Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Bessie Harvey And Her Tennessee Roots

Untitled (Cobra).  23 1/2 x 18 x 19" paint on wood with beads

[Editor's Note: As I am facing numerous writing deadlines over the second half of February, this seems like a good time to give a retrospective glance to the first two years of Art of the Rural. Over these weeks I will feature a few new articles, but also many favorites from the archives. Thanks again to everyone who has read and contributed; what began as a labor of love has become a project far larger, and far more rewarding, than I ever could have anticipated - and I deeply appreciate the readership and participation of such a diverse audience. In March we will offer new articles and series, and share some new projects related to our mission.

Bessie Harvey And Her Tennessee Roots was originally published on July 12, 2010.]

The American Folk Art Museum in New York City is currently featuring an exhibit entitled Approaching Abstraction, a survey of work from their permanent collection that counters the popular assumption that "contemporary self-taught artists work solely in a representational style, eager to engage in storytelling and personal memory." As the introductory materials to this show suggest, perhaps modern art audiences have been missing the ways in which these artists (from both rural and urban backgrounds) have been--while addressing the "social" content of their work--also thinking about the formal and aesthetic questions that we normally associate with the academic, insider, art world:
But while the narrative tradition often is a primary impulse, a significant number exhibit a tendency to be seduced by material, technique, color, form, line, and texture, creating artwork that omits or obscures representation.
The exhibition's insistence here is fresh, and in some ways vindicating. While Ken Johnson's review in The New York Times rightly suggests that we can't successfully separate the stories of these artists from the pure "form, line and texture" of their work, it also seems to reflect back on the industry and academy outside these pieces: how often, when viewing much modern and post-modern visual art do we find an absence and, indeed, a refusal of social content? It's refreshing then to watch AFAM curator Brooke Davis Anderson describe the exhibition below:

Ms. Davis spends a significant amount of time towards the end of this segment with the work of Bessie Harvey (1929-1994), an artist from eastern Tennessee who worked primarily with roots, though her art differs in profound and wonderful ways from the root club sculptures of Stan Neptune, who we discussed in March. The Bessie Harvey Homepage is the best place to begin discovering her work; it was written by The Knoxville Museum of Art in conjunction with local Austin-East High School, and it interweaves Ms. Harvey's biography within the developing arc of her sculpture. It's a story of uncanny perseverance in the face of cultural and familial obstacles, a triumph of the spirit and of a woman's faith in her religion and her own abilities as an artist. As the Approaching Abstraction exhibit would suggest, her own relationship with her artistic medium--though in a different time and place--bears an intimacy that we might associate with great masters of abstraction such as Mark Rothko. Here's an excerpt from the Homepage:
After resonding to its form, Harvey often sought its identity by speaking to it directly, asking, "Who are you?" For the sculpture Birthing, however, the artist's initial indentification proved to be incorrect: "I went out into the yard and I found this piece and to me it looked like an old man leaning on a walking stick." After bringing it into the house, Harvey was shocked that her vision had suddenly and dramatically changed to that of "an African girl; she's a queen, and she's giving birth to a baby, and the baby's head's already out." As with Birthing, Harvey often was struck by the fact that her imagery sometimes seemed disconnected from her life experience, as if extracted from a previous lifetime on another continent: "I get the feeling that I been in the world before, and I think it was in the darkness of Africa," and "There are some things that I know and some things that I do that I can't understand how I know these things if I haven't been here before."

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Secret of NIN

Composer Louis Andriessen has amassed quite a following in Los Angeles over the last decade. Just about any ensemble with even a passing interest in contemporary music has programmed his work here and both the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Los Angeles Philharmonic have lured him out to the west coast before most memorably for performances of his Dante-inspired opera La Commedia in 2010. Tuesday’s “Green Umbrella” program with the Los Angeles Philharmonic new music group brought Andriessen back with long-time collaborator, conductor Reinbert de Leeuw. The evening featured three of his most recent works, all multi-media collaborations with other artists. Andriessen made it clear in pre-concert remarks that he dislikes the “bourgeois” term muse, but these pieces all revolved around other artists who heavily influenced the content and shape of the final product.

Life, the first piece on the bill from 2010, was scored for a small group of six players and according to the composer's own notes was intended as a sort of “Pictures at an Exhibition”. Accompanied by four short films from Marijke van Warmerdam, each of these brief movements represented a collision of what Andriessen described as classical Romantic string playing with American minimalism. Perhaps this is so, but the music was unmistakably his own resulting in a mini-symphony constructed of slowly pulsating rhythms and shifting harmonies. The readily identifiable thematic material that recurs throughout parallels the non-narrative but figurative and natural elements of the film. This was followed by the more expansive, La Girò, a concerto for violin and chamber orchestra from 2011. The piece is named after the moniker of 18th Century contralto and favorite of Vivaldi, Anna Maddalena Teseire. However, in Andriessen’s world, musical references are almost always oblique and there is relatively little that is recognizable in these four movements as growing out of the Italian Baroque. What does come out is a fascinating solo part for violinist Monica Germino who not only plays the violin solo, but sings and narrates the piece at the same time. At first the work sounds somewhat like a traditional concerto, but by the time it reaches the second movement, Germino begins to sing and then pauses the orchestra to narrate a story concerning a young woman increasingly plagued by doubts about her own skills as a violinist. The material grows increasingly dark until it is punctuated with repeated high tones and some stirringly visual dream imagery. Germino oscillates between doubt and fury clearly grabbing the audience by the throat by the work's conclusion.

Both Life and La Girò build on the kind of multi-disciplinary music drama Andriessen has favored in recent years filled with striking dramatic images and abstract narrative elements. The culmination of this work may be his 2010 project, Anaïs Nin which closed the evening with its U.S. Premiere. The performance has been filmed and a sample of an earlier version is featured above. Here material form Nin’s “Incest” volume of her diaries is set as a monodrama for long-time Andriessen favorite, soprano Cristina Zavalloni and a small ensemble. Zavalloni, always a fascinating artist to watch, plunged whole-heartedly into the character of Nin vamping about the stage in her period 1930s loungewear. She starts the piece by pretending to cue up the video that depicts her character speaking into the camera and following around the lovers she sings about later on including Antonin Arthaud, Rene Allendy, Henry Miller, and ultimately, her own father. She is obsessed with herself, often rewinding the tape to locate her face taking in the camera as her paramours look on. The text, which is largely taken from Nin’s diaries, is embroiled in the wide ranging emotional extremes that make up her character. They relate some of the details of her relationships of the period. And some of the material about the relationship with her father is fairly bracing.

But ultimately, it’s also rather humorless, morbid and unsexy in just about every way which seemed to bleed into the music. Andriessen makes direct reference to 1930s musical genres here but not in an arch or paradoxical way. In fact the tone of the piece is unwaveringly serious throughout making the work seem longer than it actually is. Anaïs Nin lacks some of the roguish energy and unpredictability of a work like La Commedia and often bogged down despite itself under the weight of its own internal psycho-sexual drama. And while Zavalloni was thoroughly entertaining and committed to the work giving each line plenty of punch, the whole thing came off rather empty. Of course Andriessen’s missteps are more interesting than other composer’s successes so it is equally fair to say that the evening was never dull. But I could have done with a more fleshed out version of La Girò or even a reprise of La Commedia over some of the drama on offer this particular night.

Northern Lights

The members of asamisimasa Photo: Nicki Twang
Chamber-sized ensembles of young musicians interested in new music can be found just about anywhere you look these days. There are thriving communities of composers and musicians everywhere doing things their own way and questioning the old modes of the classical music business. And while places like Brooklyn and Los Angeles may leap to mind right away, you should probably also consider Norway. At least that was the project of the Monday Evening Concert series this week who invited the Norwegian collective asamisimasa to town for one of the most engaging shows of their season thus far. The six member group formed in 2001 with particular interest in new works and contemporary European composers, especially Helmut Lachenmann and Brian Ferneyhough. Given these guiding lights, the wild ride of Monday’s program with its use of electronic elements, unusual instruments, and the most extended of extended techniques went without saying. What was remarkable was how much puckish fun and surprise the players packed into the works, most of which were written specifically for them.

The evening started out with the only piece not being heard in this country for the first time, 3 songs from Alberto Savinio’s Album 1914. These surrealist miniatures were performed by Ellen Ugelvik on piano and soprano Silje Marie Aker Johnsen whose vocal lines were accompanied by her equally ferocious bass drum wailing. While this was easily the oldest work on the program and unrelated in many ways, it set the tone of surprise and aggressive energy. Norwegian composer Øyvind Torvund’s Neon Forest Spaces followed. A quartet for cello, clarinet, electric guitar and percussion, the seven brief moments of the work were all imbued with pre-recorded elements and amplified instrumentation. The percussion part was filled with the woosh of aerosol cans and the bubbling of air blown into a water bottle. Despite the seeming whimsy of these gestures, though, it was surprisingly effective in bringing the sense of endless forest noises to life.

The first half ended with one of asamisimasa’s signature repertoire works, Simon Steen-Andersen’s on and off and to and fro. The Danish composer revels in being a bit of an enfant terrible, and his trio for clarinet, cello, and vibes travels from unusual to bizzare as its sound world is predominated by the feedback and noise created by three electrical megaphones that are initially used to amplify the sounds of the other instruments, but then move on to create comical and sometimes ear-splitting feedback and siren noises. At the climax of the piece, the feedback from one megaphone is fed into the receiver of another in an unusual chain of processing. Yet there was something relaxed and sly about the piece. Instead of being ponderous and pretentious, the idea is given room to breathe and develop making it more playful than deadly serious. Steen-Andersen’s music has been recorded by the ensemble including this work, so feel free to check it out yourself. You can also hear clips of mos of the music mentioned here on their website.

After the break the players returned for Laurence Crane’s sharply contrasting John White in Berlin a quiet microtonal meditation that glowed and grew outward in a Feldman-like fashion. But the spirit that ruled the finale of the show was that of John Cage, who was just one of the many composers mentioned by name in Trond Reinholdtsen’s Unsichtbare Musik. Reinholdtsen joined the ensemble for the performance lending his vocals to the highly theatrical performance. The work begins with Reinholdtsen repeating a series of musical terms and phrases interrupted by single chords from the players. Soon the structure breaks down in both the text, which moves on to include the names of famous late 20th-century philosophers and composers as well as ideas and other items. The music, too, goes awry in multiple directions at once. Unusual accompaniment from deflating balloons and toys contrast against flights from both cello and clarinet. At times passages are recorded, processed, and played back providing the only “music” at any given moment as the live musicians look on following a transition so seamless it almost goes without notice. Reinholdtsen comes to the front of the stage and mimics an epileptic fit which is then followed by clarinet and soprano equivalents of piano 10 hands with all the other members of the ensemble coming forward to touch and alter the sound of the solo performer in each of these segments. Finally, the piece resolves in a series of faked asides or commentary from Reinholdtsen directed toward the audience. He tells the audience of his doctoral thesis and difficulty deciding on endings. He plays a snippet of “classical music” and asks, “Do you know this?” in a friendly conversational way. There’s a pre-recorded parody of a Grieg song performed in a chipmunk voice and a partially faked recording of Cage performing in Europe in 1958 just for good measure.

What all this means, I can’t tell you. But it was immensely fun to watch and was smarter and far denser than it seemed on its off-hand tongue-in-cheek manner. The enthusiasm was admirable, but it was made even better by a sense of polish from the asamisimasa players. This was serious business, but one that still managed to seem spontaneous and off-handed even when it wasn’t. It was also exciting to see a glimpse of what’s going on farther from these shores among another community of young artists interested on building new things in the world of music. Hurray for Monday Evening Concerts for bringing them to these shores and here’s hoping we don’t have to wait long to hear from them again.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Bringing The Yarn Bomb To The Country

[Editor's Note: As I am facing numerous writing deadlines over the second half of February, this seems like a good time to give a retrospective glance to the first two years of Art of the Rural. Over these weeks I will feature a few new articles, but also many favorites from the archives. Thanks again to everyone who has read and contributed; what began as a labor of love has become a project far larger, and far more rewarding, than I ever could have anticipated - and I deeply appreciate the readership and participation of such a diverse audience. In March we will offer new articles and series, and share some new projects related to our mission.

Bringing The Yarn Bomb To The Country was originally published on June 9, 2011. International Yarn Bombing Day is set for June 9th this year.]

By Rachel Reynolds Luster, Contributing Editor

International Yarn Bombing Day will occur for the first time this Saturday, June 11th. The event was the brainchild of Joann Matvichuk, a “domestic goddess” who lives and works in Lethbridge, Alberta. Her motivation is to encourage knitters and crocheters to perform crafted graffiti on the same day, around the world as a collective group.

For those not familiar with the concept of yarn bombing, it’s a form of graffiti and cultural activism that involves repurposing aspects of the urban landscape by covering them with knitted and crocheted adornments. The movement was started in 2005 by Texas artist Magda Sayeg. At the time, Sayeg was the owner of a yarn shop in Houston and was overcome with “a selfish desire to add color to my world.” In reaction to the urban landscape and the lack of warmth she found there, she knitted a cozy to cover the metal door handle of her shop. She then knitted a sheath for the stop sign across the street. Passersby stopped and noticed. They took pictures. She was encouraged by the reaction and began covering items across the city. 

Sayeg and a group of fellow knitters have since yarn bombed items across the world including parking meters in Brooklyn, a bus in Mexico, and a twenty-six foot statue of a soldier in Bali, neutering its violence, according to a 2010 article in The Guardian. In that same article, Sayeg says, “In this world of technology, over-development, fewer trees and more concrete, it is empowering to be able to beautify your environment." This is a powerful statement in action. Sayeg, now in Austin, has spawned an international movement with yarn bombing groups popping up not only across America but also in Japan, Britain, Scandinavia, South Africa, and Australia.

Generally done in cover of darkness, some of the participants wear masks and relish the role of artistic vagrants. Like all unsanctioned street art, yarn bombing is illegal, and Sayeg’s original group of knitters in Houston crafted a terminology for their work based on the world of hip-hop, creating names for themselves such as Notorious N.I.T. and P-Knitty. The group as a whole was called Knitta Please or just Knitta. Further information on the history of the movement, Magda, and International Yarn Bombing can be found here.  

I’m not really good at knitting, but I love to do it. I’ve crocheted for as long as I remember. My great-grandmother taught me when I was 4 or 5 to do a chain and basic single stitch. I remember getting a crocheted potholder every Christmas from Nanny with a five dollar bill folded up inside. While they were truly horrible potholders (acrylic yarn easily melts), I still have an entire collection along with the many scarves and pillows she made for me over the years. I keep them because they are touchstones of my time with her and all that she shared with me. They represent personal remembrances, a set of skills, and bright objects that are both functional and decorative.

I am also enamored with the idea of knitting or crocheting to affect cultural change. Yarn bombing definitely falls into the category of “craftivism,” a concept developed by Betsy Greer, whose website is a resource for many in the DIY and feminist craft movements. I love that those participating in yarn bombing, at least on one level, are taking action to reclaim their urban landscape, one that they see as cold and distant, by beautifying and changing it with a craft seen mostly as domestic, predominately functional, and in many circles--I would imagine especially in an urban context--irrelevant to modern society. Participants are reclaiming public spaces as home. Still, I have been contemplating what form such a movement would take in rural America and what the motivations and implications might be.

 Photograph by DPA

First, I believe that many of the rural yarn bombing projects would stay around. Rather than temporary remnants of acts of activism, removed promptly by city employees tasked with keeping the city clean, I think rural examples would be adopted by many as decorative aspects of community life and remain part of objects such as mailboxes or garden swings where they were placed. I also believe that it might cause a resurgence in rural textile craft and appreciation of it. If we factor in, for example in my community, that there are many people, especially women, raising fiber animals and creating yarn that could be used, the implications become economic. These are just some of the possibilities that come to mind, but I would like to encourage any of you who knit or crochet to yarn bomb something, anything, in your rural communities on June 11. Of course, I believe we should locally adapt our methodology for such activities. If you’re going to yarn bomb something at someone’s home, you might ask first. I think, probably, public spaces are fair game. It doesn’t have to be large, could be something as simple as the first door handle that Magda did at her shop in Houston. Yarn bomb your local senior center, or better yet, get those folks involved!

In the spirit of engagement, I sent a note to Joann Matvichuk, organizer of International Yarn Bombing Day, asking if she had communicated with any groups or individuals planning on participating in the event from rural America. She was kind enough to pose the question on the IYBD facebook page and received dozens of responses of interest. Two responses in particular struck me as relevant as we think about what the implications might be for rural yarn bombing activities.
Corrine MacKrell: “I grew up rural. If I were going to yarn bomb at home, I would personalize it like a gift. A camo scarf on or around the garden gnome of a hunting family, flowers in her favorite color for the lady down the road, etc.”
Shane Raymond: In the country we have to be more discrete and organic with our tags. Since I know most of the people and their personalities I can tailor my tags better as well. Overall I would say it's much more personal. Example, a colorful spider webs in the trees in deep state land. The only people that will see them are middle-aged hunters.
I encourage you to join the conversation on the International Yarn Bombing Day’s Facebook page. If you do a project, I’d love for you to share it with us. I’m interested in your photographs and in learning how the projects are perceived in your community. I’ll share my story too.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Elixir of Love

Alek Shrader as Albert Herring Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2012
On Saturday, the forces of Los Angeles Opera decided to make the most of it. It was the opening of the current season’s fifth production Albert Herring, the second chamber-size opera from Benjamin Britten the company has staged in as many years. Herring is quintessential Britten – a male outsider is further persecuted by a stifling, moralizing community. But unlike Billy Budd or Peter Grimes, Albert Herring is played for laughs. Herring is the virginal son of a greengrocers widow in a rural English village who is unknowingly chosen by the town’s busy-body elders as the “May King,” a young man held up to others as a paragon of moral virtue. Herring is shy and bewildered by the everyday passions of those around him. He plays along without much to say until his friends Sid and Nancy spike his lemonade turning the tables on the upstanding citizens of Loxford and awakening a new world in Albert. The story shares a lot with Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore right down to the Tristan und Isolde references with Britten directly lampooning Wagner’s famous love theme. Of course, Herring, unlike Nemorino, is avoidant of women and his awakening has more to do with throwing off his mother’s apron strings than finding romantic love.

Britten’s opera is a small one written for a chamber-size orchestra and an ensemble vocal cast with few showy solo parts. L.A. Opera does well by Britten’s score and gives the show a huge, luxurious production across the board. James Conlon and his players dug into the score at times like it was Wagner. The production is a very cute, colorful affair, directed by the affable Paul Curran, which originated with the Santa Fe Opera in 2010. It achieves the first goal of comedy by producing real laughs in the audience. Curran gets involved and well-timed performances from many in the cast including Ronnia Nicole Miller as Florence Pike and Liam Bonner and Daniela Mack as Albert’s friends Sid and Nancy. And I’d be remiss in not mentioning some of the others in the cast like Janis Kelly who portrays a rather understated Lady Billows. (The role will be taken over for two performances by Christine Brewer later in the run.) Billow’s chorus of town worthies were all quite accomplished including Richard Bernstein, Jonathan Michie, Robert McPherson, and Stacey Tappan.

L-R: Richard Bernstein, Alek Shrader, Janis Kelly, Jonathan Michie, Robert McPherson, Ronnita Nicole Miller, and Stacey Tappan Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2012
But perhaps the most substantial thing in this evening of light comedy is a wonderful performance from tenor Alek Shrader in the title role. Albert is somewhat of a placeholder through much of the opera, stammering and uncomfortably standing around until his intoxication. But a lengthy Act III soliloquy gives him plenty to say and covers the range of an emotional transformation that Shrader manages expertly. He excels at both the physical comedy and sounds youthful and warm above the orchestra in a sizable house. His portrayal immediately opens Albert up as a likable young man to the audience and makes the weightier parts of the score believable.

Of course, too much attention can be a bad thing and the show can sometimes feel a bit overblown. The music and drama tended to flag in the final act without a certain succinctness. Just a bit to much grandeur weighs the proceeding down and the lovely set looked tiny on the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage surrounded by an awful lot of dark space around its sliver of British springtime sky. But this Albert Herring retains its humor and good heart for the most part and still manages to charm.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Remebrance of Things Past

from The Past is a Grotesque Animal Photo: Steven Gunther 2012
How we experience the passage of time has always been one of the topics of great art and performance. Add to the list of names those who’ve produced masterful works on the topic one Mariano Pensotti. Argentinian playwright and director Pensotti and his Grupo Marea arrived in Los Angeles this week with a lyrical, funny powerhouse of a stage work, El Pasado es un Animal Grotesco, that is now on stage at REDCAT. The title is taken from the identically titled Of Montreal song, “The Past is a Grotesque Animal,” but Pensotti’s play is much, much more than a clever wordy pop song. The play and its examination of the lives of four young Argentinians from the period of 1999 to 2009 is about history and the way we live in it while pretending that we don’t. For Pensotti and the four actors that make up his superb cast - Pilar Gamboa, Javier Lorenzo, Santiago Gobernori, and Maria Ines Sancerni – time is not a linear narrative but a circular one that folds in upon itself again and again.

The concept is most viscerally and obviously felt in the genius set design of Mariana Tirantte. The stage for El Pasado consists of a circular platform on a rotating track divided into four equal segments by two perpendicularly placed walls. The stage, and many of the accompanying lights, rotate constantly throughout the two hour performance as the players proceed around the walls from one room to the next. Each change of room moves the narrative between one of the four characters whose lives make up the episodic narrative. These are not necessarily big stories, but small ones told in small pieces. Vicki discovers her elderly father has been living a parallel existence most of his life with two families. Mario dreams of leaving Argentina to become a filmmaker. Laura jumps for one problematic relationship to another, and Pablo discovers a severed hand in his doorway one particular morning.

But while the play makes some reference to the political and historical era in which it is set, these stories are more about the broader themes and obsessions that shape our lives in a broad sense than it is particular cliffhangers or psychologically driven climaxes. For instance the mysterious severed hand that becomes an obsession for Pablo doesn’t destroy everything in his life but becomes a recurrent preoccupation that shapes many things that will happen to him in more subtle ways. Much of the dialog in the play comes in the form of narration where each of the four players take turns moving from room to room describing the mindset, action, and motivations of the others involved in the actual events of each scene. Roles are taken up and abandoned as a hand-held microphone is passed from player to player, narrator to narrator. (The play is entirely in Spanish but there are supertitles on either side of the rotating stage.) The scenes are roughly in chronological order although the overall sequence jumps backward and forward in small increments. And while the rotation alternatively speeds up and slows down, the work never loses the sense of motion and flow.

The play is supremely funny at times. There are some wonderful spoken internal monologues that ignite huge reactions in the audience such as when Pablo is filled with paranoid fears about the morgue worker he questions while gathering information he thinks may be germane to the hand he keeps in the fridge at home. And there are some flashes of insight as well, but most winningly, Pensotti and his cast never give in to sentimentality. There are two brief moments of intersection in these four lives, but those episodes provide more of a sense of symmetry than of psychological insight. El Pasado es un Animal Grotesco is steeped in modern life – a love of media and an awareness of the hyperdetermined, intertextual way that people make up the selves they are. The past here is never absent, and it is never a source of overarching predetermination. However, it glows in the dark, just out of direct sight altering events in an almost imperceptible way yet leaving its certain mark. This is great, engaging theater and if you're interested in such a thing at all, you should see one of the two remaining performances before it is gone. Be advised there were no tickets left to be bought at the window before Friday’s show so get them now.

Friday, February 24, 2012

One Night in Weimar

Max Raabe and his Palast Orchester
Max Raabe and his Palast Orchester returned to Royce Hall on Thursday as part of the remains of the UCLA Live performing arts series. Since the departure of former artistic director David Sefton in 2010, the series has lain fallow with little more than return appearances by a handful of annual favorites like David Sedaris, Ute Lemper, and Raabe. (Allegedly the organization also passed on presenting the upcoming revival of Glass' Einstein on the Beach that will be seen at Cal Performances in October after a stint at BAM in New York.) The good news is that incoming artistic director Kristy Edmunds has taken over and will unveil the first season under her leadership this summer with what I’m told will be some exciting early plans. One hopes she can revive this moribund organization, and certainly everyone in the performing arts community in Los Angeles wishes her the best for what I’m sure will be a big challenge. Max Raabe's appearance harkened back to the heydays of Sefton's tenure here and even though the program itself felt mostly recycled from the group's last outing it was great to have them back with their particular brand of nostalgia for the popular music of a century ago.

Now in their 25th year, the group still stays true to its successful formula: big band favorites of the late 1920s and 30s delivered with a mix of sincerity and ironic humor. Raabe and his players are all dressed in dapper evening wear of the period with most of the songs played in their original German language. There are familiar standards by the likes of Cole Porter alongside novelty tongue-in-cheek hits about asparagus and Salome. And though the staging evokes Weimar culture, the performance on the whole rests squarely in an ironic awareness of the present. The outdated and comparatively tame lyrics of the songs are funny precisely because of their contrast to what the audience knows of the modern world. This is more than nostalgia or kitsch. The commitment and level of musicianship allude to something more than just that.

Raabe and his high tenor are one of the attractions of the group. Over the years, the lightness and ease of some of the top notes has diminished, but his sound overall is still quite pleasant. His halting delivery is still razor sharp with turns of phrase that veer this way and that unexpectedly. And he knows how to deliver a song. His insightful, melancholic version of Nena's "Irgendwie, Irgendwo, Irgendwann" with only piano accompaniment was a highlight of the evening. Of course all of the band members are multi-instrumentalists and everyone gets into the act as a soloist sooner or later. If there was any difference between this outing and the group's 2010 appearance, it was the larger, more often oddly costumed crowd. In Los Angeles, it's can be difficult to tell when people are in costume and when they aren’t. Poor fashion sense is a badge of honor. And there was an explosion of women in flapper dresses with headbands and men who stepped out of Cabaret on Thursday. But no matter. It was still funny, still charming, and still a very good time.

How The Rural Could Save Contemporary Art

Last Chance installation; Erik Van Lieshout, Art Basel

[Editor's Note: As I am facing numerous writing deadlines over the second half of February, this seems like a good time to give a retrospective glance to the first two years of Art of the Rural. Over these weeks I will feature a few new articles, but also many favorites from the archives. Thanks again to everyone who has read and contributed; what began as a labor of love has become a project far larger, and far more rewarding, than I ever could have anticipated - and I deeply appreciate the readership and participation of such a diverse audience. In March we will offer new articles and series, and share some new projects related to our mission.

How the Rural Could Save Contemporary Art was originally published on July 6, 2011. For more information, we recommend a visit to the Rural America Contemporary Artists organization.]

Last week, on the morning before The National Rural Assembly, I had the privilege of attending a roundtable discussion on rural arts and culture hosted at the Bush Foundation in Saint Paul. This conversation was cosponsored by the Arts and Community Change Initiative, the Arts and Democracy Project, the Center For Rural Strategies, and InCommons -- and these organizations brought together an inspiring cohort of artists, scholars and arts practitioners working to cultivate the cultural life of their rural communities.

A profound number of challenges and solutions were raised in those discussions; while I will offer a more detailed summary of the events soon, a few persistent questions emerged and then re-emerged across the morning's conversation: How do we create and share art that speaks from our local cultures, yet also reflects the modern economic and global realities of our places? What is the tension between  traditional and modern (university-endorsed) notions of art-making? Is there a way to integrate these practices into the stories a community tells about its past, present, and its future? How does the community's access to technology (especially broadband) alter this work? And, importantly, how do we impart all of these concerns to the next generation--how do we offer a narrative of plabe and culture inclusive to rural youth?

Though these are large questions, and their solutions will be years in the making, I was ultimately struck by how different these discussions sounded than those that revolve around the contemporary art world, or even its adjacent academic community. While there are daunting imperatives in the preceding paragraph, its content is surely not rural-specific. However, because of the host of pressing issues facing rural America, many of our artists and arts organizations must directly engage with these questions of representation and equity, and with art's tenuous position in communities dealing with crises in health care, housing and education. Because our work takes place on a smaller scale, we turn from these issues at our own peril. As a preface to the roundtable discussion, Dee Davis, president of The Center of Rural Strategies, offered this timely line from W.B. Yeats: in dreams begin responsibilities

So, how could the rural save contemporary art? 

I'd like to offer below three recent editorials by respected art critics, writing for respected arts publications. Each writer, upon returning from the major summer art shows (here, the Venice Biennale and Art Basel), identifies specific symptoms of a general sickness in the art world. On one hand, it's heartening to hear these writers articulating some of very same concerns of folks engaged in rural arts and culture; on the other hand, the sickness diagnosed here seems to beg not only for greater equity and inclusion along economic and geographical lines, but also for a wider sense of cultural inclusion. I'd like to offer these three articles, and then suggest that folks consider the rural artists they know (or those we've highlighted here on in our links and map resources): from the traditional to the avant-garde, how would a broader discussion of these artists help to make the contemporary-art-body whole and healthy?

Writing in New York Magazine, Jerry Saltz laments "Generation Blank," the coterie of recent university-trained artists who are "too much in thrall to their elders, excessively satisfied with an insider’s game of art, [and] not really making their own work." Here is how Mr. Saltz begins his editorial:
I went to Venice, and I came back worried. Every two years, the central attraction of the Biennale is a kind of State of the Art World show. This year’s, called “Illuminations,” has its share of high points and ­artistic intensity. (Frances Stark’s animated video of her online masturbatory tryst with a younger man hooked me; Christian Marclay’s The Clock, which captivated New York earlier this year, rightly won the Gold Lion Prize for Best ­Artist.) Yet many times over—too many times for comfort—I saw the same thing, a highly recognizable generic ­institutional style whose manifestations are by now extremely familiar. Neo-Structuralist film with overlapping geometric colors, photographs about photographs, projectors screening loops of grainy black-and-white archival footage, abstraction that’s supposed to be referencing other abstraction—it was all there, all straight out of the seventies, all dead in the ­water. It’s work stuck in a cul-de-sac of aesthetic regress, where everyone is deconstructing the same elements. 

Sixth Still Life installtion; Katharina Fritsch, Venice Biennale

In our second arts clipping, András Szántó of Artworld Salon returns from Art Basel and offers two examples of "interesting disconnects" in recent art news:
First, between the ebullience of the art fair and the dark financial clouds roiling over Europe, where states teeter on the edge of insolvency and people are taking to the streets. There is a yawning chasm right now between the revived luxury spending boom and the malaise that grips the bottom ninety-eight percent. The subject kept coming up, quietly but persistently, at parties around town. 
Second, during an Art Basel Conversation I moderated on the future of museum collecting, a London-based curator from Bangladesh pressed the assembled directors, and in particular Chris Dercon of the Tate Modern, when and how they will genuinely engage his community and others like it—not just through occasionally showcasing artists, but in a deep way. All agreed that, good intentions and planned initiatives notwithstanding, we’re a long way from making art institutions truly inclusive.

Away From The Flock; Damien Hirst

In "We Don't Own Modern Art - The Super Rich Do," Jonathan Jones of The Guardian recasts Szántó's question with an eye on the mainstream middle-class audience that still grants contemporary art its cultural legitimacy:
But who are they, these people? I would genuinely like to know. The popular assumption seems to be that today's art collectors are "Russian oligarchs". Certainly the spectacle of Roman Abramovich's yacht drew attention to the oligarchic presence at this year's Venice Biennale. One thing is certain – the big-time buyers of art are people in the financial sector who are weathering our troubled times a lot better than high street businesses, nations picked on by Standard & Poor's, or public sector workers.
And yet, for the last couple of decades, contemporary art has flourished through an alliance of the rich and the not-so-rich. It is the same educated, probably public-sector-employed middle class (many of whom marched this week) that enthusiastically visit galleries and art fairs. It is these fans of modern art who have helped, by their acclaim, to generate the charisma that makes it apparently worth so many millions.
Of course, we're already seeing an urban, university-educated, DIY arts movement that is helping to provide the response to these writers' concerns; this DIY culture, which is beginning to make inroads to rural artists and organizations, carries an aesthetic and a sense of empowerment that we all should observe and then integrate into our work. Further, as advocates for rural arts and culture, we should consider what we can bring to broader discussions like those above--and not cultivate an anti-modern art, anti-intellectual stance that only denigrates urban and rural audiences alike.

After reading these pieces, and after an inspiring roundtable discussion, I take away two beliefs. First, by including to a greater extent the voices of rural arts and rural groups within our contemporary arts dialogue, we will make all of the Arts more healthy--and more relevant to more people. And, lastly, the rural can save contemporary art in much the same way that contemporary art can come to the service of the rural: by working across those rural-urban lines and recognizing our shared responsibility to each other.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

10 Questions for...Alek Shrader

Alek Shrader and Christine Brewer in the Santa Fe Opera production of Albert Herring Photo: Ken Howard 2012
Alek Sharder has just about everything a young tenor could want. An agile, beautiful voice, acting chops, and looks that don’t require dressing up or covering over to play romantic heartthrobs on stage. His career started with big screen attention when he won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 2007 under the gl`ring light of Susan Fromke’s cameras resulting in the documentary The Audition. In the film, he pulls off the rapid fire high Cs of Donizetti’s “Ah! mes amis” with a grin on his face that could have landed him in Hollywood. But his first operatic appearance in the real city of Los Angeles won’t actually occur until this week when he’ll star in the title role of Britten’s Albert Herring for Los Angeles Opera under the direction of James Conlon starting Feb 25. It’s a comic role he performed to much acclaim in Santa Fe in 2010 in Paul Curran’s charming production which you can see here as well. And considering that LAO has made tickets available for only $25 for first-time opera goers between today and Friday, there are even more incentives to go. Shrader is best known for his Mozart and Rossini roles and he’s got a busy schedule these days throughout Europe and the U.S. including appearances in Salzburg and Glyndebourne. Before he takes Britten’s greengrocer’s son, the former San Francisco Opera Adler fellow took a moment to tackle the often imitated, never duplicated Out West Arts 10 Questions.

  1. What role would you most like to perform, but haven't yet?

    Before I stop singing, I really want to sing Duca in Rigoletto, even if it's just once (and potentially totally inappropriate for my voice).

  2. What role would you never perform, even if you could?

    If that role exists, I don't know what it is. Does "conductor" count? I'd never do that.

  3. You'll soon be making your Los Angeles Opera debut as Britten’s Albert Herring a virginal innocent who like Donizetti’s Nemorino breaks loose with the help of a little unanticipated alcoholic lubrication. Is it more fun to play good guys or bad boys on stage?

    Good guys or bad boys, I find the real fun is finding the moments when you can do something unexpected… when the nice pushover finds courage, or when the jerk shows true compassion. I have the most fun as an actor when I'm allowed to enjoy and explore those possibilities.

  4. Alek Shrader as Alessandro in OTSL's Il Re Pastore Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL 2009
  5. You’re best known for roles like Mozart’s Tamino and Rossini’s Almaviva. What’s the secret to playing these romantic young lovers?

    In a very broad sense, I think it's the sense of discovery. Yes, they're in love, but also the world they used to know and live in has changed forever. Tamino and Almaviva happen to be different forms of nobility, and their discovery (of love, or growing up, or facing opposition) comes as a pretty big shock that requires serious attention, but I think all classes of romantic young lovers get knocked on their butts when they meet their true love.

  6. Which music made you want to sing opera?

    I heard Mozart's 'Ich baue ganz' on the radio at somebody's house and was stunned. Then I found a recording of my dad singing 'La danza' and thought I'd like to do that too.

  7. A composer proposes a new opera with a part especially for you. What person or character would you most like to have written for you?

    I'm certainly open to any project that comes up, and I'd be especially excited to help create something. I find a special personal pleasure when I can play an average guy, a "normal person", or at least express that side of the character. It's not just princes who have a story to tell.

  8. Alek Shrader in Susan Fromke's The Audition Photo: Met Opera 2007
  9. You've already worked with many major conductors and vocalists in the opera world. Who would you most like to work with that you haven’t yet?

    Lawrence Brownlee is a singer I have a ton of respect for. I think on and offstage, he's a shining example of what the modern opera singer should aspire to be. I would love to do a show with him.

  10. What's your current obsession?

    Right now, I'm watching Deadwood marathon-style, with an episode or two of Entourage for breakfast.

  11. With which of your operatic roles do you have the most in common?

    The trick is to find as much in common as you can with each one… It's easy for me to say Albert Herring at the moment. Like I said before, I'm drawn to the aspects of the common man (if there is such a thing).

  12. What can we look forward to next from Alek Shrader?

    After Albert Herring, I'm headed to Bordeaux for Oronte in Handel's Alcina, and then to San Francisco for Tamino in The Magic Flute.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Do As I Say

There are a few shows this weekend that you might want to consider and may have overlooked I thought I’d point out. First the Philharmonic Society of Orange County is welcoming the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio and Friends to the Irvine Barclay Theater on Thursday the 23rd for a program to include Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet, a Beethoven Trio, and a new Quintet commission from Ellen Zwilich. This is one of the regions ideal spots for chamber music and best of all the Philharmonic Society is currently offering tickets for 10% with use of the code “TROUT10” either online or over the old-fashioned phone lines.

Another show you seriously want to be at if you can is a one-night-only performance of Bach’s Magnificat at the Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena with Jeffrey Kahane and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. The vocalists will include current and recent L.A. Opera Domingo-Thornton Yong Artists Ben Bliss and Daniel Armstrong among other as well as the collective forces of the USC Thornton Chamber Singers.

Of course this weekend will bring the second spring production from Los Angeles Opera, Britten’s Albert Herring which will run alongside their current excellent production of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. The company is making $25 tickets available to most performances of Albert Herring to anyone new to opera. That’s a great deal and little more than what seeing a broadcast in a theater would cost and you get to actually be in the house. I’ve done my part. The rest is up to you.

Two For Mardi Gras

Zulu Parade 2010 King Jimmie L Felder; Eliot Kamenitz, Times Picayune

Here's two videos with a bit of Mardi Gras spirit. First, from the Alan Lomax Archive Channel, comes this footage shot by Alan Lomax and his crew in 1982: "Big Chief Jake Millon and the White Eagles Mardi Gras Indians rehearse 'Little Liza Jane' at Darrell's Lounge, 7th Ward, New Orleans."

Though geographically distant, David Lundahl's "Volcan Man" performances are located in a similar region of exuberance, also honoring the passing of a season. Yesterday we published a consideration of this boundary-crossing artist in Contemporary (Rural) Art: You Can't Make That Here.

Many thanks to Rachel Reynolds Luster for her assistance. Happy Mardi Gras!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Going to the Chapel

Mary Wilson with Martin Haselböck and members of Musica Angelica Photo: mine 2012
Los Angeles’ own Baroque period practice ensemble, Musica Angelica returned to the concert stage last weekend alongside their much regarded Music Director Martin Haselböck. And though it was the weekend after Valentine’s Day, love was in the air. Or at least a version of it as expressed through matrimony. The program, which I saw in the second of two performances at Santa Monica’s First Presbyterian Church, centered around two J.S. Bach cantatas widely believed to have been written for weddings: No. 202 “Weichet nur, betrübe Schatten” and No. 210 “O holder Tag, erwünschte Zeit.” Both are filled with charming arias and can be as pensive and dark as they are bright and celebratory, perhaps reflecting a very different context on the role of marriage and romantic love in the 18th century. Bach fills each work with clever structural elements such as in No. 210 where the number of players is slowly reduced throughout the work until arriving at “Schweigt, ihr Flöten, schweigt, ihr Töne” (Be silent, you flutes, be silent you notes). Bach whittles away the musical world to just flute and voice in much the way a wedding recognizes an important relationship of two individuals in the context of a greater society.

The musicians who became the “lovers” in these musical pairings all had great moments on Sunday. Soprano Mary Wilson was the soloist in both works and sang with a clear, bright, and even tone. She's known to local audiences for her prior performances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and it was exciting to hear her again in some of the Baroque material that makes up an increasing part of her performance schedule. Her partners in these duets included flautist Stephen Schultz and oboist Gonzalo Ruiz. Ruiz also played in the reconstructed Oboe Concerto in D minor that was included in the program. The dexterity and detail in his performance was thrilling to hear. Bach may have been thinking of many things when he composed, but the need for breath in the oboe player here wasn’t apparently one of them. Ruiz did more than soldier through the rapid-fire ornamentation, and stole much of the afternoon’s thunder away from his fellow musicians. The show started with Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor with soloist Cynthia Roberts. This piece came off a little punchier and rough hewn than one might expect even from a Baroque ensemble, but this edge softened by the conclusion of the piece and left for plenty of wonderful playing that followed.

Contemporary (Rural) Art: You Can't Make That Here

photograph by David Lundahl

[Editor's Note: As I am facing numerous writing deadlines over the second half of February, this seems like a good time to give a retrospective glance to the first two years of Art of the Rural. Over these weeks I will feature a few new articles, but also many favorites from the archives. Thanks again to everyone who has read and contributed; what began as a labor of love has become a project far larger, and far more rewarding, than I ever could have anticipated - and I deeply appreciate the readership and participation of such a diverse audience. In March we will offer new articles and series, and share some new projects related to our mission.

[Contemporary (Rural) Art: You Can't Make That Here was originally published on August 3, 2010. Please see the links below the article for further coverage of Lundahl's work here and here ; we recommend a visit as well to the Rural America Contemporary Artists organization.]

I recently had an opportunity to re-visit David Lundahl, the photographer, sculptor and musician from southern Wisconsin who (over 15 years) has taken 115,000 Polaroid self-portraits. When we originally discussed his work a few months ago, I spoke of the process itself: how the layers of stencils, gelled prints, and natural media (scarves, bark, shark jaws, among others) combine with a complex series of mirrors to harness natural light to create a startling level of three-dimensionality to his photographs. I also spoke of his life itself in some detail, which I'll reprint below:
The story of David Lundahl's art and life can't really be put into one paragraph, but, as an introduction, here it goes. Mr. Lundahl's art, and his choice to live in rural Wisconsin, all speak to his lived experiences. He contracted polio as a boy in the 1950's and has worn a leg brace ever since; his family were prominent executives in John Deere; he came of age in the heady years of the late 1960's and decided to set out on his own path...
But part of the story here is New Light Studios, the dilapidated farm that Mr. Lundahl rebuilt, largely by himself. Despite his restricted mobility, he reroofed and refloored the barn and completely rehabilitated the house and other buildings. Thus, an abandoned dairy farm became a place for people to come and visit and make art: the silo contains musical instruments, the barn is floored to accomidate dance performances, one room in the house is covered in three layers of white shellac to make it an overwhelming space for music-making, a modified shed is a welding studio and the corn silo is affixed with a level of decks leading all the way to the top--so that one can watch the sunset or just read a book 100 feet in the air.
Here is a slideshow I created that traces the arc of these photographs, from the early representational stencil works to the intensely abstract self-portraits of the later years. They appear larger and in greater detail by following the link to the web album:

David Lundahl's art, and the story of how he overcame physical adversity to create a place equal to his art, ranks among the most inspired and visionary collections of work I've ever encountered. However, the more recent chapters of this story have thrown his accomplishment into a light that may be all-too-familiar to our readers and to those attempting to make art outside of our country's urban centers. 

Put simply, the very place that gives Mr. Lundahl the space and freedom to create his art--by virtue of its remove from urban and suburban centers--actively works against his desire to share it with people beyond his handful of local friends. While these audiences may feel more comfortable with someone from rural Wisconsin engaging in the folk arts, or portraying subject matter they deem sufficiently "rural," an artist like David Lundahl (and his social non-conformity) throws all of those assumptions to the side. One visitor from New York City, after sitting around the artist's kitchen table and viewing some of his photographs, perhaps articulated this predicament best; "you can't make that here," he yelled, shaking Mr. Lundahl by the shoulders, imploring him to leave Wisconsin for New York. 

Yet David Lundahl is staying put at New Light Studios, albeit uneasily. Though he despises the line of thinking that suggests that modern art can only be made in cities, and only with by entering "the art world," he simultaneously feels a desperate need to connect with anyone, artists or otherwise. When he talks through this bind to me, it's clear that his work has left him at the crossroads, to decide between valuing the place he calls home or leaving it for the sake of an artform that only exists because of its rural genesis. 

I'm wondering if other readers have encountered similar issues--either themselves, or in the story of other rural artists. Here's a few questions we're considering here at The Art of the Rural, inspired by Mr. Lundahl's position: are modern rural artists who don't work in a folkloric vein solely considered "outsider artists?" Is there a rural-urban dynamic beneath that term (even though there are many urban outsider and self-taught artists)? Wendell Berry has written of "the prejudice against country people;" is there a similar prejudice against (or misunderstanding of) rural artists, or has the internet eroded those limiting assumptions?

If you have any ideas, or suggestions for artists that address these questions, please feel free to contact us or discuss the matter on our Facebook page--we're hoping to discover more artists such as Mr. Lundahl.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Anchors Aweigh

Ben Heppner and cast of Moby-Dick Photo: Ken Howard/SDO 2012
Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s version of the Pequod sailed into the port town of San Diego this weekend. And while things didn’t go much better for Captain Ahab and his crew, the opera Moby-Dick fared pretty well in its West Coast premiere at San Diego Opera on Saturday. The show first surfaced in landlocked Dallas, TX in 2010 to fairly glowing reviews. (I myself had several reservations at the time.) And despite some fateful changes in casting, this solid, enjoyable show is rolling into California not only in San Diego, but San Francisco as well later this fall. Moby-Dick has all the qualities that should make it as successful as Heggie’s prior opera Dead Man Walking, and on a second viewing, the things that it had going for it before are still clearly assets. It has an accessible score, well written libretto and enough spectacle to please most audiences. It’s undoubtedly an opera in every sense of the word, and though it doesn’t push boundaries, it will undoubtedly make its own fans.

Jonathan Lemalu and Jonathan Boyd Photo: Ken Howard/SDO 2012
I’m increasingly impressed with Gene Scheer’s libretto. It’s smart in so many ways managing to stay clearly focused on a few of Melville’s central themes and creating some dramatic tension around them. He must still deal with the episodic nature of the novel and the fact that nothing much happens in it until the whale shows up for the big rumble in the end. But Scheer shrewdly picks and chooses the story elements that are left behind, giving everyone in the ensemble cast their turn to shine. There is poetry here, but nothing that sounds silly or wince inducing. Then there is Leonard Foglia’s attractive and well thought-out production with sets designed by Robert Brill and extensive projected video material originally from Elaine J McCarthy and revived under Shawn Boyle. The single curved plane that rises into the flyspace is filled with ropes and sail-like scrims that move about with the changing scenes. The video component is extensive using both the sails and the back wall as a surface for any number of scenic elements. Perhaps the most exciting are the boat outlines that the cast appear to be riding in as they lower into the sea to hunt whales. The show is good looking with plenty of motion, and Foglia knows what to do with the large chorus and cast to keep them from looking like they’re just standing around on a boat deck.

Talise Trevigne as Pip Photo: Ken Howard/SDO 2012
Heggie’s music continues to be the weakest thing about the show. That isn’t to say that it isn’t lovely at times, and it has the kind of proverbial “hummable tunes” audiences supposedly want. Conductor Joseph Mechavich who led the opera in its second outing in Calgary, gave the score a very favorable performance with San Diego’s orchestra forces. There are memorable arias for Ahab, Greenhorn, and Starbuck, and well as a tenor and baritone duet in the climactic scene. But the shadow cast by Britten’s Billy Budd can’t be escaped, and while Heggie tries to shake it, the overall sound palette here is comparatively tepid. Moby-Dick avoids being a rehash of Britten, but it doesn’t necessarily strike out on its own to say something different either. The overall strong cast is nearly identical to the Dallas premiere. Morgan Smith makes a very sexy and vocally resonant Starbuck who becomes the centerpiece of the show. His scene debating whether or not to kill Ahab while he sleeps is one of the highlights of the show. Jonathan Lemalu is again Queequeg who opens the show with a prayer in his character’s native tongue. Talise Trevigne reprises her bright sounding young pants role as Pip. She has a lot to do physically here including an aria sung while suspended with fly wires that was quite touching. The new member to the cast was Jonathan Boyd taking over the role of Greenhorn created by Stephen Costello. He’s got one of the trickier bits in the opera with the closing scene and he excelled here making the moment feel weighty and not slipping into unintended comedy.

Ben Heppner and Morgan Smith Photo: Ken Howard/SDO 2012
Of course, there is also the matter of the Ahab, tenor Ben Heppner. Heppner created the role in Dallas and was not scheduled to return to it again in California, with Jay Hunter Morris taking his place. But oh what a difference Wagner’s music makes on fortunes in the opera world. After some exceedingly rocky vocal patches for Heppner including his appearance as Lohengrin at L.A. Opera in December 2010, he began backing out of commitments almost as quickly as Morris began booking them. Morris is now starring as Siegfried on the big screen for the Metropolitan Opera and booking A-cast Wagner roles right and left around the world. Meanwhile, Heppner is back in the role he created now in California. He’s an imposing and troubled Ahab and considering he spends all of the opera hobbling about with his knee on a peg leg, he provides the show with its darker elements. But sadly, his vocal troubles continue. He struggled much more than in Dallas with cracking and strain in much of the upper register. Here’s hoping things pick up for him, but in his current state, it’s hard to imagine how he’s going to pull off Tristan opposite Nina Stemme in Houston in 2013.

Moby-Dick may be the ideal opera for those audiences who don’t think they like contemporary music. It’s not a radical move, and there is pleasant music to listen to. It has a well-written dramatic story with plenty of excitement, and while it’s not a story filled with romance, it does have somewhere to go. And arriving at the end, you do feel you’ve traveled somewhere with these believable characters. There are three more performances over the next several days in San Diego and for those of you up north, you’ll get your chance later this year in San Francisco.

UPDATE: San Diego Opera announced this evening that Ben Heppner has withdrawn from the next performance of Moby-Dock on Tuesday February 21 and the role of Ahab will instead be sung by Jay Hunter Morris.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Electricity So Fine

Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Dean Corey was excited. And rightly so. The Artistic Director for the Philharmonic Society of Orange County was not only celebrating his birthday but was also welcoming the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and their Music Director Riccardo Muti to the Segerstrom Concert Hall stage for the first time on their first tour of California in over 20 years. The appearance was a long time in the making, and after hearing one of the world’s great orchestras with one of the world’s great conductors live up to those accolades, I was glad that Corey and his crew persevered in making this particular appearance happen. Say what you will about the music on the program, the orchestra played spectacularly with the kind of sound other ensembles would give anything to emulate. The brass, of course, are legendary. But I just couldn’t get over how polished the strings were overall. The combination of big, bright sound and real precision doesn’t always come together in such a package, but for the Chicago players they live comfortably side-by-side. And while Muti has his detractors, I must say every chance I’ve had to hear him conduct has left me awestruck with the fluidity of his phrasing and ability to command sublime, propulsive performances without any rough edges.

The evening’s program was an unusual one, full of machines and the future. It started out with Honegger’s Pacific 231, a tone poem evoking the power of a steam locomotive. Honneger uses several rhythmic elements to suggest the acceleration and movement of steel. The CSO provided the energy, and you could feel the engine burst to life in the short introduction. This was paired with a new CSO commission from their Composer-in-Residence, Mason Bates. He was certainly one lucky guy to have these particular forces amassed to show off his new work, Alternative Energy. The four movement symphony, which is divided into two parts, doesn’t suffer from a lack of ambition. Each movement refers to a different place and time where human technology has taken a leap forward. That two of these four segments take place in the imagined future is a bold and risky move throwing the material into the realm of science fiction. The first movement looks at the harnessing of combustion engines by Ford for use in automobiles in the late 19th Century. Bright lyrical lines in the strings swirl around the crank of a car's gear shaft - a motif that will be repeated at times throughout the whole work. It’s not a bad idea, but one that sounded a lot like a John Williams movie score to my ear.

Next on the energy tour were recorded sounds from the Fermilab particle collider in Chicago placed over contemporary orchestra fare. All of this was rather loud, and the sounds of the collider were indeed fascinating, evoking both speed and high energy. The last two movements invoked an imagined Chinese nuclear reactor some 100 year down the line and eventually a finale set in "an Icelandic rainforest on a hotter planet" far beyond that. Again recorded elements peppered the score in an intriguing way. The real problems with Alternative Energy was how derivative some of the orchestral music was. Just as the opening movement suggested Coplandesque Americana, the nuclear plant segment was filled with chimes and Hollywood-style Chinoiserie. And if you didn’t see Bjork coming at you by the time the Avatar-like last movement rolled onto the stage, you hadn’t been paying attention.

The evening wrapped up with another unusual piece at least for most contemporary orchestral programs, César Franck’s Symphony in D minor. And while there is nothing technological or mechanical about this work in particular, Muti kept the energetic, propulsive feel high throughout its three movements. It was an enthralling, beautifully paced and intricately shaped performance putting Franck's symphony in the best possible light. But this is the kind of thing the CSO does every day. The other program on this tour which includes works form Schubert and a new commission from composer Anna Clyne will also be presented in Southern California on Sunday courtesy of the La Jolla Music Society. And at the Segerstrom Concert Hall, the great American orchestras will keep on coming with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under Marin Alsop on March 28, the Cleveland Orchestra with Franz Welser-Möst on April 17, the Los Angeles Philharmonic on April 28, and the New York Philharmonic with Alan Gilbert on May 8th yet to come.

Cage Matches

John Cage performs Walter Walk in 1960 on TelevisionThe centennial anniversary of John Cage’s birth is upon us. Live music loves an anniversary, and considering Cage was a native Los Angeleno who spent critical formative years studying with the likes of Schoenberg at both UCLA and USC, revisiting his work here with local forces seems appropriate. In this vein, the faculty and students of CalArts assembled a two day John Cage festival this past week at the REDCAT downtown. Headed by music faculty members Mark Menzies and Ulrich Krieger the expansive 6 plus hours of programming covered an amazing amount of territory. But like any consideration of Cage’s work, it also barely scratched the surface: Cage’s interest in chance and process leaves his music open to so many interpretations that any selection can seem like a very small window looking out onto a huge sea.

The performances of the CalArts faculty and students that make up the New Century Players and the CalArts Orchestra touched on the most important aspects and themes of the composer’s sound world. The first evening clocking in at four hours focused heavily on Cage’s interest in microtonal sounds and Eastern music traditions. The evening was bookended by two versions of Ryoanji from the early eighties with Rachel Rudich playing the shakuhachi, a Japanese end-blown flute. In between were larger ensemble works including Hymnkus (1986), Etcetera (1973), Renga (1975), and Fourteen (1990). Some of the works were marked by a halting pace of repeated bursts of sound like some microtonal dirge. Others hinted at the process games that underlie their performance but aren’t always immediately apparent to the audience.

Etcetera was a particular highlight in this regard with it constantly reformatting ensembles. The 26 players, arranged themselves in three groupings, appeared along the back of the stage area with three performers including Menzies, seated at the front, each facing a different number of empty chairs. These empty settings included a duo, trio and quartet. Periodically, players from the groupings would leave their seats to take one of the stations up front. When a particular grouping was filled, the “conductor” of that ensemble would stand and lead the players in a brief interlude played simultaneously with the sound emanating from the back of the stage. Horns, violins, car parts, or tuba mutes would find themselves unexpectedly alongside one another. Periodically, players would abandon their assigned instruments to percussively tap on a variety of empty boxes. It was a sort of contemporary chamber music speed dating whose results were surprising and fluid capturing a real sense of playfulness.

This sort of playful theatricality came to an even fuller realization on the second night of the series when the players returned for two and a half hours devoted entirely to Cage’s 1958 Fontana Mix. Fontana Mix isn’t so much of a prescribed piece of music as a template by which a wide variety of other music can be composed using its charts and overlays. All the works in the program were composed using the template whether or not they were Cage’s. The show started with a four-channel recording of Cage’s original audio collage with the work from 1958. With all of its caught radio signals, whirs and beeps it sounded like an invitation to nearly all of the electronic music of the later 20th century. There was also a prerecorded version of a similar piece from Max Neuhaus from 1965 that replaced some of these original sound artifacts with falls of audio feedback. Vocalist Carmina Escobar performed Cage’s ARIA which was further processed through another Cage composition/tool WBAI with the kind of shouts, trills, and other non-word sounds that would litter the works of so many other composers over the next several decades.

Perhaps the most fascinating moments for me, though, were the ones where the sound elements almost completely broke down to give way to a performance piece. Cage was intimately involved in making music for dance in a unique way and in works like 1959’s Water Walk. The Fontana Mix process is fed physical actions as much as sound. On Thursday, Kristen Erickson, arrived in a theatrical, red outfit and activated reel-to-reel machines, submerged gongs, mixed cocktails, activated the pressure cooker, and plucked at a prepared piano like a mid-20th Century avant-garde Betty Crocker. (You can see Cage perform this piece from 1960 on TV's I've Got a Secret above.) 1960’s Theater Piece, also receiving the WBAI treatment, was dramatic in a similar fashion true to its name. There were string players doing yoga, and a bassist bowing the pages of a paperback, all held together by Menzies whose arrangement of papers on an office desk provided a particular rhythmic structure.

The young musicians who make up the CalArts Orchestra availed themselves with an enthusiasm that nicely mirrored the adventurousness of Cage’s work. The music is still shockingly different, but there is a sense of wonderment and playfulness that should never be lost despite some of the elaborate music theory and procedural mechanics behind it. There is something rather American and rather Californian about this kind of exploration and the unexpected mingling of forces, and hearing this particular tribute at this particular place and this particular time made for some wonderful listening.