Monday, April 29, 2013

LA Phil in Ravel's La Valse -- The Dance of a Dying Europe

Rodney Punt shares a review of Professor Byron Adams

After returning from a recent LA Phil concert, UC Riverside professor of musicology Byron Adams posted a remarkable comment on Facebook. Here is his take on the orchestra's performance of French music, especially that of Ravel's La Valse, with its deep resonances from the composer's experience on the front lines of the First World War:

"I just returned from that rare event, a wholly satisfying concert by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It was conducted, superbly, by Lionel Bringuier, the outgoing Assistant Conductor who has a post with the Zurich Tonhalle. He has a clear, expressive beat à la Monteux that might prove a suggestive model for more famous conductors. Jean-Yves Tibaudet played Saint-Saens's fifth piano concerto (which the composer himself entitled 'Egyptian') as if he had been transmuted into the composer playing his own work. Of course, as always with Saint-Saens, the audience loved it, and rightly so.

"The concert began with a lovely performance of Messiaen's Les offrandes oubliées -- the last time that I have heard that piece live was with the same orchestra under Guilini. After intermission, a lovely but unremarkable performance of the First Suite from Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe. I always miss the chorus in such concert performances.

"Then an altogether remarkable, harrowing, moving performance of Ravel's La Valse. Ravel served at the front in the First World War, driving a truck filled with live ordinance, which was a incredibly dangerous job. He and his student Ralph Vaughan Williams are two composers who, suffering after the war from PTSD, managed to bring the battlefield into the concert hall. They served with honor during the war and after, reminding us of the horror and pity of war from the perspective of combatants, a rare occurence in music history.

"This performance of La Valse gradually drew in the listener: as the music turned darker and more violent, I began to feel a suffocating panic as if I was trapped on a battlefield with bombs exploding, machine-gun fire, confusion, death, and raw terror. My heart was racing. In those final pages, Ravel does not evoke a battle, he gives you the actual sounds of battle in an astonishing feat of orchestral onomatopoeias. After it was over, although I had sat perfectly still, I was astonished to find that I had tears coursing down my face. Whatever else he possessed, Maurice Ravel had supreme courage and nerves of tempered steel -- he did not flinch in the daunting task that he set before himself in composing this great score.

"After the concert, I recalled the saying attributed to Sir Edward Grey in 1914 just after the First World War had started, "The lights are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime." The bitter horror is that those lamps were never relit in Europe or anywhere else -- the darkness became total eclipse and millions upon millions died throughout the bloody twentieth century and are still dying now as humankind plunges ever more rapidly into a ghastly barbarity enabled by technological "progress."

"That is the terrible message and continuing relevance of Ravel's La Valse."

LA Opus thanks Professor Adams for reminding us how closely bound can be the ties of great music and emotionally charged issues of life and death.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Los Angeles Master Chorale – 24th High School Choir Festival

By Douglas Neslund

They stood in a long row, all 25 of them, facing a sea of over 900 students - their students - to receive the thanks and appreciation for the hard work and study that brought them all together on this day late in April in the choral-friendly Walt Disney Concert Hall. The sound of appreciation drowned out the Concert Hall’s own pipe organ in decibels, threatening in volume all but the most expensive hearing aids of the volunteers and sponsors sitting in the back of the stage. Some teachers stood almost uncomprehending, while others basked in the glow of praise, but all proved once again the power of excellence and the discipline of music.

It was the 24th annual High School Choir Festival, sponsored by the Los Angeles Master Chorale, and is an event that everyone should attend at least once in life. If you haven’t, you might begin to believe the daily drumroll of tragedy and atrocity that crowds out of the headlines the positive in life. Nothing could be more life-affirming and give hope for the future than to hear these high schoolers sing and yes, shout their joy.

Those in attendance heard music that reflected the best of music literature taught in the nation’s schools. Maestro Grant Gershon and the teachers chose nine items to perform together. The dead white composers (Brahms and Handel) came off the least best, while American Choral Directors Association-approved merchants of melody (and sometimes dissonance) fared much better, reflecting the inevitable churning of the generations. Items incorporating rhythm got the multitudes moving, urged on by Sidney Hopson’s percussive impulses. A living composer, Georgia Stitt, was on hand to hear her “The Promise of Light” performed. Silliness, in the form of Meredith Monk’s “Panda Chant II,” bespoke her Oaktown hippie-ness, which failed to mesh much with the rest of the program, but … whatever. Maestro Gershon enjoyed providing a goat's bleat or two.

Louise Thomas provided piano accompaniment that, from behind the stage, sounded weak and was in fact greatly unbalanced; it didn’t matter to the singers who were so well prepared, they could have sung with or without keyboard collaboration.

John West allowed the Walt Disney Concert Hall organ to drown out the Handel Chandos Anthem that brought the event to a rousing conclusion, although nothing was going to dampen the musical enthusiasm and truly renewable energy of the assembled choristers. This was their day communally to bathe in the choral art form, and their teachers’ day to bask in the rich rewards of their annual Sisyphus-like task.


Before lunch, sixteen members of the Master Chorale performed for the students under the direction of associate conductor Lesley Leighton. After a wonderfully phrase-shaped, perfectly balanced and blended “Always Singing” by Dale Warland, the music fare returned to the lighter side, matching the afternoon’s selections. The best of all was Eric Whitacre’s “Little Man in a Hurry” brilliantly sung by the Chamber Singers and accompanied at the keyboard by the equally brilliant Lisa Edwards. Whitacre’s “Little Birds” would have equaled “Little Man” but for writing the piano part over and obscuring the voices in the latter. Chen Yi’s version of “Sakura” was strangely mournful. A “world premiere” turned out to be “Yama No Mizu” by Lauren McLaren, commissioned by Ms. Leighton. Wonderful singing, as always.

Perhaps the high schoolers would have benefitted from hearing the timeless music of dead white composers coming from the experts in order to appreciate them for their enduring brilliance, but there is so much to appreciate, and so little time. John West treated all to a demonstration of the pipe organ setting up lunch.

Photo credits: Craig Schwartz

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Santa Fe Opera To Present New Opera About Oscar Wilde

by Rodney Punt

The historic path to equality for gays and lesbians is strewn with victims of injustice. One of the most egregious examples was that of Oscar Wilde, the sparkling genius of late Victorian English theater, whose career was initially charmed but later cursed by the sexual phobias of the time. The Irish playwright was a brave, some would also say foolhardy, soul who flaunted his indiscriminately brilliant wit in plays of multi-dimensional sub-text that have never lost their luster with audiences. He paid, however, a steep price for that flamboyance in his private life.

As Americans eagerly await Supreme Court decisions on the right of gays and lesbians to marry, the Santa Fe Opera brings Wilde's relevant and tragic story to the stage in Oscar, a new opera by Theodore Morrison, based on the trial and imprisonment of the playwright for actions related to his sexual orientation. It will receive its world premiere as a highlight of The Santa Fe Opera 2013 Summer Festival Season. The title role will be sung by countertenor David Daniels for whom the opera was written. The libretto is by the British director John Cox.

Morrison had wanted to write an opera for Daniels and the opportunity presented itself in London in 2004 when the countertenor was performing a song cycle on the poems of James Joyce that Morrison had written for him. John Cox was at the recital and upon meeting the composer suggested that he should write an opera. Conversations between the three men ensued and in 2006 the subject of Oscar Wilde was decided upon.

As Act I begins, Oscar Wilde, London’s most famous writer and biggest celebrity, has been charged by the court of “gross indecency with other male persons,” a result of his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, known as Bosie. In disgrace, Wilde becomes an outcast in society without friends or a place to live. He takes refuge in the nursery apartment at the home of a friend, the English writer Ada Leverson. Frank Harris, the brilliant editor of the Saturday Review, also a friend, brings Ada news of the verdict. Wilde is found guilty and sentenced to two years of hard labor.

Act II takes place in Reading Gaol. The prisoners, subjected to the harshest conditions, are confined to dismal cells and kept separate from one another. Wilde is denied paper for writing and books to read. He becomes gravely ill, and it is while he is in the infirmary that he hears his fellow inmates’ stories and his compassion grows. The result is Wilde’s famous The Ballad of Reading Gaol, sections of which are included in the opera. “We present Oscar Wilde as hero, not as victim,” commented Morrison. “His life, and all he stood for, has great relevance today.” He became an iconic figure in the struggle for gay rights and universal human rights.

The characters in Oscar include Walt Whitman (sung by Dwayne Croft) as commentator, speaking from the Halls of Immortality. Bosie, Wilde’s great love, is portrayed by dancer Reed Luplau. Frank Harris will be sung by William Burden, Ada Leverson by Heidi Stober. Evan Rogister is the conductor, Kevin Newbury the director. David Korins is scenic designer, David Woolard costume designer, and Rick Fisher lighting designer. Seán Curran is the choreographer.

The World Premiere of Oscar will take place Saturday, July 27, followed by performances on July 31, August 9, 12 and 17. The opera is a co-production with Opera Company of Philadelphia which will perform the work in the 2015 season.

Here's an excerpt of Wilde's haunting and tragic Ballad of Reading Gaol:

In Reading gaol by Reading town
There is a pit of shame,
And in it lies a wretched man
Eaten by teeth of flame,
In burning winding-sheet he lies,
And his grave has got no name.

And there, till Christ call forth the dead,
In silence let him lie:
No need to waste the foolish tear,
Or heave the windy sigh:
The man had killed the thing he loved,
And so he had to die.


For tickets: SFO Box Office at (505) 986-5900; toll free (800) 280-4654, or go online at

Several activities are planned for the opening weekend. On Friday, July 26, Wilde experts will gather in Santa Fe to discuss his life and work. Saturday morning, the 27th, members of the Oscar creative team will be on hand to talk about the opera including Morrison, Cox, Newbury, among others. Times and venues will be announced on the Santa Fe Opera's website.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Los Angeles Opera does Britten’s Noye’s Fludde

By Douglas Neslund

2013 is the hundredth year of the birth of Benjamin Britten, one of the most singular composers of the 20th century, whose centenary is being celebrated in Los Angeles by a series of events throughout the year. His “Noye’s Fludde” is one of the milestones of his creative genius presented at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels over the weekend just past in conjunction with LA Opera’s annual productions at the Cathedral with expenses underwritten by the Dan Murphy Foundation and the Britten-Pears Foundation. Admission was free to the public and both performances were packed to the walls.

This is the seventh year of the LA Opera at the Cathedral series that has produced such early operas as Noye’s Fludde, which are recreations of miracle plays emanating from church performances of Biblical themes from which the art form of opera was born. In 2012, for instance, the opera/miracle play was an adaptation of the 12th century Play of Daniel brought to life by Noah Greenberg and his New York Pro Musica in the late 1950s.

What distinguishes this series of opera productions at the Cathedral is the remarkable professional team of conductor James Conlon, director Eli Villanueva, educationand community programs director Stacy Brightman, and a supporting cast of thousands, or so it seemed.

Professional soloists Yohan Yi, portraying Noye (Noah), Ronnita Nicole Miller as Noye’s wife, and Jamieson K. Price providing an impressive Voice of God, drawn from Maestro Conlon’s rich talent stable at LA Opera, were all first rate (and as we understand it, the only paid) performers.

One cannot imagine a better character performance than Mr. Yi’s. His intensity and focus in the role projected to the Cathedral’s baptistery with stentorian authority and a rich, darkly colored voice. 

Ms. Miller’s role allowed for humor as she resisted boarding Noye’s ark until literally pushed in by her three sons: Caleb Glickman as Shem, Anthony Karambelas as Ham, and Patrick Mayoral as Jaffett. The boys formed the best such trio since Fludde was first performed seven years ago. (All solo voices were amplified.)

Behind the headliners, a massive collection of exceedingly well-trained instrumentalists and choristers were assembled to provide turba support, plus what seemed to be an endless parade of little humans dressed as the great variety of animals boarding Noye’s ark to avoid certain extinction, who also sang along and danced at various points. Kudos to Caleb Barnes for shepherding the little ones as production assistant.

All the costumes, props and animal approximations were wonderful but within a narrow color scheme, which made the rainbow, the sign of God’s promise never to flood the earth again, that much more vivid. Most impressive again were the “birds” skillfully given flight.

The greatest single additions to this year’s performances were the projections behind the actors that helped greatly in the audience’s understanding of the old English as well as ongoing story.

One would wish to name all performers, especially the choirs and excellent orchestra, which was seeded with Los Angeles Opera Orchestra personnel, but comprised primarily of music students from Hamilton High School’s Academy of Music, all under the direction of LAO conductor James Conlon. One cherishes especially the beautiful ‘cello solo by LA Opera’s Rowena Hammill. The Cathedral's own Samuel Soria made the pipe organ roar when needed.

Appreciation to Los Angeles Opera and Downtown News for the above photographs.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Los Angeles Master Chorale performs hidden gems of the 20th century

By Douglas Neslund

Returning to the friendly confines of Walt Disney Concert Hall from a very successful tour of London, Paris, Lucerne and New York City performing the Peter Sellars/John Adams “Gospel According to the Other Mary” that received critical acclaim, the Master Chorale’s Maestro Grant Gershon selected the works of two early 20th century composers, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Francis Poulenc.

In a finely balanced program, the audience was treated to Poulenc’s Salve Regina that served to remind us how much we missed these 62 choristers while they were on the road. Maestro Gershon approached the work with a high degree of sensitivity that allowed the intimate polyphony to work its magic.

Vaughan Williams’s Mass in G minor is a finely constructed work that seeks to evoke a modal and almost Gregorian flavor in the opening Kyrie eleison, with a solo quartet performing the Christe eleison. Soloists were soprano Hayden Eberhart, mezzo soprano Michele Hemmings, tenor Michael Lichtenauer and bass Scott Lehmkuhl. Keeping in mind that Vaughan Williams wrote the Mass for an Anglican choir of men and boys, Ms. Eberhart was tasked with replacing a treble and Ms. Hemmings a countertenor, with the effect of changing the quartet’s original sound completely. Mr. Lichtenauer was able to accommodate to a less than full-voiced high tessitura and head-tone production more typical of the English tenor. As a quartet, the four were a bit less than ideal as regards blend and balance of their various parts.

Although some entrances were a bit ragged, the choral sections of the Mass were gloriously and antiphonally sung, at times gifting the audience that wonderful “wall of sound” that we have grown to love and anticipate.

After intermission, Vaughan Williams’s Five Mystical Songs offered baritone Abdiel Gonzalez a major solo turn that he advantaged to a great extent. His ringing high baritone matched the composer’s requirements to a “t” although some might not prefer his tight, nervous vibrato. Mr. Gonzalez’s musicianship and solid vocal technique serves him well. Accompanying on the organ was Paul Meier, who adjusted the instrument’s sometimes overwhelming power to a fine match with the Master Chorale. Despite the English text so well enunciated by Mr. Gonzalez, the audience was provided above-the-stage text projection.

By far the audience’s (and Master Chorale’s) favorite work of the evening was Poulenc’s sometimes bitter and ironic Figure Humaine (The Face of Humanity) composed in 1943 during the Nazi occupation of France, which required the poet, Paul Éluard, to veil his personal venom against the enemy by couching his lyrics in subtle and oblique language and using a pseudonym or two.

Starting with Bientôt (Soon), Poulenc maintains a musical low profile, creating while avoiding detection as a partisan, but breaks the tension with Le Rôle des Femmes (The Women’s Role). Of particular note is Un Loup (A Wolf) that darkly paints the Nazi presence as predator, while Un feu sans tache (A flawless fire) creates a special challenge for singers and music students alike with its confetti-like leap-note writing, the beauty of which is only revealed in bringing the different vocal parts together, perhaps a symbol for the Resistance.

The final movement entitled “Liberté!” was kept by Poulenc until American troops liberated his country, and although one might expect an outbreak of major tonalities and trumpets-and-drums declamatory choruses, Poulenc instead rides the waves of emotion throughout from ironic to wry hope, from hopeful and finally, to joy, expressed in the final measures by a four-octave E major chord topped by an in-altissimo E performed bang on pitch on this occasion by Karen Hogle Brown. Given the extra measure of energy and passion, it would not be too difficult to assume that a large portion of rehearsal time went into this work, with ultimate success in every respect. Welcome home, Master Chorale!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

A Wacky but Wonderful Cinderella at LA Opera

Review by Rodney Punt

Gioachino Rossini's Cinderella (aka ‘La Cenerentola’) nods to the rescue singspiels of the composer's beloved Mozart, where Enlightenment Good triumphs over Establishment Evil. But Catalan director Joan Font and his team downplay these proto-romantic leanings in favor of surreal farce. Opportunities for same certainly abound in Rossini’s witty, effervescent score. Joan Guillén’s rakish set and brightly colored costumes, along with Albert Faura’s extreme lighting, set the scene somewhere near Alice's Wonderland. Font compensates for occasional slow momentum in long arias with stage business ranging from charming to silly, working hard at times for its sugar highs. The ensuing action ends up more madcap daydream than miraculous rescue.

Cinderella differs in detail from the well-known Disney version. Rossini’s heroine is named Angelina. Exposed ankles being too risqué in that era, a bracelet set replaces slippers for the day after match-up. Forget the pumpkin carriage, fairy godmother and cute mice. The most sympathetic characters are six Kangaroo-sized rats that take a shine to Angelina and ere long also shamelessly mug for the audience. In an unexpected twist, this Cinderella wakes from her dream to once again sweep the floors. For all the divergences from the Magic Kingdom, no one could mistake this version for any other fable.

Billed as a co-production (its six-year journey had begun in Houston, with stops in Wales, Barcelona and Geneva), it looked more borrowed, with its sets stretched wider and deeper than comfortable on the theme park-sized Chandler stage. Only when a downstage Mylar screen appeared in the second act to support the voices could opening night singers provide vocal punch to the hall's distant reaches. This was especially hard on young Kate Lindsey in the title role.

Just thirty years of age, Lindsey is already a star attraction, if not yet a vocal power-hitter. On opening night her projection into the cavernous house was not as commanding as her more mature colleagues. But give her time; she is charismatic, lovely and lithesome, with a velvety voice as fresh as spring itself. Her Angelina charmed in both the plaintive “Una volta c’era un re” and the flourishing finale of “Non più mesta accanto al fuoco.”

Lindsey’s attractive visage in flowing light brown hair and white prom dress had adorned promo posters of Cinderella on the streets of Los Angeles. Alas, such a picture was never on stage, as the ball scene had her in a silvery-white beehive wig, as frightful as the get-ups of the rest of the off-kilter company.

René Barbera’s Don Ramiro (the so-called “handsome” prince) sounded heroic but looked suitably ridiculous in his pointy pompadour wig. His valet Dandini (Vito Priante, resembling the foppy persona of Sacha Baron Cohen) nearly stole the show when he exchanged his servant’s clothing with his master’s finery, then put on airs and made demands of his temporarily humbled master. Nicola Ulivieri’s Alidoro served admirably as the goofy male equivalent of a fairy godmother. Even the heavies were ultimately more wacky than menacing: Alessandro Corbelli as Angelina’s inexplicably cruel father, Don Magnifico; Stacy Tappan and Ronnita Nicole Miller as her high-handed, hoop-skirted sisters, Clorinda and Tisbe.

Conductor James Conlon and his orchestral charges enforced quicksilver tempi that underscored the fun and frothiness. They made the most of Rossini's famous accelerandi and his tingling instrumental combos, especially those of the flute, piccolo, oboe and clarinet. While vocal solos were for the most part firm, ensembles on opening night were often ragged. Reliable reports suggest the whole show tightened up as the run progressed.

Despite its oddities, this Cinderella was a worthy entry to the ever-growing Rossini canon at LA Opera. More of the composer's sparkling comedies and even the obscure dramas of his late career are returning to favor worldwide. They are becoming a company specialty in Los Angeles.


Cinderella (La Cenerentola) by Gioachino Rossini
LA Opera, March 23 - April 13, 2013
Performance reviewed: March 23, 2013
Photos of Robert Millard used by permission of LA Opera