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El gato montésEXPAND
El gato montés
Cory Weaver

Classical Masters Ax and Domingo Face Off on Opposite Sides of the Street

A beautiful black grand piano sat exposed in the early-evening air outside Disney Hall on Thursday, May 2. Its lid was propped open, and the insides of the piano were filled with hay as L.A. Philharmonic keyboardist Joanne Pearce Martin gamely carried out the instructions provided in the event score of La Monte Young’s Piano Piece for David Tudor #1.

"Bring a bale of hay and a bucket of water onto the stage for the piano to eat and drink," Young wrote. "The performer may then feed the piano or leave it to eat by itself. If the former, the piece is over after the piano has been fed. If the latter, it is over after the piano eats or decides not to." Pearce Martin chose to feed the piano, stuffing it with hay before dutifully pouring water from a bucket over the mess as if it were a large bowl of cereal. Afterward a mounted speaker emitted the crunchy, percussive sounds of the feeding on a repeating loop before the entire display vanished sometime after intermission. By the time L.A. Phil’s official concert inside the hall was over, not even a stray piece of straw remained on the ground from the piano’s sudden feeding frenzy.

Piano Piece for David Tudor #1
Piano Piece for David Tudor #1
Falling James
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There was no real meaning to the pop-up sidewalk performance — part of L.A. Phil's ongoing homage to the contrarian spirit of the 1960s Fluxus art movement — except to emphasize again that the venerable orchestra’s centennial season is just as much about creative provocation and championing new ideas as it is about celebrating the past.

Inside Disney Hall another shiny black grand piano was set up onstage in front of the orchestra, but this instrument would be treated more reverentially, as star pianist Emanuel Ax caressed and let loose W.A. Mozart's airy melodies from Piano Concerto No. 22, in E-flat major, K. 482. Much like the men and women in the orchestra, Ax and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen were dressed completely in black.

The piano concerto is filled with delicate flurries of pretty melodies that flutter and hover like hundreds of butterflies returning en masse to a forest meadow. But both Ax and Salonen resisted the temptation to embellish Mozart's already gilded and ornate lines. With his hands low to the keys, Ax moved his hands economically even as he unspooled florid skeins of notes. When he could have been flashy and demonstrative, the Ukrainian-American pianist remained poised even during the more manic parts of the allegro. Ax's restrained touch also made the quieter passages in the andante more poignant. There was sheer joy in listening to Mozart's lilting lines passed back and forth between piano, flute and bassoon as Ax, principal flutist Catherine Karoly and bassoonist Whitney Crockett responded to one another intuitively.

The next piece — the world premiere of Dutch composer Louis Andriessen's song cycle The only one — was an emblematic example of L.A. Phil’s artistic ambitions this season. Although the Mozart piano concerto represented the traditional side of classical music, The only one was part of the orchestra’s season-long emphasis on debuting new work. Following an instrumental introduction in which Pearce Martin's piano and James Babor's rolling marimba notes hovered together in cycling patterns, Dutch vocalist Nora Fischer entered the stage to purr about a cat in bed, on the piece's title song. She was dressed playfully in tennis shoes, a white skirt and a rainbow-colored sequin jacket over a bright red blouse. The songs were highlighted by surreal, intriguing lyrics adapted from Flemish poet Delphine Lecompte's collection The Animals in Me.

“There is nothing I regret,” Fischer declared over Pearce Martin’s jazzy piano accents after mulling over the image of “condoms in the wind.” Later she sang cryptically about nudist beaches, herons and “outrageous waltzes with masked men.” Throughout the performance, the singer kept changing her clothes and made a show out of restlessly playing with her hair. First, she slipped out of her skirt and pulled on a pair of black pants. Later, Fischer exchanged her tennis shoes for a pair of black heels. She prowled around the stage, sitting briefly behind the celesta, and made wide-eyed expressions while trying to distract the stoic musicians, including electric bassist Trey Henry, in much the same way that composer-vocalist Diana Syrse did at a Green Umbrella performance in the same room in October 2017.

Andriessen’s ghostly songs ranged from Björk-like art-pop to bluesy ballads mixed with occasionally eerie new-music arrangements. Lecompte’s unusual poetry was always interesting, although there were awkward instances when the words felt arch and mannered when squeezed into the composer’s melodic frames. Fischer was charming, and Salonen adeptly brought to life The only one’s shifting instrumentation — woozy strings, brassy declamations and Babor’s subterranean tones on vibraphone — but the new work received only moderate applause from the opening-night crowd.

Esa-Pekka SalonenEXPAND
Esa-Pekka Salonen
Clive Barda

The only one was followed by an unabashedly traditional composition, Ludwig van Beethoven’s princely First Symphony. Here, Salonen demonstrated his facility for dramatic dynamics, pulling up the band with power and volume when needed while always retaining a vibrant clarity and balance. The strings were sprightly and ebullient in the first part, and the horns swelled later with a ceremonial pomp that was carefully administered by the conductor. Ax dazzled earlier with his Mozartian spring shower, and Andriessen’s new work exuded a certain moody allure, but it was Beethoven’s inaugural symphony that moved the audience the most.

Two days later, on Saturday, May 4, another stellar figure in the classical-music world made a stirring impression just across the street, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Angelenos sometimes take for granted that one of opera’s most legendary vocalists happens to live in this city, but Plácido Domingo, 78, continues to perform impressively long after the rest of his peers have retired. In recent years the general director of L.A. Opera has appeared with the company two or three times per season. In September last year, Domingo anchored L.A. Opera’s season-opening presentation of Verdi’s Don Carlo, and Saturday night he was a compelling presence in Spanish composer Manuel Penella’s 1916 opera El gato montés.

Domingo’s voice was strong and assured as he portrayed Juanillo, also known as the Wildcat, a defiant but lovesick bandit competing with bullfighter Rafael (tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz) for the affection of Soléa (soprano Ana María Martínez). At times Penella’s thin libretto was more like a soap opera than an opera as Soléa’s steadfast romantic entreaties changed frequently, depending on which paramour was in the scene at the moment.

Plácido DomingoEXPAND
Plácido Domingo
Cory Weaver

Domingo, Martínez and Chacón-Cruz were more believable than the libretto as they imbued their sketchily drawn characters with persuasive ardor through the sheer force of their voices. Even by the loose standards of operatic plots, Soléa’s wishy-washy motivations made little sense as she professed her undying love every time one of suitors sang a pretty song to her. Penella sometimes presented Rafael as a dashing hero, but in other instances he came off as a craven animal killer who caved in at the first hint of menace from Juanillo.

None of this really mattered, of course, because the story was just an excuse to give free rein to those magnificent voices. Martínez, who has ignited so many other memorable L.A. Opera productions, including Carmen and Pagliacci, sparkled again as the conflicted Soléa. Like Martínez, Chacón-Cruz is a former competitor (and winner) of Domingo’s Operalia competition who has appeared in multiple roles with L.A. Opera. He continues to evolve and astonished yet again with his powerful, soaring vocals and beautiful tone. Meanwhile, Chacón-Cruz’s mentor Domingo effortlessly kept pace with a vocal ferocity and intensity that belied his age.

Penella’s music was sometimes as cloying and predictably sentimental as his libretto, but Jordi Bernàcer was an especially spirited and demonstrative conductor who shaped the playing of the L.A. Opera Orchestra with genuine flair. Despite the music’s inherent corniness, there were some overtly lovely melodies, such as Soléa’s gentle aria in which she reminisced about “when we were children.” As directed by Grant Gershon, the chorus was forceful and emphatic, and vocalists Sharmay Musacchio, Rubén Amoretti and Nancy Fabiola Herrera made strong impressions in their roles.

Flamenco-flavored choreography by Cristina Hoyos and Jesús Ortega enlivened the action, particularly when an artfully brandished single red cape — framed by a black box of shadows — cleverly symbolized Rafael’s bullfights. Francisco Leal’s dark lighting and scenery were starkly effective, which made the occasional extravagant element — such as a gigantic hanging mirror whose golden frame was ringed with horns, knives, the head of a bull, the torso of a torero, and a face under a headdress with spiky plumes topped with stars — look even more lavish. Ultimately, the most lavish feature in this engaging production was the vocal ménage à trois between Domingo, Martínez and Chacón-Cruz.

El gato montés continues at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown L.A.; Wed., May 8, 7:30 p.m.; Sat., May 11, 7:30 p.m.; Thurs., May 16, 7:30 p.m.; Sun., May 19, 2 p.m.; $25-$286. (213) 972-0777, www.laopera.org.

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