Folk Rhythms/Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra at the Orpheum
Much as I enjoy Beethoven and Mozart and Chopin and Bach, when I go to hear live classical music, I prefer something I’m not likely to encounter elsewhere. The Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) delivered that abundantly with its recent Folk Rhythms featuring composer and oud player Simon Shaheen, and a program of uncommon, and wonderful, works you don’t get to enjoy too often.
The evening opened with Roberto Sierra’s Fandangos (2001), a fantasy on a keyboard fandango by Antonio Soler and the fandango finale from one of Luigi Boccherini’s Guitar Quintets. From its beginning brass flair, conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto brought forth a lush, full sound from the LPO, capturing the work’s rhythmic drive with the propulsive force of the percussion section from which erupted the sparks of castanets.
Unexpectedly twisting and turning with a hint of mystery, Fandangos seemed like a cousin to such other Spanish/Latin musical forms as flamenco and tango. Unlike most other compositions, however, I’m not sure how Sierra even achieved some of his dazzling musical effects. LPO’s fantastic brass section stood out in this work, and I would happily listen to this phenomenal & so different composition again.
Shaheen’s Concerto for Oud was a nice blending of an ancient instrument with a traditional orchestra. This expert musician’s nimble fingers flew over the instrument’s frets as he offered a series of hypnotic variations merging Middle Eastern, Western and jazz styles of music. It was a absolute pleasure to hear the oud’s timeless, earthy sound.
Afterwards, Shaheen gifted the audience with two encores, the first an oud solo from 1992 and then, on the second instrument of which he’s a virtuoso, a superb violin improvisation. Shaheen appeared obviously, and understandably, pleased with himself and while his performances & compositions were undeniably great, he doesn’t seem to understand the concept of “always leave them wanting more”; had each of his pieces been, say, 15% shorter, they would’ve been that much better.
The evening ended with Sergei Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 from 1941. Starting with a brisk tempo, Prieto brought out its vibrancy, shaping it with bold, but never inappropriate, colors, and giving each component room to breathe. In addition to the marvelously fluttering woodwinds, in the gorgeous second movement, the brasses added a melancholy undercurrent to the waltz beat; with its sweeping grandeur one could envision a stageful of dancing couples.
If Dances loses its focus a bit in the third movement that’s Rachmaninov’s fault and it quickly gets back on track. In all, Prieto and the LPO gave a commanding performance of this thrilling work.
Ending with a rousing encore of Antonin Dvorák’s Slavonic Dance no. 8, Op.46, Folk Rhythms gave New Orleans a unique and utterly fantastic evening of singular music.
Up next at the Orpheum, on February 27, is Nature’s Awakening featuring Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 3, “The Camp Meeting”; Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in D-flat Major with Ziang Xu, 2018 MASNO International Piano Competition winner; and Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony. For those of you still in Chewbacchus mode, this will be followed on March 7 and 8 by The Music of John Williams with lotsa Star Wars, E.T., and Harry Potter tunes. May the LPO be with you!
Metropolitan Opera HD Encore/Wozzeck at AMC Elmwood Palace 20 through May 13
Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, based on Georg Büchner’s unfinished play, can almost make Carmen or Aida, with their bulls and elephants, look like a fun time, despite their tragic endings. For Wozzeck offers a grim view of a dystopian universe in which happiness is fleeting and misery is the norm. Berg’s powerful, propulsive music and Director William Kentridge’s astounding new production for the Metropolitan Opera, however, made a recent viewing of the HD Encore broadcast a most worthy evening.
Though the soldier Wozzeck is bullied by his Captain and a Doctor who uses him for absurd experiments, that’s nothing compared to his being cuckolded by his common-law wife Marie, the mother of his child. Suffice to say, things lead to tragedy.
Wozzeck starts off a bit talky, as does the play, but Berg leavens the seriousness with passages involving the Captain and the Doctor (Gerhard Siegel and Christian Van Horn, respectively, both excellent), two of the great comic monsters of dramatic literature. As the drama progresses, and the story focuses in on Wozzeck, Marie, and her paramour the Drum Major, it gets more and more involving.
Amid discussions of morality, Kentridge presents their world in smudges of gray accented by blacks and whites. As with his previous productions of The Nose and Lulu, he uses animation to comment indirectly on the action, amplifying the music & the libretto, and adding to his fine staging. As imaginative as these expressionistic projections of maps and stars and arrows are, on the movie screen, they were sometimes a bit difficult to fully make out.
As Wozzeck, Peter Mattei sang with anguished passion and made clear all of this common man’s conflicting emotions. Elza van den Heever’s harrowing portrayal of Marie made this “poor woman” feisty yet moving as she performed exquisitely the punishing music of this terribly sad role.
It sickens the soul that in the 200 years since Büchner first penned Wozzeck things have changed so little; think of the headlines telling us that some of our soldiers are on food stamps. Berg/Kentridge’s dark world is thus all too apt a reflection of our times.
In a first for these broadcasts, because of Wozzeck’s brevity, there was a “post-game” interview of the principals as they came off the stage, a wonderful bit of lagniappe that these broadcasts provide. Having just led the great Met orchestra in a magnificent rendition of this challenging score, Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin–cute, French Canadian, and openly gay–offered insightful comments about the production in a well-spoken and very composed manner. It was a welcome few moments that allowed us to return to our own world from the brutal one of the opera.
The Met HD Transmissions conclude with the Met premiere of Handel’s Agrippina (Feb. 29 and Mar. 4); a new production of Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer (Mar. 14 and 18); Tosca with Anna Netrebko (Apr. 11, 15 and 18); and Diana Damrau & Jamie Barton in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda (May 9 and 13). Any and all of these are well worth a trip out to Harahan to see and enjoy.
The final show of Broadway@NOCCA’s eighth season brought Liz Callaway back to New Orleans for the first time since her 2016 cabaret at Le Petit. This visit, though, with the inimitable Seth Rudetsky as Host/Music Director, provided a looser, less structured evening.
In fact, as Rudetsky prompted Callaway to do Helen Reddy’s I Am Woman, a song she often sang throughout her first job in New York as a singing waitress but which she “hadn’t sung in a long time,” she may not have been prepared to perform this classic anthem, but it was a delight seeing her adroitly handle that by getting the audience involved in the number.
Callaway gave us tales of Sondheim and how she came to be involved with his Merrily We Roll Along; Baby, her first lead on Broadway for which she garnered a Tony nomination; and what it was like doing Miss Saigon, as Chris’ wife Ellen, while pregnant (not always easy!).
We also learned that her sister, singer/songwriter Ann Hampton Callaway, wrote the theme song for The Nanny, which featured Liz. In one of many cute moments, Liz performed just her part–which, comically, didn’t amount to a whole lot.
Similar to The Nanny theme, Callaway also performed her part from one of Merrily’s songs (also not a lot but very funny). She did give us, however, glorious renditions of complete songs including Cy Coleman/Barbara Fried’s lovely You There in the Back Row, Meadowlark by Stephen (Wicked) Schwartz, Sondheim’s witty tribute to NYC What More Do I Need?, Anastasia’s Oscar nominee Journey to the Past, as well as songs from Baby, Miss Saigon, and off-Broadway’s Brownstone.
One of the evening’s highlights was Callaway’s special guest and longtime friend Bryan Batt who did the hysterical Way Ahead of My Time (The Caveman Song) to perfection. He then joined Callaway for a delicious version of Little Shop of Horror’s Suddenly Seymour. I would be tempted to complain that Batt should’ve had more to do, but if Audra McDonald’s special guest in December, her husband Will Swenson, only got to do two songs, well, I guess that’s the nature of the “Special Guest” job.
Callaway ended the 100-minute evening with Another 100 Lyrics Just Went Out of My Brain, a gleeful parody (with lyrics by Lauren Mayer) of Sondheim’s notoriously difficult lyrics that she pulled off with panache. Let’s hope Callaway comes back to NOLA again soon. And congratulations to producer Mark Cortale for another successful Broadway@NOCCA season. Already looking for to B@N9!
Miss Saigon/Charlie & the Chocolate Factory (Feb. 11-16) at the Saenger Theatre
Having seen Les Misérables on Broadway and the movie version and Tulane Summer Lyric’s version and possibly a previous Saenger stop, I wasn’t all that excited when it came here last year. But you know what? It was a new magnifique production, a joy to watch and listen to–I had actually forgotten how many great songs it has.
So I was looking forward to Miss Saigon which I had only seen on Broadway and when Rivertown did it in 2008.
Well, it turns out a Miss is not as good as a Miz.
The production that recently played the Saenger Theatre is pretty much a recreation of the original one and has been touring for about 16 months. It seemed a little tired by now, lacking that crucial spark.
More importantly, unlike Les Miz with its rich score, lightning did not strike twice for composers Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg. Miss Saigon has many pleasant numbers, but none that have the timelessness of I Dreamed a Dream, One Day More, On My Own, Do You Hear The People Sing, etc. And its great 11 o’clock number, the scathing The American Dream, well, that American dream ain’t what it used to be.
To be sure, there were still pleasures to be had at this Saigon. As Kim, the Vietnamese bargirl who meets an American GI, falls in love with & marries him, and bears his child with tragic consequences, Emily Bautista sang fearlessly with a strong voice and made an extremely touching and sympathetic figure.
Bruno Poet’s evocative lighting cut through the overall gloom to magically define stage spaces. Mick Potter’s sound design added a crucial verisimilitude. And that helicopter, used for the evacuation of the US Embassy, still impresses.
Devin Archer, an understudy as the American GI Chris, and Ellie Fishman, as his American wife Ellen, were properly vanilla, but hardly compelling. Red Concepción as the manipulative Engineer was suitably crass but could’ve given this complex character much greater shadings as Jonathan Pryce had done in his Tony-winning turn.
It may be unlikely that Boublil and Schönberg will write any new songs for their successful musical, but they might take a cue from Les Miz and, next time, give us a wholly new staging and production design for it. What do they have to lose, other than a helicopter?
Now playing at the Saenger, through Feb. 16, is Charlie & the Chocolate Factory. Though it ran only nine months on Broadway (it did have a much longer run in London), Roald Dahl’s winningly sinister and surreal children’s story with its “appropriately fanciful” (as per the NYTimes) sets and costumes might be just the thing to kick off the first weekend of Mardi Gras parades. Hope someone throws you a golden ticket!