It was not a complete fiasco. There were moments when the performers were permitted to sing, play and recite without too many obstructions. Ryan McKinny and Julia Bullock have commanding voices and are electric presences. Pricilla Pointer gave a creditable performance of Rockabye, as did Barry McGovern in Ohio Impromptu.
It was not a terrible idea, complimenting Schubert’s concentrated dramatic songs with Beckett’s concentrated micro-dramas. The problem came in the attempts to blend them together.
Act Without Words II was well performed by Barry McGovern and Miles Anderson. So well done they could have risked doing it without Schubert’s Impromptu #3 in the background. Since when is Schubert background music?
And then, how can anybody think the right way to end Catastrophe is with the Protagonist bursting into a magnificent, full-bodied rendition of “Gravedigger’s Homesickness”? The whole point of Beckett’s chilling parable is the character’s tragic muteness. It’s beyond belief. Did anybody read the play?
Likewise, the perfect regularity of the the three ladies in Come and Go was destroyed when Flo stepped aside to sing “Laughter and Weeping.” Bullock was wonderful, but why spoil Beckett?
And then there were the even worse moments, when McKinney and Bullock were required to sing with props from other Beckett plays—the mound from Happy Days, the trash cans from Endgame—treated like gimmicks in a cheesy review.
Is it any surprise that the Beckett play that gave the evening it’s title—the one Beckett piece that specifies the use of Schubert’s music—was not presented?
I was unprepared for the orchestra. It blasts you out of your seat. Strauss unleashes one outrageous salvo after the next. It’s glorious. I couldn’t resist it if I tried. But it also makes sense, dramatically. He never just throws notes out. He always makes sure you know what’s going on. I realized this is the secret to his popularity, why his dissonance is appreciated and that of Schoenberg is not. Every jolt has a dramatic purpose. He never gets ahead of the audience. I get why people love him.
But the drama itself? It’s not a drama at all, but a black comedy. The L.A. Opera audience got it—there was a lot of laughter. Both Wilde and Strauss were having fun on two levels. One was the comedy of an impossible, rebellious daughter cutting loose. For Wilde, Salome is another name for Cecily Cardew, the too-bright no-longer-little troublemaker.
Patricia Racette was excellent, making herself heard over the hooting orchestra, dancing, doing a strip-tease and fondling a decapitated head for twenty minutes. What a workout! This role is not for sissies!
The other level is the comedy of Authority struggling to hang on. Narraboth (the excellent Issachah Savage) gets what’s happening early on. Then no less than John the Baptist (also excellent Tómas Tómasson) arrives to proclaim that Herod’s whole world is finished. And Herod (excellent Alan Glassman) really is the protagonist. He suffers the fate of all fairytale characters that get their wishes granted.
It was a bright, clear Sunday afternoon. A teaser of a show—barely an hour long—but it was free, the atmosphere was festive, and the dancing exhilarating. Accumulation (1971) was like watching disco dancing in precisely synchronized slow motion.
Watermotor (1978) was engrossing, disturbing and funny all at once. It starts with a chorus line of women executing the same series of movements in synchronization. It goes on in perfect order until a guy grabs a woman and repositions her, as she continues with her routine. Then another guy repositions another woman. And so on. And the guys kept putting the women into positions that complicated their routines. They get knotted up, their legs and arms in each other’s way. It was satirical (this is real life) and exciting (where is he going to put her next?) and sweet (the dancers would crack up).
Dance as alertness, discipline and fun. I was still humming with the reverberations when, a week later, the news came that, Brown was gone.
When the concert ended I said, “We are so lucky to have such an amazing orchestra in town!” Jaap van Zweden, the soon-to-be music director of the New York Philharmonic conducted, and he and the LA Phil really sang.
Beethoven’s Fifth unspools from the clearly defined cell. It’s almost minimalism. But it’s the opposite of pattern-making: there’s an urgency to it. The stately second movement is like a diagram of grandeur—there’s the pomp, but it is ordered to symmetries beyond any specific occasion.
Then came the contrast of the Shostakovich Fifth, in which nothing is clear. Is it earnest? Is it ironic? There are moments of jubilant ruckus, and moments when the ruckus seems presented as a nightmare. He follows his moods where they take him—an assertion of individuality that seems heroic as Beethoven’s.
It was a funny evening, with the hall packed with visiting high-school band members from across the nation. And then four days later came the bombshell that JvZ was taking Deborah Borda back with him to NYC!
The sequence wasn’t rigorously chronological, but the paintings were given a lot of room to breathe. The second and third rooms were stunning. It had a similar quiet power that was similar—though different—from the Agnes Martins that just preceded them in those spaces.
Rectangles within rectangles, frames within frames. Blasts of high-keyed, not very natural colors, especially the tart contrast of aqua and lemon.
Sometimes the mood is sober and calm. Rectangles that interlock and fit together with a pleasing snap. Sometimes the mood is a bit more kinetic. A low-key, droll touch of op art. The push/pull, foreground/background implies not only space but time. There is a hint of sequence: first reading, second, third ….
I was struck by the marks of age on many of the paintings: dings, smudges, creases. More importantly, there was evidence that the paintings were made less-than-immaculate: clumps of paint from a loaded brush.
The painting (designated #7, 1970) at first glance seems merely nice. Waves of visitors to the BCAM galleries at LACMA gave it an approving nod, and passed on. Pleased, no doubt, to have spotted an inoffensive artifact of mid-century refinement.
But for those who lingered, the experience evolved, acquiring overtones. The more time you spend with #7, 1970, the less uncomplicatedly nice it feels. The unity disintegrated into discrete parts; the straight edges were revealed to be only as straight as careful hand-craft can make them, not intimidatingly crisp or clean. The picture surface that seemed uniform is revealed to have contrasting matte and semi-gloss finishes, …. Moreover, the flat planes of pure color resolve, on inspection, into horizontal bands of distinct brushstrokes.
These pictures were discovered rather than pre-determined. Their final appearance was the result of fine-tuning, adjustments by hand and eye. Immediate responses, in the moment.
The catalog is a handsome, welcome addition to the literature on JM. However it seems the case with McLaughlin’s work that reproductions capture the design, but falsify the actual experience. And the conventions for writing about the McLaughlin are fixed as a product safety warning. The required elements include …
Michael Duncan’s essay “Driving Home in Neutral” stands out. It starts as a treasure hunt through the McLaughlin archives, and ends with a serious attempt to articulate what looking at McLaughlin’s paintings feels like:
The bare-bones nature of the works leads to awareness of phenomena as basic as light and dark, enclosure and void, elevation and descent. The works also invite contemplation of the more abstract concepts such as the disturbance of symmetry and the differences between the continuous and severed, the parallel and the intersecting, the partial and the whole. These visual and perceptual tropes are the building blocks of the objective and natural worlds, inherent in such essential phenomena as the earth’s horizon the contrast of light and shadow, human erectness, and skin. These primal concepts also relate to fundamental issues of social life: community, enmity, servitude, leadership, and partnership.
Though I was only able to see Act 1 last Friday, it was clear that this was one of the best things the LA Phil has ever done. Could be the best semi-staged production. Definitely the best video and live music presentation.
It’s a glorious work. Adams realized that the highpoint of every classic opera is the mad scene, so he wrote an opera in which every character is mad, and every aria is a mad scene. The music expresses the manic high of grandeur and power each felt about him- or her-self.
Ryan McKinny (Nixon), John Matthew Myers (Mao), Joélle Harvey (Pat Nixon), Joo Won Kang, Chou En-Lai were terrific. As Mao’s secretaries/bodyguards, Lacey Jo Benter, Renée Rapier and Rachael Wilson provided a scary/comic update of the Three Ladies from Magic Flute.
The Master Chorale sounded great and impersonated mobs and banquet guests effectively.
The staging by director Elkhanah Pulitzer with scenic designer Alexander V. Nichols was minimal—by necessity—but ingenious, defining distinct spaces for each character.
There was continuous video background, but for once it was lovely and appropriate—if a bit busy when the live performers were also performing. And no wonder. This morning in the program I saw it was by Bill Morrison (The Miners’ Hymns, Decasia) who is the master of this genre. I have hated L.A. Phil’s experiments in video accompaniment, but if they can get Morrison to do them from now on, sign me up for all of them.
Abduction should be fast and funny. But maintaining the breezy tempo is a problem, because the music keeps stopping. And unfortunately the dialogue is never up to Mozart’s level. (How could it?) It is a lesson in the importance of continuo and recitative, which seem silly extras until they’re absent.
Updating the setting from Imaginary Ottoman Empire to the Orient Express circa the Jazz Age was a promising concept. But they never pulled it off. The principles were not clever clowns, so most of the physical humor fell flat.
The exception was So Young Park as the confidante/servant. She was not only on top of Mozart’s exacting vocal music, but also elegantly delivered the slapstick shenanigans devised by director James Robinson. She even managed to lure Morris Robinson (the bad guy Osmin stuck on her) into superior clowning. They made the show. Allen Moyer’s cutaway railroad cars were cute from the Loge, but you probably had to be in the Orchestra section to get the full effect.
Abduction is a tough piece to stage, but the music is worth it. Mozart presents the emotions of his characters with complete conviction. Konstanze’s “Welcher Wechsel herrscht...Traurigkeit ward mir zum Loose” is the quintessence of despair. The music embodies this despair, with complete sympathy.
But at the same time, the subtlety is so exacting, that the music, as it evolves, presents the despair not as a single state, but as a progression of finely discriminated, varied states. It is not Despair, but a specific story of the progress of a specific despair—this woman’s experience, in this place, for this period of time. Konstanze’s situation is not a single, fixed thing. It touches self-pity, then regret, then defiance, then flies off in heroic postures, … and so on.
This mutability constitutes, for Mozart, hope. The music does not pretend despair is unreal, but suggests, tactfully, that it is temporary.
Love raptures and despair are of course still in vogue—no translation necessary. But Mozart also gives Kontanze and Belmonte "Welch ein Geschick! O Qual der Seele"—an opportunity to proclaim that their love is stronger than death. This is not such a popular idea. Mozart treats it with sympathy, but also arranges matters so that this bravado is not put to the test.
L.A. Phil demonstrated a range of unflashy, ardent virtuosities over the last two weeks of January.
First the All-Reich celebration on the 17th. I needed this. Even better, the Mallet Quartet (2009) might be Reich’s most cheerful work. There is just enough dryness, relentlessness and repetition to retain credibility. But it’s also more in touch with pop traditions, from do-wop on. The ending is ecstatic.
The newest item on the program, Pulse (2015) doesn’t care about credibility at all. It’s not only pop, but light pop, a Reichian version of Michel Legrand’s Umbrellas of Cherborg.
In Tehillim (1981), the Synergy Vocals female quartet of singers was beyond praise. Precise, warm, animated, incisive. I can’t imagine a better performance. And what music! The best vocalists-plus-ensemble music since Mahler.
Then on the 28th there was a matinee with Emanuel Ax. Ax’s amiable stage presence dispels every hint of drama. His art hides his art. He makes so little show of his performance, he tricks you into thinking its no big deal. But it’s an enormous deal.
For instance, I can’t imagine a better presentation of Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto (1942). His command of the music is absolute. He was on top of all of the various moods: angst, festivity, ferocity, bemusement, introspection, exclamation. The cadenzas were especially beautiful—the one after the big brass explosion, and the other at the end of the 3rd movement, before the quick-step 4th begins.
For all its serialism, it’s no more challenging than a Richard Strauss tone poem. And a good deal better humored than that. The audience roared its approval.
I can’t help think that AS heard be-bop or at least some progressive jazz. It’s pop as pop as he ever got (after the cabaret songs). It’s also a film score, but instead of an expressionist cinematic nightmare, this time to an atmospheric American noir thriller.
It’s a work of reconciliation. It’s morning. Yawning and looking out at the new day. City not countryside. Irritations, demands, but not torment. Rather sweet. Almost Elmer or Leonard Bernstein. Mid-century blues. You can absolutely imagine Oscar Levant (to whom we owe its conception) playing it.
The concert began with Accompaniment to a Film Scene (1930). Dudamel and the L.A. Phil delineated each gesture, every contrast and transition with nuance and grace. It is breathlessly fast-paced, the moods shifting abruptly from tenderness to terror, pathos to exhilaration. And each passage—or scene—is densely packed with dissonance, polyrhythm, polyphony. There’s a whole epic here. The implied movie is a tumultuous Fritz Lang thriller.
Then Ax did Mozart’s Piano Concerto #14. His Mozart is not a proto-expressionist, but always in keeping. There’s a focus on the whole, rather than the most theatrically effective bits.
The concert ended with Dudamel leading a reduced L.A. Phil in Mozart’s Paris symphony (#31). This was a surprise. I didn’t think Dudamel or the Phil had any special affinity for Mozart. But Ax’s example obviously informed their performance. It avoided obvious show-off stuff, in favor giving the whole work unity. The rhythmic liveliness was especially marked—it danced along—but not too much. It was earnest and warm, but not headlong. Lucid, but not pedantic. More, please!