Downtown upended and Millepied finds a home at the Wallis

persona_17pr.jpgScene from "Persona." Larry Ho/LA Opera

Okay. It's not the epic rebellion in our national discourse. Or the raging fires. But anyone who happened to be at our downtown arts citadels recently might think the sedate world of classical music had been upended too.

Suddenly the usual audiences had disappeared, along with a healthy supply of their canes and conveyances. Big crowds came garbed in T-shirts (some of them exhorting others to "Fuck Trump"). Revelers with trendy haircuts wearing Melrose Avenue fashions jammed the sidewalks surrounding Disney Hall, bustling through its doors and sprawling along its gardens and onto every spare surface.

They heard the call. It was to the annual DTLA festival titled Noon to Midnight and sponsored by the LA Philharmonic, a new music marathon headlined by what we now define as opera, Annie Gosfield's "War of the Worlds," its libretto by Yuval Sharon. He's the hot new director of all things avant-garde, including car rides with sopranos, and this piece is based on Orson Welles' radio show that rocked the air waves back in 1938.

But there's more.

One level down from Disney, at REDCAT, we got to see composer Keeril Makan's "Persona," quite a bit more recognizable as opera than the above, with Jay Scheib's libretto based on the Ingmar Bergman film. It turned out to be a thoroughly engrossing venture -- the superb contribution of LA Opera's Off Grand wing, created at MIT. And we can remember how often these artistic transliterations drain off the impact of the original.

Not so here. A concentrated study of two women -- one a traumatized mute patient, the other her live-in nurse -- delivers both the music and the interplay that binds them to mesmerizing effect.

Also, Redcat's small raked stage makes a perfect venue for the work's intimacies. With cameras positioned all around the performing area the action can be picked up either way -- watching it on screen or directly.

What becomes the central drama is how a silent partner can stimulate the other to do all the talking, to reveal what she has never thought of or deeply reacted to before. And in the process a kind of counter-transference occurs; the therapist and patient step out of their roles. Here it's the nurse, Alma, who dredges up her own secrets and painful feelings while Elisabet, her charge, merely listens, but, by so doing, triggers the outpouring.

Amanda Crider, as the central character, carries 90 percent of the work, singing the altogether apt musical lines of anguish and reverie and longing before the mute patient -- all of it set off by the chamber ensemble's instructive underpinnings and accents.

If only the other major event at the Disney complex, "War of the Worlds," reached this level. But no matter what Welles had envisioned for his Halloween entertainment -- he based it on the H.G. Wells science fiction novel -- his radio audiences back then tuned in and mistakenly took it as reality news: The planet was being invaded, so panic arose among that small number who listened.

Yet what Yuval and Gosfield wrought from it was a fanciful graphic comic. And I can't say the fun-loving Noon to Midnight crowd on that afternoon didn't rally to the piece as a semi-hilarious circus. It had sirens and street noise, and ominous clattering, clanging, squalling episodes, along with jazzy, big-band accompaniments and sound effects to Sigourney Weaver's mock-serious narrations. Think of it as an off-pitch Broadway musical with happy shenanigans.

But I'm happy to say that Yuval's installations of last year are gone -- those giant marshmallow clouds hovering over the indoor escalators from parking garage to lobby, the ones that totally obscure Frank Gehry's linear design. And gone also are their industrial drone accompaniments that conflict with the orchestra's last tones, the ones we're still savoring, the ones still reverberating in our ears from a just-ended concert. Ah... free at last.

It's enough to make a music lover happy all over again. Especially in hearing the LA Phil play Bernstein's Serenade, this time with Hilary Hahn. She's actually the third violinist to bring this ever-more seductive gem to Los Angeles recently. And proving -- in this, the composer's centennial year -- just how many interpretive paths it invites. No chance it will stay in the undeservedly neglected drawer any more.

With Jonathon Heyward stepping up to the podium authoritatively for what is really a violin concerto, Hahn -- in bare feet peeking now and then from her long, glittery gown -- gave us a clear-voiced and easy, lyrical, lilting account of its varied landscape. She and the 25-year-old conductor delivered its delectable waltzes made modern in a warm Mitteleuropa way, along with its soulful characterizations, its sentiments of quiet sorrow, and even its jazzy coda, à la "West Side Story."

Heyward and the orchestra seemed like old familiar partners in "The Firebird" Suite -- irresistible music played with all the mysterious glitter and melodic tenderness that Stravinsky can evoke in the very best performances. This was one. You had to believe your ears.

Back on the Westside, there was more music to prick up your ears -- as accompaniment to LA Dance Project's altogether intriguing bill at the company's new residence, the Wallis.

And it proved my point, that music makes the dance. Credit goes to Benjamin Millepied, arbiter of the five-year-old troupe's repertory. His choices, throughout the time he's been in our midst, cover a remarkably wide spectrum -- both as a choreographer himself and the works he collects from others.

A standout in the Wallis show was his "In Silence We Speak" -- underpinned by David Lang music, selections from several of the composer's albums.

janie-taylor-ho.jpgI'd say that this work, a duet for Rachelle Rafailedes and Janie Taylor, achieves a brilliance from its totality of effects. The music has an ethereal quality at once emotional and Millepied answers it with his dance design; the two women bend and arc together in empathy, feeling sorrow or loss or hope and connecting for each episode. The music binds them, speaks the tone of their relationship, a one-ness that goes beyond unison routines.

Photo by Larry Ho/LA Dance Project

And visually, well, they look like Modigliani in motion -- both of them tall, lean, lithe in silky, flowing jumpsuits and sneakers. The rust-to-gold hues of the costumes (Ermenegildo Zegna and Alessandro Sartori, no less) and the burnished lighting complement the whole scene. Artistic perfection. If dance could live as a museum installation, this would be the ticket.

Another ticket, when it comes to the big picture, is how Millepied opens himself to new vistas, "Orpheus Highway," as an example. Here he does something similar to the Keeril Makan/Jay Scheib opera, "Persona," with simultaneous tracks for the audience, both stage and film version. And it works in provocative ways.

This Orpheus and Eurydice travel a roadway, in place of the River Styx, and we feel the urgency of their trip to possible salvation driven by Steve Reich's Triple Quartet. The piece is never less than exhilarating, even suspenseful and physically draining as we watch its epic journey.

With this first Wallis season Millepied seems to be in his finest fettle to date.


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