cast members bettered themselves this time around. Linda Watson as Brünnhilde was in terrific voice opening night, her darkish soprano sounding powerful, colossal really, and even from top to bottom. Of course, the toughest task of this five-hour marathon fell to John Treleaven, who, just for getting through it as well as he did, deserves kudos.

Sure, his tenor cracked slightly a few times at the end but all in all, he gave a heroic if not thrilling performance. With his commedia d’ell arte white-face, blond wig of plastic stand-up curls, his trompe l’oeil painted chest of ribs and muscles, he was the show’s standout cartoon. But that didn’t stop him from successfully deriding Mime, sung by the masterly Graham Clark, who brought out this foster father’s yippingly gleeful nefariousness. What’s more, he fairly salivated through his nasal tones describing the plots he was up to.

As before, Vitalij Kowaljow made a deeply sonorous Wanderer, while Oleg Bryjak, Jill Grove, Eric Halfvarson and Stacey Tappan sang affectingly. James Conlon coaxed from the orchestra both sweeping tenderness, ferocity and grandeur aplenty.

Quixotic Reverence

Ana Cervantes brings Rumor de Páramo to REDCAT

Ana Cervantes

by Joseph Mailander

Nearly drowned out from the raucous media noise attendant to the news of a new Ring production that doesn't clink and a warm-blooded conductor taking the helm of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, a woman from the spectacular colonial city of Guanajuato named Ana Cervantes quietly overwhelmed an entranced audience at REDCAT Wednesday night with a solo piano (and voice) performance of a suite of works quixotic and mesmerizing enough to be worthy of her own last name.

Ms. Cervantes performed twelve pieces inspired by novelist Juan Rulfo's Pedro Páramo with devotion and cunning, bridging the pieces by reading text in English (flawlessly) and Spanish (perfectamente) in between compositions. Her concentration on often syncopated, usually atonal works, commencing with Arturo Marquez's lyrical piece Solo Murmurs and culminating in Anne LeBaron's raucous work Los Murmullos--a work incorporating the flat-hand key-pounding of Cecil Taylor as well as Keith Jarrett's penchant for using piano strings like a harp--brought a sense of both the hallowed and the magical to the performance.

The entire suite as assembled by Ms. Cervantes is entitled Rumor de Páramo: Murmurs from the Wasteland. She has performed it elsewhere to critical acclaim. There have been seventeen pieces in the cycle but it felt complete at twelve. Mario Lavista's Páramos de Rulfo, a hypnotically halting fits-and-starts piece performed after the intermission, perhaps best reconciled the style of Rulfo's prose to music.

"Let's see where we end up," Ms. Cervantes said at the beginning of the concert regarding the concluding LeBaron piece, and forecasting the final return to playfulness in the program. We ended up showering her in applause and taking home something memorable.

Ms. Cervantes would be a fine choice for local series like Jacaranda and Ojai's festival, likely to bring new interest to each. She worked REDCAT's Yamaha grand with the airs of patience and reverence that local favorite Gloria Cheng often brings to a contemporary piece.