Ballet: The National Ballet of Canada’s “Romeo and Juliet” at the Dorothy Chandler

July 13, 2014

By Jane Rosenberg

From opening curtain to final bows, choreographer Alexi Ratmansky, along with his set and costume designer, Richard Hudson, and lighting designer, Jennifer Tipton, hurls us into the very heart of a fifteenth century Renaissance painting in his Romeo and Juliet, created for the National Ballet of Canada and premiering at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion this weekend.

With simple yet evocative sets and exquisite costumes, this production has the immediacy of a Pinturicchio fresco. That artist had the ability to breathe life and personality into the daily doings of the contemporary characters who populated his paintings. Like Pinturicchio, Ratmansky has the unique gift of creating personality, not out of paint, of course, but out of movement. In Ratmansky’s world, legs, feet, arms, torso all speak a language, carrying within them humor, whimsy, pathos, and purpose.

Guillaume Cote as Romeo and Elena Lobsanova as Juliet

For me Ratmansky’s most formidable gift is his ability to infuse movement with wit and levity. He embraces the human spirit in his choreography by exposing our foibles, weaknesses, and desires – those qualities that make us quintessentially human. This aspect of his artistry works to advantage in the early scenes of Romeo and Juliet when the irrepressible youth of Romeo, Mercutio, Benvolio, and Juliet is in full flower.

Everywhere we turn, whether in the Market Square, at the Capulet’s ball, or in Act One, Scene Two when we meet Juliet and her nurse, the exuberance and optimism of youth shines with truth. In fact, this very exuberance – this love of life and sense of immortality (so brilliantly exemplified in the dancing of Piotr Stanczyk’s Mercutio) — makes the inevitable tragedy all the more painful.

Guillaume Cote as Romeo and Elena Lobsanova as Juliet

It is in the more serious moments of Shakespeare’s drama where I felt something lacking in the ballet. Perhaps I longed for less movement, less personality, and more stillness. When Guillaume Côté’s superbly danced and deeply felt Romeo partners his Juliet – a childlike Elena Lobsanova – in the post nuptial scene of Act Three, there is a clarity of intention so vivid in the Kenneth MacMillan version that seems clouded here.

In some part it is due to the performance of Lobsanova – a charming, lithe Juliet full of winning delicacy and grace but unable to transcend childish love to give a convincing portrayal of an awakened woman, tortured by overwhelming passion and her inability to enter into her marriage with Romeo in the full light of day.

Guillaume Cote as Romeo and Elena Lobsanova as Juliet

Much has been written about the age and inexperience of Lobsanova, a second soloist at the National Ballet of Canada when Ratmansky chose her for his Juliet. Now a first soloist, she has been dancing the role for three years. But youth is not a prerequisite for playing Juliet: Alessandra Ferri, at forty, danced Juliet, and her indelible performance was the pinnacle of sexual abandon and dramatic and artistic accomplishment.

It is with the portrayal of Romeo, Mercutio, and Benvolio’s friendship where Ratmansky reaches the heights, as well as with his inventive patterns and stylistic innovations in the crowd and ballroom scenes. His choreography for the three young men is full of unique partnerings, buoyant lifts, and fanciful footwork. His scenes of swordplay, whether between Tybalt and Mercutio or Tybalt and Romeo have the dash of an Errol Flynn movie minus the clichés. In fact, swords are used repeatedly throughout the ballet. In the ballroom scene’s “Dance of the Knights,” the men of the Capulet house dance without the women but with their swords – a militant note that foreshadows the violence to come and is tribal and primitive, conjuring a feudal society where death is a constant threat.

It is followed by the noble dance of the women, which has a civilizing effect on the room – a room arranged with the grandeur of Veronese’s The Feast in the House of Levi. Though Romeo and Juliet is a drama about men’s violence and its devastating effects, women are not merely passive onlookers in Ratmansky’s production. They threaten, cajole, and stand their ground beside their men. It is for them, however, to mourn the loss of their husbands and sons.

In another beautifully realized moment at the ball, reminiscent of the bride and groom lifted on chairs over the heads of the guests at Jewish weddings, Juliet is lifted by Paris, as simultaneously, Romeo is held aloft by Mercutio and Benvolio. The two future lovers lock eyes as they repeatedly soar above the heads of the crowd. Exquisite details of this sort abound in the ballet, but they are the very details that ultimately intrude on the forward momentum to the inevitable tragedy. Ratmansky has created a fully realized Renaissance world but one where the joy of daily life takes precedent over the mythic tragedy of feuding houses.

Romeo and Juliet illustration by Jane Rosenberg

Romeo and Juliet illustration by Jane Rosenberg

The atmosphere of the ballet, whether choreographed by MacMillan, Lavrovsky, Cranko, Neumeier, or Ashton, owes its life to Prokofiev’s score – one of the greatest ballet scores of the twentieth century. Under the direction of The National Ballet of Canada’s David Briskin, the Los Angeles musicians gave a fine rendition of Prokofiev’s complex music. However, during some of the more percussive sections, the orchestra members under Briskin sounded as if they were keeping time rather than propelling the music forward to create Prokofiev’s explosive sound – one particularly muddy section happening at the opening of Act Three.

There is no doubt as to the quality of the corps of the NBC. And the principals and soloists are standouts in all roles: Piotr Stanczyk, as mentioned, is a pitch perfect Mercutio – so effortless in his humor and swagger that Ratmansky should consider creating a Commedia dell’arte ballet around him. As Benvolio, Robert Stephen is a delightful and potent member of the trio. McGee Maddox’s Tybalt is imposing and lethal. Lorna Geddes’ Nurse is full of fun and vigor, dressed in an abundance of white fabric, which swaddled her from head to toe. The Friar Lawrence of Peter Ottmann is more dance than mime and he deepens the role with his presence. As Lord and Lady Capulet, Etienne Lavigne and Stephanie Hutchison are elegant and moving. And Patrick Lavoie dances Paris with ardor and humanity, particularly in the welcome simplicity of his Act Three, Scene Three solo with Juliet’s four lovely bridesmaids.

One would imagine that if Ratmansky lingered in Canada with his creation, time would season and deepen this Romeo and Juliet, a stunning addition to the pantheon of memorable versions that have gone before.

Photos courtesy of the National Ballet of Canada. 

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To read more dance and music reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.

Jane Rosenberg Dance Book cover.

Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of  DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets.  Jane is also the author and illustrator of SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children

 


Live Opera: The Los Angeles Opera performs “The Magic Flute” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

November 25, 2013

By Jane Rosenberg

There were unusual doings at the Los Angeles Opera Saturday night. If your taste in opera is locked in the past, you should steer away from their new production of The Magic Flute, but if inventive, visually abundant, and clever re-imaginings of classic operas are  your métier, then this is the production for you.

Originating at the Komische Oper Berlin and the brainchild of the director, Barrie Koskyand the English theater team of Suzanne Andrade and Paul Barritt, this is a “Flute” for wholly modern audiences who can process a visual field that was both over-stimulating and incessantly entertaining. That the singers and orchestra were able to shine alongside this most dazzling and somewhat distracting production is a testimony to the beauty of Mozart’s opera, the quality of the first rate cast, and the perfection of the orchestra under James Conlon.

Tamino in the opening scene of "The Magic Flute"

Tamino in the opening scene of “The Magic Flute”

The eighteenth century setting was updated to the nineteen twenties and the result was delightful and insightful all at once. As I watched live singers interact with video projections reminiscent of German Expressionist cinema, American silent comedies,and early Disney animation sprinkled with Max Fleischer’s Betty Boop, I was struck by the feeling that I was experiencing “Flute” with the same wonder and enchantment encountered by the audiences of 1791 at Schikaneder’s Theater auf der Wieden on the outskirts of Vienna. Everything in the LA Opera’s “Flute” felt fresh and new, both modern and timeless all at once. There was an intimacy to the evening, perhaps better suited to a smaller venue than the Dorothy Chandler. Nevertheless, the audience felt embraced in the arms of this tender comedy, which brought the musical genre of German eighteenth century “singspiel” to life in the twenty-first century.

There were strengths and weaknesses to this remarkable assemblage of art and song. Here the silent film allusions worked to the benefit of composer Mozart and librettist Emanuel Schikaneder. Replacing the spoken lines (which brings the musical momentum to a dead halt) with written dialogue emblazoned over the characters heads was inspired.

In these “silent” segments, the written lines were underscored with music from Mozart fantasias for piano, played on an eighteenth century hammerklavier and seamlessly blended into the score. This tightened the action, moved the drama forward briskly, and eliminated the musical dead spots, which made for more engrossing entertainment.

It did come at a price, however. Some narrative points were lost, like Papagena’s transformation from old hag to sexy youth, but it seemed worth the sacrifice if this production can draw and engage an audience beyond the opera crowd.

The Queen of the Night

But the most glaring mistake came in the rendering of the Queen of the Night. The ambiguity of the Queen’s morality, which is central to the plot (is she good or evil?), was done away with. In Act One, she is immediately revealed to be a rapacious spider woman, her gigantic, projected leg-claws chasing and entrapping Tamino, and her enlarged alien head (the masked head of singer Erika Miklósa) bobbing on a high pedestal above. Why would Tamino believe her when she tells him her daughter’s life must be saved from the evil clutches of Sarastro? It puts into question Tamino’s drive to rescue Pamina. Is he in love with her portrait, as written, or is he so terrified by the devouring spider-mother that he saves Pamina out of fear? Why not make her an exotic Weimar cabaret singer of dubious character or a decadent noblewoman, to name a few possibilities. There is no nuance to her character, no movement from worried mother to frightening, narcissistic queen.

Elsewhere the visuals delight. Too numerous to explain at length, they cast a spell over the audience as the singers, with razor sharp timing, interact with the animation: from blowing animated smoke rings to jumping across rooftops. Tamino’s flute (oddly replaced with a naked Pamina fairy – don’t ask) tames a bevy of wild beasts who float in the night sky as constellations.

Papageno and Two Ladies

Papageno, when offered wine by Sarastro’s priest, drinks a pink cocktail with an animated straw from a giant glass to hilarious effect. And in a wonderful touch, when the three ladies padlock his mouth, his lips dance in projection across the screen.

From the first majestic chords to the final notes of the score, the LA Opera orchestra, under Maestro Conlon, captured the vitality of this most ebullient of comic operas. There was a transparent delicacy to the playing, overlaid with a rich luster that conveyed every nuance of the music.

Pamina

Pamina

The role of Pamina, who not only survives her cunning mother and the lascivious Monostatos, but also the paternalistic clichés of the plot, was consummately sung by Janai Brugger. With a Louise Brooks wig, wearing white face, and dressed in schoolgirl black, she let loose a shimmering soprano. When she sings of her loss of love’s happiness in her Act Two aria, she caresses each line with tenderness, and the effect is exquisitely heartbreaking.

As her noble suitor, Tamino was sung by Lawrence Brownlee. His buttery tone and clarity of expression suited the role perfectly. Erika Miklósa, the Queen of the Night, is a seasoned player, having sung the role at least four hundred times. Glorious in Act One, delivering both nuance and power, she floundered in the opening of her famous second act aria and seemed a bit strident in her delivery. Monostatos, conceived as a Nosferatu creature, with a posse of enormous black, scruffy rats instead of slaves, was performed with lecherous relish by Rodell Rosel.

Papageno and Papagena

Papageno and Papagena

The Papageno of Rodion Pogossov was a wall-to-wall pleasure. With a silky, powerful baritone and comic presence that was able to out punch even the most distracting animated effects, he embodied the bird-catcher as silent comedy hero and took us on a joy ride of an evening. Amanda Woodbury as his Papagena sang charmingly. In front of an adorable projection of a dollhouse, replete with dozens of children, the pair performed their closing duet to joyful effect.

The Three Ladies: Hae Ji Chang, Cassandra Zoe Velasco, and Peabody Southwell were a perfectly realized trio; and the chorus of the LA Opera under Grant Gershon sang with an emotional depth that touched the heart. One only wished that Sarastro’s priests looked less like tribal Abe Lincolns and more like the noble characters of the original conception.

With Pamina and Tamino’s trials conquered and the Queen of the Night defeated, we, along with the chorus, exulted in an evening well spent in the company of this very individual production.

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To read more dance and music reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.

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Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of  SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children.   Jane is also the author and illustrator of  DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets.  

 

 Photos by Robert Millard courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.


Opera: “Falstaff” at the Los Angeles Opera

November 11, 2013

By Jane Rosenberg

The king of bellies landed his large bottom on the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Saturday night and the evening was a triumphant blend of hilarity, pathos, and ravishing music. In this ensemble of marvelous singers, Maestro Conlon has a cast who not only do credit to Verdi’s incandescent score but also match the glorious sound that Conlon drew from the LA Opera orchestra.

Falstaff is without doubt one of the gems of Italian opera. Though a casual listener might think it lacks the show stopping arias of Verdi’s earlier masterpieces, the truth is that the tunes are sprinkled like dustings of sugar throughout the three acts, and one can barely keep pace with the melodic abundance of his score. No mere musical accompaniment to the singers, the orchestra, under Conlon’s inspired direction, lays claim as a character in its own right. The musicians become Verdi’s eighty-year-old voice commenting, cajoling, and embracing life in all its contradictions.

Roberto Frontali as Falstaff and Rodell Rosel as Bardolph.

Roberto Frontali as Falstaff and Rodell Rosel as Bardolph.

Whether singing of his belly as his kingdom (which must be enlarged) or the physical charms of his slim youth, Robert Frontali as Falstaff had the voice and stage presence to bring the character to bursting life. His supple baritone was as expressive as it was potent. He had the knack for confiding in the audience, drawing us in like co-conspirators who wished for his schemes to succeed, just as a parent wishes for the success of its offspring. His partners in crime, Bardolf (Rodell Rosel) and Pistol (Valentine Anikin), added their brand of delicious squalor to the first act.

The warm-toned sets by Adrian Linford contributed to the action. From beginning to end their simplicity, with a suggestion of Elizabethan architecture, allowed the narrative to unfold without interference, enhancing the humor with its windows and balconies and resembling a storybook world that delighted at every turn. In fact, a screen resembling a giant sheet of aged parchment descended at the beginning of each scene onto which a Shakespearean quote from “The Merry Wives of Windsor” or “Henry IV” was projected, adding to the storybook effect and referencing the literary material from which the opera sprang. 

As the merry wives, Carmen Giannattasio (Alice Ford), Erica Brookhyser (Meg Page), Ronnita Nicole Miller (Mistress Quickly), and Ekaterina Sadovnikova (Nannetta) proved an impressive and adorable quartet. In the allegro vivace of Act One, Part Two when the male and female ensembles scheme in their separate groups, we are in Rossini territory, but this is Rossini on steroids at the close of the nineteenth century when music is traveling towards a modernist vocabulary with Verdi pointing the direction.

The Italian soprano, Giannattasio, had a lovely clarity to her voice that in turn thrilled, seduced, and charmed. With the air of a wise matron coupled with the insouciance of a woman secure in her attractiveness, she proved to be an ideal Alice.

Ronnita Nicole Miller as Mistress Quickly, Erica Brookhyser as Meg Page; Ekaterina Sadovnikova as Nannetta; Carmen Giannattasio as Alice Ford.

Ronnita Nicole Miller as Mistress Quickly, Erica Brookhyser as Meg Page; Ekaterina Sadovnikova as Nannetta; Carmen Giannattasio as Alice Ford.

Ronnita Miller as Mistress Quickly, the neighbor of Meg and Alice, and go-between to Alice and Falstaff, once again proved herself to be a formidable and versatile talent.  Able to deliver her obsequious “Reverenza” of Act Two with sly but subtle phrasing, to confront Falstaff with the necessary gravitas and yet infuse the meeting with irony and a knowing wink was immensely satisfying. At home in both the upper and lower registers, one feels she is able to endlessly surprise yet remain secure with both vocal and acting demands. One of the most humorous moments in the staging, thanks to director Lee Blakely, is Falstaff’s “tip” bestowed on Quickly. After she sets up the rendezvous of Falstaff and Alice, the knight, rather than tossing the mistress a coin, as in most productions, hands her a half eaten chicken leg.  What happens next is comic perfection.

With the departure of Mistress Quickly in Act Two, next up is Alice’s husband, Ford, (Marco Caria) intent on tricking and humiliating Falstaff. One character played off the other with delightful results. Ford plied Falstaff with gold, wine, and flattery; and there was much humor inherent in the handsome Caria begging Falstaff to intercede for him in seducing Alice. Caria presented a colored baritone with all the ardor of a romantic tenor. When he raged against Alice whom he now believes is cheating on him, the orchestra raged along with him and together they created high drama and raucous comedy all at once. With Falstaff off stage dressing for his seduction of Alice, Ford’s aria took on shades of Otello, the music first exploding then suddenly shifting gears with the score shimmering at Falstaff’s silken and bejeweled entrance.

The antics of Act Two in Alice’s home with characters hiding in corners, dirty laundry flying in the air, and men piling in the room to rout out Falstaff had the inspired zaniness of a Marx Brothers movie or an episode of “I Love Lucy.” Giannattasio, with her effortless soprano, sets the scene for the trick played on Falstaff.

The young lovers (Ekaterina Sadovnikova as Nannetta and Juan Francisco Gatell as Fenton) are about to be discovered in the Act Two finale of "Falstaff.

The young lovers (Ekaterina Sadovnikova as Nannetta and Juan Francisco Gatell as Fenton) are about to be discovered in the Act Two finale of “Falstaff.

However, it is the young lovers, Nannetta and Fenton, who in this scene ground the opera. The singers Sadovnikova and Juan Francisco Gatell formed the perfect partnership to bring home the poignancy of true love. With her nuanced soprano and golden curls, Sadovnikova was the embodiment of Nannetta. Gatell’s lustrous tenor had enough yearning and enthusiasm in every note to convey his overflowing love for her. From first act to last they remind us of why we love, marry, and procreate. Their honest desires are what we aspire to in youth and long for in old age. Fenton’s refrain: “Bocca baciata non perde ventura,” (Lips that are kissed never lose their charm) and Alice’s answer, “Anzi rinnova come fa la luna,” (Instead, they renew it like the moon) never leave our consciousness, weaving a spell of magic throughout.

In the final act, after Falstaff has been dumped in the river in a laundry basket, he climbed from the orchestra pit onto the stage, collapsing on his back like a beached whale. What follows is a wonder of orchestral imagination. Frontali reprised his “Va John” from Act One, this time though he’s defeated and broken. Then suddenly the horns announced the entrance of a goblet of wine and in the time it takes for one gulp, the music and Frontali trilled to zestful life.

The opera concludes at midnight in a magical park under a huge oak where a trap has been laid for Falstaff. Lounging on the sturdy oak, Fenton, waiting for Nannetta, sang rapturously of his love. His aria seemed a marked contrast to the lecherous follies of old age, and yet his song emphasized man’s common desire for love no matter what the age.  Nannetta and Fenton are Verdi’s children and the children of us all.

Since Falstaff has allowed himself to be tricked again into meeting Alice, he appeared, as requested, dressed as the Black Huntsman sporting a pair of enormous antlers. The rest of the townsfolk are in on the trick and all the players disguise themselves as fairies, witches, and mischievous spirits. Draped in white gauze, Sadovnikova, as Queen of the Fairies, mesmerized the audience with her ethereal soprano. Blooming with beauty, one knew she was entitled to a full life of love with her young suitor rather than the old lecher, Dr. Caius (Joel Sorenson filling in for an indisposed Robert Brubaker) whom her father insists she marry. Though Falstaff is scared out of his wits by a taunting chorus of men and women and justly punished for his scheming by the townsfolk, he remains wholly true to himself and his belly to the bitter end.  “Man is born a jester,” Frontali sang triumphantly and we are glad of it to our very core!

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To read more dance and music reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.

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Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of  DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets.  Jane is also the author and illustrator of  SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children.

 

 Photos by Robert Millard courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.


Picks of the Week: Oct. 28 – Nov. 3

October 29, 2013

By Don Heckman

Los Angeles

Amanda McBroom

Amanda McBroom

- Oct. 30. (Wed.)  Amanda McBroom.  The singer, actress and songwriter (“The Rose” is one of her songs) takes a break from her busy acting career to make a rare musical appearance in Los Angeles.  Catalina Bar & Grill.  (223) 466-2210.

- Oct. 31. (Thurs.)  Kate Reid and Larry Koonse Duo.  Guitarist Koonse, who is at the top of everyone’s rhythm section list, has a strong musical connection with singer/pianist/educator Reid. Vitello’s.    (818) 769-0905.

- Nov. 1 – 3. (Fri. – Sun.)  Vivaldi with Perlman.  Violinist Itzhak Perlman conducts and solos with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a program of Vivaldi, Weber and Berlioz.  Walt Disney Hall. /2013-11-01  (323) 850-2000.

- Nov. 1. (Fri.)  Bob Sheppard Trio. He’s a prime, first-call tenor saxophonist, but Sheppard is also a versatile woodwind (clarinet, flute and other saxophones) artist as well.  Hear him in the warm acoustic ambiance of Herb Alpert’s elegant jazz club.  Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.   (310) 474-9400.

Karrin Allyson

Karrin Allyson

- Nov. 1 – 3. (Fri. – Sun.) Karrin Allyson.  Multiple Grammy nominated Allyson performs superbly in genres reaching from folk to cabaret to jazz to bossa nova and beyond. Her L.A. performances are rare, and always worth attending.    Catalina Bar & Grill.  (223) 466-2210.

- Nov. 2. (Sat.)  Joanne Tatham.  “Soundtrack New York: Music from Movies Made in Manhattan.  It’s a fascinating idea for a program of songs, with dozens from which to chose.  And Tatham delivers it well, via her warm, seductive sound and musical story-telling skills.  Vitello’s.   (818) 769-0905.

Pat Senatore

Pat Senatore

- Nov. 3. (Sun.)  The Pat Senatore Trio.  With Josh Nelson, piano and Mark Ferber, drums.  Bassist Senatore leads a stellar group of players in a CD release party celebrating the release of the Trio’s new album, AscensioneVibrato Grill Jazz…etc. (310) 474-9400.

San Francisco

- Oct. 30 & 31.  (Wed. & Thurs.)  The Four Freshmen.  Their history dates back to the late ‘40s, when the Freshmen were creating harmonically lush, jazz-driven jazz vocalizing, accompanied by their own multiple instrumental skills.  This is a younger version of the Freshmen, but their music continues to be richly compelling.  Yoshi’s Oakland.    (510) 238-9200.

Seattle

- Oct. 31 – Nov. 3. (Thurs. – Sun.)  Gerald Albright. He’s well known as a much-admired, contemporary jazz saxophonist, but Albright is also a multi-instrumentalist who brings genre-crossing sounds to all his performances.   Jazz Alley.    (206) 441-9729.

New York City

Arturo Sandoval

Arturo Sandoval

- Nov. 1 – 3. (Fri. – Sun.)  Arturo Sandoval.  Every performance by Cuban-born Sandoval is a stunning display of his musical range and instrumental eclecticism.  Whether playing Dizzy Gillespie-influenced trumpet, rhapsodic piano, dynamic drumming, or singing, he does it all with complete musical mastery.  The Blue Note.   (212) 475-8592.

Oct., 31 – Nov. 3.  (Thurs. – Sun.)  The Vijay Iyer Trio.  Pianist Iyer’s Grammy-nominated Trio is an engaging vehicle for his playing, which incorporates aspects of his Indian heritage with his dynamic piano style.  Jazz Standard.

- Oct. 29 – Nov. 2. (Tues. – Sat.)  The Ron Carter Nonet. Carter has performed as everyone’s favorite bassist on more than 2500 albums.  But he’s less-known as a composer and band leader in his own right, who should be heard at every opportunity.  Birdland.    (212) 581-3080.

London

Dave Holland

Dave Holland

- Nov. 2 & 3.  (Sat. & Sun.)  Dave Holland Prism.  Prism is the latest in bassist Holland’s numerous ensembles.  And like all his musical efforts, it leads his listeners through inventive musical adventures.  Ronnie Scott’s.   +44 (0)20 7439 0747

Copenhagen

- Nov. 1 & 2. (Fri. & Sat.)  The Ben Sidran Quartet.  “Don’t Cry For No Hipster.”  The versatile Sidran, a Renaissance jazz man, moves comfortably from performing jazz, rock and beyond to work as a producer, educator and radio host.  Here, he’s on piano and vocals, backed by Bob Rockwell, tenor saxophone, Billy Peterson, bass and Leo Sidran, drums.  Jazzhus Montmartre.    +45 31 72 34 94.

Milan

- Oct. 30 & 31. (Wed. & Thurs.)  Jack DeJohnette Group.  Drummer DeJohnette, always creatively curious, leads an ensemble that features the equally inventive clarinetist/saxophonist Don Byron Blue Note Milano.     +39.02.69016888.


Picks of the Week: Oct. 14 – 20

October 15, 2013

By Don Heckman

Los Angeles

Josh Nelson

- Oct. 17. (Thurs.) All Star Quartet. Pat Senatore, bass, Josh Nelson, piano, Larry Koonse, guitar, Mark Ferber, drums. “All Star” is the right label for this quartet of four of the Southland’s finest players. Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.  (310) 474-9400.

- Oct. 17 – 20. (Thurs. – Sun. Steve Gadd Band. Drummer Gadd has played with everyone from pop and rock stars to jazz headliners. This time he’s backed by the equally stellar ensemble of Michael Landau, Larry Goldings, Walt Fowler, & Jimmy Johnson). Catalina Bar & Grill (223) 466-2210.

- Oct. 18 – 20. (Fri. – Sun.) Disney Hall 10th Anniversary Celebration. Esa-Pekka Salonen returns to a familiar podium to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a celebratory program of Debussy, Bartok and Lindberg, with cello soloist Anssi Karttunen and the women of the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Disney Hall.  (323) 850-2000.

Carol Welsman

Carol Welsman

- Oct. 19. (Sat.) Carol Welsman. “Reflections of Peggy Lee and Benny Goodman.” Pianist/singer Welsman applies her many talents to a program of Swing band classics. She’s joined by versatile saxophonist/vocalist Don Shelton. Vitello’s.  (818) 769-0905.

- Oct. 19 (Sat.) Eva Ayllon. Multiple Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter, one of Peru’s most honored musicians, makes a rare L.A. Appearance. CAP UCLA at Royce Hall.  (310) 825-.2101.

- Oct. 19. (Sat.) Bernadette Peters. Musical theatre star Peters’ many talents reach from film and television to the stage, where her many starring roles include Mack and Mabel, Annie Get Your Gun, Gypsy, Into the Woods and more. Valley Performing Arts Center.  (818) 677-8800.

- Oct. 20 (Sun.) The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Jeffrey Kahane conducts the LACO in works by Britten, Haydn, Mozart and Bruce Adolphe, featuring cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras. CAP UCLA at Royce Hall.  (310) 825.2101.

Brian Wilson

- Oct. 20. (Sun.) Brian Wilson and Jeff Beck. It’s a rare combination of pop music greats, joining with Wilson’s former bandmates, Al Jardine and David Marks in a program that includes a great deal of the Beach Boys classic catalog of songs. The Greek Theatre.  (323) 665-5857.

San Francisco

- Oct. 19 & 20 (Sat. & Sun.) Michel Camilo, solo. The Dominican Republic’s gift to jazz piano playing performs a rare solo display of his rich improvisational skills. An SFJAZZ concert at Miner Auditorium. (866) 920-5299.

Seattle

- Oct. 17 – 20. (Thurs. – Sun.) Fourplay. Together for more than two decades, the members of Fourplay – Bob James, Nathan East, Harvey Mason and Chuck Loeb continue to lead the way in finding the roots of contemporary jazz. Jazz Alley. (206) 441-9729.

Chicago

Russell Malone

- Oct. 17 – 20. (Thurs. – Sun.) Russell Malone Quartet. Guitarist Malone has demonstrated his considerable versatility with the likes of Diana Krall, Harry Connick, Jr. and Jimmy Smith, and he continues to be a player adept with all seasons of jazz styles. Jazz Showcase.  (312) 360-0234.

New York City

- Oct. 15 & 16. (Tues. & Wed.) Phil Woods Quintet. Still one of the definitive bebop players, veteran alto saxophonist Woods is one of the trune jazz originals. Here he’s joined by the world class backing of Brian Lynch, trumpet, Bill Charlap, piano, Bill Goodwin, drums, Steve Gilmore, bass. The Blue Note. (212) 475-8592.

London

- Oct. 16 – 19. (Wed. – Sun.) Wayne Henderson’s Jazz Crusaders. Trombonist Henderson works hard to keep the classic jazz/funk/soul of the Crusaders alive and well. Ronnie Scott’s+44 (0)20 7439 0747.

Milan

Monty Alexander

Monty Alexander

- Oct. 15. (Tues.) Monty Alexander Trio. Jamaican-born pianist Alexander successfully manages to blend the sounds and rhythms of Jamaica with his extraordinary, Oscar Peterson-influenced jazz stylings. Blue Note Milano.  +39 02 6901 6888.

Tokyo

- Oct. 20 – 22. (Sun. – Tues.) John Scofield’s “Uberjam.” Always in search of new creative ideas, veteran jazz guitarist Scofield’s Uberjam band explores linkages with contemporary pop styles. Blue Note Tokyo. Tokyo Blue Note.  +81 3-5485-0088.


Live Music: “ModRock” at the El Portal Theater

June 25, 2013

By Mike Finkelstein

ModRock had its official opening Sunday evening at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood.   It’s an entertaining, feel good, romp through some very important times in popular culture. In the mid ‘60s London was ground zero for popular culture.   Long lasting fashion trends like the miniskirt came out of the London scene.   And, some amazingly powerful, enduring, and influential music also came out of London during those days.  ModRock uses a wide spectrum of this music to advance its story..Thanks to a very energetic cast, tastefully chosen costumes and props, and a great set of tunes of the times, the show is winsome.   It would have been entertaining to hear the original recordings, but it was better that the vocals were sung live in front of a band behind the backdrop for most of the evening. The songs remained familiar, but between the band’s nuances and the performer’s harmonies they morphed into something more unique.  A nice touch, that.   All of the actors wore subtle wireless headsets and the sound in the El Portal was so good that one could finally make out a blurred phrase or two in the original songs.

Melinda Porto and Steven Good

Melinda Porto and Steven Good

Set in London circa 1965, the plot of ModRock concerns a summer romance between a middle-class Mod girl named Kate (Melinda Porto), and a working class Rocker Boy, Adam (Steven Good). As his teacher, she helped him get his school certificate earlier.  The two young lovers are swooning away with each other, but the idea will never fly with their circles of friends.   Kate’s brother Simon (Scott Kruse) is the brooding so-serious-about-being-a-Mod Mod and will have none of it.  Tensions mount as all of the characters balance growing up and maturing with being true to their styles and cliques.   The plot is a familiar one.  We’ve seen it in Romeo and Juliet, Grease, West Side Story and many others.  It’s a classic tale, but it tugs at some of our most basic emotions concerning the power of love to transcend less important but still compelling issues like class or fashion.

As we watched this tale of Mods and Rockers on Sunday, we really couldn’t help but wonder why these two groups would resent each other so deeply. They were more alike than different. They did the same things in a different style.  Neither group had much money, and both were usually in the process of saving up to buy a new motorcycle, a new scooter, or perhaps even swiping clothes.   Wisely, the show concentrates on their music, clothes, and two-wheeled transport.

The Mods were outfitted with a dazzling array of colorful leggings, miniskirts, slickers, go-go boots, Cuban heeled boots, winkle-pickers, drainpipe pants, parkas, and turtlenecks.  The Rockers, on the other hand, were wearing high-cuffed blue jeans, white tee shirts, and everything else in black – biker jackets and biker boots for the guys and black leggings, leather jackets, teddies, lingerie for the girls.  And of course, in this new millennium, they all smoked e-cigarettes on stage.

The “ModRock” cast

ModRock had two of the more choice iconic props you could hope for in place, a big old Triumph motorcycle for Rocker Adam and a multi-mirrored Vespa scooter for Simon the Mod…both iconic machines in their own right.   The bikes were set on casters but were clearly a grunt to push around, much like a broken down cycle would be.

The production flourishes with the cast telling its tale as they act the songs out.  The Hollies’ “Bus Stop” established how Adam and Kate actually met each other and the Kinks’ “Dedicated Follower of Fashion,” was just the right song to expand on the Mods’ obsessive efforts to keep up with fashion that changed by the hour.   By choosing to use songs like Dusty Springfield’s “I Only Want to Be With You,” Chad and Jeremy’s “Summer Song,” The Fortunes’ “You’ve Got Your Troubles,” and Burt Bacharach’s “(There’s) Always Something There To Remind Me,” ModRock succeeds in showcasing the angst in longing and broken love. These softer, yet poignant songs were up there in the charts and all over the radio right next to the Beatles, the Who and the Kinks in their time.  So, it was an important detail to include them.

The plot of ModRock hinges on a Mod/Rocker rumble and in the aftermath everybody gains some perspective and the maturity to move on in their own directions.  Some Mods become Rockers, and some Rockers become Mods, and some become … hippies.   Gotta have an image.  Ultimately it was about style, and the key to balancing all of it can be found most likely in bands like the Who, the Kinks, the Small Faces and the Rolling Stones.   They were some of the most iconic Mod bands ever, having been influenced by Rockers’ heroes Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran, Bo Diddley, and Buddy Holly.  If the crossover didn’t bother the bands, perhaps there was something bigger going on?  As Kate’s character lets on, she didn’t know Mods were supposed to hate Rockers until she read it in a magazine.

For anyone who is even mildly curious about Mods, Rockers, and the hotbed of popular culture that England was in the mid-60’s this show would be a fun starting point.   It gives the audience plenty of iconic images and music to go out and research, which will be a rich process in itself.

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To read more reviews and posts by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.


Live Musical Theatre: “One Night With Janis Joplin” at the Pasadena Playhouse

April 12, 2013

By Don Heckman

Pasadena, CA.  The Janis Joplin legend surfaces once again in the powerful music and dramatic story telling of One Night With Janis Joplin at the Pasadena Playhouse. It’s shown up earlier in the film, The Rose, and the theatre piece, Love, Janis.  But never before with such convincing musical and historical authenticity.

Mary Bridget Davies as Janis Joplin

Mary Bridget Davies as Janis Joplin

The role of Janis is portrayed by Mary Bridget Davies, who also played the lead in Love, Janis.  And, although the physical resemblance leaves something to be desired, Davies has done a stunning job of capturing the sound, the phrasing, and the intense musical passion of Janis, the original.

Created, written and directed by Randy Johnson, One Night…imagines a performance by Joplin in which she sings from her classic songbook and recalls her early life and its creative influences.  Her history is further illuminated by the far-ranging performances of Sabrina Elayne Carten in the role of “Blues Singer,” vocalizing the memory of Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone and Bessie Smith.  Supporting the nearly two dozen musical selections, the three-voice, back-up singing Joplinaires, and the eight piece band led by Music Supervisor/Bandleader/Guitarist Ross Seligman bring the late ‘60s Joplin musical era vividly to life.

For anyone, including this writer, who had the good fortune to experience the Joplin mystique live and in person, One Night…called up irresistible memories, especially in songs such as “Piece of My Heart,” “Ball and Chain,” “Mercedes Benz” and “Me and Bobby McGee.”  And given the amount of silver-colored hair in the packed house audience, one suspects that a majority of the enthusiastic listeners also spent time with Janis in places such as Winterland and the Fillmores West and East.  Maybe even her breakout appearance in 1967’s Monterey Pop.

The Joplinaires, Mary Bridget Davies and Sabrina Elayne Carten

The show’s visual design, with its moving platform, multi-leveled staging and flashing lights wasn’t exactly a replica of the Joshua Light Shows at the Fillmores.  But the results were nonetheless visually impressive (even with the absence of the cannabis fragrance that so often permeated the Fillmore events).

So too were the interstitial narratives by Davies, recalling Janis’ early musical experiences as well as the intimacies of her philosophical beliefs.  Although she often amusingly described herself just a “white chick singing the blues,” Janis was far more than that, and Johnson’s script has convincingly captured the remarkable breadth of her beliefs, her character and her music.

At its best, One Night…is neither a tribute show nor a simulation.  It’s a persuasive view of a memorable chapter in 20th century life and music as seen through the prism of Janis Joplin’s vivid, but far too short life.

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“One Night With Janis Joplin” continues at the Pasadena Playhouse through April 21.

Photos by Jim Cox courtesy of the Pasadena Playhouse.


Live Music Theatre: John Adams’ “The Gospel According to the Other Mary” at Disney Hall

March 10, 2013

A Musical Tidal Wave of Surprises!  

By Norton Wright

New Yorker Magazine’s jazz critic Whitney Balliett in 1959 shorthanded a definition of jazz as “the sound of surprise.”  So today, when so very little in the arts genuinely surprises, the shock and awe generated by contemporary composer John Adams and director/librettist Peter Sellars is the real deal. They truly have “jazz hearts” as their The Gospel According to the Other Mary proves.

In their 2-hour oratorio, performed at Walt Disney Concert Hall Friday night by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Master Chorale, and a singer-dancer cast of nine, Adams and Sellars have created a musical show rife with conflict, death, injustice, labor strife, faith, doubt, romance — and miracles. Yes, it’s the account of Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion, and resurrection.  But the action is set in the contemporary slums of Los Angeles and the story is told from the viewpoint of Mary Magdalene, a young woman chafing at the cruelty and injustice of the skid-row life in which she and so many others live.

Given that the giant musical mosaic that Adams has composed (Johnny Richards’ jazz orchestra of yesteryear comes to mind as do the Lydian chromatic tonalities of George Russell), you might easily be swept away from the story by Adams’ pulsing melodic lines, modal harmonies, jazzy tempos and syncopations.  As well as the exotic instrumental orchestrations (including cimbalom, almglocken, gongs, chimes, bass guitar, three thundering percussionists, three featured singers, a trio of powerhouse countertenors singing in the high stratosphere, with brass, woodwind, and string sections delivering a chromatic spectrum from the muscular to the ethereal). So to clarify and balance the story and the musical score, the singers’ libretti were projected like sub-titles onto a screen above the stage to help the audience track the fast and free-wheeling plotline.

Spoiler Warning per the upcoming story synopsis:

The major story beats unfolded as follows –

1) Mary Magdalene and her sister Martha run a sanctuary for homeless women in a Los Angeles slum. A young man, Jesus, comes to live with them and help with the center.

2) Mary realizes Jesus is of a spiritual origin and though she comes to care for him deeply, she struggles with faith and the act of praying.

3) Mary and Martha are overcome with grief when their brother, Lazarus, dies… Compassionate Jesus miraculously brings Lazarus back to life, and the grateful Mary realizes that she has fallen passionately in love with Jesus.

4) In his resurrection of the dead Lazarus, Jesus signals that he is anticipating his own death and resurrection.

5) The police arrest Jesus in Mary and Martha’s homeless center.

6) Mary, Martha, and women friends protest Jesus’ arrest and are themselves brutalized by the police.

7) As Jesus is arraigned before Pilate, another protest by empowered women in California is unfolding. Praying for survival, Dolores Huerte and Cesar Chavez overcome crushing police brutality in a reminder of their 1996 “people’s march” to Sacramento to establish The United Farm Workers Union.

8) Jesus is crucified and buried. Mary mourns — and prays — for him.

9) Mary returns to the garden where Jesus has been buried and is stunned to discover that his body is not there and that he has risen from the dead.  Jesus, disguised as a gardener tending the grounds, comes to Mary and in a sudden and touching moment of recognition, she realizes that Jesus is alive both spiritually and in her heart.

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John Adams

John Adams

The recounting of Jesus’ passion (suffering) has always made for compelling drama, but in their Gospel of the Other Mary, Adams and Sellars create eye-opening and ear-opening surprises as they contemporize the tale into a heartrending love story of a firebrand young  woman and her man of mystery.

Casting the lovely, young mezzo-soprano Kelly O’Connor as “Mary,” the soulful Tamara Mumford as “Martha,” and the imposing tenor, Russell Thomas, as “Lazarus” is a coup.  As “Narrators,” the countertenor trio of Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings and Nathan Medley sing with high head tones and otherworldly sonorities worth the price of admission.  Dancers Michael Schumacher, Anani Sanouvi and Troy Ogilvie are strong and inventive, and Sanouvi’s take on Lazarus coming back to life is marked by his breathtaking martial-arts choreography. Life is tough, but returning to it even tougher.

As always, the Los Angeles Philharmonic amazed in its ability to master the most complex of John Adams’ scores, the 50-person Los Angeles Master Chorale (all dressed in raggle-taggle skid-row-like clothes) was equally at home both singing and physically acting out the show’s riot scenes.  And in the Friday night performance, Chorale director Grant Gershon was faultless in replacing conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who had just been called to Caracas to conduct at the memorial service for president Hugo Chavez.

The Gospel of the Other Mary is now headed for performances in Europe and NYC.  But the next time it is performed in L.A., whether you are a jazzhead or a classicist, don’t miss it. It is truly “the sound of surprise.”

To read more posts by and about artist/writer Norton Wright, click HERE.


Live Musical Theatre: “Anything Goes” at the Ahmanson Theatre

December 20, 2012

By Jane Rosenberg

Los Angeles, CA.  Tired of the annual parade of Nutcrackers and Messiahs?  Looking for musical entertainment that’s sophisticated, witty, and wall-to-wall fun?  Then pack your steamer trunk and hop on board Cole Porter’s cruise ship sailing for nineteen more performances (including matinees) at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles.  It’s the Roundabout Theatre’s 1987 Tony award-winning production of Anything Goes, and it is chock-full of Porter’s best: “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “You’re the Top,” “De-Lovely,” and, of course, “Anything Goes.” Superbly choreographed and directed by Kathleen Marshall, with terrific sets by Derek McLane, and costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, this production sparkles from top to bottom.

Star-crossed love and mistaken identity aboard the luxury liner, the S.S. American, generate the plot. Passengers include a gorgeous nightclub owner and singer, a middle-aged fortune hunter, a gangster masquerading as a priest and an ordinary guy masquerading as a gangster, a sexy gun-moll who has a weakness for sailors, a rich, drunken stockbroker, a debutante, and a goofy English lord.  Also on deck are a missionary and a pair of Chinese converts, and though their roles have been softened from the 1934 original, there is still some discomfort in seeing old stereotypes dragged out.

The music, originally orchestrated by Michael Gibson with additional orchestrations by Bill Elliott, was played to blissful effect under the baton of Jay Alger.  And the talent assembled for this romp into the brilliant mind of Cole Porter (not to mention P.G. Wodehouse who had a hand in the original book) was stellar.

As Reno Sweeny, the “seen it all” nightclub owner and heroine of the piece, Rachel York, with her potent and beautifully modulated voice, delivered the goods.  Seems like there’s nothing she can’t do, whether tap dancing with the cast, belting out the mock gospel song, “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” or delivering her knowing lines with spot-on comic timing – albeit a bit heavy on the Mae West imitation.  Erich Bergen played Billy Crocker, the lovesick stowaway, who pines for the debutante, Hope Harcourt. In another terrific performance, Bergen managed the singing, dancing, and comedy with a relaxed charm, every inch a Cole Porter leading man.

Other cast members were equally talented, and the strength of the whole ensemble was that they managed to elevate their roles beyond their hilarious stock characters, to deliver a madcap ménage of quirky personalities.  The only flat performance was Alex Finke as Hope.  She possessed a pleasing voice but seemed to lack bounce and individuality.  Edward Staudenmayer was a knockout as the effete Lord Evelyn.  Like a refugee from a Monty Python skit, and with Michael Palin-esque charisma, Staudenmayer transitioned from uptight Englishman to lust ridden suitor while cavorting like a bullfighter in the number “The Gypsy in Me.”

As for the corps of passengers, crew, and Reno’s sexy quartet of “angels,” they made every minute a party – in particular the sailors who provided the glowing backdrop on which all the action was painted.

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Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of  SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for ChildrenJane is also the author and illustrator of DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets.

To read more iRoM reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.


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