LA Phil shakes tradition with Mälkki; Brown's legacy at UCLA

Okay. So the pure of heart may have missed it. But when the LA Philharmonic programmed two stellar women as headliners -- conductor Susanna Mälkki together with violin virtuosa Leila Josefowicz -- I said to myself: no male domination here, not for now!

SusannaMalkki.jpgAnd that, folks, is a rarity, a rebuff of tradition. Especially when we're talking about leadership roles. Especially when 2008 almost brought about the first woman as U.S president -- watch out for 2016 -- and when 2013 may see the same as Los Angeles mayor.

Oh, yes, we've had female baton-wavers at the Phil before, starting in the '70s with Antonia Brico, who, with skirts swaying, took the podium at Hollywood Bowl after spending a lifetime by then waiting in the wings (perhaps deservedly!)....and some recent others, including Marin Alsop and Joana Carneiro.

But Finnish-born Mälkki came with elite credentials -- a notable nod from Pierre Boulez to stand as director of the Ensemble InterContemporain in Paris. And she's being hailed as a conductor of today's most heady music, invited even to Milan's La Scala, that most hide-bound, male bastion where catcalls are commonplace and where she became the first woman to occupy the pit.

Mälkki's manner, like Boulez's, is to keep the scores at hand (even overly familiar ones, like Brahms' Fourth Symphony) and leave the baton at home. Ram-rod erect, tall and thin, she's something of a spectacle in a long, close-fitting tail coat.

Her calling card here was the U.S. premiere of the German composer Enno Poppe's "Markt," a thing of astringent beauty and startling clarity of lines, which the orchestra delivered in its full glory, along with powerful exclamations.

Bully for them all. And bully for that other star, Josefowicz, who opened new vistas with her account of Stravinsky's Violin Concerto. How often we've heard this alluring work on which Balanchine set his remarkable ballet (and thus do we "see the music"), yet never so alive or searingly intimate in its slippery asides as this fiddler made it. Mälkki backed up that interpretive stance, emphasizing the composer's devilish little dialogues, alternating the jaunty with the swoony.

In other circles, there were long careers to note. Namely those downtown New York avant-gardists, starting in the 1970s, who took on the same devotion to collaborative spirit as did Diaghilev in early 1900s Paris. Think Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Laurie Anderson, Robert Rauschenberg, Trisha Brown, et al.

Well, UCLA became the open arms of a major Trisha Brown Dance Company retrospective, the choreographer's last hurrah capping her career. There were site-specific offerings, films and theatrical events all over Westwood for several weeks. Its own kind of minimalism, the Brown aesthetic deals with repetitive movement, a softly shifting kaleidoscope of loose limbs swinging and hips undulating back and forth within an endlessly geometric network of patterns.

Guess The Ending became my own game while watching Brown's "Foret Foray" -- because the program note listed the Hamilton High School Marching Band as part of the piece. To be sure, distant sounds could be heard and they got closer and closer. But I was right: the marching musicians would not actually enter Royce Hall on whose stage the piece took place, they would not break into the sanctum sanctorum of this shrine-like, ever-closed-off opus...

At its end, though, Megan Madorin, who could have been Isadora herself -- such floated finger curls and foot falls as even that famous one had not the virtuosity to flaunt -- left us in staggering disbelief of her phantom image.

Brown's most current and, actually, her final piece, "I'm going to toss my arms - if you catch them they're yours" (a farewell title if ever there was one), shows her transition from that long-established uniform of floppy trousers and shirts to sleek swimsuits, a reflection of today's bare-it-all ethos, wherever you look. Who says nothing changes?

Probably not Bebe Miller, who qualifies as nearly vintage, celebrating her company's 27th year. She showcased Angie Hauser and the incomparable Darrell Jones in "A History," downtown at REDCAT. Throughout the piece, Miller seemed to be asking: What do we hold in our consciousness? Over and over, the duo showed us an answer: the creative process -- a whole variety of body linkages that are awkward and difficult. Through spoken word, sometimes by way of softly singing to herself (recorded), Miller also tells us they are dream fragments and that memory is possessed by the physical images of other dances.

But for the Trey McIntyre Project -- based in Boise and seen here at the Broad Stage -- there is no long history, just a wide net in which this gifted, young dance-maker catches fodder for his creative sensibilities. And what fodder that is. Songs of Richard Strauss, for instance (a recording with soprano Jessye Norman) form the basis of "Pass, Away," a mélange of lyrical movement that verges at times on acrobatic but strictly as an expression of intensity, not physicality for its own sake. The tone harkens back to German modern dance innovator Mary Wigman and even German cabaret, but the mode is rapturous, as in Strauss's sweeping music.

Altogether different was McIntyre's other extraordinary work, "Arrantza," a docu-dance of Basque immigrants in America, their recorded narratives heard above tambourines and recorders, their personas a thing of berets and kerchiefs, sneakers and jeans, their gathering place a village plaza filled with seemingly spontaneous but deceptively complex dances. Less known than the Ratmanskys and Wheeldons of the world, McIntyre is a genuine treasure.

And so, of course, is Angela Gheorghiu, who appeared in recital at that same Santa Monica oasis, the Broad.

"Brava, mi diva," shouted a fan from the audience, as the Romanian-born soprano headed out on stage, beaming broadly, taking a queenly stride. She knows she's beloved. And why. It's that magical voice, a liquid column of sound that can seduce with its sheer quality, its smoothness up and down the scale, its lustrous top and that signature Gheorghiu legato. Remember how she even captivated President Obama at the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors when she sang "Vissi d'arte?"


On this night, accompanied ably by pianist Jeff Cohen, Gheorghiu proved to be that same shrewd artist. Oddly, she kept a music stand throughout and used it almost like a prop, swinging it from here to there, making it a point of direction as she sang well-known ditties ("Plaisir d'amour") and other recital-appropriate songs in unrecognizable French before continuing to a whole range of lovely Romanian songs. All of it was gorgeous.

So was the singing at LA Opera's "La Cenerentola," or as it's lately called, "Cinderella." But as one wag put it, much of this Rossini work is repetitive, so that a good edit could ease its three hours to two -- nothwithstanding the lively treatment by James Conlon and orchestra, and the virtuosic performances of Kate Lindsey, Stacey Tappan, Ronnita Miller, Nicola Ulivieri, Alessandro Corbelli, René Barbera and Vito Priante.

Top photo: Susanna Mälkki. Bottom photos: Angela Gheorghiu

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