From within the rippling metallic wings of Disney Hall down to the port of Long Beach and back to the very top of Mount Wilson and deep inside the guts of adjoining San Gabriel Peak, there was an astonishing variety of radical avant-garde chamber music and more traditional operatic and classical music in L.A. County this past weekend.
At Disney Hall on Friday, June 1, Gustavo Dudamel summoned the combined forces of L.A. Philharmonic, L.A. Master Chorale and a sextet of star vocalists to bring to life composer Robert Schumann’s relatively overlooked oratorio Das Paradies und die Peri, in an interesting visual presentation from noted director Peter Sellars. The next afternoon at the Beverly O’Neill Theater, Long Beach Opera celebrated the 20th anniversary of its ongoing collaboration with artistic director Andreas Mitisek with a riotously informal and yet often moving greatest-hits revue of the experimental company’s boldest moments over the past two decades.
Meanwhile, on Sunday afternoon, there were two separate chamber-music concerts within and atop two peaks in the San Gabriel Mountains. Cellist/artistic director Cécilia Tsan launched the season’s second performance in the second-annual Sunday Concerts in the Dome series inside the vast and awe-inspiring metallic sphere that houses the historic 100-inch telescope in one of the observatories along the ridge of Mount Wilson. A couple hours earlier, composer Heather Lockie debuted an eerily beautiful, site-specific choral work, Song to Be Performed in a Tunnel in Your Town, inside cavelike Mueller Tunnel, which is part of a fire road that was carved and blasted in 1942 through San Gabriel Peak.
The intense weekend of music started Friday night in another acoustically marvelous cave — at Disney Hall, where L.A. Phil gathered alongside members of Grant Gershon’s L.A. Master Chorale. The more than 40 choral singers were divided by gender, with the male singers grouped at stage right and the women vocalists seated stage left on raised platforms above the orchestra. Another dozen singers were perched behind the stage in a row of seats usually reserved for the audience.
Far above the stage, a gigantic, hollow white plastic object devised by director Peter Sellars and media artist Refik Anadol floated above the musicians like an oversize volleyball. At times, it resembled a large hanging tooth, or perhaps the tilted, curious head of a stegosaurus or large dog. The white globe was used as 3-D screen, with projections of criss-crossing lines and abstract images flashing across most of its lumpy sides. The white, cloudlike ball changed its colors and markings like a chameleon. It was as if a humongous mood ring was reflecting the varying emotional shifts in Schumann’s music.
Performed for the first time by L.A. Phil, as part of the orchestra’s closing weekend of concerts for the indoor season at Disney Hall, Das Paradies und die Peri (“Paradise and the Peri”) centers on Peri (British soprano Lucy Crowe), a disgraced fairylike spirit who has to undergo a series of tests before she can enter Heaven. Peri is helped along her journey through Egypt and Syria by a maiden (soprano Yin Fang), a narrator (tenor Joshua Stewart) and an angel (mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford, who sparked L.A. Phil’s visually whimsical version of Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde back in April). Peri’s empathy for a warrior (tenor Benjamin Bliss) who dies at the hand of a tyrant (bass-baritone Davóne Tines) ultimately leads to her salvation but only after a lot of magnificent singing and lovely orchestral passages.
Tines was intense, and Stewart had a warm presence. Bliss was lifeless — but then again he had to be, playing dead onstage for most of the evening — but still had a few rousing moments. Fang shined brightly and lyrically sweetly in her few solos, and Mumford demonstrated her usual glowing tone and presence, but Crowe was the true star on Friday night, her powerful, piercing lamentations cleaving through the clouds with a clear and striking radiance.
Apart from the oversize beach ball dangling above the stage, there were no other visual elements in Sellars’ concert presentation. Conductor Dudamel, the orchestra and chorus were dressed in black pants and shirts, and the barefoot lead vocalists also were in black. Placing the singers in more colorful and evocative costumes might have added a better sense of mythological atmosphere to Das Paradies’ fanciful but thin and stilted storyline, but Crowe’s pealing intensity provided enough passion to overcome the basic staging and a couple other cast members’ intermittently convincing acting.
When Schumann’s pastoral early music gave way to the blood-red rush of horns and percussion as the warrior was struck down, the full force of L.A. Master Chorale surged forward mightily. Standing in front of the assembled throng of orchestral musicians and singers, Dudamel reached high and motioned decisively toward the highest levels of the chorus as if he were plucking fruit from an upper branch. The conductor nonetheless resisted the urge to let the large horn section overwhelm the other instruments during the more climactic sections, and some of the most haunting sounds occurred when the women’s chorus mourned the death of the young warrior in a soothingly sublime hush of sighs.
There was more thrilling vocalizing Saturday afternoon at the Beverly O’Neill Theater in Long Beach, where Long Beach Opera feted longtime artistic director Andreas Mitisek with “The Best of 20,” a series of highlights from his 20 years leading the experimental opera company. The mood was refreshingly unpretentious and lighthearted as six of LBO’s most enduring and endearing vocalists vamped it up in street clothes on a mostly bare stage, backed by pianist Neda St. Clair. And yet several of the more serious songs and arias proved unexpectedly moving and poignantly heartbreaking in contrast to the sunny, blank day wallowing away outside by the harbor.
Even with little staging, “The Best of 20” was a high-level sampler platter of Long Beach Opera’s best productions, and the six singers didn’t hold back for the afternoon set. Mitisek took part in his own tribute, playfully brandishing silly props, such as a folded-paper boat he waved behind Jamie Chamberlin as the soprano gallantly retained her tragic poise in a scene from Orpheus and Eurydice. And when baritone Roberto Perlas Gomez emoted an aside from Carl Orff’s The Clever One, Mitisek framed him with a cardboard set of jail bars he placed over the singer’s face.
The other vocalists took part in the rampant silliness and on-the-fly staging. They told jokes and anecdotes about one another and shared behind-the-scenes secrets. Chamberlin posed moodily on the floor like a model as baritone Zeffin Quinn Hollis painted his tribute from Tobias Picker’s Thérèse Raquin. Baritone Robin Buck gamely tried to remain straight-faced as Mitisek stuffed red balloons down the singer’s shirt on a gender-teasing tune from Francis Poulenc’s The Breasts of Tiresias.
But the most exhilarating performances centered around Long Beach Opera’s emotionally heavier and more ambitious, even controversial productions. Climbing a precarious ladder to reprise “the highest aria I’ve ever sung” and then wrapped up in a long, funereal black sheet, soprano Suzan Hanson shifted the mood dramatically when she invoked the desolate, icy shock of the widowed Mrs. Williamson while Buck thundered beneath her as a vain plantation boss, from David Lang’s Civil War mystery The Difficulty of Crossing a Field. Hanson was even more beguiling later, popping pills and catching her sobs against St. Clair’s spare piano accents as the suicidal and heartbreaking phone caller in Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine.
Bass-baritone Cedric Barry stunned with a selection from Duke Ellington’s rarely performed opera Queenie Pie, his powerful voice indeed soaring like “a beautiful bird.” Chamberlin revisited her role as Marilyn Monroe in Gavin Bryar’s Marilyn Forever and was especially fierce in her fluidly acrobatic vocal flights in and around Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. Whether in a duet with Gomez from Ernest Block’s Macbeth or letting loose full stop in a scene from Luigi Cherubini’s Médée, Hanson was chilling and always mesmerizing, her rich, golden tones shimmering like a searchlight even as the singer plunged her hands into a bucket of fake blood. (“Clean up on Aisle No. 4,” Hanson joked afterward after she emerged from her character’s trance.)
The entire cast closed the show with what should have been an extremely stupid idea — a spoken-sung recitation of all the names and composers of the numerous operas LBO has performed under Mitisek’s leadership, set to randomly assigned excerpts of music by company favorite Philip Glass as Mitisek played piano and St. Clair flipped the sheet music back and forth. Yet “The Best of 20” — the song — was a weirdly engaging sound collage, a kind of psychedelic dub mashup of art rock and opera, overlaid with Hanson’s hypnotic, robotic repetitions of the annoying customer-service refrain “Hold, please.”
Sunday afternoon, new-music fans and curious bicyclists had to hike about a quarter of a mile on a trail along the side of crumbling and slide-prone San Gabriel Peak to witness Dog Star's presentation of the world premiere of Heather Lockie’s Song to Be Performed in a Tunnel in Your Town. It was a hot, dry, hazily sunny day in the 80s, even at altitude in the San Gabriel Mountains, but the temperature was a good 15 degrees cooler once the roughly 60 listeners made their way inside dark Mueller Tunnel.
The steep, rocky face of San Gabriel Peak tends to give way at any moment — the tunnel was buried under a landslide for years before it was dug out again — and the composer had to warn the audience beforehand to be wary of possible falling rocks. In fact, tell-tale scuttling sounds of pebbles and small stones occasionally rattled harmlessly here and there along the trail outside, but the mountain and tunnel generally stayed put for the half-hour-long piece.
Lockie is a former violinist with Listing Ship and W.A.C.O. and currently leads Marshweed Ensemble. Her previous art-rock and chamber-pop songs are generally much more condensed and filled with pop choruses, whereas Song to Be Performed in a Tunnel in Your Town is a more meditative work that builds momentum through a cycling of wordless, gently layered vocals.
A solitary vocalist slowly made her way down the tunnel, softly exhaling measured, rhythmic “om” sounds. She was wearing a flowing white gown, and a small, circular orange candle around her neck glowed in the dark. The other six singers, dressed similarly in long, white frocks and adorned by illuminated candle pendants, followed her one by one in a single file, breathing their own wordless sighing responses. Soon, the tunnel was filled with an omnipresent, murmuring hum, a muted beehive of ethereal vibration. Or perhaps it was more like slowed-down, reverential birdsong as some of the singers spun on their heels and paraded back and forth while others remained silently frozen in place at opposite ends of the tunnel, with only the dry mountain breeze rippling the silhouettes of their long dresses.
The vocalists’ footsteps along the rock-cluttered floor of the tunnel mixed with the hushed intonations of their singing. One singer manically scraped a large rock for a while along the rough, stony sides of the tunnel as a percussive counterpoint. A quartet of the chorus briefly broke off and marched down the tunnel striking little drums and tiny high-pitched bells, adding another level of enchantment to the ongoing thrum of voices.
At the east end of Mueller Tunnel, soloist Jess Basta paced slowly through the darkness as she imbued Merle Travis’ coal-mining dirge “Dark as a Dungeon” with a soulful, gospel-like mourning, a song within the song, before she fell back into the chorus. The airy, ambient droning of heavenly voices continued for a while until the singers exited the cave at the west end and continued walking along the trail, their white gowns shining in the afternoon sunlight, until they went around a bend in the mountain, out of sight and hearing.
As tenor Joshua Stewart sang on Friday night during L.A. Phil’s production of Das Paradies, “The golden skies of evening are still open in the west.” Mueller Tunnel was falling quiet again, but there was more music and daylight remaining farther up Red Box Road at the top of Mount Wilson.
After a 10-minute walk from the parking lot along the wooded pathway past the smaller observatories on Mount Wilson, the massive white dome of the 100-inch-telescope observatory loomed over the treetops like Rover from The Prisoner. At 5,700 feet, the air was already noticeably thinner than the hazy atmosphere wallowing below in the L.A. Basin.
Inside the observatory dome, the historic sky-blue 100-inch telescope pointed upward like a towering microscope. “There’s no other place like this — direct contact with the universe in three seconds,” series director Cécilia Tsan told the group of about 80 listeners, who were seated on a platform above the base of the telescope. Then the entire platform rotated as the Mount Wilson astronomers slid open the arcing side of the dome and allowed the day’s remaining sunlight to pour into the room.
Trombonist Alex Iles led a small brass ensemble — bass trombonist Bill Reichenbach, horn player Laura Benes and trumpeters Jon Lewis and Dustin McKinney — through an energetic set of celebratory, generally euphoric short pieces, a mix of venerable and modern compositions. One could actually hear the melodies of the two trumpets and Benes’ French horn move physically around the observatory as the reverberations swirled inside the gigantic metallic sphere. The echoing chamber made it difficult to make out everything Iles and others said in comments from the stage, but the acoustics made the music sustain and ring out and feel bigger.
Early on, Iles joked about needing to talk to the crowd between pieces to give the trombonists time to get their breath back. They needed every bit of available oxygen to blow up the dynamic shifts and ride the molten, brassy waves in Eric Ewazen’s Frostfire. And yet it was a somber, slower, spare section in the second movement that resonated most beautifully in this room.
Reichenbach’s arrangement of the traditional ballad “Scarborough Fair” was mournful and majestic in its mellower first half, but most of the other pieces were pumped up with a triumphant, buoyant optimism. The centerpiece of the concert was the world premiere of Todd Mason’s The Quest, a tribute to astronomer George Ellery Hale, the observatory’s founder. The Quest was suitably heroic and action-packed, suffused with an upwelling of sunny brass that briefly subsided into a more introspective aside. The bright, bombastic punch of the last movement of Verne Reynolds’ Suite for Brass Quintet orbited around the room at the end like a sixth instrument.
It was just one more impressive, ringing sound in a weekend filled with lingering melodies scattered all across the county.