Category: Mark Swed

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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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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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. 

Music review: John Adams' 'Absolute Jest' in San Francisco

March 16, 2012 |  1:54 pm

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the San Francisco Symphony and the St. Lawrence String Quartet in the premiere of John Adams' "Absolute Jest."
When John Adams was a young composer and conductor in San Francisco in the early ’70s, he would often perform the experimental music of John Cage and other radicals, which was the hip thing to do at the time. But he has said that all that avant-garde business could leave him musically dissatisfied, and he’d go home and put on recordings of late Beethoven string quartets.

That is essentially what he does in a provocative new orchestral piece -- an Adams-ized mélange of late Beethoven -- commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony as part of music director Michael Tilson Thomas’ American Mavericks festival here.

The premiere at Davies Symphony Hall on Thursday night was sandwiched between just such radical ’70s pieces as Cage’s anarchic “Song Books” Wednesday and Feldman’s opaque Piano and Orchestra, which followed Adams on Thursday’s program.

So is Adams merely reliving his youth, or is he perhaps a maverick’s maverick, rebelling against the festival’s prevalent progressive spirit? The wise-guy title of the new piece is “Absolute Jest.” And it’s a great entertainment, as long as you don’t think too hard about it. 

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Music review: San Francisco Symphony's John Cage 'Song Books'

March 15, 2012 |  2:15 pm

Jessye Norman, from left, Michael Tilson Thomas and Meredith Monk perform John Cage's "Song Books."
The San Francisco Symphony is 100. Michael Tilson Thomas, who first conducted the orchestra 36 years ago, is in his 16th season as music director, and he has done more to give it a national profile than anyone else. But the anniversary that perhaps means the most for the San Francisco's unique brand is the 12th of Tilson Thomas’ American Mavericks festival.

A Mavericks celebration is going on here at Davies Symphony Hall with a two-week festival (that will also tour the Midwest and New York) and the remarkable thing about it is that -- in no small part due to Tilson Thomas’ powers of persuasion that get unlikely stars to perform unlikely music -- outlier composers don’t seem quite so mavericky anymore.

Wednesday night's program began with a half-hour staging of excerpts from John Cage’s anarchy-centric “Song Books.” The singers were Joan La Barbara, Meredith Monk and Jessye Norman. Yes, that Jessye Norman, the regal opera star. She was magnificent. They all were.

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Opera review: Long Beach Opera's Surrealist double bill

March 12, 2012 |  4:50 pm

Long Beach Opera's production of Poulenc's "The Breasts of Tiresias"
Surrealist opera sounds like an oxymoron. Isn’t opera already surreal simply by converting conversation into song and thought into arias? Still, a few early 20th century operas are the real surreal deal, actual products from purveyors of the early 20th century French cultural movement.

One of the most important of these is Poulenc’s “The Breasts of Tiresias.” And it, along with Bohuslav Martinu’s more obscure “Tears of A Knife,” were the material for Long Beach Opera’s Surrealist double bill Sunday afternoon at Center Theater (repeating Saturday).

Ken Roht's productions played both outlandish short operas as harebrained farce, and the English translations of the French texts further coarsened incongruities. But in Surrealism nothing is what it seems. With sensational performances by soprano Ani Maldjian, as well as an overall high level of ensemble work all afternoon, serious musical purpose prevailed, reminding us of the useful function of disorienting art in disorienting times.

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Music review: Piatigorsky Cello Festival opening concert at USC

March 11, 2012 |  3:28 pm

Sayaka Selina and Thomas Demenga
The Piatigorsky International Cello Festival began big Friday night at USC’s Bovard Auditorium. Seven cello soloists played five concertos (two were double concertos) in an exhausting and often spectacular showcase concert. And it was just the start of what promises to be an inimitable 10-day nonstop cello orgy that will end March 18 at Walt Disney Concert Hall with a piece by Christopher Rouse for 100 cellists.

But, hey, USC has the reputation for knowing how to party, and I overheard one student cellist in the audience say she was prepared to become cello-ed out.

Cellists have come from all continents except Antarctica, Ralph Kirshbaum, the festival’s artistic director, noted in his introductory remarks at Bovard. That includes 22 soloists and 45 young cellists who will participate in public master classes. It also means a bonanza for the airlines, since cellists must buy an extra seat for their fragile instruments.

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Music review: Mezzo-soprano Laurie Rubin at AT&T Center Theatre

March 9, 2012 |  2:08 pm

Laurie Rubin
A young mezzo-soprano whose voice is darkly complex and mysteriously soulful and who adds intense emphasis to every word of text sang six songs by the Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo on Thursday night at the AT&T Center Theatre. In one, a bee bites the lip of a sleeping shepherdess as if it were a rose, to the envy of a shy lover.

Laurie Rubin's rich, toffee-thick tones conveyed not just the sense of touch of puffy rosy lips but also their exceptional redness.

It would hardly occur to a listener that Rodrigo had been blind. Nor might someone hearing Rubin’s new recording of the Rodrigo songs, say on the radio, suspect the mezzo is without sight. In recital, of course, that is obvious. Whether this makes her a different sort of singer than one who sees was the question posed by this short recital and equally short colloquium, which was organized by the noted USC neuroscientist Antonio Damasio and presented by the university at the theater inside the AT&T Center highrise in downtown L.A.

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Music review: Mark Robson's Piano Spheres recital

March 7, 2012 | 12:21 pm

Mark Robson
Mark Robson’s annual Piano Spheres recital Tuesday was true to form. The program was personal, full of surprises, insights and sensational pianism. Robson has an effortless, old-school, monster technique that he applies to the new school. He expresses pleasure in modern music that is progressive, and modern music that is charmingly not, just as long as it has something to say about the piano.

Also true to form, Robson lived up to his reputation as the best-kept keyboard secret in Los Angeles. Piano Spheres holds its concerts at Zipper Hall, for which there was a decent turnout of regulars on Tuesday. The hall is part of the Colburn School, at least physically. I can’t say for sure that no students attended, but from appearances, it didn’t look as though any did. About a third of the seats were empty.

Perhaps Colburn students are too careerist to care about a major pianist who is not glamorous (at least in the Lang Lang or Yuja Wang way). If so, Tuesday was a sad night. But it wasn’t sad for those of us in the audience.

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Opera review: 'Death of KIinghoffer' at English National Opera

March 5, 2012 |  3:54 pm

The Death of Klinghoffer, Alan Opie, Jesse Kovarsky, 3, (c) Richard Hubert Smith
English National Opera mounted the first production in England of “The Death of Klinghoffer” last month. Protests had been promised over the staging of John Adams' opera about the American Jewish passenger who was killed and thrown overboard in his wheelchair on a hijacked Italian cruise ship, the Achille Lauro, in 1985. There were fears that performances would be disrupted by demonstrators who felt that the opera expresses elements of anti-Semitism. But on Feb. 25 a mere lone figure showed up with a placard in front of the London Coliseum, ENO’s home.

A week later, when I attended, the picketer had packed up. This was simply a Saturday night at the opera, and one for which there was now some buzz. The reviews were highly favorable of what is an inoffensive, realistic production by Tom Morris, mastermind of “Jerry Springer, the Opera” and “War Horse.”

Despite an unfortunate lack of cultural nuance and context, the theatrically vivid performance of Adams’ intense and moving score makes a strong point. Most important of all, this is probably the right production at the right time. The Metropolitan Opera will ship it to New York in a coming season (no dates have yet been announced), and certainly both companies are eager to avoid the charges of anti-Semitism that have made “Klinghoffer” an operatic hot potato.

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