Previous month:
December 2011
Next month:
February 2012

Digging in the Dirt
[Maria de Buenos Aires, Long Beach Opera]

Tyrannies do not come in ones or twos; tyrannies come in battalions.... It does not matter what the party motto is, what flag flies, what history pretends to teach, what rewards will be yours, what hurt feelings will follow; we need to be free to choose our own errors, our own myths, to furnish our souls as we see fit.
 — William H. Gass 

Long Beach Opera began its 2012 season on Sunday afternoon in the dark deco spaces of the Warner Grand Theater in San Pedro exploring the dark indecorous spaces of authoritarian cruelty with a revised edition of Astor Piazzola and Horacio Ferrer's 1968 "Tango Operita," Maria de Buenos Aires. Jettisoning the plot and supernatural trappings of the original, and shifting the action in time, Andreas Mitisek's production lays open Argentina's "Dirty War" of 1976-1983 in which the military junta of the time "disappeared" tens of thousands of its own citizens. It is a potent and harrowing look into the abyss, a sort of anti-Evita in which Argentina cries not for celebrity but for justice and human dignity. 

In Piazzola and Ferrer's original conception, the figure of Maria represents the "spirit of the Tango." She rises from the slums and enters a life of prostitution, only to be killed by a conspiracy of thieves and brothel keepers; her shade lives on, however, wandering Buenos Aires, ultimately achieving a sort of rebirth and immortality. Maria sings, as does her male counterpart El Duende, who in turn is also portrayed by a non-singing narrator. Dance, naturally, is involved, and there are longer stretches without singing than with. None of the characters is fleshed out at all realistically: Ferrer's text is a long, highly poetic meditation on Maria, her mysterious nature, and El Duende's devotion to the ultimately unattainable essence she embodies. 


If Maria is the spirit of the Tango, and the Tango is the spirit of Argentina, then artistic logic dictates that Maria can be transplanted to the late 1970's and can serve as a surrogate for the suffering of the Argentine people. In Mitisek's revision, Maria is a creature of flesh and blood and El Duende, now the younger (singing) and older (speaking) Payador, is as well, the latter narrating from the present day, wracked by his loss and perhaps by survivor's guilt. In his recollection, he and Maria meet and marry; he is taken in by the junta without explanation; Maria seeks him out on the sordid fringes of the military's goon squads, only to fall herself in to their clutches. She is raped, imprisoned, briefly reconnects with her lover in song, and then is killed in her cell. We last see Maria as her body is removed in a tableau reminiscent of Caravaggio.


As LBO's General and Artistic Director, Andreas Mitisek is in full auteur mode with this production, responsible not only for the revisions of text and score, but also for the production concept and much of its design. He deserves at this point to be acknowledged as one of the most consistently interesting theatrical minds currently at work in southern California. That he is a skilled and fluid conductor is almost secondary, though his leadership of the small pit ensemble contributed a valuable momentum and scope to Piazzola's twisty, expansive music.

The action unfolds behind a scrim, which serves as a screen for impressionistic film montagesconceived by Mitisek, executed by Adam Flemmingevoking Buenos Aires, picturing some fraction of the actual Disappeared, and advancing and commenting on the action. The older Payador speaks and remembers, the projections lending a dream quality to transitions as the scene moves from barroom to bedroom to interrogation chamber to cell. (The soundlessness with which the large erector-set prison was somehow brought on stage is a credit to the tech crew.) 


Mitisek's Maria is Peabody Southwell, in a performance that is fearsomely committed and painfully exposed in every sense. Followers of this blog will know that I am a confessed fan boy when it comes to Ms. Southwell's work in Long Beach, dating to her debut in 2009. This, I think, is easily her strongest performance yet with the company, abetted by her willingness to hold nothing back as an actor while sacrificing none of her considerable gifts as a singer. Her richly burnished mezzo runs a thread of fatalism and sorrow through Maria's tale as she is crushed inexorably beneath the heel of the state. 

As the younger, singing Payador, tenor Gregorio Gonzalez is mostly called upon to look dashing and to sing handsomely, which he does. His older self is portrayed by Gregorio Luke, expert and lecturer on Latin American arts and culture and former director of the Museum of Latin American Art. whose sonorous speaking voice seems well suited to Ferrer's verse, albeit tending to veer toward the unnecessarily shouty at the most dramatic moments.

LBO's utility non-singer Mark Bringelson, memorable as the disappearing landowner and the investigating magistrate in last season's Difficulty of Crossing a Field, takes the silent, freshly invented role of Marco. First seen as a slightly goofy barfly being snubbed by the ladies, Maria among them, Marco falls in with the military, the ordinary citizen willing to turn on his fellows. In that capacity, he directs the abduction of Maria's lover, and is personally responsible for Maria's torture and death. Bringelson is appropriately cold and economical as the human face of an inhuman regime.

As reimagined here, Maria de Buenos Aires is fierce and gripping music drama of undeniable power. It does not explain. It will not excuse. It offers no comfort. It does what it can, bearing witness to a great wrong and demanding that we not look away from either the evil that has been done or the thousands of unique, invaluable lives that evil destroyed. 



Photos by Keith Ian Polakoff, used with kind permission of Long Beach Opera.

One performance of Maria de Buenos Aires remains, at 8:00 p.m. on Saturday, February 4. Tickets are available here.


Rough Swedding

 'Listen astounded as the fire of Vienna meets the fire of Venezuela!'

I am beginning to worry about Mark Swed.

The Los Angeles Times is today a mere walking shadow of the paper it once was, but its arts and culture coverage has somehow survived the cutbacks and defections of recent years with most of its strengths intact. Those strengths include the two Christophers, Knight (art/museums) and Hawthorne (architecture/urbanism), and historically I would also have tended to include Mark Swed, who assumed the position of chief classical music critic for the Times in 1996 upon the departure of the redoubtable (and certifiably world-class) Martin Bernheimer. The cracks, however, have begun to show. And this weekend they are showing in perhaps the most baffling paragraph I have seen in a 21st century music review.

For most of his tenure, I have found Swed to be knowledgeable, with a smart and agreeable writing style and a laudable inclination to support new or challenging music. In that latter respect, however, he has recently entered a disappointing "get off my lawn" phase, symptoms of which include his abundantly strange column last summer striking out against the"technological fascism" of electronic devices and social media, and his recurring outbursts of passive-aggression toward new music and composers originating around New York or, particularly, Brooklyn. This is just . . . odd.

But the particular oddity to which I am headed concerns Gustav Mahler and Gustavo Dudamel. Since Dudamel's arrival as music director and principal conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Swed has been a tireless, seemingly blinkered supporter, bringing to his Dudamel-related pieces a sort of "hometown" fervor more commonly seen in sports writers. That impulse is on full display in his writing on the Philharmonic's current Mahler Project, in which Dudamel will conduct all 9-plus Mahler symphonies—and more!—twice!—over five weeks!—on two continents!—with two orchestras!

The second program in the series premiered on Thursday evening, with Dudamel leading the Philharmonic in performances of the Adagio from Mahler's unfinished Tenth Symphony and of Mahler's First Symphony. Swed's review is predictably laudatory, and where it finds even a shadow of fault it quickly brushes it aside. ("The triumph of the First perhaps forced Dudamel into too much grandeur [in the Tenth] to avoid a feeling of anti-climax.") More irritating is Swed's couching of the review as a "compare and contrast" between this performance and Dudamel's leadership of the First Symphony in his 2009 premiere as the Philharmonic's new leader. There is an air boastfulness—"I was there for both of these very cool events and you poor saps were not"—that does not set well. This most recent performance is praised to the heavens and beyond, and when his enthusiasm is at its height Swed pulls this out of his quiver:

The bizarre third movement was the most changed from two seasons ago. An eccentric funeral march based on 'Frére Jacques' is interrupted by an outlandish klezmer band. At the gala Dudamel was understated; Thursday, he was not. I’ve never before heard a non-Jewish conductor get the effect the way Dudamel now does. Eastern European brass and Latin brass have closer ties than you might think.

The layering of ethnic and cultural presumption and stereotyping concentrated in those sentences is a perverse marvel to behold. Mahler, of course, was a Jewish conductor and composer, recurrently targeted by Viennese antisemitism and ultimately driven from Europe to New York by the rise of Nazism. His most vocal proponent over the past half-century, Leonard Bernstein, was also a Jewish conductor and composer. Mahler's Jewish identity was and is important, but the implication that the dichotomy of "Jewish/non-Jewish conductors" is meaningful, or that there is something innate in Mahler's music that a non-Jew will be unlikely ever to "get" is just . . . again, odd.  It is difficult to imagine a similar remark being made in relation to Wagner ("I've never heard a non-German conductor get the effect—") or Verdi ("I've never heard a non-Italian conductor get the effect—") or Philip Glass ("I've never heard a non-Buddhist conductor get the effect—") or Benjamin Britten ("I've never heard a non-gay conductor get the effect—"). Slide down that slope far enough, you're bound to run into "natural rhythm," or worse. Swed inverts, but in a sense inadvertently legitimates, the sort of misbegotten logic by which Mahler's enemies could suggest that a Jew should not be trusted as a custodian of the treasured music of Christian Europe. 

The tossed-off mention of "Latin" brass in the concluding sentence is also troublesome in context. Since his arrival, the Philharmonic has made much of Dudamel's rootedness, as a Venezuelan, in Hispanic America. Some of that has taken the form of outreach to the region's large Spanish-speaking population, but much of it has been tacitly targeted at the "traditional" Anglo symphony audience, lending to Dudamel a "passionate" "Latin lover" aura, a hint of "el Maestro loco" mystery, danger, exoticism. Swed's attempt to bridge the perceived gap between two cultural worlds comes off as more than a touch patronizing. (Not to mention that a happy melange of Eastern European and Latin American brass impulses has been the stock in trade of Zach Condon's band Beirut for the past several years....)

To be clear, I am not accusing Mark Swed of actual or even subliminal bad faith or ill will here. I accuse him only of tone deafness or a lack of self-awareness, most likely a result of letting his current enthusiasms run away with him. So yes, I have begun to worry about Mark Swed, but in this instance I should perhaps be more worried for the LATimes and the editors who let that passage slip by unquestioned.


Illustration: Still from the opening sequence of Ken Russell's Mahler (1974), emblematic of my brain's attempt to absorb the paragraph under discussion in this post.


A Storm of Wings
[Wild Up, "Ornithology" in Pasadena]


...came a roar and a thunder men had never heard,
Like the scream and the sound of a big war bird....

— The Royal Guardsmen, "Snoopy vs. the Red Baron"

wild Up, the young self-styled "24-member experimental classical/contemporary ensemble committed to creating visceral, thought-provoking happenings", came to Pasadena on Saturday and settled itself in to a two-story studio space in the Armory Center for the Arts, in the company of a sell-out crowd that filled in all of the available sitting, standing, leaning, lounging surfaces and then some. Visceral, thought-provoking performance happened, the musical equivalent of a precision chainsaw juggling circle. And it was good. So, so good.

"Ornithology" was the theme of the evening, and all of the pieces had some connection to things with feathers, albeit not as ever imagined by Emily Dickinson.

For an appetizer or palate cleanser, the evening opened with "Hen Soup," a revision of Haydn's Symphony No. 83, "The Hen" by conductor/music director Christopher Rountree. As Rountree explained, his rearrangement compressed the symphony in to a single movement, "turning the chicken up to 11 and the classical music down to about 5." Some period-inauthentic electric bassoon was involved. It was a sharp, brainy hoot.

The action shifted swiftly from the ridiculous to the ridiculously difficult in the form of Brian Ferneyhough's "La Chute d'Icare" [The Fall of Icarus]. Ferneyhough is a king of "the new complexity" and his music is rhythmically and structurally fiendish: not literally unplayable, but dancing as close to that edge as possible. ("Our first rehearsal consisted of two hours of note taking," said Rountree.) While every player on the piece is challenged, particular cruelties are visited upon the clarinet soloist, in this case Brian Walsh. The clarinet plays essentially non-stop through the 10 minute piece, culminating in an ear-tweaking acid washed solo. Walsh and his companions handled it all with a focus and fire that was entirely riveting, the likely highlight of the night. (A video here allows you to follow the score alongside a performance by the Nieuw Ensemble.)

The first portion of the evening concluded with a pair of pieces, one new and one an established masterwork, for nearly identical configurations of instruments. The premiere was "Double Tui" by Mark Menzies, the masterwork Messiaen's "Oiseaux Exotiques" [Furrin' Boids]. The Messiaen was a boisterous and intense hommage to winged life in bursts of wind and percussion. Expatriate New Zealander Menzies paid tribute to the tui, a bird of his native land, evoking its woodland world with rain sticks, detached reeds, and even a pair of wandering boom boxes. A splendid and atmospheric piece that one hopes will be heard again somewhere. 


After intermission, during which one could observe firsthand the inexplicable popularity of Pabst Blue Ribbon among the Bright Young People of today (optimally whilst quaffing a Fat Tire of one's own), most of the second portion of the evening was devoted to arrangements of or fantasias on themes from music by Charlie "Yardbird" Parker and Andrew Bird. The contrasting Parker pieces were particularly winning. Archie Carey's "Bird of Paradise (in Paradise)" embedded the compact theme from Parker's original in a sea of drones, while Rountree's "Stand Still Like the Hummingbird' neatly cross-faded the speed humans perceive in the hummingbird with the bird's own imagined perception of a slower world. The midpoint of the second segment featured a premiere by Chris Kallmyer, "this nest, swift passerine," in which the ensemble interacted with birdsong emitted by speaker-implanted birdhouses around the room. 


This was my first encounter with wild Up, and looking over this post I sense that I am not conveying effectively just what a fine time this performance was. The commitment, energy, skill and, above all, devotion to the cause of Getting This Music Across of these musicians is tremendous, and the resulting audience excitement over a repertoire that is either challenging or entirely new was a thing to behold. wild Up is a great, good thing, and should be supported. It will be a thrill to watch it as it continues to grow into the larger world.


Here, from an awkward vantage in standing room, a video of one of Michael Gordon Shapiro's pair of Morricone-infused Andrew Bird arrangements.

My own location was on the main floor, just out of frame at left. The lamp at the center of the video shot was featured in a tweet I sent out just before show time:

Valuable tip: showing up early for wild Up shows is apparently a must.


Top illustration: "Die Zwitscher Maschine" [The Twittering Machine] by Paul Klee, via Wikimedia Commons. Additional photos by the blogger.