By Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West
First, the young, pretty, heavily-promoted Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti dropped into Los Angeles last week to make her US television debut on “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson” (nice to see a classical artist placed there, though she only had time for one number, Carlos Gardel’s tango “Por una cabeza”) and appear in the handsome Sherman Oaks home of Beth and Blake Neely on Feb. 19. The latter is happening more and more often here – sumptuous and occasionally not-so-sumptuous homes playing host to concerts or concert series with an intimate, informal atmosphere all their own. In this case, it was a fund-raiser for Education Through Music-Los Angeles, a music program for disadvantaged kids in the public schools running parallel to the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s better-known, El Sistema-inspired YOLA.
Ms. Benedetti gave the invited nearly-100 guests perhaps a little more they bargained for – a 20-minute-or-so mini-concert in which she played gypsy-styled pieces like Ravel’s finger-twisting Tzigane, the Gardel tango, and other excerpts from her new Decca album “The Silver Violin” (released in the US on that day). Up close, she is a commanding player with a 100-megawatt smile, pitched in a comfortable position halfway between the circumspect, silky-toned artistes and the determined grinders who push too hard and too vehemently on the strings. The album itself, which has Hollywood on the brain, is a surprisingly imaginative grab-bag that manages to unite Shostakovich film excerpts and very early Mahler (the Piano Quartet used in Shutter Island) with the likes of John Williams, Howard Shore and Erich Wolfgang Korngold – including an excellent, uncompromisingly complete performance of the latter’s Violin Concerto. She was joined by some heavy talent – the LA Phil’s concertmaster Martin Chalifour on two of the pieces, and the Phil’s assistant principal cellist Ben Hong and accordionist Nick Ariondo on the Gardel – and Yana Reznik accompanied on the Neelys’ Kawai grand piano.
The next day, James Conlon, the music director of Los Angeles Opera, was giving a talk in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, so I hightailed it downtown to hear the speakin.’ This is not exactly an unusual occurence here. The peripatetic Conlon is everywhere whenever he comes to town, happy to give talks wherever they will have him, and he has made the pre-opera lectures here a must-see feature of the landscape. Even if he has to conduct a five-hour Wagner opera that evening, he does them, always with the zeal of an irrepressible music buff.
This time, there seemed to be no other reason for Conlon to be there than to indulge in a bit of autobiography. He was given carte blanche (“A narcissist’s dream!” he quipped), yet before long, he made some unexpected news, announcing that he was extending his contract with LA Opera through 2018. This is very welcome news, for there has been no more tireless, nor more effective advocate for opera here – and he says he has a lot of grass-roots work to do in the city to make people aware of his opera company. To his apparent surprise, this born-and-bred New Yorker has taken a shine to Los Angeles, where he had only appeared as a conductor a few times around 1979-80 or so before immersing himself in Europe for decades. He talked about his first exposure to opera at age 11 through a relative, his childhood attempts to produce opera performances in a garage, thus earning him the dislike of most of his uncomprehending schoolmates (some of us who dared to admit liking classical music as kids can relate to that). He is a realist, admitting that most young parents in their 20s and 30s are too busy working and running around to take their kids to operas, so he urged the grandparents to light the flame – a shrewd, bonding idea.
The following Saturday, Conlon was back at the Chandler again talking about Benjamin Britten, whose centenary is being observed with an onslaught of concerts, talks and conferences in Southern California this year. Why here? Well, this region happened to play host to Britten for an extended portion of his American sojourn during World War II – and as Conlon did not fail to point out, Britten found the inspiration for his breakthrough piece, Peter Grimes, in a bookshop in the Los Angeles area. Interspersed with excerpts from a video documentary, a hilariously dead-on send-up of Britten and Peter Pears by Dudley Moore from a YouTube clip, and a couple of songs performed by two young singers from the USC Thornton Opera program, Conlon’s talk moved methodically through Britten’s life story, offering just a bare taste of the range and depth of his prolific output.
Conlon will be in the thick of it all this year and into next year, even conducting a concert on Britten’s actual birthday. But one can only hope that someone will be paying attention, for as hard luck will have it, Britten’s 100th birthday occurs on Nov. 22 – which happens to be the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination.