Thursday, May 27, 2010

Prussian Blues

seeking the enigma of Richard Wagner

painting by Casper David Friedrich

Review by Rodney Punt

Jacaranda’s season finale last Saturday evening was homage to Richard Wagner, its contribution to the current two-month Ring Festival LA that explores the works and influence of the dominant European musical voice from the mid 19th Century until the end of World War I. It comes as LA Opera mounts, beginning this coming Saturday, three complete Ring cycles.

Like a Cubist painting, each of the pieces in the program – by Schubert, Mahler, Hindemith, and Wagner himself - angled a different perspective on the composer, from antecedents to personal reflections, and finally to later developments.

The first programmed was the last written, the Septet for Winds of Paul Hindemith. This unsentimental excursion into a garden of earthly delights was composed in the composer’s Sicilian backyard in 1948. In the aftermath of the European disaster of war and chaos, it is a rejection of everything vainglorious and excessive, in other words, everything Wagnerian. Intimate, witty, full of musical puns, fugues and retrogrades, its playful conversations between the instruments feature piquant woodwind dissonances that suggest the buzz of insects and nearby colorful flora. The evening’s nuanced woodwinds executed its delicacies with a gentle sassiness.

A canny choice to launch the program, the Septet, in context, felt like a wine taster’s elaborate procedure to erase the aftertaste of what went before. As such it prepared us to travel back in time before Wagner’s dominant legacy and hear, with fresh ears, Franz Schubert’s proto-Romantic sensibilities beginning to flower in five deeply moving vocal pieces for male ensemble that clearly anticipated Wagner’s later elaborations. An ensemble of eight male singers performed them a cappella or with various instrumental accompaniments, conducted by Jacaranda co-producer Mark Hilt.

Sehnsucht’s gnarled chromaticism aches with the untenable separation of its lovers (“Only he who knows longing knows how I suffer.”). Nachtgesang im Walde’s seraphic atmospherics are enhanced by four horns - beloved of Romantic-era composers from Weber through Wagner - the deployment of which in the back balcony was a good idea, but presented coordination challenges to the ensemble.

Der Gondelfahrer, a blend of German and Italian musical traditions, features a deft harmonic shift on the piano for the tolling of its church bells. Nachthelle, one of the great Schubert Nachtmusik pieces in any genre, was written for male quartet, piano, and "a principal and damnably high tenor” according to one of the composer’s contemporaries. On this evening, soloist James Callon's light voice was damnably high but not principal enough for the urgent passages that cry out for the “the last barrier” to be broken.

The big work in the Schubert group was Gesang der Geister über den Wassern, for two male choirs of four voices each, with two violas, two cellos, and a contrabass. A setting of the great transcendental poem of Goethe, this was Schubert's last and most ambitious of four attempts. The poem contrasts the recycling journey of water in nature to the vicissitudes of man’s soul through life. Octave leaps and dissonances depict waters over cliffs and down chasms; melismatic passages the flow of water on more level contours, gently stirred by the wind. On this evening, it seemed also to anticipate the Ring’s fated Rhine river. Conductor Hilt and his committed voices and strings gave it their all in a riveting performance.

Siegfried Idyll could be Wagner’s nod to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony as well as Richard Strauss’ inspiration for his own Domestic Symphony. It is Wagner at his most relaxed, ironically so in that much of its melodic material is derived from that most urgent of operatic projects, Der Ring des Nibelungen. This evening it received as serene a performance in its original 13-instrument form as was likely heard by Wagner’s wife, Cosima, at her birthday on the staircase of the couple’s chalet at Triebschen.

The Adagio from Mahler’s Tenth Symphony could have declared “Go not gently into that dark night,” laden as it was with yearnings, regrets, and remembrances of the mortally ill Mahler, reliving in his mind his tempestuous marriage to the infamous Alma Schindler. She may later have landed on our Hollywood-adjacent shores as a frumpy, middle-aged émigré, but in 1911 she was Mahler’s demonic muse. Hilt and his string ensemble made this performance the highlight of the evening, one that explored every tortured byway to its final, relieving cadence.

Romantic suffering before, during, and after Wagner had many musical resonances, but also political and social consequences. Exacerbated by the tensions of a dysfunctional Central European society in the exact century between Romanticism’s first clear expression - Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade of 1814 - and the outbreak of World War I in 1914, this uneasy state of mind, expressed most intensely in the works of Richard Wagner, wore its heart dangerously on its sleeve and could never find a way out.


Prior to its commencement, Patrick Scott, Jacaranda's other co-producer, dedicated the program to the memory of the late music critic, Alan Rich, a champion of Jacaranda Music from its beginnings seven years ago.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Jeffrey Solow and Ayke Agus to perform cello-piano duos in Los Angeles recital

Jeffrey Solow

--Robert Schumann: Fantasy Pieces, op. 73
--Samuel Barber: Sonata in C minor, op. 6
--Giovanni Battista Pergolesi: Sinfonia á cello solo
--Frédéric Chopin: Sonata in G minor, op. 65

When: Friday, May 28, 7:30 pm
General admission, $25 (revised rates)
Where: Sherman Oaks home of Richard and Darlene Grant
Reservations and location, call Benida: (310) 826-3470

Preview by Rodney Punt

Music lovers of a certain age in Los Angeles will recall the residency of two remarkable artists - violinist Jascha Heifetz and cellist Gregor Piatigorsky - who in their later years instructed at USC’s School of Music during the 1960’s and 70’s. They trained many students who went on to worldwide fame in their own right.

Cellist and Los Angeles native Jeffrey Solow is one of them, having in his youth served as Piatigorsky’s assistant at USC. Now a resident of Philadelphia, Solow returns here for a rare chamber recital this coming Friday evening at a private home in Sherman Oaks. He will be joined by pianist Ayke Agus, herself a pupil of Heifetz and a longtime colleague of Solow’s.

A reception will follow, providing an opportunity to talk with the performers. It's a chance to take in lovely music not often heard live, and possibly also learn more about the varied performance and teaching dynamics of Heifetz and Piatigorsky, two of the legendary performers of the Twentieth Century.

Ayke Agus

Background on the artists:

Now a Professor of cello and chamber music and the Chair of the Department of Instrumental Studies at Temple University 's Boyer College of Music and Dance in Philadelphia, Solow has performed with many important orchestras, notably our own Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Japan Philharmonic, and the Seattle Symphony. He has recordings on Columbia, ABC, Centaur, Delos and Telefunken labels. Active in chamber music, he is President of The Violoncello Society, Inc. (of New York) and the American String Teachers Association.

Press comments: "Flawless intonation and generous technique” – Time magazine
"Jeffrey Solow plays with taste, sense, and most striking of all, tremendous verve and temperament." - The Boston Globe

Ayke Agus, piano, is a multi-talented artist: a master violinist and pianist of incomparable skills. Her longtime association with the great violinist Jascha Heifetz includes numerous performances and chamber music concerts.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Verdi Contra Wagner?

Wagner and Verdi choruses ring in a Ring Festival LA program

Wagner & Verdi: Opposing Roads to Greatness
The Verdi Chorus
Anne Marie Ketchum, Music Diretcor
Laraine Stivers-Madden, Accompanist
Aurelio de la Vega, Commentator
First United Methodist Church, Santa Monica, California
Saturday, May 1, 7 pm (Repeated Sunday, May 2, 4 pm)

For two centuries, Bostonians have listened to oratorios performed by the venerable Handel and Haydn Society. On two nights last weekend, Angelenos listened to opera excerpts performed by what might well have been called “The Verdi and Wagner Chorus.”

OK, it’s really The Verdi Chorus.

But in honor of Ring Festival LA, and at their usual venue, Santa Monica’s First United Methodist Church, our operatic choristers magnanimously devoted bookended segments of a concert to the two greatest opera composers of the 19th Century. Titled Wagner & Verdi: Opposing Roads to Greatness, the program featured in one corner (first half) the challenger, Richard Wagner; in the other corner (second half) their usual champion, Giuseppe Verdi.

Fortunately Sixtus Beckmesser was not in charge of the judging in this singing contest or he might have skewed the results as he did those of Walter von Stolzing in Die Meistersinger. In fact, under the capable hands of Music Director Anne Marie Ketchum, accompanist Laraine Stivers-Madden, and the splendid voices of The Verdi Chorus, the two composers were sung to a draw. As in American politics, however, each of their audience claques went home quite certain their boy had won.

All kidding aside, their usual Verdi style proving no stumbling block to the singers in either the German language or Wagner’s musical idiom, thrilling Wagner choruses rang out in the large sanctuary hall from Tannhäuser, Parsifal, Der Fliegende Holländer, and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Likewise, Verdi was represented with the ensemble’s usual flair in selections from Don Carlo, La Forza del Destino, Il Trovatore, and Aïda.

More uneven were contributions from the soloists in arias or solo segments from the same operas. At the head of the list by a wide margin were those of dramatic soprano Erin Wood. Possessing a strong top voice with a rich lower register (she reportedly began her career as a mezzo) Wood commanded the evening in such selections as Dich, teure Halle from Tannhäuser, Senta’s Ballad from Holländer, and Pace mio Dio from Forza.

Tenor Shem von Schroeck lent solid credentials to a number of ensemble solos. Less effective were contributions from the unrefined, occasionally glottal mezzo soprano, Shoghig Koushakjian, and the initially underpowered, if pleasant baritone, In Joon Jang. Smaller solo roles contributed by regular members of the chorus were always effective and some of quite high quality.

In a long evening, however, some of the more protracted solos and solo ensembles might have been trimmed to keep audience ears fresh and eager for the choruses in the longish program.

Prior to the concert, the eminent composer and musicologist, Aurelio de la Vega, gave an overview of both Verdi and Wagner and their place in 19th Century music. Each was important, and each was a nationalist, seeking to unify his respective politically fractured country. In musical approaches the two differed. Verdi’s was evolutionary, emerging organically from the bel canto tradition of his older contemporaries, Donizetti and Bellini. By contrast, Wagner was a musical revolutionary who sought to radically reform not just music, but also the formal aspects of opera and its relationship with story material, drama, stagecraft, and philosophy.

As generous as the program was, it missed some opportunities by not exploring the Italian influences on Wagner’s musical development, as for example by inclusion of a selection from his early Bellini-infused Das Liebesverbot. Likewise, it has often been observed that Verdi had succumbed to at least a modicum of influence from Wagner in Otello, no selection of which was on this program.

We can be grateful for The Verdi Chorus and its quarter of a century of solid choral singing in Los Angeles, its fine reputation sustained this evening. Maybe a few more Wagner choruses here and there might not be a bad idea going forward.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

A soaring operatic Flight

UCLA students mount stunning production of contemporary English opera of manners

photo: David Schneiderman

Flight, an opera in three acts
Music by Jonathan Dove, Libretto by April de Angelis
UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture
-- Herb Alpert School of Music (Opera and Philharmonia)
School of Theater, Film & Television (Theater)
Freud Playhouse, University of California at Los Angeles
Friday, April 30, 2010 (Additional performances: May 1 & 2)

Review by Rodney Punt

The opera Flight, which received its West Coast premiere at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse last Friday, tells the curious story of an undocumented refugee trapped in an airport terminal with a Grand Hotel-like collection of passengers in transit. If the plot set-up seems familiar, you might have encountered it in the Steven Spielberg film The Terminal. Both film and opera were based on the same true story, but the opera version preceded the movie by some six years.

Flight’s production was impressively polished and sophisticated, all the more commendable because, with the exception of the work's opening conductor, a single tenor in the cast and a harpist in the orchestra, it was entirely designed, directed, performed, and crewed by the students of UCLA’s Opera, Theater, and Philharmonia programs (see above for their respective schools).

Written for and premiered at the Glyndebourne Touring Opera in 1998 (with a main stage Glyndebourne Opera premiere a year later), it is the collaboration of two English artists, composer Jonathan Dove and dramatist-librettist April de Angelis, who uncannily caught the zeitgeist of contemporary Euro-American manners on the eve of game-changing acts of terrorism set to strike the USA three years later. That it takes place at an airport and involves a refugee of vague national origin seems eerily prescient.

De Angelis’s cleverly rhymed libretto takes its cues from sources as varying as Theater of the Absurd, Seinfeldian sit-com moments “about nothing”, and Shakespearean forays into confused identity. Each of the three acts proffers a different emotional climate, fully exploited in Dove’s musical treatment.

Dove is the kind of composer who gives eclecticism a good name. Obvious influences in this opera were a John Adams already beyond Minimalist purity, Leonard Bernstein’s glittering musicals, Benjamin Britten’s atmospheric scene painting, and Leoš Janáček's psychological music dramas.

Call Dove a third-generation Minimalist, but he adheres to no musical boundaries, setting the evolving drama with such dexterity that his disparate style sources seamlessly cohere. He has also a gifted man-of-the-theater's ability to write vocal lines that both define character and are lovely and memorable of themselves.

Early on in this opera, crisp but vacuous Minimalist orchestral pulses establish the soulless feel of the airline terminal and the artificial façades of its passengers. Novel orchestral effects abound throughout the scintillating score. To cite but two: a percussion-with-celesta mixture that mimics the sappy chimes of public interiors; and the wheezing, snap-crackling storm music of Act II, some of the best such since Britten’s sea operas.

The beginning of the last act flirts with, but just avoids, the sticky sentimentality of Bernstein’s more mawkish moments, partly induced by the sag of a too-pat resolution of theatrical tension built up in the first two acts. Fortunately, both drama and musical score regain poise at the end with an enigmatic moment of parting grace.

Director James Darrah establishes an initial theatrical tone of absurdist efficiency. As the characters shed their pretenses, he shifts the tone by subtle degrees to a darker, and later yet a warmer human realism. Supporting this concept is Ellen Lenbergs’ stunning unit set, sleek and modish, suggestive of a chirpy but empty optimism. Lighting décor by Cameron Mock and projections by Veronica L. Lancaster reinforce the sanitized atmosphere of the terminal. The scheme will prove flexible enough to allow a change of mood to more emotionally charged hues later on. David Crawford’s sound design includes, among other effects, a hyper-realistic microphone reverb for the Controller’s disembodied public announcements. Sarah Schuessler's costumes underpin character stereotypes throughout.

Conductor Neal Stulberg’s control of the student musical forces (one harpist was professional due to illness) kept the pace moving at quicksilver tempi, with exceptional precision, balance and clarity within the score's lexicon of timbres and rhythms. The confidence level of the singers must have been high on Friday night, as the production’s vocalism was uniformly secure and its theatrical timing impeccable in a tricky, mercurial score. Rakefet Hak had supplied the earlier vocal coaching. (Conductor and DMA candidate Henry Shin was set to replace Stulberg for the final performance.)

Nicholas Zammit’s bright countertenor captured the essence of the otherworldly, seemingly helpless but strangely influential Refugee, who is beloved, scorned, and eventually redeemed by the other passengers.

Ashley Knight’s lustrous high soprano was taken early on to a stratospheric F above high C, a peak she easily achieved while projecting the unflappable coolness of character she inhabits as the Controller.

Ashley Knight with Julian Arsenault and Lauren Edwards
photo: David Schneiderman

Soprano Lisa Hendrickson as Tina, and (non-UCLA professional) tenor Bradley Wisk as Bill, conveyed both vocal vigor and theatrical chemistry, whether in or out of their tense marital relationship.

Lisa Hendrickson-----------------------------photo: David Schneiderman

Mezzo Tracy Cox’s Older Woman demonstrated both vocal strength and dramatic vulnerability as the lonely-hearts lady deluding herself but no one else.

Mezzo Lauren Edwards’ Stewardess and baritone Julian Arsenault’s Steward sizzled as the oversexed occupiers of service uniforms they had trouble keeping on.

Baritone Mario Chae and mezzo Abigail Villalta proved strong-voiced and plangent as Minskman and his wife momentarily separated as a crisis loomed.

Bass-baritone Sergey Khalikulov had his effective moment in the sun as the relenting authority figure that allows the Refugee to live on in his strange terminal purgatory.

Sergey Khalikulov and Nicholas Zammit---photo: David Schneiderman

The LA Opera’s current production of Wagner’s Ring continues to create artistic waves. Just over a week ago, the USC Thornton School of Music gave Los Angeles a terrific West Coast premiere of Wagner’s early opera, Das Liebesverbot, as part of the citywide Ring Festival LA.

Not in the least intimidated, UCLA’s music and theater programs have combined in this production to answer the challenge of their traditional cross-town rival with their own West Coast premiere, a soaring Flight.

Los Angeles, once an operatic backwater, now looks like Opera Central USA. --- World, take note.


Plot synopsis of Flight:

Act I opens in a nameless airline terminal. As a flight Controller goes about her business, a refugee with no documentation avoids the nearby Immigration Officer. Passengers wait for their departures, projecting veneers of brittle normalcy. A couple, Bill and Tina, are off on holiday to regain the spark of their marriage. An Older Woman, in disguise, awaits her “fiancé.” A Steward and a Stewardess brazenly explore each other’s physicality. The diplomat Minskman departs; his pregnant wife at the last minute decides to remain. The Controller announces all other planes are delayed indefinitely due to bad weather.

Act II has the nighttime storm worsening as the facades that veil the passengers’ lives dissolve. Bill unexpectedly encounters the Steward and decides to “venture up to the heights” with him sexually. The Controller, a la King Lear, confronts the storm. The helpless but strangely influential Refugee interacts with the women by offering a “magic stone.” Each thinks hers unique and will resolve her problems. When the women begin drinking together, they realize they all have a stone and violently attack the Refugee as a fraud, stuffing his apparently lifeless form in a trunk.

Act III is dawn after the storm. Minskman’s wife gives birth, uniting the passengers in a purposeful activity. The Minskman returns to rejoin his wife. The various original couples, transformed in the light of day, forgive and forget. Initially hesitant, the passengers and the Controller intercede, on behalf of the now revived Refugee, with the Immigration Officer who decides to “turn a blind eye” on him. The passengers and workers depart, leaving only the Controller and the Refugee for one last enigmatic encounter.