Highlights of the Weekend: In Los Angeles

February 27, 2015

By Don Heckman

Stanley Clarke

 

– Feb 27 & 28. (Fri. & Sat.) Stanley Clarke and Friends. Bassist Clarke’s “Friends” aren’t identified in the program for this gig. But Clarke, a world class artist with a stellar resume, can be counted on to surround himself with players capable of functioning at his Olympian jazz levels. In other words, expect the best. Catalina Bar & Grill.  (323) 466-2210.

– Feb. 28. (Sat.) The Bel Air Wine Festival’s Celebration Day of Wine, Music and Eight Charities. The afternoon gala starts at 1pm and finishes at 5pm. The evening portion of the day is 6pm – 10pm and will include a delectable dinner. The wine festival features wines from all corners of the globe, food prepared by Vibrato’s chefs and world class live entertainment. Hang Dynasty, whose members have worked with everyone from the Steve Miller Band , Stevie Wonder and Elton John to Pink Floyd and Ringo Starr will perform. There will also be a live auction during the evening gala. 100% of the Festival’s proceeds go to eight charities. Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.  (310) 474-9400.

– Feb. 28. (Sat.) The Los Angeles Ballet performs one of the great classics in their repertoire, The Sleeping Beauty. Valley Performing Arts Center. . (818) 677-8800.

The LA Ballet's "Sleeping Beauty"

The LA Ballet’s “Sleeping Beauty”

– Feb. 28. (Sat.) The Venice Baroque Ochestra with mandolin soloist Avi Avital. Call it an evening of Vivaldi, performed by an ensemble, and a soloist adept at the special demands of Baroque era music. Segerstrom Center for the Arts.  (714) 556-2787.

– Feb. 28. (Sat.) The New West Symphony. One of the Southland’s great large ensembles, the NWS once again displays its far-ranging stylistic mastery in a program featuring Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Opus 27, Saint-Sean’s Concerto No. 2 in G minor for Piano and Orchstra Opus 22, and Stravinsky’s Suite No. 2 For Small Orchestra. Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza.  (805) 449-2100.

Wilson Phillips

Wilson Phillips

– Feb. 28. (Sat.) Wilson Phillips and Billy Ocean. It’s an offbeat combination, but one with a lot of apeal. The hit-making vocal sounds of Wilson Phillips and the r&b grooves of English born singer Billy Ocean. Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts.  (562) 916-8500.

Julian Lage

Julian Lage

– Feb. 28. (Sat.) The Julian Lage Trio.  Guitarist Lage, a prodigy as a teen-ager, has matured into a world class jcazz artiat.  And here’s a booking not to miss, in which he’s backed by bassist Scott Colley and drummer Eric HarlandThe Blue Whale.    (213) 620-0908.

– Mar. 1. (Sun.) Seth MacFarlane with The Ron Jones Jazz influence Orchestra. Entertainment world multi-hphenate MacFarlane is an actor, writer, producer, animator and, in recent years, a singer. He’s backed by the lush sound and solid swing of Ron Jones jazz Influence Orchestra. Click here to read a recent iRoM review of a MacFarlane vocal performance. Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.  (310) 474-9400.


Opera: UCLA Opera’s “The Two Figaros” at Freud Playhouse

February 22, 2015

By Jane Rosenberg

Los Angeles is in the midst of a citywide celebration of all things Figaro. Courtesy of the LA Opera we have The Ghosts of Versailles, soon to be followed by The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro. Even LA Theaterworks jumped into the mix with a semi-staged production of The Guilty Mother, Beaumarchais’ lesser-known sequel to his two more famous creations. But the delightful surprise of this feast of Figaro is a little known opera by Saverio Mercadante, The Two Figaros (I due Figaro) as performed by the students and faculty of Opera UCLA and the UCLA Philharmonia.

Figaro, following in the scheming footsteps of Hermes, the trickster god and his protégé Harlequin, immediately became an iconic character. It’s no wonder that Mozart and Rossini tried their hands at Beaumarchais’ material. In fact, Figaro was so potent a creation that a French actor and author, Honoré Richard Martelly, penned a sequel to the plots set by Rossini and Mozart. The play was so full of mirth and cunning that it was ripe source material for yet another opera.

Saverio Mercadante took to the challenge, employing the talents of librettist, Felice Romani. Mercadante, who composed fifty-nine operas, was as highly regarded as his contemporaries, Donizetti, Bellini, and Verdi. Unfortunately his reputation plummeted after his death in 1870 and today his works are rarely performed. But there is plenty to admire in this opera buffo, which was composed in 1826 and premiered in 1835. Though some passages seem extracted directly from Rossini’s operas, there are a number of arias of bel canto beauty, fiery cabalettas, and thunderous ensembles, along with Spanish touches à la Boccherini, which lend charm.

"Two Figaros"

“The Two Figaros (I due Figaro)”

The usual suspects are here: Count and Countess Almaviva, Figaro and his wife, Susanna, and the always lovesick, Cherubino. Rosina and her husband, the count, have a daughter, Inès. Figaro, in league with Don Alvaro, has persuaded the count to give Inès’ hand and dowry to Alvaro, who has promised to divide the spoils with Figaro. Inès, however, is in love with Cherubino, no longer a teenager and now a colonel. Cherubino sneaks into the household, presenting himself as a servant whose name he says is also Figaro – hence two Figaros.

 Joanna Lynn-Jacobs as Countess Almaviva, Annie Sherman as Inès, Terri Richter as Susanna

Joanna Lynn-Jacobs as Countess Almaviva, Annie Sherman as Inès, Terri Richter as Susanna

With the three women in the household plotting together to wed Inès to Cherubino, and Almaviva and Figaro favoring Alvaro, a battle of wits ensues. The outcome? After whispered conversations, characters hiding in closets, multiple disguises, feigned tears, and stolen kisses, Cherubino prevails. It turns out Alvaro is none other than Cherubino’s servant in disguise. With the ruse revealed, Count Almaviva relents and gives his blessing to the young couple, even forgiving the deceitful Figaro. With the addition of Plagio, a young playwright, to document the goings-on, we have all the ingredients of a satisfying opera-buffo.

On the stage of the intimate Freud Playhouse, a whimsical interpretation of Almaviva’s villa and courtyard outside Seville was prettily brought to life with tiled staircases, stuccoed walls, potted palms, floating clouds in a Mediterranean sky, and period costumes worthy of any grand opera house. The winning cast of students (and a handful of professionals) both on stage and in the pit, conducted by Joseph Colaneri, conveyed the exuberance of Mercadante’s score with surprising artistry. And under Peter Kazaras’ able direction, the comedic hi-jinks were delivered with spot-on timing.

Teri Richter was both piquant and imposing all at once, her character as the imperturbable Susanna sung with a bright and flexible coloratura. The count was superbly performed by LA Opera tenor, Arnold Geis, his supple voice able to navigate both highs and lows. In the second act, we moved into Donizetti territory and the duet sung by Geis and Richter shone with complexity both musically and dramatically and was, perhaps, the highlight of the evening.

As Figaro, Gregorio Gonzalez was a winning trickster, infectiously conspiratorial in his recitatives and robust in the cabalettas, though the lower end of his baritone was often overpowered by the orchestra. Annie Sherman as Inès was consistently adorable, funny, and musically adept at the intricacies of the soprano role. Meagan Martin’s Cherubino had all the necessary swagger and guile, but she had difficulty projecting in the lower registers. The Countess of Joanna Lynn-Jacobs sung her mezzo part with warmth and color. The part of Plagio, well sung by an endearing Ian Walker, had a guileless sincerity to it, making me wonder if someday he might make an engaging Papageno.

Take a group of young, talented, and enthusiastic musicians and singers, add a good director and a sensitive conductor, then set the opera on an intimate stage. It’s a recipe for a delightful evening well spent.

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Cast (for Feb.15 and 20, alternate cast Feb. 13 and 22)
Count Almaviva: Arnold Geis
Countess Almaviva: Joanna Lynn-Jacobs
Inès: Annie Sherman
Cherubino: Meagan Martin
Figaro: Gregorio Gonzalez
Susanna: Terri Richter
Don Alvaro: Gregory Sliskovich
Plagio: Ian Walker
Servo: Myron Aguilar

Production:
Composer: Saverio Mercadante
Librettist: Felice Romani
Conductor: Joseph Colaneri
Director: Peter Kazaras
Scenic Designer: Adam Alonso
Lighting Designer: Ginevra Lombardo
Choreographer: Kevin Williamson

Photos by Jeff Lorch courtesy of U.C.L.A. Opera.

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To read more opera, 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.  

 


Live Chamber Music: The Hugo Wolf String Quartett at Southern Oregon University Music Recital Hall

February 15, 2015

By Don Heckman

Ashland, Oregon. The utterly irresistible appeals of string quartet music returned to Southern Oregon University’s Music Recital Hall on Friday night and Saturday afternoon in another prime presentation by Chamber Music Concerts.

The program was delivered by the extraordinarily gifted players of Vienna’s Hugo Wolf String Quartett. In the two hours of the Friday night performance, they offered an exemplary overview of more than two centuries of string quartet music at its most intriguing.

The Hugo Wolf players – violinists Sebastian Gurtler and Regis Bringolf, viola player Thomas Selditz and cellist Florian Berner – each a virtuosic artist in his own right, have been together as an ensemble for more than two decades, performing in major venues around the world. And their musically symbiotic relationship, combined with virtuosic technique and interpretive excellence, produced convincing versions of works reaching from Franz Joseph Haydn to Franz Schubert, climaxing with the premiere of a contemporary quartet commissioned by the Wolf Quartett from Austrian composer Gerhard Winkler.

The Hugo Wolff Quartet

The Hugo Wolff Quartet

The program began with Haydn’s String Quartet in E flat Major, Op. 33, often described as “the Joke Quartet.” And with good reason. Haydn was one of the important founders of the Classical string quartet structures. With this composition, however, he chose to insert some atypical, intentionally humorous twists in the harmonic scheme, clearly hoping to surprise his listeners. Add to that his use of long pauses and sudden bursts of a brief, repetitious melodic fragment. The result, for his 18th century audiences, as well as Friday night’s listeners, was amused bursts of laughter. “Don’t take everything too seriously,” he seemed to be saying in this immensely entertaining work, which was performed by the Wolf Quartett with vigorous enthusiasm.

Schubert’s String Quartet in D minor, D. 810, subtitled Death and the Maiden offered a far different musical mood. Composed in 1824, a few years before his death in 1828, its subtitle traces to a song he wrote in 1817. Both the quartet and the song reflect the illnesses Schubert was experiencing, along with his obsession with what he viewed, correctly, as the approaching end of his life at the early age of 31.

Understandably, his D minor Quartet is a work filled with emotional density, often juxtaposing dark, intense passages with unexpected moments of soaring lyricism. The Wolf Quartett players’ interpretation was gripping, capturing the diverse emotions with a convincing blend of affective expression and technical mastery.

The Winkler composition, identified only as String Quartet offered far different challenges. The concert’s program guide refers to his frequent use of multi-media interaction in his works, often using electronic media. In this work, however, the Wolf Quartett instrumentalists are asked to create the sort of complex textures and dense dissonant sounds often provided by electronics along with the spontaneity associated with indeterminate notation. The result was a stunning collage of sounds, played with brilliant technique by the Wolff Quartet. While the piece offered none of the Classical musical structures usually associated – even in many contemporary works – with string quartets, it was nonetheless a fascinating showcase for the Hugo Wolf String Quartett.

It’s worth noting that the Gerhard Winkler identified in the program guide as the composer of String Quartet, presumably is not the German composer, Gerhard Winkler, who was born in 1906 and died in 1977.  It’s unclear, either in the program guide or in Google, whether or not they’re related.

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Photo by Nancy Horowitz courtesy of the Hugo Wolff Quartet.


Live Music and a Lot More: MY DAY AT THE NAMM SHOW

January 28, 2015

By Mike Finkelstein

Anaheim, CA.  For anyone who appreciates music, the NAMM show is a scene you simply must make once in your life, maybe more. NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) convenes twice annually, once in the winter at the Anaheim Convention Center and once in the summer, in Nashville. It has become more than a convention, and is now a four day event attended by thousands, with awards given to distinguished artists and manufacturers, concerts all day outdoors on a huge stage, celebrity signings, ongoing celebrity jams, intriguing food trucks, plenty of free stuff, and a whole lot of entertaining people to watch.

I was struck by how many people appeared to be dressed in their rock star costumes. These folks must look like they are on or near a stage every day. The multi-color hair and bizarre tats and piercings are a long-term proposition, a commitment. Of course, that’s rock and roll and we do love it. There were even people in costumes running around simply to provide photo ops, but that felt schticky, a little like Hollywood and Highland.

NAMM floor is a busy place, man!

Entry to NAMM is exclusive. Everyone who gets in must apply for and receive a badge to get through the doors. Physically getting to those doors isn’t so easy, either, as parking is at a premium. I had to park about a mile away from the site, and hoof it in. But it was a gorgeous day and I was with many other like-minded souls so it was cool…and free. Inside the convention center, vendors build a four story musical city, a multi-tiered grid of all conceivable music gear. And sometimes getting from one side of an aisle to the other is not unlike jaywalking in New York City. One must be alert as there are throngs of folks in constant motion on the NAMM floor.

Since so many manufacturers are represented under one roof, you can explore any curiosity on the spot, at the source. This worked out well for me. I cruised into the plush-carpeted Rickenbacker display, giddily strummed several of the shiny guitars, and inquired as to how pros actually deal with restringing their (in)famous 12-strings. These beautiful beasts are a well-known source of aggravation because the whole guitar must be unstrung and laboriously restrung even when one only string is a problem. But I was let in on the masking tape and long nose pliers solution to make things more efficient. Still, the ultra inconvenient “R” tailpiece will endure, as its design is classic and a part of an enduring image. Of course, the equally cool Ricky basses, have a much more string friendly design and will also stay the same.

The Rickenbacker 12 String

Before going to the NAMM show I wasn’t aware that guitar straps actually come in sizes like shirts do. So within a short exchange of dialogue I had learned about strap sizing. I also learned that there are several names for the extension adjustment strap on a leather guitar strap (“tongue” was the best that I heard), that they are sold separately, and can extend a strap by as much as 12 inches. The big idea was that huge vendors only carry some of many things. There is more variety available if one goes straight to the manufacturer, online or in person, than if one goes to a big distributor.

I had a feeling there would be some pleasant surprises nestled into the NAMM grid. Would you believe that somebody developed a product that allows you to actually be heard playing air drums? Yes, a special high-speed camera program gauges your movements, anticipating which drums you are reaching for and attaches sound. Voila, you can be heard. It was uncanny to watch, like some sort of illusion.

Fenders at NAMM. Surf all day, record all night… sounds like a plan!

One thing about the NAMM show, it borders on a muted din most of the time. There are so many displays where you can pick up an instrument to play and whether it was pianos, trumpets, or drums, there were usually a good dozen artists and regular folks just bashing away ecstatically. It’s a great way to make that much noise. The drum neighborhood at the end of the day was particularly lively. Big jam sessions up and down the block at every booth.

Perhaps the coolest thing about the NAMM show is that there are small concerts going on all the time in the booths. And a lot of these gigs are phenomenal. Sometimes it’s one person playing over a pre-recorded backing track. Other times it’s a whole ensemble.

Albert Lee bringing it at Music Man

These jams can get crowded but wow, if you have a good spot you’re in for a treat. I got lucky three times. Albert Lee was tearing it up at Music Man, and then I happened over to Godin guitars where Jose Roberto Hernandez and his friends were doing a sublime job of it. Beautiful guitar work from Hernandez, violin, acoustic bass guitar, and three hand percussionists made for some amazing, layered, poly-rhythmic music. Words won’t do it justice. On the other hand, I really couldn’t get a view of John Popper at Fender or of Doug Wimbash at Burgera.

All star jam in honor of Slash with Skunk Baxter, Richie Sambora, and Orianthi.

The best jam I saw was by far at the Mark Bass booth. If you can believe it, about thirty of us got to watch as guitarist Frank Gambale and six string bass ace Alain Caron strutted their chops and soared into the stratosphere together. The grin on our faces, and on theirs, was ear to ear. One person in the crowd actually had to steady the keyboard from falling off the corner of the amp it was perched upon. It was that casual, and yet that good.

Up on the third floor the heavy hitters of guitar set up shop with lavish booths and lots of decor. This would be Fender, Gibson, ESP, Schecter, and Paul Reed Smith. ESP in particular, had some sculpted guitars that looked as impressive as they were close to unplayable for more than an encore…or a photo session. Paul Reed Smith exhibited some wild inlay work, too.

Elaborate inlay work at Paul Reed Smith

Gibson had a whole table of headphones and Les Pauls to play privately, much like you would see in the Apple store. They seemed to be pushing their self-tuning guitar heads, but hey, the one I played just got confused and like in some silly sci-fi movie, the tuning heads spun about, taking the guitar nowhere close to being tuned. Hmm…

Gibson allowed us to plug in and play loud distorted guitar ...to ourselves.

Gibson allowed us to plug in and play loud distorted guitar …to ourselves.

At the big name booths I saw a whole lotta desks in sound-proof offices for making deals. People were here to deal and there was plenty of that going on. You literally couldn’t walk across the Martin Guitar booth without an obstacle course of office furniture. And interestingly enough, when I played one of their $6000 guitars, there was so much general commotion that I could scarcely hear what I was playing. It happens.

At six o’clock the lights dimmed as I was being serenaded with Norteno music and learning about Bajo Sextos and Bajo Quintos. That was a great little session. The show was over and it was time for most of us to trudge to our cars, while in the banquet rooms the VIP’s were just warming up for a night of music and awards. Just another day at the NAMM show. I was happily drained on the way home.

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Photos by Mike Finkelstein. 

To read more posts by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.

 


Ballet: Alberta Ballet’s “Fumbling Towards Ecstasy” at Royce Hall

January 25, 2015

By Jane Rosenberg

Sarah McLachlan’s fans turned out in vast numbers last night for Alberta Ballet’s Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, a ballet by company director, Jean Grand-Maître, set to McLachlan’s folk-pop songs. McLachlan also provided the art for the vast backdrop of video projections. The result: an entertainment more conducive to a Grammy awards night stage than an evening at the ballet.

So distracting were the projections that the very able dancers of the Alberta Ballet were lost amid the flames, ocean waves, whales, tree roots, plants, mandalas, giant jellyfish, and glaciers floating on the enormous screen. It felt as if Grand-Maître didn’t trust enough in his choreography or dancers to leave them the space, air, and light to perform unimpeded.

There was a narrative structure to the ballet – the romantic journey of a woman who moves from immature to mature love with spiritual overtones provided by the backdrop and McLachlan’s plaintive music. To seventeen songs, various dancers took on the role of the heroine from childhood to maturity. Unfortunately, a sameness settled in, both in the choreography and the music.

Variety was in short supply as Grand-Maître relied too much on repetition and less on structuring patterns. The format was often a pas de deux front and center with streams of dancers flying across the rear of the stage from wing to wing. So frequently did his dancers jeté or spin across the back that it began to feel like the 405 at rush hour. The effect was joyous and energetic but it ultimately left one distracted and unable to focus on the principals.

As a popular entertainment, I suppose Grand-Maître and his talented company delivered, but as art, the ballet fell short. Literal mindedness overpowered any sense of discovery. Overt symbolism trumped subtlety. In “Ice,” the subject was romantic betrayal. The lover, leaving his girlfriend lying broken on the ground, moved from one temptress to the next (all three dressed in black sparkly bras). He in turn, grabbed the crotch of one, spread the legs of another, and lustily lifted the third.

The most engaging moments of the evening came in the second half with the dancing of Hayna Gutierrez, Kelley McKinlay, and Serena Sandford portraying the rewards of mature love. The most exasperating were the “Sisterhood” sections where a quartet of dancers represented empowered women. With smug grins planted on their faces, they thrust a hip or strutted confidently. It felt a bit like girl power on the schoolyard.

Without doubt, the dancers of Alberta Ballet are well trained and technically skilled. Talent abounds – they are musical, exuberant, and attractive. The dancers seemed to enjoy performing to McLachlan’s music, but it would be a pleasure to see them dance to more nuanced choreography and more complex music.

Photos  by Don Lee, courtesy of Alberta Ballet 

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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: LA Opera Off Grand Presents “Figaro! (90210)” at Barnsdall Gallery Theatre

January 18, 2015

By Jane Rosenberg

Vid Guerrerio, librettist

Vid Guerrerio, librettist

Hollywood.  In a love letter to multicultural America and specifically Los Angeles, librettist Vid Guerrerio creates an hilarious, timely, and heartfelt rendition of Lorenzo Da Ponte’s take on Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro. One need go no farther than Barnsdall Park in Hollywood to find a delicious musical confection worthy of the Broadway stage and the LA Opera’s continuing “Off Grand” series.

In a fast paced two-hour version of Mozart’s beloved opera, Guerrerio rewrites Da Ponte’s libretto in English and Spanish and transplants the characters from eighteenth century Seville to modern day Los Angeles. Reflecting the concerns of the social upheaval of Beaumarchais’ times, yet moving beyond them, this clever libretto deals with the struggles of immigrant communities working to stay afloat in an occasionally beneficent but often hostile America.

Jose Adan Perez and Maria Elena Altany as Figaro and Susana

Jose Adan Perez and Maria Elena Altany as Figaro and Susana

Guerrerio conjures Figaro as a Mexican handyman employed on the estate of a Beverly Hills tycoon, Paul Conti, and his aging Hollywood starlet wife, Roxanne. Guerrerio tackles issues of immigration, assimilation, racism, political correctness, capitalism, and liberal and conservative politics with a heady mixture of intelligence, compassion, wit, and slapstick.

The basic outlines of the plot are still intact but in this scenario, Figaro owes money to a Korean businesswoman and sweatshop owner who paid Susana’s way across the border. Susana, maid to the Contis and Figaro’s fiancée, has only served one of the two years of her contract. This sets the ball rolling. Conti has promised to pay the money but Susana knows he expects to be sexually rewarded for his generosity. As in the original, scheming, flirtations, mistaken identity, and a long lost baby drive the plot; but the lure of a green card and a legalized life in America often propels the narrative.

Craig Colcough as Paul Conti and Maria Elena Altany as Susana

Craig Colcough as Paul Conti and Maria Elena Altany as Susana

Contemporary references abound. Plastic surgery, Botox, boobs, Big Macs, hip hop, cell phones, “sexting,” selfies, Coca-Cola, El Torito, the Dodgers, and the Lifetime Channel are but a sampling. With Melissa Crespo’s directorial skills and Sibyl Wickersheimer’s simple but effective set, we journey through a landscape, not unlike one of a film parodying the rich in Beverly Hills. Add to that Mozart’s incomparable music and the effect is thoroughly engaging.

Under the baton of conductor, Douglas Kinney Frost, the seven-piece ensemble of piano, guitar, violins, viola, cello, and bass create an intimate yet vibrant atmosphere and beautifully support the very talented cast of singers. Figaro as sung by José Adán Pérez is a delight. The Susana of Maria Elena Altany is as adorable as any soubrette has a right to be. As Roxanne, Greta Baldwin plays the actress striving to reclaim her youth and the love of her philandering husband. Both funny and touching, she sings in her melting soprano while unwrapping bandages on her face from a recent procedure: “God, looks like I’ve been cast as the bride of the Mummy.” Then as an afterthought she adds: “I should have also had them tuck my tummy.”

Maria Elena Altany as Susana, Hayden Eberhart as Barbara Conti, Greta Baldwin as Roxanne Conti and Orson Van Gay II as Li’l B-Man

Every inch the lord of the manor in both bearing and singing, Craig Colclough, in his creamy baritone, delivers a spot on, modern day version of Count Almaviva. As Bernard, who longs to be a Rap singer (Mozart’s Cherubino), Orson Van Gay manages to merge the classical with hints of R&B. In love with Bernard, Barbara, sung by Hayden Eberhart, is both petulant and touching as the Conti’s disillusioned daughter, especially when she sings: “Love’s a fairy tale; one big epic fail.” And in one of the funniest and most potently sung arias of the evening, E. Scott Levin as Babayan, a shady businessman, sings of the faults of the ethnic groups of LA, claiming that the Armenians are best. For Los Angelenos, the stoned gardener played by David Castillo and sung in a Valley accent was beyond hilarious.

Maria Elena Altany as Susana, Greta Baldwin as Roxanne Conti and Jose Adan Perez as Figaro

Maria Elena Altany as Susana, Greta Baldwin as Roxanne Conti and Jose Adan Perez as Figaro

As for the audience, there were smiles on every face and laughter that could be heard for blocks from the hilltop of Barnsdall Park. Now if LA Opera could only make a film or TV version of this romp, perhaps the whole country could join together in embracing, not only opera, but also the diverse ethnic spirit that makes this nation unique.

“Figaro! (90210)” continues at the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre through tonight (Sunday, Jan. 18).

Photos courtesy of L A Opera.

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To read more opera, 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.  

 


Live Music: The Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group at Disney Hall conducted by John Adams

January 15, 2015

By Jane Rosenberg

John Adams

 

Los Angeles. Like a Prospero calling forth the winds, John Adams set the accomplished artists of the LA Phil New Music Group to blowing, gusting, darting, and flying Tuesday night at Disney Hall. Billed as a theatrical evening, two of the pieces, Frankenstein!! and the U.S. premiere of Hommage à Klaus Nomi, were sung and staged with Dadaist vigor. The other, For Your Eyes Only, was an instrumental joyride.

Frankenstein!! by H.K. Gruber, the noted Viennese composer, was inspired by H.C. Artmann’s children’s rhymes. Diabolical and whimsical all at once, the words, as sung by the pitch perfect Pieter Embrechts, combine the likes of vampires, werewolves, John Wayne, rats, Batman, and mince pies. Though heavy on the percussion – popping paper bags open the piece – there are bursts of delicious lyricism that envelop and carry one along on a magic carpet ride of a composition. Gruber uses twelve-tone elements from the Schoenberg school along with tonal structures to create a sound world of emphatic beauty. Adding to the spell is a grab bag of toy instruments, the most visually arresting being the plastic hoses spun by a very game group of instrumentalists.

Heinz Karl Gruber

Heinz Karl Gruber

Gruber’s music and narrative have the vaudevillian atmosphere of Brechtian theatre, and Pieter Embrechts, a Dutch singer/songwriter/actor performs with striking virtuosity as he takes on, not only multiple characters, but also the demands of the score. With his infectious delight in the subversive, we become Embrechts’ co-conspirators in this madcap journey through Artmann’s mind and the dynamic music of Gruber.

The only disappointment was the placement of a portable, collapsible film screen on a tripod behind Embrechts, which displayed illustrations of the text by Sebastiaan Van Doninck. The images on this primitive apparatus were viewable only to the audience seated up close in the center orchestra. Budgetary issues apparently necessitated an inexpensive set and this was the weakest link in an otherwise wonderfully satisfying piece.

Tiptoing rabbits, bumps in the night, snippets of boogie woogie, flares of the operatic, hints of tango, ghostly shades of Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, and Ives, the stuttering of Porky Pig, and the tooting of trains are but a few of the sounds conjured by the fifteen minute piece of John Zorn’s For Your Eyes Only.

John Zorn

John Zorn

In this short composition, the LA Phil New Music Group displays virtuosic precision, giving clarity to what one can only imagine is a minefield of obstacles in this non-linear piece where tempos are constantly shifting and nothing is repeated. Adams himself said it was impossibly difficult to memorize. But the rewards are ample. Zorn marries a Pop sensibility with a kind of Cubistic abstraction to reveal what I can only call the inner workings of the human brain. It’s a Joycean ramble through the mind of modern man, (not a depressive but one with a sense of humor). There are pitfalls. If you fall in love with one fragment of sound, it’s likely to disappear in a moment. But consolation comes quickly. Something equally fascinating arrives to create a delectable smorgasbord of music.

Olga Neuwirth

Olga Neuwirth

Rounding out the evening or should I say testing endurance, we have Olga Neuwirth’s Hommage à Klaus Nomi (nine songs for countertenor and chamber orchestra). Nomi was a unique pop singer/countertenor performing in downtown New York in the nineteen seventies. His onstage and video persona was part David Bowie and part German Expressionist with his triangulated tuxedo jacket, white face, black lips, and three-pointed helmet of dark hair. In his distinctive voice, Nomi sang everything from Cabaret songs, to pop tunes like “You Don’t Own Me,” to Purcell’s “Dido’s Lament.” Neuwirth conscripts nine of his signature numbers and strings them together in her own arrangement. The result is an odd duck of a piece: haunting on the one hand but curiously flat on the other. Nomi’s sly wit and subtlety is lacking as Neuwirth’s scoring turns both sprightly pop music and poignant Baroque arias into overwrought dance hall music.

Nathan Medley

Nathan Medley

Valiantly sung by countertenor Nathan Medley, this startling work, demands much from Medley. Without the benefit of makeup and proper costuming (an odd production decision has him wearing drab gray pajamas), he seems like a distressed hospital patient for most of the evening. The theatrics are staged amidst dozens of multi-sized white balloons, which serve as vague screens for Nomi’s image or backgrounds for decorative patterns of color. Medley is asked to serve up various histrionics – very unlike Nomi’s more stylized performances – and to improvise some 1980’s dance moves. Not easy for anyone who’s a classical performer without a strong level of comfort on the dance floor.

As for the singing, Medley is amplified to the hilt and supported by sampled backing vocals. If elegant modulation is what one hopes for in a countertenor, this proves difficult to achieve under the circumstances.

Adams and the New Music Group work hard to illuminate Neuwirth’s composition, but one wonders if Nomi’s oeuvre is better served by watching YouTube videos of his output. I do thank Neuwirth, however, for shining a light on this fascinating German artist who shined so briefly before dying of AIDS in 1983.

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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

 


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