PREVIEW: L.A. Opera’s “Salome” marks a revival of an historically important production

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Tomas Tomasson as John the Baptist and Patricia Racette as Salome in LA Opera’s historic production of Richard Strauss’ “Salome,” which opens tomorrow night in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Photo by Ken Howard/LA Opera
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The story is legendary in the opera world; even those who weren’t in attendance (as I was) remember it. 1986 — the inaugural opening night for Los Angeles Opera: the curtain rising on the opening act of Verdi’s Otello pauses partway up before continuing its ascent a few seconds later. It was a “heart-in-the-throat” moment for those in attendance (particularly for those in company management, one suspects). It also provided a ready-made, humorous lead for critics (including me), leaning forward in anticipation.

That opening production was an exciting time for all concerned, but fewer people remember the third opera in that inaugural season.

Otello was followed by a very conventional presentation of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, starring — somewhat implausibly — Leona Mitchell as Cio-Cio San.

However, it was the third offering — a new production of Richard Strauss’ Salome — that in retrospect, put the company on the international opera map. It’s also the only production from that original season that remains in the LAO repertoire, 31 years later. The Met still has Franco Zeferelli’s iconic Madama Butterfly in its rep; Sir Peter Hall’s Salome is LAO’s equivalent.

Tomorrow night LAO revives that Salome production in the first of six performances, running through March 19. The big news has been that superstar American soprano Patricia Racette is portraying the title heroine; both Michelle Mills in our SCNG papers (LINK) and Catherine Womack in the Los Angeles Times (LINK) have focused on that story.

Yet, it’s not too big a stretch to say that without that 1986 production of Salome, there might be no LA Opera (as the company now calls itself). Thus the historical aspect of this opera deserves to be remembered.

That seems strange in retrospect because Salome wasn’t an easy sell in a city where opera was still working to establish a beachhead.

For one thing, LAO’s production of Salome was created by Sir Peter Hall, who was far better known for his work in the theatre than in the opera world, although, with conductor Georg Solti, he did direct Wagner’s Ring Cycle in 1983 at Bayreuth for the 100th anniversary of the composer’s death.

Second, the opera (written by Strauss at the beginning of the 20th century using a libretto that he adapted from an infamous Oscar Wilde play) runs in a single act that lasts an hour and 40 minutes without intermission — although for those who don’t like long nights at the opera house, that’s a plus.

Another issue is that the character originates in synoptic Biblical gospels of Matthew and Mark, although in those accounts she is unnamed. Wilde’s and Strauss’ “scandalous” treatment of a Biblical character always caused ruffled feathers among conservative Christian folk.

A final (and related) problem was the opera’s most famous moment: Salome’s “Dance of the Seven Veils,” where she writhes before Herod in an erotic dance and where each of the veils are removed until she stands naked before the king. The scene so scandalized the performers and audiences that in earlier productions a dancer performed, and, later, singers used a body stocking for the dance. Even today the nude scene features prominently in almost any article, include those noted above.

Sir Peter would make no offering to modesty, in part because the Salome in that 1986 production — his wife, Maria Ewing — was good looking and was willing to end the dance naked. In addition, the production was notable because the performers were both compelling as singers and actors. It was, particularly, a hard role for Ewing, who was a mezzo-soprano rather than a sopranos, but she carried off the singing handsomely and her acting was riveting.

One other aspect of that LAO Salome premiere was the size of the orchestra: 92 players (much larger than either of the first two offerings), bulging the Pavilion pit and led by Henry Lewis. Hearing this luscious score played this by the now top-flight LAO Orchestra, conducted by James Conlon, should be one of the prizes of this year’s production.

Reports are that Sir Peter’s production has been refurbished for this run — not surprising given that it has been lent to companies around the world (a nice money-maker for the company). Sir Peter (who reportedly suffers from dementia) will not be on hand, although he continues to be listed for his production. Instead, David Paul makes his company debut as director and Duane Schuler will handle the crucial lighting details.

Like all productions of Salome, there’s a great deal of complexity and intrigue that will surround this revival. But there is also a great deal of history, which should not be forgotten. The L.A. Times Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, Martin Bernheimer — not known for throwing around accolades lightly — wrote of that 1986 production: “This is what opera should be about.”

Information: www.laopera.org
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(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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SAME-DAY REVIEW: “In America” — a stunning oratorio on Japanese-American WW II internment written by Van Nuys High School students and L.A. Master Chorale

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

“In America” — an oratorio written by Van Nuys High School students in conjunction with the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s “Voices Within” artists-in-residency rogram
Sat., Feb. 18, 2 p.m.
Van Nuys High School
6535 Cedros Avenue
Van Nuys 91411
Free Admission
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Since September a group of 85 Van Nuys High School students have been learning about America’s Japanese internment camps during World War II. That’s not surprising given that Feb. 19 marks the 75th anniversary of the day that President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 that resulted in the forced removal and incarceration of between 110,000 and 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry who lived on the Pacific Coast. More than 60 percent of the internees were United States citizens.

What is surprising is what came out of this study at Van Nuys High School.

As part of the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s 20-week-long “Voices Within” artists-in-residency program, the students — along with several LAMC members — have composed a stunning, emotionally powerful, 45-minute oratorio, In America, which will receive its first public performance in a free-admission concert on Saturday in the Van Nuys HS auditorium.

The work received its premiere this afternoon before a full auditorium of VNHS students. Brianne Arevalo, VNHS Choral Director, led the performance with conviction and skill.

The students — who range from ninth through 12th grades — will perform the work Saturday, along with eight LAMC members and other VNHS vocal ensemble members. They will be accompanied by seven instrumentalists: six students and, on piano, David O, the Master Chorale’s composer for the project.

Working with lyricist Doug Cooney, singer Alice Kirwan Miller and O, the students wrote the lyrics and the melodies to the nine movements of the work. As part of the project, the LAMC members mentored the students on how to use musical techniques to capture the voice of the characters they create, propel the momentum of the plot, and paint the mood of the scene. They succeeded wonderfully in all phases.

The students also wrote about half of the often-chromatic harmonies of the work. O filled in the balance of the harmonies and provided the orchestrations. Reflecting the work’s poignancy, much of the music was in minor keys.

The production uses slide images from Manzanar (along U.S. Highway 395 near Mammoth Mountain) and other internment camps to help illustrate the stories. The performance used supertitles although the students’ diction was so good as to often render the titles superfluous.

After the work was completed, students auditioned for the 15 solo roles, which included Shushanna Keymethlyan, who was particularly poignant in the “Exodus” movement. The other soloists were Morgan Hesen, Lucy White, Isaiah Yiga, May Ngyuen, Jamaia Concepcion, Rafael Gomez, Bianca Akibiyk, Aerein Gundayao, Sat Gasparyan, Olivia Rodrigues, Antonio Lewis, Nat Nario and Ian Foster.

As is evident from the names above, Van Nuys High School is a diverse multicultural, multiracial school. Many of the students are immigrants and are living the lyrics they were singing. The movement with the text, “We are citizens like you but suddenly we are not,” rang out with heartfelt conviction.

The oratorio did an excellent job of delving into many of the layers of the internment issue, beginning with the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. The scenes of people being sent to the camps and, later, from the camps back to a very uncertain future with only a bus ticket and $25 used the same musical motif and lyrics to great effect.

The clash between Issei (immigrants) and Nisei (U.S.-born Japanese Americans) was portrayed graphically, as were Questions 27 and 28 (the questions asked of those who volunteered to become soldiers in the U.S. Army, even as their families were interned). In addition, the angry back-and-forth section, “No-No, Yes-Yes” were gripping. (For more information on these two issues, click HERE).

Ultimately the oratorio poses the challenge, not just to those interned after WWII but to the U.S. today: “Where can I be an American if not in America? If I pledge to you, you must trust me.” One could only hope that one of those in attendance Saturday would be President Donald Trump. He needs to hear what these students have to say and the gripping immediacy with which the words are sung.

Background

Students from Van Nuys High School visiting the Japanese American National Museum as part of the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s “Voices Within” project. (Photo by Gabriel Zuniga)

Now in it’s seventh year (and the first at VNHS), the LAMC “Voices Within” Project places teaching artists in the classrooms to work with students.

“A core value of the program is to encourage expression through collaboration,” said LAMC President & CEO Jean Davidson. “That this oratorio, In America, about the Japanese American incarceration camps can have so much contemporary relevance is somewhat of an accident of timing, but it speaks to the universality of music and how it can allow us to find our voice, while also illustrating that looking to the past can provide guidance for the present.”

To further enhance their understanding of the camps and the impact of Executive Order 9066 on the Japanese American community, the VNHS students visited the Japanese American National Museum in downtown Los Angeles in November.

Many of the museum’s docents and their families were among those interned, providing valuable first-hand accounts of their experience. One of those in attendance today was a child in a camp and he watched the performance with tears in his eyes.

The museum’s ongoing exhibit, “Common Ground: The Heart of Community,” documents 130 years of Japanese American immigration and history and includes a barrack building from the Heart Mountain War Relocation Center near Cody, Wyoming. That camp was one of 10 on the U.S. mainland. Two of the camps, Manzanar and Tule Lake, were in California. Together, they held nearly 30,000 internees.

The museum will begin a new exhibition, “Instructions to All Persons: Reflection on Executive Order 9066” on Feb. 18. Information: www.janm.org A story in the Los Angeles Times on the exhibition is HERE.
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(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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Second thoughts on the 2017 Hollywood Bowl season

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Karina Canellakis makes her Hollywood Bowl debut on Aug 8, leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic in an all-Mendelssohn program. Photo credit: Hiroyuki Ito

Signs of the time?

Earlier this week I previewed the upcoming Hollywood Bowl classical season (LINK), noting — among other things — an increase in motion pictures accompanied by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. A second look offers some other interesting thoughts about this season, and in particular, what we don’t get this summer:

No Mahler works
Not one!

No Brahms concertos
Zip. Nada.

No semi-stage opera
Instead, we get an evening of Wagner choral and orchestral works on July 20, with Dudamel leading the Phil and L.A. Master Chorale, a performance of Sondheim on Sondheim on July 23, with conducting, and the Broadway evergreen hit Mama Mia! on July 28, 29 and 30.

One Tchaikovsky symphony
No. 5, on July 27 conducted by Rafael Payare making his Bowl debut. Payare is another graduate of Venezuela’s El Sistema program (which also produced Gustavo Dudamel), winner of the 2012 Malkio conducting competition, and is now chief conductor of the Ulster Philharmonic in Northern Ireland.

One Beethoven piano concerto
No. 1, on Aug. 31, with Pierre-Laurent Aimard as soloist and Bramwell Tovey conducting

One Rachmaninoff piano work
Concerto No 3, on August 15, with Behzod Abduraimov as soloist and Krzysztof Urbanski conducting.

One Gershwin program
Without Rhapsody in Blue, although it does close with An American in Paris — on Aug. 17, with Bramwell Tovey

Two Beethoven symphonies
• No. 9, on July 13 and 18, with Gustavo Dudamel conducting
• No. 3 on Aug. 31, with Bramwell Tovey conducting
I can’t remember a season without either the fifth or sixth symphonies.

Two Tchaikovsky concertos
• Piano Concerto No. 1 on Aug. 1, with Beatrice Rana as soloist and Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducting
Variations on a Rococo Theme, with Thomas Mesa as soloist, as part of “Tchaikovsky Spectacular” concerts on Aug. 18 and 19

Among “traditional” works NOT being presented: Violin concertos by Brahms, Beethoven, Sibelius and Tchaikovsky, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue,, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. And, of course, little — if anything — that appropriates that woefully neglected genre: “light” classics.

There’s no nothing to celebrate Leonard Bernstein’s upcoming centennial.

Things we do get:

• A full night of Vivaldi, with Simone Porter soloing in the Violin Concertos, Op. 4, Nos. 3 and 4, and the Pacific Chorale joining forces with Nicholas McGegan for Stabat Mater and Gloria.

• A smattering (just a smattering) of Mozart: his Requiem on Aug. 24, paired with John Adams Harmonimum, with Dudamel conducting the LAPO and L.A. Master Chorale; and an all-Mozart program led by McGegan on the final classical night of the season, Sept. 14.

• Two L.A. Phil commissions: the world premiere of Daníel Bjarnason’s Violin Concerto (with Pekka Kuusisto making his Bowl debut as soloist; and Alan Fletcher’s Piano Concerto on Sept. 5, with Inon Barnatan as soloist and Ken-David Masur conducting the Phil. Masur made a well-received debut as a last-minute Bowl sub last season.

• The Bowl debut of conductor Karina Canellakis (pictured at the top of this post), who (one hopes) is on a very short list of conductors to replace Jeffrey Kahane after he retires this season at the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. She makes her Bowl debut on Aug. 8 in an all-Mendelssohn program. Canellakis, winner of the 2016 Georg Solti conducting competition, came to national attention when she stepped in not once but twice to replace Jaap von Zweden in Dallas Symphony concerts. My guess is that the San Diego Symphony, which is looking to replace Jahja Ling as music director.

One thing I wish had been programmed:
Either John Adams’ Harmonielehre or City Noir.

As indicated before, Bowl subscription tickets, in a variety of combinations are now on sale. Single tickets go on sale May 7.

The complete season schedule is HERE. The full media kit is HERE.
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(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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NEWS: Hollywood Bowl 2017: more movies, more Dudamel

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

The 2017 Hollywood Bowl season, formally introduced via a media release this morning, extends the Bowl’s presence of showing movies on a big screen with the Los Angeles Philharmonic providing live accompaniment, offers more concerts led by Music and Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel, and provides several notable differences from the “traditional” outdoor music concerts.

The movie screenings begin with what has become an annual (and sold-out) event: The “Sing-Along Sound of Music, on June 24.

On the heels of last summer’s screening of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, (pictured above) the Phil will present the next two segments in the popular series: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets on July 6 and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban on July 7. On both occasions, Justin Freer will lead the orchestra.

Another John Williams movie score will be front and center when the Bowl screens Raiders of the Lost Ark on August 4 and 5, with David Newman conducting the Phil. Newman will again lead the orchestra when it accompanies Singin’ in the Rain on Sept. 7 and he will join with John Williams to lead the Phil in the annual “John Williams: Maestro of the Movies” program on Sept. 1, 2 and 3, with accompanying film clips.

Williams the composer also shows up on the 10-week classical series, on July 25 when violinist Gil Shaham will be the soloist in Williams’ Violin Concerto. In addition to accompanying Shaham, Stéphan Denève leads the Phil in Sound the Bells, which Williams originally composed in 1993 for a Boston Pops tour of Japan, along with Respighi’s Fountains of Rome and Pines of Rome.

Not only does Dudamel (pictured above) have more appearances scheduled this summer but, for a change, they aren’t all concentrated in the first couple of weeks. He will be on hand for the initial set of classical programs, which begins on July 11 with a program of ballet music featuring dancers Missy Copeland, Marcello Gomes, Sergei Polunin and Natasha Osipova.

The July 13 and 18 programs will be duplicates: Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, with the Los Angeles Master Chorale and soloists Amanda Majeski, J’Nai Bridges, Issachah Savage and Ryan Speedo Green joining Dudamel the Phil. All of the soloists will be making their Bowl debuts.

The Master Chorale returns on July 20 when Dudamel leads a program of Wagner’s choral and instrumental music

In between those weeks, Dudamel leads the Phil in accompanying Tony Bennett on July 14 and 15 (ask not why) and then combines the Phil and YOLA (Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles) in a performance of “Sondheim on Sondheim” — the music and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim — on July 23.

Dudamel returns to the Bowl on Aug. 22 with a program that includes the world premiere of Daníel Bjarnason’s Violin Concerto (with Pekka Kuusisto making his Bowl debut as soloist) and Holst’s The Planets. Dudamel also leads the Aug. 24 concert, which pairs John Adams’ Harmonium and Mozart’s Requiem. The Pacific Chorale provides the choral forces.

Among the other notable guest conductors are Bramwell Tovey, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (pictured left), Vasily Petrenko, Karina Canellakis and Nicholas McGegan. Among the soloists are violinist Joshua Bell, trumpeter Alison Balsom, pianists Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Jean-Yves Thibaudet; and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who will play all six Bach unaccompanied cello sonatas on Sept. 12.

Subscription tickets, in a variety of combinations are now on sale. Single tickets go on sale May 7.

The complete season schedule is HERE. The full media kit is HERE.
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(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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NEWS: LA Opera wins two Grammy Awards

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Los Angeles Opera’s production of John Corigliano’s The Ghost of Versailles in 2015 captured Grammy Awards today for both Best Opera Recording and Best Engineered Classical Album in 2016.

The PentaTone CD, which was the first recording of Corigliano’s opera, was conducted by LAO Music Director James Conlon. It starred Patricia Racette as Marie Antoinette and Patti Lupone as Turkish entertainer Samira, among others. The CD was recorded live in February 2015 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. It was engineered by Mark Donahue and Fred Vogler.

This is Conlon’s second double-Grammy winner with LA Opera. He and the company won in 2009 for Best Classical Album and Best Opera Recording for LAO’s production of Kurt Weill’s The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.

The LA Opera recording beat four other finalists in each category. Among those in the Best Engineered Classical Album category was Shostakovich: Under Stalin’s Shadow Symphonies Nos. 5, 8 & 9, with Andris Nelsons leading the Boston Symphony, which won the Grammy for Best Orchestral Recording.

In the Best Opera Recording category, LAO beat out a Santa Fe Opera production of Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain, which was conducted by Miguel Harth-Bedoya, former associate conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
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(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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