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LA Opera's Cosi Fan Tutte brings psych to the frolic

Photo by Robert Millard for LA Opera

by Joseph Mailander

Cosi Fan Tutte always brings to mind some other opera--and it should not, as it's grand enough on its own.

But it happens to be the third prong of the greater-than-grand Mozart/Da Ponte collaborations; it especially if modestly draws from Figaro; and it strongly anticipates not only The Barber of Seville but also Il Turco in Italia. It has its puppeteer and it has its frothy love complexities. Like Figaro and the two Rossini operas, it dispenses plot points like a bubble-blowing machine; dozens and dozens of poofy little spheres of action float by, to pop a little after their born. But the plot never entirely floats away as it does in other opera buffa, and Cosi never runs to farce. In fact, underneath the easy frolic is a complex psych study of the way men and women behave when daring to try to improve on love requited.

And that's the way the silly geese presently flapping their wings onstage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in a new LA Opera production of Cosi all work: they bring their full emotional chops to the many moods of paranoid love. Mostly, they do the work very well with their antics and acting; and its in their psychological expressions as singers and actors that the ensemble most shines. When there is little to emote, however, the singers merely pass muster, tapering off from the highs of the production's top moments.

I liked the girls as singers and also as actors. The girls experience the most heart-tugging and their emotional swings are bundled up tautly in their vocals. Roxana Constantinescu's Despina is perky and mischievous enough for her world-wise maid role and all her attendant soubrette double duty. Cecillia Bartoli sets the standard for this role and sets it high, but Constantinescu brings a good contender, and it's not a wonder as she's also sung in the two other Mozart/Da Ponte collaborations. Ruxandra Donose's Dorabella works out her eagerness for the boys with giddy aplomb, while Alexandra Kurzak's Fiordiligi, the sturdier sister, walks her path with the requisite alternating blends of sanctimony and surrender and finds a likeable coloratura when called on.

And I liked the boys as actors and also as singers. The men are physical, challenging, capricious as actors; they are indeed certifiable peacocks, mugging and strutting and straddling their way through the two hundred minutes. As singers, they are similarly spot-on, though again, they sometimes fall off when the demands lighten. Guglielmo is sung by Ildebrando D'Archangelo, a smoldering presence either as shorn Italian or mustachioed Albanian, and a very excellent bass-baritone. The great irony of the production is tenor Saimir Pirgu, an actual Albanian (!) who plays Ferrando; he plays an Italian playing an Albanian with appreciable nuance, and his part of the duet Fra gli amplessi is particularly appealing. I found Lorenzo Regazzo's Don Alfonso a little too cutesy as an old philosopher; his hair is not gray and his gait is young and spry, but cast against type, his antics still manage to set the table convincingly.

The musicianship under the baton of James Conlon is exceptional, as it almost always is. One particular set with a resolutely bel di blue sky backdrop is very commodious and worth the ticket alone. But I had some trouble with the lighting of this production; footlights were used sparingly and scenes set downstage were shadow-riddled while faces down right and down left remained less than bright.

Cosi Fan Tutte, a new LA Opera production, is at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion through October 8. Maestro James Conlon conducts. It plays Saturday, 09/24/2011 7:30 PM; Sunday, 10/02/2011 2:00 PM; Wednesday, 10/05/2011 7:30 PM; Saturday, 10/08/2011 2:00 PM. Tickets here or at the box office.
2 years ago | |
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by Anne French

Formed in 1969, The Cleveland String Quartet has been lauded as one of the premier quartets of our time. For a time they were the quartet in residence at the State University of  NY at Buffalo, my alma mater, and I was fortunate enough to become well acquainted with their work. I was quite excited to find some clips of their recordings with Emanuel Ax posted on YouTube, and I simply had to share. This breathtakingly beautiful movement from Schumann's Piano Quartet is a wonderful example of their exquisite performances, and Emanuel Ax is the perfect pianist for this undertaking. If you haven't heard the ensemble before, prepare yourself for a rare treat.
2 years ago | |
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by Anne French

An ambitious third season of events will be presented by the California International Theatre Festival from September 8-18, at venues in downtown Los Angeles, Ventura and Calabasas. Festival director Joe Peracchio and executive producer Tammy Taylor, have put together a spectacular array of productions from Armenia (Komitas' 10 Commandments & Colors), Canada (The Cure for Everything), France (Roadway Closed to Pedestrians), Germany (Scenario: for a Non-existent, but Possible Instrumental Actor), Guatemala, Ukraine (Marjana Sadowska in concert) and the U.S.  On September 11th a panel of  international and American artists, scholars, politicians and celebrities will discuss The Global Stage: The Theatre Movement in a Post 9/11 World. The festival also includes 3 free staged readings and a festival wrap party.

CITF's founding artistic director is award-winning actress, Linda Purl.

A complete schedule of  performances, times and places can be found at,  where individual tickets ($17 - $30) and ticket packages are also available. Call 888-712-CITF (2483) for further information.
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Review by Rodney Punt
Director Peter Sellars has forged a strong reputation for envisioning contemporary operas and rethinking classic ones. Of present day fare, John Adams' Nixon in China, in both its original and revived versions, may be the most iconic. Notable among the classics are the Mozart-Da Ponte collaborations and several of Handel’s operas including the Chicago Lyric’s recent Hercules.

Sellars can be uneven. His over-produced stage version of Adams' oratorio, El Niño, of a decade ago comes to mind as well as his under-produced George Crumb song cycle of just this past June at the Ojai Festival. There are times when the trademark extravagant explanations that are a standard part of the Sellars production package lead only to visual confusion and stingy stage-crafting.

Such was the case with Antonio Vivaldi’s long-forgotten Griselda, now in production at the Santa Fe Opera. I will review it from three perspectives: as a work, a production, and a performance.
[The rating scheme: **** Outstanding *** Solid ** Some Issues * Forget It.]
Griselda's overall rating (**½)

Work (**½) Venice was Opera Central in the eighteenth century and the sybaritic Venetians attended operas like today's crowds flock to rock concerts. Antonio Vivaldi got into the action frequently; about fifty of his reported 95 operas survive. Superstar Cecilia Bartoli’s advocacy in concerts and recordings some years ago has stimulated a European revival of the composer’s operas. The phenomenon now crosses the Atlantic in the new U.S. production of Griselda at Santa Fe.
The story of the long-suffering Griselda, Queen of Thessaly, comes from Boccaccio’s Decameron (also retold in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales). In Vivaldi’s version -- with a libretto by an up-and-coming 25-year-old Carlo Goldoni -- longstanding public objections to King Gualtiero’s marriage to a commoner prompt him to publicly test Griselda’s loyalty. He had already removed their daughter Costanza from her mother at birth fifteen years before and he would to do the same with their son some years later. Now he dismisses his wife from their marriage and her royal place as his queen and casts her out to live in a cave. Griselda grieves but never questions her husband’s judgment.

Perplexing twists and turns in the plot, some hard to decipher, give rise to 'simile' arias of metaphorical comparisons with nature that explore extreme states of alienation and emotion. Vivaldi throws down a gauntlet to his six principals with agitated bravura passages in regions stratospheric to cavernous. Ears may weary of the long recitatives and harmonically static arias, some recycled from earlier operas. As a dramatist Vivaldi was no Handel, but if the Venetian's formulas seem a prescription for tedium, his gifts for melodic variation, string sonorities, and dramatizing emotions through vivid arias more than compensate.

Why this story? It may come across as borderline sadistic, but Boccaccio’s yarn is an updating of the Greek myth of Medea, another female victim who lost her marriage and her position, but who murdered her own children in revenge. Rather than follow the latter’s example into violence, Griselda’s turning the other cheek replaces “primitive” behavior with the medieval Christian ethos of faith and self-control. Boccaccio modernized the story from its savage roots, even if Vivaldi would later exploit it for his audience of jaded Venetian thrill-seekers.

Production (*½) The mostly Los Angeles-based production team included Sellars and Chicano artist Gronk. (LA Opera's Associate Conductor/Chorus Master Grant Gershon also conducted.) As ring-mastered by Sellars, the production is set in a traditional New Mexican 'Fiesta de Quinceañera' (a girl’s fifteenth birthday graduation to young adulthood), as suggested by Dunya Ramicova’s pastel-colored costumes for the men and the character Costanza’s traditional white ruffled, red trimmed dress.
Confusing that scenario, however, was urban-based Gronk’s backdrop mural of dark colored, aggressive abstractions. A literal depiction of the anxiety inhabiting the characters’ psyches, it overwhelmed the stage in massive statement, rendering the relatively tiny human action almost irrelevant. James Ingalls’ expressionistic lighting in garish Las Vegas tints added another layer of competing spectrums.

Design clashes aside, the actual dramaturgy looked as if produced on a shoestring. With the stage empty save for a couple of chairs, the actors had little off which to play. Stock movements -- including stylized gestures seen in other Sellars productions -- produced clumsy character interactions. Gualtiero was given cruel and arbitrary gestures that mimicked Latin American macho stereotypes. But would he really have called for swat-teamed henchmen with M-16 rifles to threaten his courtiers? His sham test is, after all, only a temporary ruse to prove a point, and many in his kingdom are already in on the game.

In SFO’s Crescendo magazine, Sellars states of the East L.A. based Gronk: “When you ask an artist to paint, he sees things in his own way; I have not told him anything. When different art forms meet, they inspire one another. The singers are alive inside the spectacular universe of the painting.” The question that follows: were the elements of this mise en scène -- set, costumes, and lighting – conceived independently, meeting only when they collided on stage? In this jumbled production the answer would seem to be yes.
Performance (***½) The singing of five young principals and a mid-career one almost redeemed Griselda’s production problems. Supported by a only a string orchestra, they were fearless in the face of Vivaldi’s merciless, but also beautiful, vocal challenges.

Contralto Meredith Arwady’s title character is the medieval version of a battered wife. At one point Griselda is recalled to the palace to become a maid for Costanza, who Gualtiero represents as his new bride. Griselda is unaware she is actually their daughter. The portrayal of calm acceptance to these indignities required a thespian's full craft.
Arwady's star role here was not particularly a gratifying one, with Vivaldi giving her few good arias and only contrite recitatives. One of her special moments, however, comes at the end of Act One when her 'Ho il cor già lacero' (my heart is torn to pieces) is broken up with rests, an effective musical analogy. Sellars also provided Arwady with some interpolated vocal relief by inserting the first part of Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater for the less worthy of her later arias. Arwady made the most of what she was given. To hear her deep and true contralto plunge the vocal depths was to follow Jules Verne on a journey to the center of the earth.
Stalwart tenor Paul Groves, a regular at the SFO and survivor of last year’s unfortunate Tales of Hoffmann, was a commanding dramatic presence as Gualtiero, his voice strong if not completely comfortable in the rapid vocal figurations of the Baroque style. Had he been given more stage business to telegraph his transition from jack-booted martinet to empathetic husband, his characterization might have come across as even more interesting.

Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard soared as a vocally dazzling and attractive Costanza, who is devastated to learn she must marry the king (not knowing he is her father) in lieu of her beloved Roberto. A highlight was her Act Two "Agitata da due venti' (comparing love and duty to two contrary winds). Whether standing, kneeling, or writhing on the floor, she sang in consummate Baroque style, stunning in both legato and coloratura passages, and rich-voiced up and down the register. A major operatic star has arrived on the scene, and the Santa Fe Opera captured her talents in a breathtaking, breakthrough role.
Surrounding Costanza dramatically were two countertenors. David Daniels was the honey-voiced Roberto, her lover and protector, torn in his loyalty to the king by the prospect of losing her to him in marriage. (Daniels remains the gold standard of our time for a pure-toned countertenor.) Yuri Minenko, as his brother, Corrado, knowing the sham marriage was just part of the test, added silvery-smooth vocal assurances for some kind of a happy resolution to the lovers. His Act One 'Alle minacce di fiera belva' (with orchestral horns) casts his mission as that of a hunter who will pursue his prey relentlessly -- in this case, Ottone.

Soprano Amanda Majeski was riveting in her fedora-sporting trouser role as Ottone, in love with Griselda and nominally the villain for opposing the king's harsh treatment of her. Ottone's 'Scocca dardi l'altero tuo ciglio' (the heart is a butterfly drawn to lamplight) projected all the ardor and agony of this character’s conflicted feelings toward king and outcast queen. Also notable: 'Vede orgogliosa l'onda' (a lover's persistence like a helmsman trying to reach land in a raging sea).
Making his company debut conducting without baton a slimmed-down Baroque string orchestra, Grant Gershon was placed high on his seat to maintain eye contact with the occasionally horizontal singers on stage. The cast's confident vocal performances confirmed the security they must have felt under his leadership. Gershon's control of the orchestra was also firm and fluid. Momentary appearances of horns in two arias added color; trumpets in the finale bestowed a festive send-off to the work’s not entirely convincing happy ending.
In the most inspired production touch of the evening, the totally confused but recently restored Queen Griselda, alone on the stage after all have departed, continues to sweep up after her subjects and her husband.
It was the singing, however, that saved the day for this Griselda.
-----ooooo-----Griselda:Music by Antonio Vivaldi
Libretto by Apostolo Zeno
Performance reviewed: Friday, July 29
Performances run through Friday, August 19

All above photos by Ken Howard, used by permission of the Santa Fe Opera.Rodney Punt may be contacted at
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The Santa Fe Opera’s 2011 Season

Santa Fe, New MexicoCommentary and reviews by Rodney Punt
Lightening and thunder struck a few days ago at the very moment when Rodolfo touches Mimi’s hand in the dark of his garret apartment. No suspended disbelief was necessary for this early August performance of La Bohème. Real-life theatrics are par for the course at the Santa Fe Opera, perched high on a desert mesa with its theater sides open to storms on the nearby Sangre de Christo Mountains.

Now in its 55th year, the improbable vision of the late conductor-impresario John Crosby was dismissed early on as a wealthy man’s plaything, but it has become a summer cultural and economic anchor for New Mexico’s lively capital. (Founded in 1610, Santa Fe is the oldest capital in the USA and was a thriving outpost of the Spanish Empire when the Pilgrims landed precariously at Plymouth Rock in 1620.)

The SFO is the contrarian player in American opera. While big city companies – New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles – have their seasons from fall through spring, Santa Fe runs its five productions during July and August. Many in their audience are not local commuters, but must travel great distances at considerable expense to this small mile-high city in the vast American Southwest.

Luring folks to the Opera is its reputation for quality, its spectacular natural setting, Santa Fe's charms and historic importance, a thriving visual art scene, and the world-class rankings of New Mexican cuisine. All contribute to a mystique of specialness that attracts tourists to visit (and well-to-do retirees to stay).

As with Haydn’s residency at Esterhazy, the semi-isolated SFO has thrived through innovation. Its apprentice program for young singers was begun in 1957, the year the Opera itself was founded. At first a means to provide inexpensive choristers for productions, it is now one of the most important incubators of new singing talent in the nation. The SFO’s education program visits local schools and provides top-flight lectures before each opera. A dinner-cum-talk series with the charming Desirée Mays has become a sought-after (and sold-out) attraction for fifteen years.

What was a few decades ago a relatively isolated operatic activity is today fully integrated with programs in the major international capitals. During the current Wozzeck, for instance, one encountered on stage a partnering of two world-class Ring Cycle Alberichs, one from the LA Opera and the other from the Met Opera.

This report and two to follow will take a critical look at all five of the SFO’s current productions: Gounod's Faust, Puccini's La Bohème, Vivaldi’s Griselda, Menotti’s The Last Savage, and Berg’s Wozzeck. They are reviewed in the order each was introduced during the season, in three categories: the work itself, its production, and its performance.
The rating scheme: [ **** Outstanding *** Solid ** Some Issues * Forget It ]
NOTE: The first two operas are reviewed here. Two coming postings will review the remaining three. Stay tuned.


Overall rating (***)
Music: Charles Gounod
Libretto: Jules Barbier & Michel Carré
Performance reviewed: Monday, August 1
Performances run through Saturday, August 27

Work (**½) It was the world’s most popular opera at the turn of the twentieth century, yet Gounod’s Faust was never before produced at the SFO. Its love-and-betrayal story is adapted from Goethe. Catchy tunes abound in the oft-excerpted dances. Long Gallic lines float off the lips of Faust, Marguerite, and, most deliciously, the comically cynical Méphistophélès. Sinewy woodwind configurations add orchestral interest, yet the work’s characterizations can be superficial and its musical structures conventional. It dates badly next to older confrere Berlioz’s less theatrical ‘dramatic legend’, La Damnation de Faust, with its vivid harmonies and orchestral sonorities, now often produced in lieu of the Gounod in opera houses.

Production (***½) SFO pulled out all the stops for director Stephen Lawless’s tongue-in-cheek La Belle Époque decadence, with well-staged cast encounters along Benoit Dugardyn’s Parisian boulevards, night-lit by Pat Collins. Anchoring the scene was a central coffin from which Méphistophélès emerges and into which Faust obligingly retires, knowing Marguerite has been redeemed. Sue Wilmington’s silk-and-satin Lautrec-era costumes sparkled in bright colors against jet-black window displays. Amusing scenes included the early fair with a functioning Ferris Wheel and a carefree Marguerite on roller skates; choreographer Nicola Bowie’s courtesans and queens prancing (if not quite dancing) to Gounod’s tamed down Walpurgisnacht music, with femmes fatales Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, Manon, Carmen, Salome, and Delilah vying clench-clawed for doomed Faust’s attentions; and at the end Marguerite’s campy entrance into heaven, embracing Christ’s pipe-bedecked celestial organ after her unfortunate encounter with Faust’s impregnating one.

Performance (***½) A solid outing for all principals. Bass-baritone Mark S. Doss’s barking trickster Méphistophélès was strained at the extremities of his voice but was to the manner born as the cynical collector of fallen souls. Bryan Hymel’s plangent tenor lent suave urgency to Faust’s yearning ruminations. Pretty Ailyn Pérez was in splendid voice as the victimized Marguerite. Matthew Worth’s high, bright baritone (and graceful swordsmanship) lent nobility to doomed Valentin. Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Holloway’s ardent-voiced trouser role as protective Siébel was all boyish charm and good intentions. Jamie Barton’s amusingly available, ample-figured widow Marthe gave Méphistophélès a run for his conniving money. As the SFO's new chief conductor (and French music specialist), Frédéric Chaslin’s well-paced conducting with Susanne Sheston’s small chorus provided stylish, idiomatic accounts of the not so gracefully aging score.

La Bohème

Overall rating (***½)
Music by Giacomo Puccini
Libretto: Giuseppe Giacosa & Luigi Illica
Performance reviewed: Tuesday, August 2
Performances run through Friday, August 26

Work (****) Puccini’s break-through opera, one of the most popular in the canon, is ever fresh. The slice-of-life story of four bohemians in a Parisian Latin Quarter garret has an artist, a musician, and their inamoratas on the ins and outs with each other. Richly etched characterizations and poignant moments are wrapped in the composer’s uniquely soft-grained Verismo style. Passionate melodies and evocative, pithy motifs abound and are skillfully recalled at later developments. Post-Wagnerian orchestrations and glinting harmonics capture each emotional incident with its own special expression. Puccini makes it all sound natural; any effort he may have extended is entirely concealed within his art.

Production (***) Paul Curran’s nicely gauged direction was balanced between the story’s poignant and droll moments. Kevin Knight’s garret, its walls festooned with paintings and plays, felt like a cock-eyed, communal utopia of the arts with its slanted walls placed in the claustrophobic middle of the surrounding stage. It would later open like a hinged walnut-shell for Act II’s Café Momus street scene. Knight’s plain-clothed bohemians kept the story unfreighted with self-consciously precious elements as in Zeffirelli, though he spiced the ensemble nicely for the Café Momus scene of uniformed soldiers, baristas, patriotic flag-wavers, and Musetta’s usual flamboyance, this time in a lipstick-red dress. Rick Fisher’s lighting shifted smoothly between carefree bright and care-burdened darker moments in the story.

Performance (***½) The standout was young Mexican tenor David Lomelí’s Rodolfo, whose ardent, golden tenor awakened long-slumbering memories of Jussi Björling. The audience rewarded him with sustained applause after his “Che gelida manina.” Ana María Martínez, a robustly vocal Mimi, held her own in the match-up. Corey McKern’s jealous painter Marcello stewed while Heidi Stober’s Musetta took a subtle approach to her “Quando me’n vo” waltz, beginning it as an intimate song within a small group competing with the melee, and growing it organically into crowd notice until she was spirited away by Christian Van Horn’s stentorian Colline and Markus Beam’s Schaunard. Double cast as befuddled landlord Benoit and stood-up politician Alcindoro, comic bass Thomas Hammons was humiliated twice. The final scene's tragic conclusion forged no new dramatic territory but was effective. Conductor Leonardo Vordoni maintained Italian lyric virtues in the pit.

Photo credits: ‘The Santa Fe Opera on a Performance Night’ by Robert Godwin, stage scenes from ‘Faust’ and ‘La Bohème’ by Ken Howard. Used by permission of the Santa Fe Opera.

Rodney Punt can be contacted at

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by Anne French

Happy August Vacation to the American Congress. Something about Nero fiddling while Rome burned?
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Summertime, and the Listenin’ was Easy

Review and Commentary by Rodney Punt

A month ago at Ojai, morning fog came on little cat feet, birds chirped, the sun shone at noon, oaks drooped at four, swamis lead evening meditations, and the hills were alive for four days with the sounds of unusual music. It was June and the faithful, with many new faces, had congregated in the town’s enchanted valley for the annual Ojai Music Festival, this the 65th in the long-enduring series.

The folks who run the Festival had a busy year leading up to the event. There was the matter of a brand new bowl stage and seating configuration at Libbey Park, with a task to finesse, finance, and fabricate it in the twelve-month interval between annual festivals. Add to the need to coax a few more patrons into the expanded seating, the usual challenges of shaping programs and symposia, and the logistics of fetching hither far-flung celebrity artists.

A New Bowl and its Entrance Portal

The Festival's audiences had for years endured the splintered stiffness of the old Libbey Bowl's wooden benches. All that changed this year with the completion of the new amphitheater complex, designed by politically savvy and environmentally sensitive local architect-cum-community leader, David Bury. His new stage is a slightly larger version of the old one, with up-to-date support facilities. Its orientation is rotated on axis to more logically align with the seating and lawn-lounging areas. Comfortable stadium seats replace the old benches. Even if the new Bowl's replicative design is a compromise from earlier, more innovative conceptions, it had passed muster with local authorities, was completed on time and ready for the season.

Sadly, on the opening day of the Festival, Bury succumbed to a long illness, putting a wistful pall on the capstone of the architect's career and the celebratory culmination of this long-anticipated facility .

Seattle-based environmental sculptor Trimpin returned after a year hiatus, his previous temporary installations having given way to a permanent one called "Sound Arch" that serves as an entry portal to the amphitheater from the rest of Libbey Park. Its design mimics the iconic arch of the Libbey Bowl stage cover, playing off it like an architectural Mini-Me. Sound Arch is dedicated to the memory of the late Ernest Fleischmann, Managing Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, who had also served several stints as the Festival's artistic director.

Trimpin inclines toward whimsy. As you enter Sound Arch, hammers on its sculpted steel tubes intone musical jingles. Their sharp pings sound uncomfortably like the slamming of metal cables on a flagpole. (Sound Arch is an unintentional and less pretentious cousin of downtown Los Angeles' tinkling Triforium.)

The Festival Program

And what of the festival’s program? “It’s all about me”, declared soprano Dawn Upshaw, a frequent artist at Ojai since 2006 and this year’s Music Director. This was not a declaration of ego -- the singer is self-effacing to a fault when not portraying a role -- but a reference to the musical friends from the “different pockets of my life” she had assembled to share the long weekend with her.

Among those friends: pianist Gilbert Kalish, violinist Richard Tognetti and his Australian Chamber Orchestra, jazz composer-conductor Maria Schneider and her orchestra, percussion group ‘red fish blue fish’, and vocalists from Upshaw’s master classes. Collaborating on a new theatrical production was a friend of two decades, director Peter Sellars.

Upshaw’s eclectic programming moved gingerly in a style-continuum from classical to modern, with doses of more exotic New Age jazz fusions and World Music. Works by composers considered thorny or obscure were often represented in their more accessible styles. The fare was generally mellow, and, if occasionally soul-searching, also mostly soul pleasing.

Thursday evening opened the festivities with a high-spirited recital by Upshaw’s vocal students from Bard College -- where the 50-year-old singer spends much of her time these days -- in a varied program of standard to obscure vocal pieces.

A major statement came the next night in a song cycle by George Crumb for soprano (Upshaw), piano (Kalish) and percussion (red fish blue fish), staged by Sellars as a monodrama. It was presented a week later at UC Berkeley by Cal Performances, launching the new Ojai North! initiative. I attended both.

Composed in 2004, The Winds of Destiny (American Songbook IV) was Crumb’s originally intended finale to a cycle of American folksong settings based on four diurnal periods. Depicting a Civil War battlefield at night, it concludes that series with its darkest emotional coloring. Scoring points for relevance, Sellars adapted the work’s scenario to America’s current Middle East and South Asian wars.

Two years ago, Crumb’s Music for a Summer Evening (Makrokosmos III) was featured as the opening concert at Ojai. In that work, as in many such, Crumb seizes and expands on Béla Bartók’s use of percussion for expressive flights of abstraction. In Winds of Destiny, however, folksongs with archetypal associations supplant percussion as the star musical element. Employed as cannons, rifle fusillades, and other specifics, Crumb’s sound worlds play a supporting role more akin to sound effects. His allusive abstractions are concretized with narratives.

In this staged version, a camouflage uniformed Upshaw is a returning American soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. She is confined to a bed and is often under its sheets as if shrouded in death. The arc of eight songs takes her on a spiritual journey from the conflicted righteousness of “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory”, through a series of shocks and ruminations, to a final trance-like glide on a river of no return in the plaintive “Shenandoah.”

Crumb sets his folksongs evocatively: the death-rattles of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”, the pentatonic harmonizations and echo effects of “Go Tell it on the Mountain!” and the percussive sounds of the clay-pot Udo that invoke ancestral memories in the spiritual, “All My Trials.” A huge battery of percussion, precisely gauged by 'red fish blue fish', achieved these eerie effects. Yet the very strength of these iconic songs resists their cohering into a unified statement.

Sellars' staging was conceptually intriguing but somewhat superfluous. It's visually distracting effect on Crumb’s aesthetic powers was akin to the trimming of Sampson’s locks. As a theatrical experience, and without any prior acquaintance with its main character, Winds of Destiny plays as if one were attending the funeral of a stranger. There is no specific personality on which to hang our empathy.

Upshaw put her all into her character but in so doing pushed her voice hard at the Ojai premiere. She was more vocally pliant a week later at Berkeley, and, in fact, the performance there seemed more secure overall. While percussion had greater sonic spaciousness at Ojai’s open-air setting than at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall, the latter compensated with expressionistic lighting projections on the back wall that had not been possible within Ojai’s smaller stage shell.

Following the Crumb on Friday evening, the Sakhi Ensemble with, among others, vocalist Ustad Farida Mawash and instrumentalist Homayoun Sakhi, performed traditional music from Afghanistan well into the night, sensitizing the audience to musical traditions and personalities that political conditions in that country, especially from the puritanical Taliban, had largely suppressed.

If at Ojai Crumb’s cosmos was rendered a bit comatose in Winds, the strings of the Australian Chamber Orchestra gave a more persuasive account of the composer’s powers in his Black Angels, its four movements interwoven within those of Anton Webern’s Five Pieces for Strings, Op. 5. Improbable on paper, the Sunday evening program proved gratifying in execution because key relationships were compatible and moods sharply contrasted in the dazzling virtuosity of Tognetti’s string players. The intense precisions of the Webern pieces were shaken to their roots by the violent follow-on energy of Crumb’s outbursts, reflecting the composer’s reaction in 1970 to the Vietnam War, yet another American conflict. As if to wash away the tension, the program ended with a silk-sheened performance of Edvard Grieg’s String Quartet in G minor, arranged by Tognetti for his strings.

Sunday’s concert also gave Upshaw a couple of works that proved more vocally gratifying than her outing with Crumb. Bartók’s Five Hungarian Folk Songs are the kind of sad but stoic reflections on love that populate folk expressions the world over. Upshaw gave their spiky inflections particular point and dignity.

Maria Schneider’s Winter Morning Walks is a setting for soprano and ensemble of nine short poems by Ted Kooser, written as he recovered from a serious illness with early-morning walks through a Midwestern countryside. Representative are two of his lines: “My wife and I walk the cold road in silence, asking for thirty more years.”, and “This morning the sun stood right at the end of the road and waited for me.” The lines are pared-down, but their very directness, stripped of pretense and artifice, is key to their healing psychology.

Commissioned for Upshaw by the Ojai Music Festival, Cal Performances, and the Australian Chamber Orchestra, the work was given its world premiere by the singer, the Australians, and three of Schneider’s performers on clarinets, piano and bass. Its soft jazz sonics worked well in Libbey Bowl's al fresco, the improvisations for musicians and singer blending with the random sounds of nature. The Midwestern-reared Upshaw having also recently endured her own bout of illness, clearly related to Kooser's lyrics, conveying in her serene delivery the poet's poise that overrode his existential duress. It was Upshaw's most heartwarming performance of the weekend.
Had you not first encountered Winter Morning Walks at Ojai, you could be forgiven for presuming it originated as a direct-to-disc New Age CD. Although it rises far above the pablum that can characterize the genre, you have to listen attentively to grasp its specialness. Several of the entrepreneurial Schneider’s other hyper-smooth recorded works were available in the bins of Ojai 65’s tent store.
Continuing a theme of musical accessibility, Tognetti and Kalish collaborated stylishly on a Saturday morning program of violin-piano sonatas, one by Janácek, another a craggy proto-sonata, Irkanda I, by Peter Sculthorpe, Prokofiev’s two-violin sonata (with Satu Vänskä), and Beethoven’s evergreen Kreutzer.

On their own Saturday evening, the Australian strings gave suave accounts of Giacinto Scelsi’s otherworldly Buddhist-inflected Anâgâmin, transitioning seamlessly on a shared Bb note into Alfred Schnittke’s world-weary Trio Sonata, arranged for string ensemble by Yuri Bashmet. Also on the program was a Bach violin concerto and a feather-light, translucent rendition of Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. Tognetti’s own arrangement, Deviance (on Paganini’s Caprice No. 24), gave him a show-offy vehicle for his violin skills that also hinted, through the peculiar balanced-crouch stance he assumed when performing, at his surprising passion for surfing. This hobby was documented the next morning in a film, Musica Surfica, that illustrated Tognetti’s spiritual yin-yang: giving his zest for music and receiving his Zen from surfing.

If Richard Tognetti, musician and athlete, is the Alpha male of his Australian Chamber Orchestra, Schneider is the Omega female (she who has the last word) of her mostly male Maria Schneider Orchestra. Jazz ensembles are collaborationist by nature, and even in Schneider’s own compositions, solo riffs are under the purview of the virtuosos within the orchestra’s ranks. In a selection of their standard repertory on Sunday morning, Schneider’s players ably demonstrated their command of the standard jazz tropes.

Of Schneider’s works on the program, two stood out. Thompson Field, based on an organic farm in Southwestern Minnesota, depicted sounds that emanate from environmental utopias. Cerulean Skies, a commission by the ubiquitous Peter Sellars for his New Crowned Hope Festival in Vienna, mixed jazz and New Age soundscapes. Opening in a forest of Brazil, the work is populated with enchanting birdcalls and their erotic behaviors in a score layered with delicious dissonances and luxuriant jazz textures.
A Festival Seminar

The Festival’s seminars are not often given coverage in reviews, but they are an important element in the Festival's line-up, providing background on the artists, conceptual perspectives on works to be presented, and dimensions of performance style.

In a pre-concert seminar preparing the audience for the Crumb song cycle, led by Ara Guzelimian, journalist Mark Danner and Sellars discussed America’s recent wars, from the reckless adventures of the Bush administration in Iraq to President Obama’s perspective that NATO actions in Libya constitute a “universal moral mission.” Sellars posited the arts as our main vehicle for interpreting the cultural significance of wars, hardly a revelatory observation but nonetheless frequently true. The subsequent staging of Winds of Destiny did not, however, clarify the panel’s mixed signals on the necessity of wars. While the Crumb piece might have argued against wars, the performance of the Afghan musicians after the Crumb could just as easily have prompted armed resistance to political forces that forbid artists from performing and activists from speaking in their own countries.
Drawing from his experiences as an implanted journalist, Danner related the terrible toil recent wars have taken on individual soldiers, highlighted by the story of an American Army lieutenant he had interviewed on the unwarranted deaths of civilians and roadside bombings of American troops. With Danner’s eye for detail, the unfolding story captivated the audience and later wrapped it in sorrow when the flawed but vibrantly struggling lieutenant was killed himself by a roadside bomb. Danner’s real-life soldier had dug deeper into our hearts than would the theatrical unknown soldier, and his story shed every bit as much light on war’s cultural significance as would the stage performance later that evening.
Composer George Crumb’s appearance at that seminar -- in a rare outing for him these days -- prompted the most enthusiastic applause of the weekend. It was as if a rock star had been thrust in our midst. The enthusiasm that met Crumb, coming before any of his compositions had been performed, was for a body of work that had on so many occasions at Ojai provided (to coin a phrase) shock and awe, not to mention wonder and enchantment.

Concluding Thoughts

It wasn’t so long ago that the impenetrable titans and intimidating tyrants of modern music held sway at the Ojai Festival. The likes of Igor Stravinsky, Ingolf Dahl, Lukas Foss, Pierre Boulez, Lawrence Morton, Ernest Fleischmann, and more recently, Esa-Pekka Salonen, often favored abstract music based on audience-baffling utopian models. The Festival’s loyal core of patrons hung in with them during the modernist musical era of “Progress is our most important product.”

That was then but this is now. The future ain’t what it used to be and hardcore musical futurists are not so fecund on the audience vine. In this rough patch in the pace of civilization – with disturbing conditions in so many areas of human endeavor -- audiences bring a higher quotient of emotional dislocations to their concert experiences. Under such conditions they may be less tolerant of harsh, intimidating music, because life itself is already so harsh and intimidating.

Perhaps in response to this cultural climate, which coincides with the loss of consistent music education in the schools, Artistic Director Tom Morris has over the last eight years ushered in a slate of kinder, gentler music directors. With them, he has cultivated new audiences even as he has catered to the cognoscenti from Los Angeles and other music capitals. It has been a delicate balancing act.

A softening trend in Upshaw’s spirituality seemed evident from her personal and artistic intersections at this Festival, and her programming chimed with the need for connection and empathy in her audience. People do count. With attendance a third larger than last year, the Festival may be on the right track, at least for the near future.
The weekend had indeed been all about Dawn Upshaw. But it was just as much all about us as well. In a time of war and worry, one could do worse than taking a few days to mellow out and renew at Ojai.
65th Ojai Music Festival, June 9-12, 2011 -- Ojai, California
Thomas W. Morris, Artistic Director -- Jeffrey P. Haydon, Executive DirectorDawn Upshaw, Music Director -- Ara Guzelimian, Symposium DirectorChris Haley, Program Annotator and Lecturer -- Trimpin, Sound SculptorGuest artists: director Peter Sellars, pianist Gilbert Kalish, violinist Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra, percussion ensemble 'red fish blue fish', vocalist Ustad Farida Mahwash and the Sakhi Ensemble, composer-conductor Maria Schneider and her Orchestra, film documentary director Mick Sowry
Photo: "Moonrise in Ojai" by David LaBelle, provided by the Ojai Music FestivalRodney Punt may be contacted at:
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by Anne French

Hope everyone is enjoying a wonderful holiday as July begins with a bang!
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Make it a June Night, the Moonlight, and You
at "Classical Underground" Free Concert Under the Stars

by Anne French

Stars shining above Levitt Pavilion at Memorial Park in Pasadena will have an added sparkle Saturday night, June 25th, as the "Classical Underground" ensemble presents a wide-ranging array of instrumental and vocal music in an 8:00 p.m. concert. The program, which is free to the public, includes works of Vivaldi, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, Bellini, Rimsky-Korsakov, Paganini, Lutoslawski and Bernstein. Self-described as an "illustrious camaraderie of artist, musicians and friends....," Saturday's ensemble players (combinations change according to program requirements) include trumpeters Ilya Sergienko and Courtney Jones, cellist Laszlo Mezo, percussionist John Astaire, soprano Oxana Senina, and pianists Mikael Oganes, Diane Ketchie and Steven Vanhauwaert.

Just bring your chairs or blankets for front-row lawn seats in the pavilion's family friendly atmosphere. Located on Raymond Avenue between Holly and Walnut in Old Pasadena with ample parking available.
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Peter Nero Plays Michel Legrand ... "Summer of '42"

by Anne French

Looking for songs to usher in the summer of 2011, I came across this unforgettable Michel Legrand theme written for the film, "Summer of '42." I had forgotten the Peter Nero million selling recording that I had always loved, and when I listened to him playing in concert on this video, I was taken back to that haunting and nostalgic theme that defines both the music and the film. Hope you enjoy it as the first weekend of summer of '11 begins today.
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