Category: David Mermelstein

A new stage gives voice to Nazi-suppressed operas

January 20, 2012 |  9:00 am

When L.A. Opera music director James Conlon conducts two one-act operas at the Colburn School this weekend, the occasion will mark the first time that his company’s Domingo Thornton Young Artist program and musicians from the Colburn Conservatory have worked together. The program also marks the first time that Ernst Krenek’s “The Secret Kingdom” and Viktor Ullmann’s “The Emperor of Atlantis” have shared a bill.

Both are examples of music that the Nazis forbade, a genre especially dear to Conlon’s heart. Yet more than a common enemy unites these two short operas -– the first composed in the mid-1920s, the second in the midst of World War II.

“Both of these operas are fairy tales, and the dramaturgical link is that they both involve a ruler who abdicates,” Conlon said. “And this is why I wanted to do this pairing: I saw through my previous experience that you can set off works in a special way when you find the right connection.”

The conductor describes Krenek’s “Secret Kingdom” as “delightfully comic and very touching,” adding, “it gives you – as the court jester tells you at the end – a lot to think about. The meaning of life is to be found in something quite different from power.”

Ullmann’s “Emperor of Atlantis” is also a fantasy, but it’s a much darker one. “It’s about the Grim Reaper and the Great Dictator, and then the Grim Reaper goes on strike,” Conlon said. “I imagine it as a Freudian wish-fulfillment dream on the part of Ullmann to convince Hitler to desist. Yet you have a witty and deeply moving affirmation of life here as well.”

Read the full story on the Colburn-L.A. Opera partnership.

-- David Mermelstein

Photo: Conductor James Conlon rehearses with musicians of the Colburn Conservatory. Credit: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times


On conducting: Bernard Labadie is all Mozart this week in L.A.

December 14, 2011 | 12:22 pm

This weekend at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Bernard Labadie is to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic and piano soloist Benedetto Lupo in three performances of an all-Mozart program
French Canadian conductor Bernard Labadie gained international notice leading performances of Baroque music, but he has never limited himself to such scores alone. This weekend at Walt Disney Concert Hall, he's scheduled to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic and piano soloist Benedetto Lupo in three performances of an all-Mozart program.

Labadie has received much acclaim for applying aspects of period performance practice to modern instruments -– an approach exemplified by Les Violins du Roy, an ensemble he founded in Quebec City in 1984. "There was the thought of switching to period instruments after we started," he said. "Instead, we switched to Baroque bows, and we got stuck there, because that became our signature."

Read the full interview with Bernard Labadie.

The combination fused modern power with antique clarity and precision. "It’s an option, an experiment," Labadie said of the decision. "If I started another group, would I do it this way? Not necessarily."

The conductor rejects the notion of an ideal in performing music from centuries past in the present. "We might be in for a shock were we to go back to Bach's weekly cantata performances," he said. "We're here not to re-create the music of the past, but to re-create its essence. This allows us to approach music so that it speaks to modern audiences."

Informed musicians should seek deeper truths, he suggested. "We re-creators must discover the essence of the music and make sure it's not hidden by traditions and layers of decisions made by other people," he said. "You might do something considered historically wrong but which is still musical. But regardless, it's your mistake. You own it. And you're proud of it."

-- David Mermelstein

Photo: Conductor Bernard Labadie in 2007. Credit: David Cannon

The Boston Symphony Orchestra--a changing tradition

December 3, 2011 |  9:00 am

Boston Symphony
Joseph Hearne has seen plenty during his almost 50 years as a double-bassist with the venerable Boston Symphony Orchestra, which comes to Walt Disney Concert Hall next week. And not everything has been about preserving the past. He’s seen plenty of change too.

“We went from three women when I joined in 1962 to somewhere around 40 now,” Hearne said. “And there were no Asian musicians in the orchestra when I started; now there are about 15. In the old days, it was a pretty wild place. It’s far more businesslike and professional now. I actually think it’s a better orchestra now.”

Hearne has thus far served under four music directors in Boston -– Erich Leinsdorf, William Steinberg, Seiji Ozawa and James Levine -– but his connection with the ensemble’s storied past goes beyond that. “I used to work for Pierre Monteux too,” he said, referring to the legendary French maestro who led the BSO from 1919 to 1924 but would return to guest conduct for decades after. “He was about 90 when I was in the ‘echo orchestra’ in Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, and he chewed me out for dragging.”

It was Monteux who famously led the riotous premiere of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” -– in Paris, in 1913 –- and it just so happened that two musicians from that orchestra were serving in the BSO when Hearne joined. It was an impressive link with history, to be sure, but they were veritable tyros compared with a long-retired player Hearne was lucky enough to meet. “He had been an assistant concertmaster with the orchestra,” the bassist recalled, “and he was in his mid-90s then. But he had met Brahms.”

Stories like Hearne’s are one example of how the BSO maintains a connection with a valued past while also being firmly rooted in classical music’s ever-changing present.  

Real more about the present and future of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

--David Mermelstein

Photo: Conductor James Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall in 2005. Credit: Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times

Frühbeck de Burgos and changing musical tastes

August 13, 2011 |  9:00 am

Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos conducts the L.A. Philharmonic in summer 2010.

Fans of old-world musicianship have come to cherish performances by the Spanish conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, who returns to the Hollywood Bowl next week for two programs with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Those present at the Bowl last summer may have heard Frühbeck lead the philharmonic in Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, which the orchestra had already performed several times that season under Gustavo Dudamel’s direction. But Frühbeck, who turns 78 in September, emphasized aspects of the work different from those that Dudamel had highlighted.

“That’s the beauty of it,” Frühbeck said. “The way I saw Mahler One when I was Dudamel’s age is not the same as now. My interpretation changed –- I hope for the better. I think it’s very interesting to compare what a young man does and what a very old man does.”

The conductor says that back in the 1960s he was the first to program all of Mahler’s major works in Spain, even if he did not conduct them all. “What the musicians said -– and the critics -– whew!” he recollected. “Now Mahler is very popular in Spain, but then there were many symphonies that had not been done before I programmed them. Six and Seven were not well received, and people didn’t understand Nine at all at that time. Today everybody adores Mahler’s Ninth. I did it again in Spain last year, and it was a smashing success. But when we first programmed it, it was not.”

A lot has changed musically in Spain over the years, and in no small part thanks to this conductor, who for 18 years was in charge of the Spanish National Orchestra. “In one way in particular things have improved: the infrastructure,” he said. “There were practically no auditoriums back then. Now there are about 20. And now there are new orchestras too. There are five or six that are excellent. Sadly, the National is not anymore one of them, but I don’t want to elaborate more on that.”

Related: A profile of Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos

-- David Mermelstein

Photo: Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic last summer. Credit: Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles plays host to Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina

May 18, 2011 |  9:02 am

Sofia With the Soviet-born composer Sofia Gubaidulina pushing 80, some might wonder if this prolific artist is coming close to retirement. It’s one of several issues she addressed in a conversation at CalArts last week, during a break from preparations for a mini-festival in her honor at REDCAT, CalArts’ performance space in downtown L.A.

“Maybe I will need to,” Gubaidulina said of slowing down, her words translated from Russian. “It’s an open question, because there is not enough strength –- health, you know.”

The composer –- whom no less than Dmitri Shostakovich encouraged to find her own way musically –- looks feisty enough, and players clamor for her to write new scores for them. Among the more recent ones is “Glorious Percussion,” which on Thursday receives its American premiere at Walt Disney Concert Hall, with Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic and five percussion soloists.

“I have many interesting projects, more than I can ever make,” the composer said. “Performers want more and more. And there are always new soundscapes to explore.”

She mentions that she is currently finishing a piece for the cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic and that the Cleveland Orchestra is expecting something, too. There’s also the the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, who has been promised a chamber work to go with the arresting concerto Gubaidulina already wrote for her.

“A lot of ideas, wonderful ideas, are coming from performers,” the composer said. “I wish I could do them all. But I can’t do them all.”

Click here to read the full interview.
-- David Mermelstein

Photo: Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina practices with students at CalArts. Credit: Michael Robinson Chavez/Los Angeles Times


'Moscow, Cherry Town': A Shostakovich to sing about

May 7, 2011 | 11:00 am

Moscow Dmitri Shostakovich and "wild romp" are not usually uttered in the same sentence. Yet when Long Beach Opera is talking about its next mounting, the composer's "Moscow, Cherry Town," here you have it:

“This is the company's first Shostakovich,” said Isabel Milenski, the director of the production. “Andreas said he wanted a wild romp, and I assured him I could give him one.”

Andreas is the Long Beach Opera artistic and general director Andreas Mitisek, who is also conducting the upcoming performances in three venues.

 “Moscow, Cherry Town" is the Russian composer's sole operetta. Some call it a musical. Rarely performed, the 1958 effort is to receive its first West Coast staging May 15 as the penultimate production of Long Beach Opera's current season.

Read more in David Mermelstein's Arts & Book story about the composer and his little-seen romp.

Photo: Baritone Robin Buck in the role of Barabashkin rehearses Long Beach Opera's production of Shostakovich's musical-cum-opera "Moscow, Cherry Town." Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times


Ben Heppner, Wagnerian

November 13, 2010 |  8:30 am

“I really like Wagner because you can stage it many different ways,” says the Canadian tenor Ben Heppner. “You can set almost any Wagner opera practically on the moon or in the New York subway. It’s all about the relationships in Wagner. It’s not about the action.”

In this particular case -– the singer’s debut at L.A. Opera -– the Wagner in question will be “Lohengrin,” but neither the moon nor the Big Apple’s public-transit system figures into things. Instead, director Lydia Steier’s concept sets the drama during World War I -– rather than in some fictional medieval time, as the composer himself had it.

And though Heppner generally favors traditional productions, he’s open to new ideas if they make sense. By way of example, he mentions a staging in Nice, France, of Wagner’s “Meistersinger von Nürnberg” that dispensed with the small-town-in-Germany look in favor of something more modern.

“It was basically done on stark white steps,” the tenor recalls. “And it became a wedding cake by the end, with my character, Walther, and his beloved, Eva, at the very top -– like those plastic figures of the bride and groom. That’s one of my favorite pictures of anything I’ve been in.”

For the full Arts & Books article on the tenor, click here.

--David Mermelstein

Photo: The tenor at the L.A. Opera costume shop.

Credit: Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times

It's a new day for Pasadena Symphony and James DePreist

October 22, 2010 |  3:58 pm

It started with a phone call last spring. Conductor James DePreist said he had no idea the financially struggling Pasadena Symphony was looking for an artistic advisor.

“So my agent calls and asks if I’m interested,” DePreist recalled. “He says, ‘In Pasadena they’re looking.’ All I knew was how beautiful the place was and that my friend Jorge Mester had been music director there. In large measure because of Jorge and all the others trying to right the ship, I said yes, knowing it was going to be a difficult task, fraught with dangers, especially financially.”

EntBlog_Photo330 Now — in two concerts on Saturday — DePreist is leading his first concert with the Pasadena Symphony, where he’s signed a yearlong contract to help right the troubled ensemble.

“I have the luxury of giving advice without having the responsibility of the execution of those ideas or their acceptance or rejection,” said the conductor. “If one has experience with orchestras, you’re trying to share that, and it’s rather important that the advice be serious. To that extent, a thoughtful appreciation of the situation is paramount.”

Click here to read about DePreist and this new chapter for Pasadena Symphony, and click above for a photo gallery of DePreist rehearsing with the orchestra.

— David Mermelstein

Photo: James DePreist is the new artistic advisor for the Pasadena Symphony. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times.

Cameron Carpenter, flash and substance on an organ (with or without pipes) [updated]

April 17, 2010 |  5:00 am

When organist Cameron Carpenter performs in Los Angeles on Sunday, he’ll be playing at the First Congregational Church. And his Walt Disney Concert Hall debut already looms; it’s an all-Brahms program scheduled for May 2011. Yet those listeners could be in for a surprise, because Carpenter has lately been devoting great effort to something called the virtual pipe organ – essentially an all-electronic version of the instrument. That’s right: a pipe organ with no pipes.

“I would very much like to take it to Disney Hall,” said Carpenter of his virtual pipe organ, despite the presence of the auditorium’s highly regarded and distinctive-looking real pipe organ.

"I’m looking forward to taking the virtual pipe organ to places with organs. It’s not a challenge. And why should audiences in L.A. be denied the chance to hear an instrument designed for an individual artist? How am I, for instance, to play bluegrass on the Disney Hall organ? It has no percussion instruments like theater organs do. And the more tools you have, the better.”

Carpenter's approach gets to the very heart of what defines an instrument. “I, as in many things, take the most liberal possible definition,” he said. “There are some who would say that it’s not an organ if it doesn’t have pipes. To me, the only fake organ would be one that looks like an organ but doesn’t function. You can’t look at 80 years of jazz, which would not have existed without the Hammond organ, and say that’s not an organ. I’m also always interested in what will interest the audience – not what they will enjoy, but what is significant for them.”

Watch some samples of Cameron performing and read Calendar's profile of Carpenter here.

-- David Mermelstein

[For the record. an earlier version of this post said that First Congregational Church the is on Wilshire. It is on 540 S. Commonwealth Ave.]

Conductor David Robertson, from Malibu to St. Louis and back home

April 14, 2010 |  7:11 am

RobersonWhen David Robertson, music director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, returns to California to lead his band on a five-concert, four-city tour of the Golden State this week, it’ll be old-home week for the conductor. Robertson was born in Malibu and raised in Santa Monica before heading to Europe and eventual fame.

But in addition to his appearances on some of the state’s most prestigious podiums -- including at L.A.’s Walt Disney Concert Hall on Wednesday and San Francisco’s Davies Hall’s on Saturday and Sunday -- Robertson will be making a more prosaic stop: visiting his alma mater Wednesday morning, Santa Monica High School. He says he hasn’t been back since the mid-1970s, although he seems to have plenty of happy memories.

“My very first sweetheart was Larry Hagman’s daughter,” he recalled.

This time Robertson will be paying music students a visit. “It’s great that everybody talks about El Sistema,” Robertson said, referring to Venezuela’s vaunted nationwide music-education program.  “But Santa Monica has had a program very much like that for many years. Students had the opportunity to take music at an early level and then continue their studies, and that continues today.”

Yet thrilled as he will be to walk the old hallways, Robertson has bigger concerns on his mind. “Everybody is facing such hard budget choices,” he said, “so it’s important for me to show how essential that experience was for me. And this is one way I can make people aware of that. Programs like this may look like a small thing on a budget line, but I can’t imagine my entire life without it.” 

Click here to read the full story on Robertson.

-- David Mermelstein

Photo: David Robertson. Credit: Michael Tammaro


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