Total Immersion: Long Beach Opera's Orpheus and Euridice
The Devil in the Deep Blue Pool
Keith Ian Polakoff
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There is this problem I have, trying to describe almost any production by the Long Beach Opera. Elektra in a Malibu beach house, Boris Godunov in a corporate boardroom ... and now I'm up against Orpheus and Euridice in a Long Beach swimming pool. Please believe, at least until I get the chlorine out of my lungs.
This version, words and music, is by Ricky Ian Gordon, who earned a measure of fame last year, out Midwest somewhere, with a well-praised opera on The Grapes of Wrath, which is due at one of our local companies next season. His Orpheus is not the imposing score of Monteverdi or Gluck; the text is a cycle of sad poems in memory of his "partner of the time" with the Orpheus character transposed to a solo clarinet, the poetry made into a lyrical set for soprano, and various gatherings of dancers more or less ad lib. In that modest form, it won an Obie in New York, as it well deserved. Long Beach Opera's Andreas Mitisek, who obviously carries aloft the inexplicable banners of company founder Michael Milenski, dreamed up the addition of a few more instruments — mostly the Jacaranda concerts' Denali Quartet — plus the notion of a swimming pool as a stand-in for the River Styx. The two lovers ride around in a rowboat that, at times, is propelled by diabolical forces, and Euridice falls out. In the grand Long Beach tradition, the whole thing sounds a whole lot better than you're ready to believe. The Orpheus was Todd Palmer's clarinet — lithe, capricious and, er, liquid. Elizabeth Futral was the Euridice, a wonderful, elegant, vocally pure singer. Didn't she take a milk bath in a Handel opera during her last time here?
Mr. Gordon is modestly talented. His tunes have a way of moving up and down with an airy lilt that almost makes you believe that anyone — you and I, for example — could write them as well, and that puts us at our ease. His "opera" lasts an hour; a couple of minutes more and we might have felt our leg being pulled. I can see where some of The Grapes of Wrath might be okey-dokey for this kind of music, but a lot might not be.
Christopher O'Riley, encased in a program note of lurid self-congratulation, took over last week's "Piano Spheres" recital for the injured Susan Svrcek, and endowed it with a generous serving of his specialty numbers, his piano versions of a broad swath across the contemporary pop repertory: Radiohead, the late singers Nick Drake and Elliott Smith, and on, I presume, down. Twenty pieces of almost exact size, lined up like eggs in a carton, made up his evening. As with eggs in a carton, you couldn't easily tell 'em apart.
Piano transcriptions of pre-existing repertory are a common enough phenomenon. The fine Japanese pianist Aki Takahashi has made a couple of CDs of Beatles numbers that are full of wisdom about the music. So are Franz Liszt's transcriptions of Bellini, Donizetti, even Mozart operas. To believe Mr. O'Riley's explorations into some of the great pop music of today — Radiohead's "Arpeggi," for example, which was when I first became aware at this concert of what was happening, or what was not happening — in Mr. O'Riley's view, there's apparently nothing more to transcribing music than just keeping the notes out of each other's way. Mr. O'Riley, for all the glowing citations on those two pages of fine print, and the eager crowds that pushed into Zipper Hall at the start of his concert — in numbers drastically reduced at halftime, by the way — played the other night like a dead fish.
"Please enjoy this new CD from our Sri Moonshine label," read the note from Terry Riley, to which I happily comply. The disc is Banana Humberto, and it is a packaging, 50 minutes' worth, of pure, exhilarating joyousness, the kind that hits you when making music is the happiest thing you can do in the world and you're doing it head-on. Terry plays here with the bassoonist Paul Hanson, the electric-violist Tracy Silverman (remember? from John Adams' Dharma at Big Sur?) and Paul Dresher's Electro-Acoustic Band, Bay Area-based. Their music ... what can I say, beyond my personal report of being grabbed, shaken, tickled and desensitized?
Terry is mostly at the piano, motivated into cadenzas compounded from Eastern scales and polyrhythmic patterns, now and then slowing to a blues moment and, in a dazzling finale, a stupendous plunge into deep, rich Latino coloration. It seems to be Terry himself, reminiscing at Mach 10, on everything great and good and colorful that has ever crossed his horizon, and daring us all to come along. It tells us all that, at Terry Riley's age and beyond, the power to be delighted, and to pass it on, is one of the greatest possessions we can hold on to.
On that note, be sure not to miss Terry's recital on the Disney Hall organ on Sunday, May 25. He heard the organ for the first time when he was here during the Philharmonic's "Minimalist" festival, and was immediately moved to compose a full evening's work for it. Nothing more important will have happened in this millennium so far; maybe I just mean musically, maybe I don't.
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