Some of the liveliest music making has come to my attention this season under the least-promising circumstances: one proud parent or another entreating my presence at some doted-upon offspring’s high school’s annual musical production. Los Angeles being the proverbial talent hotbed, the prospects are usually not so dire as at You-name-it-ville; in recent months, in fact, the two shows I’ve attended, both of difficult and demanding material, were exceptionally well produced and performed.
The first was Street Scene, the most ambitious and closest-to-opera of Kurt Weill’s Broadway productions, indeed excoriated in some quarters for its pretensions at its 1946 opening (I was there). Yet these ambitions seemed not to daunt a brave ensemble from the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, which mounted a lively, nicely staged, stark and vigorous facsimile of both drama and music at its home theater at Cal State University. Stephanie Vlahos, who has sung roles with the L.A. Opera, did the staging; Alan Mautner led the full-size student orchestra; Victoria Profitt designed the set, not the awesome streetscape I remember from 1946, perhaps, but not at all bad.
Street Scene is a long and powerful show; opera companies here and abroad have taken it up, to good advantage. One cut too many in the second act of this performance sped the action from the murder to the murderer’s capture somewhat hastily. On the other hand, the program book itself carried a series of interesting essays on the characters in the drama, written by the student cast members themselves and offering a set of insights into the tonalities of the performance. Nice idea!
Over on the Westside, the Hamilton High School Academy of Music busied itself with nothing less than Les Miz in nine single-cast performances (with only one trip to the ER, says cast mom Gail Eichenthal). Founded nearly 20 years ago as a magnet within Hamilton High, the academy remains phenomenally active within many performance fields; earlier this season, it furnished the strings, percussion, recorders and hand bells for the glorious riot of Noah’s Flood under James Conlon at the cathedral (on the last day it rained).
I’ve seen Les Misérables before, but never with so much pleasure. It wasn’t only a matter of lusty, young voices singing the daylights out of themselves; it was that, plus the tremendous joy of their doing that with one another, discovering early in the run what marvels occur when voices blend. Lots of Les Miz is secondhand trash, but those guys, the Messrs. Boublil and Schonberg, knew how to compose musical ensembles, and that’s what their show is full of.
Joshua Finkel directed, Jim Foschia led the all-student orchestra, John Hamilton was the chorus master, and when those revolutionist-choristers piled up against the Paris barricades and fought off the right-wingers, you couldn’t ask for better musical theater at any price. And while it’s wrong to pick out individual names of participants in student productions, if Eichenthal’s kid, and the young gentleman who managed the passions of Jean Valjean, and the fabulous meanie who did the Inspector Javert – including a quite convincing suicide leap – survived the nine performances sounding as terrific as they did on the second night, we’ve got some great singers in our theatrical future.
There is this amazing music by Franz Schubert: Song of the Spirits Over the Waters. The words are by Goethe, a metaphor of souls intertwined with watery images. Schubert struggled four separate times with setting the words to music, and finally came up with a richly colored, dark and resonant piece for eight solo men’s voices and five low strings – violas, cellos and a double bass – an impractical scoring seldom heard in concerts considering its extraordinary beauty. Trust the loving serendipity of the Jacaranda guys Patrick and Mark to bring the work forward, which they did to close the last of this season’s concerts, Saturday night at Santa Monica’s First Pres before another sold-out crowd.
It was another of their intricately planned, imaginative programs: all Viennese this time, starting with the Romantic landscape already under clouds (Alban Berg’s Piano Sonata, handsomely dispatched by Mark Robson), stepping back into sporadic sunshine for a Mahler group sung by the splendid bass-baritone Dean Elzinga. Beyond Mahler came a plunge into Schoenbergian non-tonality with the Opus 19 Piano Pieces played by Gloria Cheng and the wartime melodrama Ode to Napoleon, again with Elzinga. Came then the Schubert: “Soul of Man, how like water you are…,” a clearing of the air, a benediction.
Next season, announce the Jacaranda people, is the centennial of Olivier Messiaen, and this will initiate a two-year hommage: something of his on every program, and much other music by composers reached by his music and/or his spirit. There will also be eight concerts, more than ever before. The growth of this superbly planned and managed series adds to the sense of strength and enterprise – and, therefore, of pride – in all of this region’s musical life.
Jeffrey Kahane’s return to his Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, after a doctor-ordered dropout, drew a happy welcome; he, too, is the object of great local pride and, let him not forget, he owes us – at his pleasure – one final Mozart concerto bash.
This time, instead, there was a pleasant new work – if along LACO’s typical blandness propensities – by composer in residence Gernot Wolfgang, Desert Wind, involving jazz accents and some bright statements by horn (Richard Todd) and oboe (Allan Vogel) soloists. Somewhat livelier was Astor Piazzolla’s delightful, jocular Vivaldi rip-off, his own Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, with violinist Lindsay Deutsch spinning her own magic webs around Piazzolla’s pseudo-Baroque patterns and the music zeroing in close to its original source material at the charming close. On her and Vivaldi’s own, Deutsch contributed one original “Season” and could, for my money, have danced all night.