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Something Boroughed, Something New
[wild Up, "Craft" in Venice]

PiaNo Exit

The wickedly engaged and engaging new music collective wild Up returned to Beyond Baroque in Venice on Friday evening (repeated on Saturday afternoon) for a continent-spanning exercise in comparison, contrast, and What's Happening Now. "Craft" was the announced title for the program, which set new music from Brooklyn* alongside new and newer music from Los Angeles. Although it was framed in confrontational terms of "Brooklyn vs. Los Angeles," there was no real rivalry or conflict in evidence. Rather, the evening reemphasized that both coasts are in the midst of an expansive and fertile period of new music making. 

A piece by piece rundown: 

Round 1—Brooklyn

Wild up - brooklyn

The night began with a jolt of energy and action in the form of Andrew Norman's 2004 violin octet, "Gran Turismo." [Caution: the player at that link launches automatically.] Inspired by the eponymous video game, combined with the speed-and-motion paintings of Italian Futurist Giacomo Balla and Baroque precision string practice, it is (to borrow from John Adams) a short ride in a fast, meticulously crafted machine. The piece moves nonstop, shifting and recombining its parts constantly over its whipfast eight minutes, themes and playing techniques sparking kaleidoscopically from player to player to player, leaving the audience wide awake and fully attentive.

Ordinarily, wild Up is not a conductorless ensemble. The absence of conductor/artistic director Christopher Rountree was explained in an introductory video, revealing that long after this program had been set, Rountree found himself required to spend time this week and weekend as assistant conductor to (ha ha!) the Brooklyn Philharmonic, so that instead of conducting "Brooklyn music" in California, he was obliged to talk to Californians from Brooklyn, about Brooklyn's music and their own.

Composer, pianist and elegant dresser Timo Andres has been in Los Angeles for several days, both to attend wild Up and to perform with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in three concerts featuring his compositions. He contributed three out of five of the Brooklynese pieces for wild Up, beginning with the solo piano revision of his "How Can I Live in Your World of Ideas?", performed by Richard Valitutto. (The original dual piano version appears on Andres' excellent 2010 debut recording, Shy And Mighty.) Where "Gran Turismo" burns, "How Can I Live..." smolders while tossing out unexpected sparks.

Missy Mazzoli's "Dissolve O My Heart" for solo violin was commissioned and premiered through the LA Philharmonic last year. It alludes to Bach, but quotes him only once before twisting off in its own knotty, pensive direction. It is perhaps the most magisterially off-putting piece of Mazzoli's that I have heard; a piece to be admired rather than loved. Andrew Tholl navigated its sinuous course with focus and grit.

In recent years, an entire performance genre has developed around solo string players—such as violinist Todd Reynolds, cellists Zoe Keating and Jody Redhage, and contrabassiste Florent Ghys—playing off against recorded versions of themselves, often generated with laptop and looping pedals on the fly. "Are your fingers long enough?" (2010), commissioned for and played here by bassist-vocalist Maggie Hasspacher, is a Timo Andres contribution to the genre. Equipment troubles forced a restart, but they were forgotten within moments of launching in to the second attempt. The material that ultimately loops upon itself incorporates more open space and less obvious rhythms than some other pieces of its kind. Midway, the surprise is sprung as Ms. Hasspacher begins to sing a text drawn from Hart Crane, the apparent sweetness of her song—it sounds at first like a child's counting rhyme—poignant against the relative darkness of the bass and the melancholy secreted in the verse. 

Andres' "Some Connecticut Gospel" (2008) which closed out the first portion of the program winningly. Written for a mixed ensemble of strings, winds, piano, it is a backhanded homage to the spacious generosity and love of place sometimes displayed by Charles Ives, evoking a sort of Platonic Form of Connecticut and generating a mood of cautious, hoped-for optimism. 

Round 2—Los Angeles

Wild up - LA

After intermssion, the California segment  of the program began with the oldest piece of the night: the late Art Jarvinen's "Egyptian Two-Step" of 1986. The piece is an eccentric hoot, its twisty marimba part recalling Frank Zappa (with whom Jarvinen was a collaborator), reeds, piano and electric bass shoogalooing about, and twinned cans of compressed air providing rhythmic punctuation. It could not be heard without grinning.

In the absence of Christopher Rountree, it fell to Richard Valitutto to offer some thoughts on "Los Angeles music," which noted the do-whatcha-want quality with which the region is often tagged and the less often noted introspective element of much Los Angeles art. Odeya Nini's "Shelter in Swarm," which followed, was as introspective as Jarvinen's two-step was ebullient, its structure built on microtonal drones revealing glimpses of unlooked for order within a seemingly entropic field.

wild Up violist Andrew McIntosh contributed the premier of "Silver and White" for a quartet of viola, cello, trumpet and trombone. As I craft this post a day later, I find that I have not retained a sufficient memory of the details of the piece to provide you, reader, with a good description of it. That gap in recollection is galling, because it was one of the very best things on offer last night and I am unable to tell you why. I can only say with certainty that the conjunction of strings and muted brass was riveting and that this was a piece that I hope to hear again, and soon.

Christopher Rountree, in absentia and in his role as composer, contributed "Brooklyn," in which his recorded reading of Walt Whitman's paean to the place was set within an energetic musical framework expanding outward, as Whitman himself so often did, from the quotidian toward the galactic, an eloquent roar of approval for being alive and in a time and a place full of other lives. 

To conclude by circling back toward the energy with which the evening began, the closing piece was wild Up violinist Andrew Tholl's "Corpus Callosum", a thrilling contraption mirroring the dual nature of the brain structure for which it is named, the elements of the elaborately mixed ensemble pairing off to lob a succession of pulsing, scintillant musical ideas at one another. Where Rountree's piece grabs hold to the living Brooklyn of another era (Whitman's), Tholl bursts out with the sharp-edged glint of the living Los Angeles of today.

So, what have we learned? If nothing else, wild Up's program demonstrated handily that geography is not really destiny at all when it comes to making gripping contemporary music. The awkwardness of the Los Angeles-New York relationship, particularly the West's presumed sense of inferiority, is a cliché in which wild Up will not indulge. Quality is the great equalizer in music, and quality is being generated at an impressive rate on both coasts, and likely in between. To overstate the case a bit, we can part on this note, from notable New Yorker Herman Melville in his effusive essay on Hawthorne:

"Genius, all over the world, stands hand in hand, and one shock of recognition runs the whole circle round."

These are good musical times, and wild Up are their prophets.


*    "Brooklyn" has it seems become the geographical signifier of choice when referring to new music by youngish composers from the eastern U.S., particularly those whose music is also labeled "alt-classical" or "indie classical" or suchlike. This imagined Brooklyn encompasses, at a minimum, all five boroughs of New York and the States of New Jersey and Connecticut. As with many another imagined realm, its exact bounds are obscure, and may be crossed without knowing it.

Photos by the blogger.


Surrealism or Bust
[Tears of a Knife and Breasts of Tiresias,
Long Beach Opera]

In programming an opera season there are ideas that, if they are not pursued by Long Beach Opera, are just not going to be pursued in southern California, or perhaps at all.

A double bill of Surrealist one-act operas would be one such idea.

In practice, it is not a perfect idea but, beginning in fear and unease and ending in a hearty belly laugh, it proves—like certain waistcoated white rabbits—to be more worth pursuing than not.


Sunday afternoon, LBO offered up the first of two performances of its pairing of Poulenc's The Breasts of Tiresias [Les mamelles de Tirésias] with Martinů's Tears of a Knife [Les larmes du couteau or Slzy noze]. Tiresias is the main event, with Knife as a curtain raiser, and one would not want to see this program the other way round.

Knife is the more purely (unrepentantly?) Surrealist of these two pieces. Written in 1928, its libretto is the work of Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, an authentic Dadaist. (A 1920 exhibition of Ribemont-Dessaignes's visual work came with a catalog essay by M. Dada himself, Tristan Tzara.) A distant ancestor of mid-century theatrical eviscerations of domestic life, Tears of a Knife introduces us to young Eleonore who has fallen in love with and wishes to wed the corpse of a recently hanged man. Her highly conventional mother is appalled, preferring a match with their neighbor, "Mr. Saturn." Eleonora goes ahead with her marriage to the hanged man, but he is unresponsive to her. She attempts to inflame him with jealousy, only to find that the faux rival she sets up is actually Mr. Saturn. Ultimately, she kills herself and discovers that not only was her dead beloved really Mr. Saturn all along, "Mr. Saturn" is only a pseudonym for ... Satan!

Tears of a Knife is brief, under 30 minutes, but few would wish it longer. Martinů's music is well-crafted and frequently interesting in the angular, jazz-inflected mode of the early 20th century, but the Ribemonte-Dessaignes text often reduces itself to willfully obscure post-Symbolist poetic fragments, likely no more dramatically potent in French than they are in English translation.


After that bitter medicine, however, we are treated to the spoonful of sugar that is The Breasts of Tiresias. Poulenc's 1944 opera is a setting of the 1917 play by Guillaume Apollinaire, who coined the term "surrealist" to describe it. Alongside Jarry's Ubu Roi, Apollinaire's play is commonly identified as the fons et origo of the skewed and rude approach to drama that flowered after World War II as the "Theater of the Absurd" of Genet, Beckett and, particularly, Ionesco. It embraces not only the illogical logic of dreams, but a vigorous wackiness that makes its lampooning of convention far more palatable than the acrid cocktail that precedes it on the Long Beach program. Poulenc filled it with music that is both high-spirited and elegant, ornamenting and elevating the relentless silliness of the plot. It is an explosive bit of operatic patisserie, a lovably ludicrous bombe surprise.

The catalyst for Apollinaire's plot lies in the feminist yearnings of the housewife Thérèse who, having grown tired of the domestic life with her nameless Husband, liberates herself by transforming in to a man: Tiresias. In the play's most famous image, her breasts fly away as helium balloons. She embarks on a life of manly adventure, ultimately becoming a military ruler who decrees there shall be no more births in her domain. The abandoned Husband, meanwhile, dons women's clothing and embarks on a career of spontaneous generation, production tens of thousands of infants in a single night by force of will. In the end, Thérèse returns to her Husband and her original form, and the assembled cast urges the members of the audience to go home and immediately make as many babies as they can.


Both operas are mounted in Long Beach under the direction of Ken Roht, who previously oversaw the company's 2010 production of Good Soldier Schweik. As with that production, Rota manages the trick in Tiresias of producing something surprisingly affecting within a raucous, circus-like atmosphere. If he is somewhat less successful with Knife—and he is—the fault lies in the material and not in Roht's conception or in the performers. Roht is aided significantly by the video projections of John J. Flynn: a long, Viola-slow sequence of decaying roses that runs under Knife and a series of risible (and risque) images poking puckishly at Tiresias.

Soprano Ani Maldjian has established herself as a superb singer and skilled actress as LBO's cunning Vixen and a ruthless Madame Mao, among others, and she again brings those qualities to bear on the instability of Eleonore and the aspirations and triumphs of Thérèse/Tiresias. Poulenc gifted his heroine with some exquisitely complex and gorgeous music, which Maldjian negotiates with heartening ease. As Saturn/Satan and the put-upon (and fertile!) Husband, Robin Buck is similarly impressive, especially in the extended sequence in which he must raise his new found brood whilst fending off the inquiries of the press and the amorous intentions of the local gendarme.

The aforesaid gendarme, in a truly terrible wig, is Roberto Perlas Gomez—for once, not playing a king in Long Beach—who also introduces the gender-bending proceedings as the Theater Director and serves silently as a version of Eleonore's deathly beloved. Suzan Hanson (Medea, etc., etc.) fills an abundance of supportive roles—Eleonora's mother, a terpsichorean Announcer of News—with focus and aplomb. Benito Galindo and Doug Jones are Messrs. Presto and Lacouf, a sort of macabre Abbott & Costello (or Tweedles, Dee et Dum) who lose everything to one another at the casino, then slaughter one another in a duel. The chorus and two dancers serve as symbols, shadows, babies, citizens, supernumeraries and what have you, moving everything along as needed.

On balance, when all is said, this may not be the most probing examination of the Surrealist impulse, but it is a varied and ultimately entertaining exploration of a much obscured bit of musical territory, from the only company in the region with the, shall we say, helium balloons to attempt it.



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

The surrealist double-bill repeats on Saturday, March 17, at 8:00 p.m., in the Long Beach Center Theater, and at least a few tickets remain available at this writing.


We're So Sorry, Uncool Albert
[Albert Herring, Los Angeles Opera]


Puritanism, prudery and their ilk are always with us. The aging scold, wielding morality as a cudgel to control the lives of others, glowers down at us across the centuries. This past week in American politics, oddly enough, has been marked by wave upon cresting wave of self-aggrandizing thuggery in the name of All That is Pure and Good. And so it was that Saturday night during the intermission of Los Angeles Opera's performance of Benjamin Britten's Albert Herring, I was moved to launch this remark to Twitter:

Leaving the snoots and the horse's patoots to their own devices for a time, let's say what should be said: Albert Herring is above all a terrific comedy, seemingly all sunshine and innocence at first but, like the glass of spiked lemonade that is its fulcrum, carrying a hidden kick. It would be hard to better musically or dramatically the production now running at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, which has to stand as the sleeper highlight of the 2011-2012 LA Opera season.


The plot of Albert Herring is simplicity itself. The English village of Loxford lives, in relative content, under the eye and thumb of the censorious Lady Billows. With the aid of her trusty housekeeper Florence Pike, Lady Billows attempts to know all that goes on in the town, and has a particular devotion to the sniffing out and eradication of anything that may even imply the sin of unchastity. Each year, the most chaste and worthy of the Loxford village girls is selected and honored as May Queen. Alas, this year—the year is 1900, but this production is shifted forward to ca. 1947—the selection committee comprised of the mayor, the vicar, the schoolmistress, and the superintendent of police, find that none of their suggested nominees will satisfy Lady Billows' standard. At a loss, Superintendent Budd proposes they select instead a May King, specifically Albert Herring, working with his widowed mother to run the family greengrocery, universally known as quiet, inoffensive and perhaps not all that bright. Lady Billows is persuaded, and volunteers an honorarium of 25 pounds, seemingly on the theory that money can't buy love but may persuade the recipient not to go looking for it. 

Albert's reluctance is overcome, with the aid of some threats from his mum, and May Day arrives. Sid, the butcher's assistant—Albert's contemporary, not at all a bad chap, really, but has a way with the ladies and is ready for a lark when he can find one—spikes the May King's lemonade with a hefty ration of rum. A ration of hilarity ensues. Albert determines to find more to life than has been his lot, and disappears into the night. Finding he has gone missing, all assume the worst. But, no: as his mother and others in authority bewail his untimely death, Albert returns with three pounds spent and quite a tale to tell. Lady Billows and company are scandalized, the balance of power between Albert and his mother is equalized somewhat, and everyone lives uncertainly ever after.


So then: this production comes to Los Angeles by way of Santa Fe, under the direction of Paul Curran. It is, physically, smaller than what typically fills the expanses of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The effect, thanks to particulary clever use of perspective, is not so much that of a small production in a big space as it is of a really fine bit of letterboxing in high definition. A great deal could be said in praise of the scenic design of Kevin Knight and, particularly, the flat out brilliant lighting scheme from Rick Fisher.

Albert Herring is a true ensemble piece, each character being of near equal importance to the whole. The performers here are laudable across the board. As Albert, Alek Schrader is immediately likable, and only grows more so as he reveals what runs deep beneath the still waters of the underestimated greengrocer. Janis Kelly's Lady Billows is formidably unpleasant, while navigating the high flying ornament Britten assigned to his "elderly autocrat." The opera is full of allusions to other composers and other operas, and both Lady Billows and the headmistress Miss Wordsworth (Stacy Tappan) are called upon to emulate Mozart's Queen of the Night, and do so with seeming ease. Ronnita Nicole Miller, as the redoubtable housekeeper Florence Pike, is a particular pleasure, entirely supportive of her Ladyship while always watchful for the chance to relax with a cigarette and movie magazine. Liam Bonner as Sid and Daniela Mack as his best girl Nancy, from the bakery, are the very model of healthy youthful sensuality, for which Lady Billows would surely pillory them if she could. 

Britten's score, for a chamber orchestra of thirteen musicians, operates almost as a handheld documentary camera, moving in around and through the action, focusing attention on first this detail, then that, and providing a running commentary. The necessary musical forces are small enough that conductor James Conlon was able to bring the entire orchestra on stage at evening's end, to receive the warm adulation it deserved. 


Ultimately, Albert Herring speaks to anyone who is, or who ever was, young and alive and ready to light out for the territory of their own self and to return more fully human. That is a valuable thing, and that this production is continually and genuinely funny is a bonus not to be sniffed at.

Four performances remain through March 17. Christine Brewer, who sang the role in Santa Fe (and who was this blogger's first Isolde, *sigh*) will be Lady Billows in the final two. You really should go, if you can.


Photos by Robert Millard, used by kind permission of Los Angeles Opera.