From Tharp's Sinatra to Gergiev's symphonic soul in one big swoop, and more

Come Fly Away

Yes, the physical distance between Northridge and Hollywood and Vine might seem daunting. But an adventurer needn't miss either Twyla Tharp's extravaganza "Come Fly Away," her latest ode to Frank Sinatra, or the new Valley Performing Arts Center's headliner, Valery Gergiev with his Mariinsky Orchestra, those venerable Russians.

Both, you see, are storied artists. And what's a few scrappy miles down the freeway for the hardiest among us? Right now it's possible to catch the ultimate Sinatra-phile's show at the Pantages. It was only a few blocks from there, actually, that dance fans feasted on the choreographer's "Nine Sinatra Songs," back in 1982.

Remember? We left swooning over "Strangers in the Night," which Tharp's lead dancer Gary Chryst let us see as the sleek tango rhythm that underpins ol' blue eyes balladeering. No less were the other songs/dances in this black velvet dazzler, the women in Oscar de la Renta's swirly chiffon dresses, the men in black tie.

But don't start thinking Fred and Ginger - because, in contrast to them, Tharp came up with wonderfully inventive subtexts for each song, often cued to night-time mischief or silly weariness or lush nostalgia, with touches of sly humor when least expected.

Both in "Come Fly Away" and in "Nine Sinatra Songs" Tharp gives us "That's Life" as a low-down, treat 'em rough, deadpan farce. And in the closing number, "My Way," she's back to dreamy idealization. But no matter what the song in her earlier work it became potent stuff, tapping images in the collective pop unconscious.

There ends the similarity between Tharp 1982 and Tharp 2011. Sorry to say, the road gets rougher here. From the upside-down splits for women -- aka crotch dancing that's featured in at least 15 lifts -- to the sleazy-schlock costumes, to the glaring back-lit tinsel set imitating a chintzy exurban roadhouse club, "Come Fly Away" has transformed the original into a coarse spectacle.

Still, it's Sinatra - boasting some newly-discovered tapes from his voice-troubled years (sung slightly off-pitch) - and it's Tharp. So the show's credits outweigh its debits.

It was credits also that piled up at Valley Performing Arts Center, when Cal State Northridge's new $17 milliion edifice hosted Gergiev/Mariinsky. First came the shock of this ensemble's crystal-clear sound in Stravinsky's "Firebird" Suite: each section and each instrument within it emerged as a separate entity that massed into a gleaming, smooth, and rich avalanche. Then, together with long-time Russian compatriot Alexandre Toradze, they dug deep for an earthy, inward, dark but still explosive Prokofiev 3rd Piano Concerto, unlike the purely lyric/percussive piece we usually hear.

Valery Gerviev by Valentin Baranovsky

Shostakovich's 1st Symphony, written when the composer that Stalin hated was a teen, completed the bill. A pity there was no Tchaikovsky, but Gergiev had fully exhausted that realm on his previous nights in Orange County.

Not to be outdone by these Russian riches, though, was Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra at UCLA's Royce Hall - in a concert that featured Britten's ravishing "Les Illuminations." So, yes, the world of poetry - Rimbaud's, for instance, which the British composer set so powerfully to music here - can pierce the thickest skin. And thanks to conductor/director Jeffrey Kahane and Co. who delivered this song cycle's shimmering vivaciousness we're left to wonder why it is rarely performed.

Maybe because the evening's protagonist, soprano Katrina Gauvin, is also a rarity. She took us through the texts - an outsider's observations of life as "a savage parade" - by getting inside the physical nature of the words with her whole being, her whole demeanor. And she painted those words in a myriad of colors, with a voice ranging from its pure, delicately disembodied high notes to broad, dramatic ones. A standout event.

For different reasons, we can remember Gustavo Dudamel's last concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic for a few months. Why, exactly? Well, because I can't recall a program that opened with so sparse a composition and ended with one so ferociously packed.

Start with sparse: That would be Kurtág's "Grabstein für Stephan," consisting of a few musicians scattered around stations within Disney Hall, each emitting a single note or two, then another, and another. The whole 10-minute thing could stand as a parody of new music, or so this non-elite perceived it.

End with enormous: That would be Strauss's "Also sprach Zarathustra," the pan-Galactic piece, now an icon, because its opening bars are used in Kubric's classic "2001: A Space Odyssey." Well, folks, you can imagine the mighty Philharmonic spilling over the stage (as augmented orchestras do) and making splendid Straussian noise in the manner Dudamel luxuriates in. It was that, and more. It was also, after the sonic fireworks, a darkly somber, back-to-earth splashdown of Nietzschean matter.

Everything you can think of seems to happen in L.A.

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