Ringing out with music: The Philharmonic, LA Opera, cabaret and film

James Gaffigan. © Festival de Saint-Denis 2014.

Ever-popular chestnuts don't need to prove themselves or find new routes to our ears and emotions. They are beloved for good reason. We don't mind hearing them again, exactly with their time-worn tracks in place.

But what happened when guest conductor James Gaffigan and pianist Simon Trpceski took over the LA Philharmonic with Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" came as an unexpected turn in the road.

What, you say? This piece that heads the hit parade and qualifies as a guilty pleasure veered off its slush-pump path? Well, you had to be there at Disney Hall to know that it did. And without any injury. Because the ideas were fresh and the collaboration unified.

Instead of the thickly vehement, heavily declamatory variations that frame the central Romance we heard lighter staccato tracings that suggested something sardonic. And along with that there were sculpted phrases with a clarified rhythmic bite, even a quizzical quality.

Not to worry, though, about the sumptuously tender Big Tune. The Macedonian pianist graced it with intimate feeling. As a curiosity, and unknown to many, is that the composer/pianist Rachmaninoff, himself, premiered the piece with the LA Phil in 1942 under the baton of Bruno Walter.

But Trpceski brought us back to the present when he returned for an unusual, un-self conscious encore, the lullaby-like song from Disney's "Beauty and the Beast," which he sang -- yes, sang -- and played, "as I do for my young daughter," he said.

The rest of the 2014 bill included Prokofiev's rarely performed Third Symphony, a jaggedly aggressive, overwrought, unappealing affair countered by an entirely terrific symphonic suite from Bernstein's score for "On the Waterfront." How splendid it was to hear this music played all of a piece, forming a coherent whole and, thanks to our superb resident band, brimming with a broadly affective palette.

Bigger drama came from the orchestra's outing, under its chief Gustavo Dudamel, with organist par excellence Cameron Carpenter -- he of the extreme Mohawk haircut and Ichabod Crane body who played the Disney Hall wood-piped instrument (aka "Hurricane Mama") to great bone-rattling, bombastic effect.

Of course the main vehicle was Saint-Saëns' "Organ" Symphony and you can be sure that all participants were maximally employed -- full-out stops, so to speak. Also, for the occasion, was the world premiere of Stephen Hartke's 4th Symphony for organ and soprano, a perfectly admirable work until the poor singer, Heidi Stober, had to confront its sadly ungrateful vocal line.

Luckily, that misfortune did not befall the two young cast members performing in Daniel Catán's "Florencia en el Amazonas," given its world premiere by LA Opera in 1997 and now revisited. If anyone wants to question the value of this work as a whole then all quibbles must fade, for here is writing for a soprano and tenor -- Lisette Oropesa and Arturo Chacón-Cruz -- that equals many of Puccini's duet scenes.

The words fit the apt line with compositional ease. And these two, different from the opera's older characters who are loosely taken from Gabriel Garcia Márquez novels, bring bloom and freshness to their outpourings --they sang with the youthful passion and lyricism of innocents embarking on life challenges.

However, not all revivals withstand their various roster changes. "Love, Noel," an intimate cabaret piece that the Beverly Hills Wallis set on its small stage last year to magical effect, no longer felt like a seamless mélange of Coward's W.W. II songs and spoken word, of wit, of melancholy, of playful narcissism that the British writer/performer owned up to.

This time it was missing its spine: pianist/director David O, that man for all musical genres who, back then, provided the ambience so essential to portraying the above. Alas, sometimes we don't credit the major contribution until it's no longer there.

Nor could the replacements for the original John Glover and Judy Kuhn -- this time Harry Groener and Sharon Lawrence -- meet the high standard previously set. Pianist Gerald Sternbach seemed to be a bottom denominator, last-minute substitute, merely pounding out rote accompaniments.

But the Wallis, even with an interim director, is on course with daring ventures, Sondheim's "Into the Woods," being one of them. If, however, this production from Oregon seemed like something of a frantic jumble that sped by without positing food for thought or even aiding comprehension, then at least it spurred the curious to see Disney's wide-screen adaptation -- which is absolutely winning.

All of Sondheim's long-time, trusty collaborators were on hand -- conductor Paul Gemignani who led a symphony-sized, sonically enhanced band and coached the singers (they recorded, then lip-synced, their songs) and Jonathan Tunick who did the orchestrations.

Wonders never cease in the result.

into-the-woods-disney.jpgMeryl Streep, the acting icon, does sing! She plays the wicked Witch, transformed to preening prima donna, but misses the mark slightly in her lip-syncing. Other standouts are Emily Blunt, the Baker's misbehaving wife and James Corden, her pained husband. Johnny Depp is a winking Wolf, salivating over Red Riding Hood. All are choice. The cinematography, especially the scenes in Windsor Park, look like delicately tinted, antique paintings. The magical transitions and scary disappearances enjoy technological artistry. The roundelays and couplets explain plot complications in singer close-ups.

But what makes the film special is having space for the layout of its double track, book and music -- Lapine's fairy tale narratives, with all their situational challenges; and then Sondheim's piercing psychological truths so deep yet simple, lyrics that embrace the musical line. And, not least, I think the movie bridges the many lapses found in staged productions.

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