Friday, November 30, 2012

Wallfisch Violin Concerto Premiered by LACO & Stanislav

Review by Rodney Punt

The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra sported something of a British accent at its latest mid-November outing. Premiered was a new violin concerto by the English-born and until recently London-based composer, Benjamin Wallfisch, who also conducted the program. LACO commissioned the concerto for Tereza Stanislav, who performed it on the occasion of her tenth anniversary as Assistant Concertmaster with the orchestra. The evening had begun with Sir Edward Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for Strings and concluded with Beethoven’s second symphony.

Wallfisch now resides full-time in Santa Monica (since 2010) and divides his time between film and concert music as composer and conductor. He describes his concerto as exploring the violin’s “extremes as a lyrical instrument and fiery virtuoso machine.” Written in three movements with an extensive cadenza, it reflects “extraordinary feats of human agility and aggression” with contrasting passages adding to the dramatic tension that leads to the climax.

I caught the second of its two performances over the weekend, this one at UCLA’s Royce Hall, and found the work full of brilliant colors and quite accessible, for all its tonal dissonance. The first movement suggested a cluttered clash of urbane sensibilities, the second a series of long and soulful utterances that collectively became the work’s central statement, and the finale a lapidary exploration of subtle interplay between soloist and orchestra. As a welcome entry into the concerto repertory, only its first movement seemed in parts problematic. Orchestral textures might have been a bit overwritten; certainly they were overbalanced. While Stanislav’s violin was busy in middle-register filigree, the orchestra’s fusillade of aggressive colorations dominated the soundscape and all but drowned her out.

 There was nothing problematic about Stanislav’s performance, however. With her sweet tone, brilliant phrasing, uncannily pointed rhythm and pure intonation (even at the violin’s highest and lowest extremities) she delivered a convincing advocacy for the concerto. The LACO commission brought not only this intriguing new work to the concert stage, but also confirmed the aristocratically poised Stanislav as one of the finest exemplars in a highly competitive field of Southern California violin virtuosos.

Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for Strings is a work for string quartet and string orchestra that displays virtuosity as it evokes both the grandeur and frivolity of Baroque-era concerti grossi. Its dotted rhythm introduction reminds one of Handel’s similar treatments. Following this are a series of lovely English and Welsh tune treatments that give the work evocative and appealing dignity, occasionally a kind of lyric grandiosity. Wallfisch had his LACO strings lean deep into their bowings to produce a rich-toned tapestry that sacrificed nimbleness for velvety sheen and a certain lugubrious pomposity not at all unidiomatic in the piece. It was a performance of tone over pulse, but charming in its own veddy English way.

Likewise, Wallfisch’s monumental approach lent LACO’s rendering of the composer from Bonn’s Symphony No. 2 in D Major a big-boned Beethovenian luster, rather than its oft-misplaced categorization as a last nostalgic gesture toward the classicism of Haydn and Mozart. The work’s rhetoric and its textures were handled well -- the winds and brass had a field day -- and every tempo seemed gauged as perfectly as the British rail system in its halcyon days.

The performance confirmed this sometimes overlooked symphony as just one temperamental step away from the Eroica that was to follow a couple of years later. As a consequence, LACO sounded a lot like its older and heftier counterpart at Disney Hall.


Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: works by Elgar, Wallfisch, Beethoven
UCLA Royce Hall, Sunday, November 11, 2012

Photos (LACO with Benjamin Wallfisch and Tereza Stanislav by Lee Salem, Wallfisch close-up by Shambhala, Stanislav close-up by Jason Stang) used by permission of Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

Rodney Punt can be contacted at [email protected]

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Madame Butterfly at LA Opera: Toned down & Tuned up

Review by Rodney Punt

Though Puccini’s Madame Butterfly is the most performed and popular work in LA Opera’s twenty-seven year history, it is never guaranteed a sure-fire production. Contemporary stagings must straddle potential minefields: depicting cross-cultural encounters without succumbing to kitschy stereotypes and addressing modern skepticism of some character motivations while staying true to the work’s emotional intensity. Robert Wilson’s Kabuki version over several seasons here was classy and lovely to gaze upon, but for some its stylized stasis left the human dimension bloodless enough to drain Truth from Verismo.

Deleveraging anything to do with high concept, Butterfly’s new production at LA Opera, arriving from San Francisco, provides a less stylized if somewhat still abstracted staging. Ron Daniels, whose 2010 LAO production of Il Postino made waves and travelled far, directed at both venues. L.A.’s straightforward Butterfly unfolds on a wide-screen format. Framed by Michael Yeargan’s minimalist scenic design, a series of sliding panels straddling the length of the Chandler Pavilion’s stage define Cio-Cio-San’s sparsely furnished, traditional Japanese home. Open or closed panels discretely suggest action in or out of doors, as lit by Stephen Strawbridge’s moody hues. With Yeargan’s extravagantly colorful costumes this Butterfly is a luxurious feast for the eye. 

For all that, the dramatic action lacks a certain chemistry, due not so much to the generally strong cast, but to the requirement to space the principals far enough apart to fill the wide stage area. Moments of tenderness between Cio-Cio-San and Pinkerton are shared mostly at a distance. Dialogue among others takes place across even further expanses of the stage.

The weight of poverty and separation between Butterfly’s marriage to Pinkerton and his brief return some years later is often at least partially depicted by scenic device. This production renders just a few visual clues, most notably the removal of President Theodore Roosevelt’s portrait from the premises at the opening of the last act. The burden to convey the geisha’s increasing despair then sits squarely on Cio-Cio-San’s shoulders. Ukrainian soprano Oksana Dyka, last year’s Tatyana in Eugene Onegin, is a formidable vocal power, but her stage movements seemed a tad too careful; her portrayal less lived than acted. Consequently, Dyka’s Cio-Cio-San was not so much vulnerable or pitiable as simply subdued. Milena Kitic’s Suzuki, by contrast, emoted the sympathetic intensity lacking in her mistress and her vocal performance also stood up well in comparison.
Brandon Jovanovich’s Pinkerton was to the manner born. A pug nose and jutting jaw enhanced a stage swagger that nailed the superficially charming Naval lieutenant. Young enough to project a clueless cockiness, Jovanovich is also veteran enough in this role to convince in his late-in-the-action remorse. (A silhouette on the back screen deftly announces the arrival of his warship in the final act.) Jovanovich’s plangent, silver-bright tenor had the requisite lyric sheen to match Dyka’s volume. His Pinkerton is definitive in our time and his presence in this production a cause for grateful celebration.

Eric Owens' deep-toned Sharpless was luxury casting here. The bass-baritone has come into recent prominence singing all the scary roles he could fit into a still young career: the Met Opera’s Alberich in its recent Ring Cycle, the Doktor in Santa Fe’s Wozzeck, and the title role in L.A.’s Grendel. Owens' right-minded and sympathetic role here was nonetheless a natural and well-deserved change of stage persona for the genial singer. Lesser roles were likewise well-handled: Rodell Rosel’s Goro was appropriately cynical as the marriage broker, Stefan Szkafarowsky was formidably threatening as the Bonze, and Museop Kim was stoic as Butterfly’s spurned suitor.

Though it sounds effortless, Madame Butterfly’s score was not at all easy to compose, much less stage. Puccini felt the need to tweak it obsessively for two decades after its 1904 La Scala premiere. As finally settled upon, however, the work is a miraculous melding of post-Wagnerian harmonies, Impressionistic devices, pentatonic scales and sensuous colorations from brass and woodwinds, harp and a chorus of women. With a stage concept not overly riveting in this production, these musical values rose in high relief. The afternoon’s performances were idiomatic and flowing by orchestra and chorus under LA Opera’s Resident Conductor, Grant Gershon. From the crisp orchestral fugue that opens the work to its final pathetic strains, the composer’s masterful assimilation of styles proved itself once again, particularly in Gershon's fine pacing of the long orchestral interlude of Butterfly‘s overnight vigil.

With LA Opera’s vigorous production of Verdi’s early I Due Foscari, and its later fresh take on Mozart’s Don Giovanni, this Madame Butterfly continues a run of popular productions at a company still growing in stature even as it recovers from the financial set-backs of a wobbly economy.


Note: The production and performance were vociferously applauded by a full house on Sunday afternoon. However, in the tried and true silent-film practice of jeering the heavies, the audience booed Jovanovich’s Pinkerton at curtain call. Booing operatic villains has of recent become a vogue, but it is nonetheless boorish and bad protocol. Singers work hard to please and stir their audiences, whether in sympathetic or unsympathetic roles. Applaud or boo the performance, but don’t boo the role.


Madame Butterfly continues at LA Opera thru December 9, 2012. Link to tickets.
Performance reviewed: November 25, 2012
Photos by Robert Millard used by permission of LA Opera
Rodney Punt can be contacted at [email protected]

Monday, November 19, 2012

LA Master Chorale presents Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610

By Douglas Neslund

A very large, almost sold out Walt Disney Concert Hall audience heaped enthusiastic applause and approval on Maestro Grant Gershon and his fellow artists at the conclusion of Claudio Monteverdi’s sprawling Vespers, described in Thomas May’s excellent program annotations as “a diverse, flexible collection of numbers available to be excerpted or performed in various contexts. This diversity was in any case surely meant to display the full range of Monteverdi’s compositional prowess.”

Monteverdi lived at a most interesting time for any composer: at the end of the long Renaissance period in which unmetered music was the rule, mostly in the sacred context, which was challenged by the metered secular madrigals that the composer wrote in his earliest years, a collision of styles that drew criticism down upon his head. Publication of the Vespers, also known as Vespro della Beata Vergine, was his answer to the critics.

Although published in 1610, elements of the Vespers were probably written over a ten-year span prior to that year.  There are 13 movements, most of which may be performed independently of the others, but which are largely comprised of Psalm settings interspersed by highly florid solos, duets and smaller ensembles that allow for individual vocal fireworks, some of which are credited to Monteverdi’s own creativity and not carried over into the newly emerging, dryer early Baroque style, and some of which were. It is said that ladies of Ferrara and Mantua vied with each other to produce the most astounding vocal displays.

Such displays were generously performed by several soloists drawn from the ranks of the Master Chorale itself.  They were sopranos Suzanne Anderson and Claire Fedoruk; mezzo soprano Janelle DeStefano; tenors Daniel Chaney, Michael Lichtenauer and Matthew Tresler; baritone Scott Graff, and bass Reid Bruton. All were excellent advocates of Monteverdian style points, with Ms. Fedoruk and Mr. Chaney meeting the greatest challenges.

Mr. Tresler’s “Nigra sum” was perhaps the most memorable for artistic shading matched to the text. The duet-cum-trio “Duo Seraphim” (Two Angels) begun by Messrs. Cheney and Lichtenauer (previously incorrectly identified as Mr. Graff), later with the addition of Mr. Tresler when the text changes to “Tres sunt” (There are three), made magic. A personal favorite was the Marian antiphon “Ave maris stella” (Hail, Star of the Sea) brilliantly worked out by Maestro Gershon, starting with an a cappella first stanza, adding to that a solo theorbo accompaniment on the second stanza, joined in the third by the continuo, the next three stanzas sung by Ms. DeStefano, Ms. Fedoruk and Mr. Graff, with all forces combining at the conclusion.

Throughout, the Master Chorale sang with expected brilliance, although for this occasion, a “small call” of 40 voices was employed. In the early 17th century, so far as we know, this music was never performed in a venue the size of Disney Hall, so one can forgive Ms. Fedoruk’s having to choose between projecting to the topmost balcony and singing the delicate filigree to which her voice is so well suited. Her artistry was never in question although not every lower note could be heard.

Maybe it was Maestro Gershon’s intimate association with Los Angeles Opera, where he presides as chorus director, that predisposed a constant movement on stage, but Chorale members were given a virtual road map of stage placements, which humorously led to Mr. Chaney’s forgetting which side he was to be on, and his tip-toeing across to the other side, to the audience’s great amusement. He was not alone in losing focus on placement, by the way. No matter. The singing was always superb.

Los Angeles’s own world class Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra accompanied, with an equally small-sized component of 13 players, of whom Ingrid Matthews and Janet Strauss impressed greatly with their embellished violin interludes in various movements, but particularly in the Sonata sopra: Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis. Maestro Gershon kept a perfect balance between instruments and voices throughout, which is not an easy task in a series of movements constantly shifting participants. The long, sustained applause at concert’s end endorsed Maestro Gershon’s choice of the Vespers, and the utterly musical product that resulted.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Los Angeles Master Chorale celebrates Anglican and Related Traditions

By Douglas Neslund

It began with a crashingly loud “God Is Gone Up” by Gerald Finzi and ended with an encore Mormon Tabernacle Choir version of “Come Thou Fount of Many Blessings” that allowed the sopranos of the Master Chorale to reach the highest note of the evening.

Throughout the concert, a very Anglican (and sometimes Episcopalian) flavor permeated the Walt Disney Concert Hall, with frequent contributions from Disney Hall’s pipe organ, masterfully played by the tag team of Paul Meier and Kimo Smith. In fact, the Master Chorale’s programme was entitled “Organ Extravaganza” – an attempt to feature that instrument with chorus. Okay.

Nico Muhly’s “Bright Mass with Canons” was reprised from the Master Chorale’s 2010 season, and seems, well, brighter this time around. Kimo Smith kept the Walt Disney Concert Hall Organ to an excellent balance with the Chorale, in support of Chorale soloists Tamara Bevard and Karen Hogle Brown (sopranos), and Tracy Van Fleet (mezzo soprano).

Arvo Pärt’s The Beatitudes and Paul Mealor’s “Ubi caritas” led to the pre-intermission Lesley Leighton-conducted bombast of Hubert Parry’s “I Was Glad,” which was taken at the slowest tempo ever, and was probably meant to suggest dignity and pompous pomp, if not circumstance.

Nico Muhly was given a second hearing in a West coast premiere performance of “A Good Understanding” despite the fact the work was recorded by the Master Chorale and committed to a recording issued last season. The work included participation by the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus and percussionist Nick Terry, who produced undoubtedly the loudest noise ever to be heard in Disney Hall, ever, with an enormous blow to a bass drum that certainly got the attention of everyone in attendance. By comparison, the children sang weakly, if in perfect unison. Their director, Anne Tomlinson, conducted her choir in the lively four-part treble setting of Psalm 150 (O Praise God in His Holiness) by Sir David Willcocks.

Arguably the finest item on the menu was Tarik O’Regan’s “Dorchester Canticles” featuring tenor Todd Strange, with Mr. Terry and Mr. Meier accompanying the Master Chorale. But the loudest applause of the evening was rewarded to tenor Daniel Cheney, who soloed in Kurt Weill’s “Kiddush” with such passion and commitment, one could scarcely believe a better performance of the work were possible. Kiddush is worthy of far greater exposure than it has gotten thus far.

Judith Weir’s “Ascending Into Heaven” closed the scheduled performance, featuring Chorale members Niké St. Clair and Janelle DeStefano (mezzo sopranos), Michael Lichtenauer (tenor) and Scott Graff (bass).

What appeared upon initial impression to be a smørgasbord of choral eclecticism turned out to be a very interesting season opener for our illustrious Chorale and its - our - superb maestro, Grant Gershon.