Archive for October, 2010

LA LA Land

Posted in Random Comment on October 26, 2010 by figarosi

Opening Night in LA LA Land.

As a Paris-based music critic and journalist, a short trip to California, my home state, happened to coincide with the October 7 gala opening night of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s 2010-11 season. The remarkable young conducting talent, Gustavo Dudamel, opening his second season as music director, has focused the spotlight on Los Angeles and its orchestra as never before. After years of honing by Esa-Pekka Salonen, the orchestra, for decades a major one, is now considered in the heady top tier in the world’s ranking. The LA arrival last year of Dudamel, a naturally gifted talent whose ability to bathe in the warm passion of the music while most of his colleagues keep it at arm’s length, has made him currently the hottest commodity in the classical music field. What follows are simply private reactions to what I saw and is not really a “review.”

Why this “gala” black tie evening turned out to be, well, risible is perhaps partly attributed to the nature of a town where overblown fantasy is common coin. Arriving underground at the new Walt Disney Hall, a facility I had not yet experienced, I was impressed by the commodious parking available and the new, shiny escalators taking you to the surface. Inside the spacious lobby, I had to walk outside to view the hall, now generally ranked as one of the top concert halls of the world, both acoustically and architecturally. It is stunning, sweeping, dramatic and the photos only give a hint of its curvaceous grandeur.

What else I saw outside brought me sharply down to earth. There was, improbably, a Hollywood “Red Carpet” (actually bright pink) with a serious cluster of paparazzi. Valet parking by phalanxes of running, sweating mostly-Hispanic valets. Each time a honored couple took a turn down the row toward the entrance, a blizzard of flashing lights illuminated the sky. Cries of, “This way! This way” and “Just one more” echoed loudly. There was even someone with a microphone, and video cameraman in tow, to interview the guests. I did not identify this crew with any national or local television station or even the myriad cable channels and wondered if they, as a job, offer videos of their evening’s work for sale to the attendees.

Now I have passed many nights at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion across the street and you will sometimes see celebrities in the crowd, mostly for the opera, not so often for the Philharmonic. I watched this media circus – which I soon suspected of being hired – photograph aging Philharmonic fat cats and their wives, many of which were showing off their antique plastic surgery which now resembled halloween masks. I did not see anyone I recognized, which was different than my earlier experience as a local resident where you could see a “name” almost any afternoon in the produce section of the West Hollywood Vons. In a town where overdressing does not draw a foul, many of the strutting aristocrats seemed to be wearing their grand-daughter’s prom dresses.

My time in this town goes back some years. I remember young Zubin Mehta causing a similar musical stir when he was appointed music director and still remember how they dressed the ushers at the Chandler in Nehru jackets. But whose idea was it to turn opening night into some low-budget, glaring imitation of the Oscars? How does this parade of the elite square with their expressed desire to attract a more diverse audience?

More questions can be asked inside the hall. It is here we learn that the program, a remarkably strange one, has been dramatically trimmed. The first half of the program featured Rossini with three opera overtures and no less than Peruvian tenor, Juan Diego Florez, the world’s ranking lyric tenor, singing arias from the three operas. The second half featured Latin American classics. Last-minute surgery lopped off the popular William Tell Overture and the splendid tenor aria, “Asile hereditaire,” from that same opera. Why was one-third of the Rossini, already printed in the program, excised at the last minute – reportedly only the day before? After the opening work the amiable young maestro took the microphone to accept responsibility, likening his program to an overweight bag at the airport. But this slashing took the concert well under two hours of music – skimpy by any measure – and one suspects that aging donors wanted to be finished with the festive after-concert dinner so they could take their meds and be their pajamas by midnight. Some in the press accused media types, taping the concert for later TV broadcast and DVD, as the guilty party. They would not likely be pressing for a shorter-than-normal concert and certainly would have considered timing issues earlier than the day before the event.

Another comic incident could also have been avoided. The first piece played, the Overture to Rossini’s opera, La Gazza Ladra, opens with a roll of the snare drum. What this sounded like to most of the audience is the “call to attention” that immediately proceeds the National Anthem which, in the past, would have opened such an occasion. At least a third of the audience stood when they heard this, only to sit again with an embarrassed chuckle as the overture continued.

Acoustically, the hall seems to have been tuned to the previous conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen with his need for clarity and precision. The sound is alive, clear and analytical. Dudamel, the many times I have heard him in other halls, likes a rich, integrated sound from the orchestra and might enjoy his visits to Carnegie Hall for that sort of sonic comfort. Disney Hall does not, at first hearing, embrace the voice and Florez’ voice usually sounds less dry that on this night. The interior design of the auditorium was also a bit strange. The organ dramatically hovering over the orchestra has been likened by more than one observer to a giant half-finished bag of French fries. I had more trouble with the hugh lit panels high on either end of the hall. The baby blue color seemed distinctly at odds with the warm colors of the auditorium. The seats are comfortable but the critics I recognized were all sitting near me in the left stalls near the stage and not in the orchestra. There were a number of empty seats near me, a surprise for such an occasion.

The intermission was strange and short for an opening night. The entire right side of the spacious lobby was cut in half by a line of patrons waiting to be served drinks and snacks by the most seriously understaffed concession stand I have ever experienced. Smart insiders look for pre-poured glasses of champagne waiting for them with their names attached. Those who like their champagne straight from the bottle had to suffer in silence and hope they had time to be served.

The second half of the program was untouched by the knife. Here Gustavo Dudamel programmed Latin American composers he favors. These are usually populist works of engaging tunefulness but made the second half seem more appropriate for the “pops” weekends at the summer Hollywood Bowl concerts. While the works are easy on the ears, they make their earlier South American colleague, Heitor Villa-Lobos, seem almost Mozartian with his musical gifts. It did allow me to, after all these years, connect a composer’s name with the popular song “Granada” (Agustin Lara, 1897-1970). Florez sang this with a particular relish, as he did a waltz by Peruvian songwriter Chabuca Granda. Mexican composer Maria Grever’s bolero, “Jurame” was also sung by Florez, is perhaps best known for her tune “What a Difference a Day Makes.”

The cheering, whistling crowd got two predictable encores from Florez and Dudamel. Donizetti’s “Ah, mes amis” from “Daughter of the Regiment” with its nine exposed high Cs flawlessly present and Verdi’s chestnut, “La donna e mobile” from “Rigoletto.” Those who expect “high art” for the opening concert might have been disappointed. I know I was.

French Culture Budget Up!

Posted in News on October 2, 2010 by figarosi

In contrast to the struggling art and music scene in America and the expected cuts in the culture budget in England, both France and Germany have guaranteed full financial support for their cultural programs.

In early July, the German Federal Council of Ministers approved the budget bill for 2011 with the Culture budget unaffected. Culture Minister Bernd Neumann indicated that this decision shows the importance the German government attaches to the role of culture in society.

On September 30, the French Minister of Culture, Frederic Mitterand, announced that the French Culture budget will actually increase a modest 2.7%. “Though most of the countries of Europe has chosen to trim, often substantially, their culture budgets, France has made a different choice. The cultural offering is a determining element in our attractiveness as a country and its economic development.”

Mitterand also, in response to a question, indicated that his ministry was active in supporting the new and architectually dramatic concert hall in the La Villette section of Paris. A project “on hold” for the past several months, the next phase is expected to resume shortly.