Archive for the Random Comment Category

Kicked upstairs!

Posted in Random Comment on January 29, 2011 by figarosi

Ulf Schirmer, conductor, was made General Music Director of the Leipzig Opera last year. Now we hear that he will also be given the title of “intendant” next year. It is not often that the music director becomes the manager also. At least he will be ready with his own second opinion in case anyone asks.

Just Fifteen Months Later.

Posted in Random Comment on January 8, 2011 by figarosi

We have been watching, with some amusement, New York critics deal with the new-to-them innovative stagings of opera which have been around Europe for decades are have now started arriving at the Metropolitan Opera. They have made a 180 degree turn since their lame reaction to Luc Bondy’s Tosca in September 2009.

The New York Times critic Tommasini still won’t admit he botched it. In this week’s review praising the new La Traviata – a much more radical treatment of a classic – he went out of his way to backhand the Tosca, linking it in his Traviata review with the phrase “Luc Bondy’s gratuitously modern and lame staging.” You can click on the link and read the review. This “characterization” does not appear in his September 2009 review. He doesn’t say anything about it being “gratuitously modern” – whatever that means – and lame does not appear as a concept. Here is most of what he said in September 2009:
“Still, the booing, if a little unfair, was understandable. Mr. Bondy’s high-concept staging featured stark, spare, cold sets and dispensed entirely with many of the familiar theatrical touches that audiences count on: Tosca placed no candles by the body of the villain Scarpia after murdering him, and did not exactly leap to her death at the
“Mr. Bondy is a substantive creative artist with a long record of achievement in the theater and the opera house, mostly in Europe. And the idea of bringing a sacred-cow-skewering perspective to “Tosca” is fine in principle. Turning this favorite over to an avant-garde director represents a bigger risk for the Met than does the company
premiere of Janacek’s bleak “From the House of the Dead,” which comes in November. But “Tosca” is one of the bread-and-butter works of any opera company…”

OK, got it. Something with “Dead” in the title can be allowed an “original” reading, but Tosca has to be a sunny pageant with all cliches intact. But Tommasini’s review was actually one of the more thoughtful, wondering whether New York audiences were ready for such “sacred-cow-skewering” which they, at the time, were emphatically not.

James Jorden, in the New York Post, was red-faced and huffing: “Bondy downplayed the glamour to evoke the horrors of torture as an interrogation technique.” Even if Jorden shares George Bush’s sunny view of torturing techniques, he still missed the “glamour” of the story, never bothering to do a body count at the end. “But Tosca is no highbrow psychological study – its an operatic slasher movie,” he concludes, astonished than anyone could have a differing view.
Now both he, Tommasini and the rest of the pack are going on at some length about Willy Decker’s five-year-old Traviata as a “highbrow psychological study.” Tommasini: “This is an involving and theatrically daring production that belongs at the Met.” Jorden’s analysis of Traviata on his Musical American blog is particularly interesting and thoughtful. What a difference fifteen months makes!

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.

“New” Season in Dallas

Posted in Random Comment on March 2, 2010 by figarosi

Critic Scott Cantrell is funny writing about the new season at the Dallas Opera… “Repertory all the way from J to M…”

David Bowie’s IPod

Posted in Random Comment on January 25, 2010 by figarosi

In the Guardian newspaper David Bowie listed the music he has been listening to recently. Here are selections (i. e. things I never heard of edited out.) The comments are his.
“I’ve chosen the songs that I’ve been playing the most over the last month. Here they are in no particular order.
El Ninõ – For with God No Thing Shall Be Impossible by John Adams; Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Willard White, Dawn Upshaw, Lorraine Hunt
Lieberson, conducted by Kent Nagano
Just over a minute long and propulsive like a storm. I want to crush furniture. The emotional in search of the divine.
Nixon in China: Act I, Scene 1; ‘Soldiers of Heaven Hold the Sky’ by John Adams; Orchestra of St Luke’s, Edo de Waart
Adams’s minimalism disguises the rich romanticism of his melodies. Ever ascending, rising through the clouds.
Dinner at Eight by Rufus Wainwright
There aren’t that many son/father songs but this is the best of them as far as I know. Rufus is just simply one of the great writers.
Different Trains I: America-Before the War by Steve Reich; Kronos Quartet
One of the late 20th century’s most affecting works. I love the use of speech as a source for melody. But it’s so much more than a concept, it’s also impossibly moving.
Blue Skies by Josephine Baker
I’m not a big Baker fan but there’s something about this performance that touches me. I think it’s the break in her voice among all this gaiety and
Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet: Tramp with Orchestra by Gavin Bryars; Hampton String Quartet, Michael Riesman and Orchestra”

The “A” Word

Posted in Random Comment on January 15, 2010 by figarosi

Washington Post music critic Anne Midgette comments on a few American opera companies that have not forgotten that they are doing art, not show business. Paste in your browser.

Placido’s Cloudy Days

Posted in Random Comment on January 14, 2010 by figarosi

There has been a mini-storm recently about the two American opera companies run by Placido Domingo. The star singer, conductor, personality has been directing two companies – the Washington National Opera and the Los Angeles Opera – both of whom have had financial difficulties and shortened seasons.  ‘It’s the (bad) economy stupid!” he replies, and he could be right.

Studies show that, under normal circumstances, the arts get about the same support in America, dependent on private foundations and individuals, when compared with the government support in Europe. But the crisis has hit American non-profits particularly hard. The foundations – and rich donors – have seen their assets cut dramatically and contributions have taken a dive while European governments have continued their support. Germany has announced a 1.5% increase in their arts support – a piddling sum but remarkable given that that country’s economy shrunk by 5%.

The article about Domingo’s woes is in today New York Times: