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'Gangsta Wagner' puts a hip-hop spin on the 'Ring' cycle at Grand Performances

June 21, 2010 |  5:05 pm
Grand-Performances With his loose cream-colored suit, red and white high-tops, short fluffy beard and hair braided into two tight strands running down his broad back, Geoff “Double G” Gallegos hardly looked like the stereotypical symphonic conductor. While bouncing on the podium, he vigorously waved at the rows of musicians before him who swayed with their instruments. Full sections of strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion were represented, plus turntables, keyboards and electric guitars. Behind Gallegos, at the front of the stage, young men in baggy jeans and bright T-shirts bobbed their heads furiously as they rapped and sang.  Mixing hip-hop and rap with symphonic sounds might be a surprising blend, but it sure made for an energetic show.

Several hundred people gathered Saturday night at California Plaza in downtown L.A. to see Gallegos lead the daKAH Hip Hop Orchestra in a performance of “Gangsta Wagner.”

The show was offered by the summer concert series Grand Performances as part of the city-wide "Ring"  festival. Intending to enhance, expand and explicate the Los Angeles Opera production of Wagner’s “Der Ring Des Nibelungen,” the festival features a multi-venue collaboration of lectures, films, live performances and more. Grand Performances wanted to participate by offering something more for the general public than the audience of opera aficionados.

The result was “Gangsta Wagner,” composed, arranged and orchestrated by Gallegos.  Despite studying the classics at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, Gallegos confessed to being unfamiliar with Wagner when Grand Performances commissioned the work. He said during the performance that, “I only knew the part in 'Apocalypse Now' when they go charging into the jungle,” referring to "Ride of the Valkyries."  But in learning about Wagner, Gallegos came to admire the composer’s innovative music, saying, “People who think outside the box usually get persecuted.”

Delving into the "Ring," he composed “Gangsta Wagner” to reflect musical themes from the four "Ring" operas, which he said “the 'Ring' nuts out there” would hear. But the music did not intend to interpret the story, he said. In fact, the lyrics rapped and sung over the orchestra had nothing to do with the "Ring." (Actually, most of the words were unintelligible.)

Many in the audience were enthusiastic about the show, belting out “Yo!” and “Yeah!” at the end of each chorus. The people who spilled out onto all of the plaza’s corners and platforms included couples young and old, families with picnic dinners and groups of friends enjoying a night out. The crowd represented a  cross-section of L.A.’s diversity. 

About halfway through the show, the rhythm of the violins, the oom-pah-pahs of the brass, the thumping of the drums and the fierce grunts of the rappers created a beat that rocked so hard, the ground shook.  The people who had gathered at California Plaza – whether "Ring" junkies, hard-core rappers, or casual spectators – all bobbed their heads to the same rhythm, under the same canopy of stars.

 -- Daina Beth Solomon

Photo: the scene at California Plaza. Credit: Daina Beth Solomon



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