Category: Criticism

Music review: New Les Surprises Baroques in Santa Monica

April 16, 2012 |  3:04 pm

We could use more surprises in a concert scene so often encased in ritual and formula. So with that in mind, a new, roving period-performance group with a flexible roster of musicians is calling itself Les Surprises Baroques.

Getting Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra concertmaster Elizabeth Blumenstock to serve as artistic director is a good first step. Now they have to build an audience, which from the looks of the pews in Santa Monica’s First Presbyterian Church on Sunday afternoon is currently in the embryonic stage.

This program, the group’s second, was labeled “Curiose Inventioni,” a dig through some cobwebbed corners of secular 17th century Italian repertoire. There were 21 pieces, none lasting more than a few minutes, some linked together so that it was sometimes hard to tell where one left off and the next began.  

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Music review: Herbert Blomstedt leads Beethoven's Missa Solemnis

April 15, 2012 |  4:01 pm

Herbert Blomstedt
That incomparable Beethovenian Wilhelm Furtwängler thought the Missa Solemnis to be Beethoven’s greatest work. Too great, even, to perform. He stopped conducting it at age 44. But maybe if Furtwängler, who died in 1954 at 68, had lived on, he might have come to terms with this visionary epic mass. A spiritually enthralling call for peace, the Missa Solemnis is a habitable country for old men.

The former San Francisco Symphony music director Herbert Blomstedt, who turns 85 in July, led a superbly taut, vital performance of the Missa Solemnis with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Master Chorale on Friday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall. That entitles him to a platinum card in the prestigious Solemnis Seniors Club.

Other members include an 85-year-old Colin Davis, who conducted Beethoven’s mass in New York this season to glorious reviews. One week younger than Blomstedt, Kurt Masur remains a member in good standing despite a recent dustup in Boston. He withdrew from the Boston Symphony’s Missa Solemnis last month, the orchestra said, because of his frail condition. Masur immediately let it be known that he is fit enough to conduct elsewhere. Toscanini’s vigorous 1953 recording of the Missa Solemnis was conducted by an 86-year-old.

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Dance review: Ballet Geneve debuts Benjamin Millepied works

April 15, 2012 | 10:15 am

"Le Spectre de la Rose"

Touring with contemporary, soft-slippered ballets, Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève made its West Coast debut at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Friday with a trio of eye-catching works set to canonical ballet music choreographed by Benjamin Millepied, now known widely for his work in “Black Swan.” 

Heretofore unseen in the U.S., “Amoveo,” “La Spectre de la Rose,” and “Les Sylphides” gave weekend concertgoers a taste of the bright designs, group dynamics and knotty, weighted movement lexicon that stand to be a fixed point in Los Angeles' dance future. (Millepied has plans for a new “L.A Dance Project” arts collective in alliance with the Music Center next season.) Stimulated by humor, sexuality and surprise, these dances never sagged. But they had some off-flavors. 

In “Amoveo” (2006), set to four excerpts from Philip Glass’ “Einstein on the Beach,” relationships moved from delineation to unreadability in seconds, while Paul Cox’s Op Art scrim filled with two slow-moving lines of color that multiplied into a dizzying crosshatch. Tangled, exhaustive partnerings echoed the ceasless looping organ. Finishes were casual, even ugly.

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Art Review: Firelei Baez at Richard Heller Gallery

April 14, 2012 | 10:00 am

Firelei-Drawing-layout-1

The work of Dominican-born, New York-based painter Firelei Báez, on view in her L.A. debut at Richard Heller Gallery, is a captivating fusion of lightness and heft, agility and brawn. Her figures — nearly all of them female — are fleshy and substantial, with an animalistic quality, in several cases, that suggests a mythological undercurrent. Yet they’re entangled in wreathes of wispy ornament: curling hair, leaves, fur, birds, patterned drapery and decoration.

Most of the works are gouache on paper, with elements of graphite, ink and silk-screen, and the figures float as if weightless across the white space of each page, with the air of being in constant motion, whether barefoot or in heels (as many are).

Only two years out of graduate school, Báez has packed the work with erudite allusions — the press release cites such works as Dick Hebdige’s writing on British punk subcultures, Islamic miniature painting and black Creole fashion in 18th century New Orleans — geared to fleshing out tangled concepts of race and the formation of cultural identity.

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Art Review: Sarah Braman at International Art Objects

April 14, 2012 |  9:00 am

Calling Wendy - Braman
The work in New York artist Sarah Braman’s first solo show in Los Angeles, at International Art Objects (formerly China Art Objects), confronts viewers with one of the great existential questions of contemporary abstraction: Is it a painting? Or is it wood with paint on it? Is it a sculpture? Or is it scrap wood?

If we consider a painting to be an object in which paint and wood (or, in the case of one of Braman’s works, cardboard) are mysteriously synthesized, whether by effort, skill or accident, into an object of energetic resonance clearly in excess of the sum of its parts, only one of the four contenders in this show leans toward qualifying: an unaccountably lively piece called “Tuesday,” in which a thin wash of blue on one panel balances nimbly against several darker patches of blue on an adjoining panel.

The show’s four sculptures — large-scale plywood and Plexiglas cubes that tip and tilt across the floor with little apparent interference from gravity — fare somewhat better, filling the space of each room with a degree, at least, of companionable bulk.

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Music review: KarmetiK Machine Orchestra at REDCAT

April 13, 2012 |  3:20 pm

KarmetiK SamsaraWe build robots to do things we don’t want to do, say vacuum the rug or drop bombs. Business and government love robots because machines master the universe. Machines always win.

Young artists, however, increasingly turn to machines simply because the machines are cool, and because young artists all have MacBooks, which make the artists feel like masters of the universe. The KarmetiK Machine Orchestra, a CalArts invention on display at REDCAT Thursday night, is very cool, very MacBookish and very much interested in mastering the universe. We used to call that cultural imperialism, but that was before a techno-beat became a universal force for dulling cultural distinctions.

The show, “Samsara” (which repeats Friday), however, was meant to be high-mindedly and ambitiously interdisciplinary. Fine guest artists were contributors. Ancient Indian tradition — dance, music and storytelling — bumped into high, medium-high and low technology.

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Art Review: Jason Kraus at Redling Fine Art

April 12, 2012 |  6:45 pm

Kraus 3

The premise of Jason Kraus’s second solo show at Redling Fine Art, appropriately titled “Dinner Repeated,” is an exercise in compulsive reiteration. On each of the first seven nights of the exhibition, the New York-based artist served a nearly identical meal: the same four-course menu to the same 12 people, on a plywood table of like design with matching dishes, glasses and flatware.

After each meal, he dismantled the table and used the wood to build a free-standing shelving unit, then cleaned all the dishes and stacked them neatly inside. At the end of the week, the installation was complete: seven apparently uniform cabinets, each stocked with 12 identical place settings, spaced around the floor of the gallery.

The concept of residue has had a lot of currency in recent years. Many a work has been generated from the marks or stains made by the unfolding of a performance or event. (Note Cai Guo-Qiang’s recent firework paintings at MOCA.) In a curious twist on this familiar trope, Kraus has done the opposite: made every attempt to erase the imprint of the events, emphasizing the generic nature of his mass-produced materials.

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Music review: Pacifica Quartet at UCLA's Royce Hall

April 12, 2012 | 11:23 am

Pacifica Quartet
The Pacifica Quartet likes to think big -- and in the chamber music field, that often means doing cycles. 

Some adventurous listeners remember the evening at UCLA's Schoenberg Hall in 2003 when the Pacifica served up all five of Elliott Carter’s notoriously knotty string quartets in one mighty scoop; after that, you figured that from then on, everything else would be a piece of cake for them.  There were more cycles to come -- most recently, two volumes of an emerging CD project on the Cedille label, “The Soviet Experience,” that will link all 15 Shostakovich quartets with four by his Soviet colleagues.

However, the Pacifica did not have omnivorous feats in mind when it visited UCLA’s Royce Hall on  Wednesday night -- just Beethoven’s Quartets Nos. 4 and 8, and Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 9, plus the spiky, humorous, Allegretto pizzicato movement from Bartók’s Quartet No. 4 as an encore. 

Live, the Pacifica sacrifices some of the smooth, virtually immaculate surface that it displays on its recordings. But in return, there was a big gain in dramatic tension and fire, with all four players listening intently to one another. 

Though it is one of Beethoven’s early Op. 18 quartets, the No. 4 could take the Pacifica’s emphatically-accented, forwardly-pushed approach more in stride than some of the others in Op. 18 might have.  The Beethoven Quartet No. 8 at the end of the night was even better -- from the first movement’s big symphonic chords to the perfectly sprung rhythms and fast tempos in the third and fourth movements. 

On the Pacifica’s Shostakovich CDs, the group usually stakes a middle ground between the Emerson Quartet’s fierceness and the Fitzwilliam Quartet’s warmth.  Live in the Quartet No. 9, the Pacifica leaned more toward the former approach, identifying with the wildness in the third and fifth movements, bearing down hard toward the conclusion with terrific momentum.

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Music review: Cage, Stockhausen and Bettison under Green Umbrella

-- Richard S. Ginell

Photo: The Pacifica Quartet, from left, Sibbi Bernhardsson, Brandon Vamos, Masumi Per Rostad and Simin Ganatra. Credit: Anthony Parmelee.

Music review: Cage, Stockhausen and Bettison under Green Umbrella

April 11, 2012 |  2:58 pm

Nick Stoup

Once, during a public conversation at UC San Diego between the video artist Nam June Paik and John Cage, Paik recalled having asked Cage why he wrote music. “Because I promised Schönberg I would,” had been the answer from the composer who had studied with Schönberg at USC and UCLA. And why, Paik had also asked, did Cage continue to write music? “Because,” Paik recalled Cage saying, “it is important to continue meaningless activity.”

“I said that?” a surprised Cage wondered aloud onstage, but laughed engagingly. Who’s in control, and why, is perhaps the most controversial question that’s been posed by the international avant-garde in music since World War II. And that was the principal question of a fascinating, if uneven, Green Umbrella Concert on Tuesday night by the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

The centerpiece was Cage’s Concerto for Prepared Piano, written in 1951 and the first major work in the Western canon in which a composer began to give up musical control. It was surrounded by works from this century. Stockhausen’s “Fünf Stenzeichen” (Five Star Signs), which began the program, was composed by the biggest ego of European avant-garde, a Prospero who pulled all the strings. Oscar Bettison’s “Livre des Sauvages” (Book of Savages) was commissioned for the program by a young composer who delights in crazy percussion instruments with minds of their own.

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Rex Reed eviscerates Broadway's 'Evita' starring Ricky Martin

April 11, 2012 | 12:29 pm

Evita1

There are negative reviews, and then there is the kind of critical assassination practiced by Rex Reed, the veteran uber-critic whose current vulture perch is at the New York Observer. Once a powerful critical presence, Reed has long since been co-opted by the very cultural scene he once dissected, which has turned him into a Capote-esque shadow of his former self.

But in a review this week of Broadway's "Evita," Reed proves that he still has some bite left. The critic tears apart the revival production, starring Ricky Martin, with a gleeful ferocity that is a rare sight in today's rather genteel critical atmosphere.

"Can nothing be done, once and for all, to get rid of 'Evita?'" he writes. "Here it is again, worse than ever and revived on Broadway for no logical reason except to cash in on Ricky Martin's fame as a pop star."

Reed describes the production as "sprawling, overproduced, clumsily directed and strangely emotionless."  He writes that Andrew Lloyd Webber's music is "derivative" and that Tim Rice's lyrics are "repetitive," reducing the story of Eva Peron to a "second-rate operetta."

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