June, 2008

Easy to Swallow

It’s always interesting to hear what operagoers say during intermission. “That’s not the Puccini I know and love,” said one woman Saturday night at the opening of LA Opera’s “La Rondine” [The Swallow].

Oddly enough, that’s precisely the Puccini I know and love, having discovered the underappreciated work after hearing the famous “Doretta” aria in the film “A Room with a View.”

For some 13 years I’ve enjoyed the recording of Lorin Maazel conducting the London Symphony Orchestra with Kiri Te Kanawa and Placido Domingo — to the point that I have every note of the work memorized (at least for the first two acts).

With so long a build up to seeing my first staged version — and with such a high bar set — disappointment was inevitable. Still, “La Rondine” proved a delight, at least for those like me with an unapologetic taste for light melodies in a Belle Epoque setting.

In advance of the opening, FineArtsLA spoke with Keri-Lynn Wilson, who makes her LA Opera debut conducting this seldom performed work.

FALA: Why is “La Rondine” a neglected work in Puccini’s oeuvre?

KLW: Even non-operagoers know “Boheme,” “Butterfly” and “Tosca.” These are the big works that really represent what he was so good at: the incredibly powerful emotional ride one goes on with his music. With “Rondine” he took a side step. He was commissioned to write an operetta by Vienna. It was something he’d never done before, and in a way he struggled with it. He’d written some comic dialog but, ultimately, he couldn’t help himself and added this really dramatic, tragic element. But the charm and elegance throughout is really very special. Today we’re trying to find as much repertoire as possible that’s been neglected over the decades, because it’s more interesting for performers and the audience. But it also has to be worthy of performance, and I think “Rondine” is having its chance now.

It’s difficult in that it’s very light, and so it has to be well done. It’s a challenge for me as a conductor because of the comedy, but also in making the drama felt.

FALA: What are the other challenges with this particular work?

KLW: Keeping it light, keeping the waltzes flowing, and keeping it always elegant, so it never becomes vulgar. It’s like a musical, in that it’s too easy just to play. But it has to be done with elegance, and that was the biggest challenge.

FALA: You’re a female conductor, which is quite rare. Why do you suppose that’s so?

KLW: I’m always asked this question, of course, and it’s always an issue for the media. But it’s not for the musicians after a few minutes of music making. But I’ve had really wonderful experiences with orchestras you wouldn’t think would be so open to my being a woman, such as the Vienna Philharmonic, the last orchestra in the world to only have men in it. Conducting is one of the last frontiers for women. But we’re more fortunate in the arts [than in the corporate world], because it’s about the art.

I went to Juilliard thinking I would be an orchestral musician, playing the flute. But upon graduating I changed to conducting and never touched the flute again.

CMC

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Salon Music

Once a month since last November, as many as 200 people have crowded into the atelier of celebrated Russian-American artist Alexey Steele to share wine and vodka, potluck comestibles, and an eclectic feast of world-class chamber music.

At 8:30 pm on Monday evening, June 9, the next of these “underground” concerts reverberates amid dozens of monumental canvasses and works in progress in Steele’s vast studio in Carson, 10 minutes south of LAX.

Cofounder and music coordinator of the Music at the Grand Atelier series, cellist Maksim Velichkin has assembled an A-List of Russian emigre regulars, including LA Phil violinist David Chernyavsky, and LA Phil cellist Serge Oskostsky. Relocating to the US from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Velichkin has worked with such luminaries as James Levine, Christoph von Dohnanyi, Joshua Bell, and Bobby McFerrin. Also an accomplished concert pianist and harpsichordist, Velichkin frequently accompanies soloists in the concerts.

FineArtsLA asked Alexey Steele about the genesis of the unusual series.

AS: Members of the core group are working musicians, artists, writers, thinkers — all close friends of many years. The idea for the concerts came during one of our annual, not-entirely-sober get-togethers. It was very late, and we’d been engaged in somber conversation, when Maksim — a truly gifted cellist — sat at the piano and played the entire Bach St. Matthew Passion. When he finished, he said, “Let’s do something.” I replied, “No – let’s do SOMETHING!”

FALA: How does a salon like this happen in Los Angeles?

AS: LA is the Paris of the 21st century — a cultural frontier of the world. Our subversive little classical underground is purely and indigenously an LA phenomenon. Because LA has no imposing structure of its own, it’s the ultimate artist’s town. The building blocks of 21st century art are being laid right here, right now.

FALA: What makes these concerts so unusual, so different from other chamber music in the area?

AS: A formal concert showcases the end-results of artistic work, rather than the creative process itself. My studio is more a state of mind than an actual location, so performing and relating to music here are entirely different. Maksim puts together a wonderful mix of repertoire — from Bach, Beethoven, Mozart to Shostakovich to new pieces by working composers. Also, the line between audience and performers doesn’t exist here, as the musicians trade places continuously. After the actual concert ends, then comes the real jewel — a classical jam session after midnight, sometimes until 4 am. The musicians play what they want, the way they want it. They experiment, they try new things.

FALA: What else goes on here?

AS: All sorts of things happen spontaneously. One time, my good friend John Callas of JPL — who heads the team behind the Spirit and Opportunity rovers on Mars — gave an extraordinary talk. Those of us infected with a childhood space bug had a rare opportunity to see our own man-made tracks in the dust of the Martian landscape through 100 megapixel eyes, narrated with insights from one of the leading minds in the field.

FALA: Tell us about your current projects.

AS: As ever, I have several new works on my easels right now. I’m tweaking the study for my long-in-the-making Out of Chaos project, exploring common roots of all three monotheistic faiths and the self-destructive absurdity of mutually exclusive perceptions. I just finished a series of plein-air paintings documenting the arson devastation of the Irvine land preserve, and the land’s remarkable comeback. Of course, I continue painting nudes – beauty at its purest and most exhilarating.

FALA: Any shows or exhibits coming up?

AS: I’m finishing my first official commission for a permanent museum collection – Quiet Steps of Approaching Thunder, symbolizing nature and human consciousness combined – for its official unveiling at Carnegie Art Museum in Oxnard this fall. I’m part of a group exhibition – The Artist’s Private World – at ALFA gallery in Pasadena June 14-July 26. My exhibition at Michael Zchoche Gallery opens soon. And, after 8 years of ‘not-getting-to-it,’ my website is yet-another work-in-progress.

The June 9 concert is free of charge. Guests are asked to contribute food or beverages, and bring a folding chair. Information: 310-808-9947.

The photo accompanying this article is by Michael Darter.

— Penny Orloff

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