Marathons, hallmarks, icons -- we've heard and seen loads of them lately. Are they the trick to boost ticket sales?
There's the one titled &q Read More
Marathons, hallmarks, icons -- we've heard and seen loads of them lately. Are they the trick to boost ticket sales?
There's the one titled "Immortal Beethoven," the whole nine symphonies as showcased by Gustavo Dudamel and his LA Philharmonic, after which they sprang forward to that stand-alone 20th century masterpiece, Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring."
There's Twyla Tharp venturing a tour that celebrates her 50th anniversary as a choreographer -- would you believe it's nearly half a century since her breakout "Deuce Coupe" and "Push Comes to Shove," which had the ballet world gasping in awe at the Russian defector Mikhail Baryshnikov (who barely spoke English then) physically impersonating song-and-dance man Jimmy Cagney to a tee?
And, by god, there was the mighty Mariinsky Ballet -- ah, how things change: we used to know it so memorably as the Kirov, where that heartthrob called Misha hailed from as he made headlines leaping to the West.
Celebrity then, celebrity now. It magnetizes the masses. So when a Dudamel puts on a festival of Mahler, for instance, or in this case, Beethoven, you can bet that attention will be paid, that ticket-buyers will gladly storm the boxoffice. To make the season's first flourish grand our resident maestro also brought his "other family" to the party, the Simon Bolivar Orchestra, and put the two brilliant bands together onstage for an opening night gala.
Maybe you can guess what they played, after some of Beethoven's rarely heard incidental music from "Egmont" and "Creatures of Prometheus." Yes, the last movement from the Ninth and last symphony that the Bonn master wrote, the one we hear in TV ads, on movie sound tracks and at every triumphant moment in recent history: at the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall with Leonard Bernstein presiding; at the free Hollywood Bowl "people's concert" seven years ago when Dudamel conducted his inaugural event as the Philharmonic's new music director.
It was thrilling this time, the "Ode to Joy" movement inside Disney Hall -- with his two orchestras galvanized by music that perhaps no other composer could breathe so much spirited, life-affirming heroism into. In fact, it's reliably irresistible -- if for no other reason than we cannot help but be swept up in its overpowering fervor for humanity. And what else puts on the finishing touch? Here, it was the LA Master Chorale, those roaring voices prepared by Grant Gershon, in a simply knockout performance.
But Beethoven had his other sensibilities, as we heard at Disney the night when the "Pastoral" Symphony showed up. It limned the gently glistening side of nature. And Dudamel coaxed so much plush pliancy from his players that he almost made us forget Giulini's hushed mist of bucolic spirituality in the slow movement. This one, some 20 years later, luxuriated in its billowy dimension -- another piece of heaven on earth.
After Beethoven's mega-ton mark on music consciousness, though, we could look to Stravinsky, a century later, for explosive effect. So in this new season Dudamel and Co. gave us none other than the "Rite of Spring" or -- as it was referred to in the good old less-xenophobic and less dumbed-down days -- "Sacre du Printemps." (The one-word headline title used to be "Sacre," then it became "Rite.")
Especially since its 100th anniversary two years ago, celebrating its Paris premiere in 1913 and the famously ensuing riot Stravinsky's blazing entry inspired, the work has had a myriad of performances -- yes, call it an icon of modern music. Every competitive orchestra has stepped up to the sweepstakes plate (not to mention many dance companies, because it was written for the Diaghilev Ballet).
Our resident band, with its starry leader, is no exception, of course. And this most recent account predictably hit the mark. In fact, this piece depicting a climactic pagan sacrifice of a young girl, seemed to have been written for its champions.
To be sure, there were the single-instrument, deep-voiced ruminations, the sharp, ear-cleaning winds, the giant full-orchestra slurs, the brazen cacophony, the nerve-shattering electricity, the unstoppably chugging propulsions, the massed harmonic stretches, even the lyric wisps rising above the left-over ravages.
Is there any wonder why Stravinsky caused riots? Or brought celebrity to modern music?
For that matter, we can also look to dance for new pathfinders. Twyla Tharp, for one. Her populist jolt to choreography astonished us with its flinty intelligence and contrapuntal complexity. So much so that it bears the same scrutiny as a neo-classic Balanchine ballet does.
Once again, this time at the Wallis Theater, she left her indelible mark in "Preludes and Fugues." It salutes Balanchine in its proprieties: the rhinestone studs, the neatly tied-up hair, the short jersey skirts and, of course, all the intimate design counterpoint.
Leave it to Tharp to connect the music, Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier," Volumes I/II, to the World Trade Center, towers I and II, just after the 9/11 disaster. WTC times two. Mostly inward and reflective, these short pieces are full of feeling, expressed, in a naturally chaste manner but also nodding to human interaction. She says it represents the world as it ought to be.
Even here, though, you'll see Tharp's unique vernacularisms. Nowhere does a dance of hers escape those sly, little insertions of everyday gestures and moves we all recognize, not to mention the physical ways that people relate to each other.
But "Yowzie" is a wowzie. You can call it a rowdy circus number, with a narrative on humorously blowzy barroom types. And just as she made "Nine Sinatra Songs," with sophisticated dancers illustrating the singer's ballads and upbeat tunes, she bases this one on Jelly Roll Morton blues. Santo Loquasto's kaleidoscopic clown costumes decorate the playful doings in high color.
Then the Mariinsky put on its own wing-to-wing, extravagant show with "Cinderella," choreography by that man of the hour Alexei Ratmansky. The whole gorgeous thing rolled out on the Chandler Pavilion stage with such sweeping bravura and rigorously stylish costumes that it's hard to imagine that Russia's economy is minus four percent.
But what kept jumping up at us was Prokofiev's music -- because the Mariinsky Orchestra under Gavriel Heine was brilliantly resonant and edgily stratified, undergirding the whole performance. I didn't even mind that the composer lifted several big themes from his gold standard ballet, "Romeo and Juliet" for this one.
If, however, you were looking for libretto magic in this Ratmansky version, it was nowhere to be found. Cinderella sweeping ashes at the fireplace? A fairy godmother transforming the motherless girl's rags to a glittery gown?A glass carriage driving her to the ball? None of it.
Still, he compensated us by contemporizing the fairy tale throughout: on his search for Cinderella, for instance, the prince met up with male and female prostitutes, and the ballroom dancers were gowned in sophisticated cocktail garb; their waltz was grand but with comic social commentary.
The choreography itself was neither terribly inventive nor heart-stirring in the time-honored tradition, but full of deliberately awkward apostrophes. The mime got turned into a kind of angular sign language.
Diana Vishneva, the company star and one who globe-trots as well on her own, was singularly gorgeous to watch as this deconstructed Cinderella, partnered nobly by Konstantin Zverev.
Turning on the avant-garde heat UCLA's Center for the Art of Performance showcased Peter Sellars' staging of the "Othello" story. But he names it "Desdemona" and tells it, based on Toni Morrison writings, as a minority/underdog epic -- with the woman shown as a slave of paternalism, and the black man, even as the Shakespearean Moor of Venice, forever devalued, is primed for paranoia due to his life experience as the outsider. (Do we advance -- without tragedy -- via our salutary Obama status?)
Enacting both lead characters' voices and finding pin-drop intimacy with her mouth-to-mic technique, Tina Benko was compelling as the blonde, milky-skinned Desdemona, along with Africa's aristocratic singer/song-writer/guitarist Rokia Traoré.
In June 2006, nine months before Gustavo Dudamel was named the 11th music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, director Peter Sellars stood on th Read More
In June 2006, nine months before Gustavo Dudamel was named the 11th music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, director Peter Sellars stood on the Walt Disney Concert Hall stage and addressed the leaders of America's orchestras. We need Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, he said, not because it has a nice tune but because the composer demands in this work a radical agenda of social inclusion.
"Unless we mean it," he said, "we should not be playing Beethoven, because it is unacceptable to make money off this guy who was struggling … against these damn autocracies and against this corruption and these power plays." He also described Beethoven's "Egmont" Overture as a blueprint for a community blazing a path from oppression into the future.
For this year's L.A. Phil opening night gala on Tuesday, Dudamel began his seventh season as the orchestra's music director with the "Egmont" Overture and ended the program with the finale of Beethoven's Ninth. This kicked off a two-week "Immortal Beethoven" festival, which will include two full cycles of Beethoven's nine symphonies shared between the L.A. Phil and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela.
There could be no overt political agenda, of course, on Tuesday. Galas are not community events (of which the L.A. Phil has many) but elite black-tie fundraisers that include a dinner and party in a fancy tent erected on Grand Avenue for the big arts spenders. You don't want to alienate supporters who can hardly be expected to agree on the course of our country or how the world should be managed.
Indeed, that morning, Dudamel published an Op-Ed in The Times titled "Why I Don't Talk Politics." In it, he reconfirmed what he has told The Times before, that he cannot publicly take sides in the political chaos of his native Venezuela, to which he remains deeply attached. Not only is he music director of the Simón Bolívar Symphony, but he is also the public figurehead of El Sistema, a government program that provides music education (and considerable sustenance) to 700,000 children throughout the country.
Venezuelan politics are clearly such a vexing problem for Dudamel that he felt he had to put out a formal position paper of non-position. He does take sides, of course. His side is Sistema. And given that Sistema is a branch of the only government in which music education is a constitutional right, Dudamel is inevitably associated with a Venezuelan regime accused of corruption and human rights violations. (Dudamel is music director of the Bolívars but does not receive a salary.)
This brings us to Beethoven.
"Egmont" and the "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's Ninth were fervently played Tuesday by the combined L.A. Phil and Bolívars. Dudamel told the audience that Beethoven's universality is what matters.
Complaining that the world today is increasing concerned with building barriers, Dudamel insisted we must build more bridges. Musicians from two countries that do not have friendly relations can play as one on stage, and joy can be spread widely.
Those two orchestras as one are really something. The relationship began when Dudamel first came to L.A. The Bolívars were a youth orchestra, and the L.A. musicians were mentors. As the Bolívars grew up, the Venezuelan and Angeleno players became colleagues and friends. The result is a super orchestra, one in which the Venezuelans physically enliven the Americans and the Americans elevate the Venezuelan sound to one of luminous beauty.
At that point, music speaks for itself, and we will have occasion this week to observe how Dudamel's Beethoven interpretations have evolved greatly since he first conducted the Fifth Symphony with the Bolívars eight years ago. But there is still the question of Beethoven and human rights and the role of the performer.
Although Beethoven can be seen as the first truly revolutionary composer, in a musical and political sense, he had a complex history with revolution. Disillusioned by Napoleon, he became disillusioned by revolution in practice but ever more ardent in spirit.
To differentiate itself from the upcoming symphony cycle, the gala looked a little bit at Beethoven's neglected theatrical side. The "Egmont" Overture was followed by seldom-performed excerpts from Beethoven's incidental music from Goethe's play. Egmont is a 16th century Dutch martyr fighting against Spanish oppression. Unable to save him, Klärchen, his fiancée, commits suicide. Goethe, who never lost his admiration for Napoleon, is on the side of freedom but dubious about civil war and martyrdom, though he approved of the way Beethoven ends with a blaze of glory.
Rachele Gilmore sang two short songs from the play with warmth and vigor. The actor Christoph Waltz read Egmont's moving final speech in German (with English titles projected above) before being led to his execution. But the grandeur was in the music.
Selections from Beethoven's only ballet, "The Creatures of Prometheus," danced by Beckanne Sisk and members of the Barak Ballet, were treated as more conventional gala material. Beethoven, here, still identified with Napoleon as revolutionary. Melissa Barak's storybook choreography did not.
Dudamel has paid his socially inclusive dues with the Ninth Symphony. He famously began his music directorship six years ago with a free Ninth at the Hollywood Bowl. This time his young solo quartet was composed of soprano Mariana Ortiz, mezzo-soprano J'nai Bridges, tenor Joshua Guerrero and bass Soloman Howard — all strong — and once again the Los Angeles Master Chorale was impressively on hand. But the finale only makes meaningful sense when it serves as the fulfillment of a profound symphonic argument, which will be the case with four full Ninths coming up.
This much, though, Dudamel accomplished on Tuesday. He made a lot of money out of the Ninth, and he conducted it as though he meant it.
A diplomatic Dudamel may not want to talk about Venezuelan politics. But if the best of Tuesday is an indication of his commitment to Beethoven's demands of a radical agenda, he may not need to as the symphony cycle unfolds.