Here, There & Everywhere: Micah Altshuler Sings About A La La Dream…

July 31, 2012

By Don Heckman

When iRoM’s London-based, European correspondent Ella Leya told me she’d written a song for her ambitious teen-age son, Micah, I was intrigued.  I knew Ella was a gifted singer/songwriter – her songs have been featured on such films and TV shows as Ocean’s Twelve, PU-239, My Sassy Girl, Dirty Sexy Money, and Samantha Who.  But I didn’t know that musical ambition had arrived in the next generation.

When she sent me a video of Micah doing the song, I was even more intrigued.  I’m not familiar with the music aimed at young teen demographics, and I was surprised by the relatively mature subject matter of the song – until I discovered that today’s young teen music is not about prom nights and puppy love.  And Micah, in his stoic, but charming way, tells the song’s story with exactly the right trace of detached intensity.   Here’s a colorfully atmospheric video of Micah and the song.  Posted on a special day.

Happy birthday Micah…

A Russian/Californian in London: The Royal Ballet Performs “Birthday Offering,” “A Month In The Country” and “Les Noces” at Covent Garden

July 9, 2012

By Ella Leya, iRoM’s European Correspondent

LondonThe rain’s been on and off since April here. Actually mostly on. But surprisingly, no complains on my part. Maybe a little bit, when I see the same perfect 72 degrees and sunshine on the Laguna Beach weather page on my iPhone.Pre-Olympic London is magnificent nonetheless. My favorite Regents Park, St. James, Hyde Park and their numerous smaller siblings on every other corner drown in lush greens, the rose gardens named after every British Princess emit their royal aromas, and the streets decorated with colorful international regalia are all elegance and grandeur.

Royal Opera House Covent Garden

And of course another feast at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, where the past is ever-present. The busts of Rudolph Nureyev and Dame Margot Fonteyn always bring the sense of awe. Especially when I watch the ballets from the stage seats, next to the dancers running on and off the stage. Realizing that the movements, emotions, forms have be carried on through the years.

On Saturday, it was a triple-bill: two shorts – Birthday Offering to the music of Alexander Glazunov and A Month in the Country, music by Frederic Chopin — choreographed by Frederick Ashton, and a modernist piece Les Noces, music and words by Igor Stravinsky, choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska.

All three different but equally mesmerizing.

“Birthday Offering”

Birthday Offering:  incredibly demanding technically, stunning in its refined style, allowing seven ballerinas to demonstrate their individual personas in a series of solos, duets and ensemble. Some forty years ago one of those ballerinas was Fonteyn accompanied by Nureyev. Yesterday the great prima Tamara Rojo danced her last solo before leaving the company, her eyes in tears as she stood at the curtain call in front of a full house, the thundering ovations refusing to let go this amazing ballerina.

“A Month in the Country”

A Month in the Country demanded a different type of technique – acting. An adaptation of Turgenev’s play about love found and love lost with a distinctly Russian nostalgic flavor. Zenaida Yanowsky stole my heart in the role of a bored wife who falls for a much younger man. Her long, powerful and lyrical arms and legs, her facial expressions reminiscent of silent movie females, seemed to recite the poignant lines of Turgenev’s prose (one of my most beloved authors) as poetry.

“Les Noces”

And then came Les Noces. A bizarre, brilliant, piece that could have been a Wassily Kandinsky painting in progress. Purely Russian, transforming a wedding scene into a sacred ritual bending humans into geometrical shapes.  Building up the dynamics and synchronicity to the point where the audience feels as drunk as the characters on stage. Absolutely breathtaking! It could have been thought and constructed only by the Queen of Dance, Branislava Nijinska, the sister of Vaslav, and one of the five choreographers who worked for Sergei Diaghilev’s legendary Ballets Russes.

After the end of the show, as we spilled into the white night of summer London (well, maybe not as white as St. Petersburg’s nights) we joined a festive, hip, happy crowd of Londonders and visitors.  With music pouring out of inviting pubs, restaurants and clubs, sleep wasn’t an option.

Performance photos courtesy of the Royal Ballet. 

Interior photo of  the Royal Opera House by Ella Leya.

A Russian/Californian in London: “Madame Butterfly” by the English National Opera

May 16, 2012

With this post, writer/composer/singer Ella Leya begins her International Review of Music reports on the cultural view from London and beyond.

By Ella Leya

London.  It’s been a few months since I left the gold-and-sapphire paradise of the Southern California Rivera and arrived at the rainy, smoky, dressed-in-tarnished-iron and moldy stone banks of river Thames. A move much desired and anticipated since the first time I crossed the Atlantic Ocean twenty years ago – an emigrant from the then Soviet Union – and landed in… well, Norfolk, Virginia. Neatly cut grass lawns, smiling faces, suburban flare – everything I had never seen before, neither in my hometown Baku, nor during my jazz tenure in Moscow. But not exactly what I had envisioned to be America.

Soon after, I progressed to Chicago, IL., then Laguna Beach, CA, all while missing dear old Europe with its cultural abundance and familiar non-American uncultivated lifestyle. Of course, in the process I failed to notice how American I had become. Indeed, we humans make those kinds of transformations better than lizards – shed our tails at dusk and grow a new one before dawn.

Mine grew so California lavish and Chicago comfy that it instantly got clipped as a part of London’s no-nonsense welcome. A huge, self-absorbed, swarming beehive of people from all over the world – half from Arabia and the other half from Eastern Europe.  Young, ruthless, with strong fangs, indoctrinated with Mark Zuckerberg ambitions and quite often blessed with Maria Sharapova looks. All going about their business amid a nucleus of rigid, proper, Elizabeth the First’s England.

I tried to escape into long desired and missed cultural abundance, but got drowned in a big puddle the moment I stepped foot in the West End. My head spun as I tried to follow a kaleidoscope of theater bills with their repetitious quotes from the same three papers, in which a handful of critics gloated with praise – “the best ever,” “the first time ever,” “triumph of theatrical experience,” “the most innovating,” “the never before seen…”

How in the world could I make a decision? After all, In California, I was accustomed to a schedule of four-great-dances and a couple of concerts packaged for me and delivered to the conveniently nearby Orange County Performing Arts Center.

Drenched and frustrated, I came back to my London flat and began packing my suitcase, ready to depart for the safe enclave of my home in Laguna Beach. But, as I was ready to send Time Out London magazine into the trash, a beautiful picture caught my attention. A woman wrapped in red silks against the red glow of a sunset. Madame Butterfly.   Opera by Puccini, performed by the English National Opera at London’s Coliseum. In English.

What? A Puccini opera in English? Didn’t make sense to me.

The London Coliseum from the Dress Circle

But I went. Last Saturday. And London will never be the same for me.

First of all – the Coliseum, a majestic palace and London’s largest theater.  It rose at the beginning of the 20th century on St. Martin’s Lane, featuring my favorite art deco elements. And it felt like my new home the moment I landed at my seat in the center of the Dress Circle.

Mary Plazas as Cio-Cio San

Then the magic began. With that very image that had spurred my interest. Mary Plazas as Cio-Cio-San, dressed in a traditional kimono, in a slow, eloquent dance with two golden fans, emerged on stage, out of a red glow of sunlight.  A beautiful butterfly, her wings caught in the flames of love, trailing, being wrapped into long red silks of blood. With no music. With lots of air. An introduction to the show and a quick synopsis of Madame Butterfly’s story.

The captain of an American ship, while stationed in Japan, marries a young geisha for convenience. Soon the captain, portrayed effectively by John Fanning, departs for America. For three years Cio-Cio-San longs for his return, bears their son, then gives the child up to be raised in American prosperity by her wretched, disloyal husband and his new lawful American wife. While she commits hara-kiri.

The production was sweepingly cinematic.  Not like on a huge Cinerama screen but in a three-dimensional way, with no sense of stage limitations. And minimalist to the bare bone. With no palaces, forests, and ships cut out of plywood and propped on stage to look fancy. Nothing but the dark, shiny, ascending floorboards of the stage.  A large, sloped mirror ceiling reflecting the characters.  Brilliant light bursting through a rectangular, letter box gap, rivaling the sunset and the sea, with a few moving Japanese screens and flying lanterns. And, of course, gorgeous traditional Japanese costumes detailing every flower in a blossoming spring garden.

But the character who stole my heart was Madame Butterfly’s son, a puppet manipulated by three ascetic figures in black. So tender and expressive were his movements as he picked up the flowers for his mother, rested his head in her lap, stared lovingly at her, that I had tears in my eyes, wishing for my own son to communicate even a small portion of that same tenderness.

Not once during two and a half hours of the show did I question the sincerity of Cio-Cio-San’s love. (Though, once or twice, when her American lover aimed at a high vibrato note, I wondered why she would love him.  But that’s me – not a big fan of the leading tenors.)  Nor did I question Puccini’s tuneful melodrama, in part thanks to the smooth, sophisticated cruising through the score by the ENO Orchestra with charming Oleg Caetani at its helm.

But most of all because of the genius of the late Anthony Minghella, who directed this stunning masterpiece, together with his wife, Hong Kong-born choreographer Carolyn Choa. Unfortunately, it was Anthony Minghella’s only opera, Instead, he’s been known and  hailed internationally as the Oscar-winning director and writer of English Patient and BAFTA-winning The Talented Mr. Ripley, two of the most captivating films of the last fifteen years.

As I was leaving the Coliseum, into the sun and the crowds of people in St. Martin’s Lane, I stopped by the box office and bought tickets for every show of the English National Opera and Ballet for the rest of the season. A good place to start sinking my teeth into big, wondrous London.


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