Category: Criticism

The L.A. and Brooklyn new music scenes, competition or love-fest?

March 26, 2012 |  5:24 pm

Timothy AndresReviewing a rousing concert by the Los Angeles new music collective wild Up in November, I expressed pleasure that a faction of young L.A. composers retain the kind of cutting edge that can get smoothed over in other emerging scenes. Brooklyn, N.Y., in particular is a happening arts center where mixology extends not just to cocktails but also to a too easy throwing together of different kinds of music in a way that waters them down.

But there is also a more bracing Brooklyn, and one to which L.A. feels both close to and competitive with. We on the West Coast jealously watch many of our promising composers flock there. We also do our best to be Brooklyn on the Pacific. We’ve got the Dodgers and good Brooklyn bagels. And we play Brooklyn music, as wild Up and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra proved over the weekend.

At Beyond Baroque on Saturday afternoon, wild Up devoted the first half of a program to Brooklyn, the second half to L.A. One of the Brooklyn composers was Timo Andres, whose feisty piano solo, “How Can I Live in Your World of Ideas?” was on the program.

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Music review: Osmo Vanska in his Los Angeles Philharmonic debut

March 25, 2012 |  3:03 pm

Osmo vanska
During Esa-Pekka Salonen’s 17 seasons with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, so many Finnish instrumentalists, conductors and composers came through L.A. that you might have thought Finnair would have found it profitable to restore service to LAX. But at least one prominent Finnish conductor and one somewhat prominent Finnish composer were notable for their absences.

Osmo Vänskä, a classmate of Salonen’s at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki and music director of the Minnesota Orchestra, is a darling of New York music critics (he was Musical America’s conductor of the year in 2005), and he has long been a favorite of record collectors. But with his flamboyant conducting style and his championing of the neo-Romantic Finnish composer Kalevi Aho, Vänskä seems the polar opposite of the cooler, more progressive Salonen.

Even so, it is important for the opposition party to get an airing. And  at Walt Disney Concert Hall, a month shy of three years after Salonen conducted his last concert as the orchestra’s music director, Vänskä finally made his belated L.A. Phil debut. On Saturday night, moreover, he led the L.A. premiere of Aho’s Clarinet Concerto, with Martin Fröst as the flashy soloist.

I would be surprised if Vänskä were to be invited back any time soon. Ditto Aho.

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Music review: Pacific Symphony celebrates Iranian New Year

March 23, 2012 |  1:11 pm

Members of the Shams Ensemble perform with the Pacific Symphony
The Pacific Symphony was, Thursday night, the pacific Symphony, an orchestra serving the cause for peace.

The circumstance was the opening at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall of the orchestra’s 11th annual American Composers Festival. This year’s focus was Persian, partly in recognition of the large Iranian American community in Orange County.

The theme was innocuous on the surface, a celebration of Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, which begins the first day of spring. It’s an occasion for Iranians of all religions and ethnicities to come together. On Nowruz, people who stopped talking to each other are encouraged to try again.

We don’t, however, live in an innocuous world, and the festival’s news was the premiere of Richard Danielpour’s portentous 51-minute “Toward a Season of Peace.” It got a unanimous standing ovation. Political observers overlook classical concerts as useful litmus tests for popular sentiment toward war and peace. But given the current Iranian situation and Orange County’s reputation for championing conservative causes, this instance perhaps merits noting.

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Art review: Phil Chang at LAXART

March 22, 2012 |  6:00 pm

Phil Chang, "Cache, Active"
Phil Chang’s suite of 21 photographic works at LAXART look like slabs of old milk chocolate that’s just about to turn white. Each work is actually a piece of expired photographic paper exposed with either a negative or various objects placed directly on top. The paper was then left unfixed, which means the images were never set, and the works kept “developing” as they were exposed to light in the gallery. Hence their smooth, chocolate-y sameness.

Each however, has a rather evocative title like “Sea #2” and “Woman, Laughing.” Searching for traces of these images is a bit like looking at an Ad Reinhardt black painting — a rather existential experience as you search for minute variations in the darkness. Chang’s work did bring a smile as I searched in vain for some evidence of something as simple as “Three Sheets of Thin Paper.” But the chocolate refused to give anything up.

In this sense, the exhibition is both the aftermath of the work and an integral part of its making, a paradox that points to the tension between making art and exhibiting it. Does viewing complete the piece? And conversely, can a work be said to be finished if no one ever sees it? By blurring the line between making and exhibiting, Chang’s enigmatic show reminds us, quite starkly, that the conditions under which we look at art largely determine what we see, and whether we recognize it as art at all.


More art reviews from the Los Angeles Times

-- Sharon Mizota

LAXART, 2640 S. La Cienega Blvd., (310) 559-0166, through April 14. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Photo: Phil Chang, "Cache, Active" installation view. Credit:  LAXART, Los Angeles.

Art review: Carolyn Castaño at Walter Maciel Gallery

March 22, 2012 |  5:20 pm

Carolyn Castaño, "Narco Venus (Angie)"
Carolyn Castaño’s latest exhibition at Walter Maciel Gallery serves as an ambivalent memorial to female victims of the Latin American drug trade. Four large paintings, each named for a real woman, depict idealized nudes reclining in lush, glitter-strewn tropical landscapes. The women are equal parts art history and pin-up poster, but there’s something sinister about the large, Rousseau-like vegetation that surrounds them. Studded with skulls and other images of death, ominous swathes of pure black press in, giving the figures’ white skin an otherworldly glow.

Smaller paintings feature the severed heads of male drug lords — a seemingly vindictive symbolic act. While Castaño restores the women to life, she tosses the men’s heads in the long grass. Still, they too are encrusted with glitter and sparkly flowers. Perhaps they died much as they lived: astride an undercurrent of violence papered over with rhinestones.

The paintings are darkly beautiful, but the highlight of the show is a video featuring Castaño as a newscaster rattling off a litany of sound bites on the history and status of women in Latin America. Alternating seamlessly between English and Spanish — often in mid-sentence — the work pokes fun at the quick-cut, non sequitur nature of TV news while rattling the viewer’s linguistic and cognitive circuits. It undoes what we think we know about Latin American women, clearing a space, hopefully, for something more real and complex.


More art reviews from the Los Angeles Times

-- Sharon Mizota

Walter Maciel Gallery, 2642 S. La Cienega Blvd., (310) 839-1840, through April 7. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Photo: Carolyn Castaño, "Narco Venus (Angie)," 2011. Credit: Walter Maciel Gallery. Credit: Josh White.

Art review: Ben Sakoguchi at Cardwell Jimmerson

March 22, 2012 |  4:45 pm

Ben Sakoguchi, "Untitled"
To call an artwork a one-liner is to dismiss it. But what happens when you string a bunch of one-liners together, somewhat obsessively? You might come up with something approaching a worldview.

Such is the case with Ben Sakoguchi, best known for twisting the sunny designs of California orange crate labels into cutting critiques of cultural and political orthodoxies. An engaging mini-retrospective at Cardwell Jimmerson, ranging from the 1960s to the present, paints a much broader picture of his subversive thinking.

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Art review: Robin Rhode at L&M Arts

March 22, 2012 |  4:05 pm

obin Rhode, "36 Ways a Dice can Roll / Dice"South African artist Robin Rhode is known for ingenious, storyboard-like narratives depicting a lone figure (sometimes the artist, sometimes not), interacting with drawings on the wall or the ground behind him.

For his first solo outing in an L.A. gallery, Rhode also ventures into more conventional modes of sculpture and photography. An oversized rubber stamp in the shape of the moon and crumpled images of abandoned post-Katrina houses both feel labored, but most of the works on view at L&M Arts are actually quite magical.

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The 100 cellos of the Piatigorsky International Cello Festival

March 19, 2012 |  6:23 pm

Rouse Rapturedux

There goes the Disney Hall stage.

Sunday night, as the grand finale of the Piatigorsky International Cello Festival, 100 cellists dug their endpins into the expensive stage floor of Walt Disney Concert Hall for a rare performance of Christopher Rouse’s “Rapturedux.”

The tender Alaskan yellow cedar now has a cluster of new pockmarks, and the universe has a remarkable new sound — 400 rich and rapt cello strings vibrating in a great acoustic space. This goes beyond music. Vibration is the essence of nature — everything vibrates. And in the opening F-major chord of “Rapturedux,” it was possible to believe in a palpable music of the spheres.

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PST, A to Z: ‘Sight Specific’ and ‘In Focus’

March 19, 2012 |  9:05 am

Pacific Standard Time will explore the origins of the Los Angeles art world through museum exhibitions throughout Southern California over the next six months. Times art reviewer Sharon Mizota has set the goal of seeing all of them. This is her latest report.

Pacific Standard Time has included medium-specific exhibitions devoted to film, ceramics, music, and printmaking, so it’s only fitting that photography—nearly ubiquitous in contemporary art—should have its turn in the spotlight. Two exhibitions, “In Focus: Los Angeles, 1945-1980” at the Getty Center, and “Sight Specific: LACPS and the Politics of Community” at the University of Southern California’s Fisher Museum of Art paint somewhat different portraits of the medium’s role in the region. While the former is a small, tightly focused sampling of images created in L.A., the latter is a sprawling chronicle of an organization, the Los Angeles Center for Photographic Studies, which operated from 1974 to 1985.

Although the Getty is the flagship institution for Pacific Standard Time, its own PST exhibitions have been relatively modest. This holds especially true for “In Focus,” which includes just 31 images, all drawn from the Getty’s permanent collection. Organized into four rather conventional categories—experimental images, street photography, architecture, and the entertainment industry—they are pretty much the pictures you expect to see of Los Angeles: Judy Fiskin’s tiny, cameo-like portraits of stucco houses, miles of tract housing documented from the air by William A. Garnett, and a fabulous image by Garry Winogrand of two women, dressed to the nines, walking towards the swooping lines of the Encounter restaurant at LAX. The images are exceptional, but the show is a bit flat-footed.

Gm_05384201_webThere are a few pleasant surprises, however. Jo Ann Callis’ poetic, 1974 nudes, lying in the water like Ophelia, are partially obscured by mysterious layers of reflections—smoke, floral patterns, and other indeterminate shapes—making it hard to tell whether they’re “straight” photographs or composite images. And Robert Cumming’s 1977 photos of the awkward, behind-the-scenes spaces of Hollywood stage sets are simple but cogent exposés of the mechanics behind the illusion.

Anthony Friedkin, represented in both exhibitions, presents a similar, albeit more humorous image in “Sight Specific.” It’s a shot of a man who looks like he’s being swallowed as he works on the mechanical shark from “Jaws.” The image was featured in “L.A. Issue,” an exhibition organized by LACPS in 1979, one of its many wide-ranging shows.

“Sight Specific” presents groups of selected works from these exhibitions, which encompassed not only thematic shows of contemporary work, but historical ones featuring such luminaries as Edward Weston, James Van Der Zee, and Paul Outerbridge, Jr. Perhaps the most certifiably “L.A.” endeavor in this regard was 1981’s “Photoflexion: Photographs about Body Building,” It included images of the shiny, muscled bodies the world has come to associate with Southern California, as well as some curious older works, such as a turn of the century image by George Steckel that depicts a somewhat less emphatically muscled man sporting roman sandals and a pert fig leaf.

LACPS’s exhibitions of contemporary work were organized according to the artistic concerns of the day, only some of which were strictly photographic. There were shows on multiculturalism, theatricality, the relationship between word and image, expressions of time and duration, and “constructed” images, or scenes set up expressly to be photographed. In other words, LACPS artists were engaged with the same broad issues as their peers in other media.

As a consequence, “Sight Specific” feels a great deal more freewheeling than the buttoned up “In Focus.” As it turns out, post-war photography in L.A. was a much messier business than can be summed up with a handful of cool, black and whites.

Nettles Pack up“Sight Specific” does feature some stunning “straight” images, like Mark Klett’s dramatic shot from inside a snow tunnel—a vertigo-inducing swirl of textured light and shadow. But LACPS members, at least as sampled here, tended toward experimental and conceptual approaches, many of which did not necessarily involve traditional photographic skills. Bea Nettles used a pinhole camera to try to see everyday objects from the wonderous perspective of her small children. Bruce Yonemoto’s “Suspected Japanese Houses” from 1976 looks like a photocopy (it’s actually a diazo print, like a blueprint). With its whited-out ornamental shrubbery (many Japanese Americans worked as gardeners), it’s a subtle, darkly funny comment on stereotypes and racial profiling. And in “Construct XV” from 1982, Barbara Kasten photographed an arrangement of mirrors and colored plastic to create a geometric abstraction more commonly associated with painting.

To its credit, LACPS seems to have had no aesthetic agenda beyond the love and promotion of photography, in whatever form it appeared. And it filled a void in local support for such adventurous work between the demise of the forward-thinking Pasadena Art Museum in 1974, and the creation of a photography department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the mid 1980s. In this regard, its greatest impact may have been in fostering a sense of community.

Indeed, the first thing one sees upon entering “Sight Specific” is a wall papered with images of smiling people posing for pictures at art openings. In 1978, artist Daryl Curran began his series “L.A. Art Openings: 1978-79,” which evolved into “A Moment in Photo History,” in which he documented not just openings, but the lectures, parties and other events around which the L.A. photographic community coalesced. In each image he had someone hold a clipboard, like a Hollywood film clapper, detailing the name of the event, the location and the date. Sprinkled throughout the exhibition, these photos are a quiet undercurrent in this boisterous show, but in photographing the people behind the cameras, Curran was perhaps acknowledging LACPS’s greatest work of art.

--Sharon Mizota

Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Dr., (310) 440-7330, through May 6. Closed Mondays.

Fisher Museum of Art, University of Southern California, 823 Exposition Blvd., (213) 740-4561, through April 7. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Photos, from top: Darryl Curran, "Untitled," 1980, from the "Moment in Photo History" series. Credit: Collection of the artist. 

Garry Winogrand, "Los Angeles International Airport," 1964. Credit: The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles © 1984 The Estate of Garry Winogrand.

Bea Nettles, "Pack up your Troubles," 1981. Credit: Courtesy of the artist.


Music review: Spectral Scriabin

March 18, 2012 |  3:58 pm

“Spectral Scriabin” at the Broad Stage on Saturday night looked  promising, with look, indeed, part of the promise. Eteri Andjaparidze -- a pianist from the Georgian republic with a cult following and now a respected educator in America -- teamed up with extraordinary lighting designer Jennifer Tipton to illuminate a fascinating Russian composer who heard in colors.

Created for the Baryshnikov Arts Center in Manhattan and also presented at Lincoln Center’s 2011 White Light Festival, “Spectral Scriabin” came highly regarded, at least according to its press clippings. Maybe something in Andjaparidze’s brittle and sometimes banal playing or Tipton’s overly subtle gauzy projections got lost in the translation, or in the cross-country transport. But there is more than one way to look at Scriabin.

Born in 1872, Aleksandr Scriabin was a late Romantic who turned Modernist and then turned mystic and died young in 1915. As a musical revolutionary, Scriabin helped move music forward, influencing Stravinsky and Schoenberg and even Henry Cowell’s eclectic California school.

A decade after Scriabin’s death, at the fashionable salons in Paris, London, New York, Chicago and L.A. -- where Duchamp was debated and banned copies of Joyce’s “Ulysses” were circulated -- Scriabin’s music was often played and his mystic chord  mooned over by Madame Blavatsky's Theosophists. The young Elliott Carter and John Cage were Scriabinites. Pierre Boulez has become one in his later years.

But what Scriabin is mostly remembered for today, unfortunately, is his synesthesia (he associated tones with colors) and his mystical over-the-topness. He wrote that he wanted to suspend bells from the clouds over India in his last orchestral work, the incomplete “Mysterium.”

Andjaparidze put together an uninspired program consisting mainly of preludes, etudes, poems and small character pieces. She did begin with the rhythmically advanced, late “Vers la Flamme,” and end with the Fourth Sonata, Scriabin’s first spiritual masterpiece. The pieces ran, one into another, for an hour and were played with the audience in the dark, so that Tipton could colorize the backdrop. 

Tipton’s lighting effects at the very start of Saturday’s recital were splendid. As Andjaparidze began the spooky opening of “Vers la Flamme” in as much darkness as the fire officials allowed (exit signs remained illuminated), her hands were bathed in a ghostly glow. Then the music stand on her piano began to glow. But there was little spookiness to the rushed and squarely phrased playing.

There were, however, sparks. Andjaparidze has fingers of steel and she gets an impressively metallic sound from the keyboard with her sharp attacks. She favors momentum over wistfulness. Early preludes and etudes were treated as showpieces. The Waltz in A-Flat was dizzying. The Poem Languide in B Major was also dizzying.

Tipton’s lighting effects relied on large discs of pastels projected onto to the scrim. Occasionally, but only occasionally, a strong red or blue created a mood. It could be that I was sitting too close to the stage for the pastels to take; it could be that the show was created for a smaller space; or it could be that too much extraneous exit sign light bled onto the stage. But the lighting ultimately put attention on the pianist herself, rather than on illuminating the music.

Now and then, Andjaparidze surprised me. The Andante opening of the Fourth Sonata, which ended the program, was beautifully spare; every note, in this instance, actually glowing. That didn't last. The fast second movement became yet another showpiece, although it did allow Tipton her one great moment. At the climax, the backdrop became a blaze of white light, in a Robert Wilson way (Tipton has worked extensively with Wilson).

As I write this, the L.A. Marathon is being run under my window, and my street has been turned into a big advertisement for Honda. The theme is “The Power of Dreams,” even though dreams are in short supply. What dreams are there in helicopters hovering overhead and an atrociously bad rock band the city has set up to egg on (or bum out) miraculous runners?

The power of dreams is their otherworldliness, a runner's high. Scriabin’s music cannily catches this dream state. Andjaparidze’s Scriabin was closer to a big race to a blazing finish.


What color is music?

Sardono Dance Theater and Jennifer Tipton at REDCAT

Jennifer Tipton lights up REDCAT, and many other stages

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Eteri Andjaparidze performs "Spectral Scriabin" at the Broad Stage on Saturday night. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times. 


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