How to escape social grit and grime: hear the music, see the dance

Batsheva Dance Company's "Venezuela." Photo: Ascaf.

True. Our world can seem more simplistic and superficial (and tweetier?) every day -- or more gritty and grimy concerning ethics. But no worries. Not if you seek refuge in the right places.

Try UCLA's Royce Hall, for instance, where, if you're watching Ohad Naharin's latest work for Batsheva Dance Company, "Venezuela," it's like being hurled through vast dimensions of otherwise-hidden human behavior. Or, at the same place, catch Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra's account of "Das Lied von der Erde," Mahler's symphonic song cycle that speaks of exquisitely fraught inner states.

There's more. Mahler recently had important moments at Disney Hall, with Gustavo Dudamel leading his LA Philharmonic in the composer's final (finished) symphony, the 9th. This is a continuing saga for our resident maestro, as it is for most who take on, arguably, the 20th century's most potent music, music that seems to encompass the world, all of human consciousness -- its joys, its compassion, its sorrow, its anguish, and yes, its bitterness.

This time Dudamel furthered his grasp in the Mahler journey. Understandably -- as there's always something new to glean here for both musicians and audiences. He made the brass outcries seem like voices, spirited or angry, then pensively tender; he brought about brusque conflict that settled down to quiet musings.

There was aching sweetness and Weltschmerz mixed with nostalgia. All of it done within Dudamel's characterful profile. Gutsy, soulful, forgiving. Such as a Ländler movement that nearly danced off the stage, its rhythms so plangently impudent (along with Whitney Crockett's great bassoon entry). Such stirrings cannot help but sweep you into an immediate emotional vortex. That's Mahler.

The orchestra wears this music like bespoke clothing, so brilliantly, with every solo gleaming in ownership. Dudamel, also. His involvement boasts full-body immersion, no restraint. If there's a quibble, it's that lately he takes an inordinate and unnatural length of time from the final notes to signaling the end of the 9th's 90 minutes. The overtones are long past, except perhaps in his ears.

A few nights later found Mahler's "Das Lied" in the hands of Matthias Pintscher, leading an augmented LACO and catching all the nuances, shapes, upbeat rests, etc.

This was no little polished chamber orchestra but a big, bright virtuoso band the equal of a work that wraps its instrumental soul around compelling Chinese poetry. The arc goes from drunken, breakout cries to the heavens to a low-murmured, chillingly sad farewell to life -- with a myriad of emotions in between. Irresistible.

The only thing to fault was the poor casting of mezzo Michelle DeYoung, too vocally mannered when the songs called for simplicity and sincerity. Maybe she was wrongly impersonating Fricka? (I came home and listened to Janet Baker's performance to get the right impression back in my head.) But tenor Sean Panikkar -- remember his terrific performance in "Satyagraha"? -- found a pure, exhilarating vitality throughout, except for the murderously difficult opening number that struggles against the aggressive high-decibel orchestra.

Pintscher, the composer, was a mystery here, though. His flute eulogy for orchestra, "Transir," seems the spiritual equal of a Fluxus concert that featured a violin being bashed to smithereens against a wall. Defiance by destruction. Luckily Henrik Heide did not have to damage his flute, only render continuous screeches from it, without any of the virtuosity he boasts.

But screeches were nowhere to be found in the LA Opera production of Mozart's last work for the stage, "La Clemenza di Tito." Ah, yes, clemency appears to be the word of today: not held to account. Still, you can trust that inside the Music Center Pavilion there was ravishing music along with clever stagecraft to witness.

lao-titus_37a1212-p.jpgRussell Thomas as Emperor Titus in LA Opera's production of "The Clemency of Titus." Photo: Cory Weaver / LA Opera.

Just try, though, while sitting in your theater seat, not to see striking contrasts between this ruler Tito, who wears a crown of woe, to one who currently resides in the White House. Mozart's hero is hard-put to wreak vengeance, to decide life or death for real or supposed enemies. Empathy overtakes this Roman emperor. His heart breaks for others' misdeeds. When a good friend and a lover both betray him, what does he do? Forgive them. He knows that their political ambition is lethal. He conquers it with clemency.

So much for narrative. Musically, there was much to shout about -- because conductor James Conlon knew his way around the work's Baroque formality, keeping both its energy and pathos well coordinated,not to mention the stellar cast he led.

Here we had Elizabeth DeShong in the pants role of Sesto (even wearing a beard), her agile mezzo scaling the coloratura with effortless abandon and deep expression. As the title character, tenor Russell Thomas telegraphed his sense of burden and kindness, while Guanqun Yu made a vengeful (then chastened) Vitellia.

Enormous credit goes to director/designer Thaddeus Strassberger who managed to suggest some of the empire's scenes with bawdy delicacy and put up marvelous 19th century paintings of classical ruins as screen projections, matched so cleverly to moments of stage action.

And stage action is also Ohad Naharin's prime specialty. Whatever else the Israeli choreographer has achieved for the Batsheva company, which he's led for three decades, it's his sure-fire way to compel audience attention. Proof of that is his popularity among so many other troupes that feature his works.

So when Batsheva arrived at Royce Hall with the full-length "Venezuela" (an arbitrary, not signifying title), it was a sell-out. And did we get a show.

While its 1916 premiere notices complained that the company had not quite settled into the piece, there was no such problem now. Furiously targeted would better describe the dancer-personages -- they were simply mesmerizing, as though imbued with elements we could only guess about, not see. Naharin does sign language for the body.

And this choreographer, who designs stage pictures that invariably defy you to look away, starts off "Venezuela" with his grouped dancers in black dresses and black pants forming a tight square, their backs to the audience.

They move slowly in a block to Gregorian chants underlaid with drones -- before exploding into segments of skip-to-my-lou, with couples doing tango foot-kicks, an embrace that ends in a sudden, swift, snake-bite kiss by the woman, an exhausting relay, ensembles in a controlled, seductive swirl with energy bursting, a group jitter here, a group yell there, a whole range of solitude and isolation suggestions, rapid-fire utterances of barely audible obscenities.

And then, after 40 minutes, the whole thing repeats, this time to a song from Rage Against the Machine. The fascination goes on.

Back to Disney

But not of any less interest was the LA Phil concert featuring John Adams' "Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?" written for that preposterously prodigious pianist Yuja Wang -- she of the singular stage identity, being young and hip and often scantily clad (according to fashion) and by now a major celebrity, just for who and how she is.

Well, Adams must have taken all that into account when he wrote the piece -- for it abounds in a kind of good-times, rockin' ambience, jazz riffs answered with an orchestral pull-back to darker ideas. The composer himself sat near the stage, chugging along with the swingin' rhythms. And Wang worked her way through the percussive material letting sparks fly in the process.

But at the last performance she changed her look. No longer in the postal stamp bandage of a dress, now she strode onstage covered head to toe in body-wrap black -- black gamine coif, black shiny tights, black ankle-boot stilettos, clingy black high-necked top.

And when she returned to the stage for an encore, it was Prokofiev's Toccata, as if the Adams piece hadn't let her unload the arsenal of technique she so abundantly possesses. Well, here it was: a fiendishly dense exhibit that went at blur-speed with every crack and glitter ripping from the keyboard. You ask yourself: Is there something wrong with this picture? Could a fashion darling do what she just did?

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