Thursday, October 24, 2013

Frank Zappa's 200 Motels - The Suites at Disney Hall

by Rodney Punt

Twenty years ago*, experimental rock-era composer Frank Zappa died of prostate cancer. He left behind a work that has never been performed live in full, a kind of alternate rock opera called 200 Motels. Last night at Disney Hall, the LA Phil presented, in a semi-staged production, the world premiere of 200 Motels - The Suites. From remaining notes of Zappa, it was obvious that he thought highly of this work and he expressed himself clearly as he wrote about it. Because many knew the emotional investment he had put into it, they have assumed it not just worthy, but Zappa's supreme effort.

To the LA Phil's culture history credit, they took on the task for the 10th anniversary celebration of Disney Hall's opening night. The event had the feel of a Seventies happening. The rowdy audience was mostly aging hipsters, with sprinkles of other demographics and ages. They were ready for action at the beginning of the work and gave it a big applause after it concluded. But in-between, the telling expanse of time when it most counted, interest clearly flagged as the work's banal passages droned on.

The action begins when four band members are already debauched and exhausted from small town touring. For all we know they are also stupefied on drugs. A fat-bellied character named Cowboy Burt, who looks like Slim Pickens, pistol whips the band members (Zappa's own Mothers of Invention are the model). A soprano takes the predictable road from interviewer to groupie. The action gets grosser and stupider. Props include a barrel of dirt which the strung-out band members wallow in. Later on, several waving, orange-glowing penises make their way down the aisles.

By way of self-justification, the show winds up with a maudlin tribute to all of the world's outcasts and misfits, presumably to make us all forgive the show's previous banalities. Zappa's Ode to Joy for them rhymes "action" with "satisfaction" six or seven times. The Rolling Stones use of the same word in their most famous song of a decade before should have prompted Zappa to avoid it. His lame-brained borrowing of it here grates. But that's just the kind of idiocy that fills the work.

While I can admire the efforts of all the fine talent associated with the production -- Esa Pekka Salonen conducting the game musicians of the LA Phil, the singer/actors, the direction of James Darrah, et al -- I thought the work a pretentious, puerile, extravagant bore. The libretto (too kind a word) was wretched and trite but it thought itself clever and witty. The music was gauche, boring, and proceeded from one unmerited climax to another.

Zappa certainly had ambition and all the documentary evidence suggests he worked hard on this work.  But inherent musical value? Not there. I don't see creative or organizational talent in this score. Zappa's alternate rock had high aspirations and the composer befriended eccentric musicologist Nicholas Slonimsky, but associations do not of themselves great art make and this cross-over into rock opera falls in the middle before it is over anything.

The work was a bloated, self-indulgent mess. Rooted in the Sixties, it is as embalmed as a dead rocker in the early Seventies.

*Corrected from the originally posted thirty years ago.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Einstein on the Beach Opening at LA Opera

Preview by Rodney Punt

Einstein on the Beach is finally in Los Angeles after several long and winding road trips over a 37 year period to almost everywhere else. 

Philip Glass’s path-blazing first opera marks the starting point of minimalist music in a theatrical setting.  It was the first post-modern opera. Of the fourteen Glass operas to date, it is still probably most revolutionary in form. With its immediate followers, Satyagraha (1979) and Akhnaten (1983), it formed a trilogy of “portrait operas” of powerful change-agent personalities in human history. The arrival of Einstein on the Beach is an important musical event for Los Angeles.

We might have seen the opera shortly after its 1976 premiere in Avignon, France, had the management of the still fledgling LA Opera not deemed it too radical for our audiences. In recent years, LA has been teased with bits and pieces of the work in live performance. Some years ago Santa Monica's Jacaranda series programed the five so-called “Knee Plays” that bookend and bind the various scenes. The tantalizing morsels only whetted collective appetites for more.

The omission of the full opera could have been redeemed last year when its tour got as close as UC Berkeley, but financial concerns trumped it yet again. Even the current LA Opera season had been pre-sold with no Einstein in its slate. But forget all that. The stars eventually aligned and General Director Plácido Domingo announced on September 12 it was to be a go.

Einstein opens this Friday for a succession of three evening performances at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. More good news: though other hands had restaged the groundbreaking work since its premiere nearly four decades ago, Los Angeles audiences will see the original version of its reunited and now iconic creative team.

Domingo also announced last month that this appearance would likely mark the last collaboration on the 1976 masterpiece by composer Glass, director/designer Robert Wilson, and choreographer Lucinda Childs. “The Los Angeles premiere of Einstein will mark the final North American performances of an international tour that began in 2012. It isn’t like anything that we have ever done before, and I hope that Einstein will entice many new audience members into the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for the very first time.”

Speaking of new audiences, contemporary Los Angeles has undergone a sea-change in tastes. What may have intimidated yesterday’s patrons is now a younger crowd’s artistic relish.  Avant-garde works in all genres are in hot demand. As if to underscore LA Opera’s own changed convictions, following last week's Chinese Theater screening of the 3-D Wizard of Oz, I noted young ladies in Einstein wig and mustache get-ups handing out card promotions for the operatic Einstein to curious young crowds up and down trendy Hollywood Blvd.

Patrons will discover the performance of Einstein on the Beach to be far from Dorothy’s operatic Kansas. There is no plot narrative, but a series of mind-portraits in dreamlike tableaus is propelled by the hypnotic score. They are bound together by those Knee Play interludes that reinforce the opera’s ideas as they allow time for scenery changes. Three main scenes in the opera --"Train", "Trial", and "Field/Spaceship" -- allude to Einstein's theory of relativity and his unified field theory. Others reference nuclear weapons, science and popular radio. 

The viewer, however, is not necessarily aware of these allusions. Scenes of various human behaviors such as a train robbery or lovers in the park interweave with abstract, futuristic scenes in a fantasy spaceship. Time travels from historic settings to the future and back again, but it all ends seraphically in the here and now. The cosmic blends with the intimate.

The "star" of the show, Einstein, is, literally, a cypher whose associated imagery is an endless ream of numbers. The eponymous character doesn't sing but plays the violin as did Albert Einstein himself. Violinist Jennifer Koh (top photo, at the left) performs the Einstein character in this production. (Albert Einstein taught himself to play the violin as a boy. While playing the instrument for relaxation in later years he often gained scientific insights.)

The production features the Lucinda Childs Dance Company and the Philip Glass Ensemble, conducted by music director Michael Riesman. Principal performers, in addition to Koh, are Helga Davis, Kate Moran, Jasper Newell, and Charles Williams. The spoken texts come from the writings of Christopher Knowles, Samuel M. Johnson and Lucinda Childs.

The work lasts four and a half hours with no traditional intermissions. The audience may enter and temporarily depart the performance as desired. (Concession services will be available in the Chandler's lobbies throughout the performance.)

Photo by Reginald Donahue/Courtesy the Rothmans
The life story of the opera's subject is particularly relevant to Los Angeles. In the wake of the diaspora of European intellectuals fleeing fascist Europe in the early 1930’s, Albert Einstein resided here on several occasions. Even before his more permanent academic association with Princeton University, local brain trust Cal Tech snapped him up for three extended residencies in Pasadena.

Apropos, the title “Einstein on the Beach” is not a reference to nearby Southern California beaches. Rather, a famous photo (above) documents Einstein’s 1939 summer residence at Nassau Point, Long Island, where he was casually dressed in shorts and sandals with a businessman and friend named Rothman. In that fateful summer Einstein signed a prepared letter to President Roosevelt warning of Nazi plans to invent a nuclear weapon. The missive would instigate the Manhattan Project and, thirty-five years later, become the pivotal inspiration for the subject matter of the Wilson/Glass opera.

The impact of Einstein on the Beach was in many ways as shattering to the world of music -- certainly of opera -- as that of Einstein’s discoveries to the world of theoretical physics. Whatever one thinks of the entirety of this unconventional work, it is an experience not to be missed and it is now within the reach of Southern Californians to hear and see it for themselves. 

Don’t miss the opportunity.

Performance details

Einstein on the Beach, An Opera in Four Acts
Music/Lyrics: Philip Glass
Direction/Set and light design: Robert Wilson
Choreography by Lucinda Childs

Dates and times:
Friday, October 11, 2013, at 6:30pm
Saturday, October 12, 2013, at 6:30pm
Sunday, October 13, 2013, at 2:00pm

Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles CA 90012.
For disability access, call 213.972.0777 or email [email protected]

Ticket purchase options:
In person, LA Opera Box Office at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
By phone at 213.972.8001
Online at

Except as noted, all photos are by LA Opera and used by their permission.
Rodney Punt may be contacted at [email protected]

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Steel Van Man by Jason P. Stadtlander

Review by Joan Goldsmith Gurfield

Jason Stadtlander’s The Steel Van Man is a fast-paced thriller in the gruesome, explicitly gory mode of works like Michael Connelly’s The Poet. Without revealing too much of the plot, this reviewer was immediately hooked on the premise and the memorable opening, which cites a Russian scientific study and moves quickly to its working out in the present day. The page-turning aspects of the plot (if one is willing to suspend disbelief for the large pile-up of coincidences) keep the interest level high.

The mind of a serial killer is made known to the reader, and we are torn between believing that person to be slightly sympathetic or believing him to be completely psychotic. This uneasy balance created by Stadtlander, and the fact that he constantly ups the ante for his characters throughout the book, make it an exciting read.

The book was not well-served, however, by the many proofreading errors and some imprecise and ungrammatical writing (i.e. “fair” for “fare,” “his professional FBI appearance emanating from him like a classic painting,” and a few dangling modifiers and problems with layout).

If the editors had paid as much attention to these details as they did to the lovely beginnings of each chapter, imprinted with the shadow of a tree, and the changes in point of view, highlighted with what looked like a knife dripping blood, the reading experience would have been smoother, and more likely even scarier.

Reviewer Joan Goldsmith Gurfield is Professor of English at East Los Angeles College