Thursday, May 23, 2019

Salon Music and Elegies from Trio Céleste


Trio Céleste, l-r: Ross Gasworth, Kevin Kwan Loucks, Irina Krechkovsky.

REVIEW

Trio Céleste, The Music Guild, California State University Long Beach
JIM RUGGIRELLO

Circumstances, meaning other concerts, prevented me from attending any of The Music Guild concerts at Gerald R. Daniel Recital Hall on the campus of California State University Long Beach but the latest one, the last of the Guild's 74th season. The performers were Trio Céleste

Which engendered a distinct feeling of déjà vu. One year ago, almost to the day, I was able to catch my one Music Guild concert of last season, and the performers were, once again - Trio Céleste. Last season they played a meat-and-potatoes program of piano trios by Haydn, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky. This year's fare was more adventurous, and even featured a composer with a pulse, but was audience-friendly enough so as not to alienate the Music Guild audience, historically rather conservative in their musical tastes.

Paul Schoenfeld.
A delightful piece by Paul Schoenfeld, Café Music, opened. Schoenfeld, born in 1947, teaches at the University of Michigan and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2003. Café Music was inspired by a short stint Schoenfeld did as background pianist at Manny's Steakhouse in Minneapolis. The piece, in three movements, evokes 1920s salon music; the first is a jazzy, energetic exercise infused with a comic sensibility in its shifting moods and sudden stops. The second movement is a saucy, lyrical ballad, and the frantic finale a headlong rush with a distinct flavor of honky-tonk and le jazz hot.

There was no mistaking the individual personalities of the trio's members, starting with the first note. Violinist Irina Krechkovsky's playing had an aggressive edge that still managed to swing, while Ross Gasworth's cello took a more elegant approach. Pianist Kevin Kwan Loucks played it grand and large, sometimes overwhelming his colleagues. His pianism had plenty of character and dynamic contrast, but the school's nine-foot Steinway, with the lid all the way up, makes a huge sound unless tempered with restraint.

Everyone knows, or thinks they do, the music of Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884); after all, The Moldau (Vltava, T. 111) is downright ubiquitous, and The Bartered Bride (Prodaná nevĕsta, B. 143) graces operatic stages regularly. But The Moldau is only one of six tone poems that comprise Smetana's masterwork Má vlast (My homeland), and the composer wrote eight other operas, a couple of which are more highly regarded than the Bride. He also composed several pieces for solo piano, beginning at an early age, and four chamber works, notably the String Quartet No. 1, From My Homeland, T. 128, and, more to the point, a piano trio. 

Bedřich Smetana.
Smetana's Piano Trio in G minor, Op.15, was written in 1855 (revised in 1857) as a tribute to his daughter Bedřiška, who died of scarlet fever. Smetana's life was rife with such sorrow and tragedy, and not just because of his controversial espousal of Czech nationalism, his mistreatment at the hand of critics, or his feuds with other musical figures of the day. All but one of his other daughters also died young, as did his first wife, and he himself suffered from ill health throughout his life, and from  deafness in his last 10 years.

Although Smetana wrote the trio to honor his late daughter, only in the middle section of the finale do I hear traces of an elegy (not to mention a funeral march). Elsewhere, there's intensity and passion, beginning with a Slavic-flavored tune for solo violin that Krechkovsky really dug into.

The themes are lyrical and well worked out, the long first movement changing from light to dark in tone. The second movement, a Brahmsian intermezzo, is almost playful. For the finale, Smetana borrowed themes from his earlier piano pieces, and wove them into a restless, energetic rondo.

Again, the piano dominated. This is one heavy piano part, thick-textured with huge chords in both hands that invite pounding. And pound Loucks did. All three musicians gave committed, technically excellent performances, but the balance was off; whether that was the fault of the instrument, the player, or the way the piece was written, one doesn't know. At intermission, I overheard Eugene Golden, the Music Guild's executive director, mention to the pianist about the balance, and Loucks said he could back off. Lo and behold, he did just that.

Dmitri Shostakovich.

In the Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 67 by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), written in 1944, the balance between the instruments was exemplary, each player taking the lead as the occasion demanded. Here the excellence of this ensemble was on full display, as was Shostakovich's bitter humor. This work, too, is an elegy, for the composer's friend Ivan Sollertinsky and for the victims of the Holocaust, about which the world was only beginning to become aware. Several of the themes in the work''s four shortish movements have a Jewish flavor, which somehow escaped Stalin's censors.

Gasworth did a masterful job with the opening theme's difficult harmonics, and elsewhere was his elegant self. Krechkovsky's edgy, incisive tone found a congenial vehicle in Shostakovich's faux-jovial cynicism, and Louck's grand, expressive, overt playing was put to good use in this magnificent piece.

The Music Guild chamber concerts are one of Long Beach's best-kept musical secrets (they're also given in Brentwood and the Valley on successive nights). The audience at Daniel is elderly and dwindling. They know their chamber music (no clapping between movements with this bunch), and one wishes there were more of them. In an ideal world, the hall would be packed.

---ooo---

The Music Guild: Gerald R. Daniel Recital Hall, California State University Long Beach, 8:00pm, Tuesday, May 14, 2019. 
Photos: Trio Céleste: artists' website; Schoenfeld: Courtesy School of Music, Theatre & Dance, University of Michigan; Smetana: Michael Nicholson/Corbis via Getty Images; Shostakovich: Classic fM.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Audrey Park, 2019 Knox Competition Winner


Audrey Park.
REVIEW

"First Fridays at First!—fff", First Lutheran Church, Torrance
DAVID J BROWN

… and still they come, yet more astonishingly talented and youthful virtuosi from the southern Californian performance competitions arena. This year’s winner of the Edith Knox Competition, held under the auspices of Redondo Beach’s Peninsula Symphony Orchestra Association and open to instrumentalists under the age of 25, was 16-year-old Audrey Park.

Ms. Park will be performing the Sibelius Violin Concerto with the Peninsula Symphony on Sunday June 30, but meanwhile—as has been the case with previous winners of this competition—her first solo appearance after her victory was at the May “First Fridays at First!–fff” lunchtime recital, presented as ever by Classical Crossroads Inc., with a program of six items that cut a directly chronological path from the early 18th to the end of the 20th century.

Possibly a portrait of
the young J. S. Bach.
Accompanist Jiayi Shi was on hand for later but to start, Ms. Park took the platform alone for the first movement, Adagio, of J. S. Bach’s Sonata No. 1 in G Minor for Solo Violin BWV 1001, composed some time before 1720. Her performance was grave, reflective, and generously phrased, with very clean double-stopping, and my initial impression that she wasn’t digging very far beneath the notes was belied by a steady gain in intensity in the movement’s latter stages. Not for the last time in this recital did I wish that we were hearing the whole work.

Paganini.
Due to the variations on it composed by a gazillion other composers, everyone knows the 24th and last of the Caprices Op. 1 for Solo Violin by Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840). But after showing her legato abilities in Bach’s long lines from around a century earlier, Ms. Park followed up, not with No. 24, but with No. 1 of the Caprices, an exercise in spiccato playing. While no more successful than many a more experienced violinist in entirely avoiding the odd squeak as the music bounced into the stratosphere, she made all the rapid wrist oscillation look easy as she negotiated Paganini’s two-minute obstacle course.

Saint-Saëns as a boy.
On a half-century or so to 1863, when Camille Saint-Saëns, still under 30, wrote his Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso in A Minor, Op. 28, for violin and a classical-sized orchestra—but given here with Jiayi Shi playing piano. Ms. Park gave the all-too-brief Andante (malinconico) opening section a stately, almost baroque, grace, and then, with Ms. Shi’s careful observation of the ma non troppo qualification in the introduction to the main Allegro giving her plenty of elbow-room, made the most of the fun Saint-Saëns has putting his irrepressibly jaunty and insouciant main theme through its paces.

Forty more years, and over to Russia for a violin/piano arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Valse Sentimentale, the last of his Six Morceaux pour Piano Op. 51 (as the first published edition titled them in 1882, the year of their composition). Ms. Park’s easy rubato here showed her to be as comfortable with the gentle salon style this music required as with the more overtly demanding pieces.

Jiayi Shi.
Only last month Classical Crossroads’ companion “Interludes” concert included a performance of Prokofiev’s Flute Sonata in D, Op. 94 from 1943, in a clarinet arrangement (reviewed here). On the present occasion Ms. Park and Ms. Shi played the first movement only of the Violin Sonata No. 2 in D Major, Op. 94bis, which as the opus number indicates is another arrangement of that Flute Sonata, this time by Prokofiev himself.

Serge Prokofiev.
By now Ms. Park’s spacious, confident way of phrasing in unhurried music like this Moderato had become familiar, and here the way she played, without snatching, the demanding octave-leap grace notes with which Prokofiev decorates his indelibly memorable opening melody was particularly impressive. Also, her fine-drawn handling of the movement’s questioning, inconclusive end once again made one long for the remainder of the sonata to follow.

Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994).
Instead, however, there was one more half-century leap, this time into uncompromising modernism with one of Lutosławski’s final works. Bringing the competition motif neatly full-circle, his Subito for Violin and Piano was commissioned as a test-piece for the 1994 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, where the performances by the 16 semi-finalists sadly took place shortly after Lutosławski’s death.

“Subito” means “suddenly,” and the piece certainly embraces that, springing into life with swirling fortissimo streams of 32nd notes against stabbed, long-held piano chords, and then proceeding with a small catalog of violin-playing techniques including high atmospherics and trills, rapid double-stopping, staccato, etc. This four-minute firecracker of a work may have disappointed some audience-members anticipating a cozy encore to depart on, but it left an indelible impression. Audrey Park’s formidable talent will flower in years to come.

---ooo---

“First Fridays at First! – fff”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, May 3, 2019.
Images: Audrey Park: Great Composers Competition online; Bach: Wikimedia Commons; Paganini: Getty Images, courtesy ClassicfM; Saint-Saëns: Wikimedia Commons; Jiayi Shi: Aurora Music; Prokofiev: Freedom from Religion FoundationLutosławski: Wikimedia Commons.


If you found this review to be useful, interesting, or informative, please feel free to Buy Me A Coffee!

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Trios from Three Centuries at the SBCMS


Trio Ondine: l-r Boglárka Kiss, Alison Bjorkedal, Alma Fernandez.

REVIEW

Trio Ondine, South Bay Chamber Music Society, Pacific Unitarian Church, Rancho Palos Verdes
DAVID J BROWN

At the last concert of the South Bay Chamber Music Society’s 2018-2019 season, under the Artistic Directorship of Robert Thies, Trio Ondine (Boglárka Kiss, flute; Alma Fernandez, viola; Alison Bjorkedal, harp) presented a positive cornucopia of no less than seven works: one German from the 18th century, three French from the 20th century, and three very contemporary American pieces, composed within the last few years.

Lucas Richman.
Heading up the proceedings was one of the latter, the aptly-named and positioned Aperitif by Lucas Richman (b. 1964). As Dr. Kiss noted in her (sadly on-line only) program-note, the piece is “bound together by rhythmic permutations of a five-note motive.” Any hint of monotony is kept well at bay, however, by the way the opening continually cycles through different time signatures—7/8, 5/8, 7/8, 6/8. A middle 3/4 section follows, its terrain marked by overlapping entries of the now seven-note motive passed back and forth between the flute and the viola, before the opening bounce returns: altogether a concise six-minute delight.

Maurice Ravel, c. 1910.
There seems to be some uncertainty over exactly how Maurice Ravel came to write the first movement of his Sonatine for piano—whether in direct response to a magazine musical competition or previously as a Conservatoire student and later submitting it for the competition.

Whatever the truth of the matter, by 1905 he had added the other two movements and in this final form there’s no doubt of the Sonatine's adaptability for different forces. Ravel surely would have approved of the 1994 transcription by harpist Skaila Kanga for these forces: I did find the instrumentation in the Animé finale a little over-elaborated, but Trio Ondine dispatched it with great panache.

David Walther.
One Triplet by David Walther (b. 1974) has the same sort of ABA structure as Richman’s Aperitif, but in comparison it felt a little bland and over-extended, though the passing back and forth between the instruments of the central section’s lilting melody had a wistful melancholy.

Dave Volpe.
A second hearing of Gwinna by Dave Volpe (b. 1983), on the other hand (the Trio Ondine brought it to a previous concert under the auspices of Classical Crossroads), quite reversed my previous view of this piece—inspired by the eponymous children’s book from artist and author Barbara Berger—as being a little long for its material.

The work's aural palette in the service of her magical quest tale includes flutter-tonguing on the flute and high harmonics on the viola, skillfully extended by wordless vocalization from Ms. Bjorkedal as well as delicate interventions on rainstick, small chimes, and crotales from the other two players. I wonder if they have considered a presentation of it accompanied by a slide-show of the story?

André Jolivet in
uniform, 1940.
After the interval came another work which had been played by Trio Ondine at that earlier concert, André Jolivet’s Petite Suite from 1941, and the further hearing confirmed the memorability, contrast, and individuality of its five short movements—from the cool, grey landscape of the first through the bird-call fluttering of the second, the whirling dance of the third, and the somber descent of the fourth, to the final cheery round-dance. As so often with these concerts, Trio Ondine’s skill and commitment prompted the desire to explore more music by the composer in question.

Georg Philipp Telemann,
engraving c. 1745.
The only step back beyond 20th and 21st-century confines came with the Trio Sonata in G minor TWV 42:g7 by Telemann (what is probably the biggest output from one composer known to music history justifies, presumably, the most complex composer-catalog numbering system…?) All four of its brief movements were characterized by smooth counterpoint between the flute and viola, with the harp underpinning standing in for the continuo part, and made a refreshing change of style before what was the first and surely still the greatest masterpiece for this combination of instruments.

Claude Debussy.

I cannot imagine any recital of music by flute, viola, and harp omitting Debussy’s Sonata L. 145, and again this was the second time I’d heard Trio Ondine play it. They must have done the piece on many other occasions, but here, at the end of the concert and thoroughly warmed up, they performed it with all the fervor of a new discovery.

The extraordinarily idiomatic and original writing for all three instruments throughout, and the fascinating construction of the wide-ranging first movement in particular, yield new insights at each rehearing. Despite being more than a century old, this penultimate work of a composer already mortally ill and in straitened personal circumstances, composed amidst the tumult of war, still sounded the most forward-looking of all the works presented.

Trio Ondine’s wide-ranging recital made a great conclusion to Robert Thies’ inaugural season as the SBCMS Artistic Director, and this fortunate local resident, for one, is looking forward eagerly to what he has in store for us in the upcoming 2019-2020 schedule.

 ---ooo--- 

South Bay Chamber Music Society, Pacific Unitarian Church, Rancho Palos Verdes, 3pm, Sunday, April 28, 2019.
Photos: The performers: Courtesy SBCMS; Lucas Richman: Composer Facebook page; Ravel: Enoch Editions; David Walther: Fatrock Ink Music Publishers; Dave Volpe: Composer website; Jolivet: Composer website; Telemann: Wikimedia Commons; Debussy: last.fm.

Mozart and Korngold: Mature Prodigies at Long Beach


Simone Porter (violin) and the LBSO under Eckart Preu play Korngold's Violin Concerto.

REVIEW

Long Beach Symphony at the Terrace Theater, Long Beach Performing Arts Center
DAVID J BROWN

On paper the program for the LBSO’s April concert—Mozart’s final symphony and a Korngold concerto, each preceded by a short orchestral piece as different from each other as their (living) composers are—seemed a not particularly coherent set. This impression was however totally refuted by the performance, which for me turned out to be one of the best-planned and executed thus far in Eckart Preu’s tenure as Music Director.

Arvo Pärt in 1977.
It was clear from the outset that we were in for something special. Maestro Preu, arms raised to begin Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten (1977), held off doing so until near-absolute audience silence was achieved. It was also clear that his musicians were 100% with him when that cue, at last made, triggered a truly ppp stroke on the A bell, followed by a second and then a third at the achingly protracted intervals specified in Pärt’s score, and finally the divided 1st violins’ initial chord, muted, high up, and as ear-ticklingly close to the brink of inaudibility as the bell.

In his pre-concert talk, Preu briefly discussed Pärt's "tintinnabuli" musical language and then analyzed in welcome detail what makes this brief masterpiece so compelling: simply a descending scale of A minor repeated again and again, overlapping and with longer and longer note-values as it is carried down through the strings from the first violins to the double-basses, all punctuated by the long-spaced bell-strokes increasing to a central fff and then diminishing again as the strings eventually ground themselves on low E and C.

All this is virtually impossible for the ear to follow note-by-note, but the effect is mesmerizing: a shimmering aural waterfall of lament, not only, one gathers, just for Britten’s death, but also for the hopes of Pärt, born in 1935 and still living in his native and then-Soviet Estonia, to meet the “only contemporary composer whose musical outlook, he believed, resembled his own,” as Wikipedia puts it. Either way, the LBSO strings covered themselves in glory: I don’t remember previously seeing audience members on their feet applauding the concert opener, just six minutes into the program…

Posthumous portrait of Mozart
by Barbara Kraft, 1819,
The full strings stayed on the platform for Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 in C Major K. 551 “Jupiter,” a clear indication that Maestro Preu’s view of it was going to be expansive and forward-looking, rather than emphasizing its Classical roots with period-manner exactitude.

His tempo for the opening Allegro vivace was appropriately spacious, given the size of forces and the Terrace Theatre’s not exactly analytical acoustic, with dynamic contrasts in the alternately gruff and tender opening emphasized for maximum drama. Any suspicion of broad-brush imprecision, though, was banished by, among other things, the massed violins’ meticulously delineated phrase-endings.

His pre-concert remarks concentrated on the finale, which introduces no less than five themes eventually to be woven together in a fugal coda that he likened to one of those wonderful M. C. Escher drawings of staircases with spatially impossible interconnections (right). Paradoxically though, this performance emphasized the counterbalancing weight of the first movement in its spaciousness and dynamism, as well as Maestro Preu’s inclusion of the long exposition repeat (he also observed that of the finale, though not the rarely-done second half repeat).

M. C. Escher: Relativity.
Between the broad architecture of the first movement and the intricate high-wire juggling act of the finale, the cool poise and eloquence of the Andante cantabile slow movement and the swirling Viennese-waltzy Menuetto (as it came across in the expansive big-orchestra guise of this performance) seemed suspended like two single-layer decks of a bridge between multi-leveled support towers.

Fairly inarguably, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) and Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) were, together with Felix Mendelssohn, the most astonishing child prodigies in music history. However, the “Jupiter” symphony of 1788 and Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D major Op. 35, completed in 1945, were high points toward the ends of their multi-faceted mature careers: the symphony along with Nos. 39 and 40 came after most of Mozart’s long series of piano concertos and amid the final flowering of his operatic genius, while Korngold’s concerto followed the majority of his Hollywood movie scores and heralded the few but important concert works still to come.

Simone Porter.
Time was when the knee-jerk critical reaction to this concerto was that it was “film music,” to which—given that some of its themes were indeed drawn from four of his movie scores—a Brahmsian “any fool can see that!” retort might be appropriate. But Korngold’s genius was that he could reshape and combine those ideas so that they seemed naturally to belong to each other, not a patchwork but integral constituents of a seamlessly conceived whole.

At the start of his talk Eckart Preu had interviewed Simone Porter, who would play the concerto in the second half, and she spoke as warmly about the intricacies and subtleties of the solo part as he did about the resourcefulness of Korngold’s orchestration. Their collaboration in the performance was a joy from beginning to end.

Anyone who knew the concerto just from Heifetz’s pioneering recording, with its urgent tempi for all three movements, would have had a shock here. Ms. Porter’s projection of her soaring opening theme was slower and more ruminative that any I’ve previously heard, and the many subsequent occasions when Korngold’s sheer chutzpah has the violin leap an octave or more became in her hands moments of far-seeking aspiration, perfectly clean in intonation and the antithesis of vulgar display.

Korngold in 1942.
As for orchestra and conductor, in the “virtually pulseless” (as he had described them) first two movements, they seemed to relish every gorgeous harmonic twist and turn, delineating clearly all the layered strands of Korngold’s iridescent orchestration and, in the central Romance, projecting a limpidly moonlit nocturne in which Ms. Porter’s weaving line glistened like gossamer spider-thread.

In total contrast the finale, somewhere between a sonata-rondo and an informal set of variations on the main theme, drawn from Korngold’s music for The Prince and the Pauper, bounced into ebullient life from the first bar of violin skittering and remained buoyantly airborne until the last roaring horn fanfare. The audience was still on its feet cheering when Ms. Porter on her third return to the platform gave as encore, not a piece of solo pyrotechnics, but a sweetly inward account of one of the double movements from Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B-flat minor BWV 1002. It was perfect.

Osvaldo Golijov, 2010.
The Korngold had been preceded by the “Overture for small orchestra” Sidereus, composed in 2010 by the Argentinian Osvaldo Golijov (b. 1960) to a commission from more American orchestras than you can count on your fingers and toes. I’ve not been too enamored of other Golijov works I’ve heard, but this piece, inspired by observations of the cosmos from Galileo onward, generated real heft over its eight-minute span, with some of the inexorable unpeopled quality of Sibelius in tone-poems like The Oceanides

 Like Korngold in the Violin Concerto, Golijov in Sidereus proved himself adept at creating big sounds from his small forces, with some crunchingly seismic sonorities drawn from just a handful of bass woodwind and brass: “ominous, massive, suspended in time and space,” says the heading on the first page of the score—yes indeed. 

 ---ooo--- 

Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Saturday, April 27, 2018, 8 p.m.
Photos: Performers: Salvador Farfán, Caught in the Moment; Mozart: Wikimedia Commons; Escher: Artsy; Korngold: International Korngold Society; Golijov: Courtesy WBUR Boston.


Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Kafka Under Glass


In the Penal Colony at Long Beach Opera.

REVIEW

Long Beach Opera, Long Beach
JIM RUGGIRELLO

In the Penal Colony (In der Strafkolonie), a short story by Franz Kafka written in 1914 and first published in 1919, is a horrific, complex tale. This lurid exercise, in its operatic manifestation, formed the basis for a collaboration between Long Beach Opera and California Repertory Company, presented for a run from April 25 through May 5, at California State University's Studio Theater.

Long Beach Opera's contribution to the partnership was a presentation of the eponymous Philip Glass work, one the composer referred to as a "chamber opera," for two singers and string quintet, to a libretto by Rudolph Wurlitzer. Cal Rep added eight actors, members of the Rising Scholars Program (a community group for students who have been incarcerated or have family members who have been), who spoke excerpts from interviews with some of the members; quotes were assembled and shaped by playwright Juliette Carrillo. The company's director, Jeff Janisheski, staged this production.

Those quotes, and some daunting facts and statistics printed in the program and flashed on the supertitles screen prior to the production, served to illustrate a huge and powerful prison system, an inhuman operation that features unacceptable treatment of its inmates.

Glass' little opera (it runs about 85 minutes without intermission) and the contemporary associations engendered by Cal Rep don't really fit together. The eight actors participate in the telling of the opera's tale, but also speak about their personal experiences within today's prison system over Glass' instrumental interludes. Juxtaposed, the two elements somehow combine for a gripping musical theater experience, one that maintains a consistent level of tension and drama from start to finish.

Kafka's story takes place on a prison island. A foreign Visitor arrives, and is briefed by an Officer on the operation of a diabolical machine. The "apparatus," as he calls it, subjects its victims to literally harrowing torture; it features needles like a harrow, which slow inscribe the victim's crime and sentence into his skin. The entire process is supposed to take twelve hours, with the intended result being the prisoner feeling a sense of redemption and release during the slow torture and eventual death.

Image result for franz kafka
Franz Kafka.
To make a short story long, this method of punishment was devised by the former commandant of the prison, and most of the opera is taken up with the Officer's defense of and justification for the method, his idolization of the former commandant, and his fear that the new one does not share his enthusiasm. The Visitor is by turns intrigued, befuddled, and then defiant, as he refuses to endorse this method of punishment to the new commandant as the officer desires. When the Officer sees his cause is hopeless, he frees a prisoner and climbs into the machine himself, hoping to experience the promised redemption and release. The machine malfunctions and kills him quickly, and in this production somewhat gruesomely.

There's a lot more to Kafka's tale than this simple narrative. It turns out that everything the Officer says and believes is a lie; the former commandant was not a visionary genius, the machine does not function perfectly, the prisoners do not feel a sense of redemption while, or after, being tortured to death, etc. On the former commandant's tombstone is inscribed an allusion to his resurrection, so there are religious connotations. Issues of morality and justice are raised without being exactly resolved. The Visitor is defiant, but not from any high-minded courageous stand; he just doesn't want to get involved, and doesn't feel qualified to express an opinion. It's complicated.

Zeffin Quinn Hollis (l.) and Doug Jones (r.).
Anyway, as they say, how did I like the show? As usual with Long Beach Opera, the singers were exemplary. Tenor Doug Jones and baritone Zeffin Quinn Hollis are both veterans with the company. Jones' Visitor projected a sort of stubborn integrity, and was resolute, intelligent, and somewhat conflicted. Hollis, as the Officer, began with a smarmy sense of his own importance, but gradually displayed the vulnerability of his tortured soul. Both possess fine voices, sang impressively, and gave compelling performances. Morgan Pimental was a silent, stolid presence as the Guard. The eight actors spoke their lines clearly and with heartfelt sincerity, and a couple of them took turns portraying the apparatus' poor victim.

As a group, they also took the role of the apparatus itself, simulating the thing by surrounding a gurney and extending their fingers, claw-like. It was effective, if sometimes awkward, as was the rest of Janisheski's staging. Danila Korogodsky's set was a glass enclosure, that took up half the stage, leaving little room for Hollis and Jones to do much but move back and forth. Ladders on each side of the enclosure, although mentioned in the tale, served no clear function here.

Vee Delgado's costumes and Martha Carter's lighting were stark and simple. When Hollis had to enter the enclosure and sing from there, there was no change in sound quality, which I assume is to the credit of Bob Christian's sound design. Andreas Mitisek, LBO's artistic and managing director, conducted.

Philip Glass.
This is not one of Glass' best works. His musical language is familiar by now: the usual combination of repetitive busyness and the occasional serene, calm moment, over which the singers declaim, recitative-like. The Officer has some extended monologues, and one longs for a tune, or at least a little variety. To quote Abraham Lincoln, people who like this sort of thing will find that it's the sort of thing they like.

Long Beach Opera is known for offbeat, provocative productions of both unusual and standard works. (This is also the sixth work by Glass they have presented.) California Repertory Company, in residence at CSULB, is known for theater that explores themes in a socially significant way.

Both companies are risk-takers. Together, they joined forces to present Kafka's grim tale while drawing attention to a burning contemporary issue, and the risk paid off; the entire run quickly sold out.

--ooo--

"In the Penal Colony," Long Beach Opera and California Repertory  Company, California State University, Long Beach Studio Theater, April 25 through May 5, 2019.
Images: Production Photos, Keith Ian Polokoff; Franz Kafka, Biography.com; Philip Glass, artist website.