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Music for Money, Symphonic Division
[with special guest: Leopold!]

Gimme a country where I can be free;
Don't need the unions buryin' me.
Keep me in exile the rest of my days,
Burn me in hell, but as long as it pays:

Art for art's sake;
Money for God's sake . . . .

-- 10cc, "Art For Art's Sake" (1975)

Tim Cavanaugh, writing on the Opinion L.A. weblog earlier this week, posted an odd little item drawing on a 2005 survey that purported to identify the ten most financially successful orchestral composers.

George Gershwin, the sole American, heads up the list -- which is unsurprising but seems slightly unfair, given that his financial success was much more dependent on his masterful popular songs than on, say, the Concerto in F.  Italians are well represented (Verdi, Rossini, Puccini and Paganini all make it) as are Germans/Austrians (Johann Strauss, Handel, Haydn) and Russians (Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff).  The French are shut out.

Cavanaugh notes the survey not for aesthetic reasons but for the light it may shed on relations between free markets and classical music:

Why is this interesting (to me at any rate)?  Because longhair music is pretty much universally recognized as an art form that can't compete in an open market and must be supported through royal or (these days) public patronage.  Yet this list is remarkable for the lack of patronage its members enjoyed.  All but two of the composers on the list date to the industrial revolution or afterward, and the two who came earlier than that — Haydn and Handel — did plenty of lucrative for-profit work in Britain, which boasted the most liberal economy in Europe.  Verdi, Rossini and Puccini were all piece-work producers who were less interested in pleasing the royal ear than in filling up the house with paying customers.  Paganini and 'Waltz King' Strauss were expert self-promoters and brand builders, Rachmaninoff made much of his fortune on recordings and performances, and Gershwin made it to the top of the list strictly by producing music for a large popular audience.  I'm not sure he ever got a dime of public support.

More interesting to me than the libertarian economics is Cavanaugh's use of "longhair" to refer to Western classical music.  That was formerly a settled usage -- hifalutin' intellectuals had a reputation for flowing locks by the mid-19th century, and the term's specifically American use in connection with classical music seems to have originated in the 1930s -- but it fell out of fashion by the 1960's when long hair on men became a token of being one of Those Dirty Hippies who didn't much care for the classics but have since grown up and taken over the government.

So, harking back to that older usage, do I need any further excuse to offer up "Long-Haired Hare," a short documentary that takes us behind the scenes of Bugs Bunny's famous appearance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic during the 1948 Hollywood Bowl season?  No, indeed I do not:

Why Save Face When You Can Sleeveface?

[slēvˈ fās] (verb) --
one or more persons obscuring or augmenting any part of their body or bodies with record sleeve(s) causing an illusion;
in French: "pochettes de disques à face humaine"


Illustrative Examples of the Genre

Here's one my lady wife may appreciate:


She may also enjoy this appropriation of Mr. B. Manilow.

Here's one for Rick:


You can see that this technique works somewhat better with real 12" LP covers than with CD packaging.

And here's one that may tickle the fancy of Miz Cowtown Pattie and others of the Texan persuasion:


The pigtails are a particularly nice touch.

Many many many more examples can be seen via the flickr Sleeveface Pool.   

Sleeveface weblog link via Stereogum, which helpfully observes that

. . . sleeveface is really difficult to do with illegal MP3s.  Legal ones too, actually.


Photo credits:
Olivia Newton John, Physical, by flickr user jeanieforever;
King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King, by flickr user
Leo Reynolds;
Willie Nelson, Greatest Hits, by flickr user unsure shot
All photos used under Creative Commons license.


UPDATE [030608]
: A fine French selection of sleeveface, via escapegrace.

O Tell, Otello: Verdi'd It All Go Wrong?

Ian Storey as Otello, Mark Delavan as Iago; Los Angeles Opera photo by Robert Millard.

Los Angeles Opera's new production of Verdi's Otello has drawn responses ranging from lukewarm to actively hostile.  Mark Swed's view of opening night for the Los Angeles Times was decidedly mixed:

For all the company had accomplished by producing its first Otello out of nothing [21 years ago], the orchestra and chorus back then could hardly approach the sheer visceral power of this opening chorus, one of the most dramatic in all opera.  Swept away by it all, I was ready to believe we had entered a new era.  Then I opened my eyes.  And, shortly thereafter, my ears.

Health problems meant the company was obliged to trot out a substitute Desdemona for the opening.  When the intended lead returned, so did Swed, and felt an eensy bit better about it though his praise was still faint:

There is still lots wrong, even embarrassing, with this Otello, but thanks to [Chilean soprano Cristina]Gallardo-Domâs it is no longer a disaster.

Elsewhere, Christian Chensvold complained of "the combination of a beauty-deprived score by Verdi, unexciting production values, and an emotionless portrayal of the tragic hero by Ian Storey . . ."  (He had more positive things to say in that same post about the concurrent "Recovered Voices" double bill, on which I will be better able to report after I see it next Saturday.)

I caught up with Otello last night and, really, it is not nearly so bad as all that.  In fact, its virtues, which are largely musical, overcome its most glaring weaknesses, which are largely scenic.

Otello_set Where lies the scene?  Cyprus, ostensibly -- Verdi and his librettist Arrigo Boito dropped Shakespeare's Act 1 altogether, so we never get to spend any time in Venice -- but a Cyprus that is oddly, and literally, off kilter.  Designer Johan Engels has devised a strange and troublesome curved and canted stage floor with a pair of large boxy tunnels for entrances and exits at right and left.  The inspiration seems to be a ship's keel, drawing on Otello's storm-wracked arrival by sea as the opera opens, but the sandy color scheme and the Cypriots' desert-ready apparel combine with the arc of the floor and an odd blue neon rear wall (representing the sun-sparked Mediterranean, perhaps?) to produce the impression that Otello has been dispatched by the Doge to oversee an abandoned skateboard park on Tatooine.  Alan Rich declared it "an authentic visual plague" and I suspect it may account singlehandedly for an increase in the company's workers' compensation premiums as singers and choristers struggle to get through the run without falling over.

The star of the evening is the orchestra and music director James Conlon, delivering an account of Verdi's score that is stirring and propulsive but also remarkable for transparency of tone and attention to detail.  That means, as I suspect Maestro Conlon might protest, that the star was actually Giuseppe Verdi, whose score does just about all that can be done while still being an Italian opera.  The thunderous bits were properly thunderous, but the quiet beauties of the Act 1 love duet and the achingly sad pre-murder meditations in Act 4 were most memorable.

Among the singing performers, this production belongs solidly to Mark Delavan's Iago, an utterly unapologetic and gleeful villain.  Boito provided Iago with an explanatory speech denied him by Shakespeare: Iago is a proto-Nietzschean nihilist who ruins lives because he can and because "death is the end and Heaven is a lie."  And while he is going about his nefarious business, he has a darned good time, thank you very much. 

Desdemona is a smaller, more reactive role, but I am hard put to imagine how Cristina Gallardo-Domâs' performance of it could be improved upon.  I am generally reluctant to go mooning about over sopranos, but it is tempting to make an exception in this case.  Ms. Gallardo-Domâs sang Cio-Cio San in the Met's new production of Madama Butterfly earlier this year.  Although I am on record with the view that seeing Butterfly once in one lifetime is entirely sufficient, I would make an exception if she were to venture that role here.

And what of Ian Storey's Otello?  Frequently more than adequate, but not dominant in the greater scheme of things, perhaps because of the strengths of Iago and Desdemona.  Otellos in general are so easily played upon by Iago that the character always risks coming off as something of a dupe, and for much of the evening Storey fell prey to that risk.  It must be said that he finished well, however, and that this Moor's last sigh when all became clear was moving and effective.

Last night's performance was in competition with the Academy Awards -- which, before the advent of the Kodak Theater, were frequently distributed in the very Dorothy Chandler Pavilion where we sat.  Oscar did not seem to have diminished the audience by much, and I was pleased to note that the average age of the attendees appeared to skew rather younger than is usual for opera.  Statistical fluke or hopeful sign?  Only time will tell.


Of Related Interest:

Out West Arts has not written up Otello yet, but did spend time with James Conlon over the weekend as the Maestro did double or triple duty by conducting not only the Opera orchestra but the Los Angeles Philharmonic as well.  This very positive post -- "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business" -- does a good job of highlighting just how important Conlon has become to this burg:

The really unexpected part is this – in this town that Salonen built where anxiety is widespread over his pending departure despite all the big promises of a Dudamel-filled future, Conlon has stepped in and quietly become the next major driving force in the musical life of this community.  In less than two years he has developed a beloved following from both local audiences and (I’m told) the musicians playing under his leadership.  He has laid out an agenda that he has so far delivered on with fairly good results across the board programming both more Wagner and overlooked German repertory for LAO.  He is truly excited about what he is doing and is eager to share it with audiences here personally. For example, he’s been doing most of the pre-opera talks of the projects he’s involved with himself and he’s as likely as not to make comments from the stage before his Philharmonic appearances. . . .  He attacks everything with gusto and I for one am thrilled about what he’s done so far.  We are lucky to have Conlon here right now.

The list of folks who are thrilled with what Maestro Conlon is up to is a long one, and you can count me in on it.  For all that he is obliged by management and market forces to pile on the Standard Repertoire each year, he has a demonstrated interest in obscured/less frequently mounted works.  Now, will someone please take his hints -- I've heard him drop them in it least two of his pre-performance talks now -- and let the man conduct a production of Pelleas & Melisande around here?  Please?


Some 30 or 40 year old records earn repeat listens by being comfy old things and some earn them by remaining permanently fresh.  Nick Lowe's 1978 solo album is a fresh one, in every way. 

Just reissued in an expansive 30th anniversary edition on Yep Roc, it is like Tim the Enchanter: known by many names.  The first version was released in the UK as Jesus of Cool, and the Yep Roc reissue uses that original title.  Apparently concerned that American sensibilities would be offended in those innocent pre-Andres Serrano days, Columbia retitled the US version Pure Pop for Now People and released it with slightly rejiggered song selection and sequencing. 

The two editions' original covers and song lists can be compared and contrasted here [UK] and here [US].  The US rear cover is reproduced above.

The 21-song Yep Roc reissue provides all of the tunes that appeared on either version, rounded out with seven additional B sides and other rarities.  In our digital shufflizing age, listeners can sequence the songs to recreate either of Lowe's quirky twins, or just run randomly through the treasure house.  (Having finally compared the two, I think the US version gets the nod as ever so slightly superior to its British cousin.)

Although I enjoyed it hugely when it first came out, it has been nearly 25 years since I last listened to PPfNP.  On being reintroduced, it remains a feat of musical legerdemain rarely surpassed.  Lowe's great trick was to put together a collection that celebrates and subverts simultaneously: he clearly loves radio-friendly 2:50 pop songs with a passion, but has no illusions about the cynical and mercenary nature of The Business that doles them out. 

"I can't believe they've let me make this fabulous fabulous music!" says Dr. Nick. 

"And I can't believe you yokels are falling for it!" smirks Mr. Lowe.

Some random remarks on selected selections:

  • One of the best decisions made for the US version was to start off with the high-velocity "So It Goes" rather than the more openly sarcastic "Music for Money."  "So It Goes" is one of several songs here that still seem to understand how the world goes, even though it goes rather differently thirty years on:

In the high-rise sit the heads of our nations,
Worthy men from Spain and Siam;
All day, discussions with the Russians
But they still went ahead, and they vetoed the plan...

Bonus points for timeliness this week go to "Nutted by Reality" in which Lowe reports:

Well I heard they castrated Castro
Because he was the People's friend . . . .

Extra bonus points for the still-accurate summation of artist-company relations, accompanied by an arrangement that somehow cross-breeds "In My Life" with "Lay Lady Lay":

I love my label, I love my label, yeah,
And my label has high hopes in me . . . .

  • "Marie Provost," drawn from one of the lurid anecdotes in Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon, is still a macabre little gem, especially as the massed "whoo-ah's" swell behind the chorus:

She was a winner
Who became a doggie's dinner --
She never meant that much to me.
(Oh, poor Marie.)

  • The influence of Tommy James and the Shondells seems to be all over this record, which I had never really noticed before.  In "Tonight," in particular, Lowe out-Tommys Tommy, producing an utterly perfect "we're just two kids in love and nothing else matters and gosh the stars are purty" number that is either the only 100% sincere song on the album or else a joke far too subtly cruel for me to penetrate.

The entire reissue package can be streamed to your desktop from the Yep Roc site, here.  Also available for purchase or download via Amazon, eMusic, and of course   Nick Lowe - Jesus of Cool.

Learn again, or for the first time, to love the sound of breaking glass.

"Somehow, the sight of giant beasts stuck in tar pits amidst the backdrop of LA’s extreme luxury and urban sprawl seems a too perfect metaphor. . ."


David Byrne shares his impressions from the Gala Opening of the new Broad Contemporary Art Museum [BCAM] at LACMA.  He has less to say about the art on display than he does about the unexpected choice of entertainment provided for the assembled culturati:

[After dinner and speeches], Lionel Ritchie, Nicole’s 'father', takes the stage and sings about being easy like Sunday morning.  I head to the restrooms.  Kind of shocking that a place purporting to support innovative and groundbreaking contemporary art plays such middle of the road music.  Well, OK, if they’d asked me to perform while people finished dessert and networked, I’d have said no, so maybe it’s not that surprising.  And maybe contemporary music requires an investment of time and a bit more focus and involvement — whether it’s academic, quasi-classical, post-rock or electronic — than the average work of contemporary art. . . .

Later, guests were treated to a lounge version of Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" by a bald-headed blue red man group.  O! the artsy social whirl of it all. 

The traveling companion David Byrne refers to coyly in his post as "C" is Cindy Sherman, whose work features prominently in the collection of Eli Broad -- and thus in his/our new museum.

Here is a link to a gallery of célébrités sur le tapis rouge: Look, it's Tom 'n' Katie!  Look, it's Ellsworth Kelly!

And look!  BCAM has its own live weBCAM.

Someday, perhaps we'll see it all for ourselves and write about it on our weblogs, just like David Byrne.


Illustration: "The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire" (1965-1968) by Ed Ruscha, via Modern Art Notes.

A Long Afternoon's Journey Into a Knight at the Opera

"It's a naive domestic Burgundy without any breeding, but I think you'll be amused by its presumption."

I spent this past drizzly Sunday afternoon -- four and a half hours, not counting the pre-performance lecture/conversation -- with Los Angeles Opera's revival of its 1987 production of Tristan und Isolde, designed by David Hockney.  Hockney, conductor James Conlon and the orchestra -- and of course Tristan und Isolde itself -- combined for a performance in which the excellent ultimately outweighed the ordinary, which was plenty good enough for me.  There is one performance remaining (this Sunday, Feb. 10 at 1:00), after which I hope we don't have to wait another decade before Los Angeles sees this production -- any production of Tristan, for that matter -- again.

Generally, when writing up an opera performance, it is expected that you will write about the singers, but I have little to say on that score.  All of the principals were adequate to their tasks, none embarrassed themselves or us, but no one stood out as exceptional.  John Treleaven's Tristan sounded fine, but seemed a bit of a lunk.  It's an approach that will probably work well in two years when Treleaven returns to sing Siegfried in the LAO Ring, since Siegfried really is a bit of a lunk, but Tristan should be something more.  Linda Watson, pictured above, was not scheduled to sing Isolde on Sunday.  Instead, the role was covered for this performance by Susan Foster - her premiere in the part - who was strongest where it counts, in Acts II and III.  Kristinn Sigmundsson was very very sad as King Marke, who always has ample reason to be very very sad.

This is a production that succeeds because the audience actually can leave the theater "humming the scenery."  David Hockney's sets, and particularly the exquisitely fluid lighting of those sets implemented by Duane Schuler, work stunningly well as extensions of Wagner's sound world.  Hockney does not have any agenda of his own to impose atop Wagner's, and his designs are intended to tell Wagner's story straight.  Wagner wants the deck of a sailing ship?  He gets the deck of a sailing ship.  A castle and forest?  Done.  High atop a Breton cliff?  You are there.  No post-modern nudge nudge, no politico-theoretical conceptualist flapdoodle.  Hockney asserts his own identity in the details: the bright lustrous colors, the sweeping arcs of sails or tree tops, the interpolation of Celtic knot patterns in unexpected places.  It is all a delight to behold, a pleasure in itself without distracting or detracting from the musical business at hand.

You can see the designs here, at the official Hockney Pictures site, which provides access to the full range of Hockney's work, including his operatic and theater projects.  I recommend clicking the "Slide Show" link at the upper right of the Tristan page, to get something of the full flavor of these designs as they appear in the shifting light that is so central to Hockney's schema.  It is unfortunate that, as mentioned in this January 13 LA Times profile, hearing impairment has compelled Hockney to give up on designing new opera productions.

The loudest cheers at the conclusion of Sunday's performance were reserved for James Conlon and the Los Angeles Opera orchestra, with good cause.  The principal obstacle to optimal performance of this incomparable music came not from the players but from the venue.  The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion's acoustics, while not authentically bad, are unavoidably clunky, especially with the orchestra submerged in the pit as it is during Opera performances, and the excellence of the playing on this occasion called attention to the hall's limitations.  (The LA Philharmonic, for which the hall was originally built, at least had the advantage of sitting on the stage.  The Philharmonic has since moved across the street to the acoustically astonishing Disney Hall where last April, you will recall, its Tristan Project reduced this fool to quivering aesthetic jelly.)


ELSEWHERE, more or less on topic:

  • There appears to be a consensus in reviews of this production that the casting is . . . somewhat second-tier.  Brian of Out West Arts basically agrees, but he wonders whether such complaints are ultimately either fair or relevant.  Noting (correctly) that "mediocre Wagner is still better than excellent Puccini any day", he writes in defense of mediocrity:

My reaction to Tristan got me thinking a lot about how people, including myself, tend to write about opera performance.  I mean what is so wrong with Linda Watson or John Treleaven.  Sure, they aren't the best in the world and they are far from the best ever.  But both deliver mostly competent performances.  People seem to dismiss them simply because they aren't "inspiring" or transcendent in some way.  Sure it's great to hear the best in the world, but isn't there room for artists who can perform difficult material in a competent way? . . .

    * * *

I think that Opera is a living thing meant to be performed and experienced live.  Too often critics, both professional and otherwise, tend to forget this.  And while I love to hear a standard setting performance in the flesh as much as the next person, I think there is much more to loving opera. Since opera, by its very nature, needs to be performed in order to be enjoyed, that often means working with the performers you have on hand even if they aren't ideal.  Baroque composers such as Handel didn't seem to have any trouble getting their heads around this, so what's our problem?

  • Christian Chensvold of FineArtsLA chatted up John Treleaven at the start this Tristan run.  (That post comes with video! and French subtitles!)
  • TIME's Richard Lacayo interviewed Hockney at about the same time the LA Times did, and the artist took the opportunity to repeat a pointed observation that the Times ultimately edited out of its piece:

LACAYO. How's your one man campaign for smokers' rights going?

HOCKNEY. I did an interview recently with the LA Times and said 'I have noticed here in California that 25% of the advertisements on American television are for prescription drugs. That's what's replacing tobacco.'  People smoke to calm down, but now in this country you take drugs to do that.  I'm a lone voice but I keep on it.  I'm not giving up.  Tobacco is America's greatest gift to the world!

The photos accompanying Lacayo's post serve to remind how attuned Hockney is to the combined verticality and sweep of trees, as is very evident in his Act II and III Tristan sets.

  • The next big Wagner item on the Los Angeles Opera horizon is the premiere over the next two years of a complete Ring cycle, to be conducted by James Conlon and designed/directed by Achim Freyer.  I praised Freyer's production of Berlioz's Damnation of Faust back in '03.  His take on the Ring could be very good or or could be deeply odd -- quite possibly both.  An elite crew of Opera insiders are privy to it, but very little concerning the conception or look of this production has escaped to the public so far.  Although they look distinctly Freyerische, it is uncertain whether the illustrations accompanying the company's announcements of Rheingold and Walküre provide any hints of what to expect.

In preparation for next season, or on general principles, one can do far worse than to turn to Threepenny Review and Wendy Lesser's eloquent and cogent recent essay on the Ring, written on the occasion of her seeing the Kirov/Valery Gergiev production that has been roaming the continent this past year.

It is ironic, to say the least, that the emblem of opera in the popular imagination is a fat, blonde-haired woman wearing a two-horned helmet. The image comes, by way of cartoons and parodies, from Wagner's Ring, but Wagner himself would have been the last person to view his great work as the essence of opera. He thought what he was building in this eighteen-hour, four-evening piece was precisely not opera, but a rebellion against opera as he knew it—a fresh form that required a new name (something along the lines of "music drama") and that could not be performed in a standard opera house, but needed its own special festival setting. That Bayreuth in particular and Wagnerism in general have hardened into the strictest of operatic traditions is an irony which would not have been lost on the composer, for the oppressive and finally triumphant power of rules, even or especially in the face of the deepest individual desire to break them, is one of the Ring cycle's central themes.

Yet the Ring does succeed in breaking the rules, remaking the form, time after time, and differently every time.  For if a ring or a cycle by definition suggests the endlessness and eternity of a circle, this Ring and this cycle make their mark by coming, each time, to a distinct conclusion.  And while the cycle will inevitably start up again — at another time and elsewhere, or perhaps even in the same place — the specific performance you have witnessed will in every case be unique and unrepeatable.

(Threepenny link via 3quarksdaily.)

Los Angeles Opera photo by Robert Millard.  Photo caption shamelessly borrowed from James Thurber.

From the Annals of Unfortunate Headlines


From the front page of yesterday's Glendale News Press:

Schools suspend beef from menu

Concerned Citizen's Thought Number 1

  • Is this safe?  Wouldn't metal hooks be more reliable?

Concerned Citizen's Thought Number 2

  • So now our precious art education dollars are being squandered on Damien Hirst knockoffs?

Still, as unfortunate headlines go, it doesn't really compare to this one.


Illustration: "The Locomotive" by noodleoodle, via Flickr; used under Creative Commons license.