Listening Listfully 2015 - Ars Gratia Artis

A gramophone in Queensland ca 1903

[This is the first, in posting order, of two Favorite Musickes of the Year posts. There is some duplication the introductory paragraphs.]

In 2014, the end of December pulled a fast one on those, this blogger included, who produce "year-end" lists of the best, or of their preferred, recorded music of the preceding year: two notable recordings — Andrew Norman's Play from the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and Black Messiah, the entirely-unforeseen and long-awaited return of D'Angelo—slipped unceremoniously into the world, unable to claim their places of honor on the vast majority of already-published Lists. (Both of those recordingsa have been granted post hoc, de facto 2015 release status for my purposes.) 

Now then, with only a few hours left for tricksters to drop new music in 2015, comes the time for what I calculate to be the Tenth Annual edition of fool in the forest's Listening Listfully: cataloguing album/EP-length recordings released in the past twelvemonth that most particularly tickled my fancy. These are personal favorites, as always, rather than "bests"—although I maintain now as I always do that everything here is here because it is genuinely among the best things of the past year, and not simply because I have enjoyed it. There are inevitably many records of quality omitted here, simply because I have yet to listen to them.

For 2015, I have continued my 2014 practice of dividing the larger List in two, very roughly segregating these recordings by application of that old fugitive, "genre". Each list contains thirty (30) entries. Below is the portion of the List that slouches roughly into the "classical" or "art music" category. The other portion follows, here.

The cut is particularly rough this season: while a pure jazz album tops the "pops," a number of the choices on this more artsy List are nearly indistinguishable from jazz. Ben Folds is here despite producing what is mostly a pop album, because of his collaboration with yMusic and because he includes a full-on-entirely-serious Piano Concerto in the package. There is, as is frequently the case here, no escaping Shara Worden, who turns up in her own name, in her band name, and as a collaborator on at least four occasions spread across both of the sub-Lists. Et cetera. Go figure.

I have incorporated opportunities to stream most of the Top 20 choices on each list. Make what you will of the fact that so many here are available to play and to purchase via the invaluable Bandcamp, while I have had to resort to [hissss! booo! Compensate musicians fairly, why don't you?!?] Spotify for a larger proportion of its more popular twin. Bandcamp-linked recordings are purchasable there; for others, I have provided Amazon links.

Flawed, entirely subjective, and internally contradictory as always, here begins The List: 

1.    The South Shore – Michael Vincent Waller

2.    Unremembered – Sarah Kirkland Snider

3.    Changing Same – Numinous (Joe Phillips)

4.    Dreamfall – NOW Ensemble

5.    Prism – Scott Worthington and Wandelweiser Bass – Scott Worthington

6.    Memory and Weather – Ensemble of Irreproducible Outcomes

7.    Go Seigen vs. Fujisawa Kuranosuke – Nonsemble

8.    You of All Things – Jodie Landau [ft. wildUp]

9.    You Us We All – Worden, Ondrejcak, and B.O.X. Baroque

10.    Discreet Music – Contact

11.    Beams of the Huge Night – Will Mason Ensemble

12.    Glass Piano – Bruce Brubaker and Glass Piano Versions – Bruce Brubaker

13.    The Twenty-Fifth Hour - The Chamber Music of Thomas Adès – Calder Quartet

14.    Foggy, Foggy Dew – Ensemble of Irreproducible Outcomes

15.    Vespers for a New Dark Age – Missy Mazzoli

16.    Render – Roomful of Teeth

17.    Filament – eighth blackbird

18.    Conditional Tension – tholl / vogel / hoff

19.    PREAMBLE – Qasim Naqvi

20.    Dystopia – Michael Gordon

21.    Momenta Quartet: Similar Motion – Momenta Quartet

22.    Face|Resection – Matt Barbier

23.    Andrew Norman: Play – Boston Modern Orchestra Project

24.    Currents, Volumes 1, 2, and 3 – Yarn/Wire

25.    So There – Ben Folds [ft. yMusic]

26.    The Difficulty of Crossing a Field – David Lang

27.    This river so red – Tvärvägen

28.    Entwined - Jake Schepps Quintet

29.    Frank Zappa: 200 Motels - The Suites – Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen

30.    Anthracite Fields – Julia Wolfe

Hey Now Baby, Get Into My Big Black Car
[The Industry: Hopscotch]

Hopscotch - rooftop fanfarewell
Do children still play hopscotch? When I was a child in the suburbs of Detroit the game was still a common one, but I never learned the rules, either formally or by observation, and its workings remain a mystery to me to this day.

The workings of Hopscotch: A Mobile Opera for 24 Cars are only slightly less enigmatic. Hopscotch is the newest offering from Los Angeles' exploratory opera company The Industry, now in performance in daylight on weekends only through November 22. The run is essentially sold out, though viewing via the Central Hub (see the explanation of the mechanics of things below) is available to all for free at all remaining performances. I experienced one portion of Hopscotch—the Red Route—at the first performance of the day on Saturday, November 7, as a paying customer.

The first rule of Hopscotch is that I must attempt to explain how Hopscotch works:

Hopscotch is an opera, devised by The Industry's Artistic Director Yuval Sharon with six composers (Veronika Krausas, Marc Lowenstein, Andrew McIntosh, Andrew Norman, Ellen Reid, and David Rosenboom) combinatorially collaborating with as many librettists (Tom Jacobson, Mandy Kahn, Sarah LaBrie, Jane Stephens Rosenthal, Janine Salinas Schoenberg, and Erin Young). The story is constructed in 34 Chapters. Of the 34 Chapters, 10 exist as animations online, with scores improvised by the ensemble gnarwhallaby. The remaining 24 Chapters have been shuffled and dealt out for performance across three Routes: Red, Yellow and Green, eight Chapters per route. Each Route includes one or more Chapters from each of the six composers, and each Route includes Chapters from all parts of the longer narrative. Routes may cross one another, but they do not share any Chapters. At each of the three daily performances, all three Routes are running simultaneously. On each Route, eight vehicles (limousines for the most part) transport four audience members apiece from Chapter to Chapter, with some Chapters taking place wholly or partially inside the car, some witnessed through the windows, and others involving getting out, entering, following, exploring whatever action may be playing out. On each Route, there are four starting points; from each starting point, two vehicles depart simultaneously, each headed to a different initial Chapter, one traveling the Route clockwise, the other otherwise. In the course of each Chapter, the audience exits the vehicle in which it came, and eventually enters another for the next Chapter.

Simplicity itself, really.

The story of Hopscotch, no more ridiculous than that of most any other opera, centers on the life of Lucha, and the two men most central to it, Jameson and Orlando. Lucha and Jameson "meet cute" when her auto meets with his motorcycle in a collision. At the time, Lucha is working with Orlando and his wife Sarita on an avant-garde, puppet-based theatre piece. Lucha and Jameson fall in love. When Sarita dies, Orlando professes his own love for Lucha and, upon being rejected, leaves for Paris. Jameson pursues mysterious research into the mind and/or parallel realities and, midway through the opera, vanishes inexplicably, never to return. Lucha receives phone calls that prove, eventually, to have been from her future self. There is a descent into Hades. Orlando eventually returns from Paris, and is this time accepted by Lucha. From a rooftop, Lucha looks back and marvels at it all.

Hopscotch - a bridge between Luchas young and old

The characters are recognizable by their color schemes: Jameson is always in black; Lucha's bright yellow dresses are a constant; Sarita, in life and death, is in red; Orlando sports a brown jacket with a distinctive hat. In any given Chapter there may be multiple versions of a character, from any point in their lives. Some are singers, some actors, some instrumentalists. the audience gets none of it in order, and each vehicle-group gets what it gets in a different sequence from the other vehicles rolling the route at that moment. To see it all requires taking all three separately ticketed Routes, which can be done but cannot be done in a day.

There is also The Central Hub. The Hub is a construction in the downtown Arts District, open for free to all comers. During the performances, live video and sound feeds are received in the Central Hub from all three of the ongoing Routes. (Some of the Chapters and their vehicles have fixed smartphone cameras inside or outside the vehicle; in others, an audience member is handed a phone in order to shoot whatever they wish of the proceedings.) At the conclusion of the final performance of each day, all 24 Hopscotch vehicles converge on the Central Hub for a once-daily finale composed by Andrew Norman.

Simplicity itself, really.

Through its gestation and rollout, I was something of a Hopscotch skeptic. While I knew firsthand that The Industry has a genuine flair for site-specific and immersive productions—demonstrated by the nigh-miraculous 2013 premiere of Christopher Cerrone's Invisible Cities in and around Union Station—Hopscotch in its hyperambitious proliferation of moving parts had about it the aura of a stunt, a novelty for novelty's sake. I thought that I might be obliged to echo Dr. Johnson (albeit without his leaven of misogyny) in response to being told of a woman preaching: that it would be "like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all." In the end, I gave in, purchasing what may have been the last available November 7 ticket.

Hopscotch - Lucha Libros

The Red Route, which I traveled, for the most part keeps to the east of downtown, in and around Boyle Heights, apart from one dramatic venture to Lucha's parting rooftop above the Arts District. (The Yellow Route centers on Downtown proper, while the Green Route fares more to the north toward Elysian Park.)

At the assigned starting point beside the Casa Del Mexicano, my fellow travelers and I entered our first vehicle to find an Orlando in place at the front; we were joined as the door closed by a violinist and violist and by Sarita in red, already dead, her face painted as a Dia de los Muertos skull. It was Chapter 17, Orlando's departure for Paris. The car pulled out, the music began, Orlando sang his thoughts and Sarita provided wordless counterpoint. In short order, we eased into the gates of the historic Evergreen Cemetery, driving past multilingual early 20th century headstones and groups of real people visiting with the real dead. The car stopped briefly, Sarita exited. We drove on, circling into another part of the cemetery where, through the window, Sarita reappeared, pacing and muttering, her voice broadcast to us inside.

Out of the cemetery then and, a few blocks further on, out of the first car and into the next. Here we found already in place Phillip King, a harpist with a concurrent talent for beatboxing. (Photography inside Hopscotch vehicles is discouraged so as not to interfere with the performers in the tight space; Mr. King has inspired a number of violations of this policy.) We had leapt back to the beginning of the story, with the immediate aftermath of Lucha's collision with Jamison playing out at the center of a large vacant lot. As the live score was harped and vocopercussed inside, the limousine circled and circled the two singers, a long tracking shot in our vehicular pelicula. The singers, wired and mic'd, performed the scene in the open air, their voices transmitted to us through the car's sound system.

And on: in the next car, to a recorded accompaniment, Lucha at mid-story received the first mysterious phone call (which will prove to be from herself, as witnessed by travelers on a Route other than ours). And out of the car. And into the sky: it's an ascent by elevator and stairs in the company of two Luchas (old Lucha sings, young Lucha violings) and two French horn-wielding Orlandos to the roof of an Arts District loft building where the Views Go On For Days and two distant brass players—can it be/of course it is Jameson, perhaps from beyond—carom fanfares off the cityscape in Chapter 33.

And down. And into the dark. Literally: Chapter 24, involving hellish visions derived from Lucha's encounter with a red notebook containing notes from the vanished Jameson, occurs in sound and motion only, the limousine equipped with blackout curtains depriving the traveler of any knowledge of where or how the route is continuing.

Hopscotch - Lucha Jameson and Accordionist

And into the light: We have come some miles, back to Boyle Heights and back into the past, to Hollenbeck Park, where accordion and some convenient players in a lakeside gazebo contribute to the magic moment of Lucha and Jameson's first kiss. When the next vehicle arrives, it contains the most vast and encompassing of all those yellow Lucha dresses, which in turn contains the youngest of Luchas: an emanation of the mid-life Lucha recalling her quinceanara. This Lucha is accompanied by three gentlemen with a menagerie of Mexican guitar variants. When this Chapter ends, we find ourselves glancing in and out the windows, between the musicians of the opera and the real-life itinerant music makers waiting to be hired at Mariachi Plaza.

And aay into the final stretch: a stroll across the Plaza—past the statue of Lucha Reyes, whose namesake the fictional Lucha is, and past a hopscotch layout chalked on the concrete—to witness a recalled encounter in a bookstore between Lucha and the young Orlando, devoted to art and poetry. The young man wanders out, and we follow to enter the final limousine. While his reads aloud, his opera-ending older self comments, through an in-vehicle cellist and a recorded voiceover, on how well it has all worked out for this young fellow.

And we are done. Deposited back to the original parking lot at Casa del Mexicano, beneath the sky of piercing and extravagant blue that is a particular Los Angeles speciality at this time of the year.

Hopscotch - the story goes on as the audience leaves

Was it a stunt? Surely. Does Hopscotch rise above mere stunthood? Yes, I would have to say it does. But how and in what sense? That's a harder question.

Hopscotch is a thing I am very pleased to have done. It was a marvelous time, in the most literal sense: I marveled again and again at what was attempted and what was achieved. As an experience, and as a series of striking and unexpected effects, it is without question a success. The performers are uniformly fine. It is a consuming force while it is happening. It makes me happy that it was made, and particularly that it was made under conditions that allowed me exposure to a piece of it.

What is less clear to me is what Hopscotch means, or where it leads, in the larger world.

The number of people who will be able to take even one Route during the run is relatively small: capacity is roughly 300 per day. The number who will run through two, or all three, is far smaller. Some unknown number, very possibly a larger one, will be able to access a version of Hopscotch via the Central Hub. The most generous total, though, still would not exhaust the nosebleed seats at Staples Center [capacity ca. 18000]. Once it is gone, it is reasonable to expect that Hopscotch is gone forever. Remounting it here, while hardly impossible, is simply not likely. Adapting it to some other city, or to a more conventional theatrical setting, fundamentally undermines its reason for being in the first place. 

Will Hopscotch prove to be an inspiration or catalyst to other, perhaps stranger and more ambitious, new opera or theater ventures? Will it be an exotic sport of nature, viewed in retrospect with stark amaze, but not a path to anything else? I find that I am not prepared to venture even an uninformed prediction on those lines. Certainly, I suspect that The Industry will take its essential success as a sign that the company should fare further forward, toward whatever still-unimagined thing comes next. That should be fun.


Photos by the blogger.

Cross-posted to ♬ Genre, I'm Only Dancing ♬.


Dog Days in Los Angeles


David T. Little's opera, Dog Days, which premiered at Peak Performances in New Jersey in 2012 to significant acclaim, made its west coast premiere last night under the auspices of Los Angeles Opera in its new collaborative initiative with New York's Beth Morrison Projects. I attended the performance, and I have written about it in the fool musical annex:

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the End Times


Mnemonic Tricks and Devices


The Los Angeles Philharmonic's Next on Grand series continued Friday evening with three  ensembles—the Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel, Ensemble Signal led by Brad Lubman, and members of wildUp with conductor Christopher Rountree—performing, respectively, a world premiere from Steven Mackey, a revival of a turn of [this] century collaborative piece by Steve Reich and video artist Beryl Korot, and a previously unannounced al fresco percussion intervention. 

Steven Mackey's "Mnemosyne's Pool" is a five part, 45-minute whats-it (something of symphony? a touch of tone poem?) for the full orchestra, and brims with cunning musical goodness. It is not literally about the Titan Mnemosyne—a goddess of memory, lover of Zeus, mother of the Muses—nor is it about a pool, but its processes toy about with the pliable, labile, multivalent twitch and flicker of memory, and much of its musical material can be heard as waterborne and maritime. The composer's detailed program notes notwithstanding, the intricacies of the structural innards of the piece were not instantly fathomable by the ear on first listen, but the larger arcs and complementary variety of the components delivered satisfactions aplenty.

In five sections, "Pool" begins with a tolling chime and funereal chords, even a whiff of dies irae, but soon spreads into the first of its more liquid segments, turbid and glinting under threatening skies. The second section was vaguely Russian or Baltic, spiky and sprightly in the vein of early Stravinsky (think Petrushka, perhaps filtered through a mesh of Carl Nielsen strings and winds). The third and fourth segments are played without break, the former harking to American urbanism, the latter transiting from stately elegy to spartan threnody. The fifth and final section returns to watery thoughts, breeze driven under a cloudless heaven, before terracing upward to an extended boom and burst of an ending.    

WildUp drums up businessThe physical arrangements for the two halves of the concert were radically different—the full orchestral setup for the Philharmonic needed to be broken down and carted off, to be replaced by Signal's string quartet at the front, double pianos and extensive percussion at the rear, separated by a U-shaped platform for five roving singers—compelling an extra-long intermission. Enter wildUp. With the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet, the ever-enterprising ensemble took to the broad empty space in front of Walt Disney Concert Hall (as well as positions across the street) to perform William Albright's 1972 "Take That" for Philharmonic attendees and passersby.

As written, "Take That" calls for four drummers managing sixteen drums. wildUp and company doubled the players and expanded the percussion battery to forty drums of all sizes, including a full dozen bass drums. With the musicians scattered over four stations around the plaza and intersection at 1st Street and Grand Avenue and a shortage of reflective surfaces, much of the sound escaped unheard up into the evening air. Still, a fine rolling and thundering was made before concertgoers returned to their places.

Steve Reich's "Three Tales" is a 2001 collaboration with video artist Beryl Korot, and falls into the category of Reich's works that are driven by the pitches and rhythms of human speech. When that technique works for Reich, as in "Different Trains," it produces profound and compelling music. When it does not work, however, the music loses its savor and interest under the dead weight of the words it tries to carry. "Three Tales," unfortunately, although performed rigorously and well by Ensemble Signal, ultimately outstayed its welcome by a fair margin, descending in its last two-thirds into a dulling and ponderous didacticism.

"Three Tales" draws on history and science, and meditates on humans, their technology, and how the two change or are changed by one another. The three events on offer are the 1937 explosion and crash of the German airship Hindenburg, the U.S. military's nuclear test detonations at Bikini Atoll in 1946, and the 1996 advent of Dolly the sheep, the world's first cloned adult mammal. The Hindenburg segment is actually successful for the most part, and Beryl Korot's video constructions are particularly well-tuned as they cross-reference the vastness of the made object and the comparative smallness of its makers.

The other two "tales" succumb to self-seriousness, particularly once passages from the creation narrative in the book of Genesis begin to be interpolated, flashing on screen in follow-the-bouncing-ball sing-along fashion. Dolly appears only briefly in her concluding segment, which is more interested in trotting out interviews with now-familiar Deep Thinkers such as Richard Dawkins and Marvin Minsky, and a disturbing baby robot named Kismet, to opine on the cybernetic, code-based nature of all earthly life. While the live singers and players were clear and well-balanced, the recorded voices of the interviewees tended to fly straight into the Disney Hall's notorious hostility to over-amplification. By that point, the video accompaniment had become little more than what Alfred Hitchcock famously disdained as "photographs of people talking." Better they should have left it at one tale.

Veronika Beryl Steve and Steven

Ensemble Signal, by the way, recently released a new recording of Steve Reich's Music for Eighteen Musicians, a piece that stands as a permanent and unequivocal success. The Signal version is at least as worthy of a listener's time as Reich's own original recording of the piece. Recommended, both.

Next on Grand continues tonight and Sunday afternoon; "Mnemosyne's Pool" repeats on the Sunday program, on which Ensemble Signal will return to perform David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe's 2005 "Shelter".

Photos by the blogger.

Cross-posted from Genre, I'm Only Dancing.

John Adams and the New Power Generation

LA Phil Green Umbrella - Next on Grand - Disney Hall

Before debarking each summer to the poptoned jumbotronic precincts of the Hollywood Bowl, the Los Angeles Philharmonic has become partial to ending its downtown Walt Disney Concert Hall seasons with a themed festival of some kind, typically focusing on music of the post-war Twentieth Century or the endless-war Twenty-First. Last year at this time, it was a deep deep plunge in to the Minimalist Jukebox; the previous year honed in on the music of [mostly] contemporary Brooklyn and environs. Now, to conclude its 2014-2015 season, the Phil offers up "Next on Grand: Contemporary Americans." Over the course of this week, the Phil is rolling out no fewer than seven world premieres, several West Coast premieres, and a handful of other still-new, and all-American, compositions. The programming still skews East, and it still skews male—more so than one would expect: the Phil is better than most at commissioning new works by women—but it is new, new, new and, based on the opening night, promises much.

The launch of Next on Grand fell officially to the orchestra's Green Umbrella series on Tuesday evening, with the subset of musicians within the orchestra who are committed to doing the contemporary repertoire, and to doing it well: the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group. Under the direction of composer-conductor John Adams, Tuesday's concert featured three brand new works, and one nearly new piece, all  from composers at or under 35. It was a rich and satisfying evening. This blogger ate it up, and it has left him thinking about ... many things, which he hopes to take up in another post shortly. For the moment, though, a report on the Tuesday evening groaning board of musical excellences:

First up, Dylan Mattingly's "Seasickness and Being (in love)". Berkeley-born in 1991, Mattingly has made his early reputation through his work at Bard College, particularly with the ensemble Contemporaneous, which has recorded a collection of his prior work, Stream of Stars. His emerging voice as a composer grows out of the elaborately accelerating verve of John Adams, but is rapidly asserting itself in its own directions If we apply the test of wanting to hear it again, "S&B(il)" is a plain success. It builds on something of a trick—a second piano in the ensemble, detuned a quarter tone lower than standard—and then makes that trick itself disappear almost immediately into the weft and weave of the piece, anchoring its patterns. It subdivides, in retrospect, into three distinct segments: an opening driven by kinetic momentum, a middle marked by chordal washes moving about from player to player, and a final extended pointillist settling down to silence. I am hopeful that someone will record it, because the piece is worth wandering about and getting lost in.

The setting of text is a difficult matter. Christopher Cerrone has demonstrated a particular talent for it, with his opera Invisible Cities, well received here in Los Angeles—not least by this blogger—in 2013. "The Things That Fall to Earth" is a song cycle for sopran0—Hila Plitmann, last seen here altogether unrestrained and commanding in Zappa's "'200 Motels'"—drawn from seven poems by Kay Ryan, sung through as an uninterrupted series. Rich, fluid, always clear of line and supportive of the plain expression of the verse while maintaining surprise, Cerrone's music alludes in passing to the likes of Copland and Ravel, and to Debussy in its vaporous support of the text, but the tenor and flow of it is ultimately his own. It passes the lean-forward test: one presses in, wanting to hear each new sound plainly so as not to miss its import. A beautiful bit of work beautifully played and sung, first among equals for the night in my estimation.

Composers, looking composed

Jacob Cooper's "Alla stagione dei fior" opened the second half and stood out as completely different from the works around it. For one thing, no live orchestra was involved. "Alla stagione dei fior" is a video piece and its sights and sounds all derive from preexisting material. The title phrase comes from La bohème: with the certain knowledge that Mimi is dying, she and Rodolfo nevertheless resolve to stay together through the winter, "until the season of flowers." Cooper combines two brief snippets from an existing video of the opera, slowed and extended almost to the point of immobility. The principal image is the tableau at Mimi's bedside at the moment of her death, the focus moving closer and closer by the tiniest of increments until not the lovers' faces but the space between those faces fills the screen. In that space, Cooper sub-imposes the moment of the title phrase from the previous act, complete with flickering subtitle, broken into sections microseconds long and jerkily reblended. The soundtrack is taken from the existing video, but is digitally stretched to a long, resonant drone. The concentration and visual near-stasis, coming to a point in Mimi's expiration, recalls Bill Viola; the drone score reinforces that concentrated attention, extending it toward endlessness. (Jacob Cooper's song cycle, Silver Threads, with Mellissa Hughes is also based in drones, albeit far warmer and more changeable. Released by Nonesuch last year, it did not receive nearly the attention it deserves, in my view. It was my second-favorite recording of 2014, and I unequivocally recommend it.)

Sean Friar's "Finding Time", with which the evening ended, could as well have been titled "now ... this", as it bounded from musical idea to idea to idea without obvious connection or transition betwixt them, like a flipbook with its images disarranged. Each fleeting thought had something to recommend it, but each tended to leave the scene before the first-time listener had an opportunity to grip it. Beginning with bursts of jazz-inflected fragments, it ranged every which way, before stopping with a sort of hiccup. I was particularly taken with a passage toward the center, in which the players settled into what emerged as a Tristan-like mystic chord as though sinking into a beanbag chair, before bounding tangentially away. Again, a piece that would be worth a repeat listen, or several, if only to begin to sort its sparkly shards. 

WDCH - Green Means Go

Next on Grand continues through the weekend with, among other things, world premieres from Steven Mackey, Philip Glass, Bryce Dessner, and Andrew Norman. 

Photos: by the blogger.

Cross-posted to Genre, I'm Only Dancing.


Starlets and Bible Black
[Gavin Bryars: Marilyn Forever, Long Beach Opera]


Marilyn Forever, composed by Gavin Bryars on a libretto by Marilyn Bowering, received its U.S. premiere last Saturday evening via Long Beach Opera. Whether the world in fact needed another artful meditation on the life and death of Marilyn Monroe is open to debate. It has in any case been given one. Marilyn Forever must be judged a success on its own terms, and the production that has been devised by LBO artistic director Andreas Mitisek shows it to greatest advantage, with richness and detail to burn. 

Bowering has based her libretto on her 1987 poetry collection, Anyone Can See I Love You, so its methods are those of a free-form song cycle more so than of dramatic narrative. The poems frame a multiplane view of the figure of Marilyn Monroe as she contemplates or re-dreams her life at the time of her death. The well-known beats are revisited: her lonesome childhood as Norma Jean Mortenson, stardom and sex appeal, the marriages to Joe DiMaggio and (particularly) Arthur Miller, singing "Happy Birthday" to the President, her fatal embrace of drugs and alcohol, and so on. Through those reflections, Bowering searches for the woman within the archetype, and reintroduces us to her as one (to paraphrase The Smiths) who was human and who needed to be loved, just as anybody else does.

Bryars' score is for two small groups: an onstage trio of piano, saxophone and bass, and an eight-piece pit ensemble of low strings, winds and percussion. The composer himself played the bass part at Saturday's performance. The primary musical line slips with agility between the two groups of players, the trio deploying a 1950s-styled mix of jazz (saxophone solo included) and popular song styles and the pit orchestra swimming in broad and darksome minor harmonies, riverine and unresolved, melodic by allusion rather than by declaration. It is not difficult to imagine that only modest retooling would be needed to remove the singers—although Bryars has established himself as a gifted writer for human voices—and to reveal an evocative and intriguing instrumental piece.


Marilyn Forever premiered in Victoria, British Columbia, in 2013, and has since been performed in Australia as part of a recent Bryars survey/tribute at the Adelaide Festival. The Long Beach production for this U.S. premiere is entirely new.

As written the opera calls for a cast of four: Marilyn Monroe herself and the "Rehearsal Director," who also serves to represent some of the men (and the role of men generally) in her life, plus a two-man chorus referred to as The Tritones. Director Mitisek's innovation is to divide the role of Marilyn between two singers, one for the brightly hued public star and one for the vexed and troubled private woman. 

Mitisek splits the stage as well. A lighted makeup table serves as divider, the public life playing out largely stage right (in front of the jazz trio) while stage left alludes to the guest house bedroom in which Monroe's body was found. Public Marilyn begins the opera in her bedroom, before quickly passing over into the world. Private Marilyn emerges, rather unexpectedly, from beneath the rumpled bedclothes, and never leaves her room with its scattering of old photos and the company of a motley assortment of  flasks and bottles. At the opera's end, the two personae rejoin, seated on the bed, still alone but alone together.

Set walls and scrims serve as well as projection screens, bearing posed and candid photos of incidents from Monroe's life as well as live video from the stage. The video originates with several fixed positions, plus handheld cameras operated by the two Tritones. The video overlay is immersive and potent, especially when capturing small details from the stage and juxtaposing them to add point to a larger line or gesture.


Jamie Chamberlin and Danielle Marcelle Bond are, between them, Marilyn Monroe. The division of the part between two singers works so well in this production that it came as a surprise to many in the audience that the role is not in fact written that way. Both performers initially learned the entire role, working out the final apportionment of lines and sequences through exploration in rehearsal. Chamberlin's public star sings in a high register, evoking an enriched and variegated version of Monroe's own singing voice. Portions, at least, of the vocal line assigned to Bond's private Marilyn seem to have been transposed slightly downward toward a darker mezzo range. Each of the singers fully commits to her assigned facets of the character, and each can be said to be First Marilyn Among Equals.

[Update: I have it on excellent authority - Facebook comments from the singers - that in fact nothing was transposed or altered in the score. The role of Marilyn is written such as to encompass both soprano and mezzo: the way in which the part was divided for dramatic purposes served, by happy coincidence, to play to the strengths of the two performers.]

Lee Gregory (the Captain in last season's Death of Klinghoffer) brings admirable clarity to distinguish among the half-dozen (or more) men he is called upon to symbolize, including the gruff but supportive Rehearsal Director, bespectacled and beloved Arthur Miller, and the occasional unsavory Hollywood casting couch type. The Tritones (Robert Norman, Adrian Rosales) ably provide such choral support as the score requires, and they are indispensable to the seamless workings of the video schema. 


Opera often concerns itself with retelling old stories and Marilyn Forever—an unfortunate title, really, that makes a serious minded and affecting chamber opera sound like a feel-good jukebox musical—does not hold itself out as offering any new and shattering insight into its subject. That may be for the best: even before her death, and certainly in the fifty-three years since, Marilyn Monroe has been appropriated, claimed, and retooled by so many hands with so many agendas of their own that offering her up as no more than a human woman alone with herself is less a reduction than it is a show of respect. 


Marilyn Forever receives a final performance at the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro (albeit without the composer as a player) on Sunday, March 29, 2015, at 2:30 p.m. Tickets available here.

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

[As ever with Long Beach Opera, the blogger attended this performance as a subscriber, at his own expense.]  

Cross-posted at Genre, I'm Only Dancing.



A bonus photo: the actual Marilyn, in a smoky nightclub situation in the company of Donald O'Connor and Cole Porter, at the Coconut Grove in the Ambassador Hotel, January 1953.



Antoinette of the Spirits, or, The Beaumarchais Strategem
[The Ghosts of Versailles, Los Angeles Opera]


A magpie's trove in a hall of mirrors, its shiny borrowings gleaned across space and time and worlds natural and supernatural: John Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles is now on offer as part of Los Angeles Opera's sprawling "Figaro Unbound" initiative, with two performances remaining. It is a rewarding thing to commune with these spirits.

New York's Metropolitan Opera commissioned Ghosts to be premiered in 1983, for the company's 100th Anniversary. In light of the occasion, it was to serve not only as an opera in its own right, but also as a gala opportunity to showcase a number of the Met's then-reigning and rising stars. The enormity of the resulting piece was such that the Met itself has yet to revisit it—a planned 2010 revival was scrapped when the U.S. economy went reeling downward—and such other productions as have been attempted (in Chicago and St. Louis) have been of reduced or chamber versions. The current production in Los Angeles is the first to take on the complete version since its premiere.

The institutional neglect of these Ghosts is unfortunate because Corigliano, with a meticulous tightrope-walk of a libretto by William M. Hoffman, devised a piece that can stand solidly as an opera, as a love letter to all opera, as a spectacle, and as emotionally resonant theater. Ghost story, opera buffa, love story, melodrama, pageant and more: Ghosts is a bumblebee, a creature that should not fly but does, an edifice that should collapse of its own weight and yet floats off to the Empyrean when all's said, as lightly as a Montgolfier balloon (the concluding image in this production).

The plot? It's complicated, even by 18th century opera standards:

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The audience in the material world is made privy to events in the spirit world, possibly going on at this moment. The ghosts of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and others of the French court, executed by the Revolution, languish and are bored. With them is the ghost of the equally dead, but not beheaded, Beaumarchais, the author of the Figaro plays, the two most popular of which—The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro—served Rossini and Mozart as fodder for equally popular operas, which will themselves be returning to the L.A. Opera stage in short order.

For the love of the mournful Marie Antoinette, Beaumarchais grandly proposes an entertainment, a new recounting of further adventures of the beloved Figaro and company.  By this means, the poet announces, he will do more than merely amuse. He proposes in fact to Change the Course of History and to permit the Queen, whom he loves, to escape her rendezvous with the guillotine. The living audience watches the dead audience watching fictional characters tampering with actual history in an opera within the opera. 


On the inner stage, it is some twenty years after Figaro's Marriage. Figaro, it seems, continues to serve Count Almaviva. The Count is engaged in a Pimpernel-like scheme in which a fabulous diamond necklace of the Queen's will be sold in secret to the English ambassador to Paris, during a reception at the Turkish embassy. The proceeds of the transaction will fund the Queen's rescue from imprisonment and her escape to the New World, specifically to Philadelphia. Meanwhile, Almaviva's trusted friend Begearss—in fact an unrepentant villain in the tradition of Iago—awaits his chance to betray the Count into the lethal hands of the Revolution. And, of course, there are marriages to be arranged or thwarted.

All goes as planned until Figaro, having snapped up the necklace during the  hubbub of the Turkish revels, rebels against his creator and refuses to use the jewels as intended to save the Queen. He will keep them for his own, to deal with his innumerable creditors. He has achieved Pirandellian self-awareness. He knows he is a beloved character—"Your Figaro!"—and that this is what his audience would expect of him and what he himself desires.

Outraged, Beaumarchais is obliged to invade his own fiction in an effort to reassert his authorial will. Ultimately, in an effort to persuade Figaro to return to course, Beaumarchais restages the trial of the Queen. Figaro relents, the dreadful Begearss receives his comeuppance, and all of the fictional characters are saved. The real/ghost Queen, however, elects not to change her own past. She finds that she is reconciled to history, and in the company of the loving Beaumarchais she achieves a sort of apotheosis.

Beaumarchais's proposition proves to be the same as Shakespeare's in the sonnets: that the love of a poet or artist may grant to the beloved, through art, a sort of immortality when life itself cannot. It is, perhaps, the only immortality there can be for such fleeting creatures as humans are.


This new Los Angeles production is directed by Darko Tresnjak, whose previous work with Los Angeles Opera has been as part of the "Recovered Voices" project, including Alexander Zemlinsky's marvelous, heartbreaking The Dwarf.   To the larger world, he may be better known as the recent Tony Award winner for directing The Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder. Tresnjak's management of stage traffic alone is an impressive thing, given the multiple stages, nesting plots and large-scale set pieces Ghosts requires. The sets are looming and luxuriant, the costumes sumptuous, the spectacle fully spectacular. Ghosts is a madly overstuffed thing, scintillant of surface but secreting resonant emotional depths. Its every corner packed with detail, it resembles in many ways Terry Gilliam's Baron Munchhausen, not least in its pitting of love and the spinning of upwardly yearning yarns against political calculation and callous destructiveness. (That, and they both feature heads floating about independent of their bodies. But I digress.)


On a good night, the orchestra of the Los Angeles Opera is every bit the equal of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, across the street. The Opera orchestra and conductor James Conlon are having very good nights with Ghosts, navigating a kaleidoscope of styles and moods effortlessly.

Among the singers, Robert Brubaker as the reprehensible Begearss is a highlight, earning a round of affectionate booing in his curtain call. In his company debut, Christopher Maltman brings dignity and scope to bear on behalf of Beaumarchais. Patricia Racette as Marie Antoinette, is noble and sad. The show-stopping cameo role of the Turkish singer Samira, written for Marilyn Horne, is taken up with infectious glee by Patti Lupone, her Broadway chops in full effect, ululating and schticking it up uproariously in the mad comic finale of Act I. 

The Ghosts of Versailles is not what Wagner had in mind when he imagined the "total work of art" [gesamtkunstwerk], but in this production it arguably qualifies: music, poetry, theatrical wizardry, all brought to bear in a consuming whole. Its satisfactions are many, and they linger—hauntingly—long after the curtain falls and the auditorium is emptied of the living.



Incidental Twitter notes:


The Ghosts of Versailles continues at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, with performances February 26 and March 1.

Photos used by kind permission of Los Angeles Opera.

The blogger attended this performance as a Los Angeles Opera subscriber.

Cross-posted to Genre, I'm Only Dancing.


Oui, elle regrette tout
[Thérèse Raquin, Long Beach Opera]


Émile Zola's Thérèse Raquin (1867) is lurid, unrepentantly tawdry, and a potboiler at its core, with all the lust, loathing, murder, desperation, and squalor that implies. It's trappings even include the visitations of an aggrieved and vengeful ghost. It would seem the sort of story destined from birth to find a place in the opera repertoire, and in 2001 composer Tobias Picker gave it one. Originally commissioned by Dallas Opera, and staged by San Diego Opera in 2008, on Saturday evening Picker's Thérèse Raquin opened the 2015 Long Beach Opera season. 

Zola offered his story as a realistic chronicle of squalid conditions and miserable lives in the Paris of his own moment. Director Ken Cazan maintains the Parisian locale, but moves the action forward some eighty years, to 1945-46 as the city, with the rest of Europe, struggles back to life from war and occupation. As conceit go it is a good conceit, and the mid-century look of the production also quietly evokes an American literary parallel: the novels of James M. Cain in which, as in Zola, characters are ground down by their own mistakes or, as commonly, by societal and family conditions they did not make, cannot control, and seem barely to understand.


Zola's tale is pitiless: Thérèse was left at the age of three to be raised by her aunt, the widowed Madame Raquin, whose life is otherwise devoted to ruling over her sickly son, Thérèse's cousin, Camille. It is foreordained that the cousins should marry. They do, and continue to live in the Raquin flat, where Thursday dominoes with the neighbors are the only unvarying variance in a dismal routine. Thérèse falls in with Camille's raffish office mate, the aspiring "painter" Laurent. Camille, inevitably, is murdered by the lovers: drowned in a boating excursion on the Seine. Laurent and Thérèse, still living off of Madame Raquin's widow's pension, marry and fall swiftly into debilitating mutual loathing and regret. Camille's ghost—given here an unforeseen Act II entrance worthy of Freddie Krueger—perturbs them mightily. At length, just as they are inclining to kill one another, they instead kill themselves. Tres jolienon?

Gene Scheer is the librettist, and he has provided a clean, efficient tour through the necessary events of the tale. The libretto is structurally sound as can be, but Scheer has chosen, inexplicably and with surprising frequency, to set much of the dialogue as loose-limbed rhymed couplets. While Picker typically avoids lapsing into sing-song to accommodate the rhymes (except when some of the supporting characters are actually supposed to be singing wedding-night doggerel), the too-obvious rhyme frequently threatens to undercut the seriousness of the characters' situation.


Picker's score is also a clean and efficient thing, amply allusive without lowering itself to pastiche. Act 1, in particular, revels in evocations of Debussy and Ravel—Laurent's seductive anecdote of being "persuaded" to include a comely young woman in one of his pictures is a veritable  après-midi d'un  flâneur. The second act, post-murder, grows more angular, highlighted by Camille's "ghost aria," which borrows effectively from the bottomless melancholy of Peter Quint in Britten's The Turn of the Screw. If it is not pioneering, the music is rarely less than an effective carrier of the drama.

The cast in this production, the majority in their first appearance with Long Beach Opera, are solid as can be. As a character, Thérèse poses the challenge of being far more acted upon than active; Mary Ann Stewart is amply sympathetic against the odds, grasping for a personal freedom she can barely imagine. As Camille, Matthew DiBattista effectively contrasts an ineffectual lumpishness against a bitter last fight against death and, finally, an urgent and physical grotesquerie from beyond the grave in the showpiece ghost aria. Ed Parks's Laurent is less clever than he imagines himself, casually unfeeling when he imagines he is being most sincere; not a bad man, but a man who makes very poor choices.

Suzan Hanson captures the misguided strictness of Madame Raquin, who never acknowledges her smothering effect on those around her. When her character falls silent, victim of a stroke induced by the discovery of Laurent and Thérèse's guilt (and a brutal confrontation with Laurent), she serves as silent foil to the guilty and to the oblivious as the drama snakes to its end.


To their credit, Picker and Sheer have taken the supporting parts of the neighbors seriously, giving a fair portion of humanity to parts that could have been caricatures. Zeffin Quinn Hollis is the good natured gendarme Olivier, unable even to suspect the guilt of the killers, with Ani Maldjian as his touchingly rootless spouse. John Matthew Myers is the much-married, jovially clueless Monsieur Grivet.

All told Thérèse Raquin works well as an opera. If it's path through desperation and folly to death and confusion is not new, it is certainly well retold. As Bugs Bunny famously observed, "Whaddaya expect from an opera? A happy ending?" To which one can only reply in this case: Non, je ne regrette rien.



Thérèse Raquin repeats at the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro on Sunday, February 1, 2015, at 2:30 p.m. Tickets available here.

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

[As ever with Long Beach Opera, the blogger attended this performance as a subscriber, at his own expense.]

Cross-posted to Genre, I'm Dancing.




A Midsummer Night's Temblor


Timing is everything. On Saturday evening, Long Beach Opera staged the long-delayed Los Angeles premiere of John Adams' I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky, and the concatenation of that piece's concerns with contemporaneous events lent to it a weight and complexity that, frankly, it likely does not warrant on its own merits.

Ceiling/Sky, as it is often known, was created by Adams in collaboration with poet-activist June Jordan under the auspices of director Peter Sellars, which whom the composer had worked closely in the creation and staging of his earlier operas, Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer (both of which Long Beach Opera has performed in recent years). As with the operas, the piece takes a current event as its starting point. Premiering in Berkeley in 1995, Ceiling/Sky turns on the Northridge earthquake that thundered beneath the Los Angeles area the previous year.

Ceiling/Sky is not actually about the earthquake, which does not even occur until nearly two thirds of the way through the piece. When the seismic shift finally puts in its appearance, it serves as little more than a random opportunity for personal growth on the part of the story's seven characters, who by that point are as intertwined as they are ill defined.


The dramatic frame of Ceiling/Sky is one that is by now familiar from a certain type of very serious and earnest film and television drama: a group of characters, each defined principally by ethnicity or gender or political affiliation and otherwise bearing little in the way of individual personality, are brought together through the altogether random intersection of their life paths. Here, a "young black man" named Dewain, with a history of run-ins with law enforcement, shoplifts two bottles of beer while enroute to see Consuelo, the undocumented Salvadoran refugee with whom he has fathered a seven-month old child. Dewain is arrested by Mike, an LAPD officer on patrol in the company of Tiffany, a television journalist who takes more than professional interest in his person. Facing a "third strike" that will send him to prison for most of his life, Dewain is represented by public defender Rick, the U.S.-born son of Vietnamese refugees. Consuelo has been receiving birth control advice from community activist Leila, who in turn is romantically enmeshed with David, a charismatic, if philandering, inner city preacher. There is then an earthquake. Lives are changed, deep realizations are realized—Mike the cop acknowledges and embraces his gay identity, for example, and Consuelo elects to return to political engagement in El Salvador. The story ends with the characters' life paths re-forking in their separate new found directions.

Twenty years on, the details have changed but the political and societal concerns at play in Ceiling/Sky remain sadly unresolved. The fraught potential of encounters between white law enforcement and young black men has been driven home again by the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Young Central Americans continue to cross the U.S. border fleeing criminal or government violence in their homelands. Even the earthquake itself became suddenly topical again when the town of Napa and surounding wine country were struck with a 6.0 shock within hours after Saturday's performance.


Relevance and progressive politics, however, do not in themselves create credible theater. Ceiling/Sky ultimately fails as persuasive drama because its characters are barely more than stick figures bearing their identities as placards. Politically informed drama is hard to pull off, the weight of symbolism and rhetorical point tending to pull away from the compelling portrayal of actual humans. June Jordan did not navigate those hazards with nearly the success that was achieved by Alice Goodman in her (imperfect, but nevertheless more successful) libretti for Nixon and Klinghoffer

John Adams' score, on the other hand, is peculiarly compelling. Adams calls the piece a "song play," which could be taken as a literal translation of the German singspiel, i.e., the mix of high and low music theater traditions that yielded up Magic Flute. The magic and spectacle of Mozart are not on display in Ceiling/Sky, but the coupling of music hall, dance hall, and concert hall traditions certainly is. The 20 songs that tell the story swing and shuffle, groove and grind, with neominimalist pulse and drone as their dates for the evening, a pleasingly heady and singspielische mix of street and nonstreet strains. The reliance on electronic keyboards is occasionally too period-specific, verging on the cheesy, but not to such an extent as to undercut the entirety of the score.

Long Beach Opera artistic director Andreas Mitisek conducted the ensemble with exemplary skill, and the ensemble responded with what seemed to be as compelling an account of the score as could be wished. The performances of musicians and singing actors were across the board entirely compelling: better, really, than the piece itself. In a world full of mediocre accounts of great works, it was refreshing to encounter a strong and committed account of a less-than-great one.


I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky was a one-off performance, under the auspices of Los Angeles County's Ford Theatres. Which is to say, if you weren't there you won't be given another opportunity.

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