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Cover Story | Music

Critical Bargains

November 15, 2001|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Classical music, and especially opera, can be expensive. But I'm the last one to ask about that. I've never let ticket prices stop me. More than once I've been in a position of not knowing where my next meal would come from, but I've never not known where my next concert would come from. One way or another, I've discovered, you can hear pretty much what you like if you try hard enough. With a $100 bill burning a hole in my pocket, the weekend is full of possibilities--too many, really.

Friday rush-hour traffic being what it is, my choice would be to start out with what is the best bargain in music these days--opera on DVD. At Laser Blazer, where DVDs are always 20% off, I found such amazing deals as a complete "Tristan and Isolde" in an interesting production from Munich, with decent singers and Zubin Mehta conducting, for $24.98 (Wagner's nearly five-hour opera on four full-price CDs is more than double that). But I chose instead, for the same price, "The Peony Pavilion," the production of the late 16th century Chinese opera that I saw at Lincoln Center two years ago and thought one of the greatest theatrical experiences of my life.

Unfortunately, the disc is so abridged that there is only about one-tenth of the full 19-hour performance, which is presented as potted excerpts strung together with narration. But even that glimpse returned me to the wondrous world of this opera, and seeing the performers in close-up revealed exquisite new details of costume, makeup, movement and facial expression, the likes of which you will find nowhere else.

On Saturday, let cost be damned. Every weekend is, of course, different. But you can usually count on high quality from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and let us say that if the weekend in question was the last one of October, you would have found the orchestra playing very well under Esa-Pekka Salonen in a program of Schoenberg and Mozart with an outstanding soloist, violinist Viktoria Mullova.

Try the $30 seats in the upper balcony. The view from the top is not the best, and it's a bit cramped. But the sound has considerably more air around it, better balance, more clarity than it does in considerably more expensive seats downstairs.

Having spent only around half the $100, and "Peony Pavilion" having created the desire for some real live music theater, I seek opera as well.

That last weekend in October, a fascinating troupe, St. Petersburg Opera, happened to be at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts. Ticket prices were not outlandish: $40 for a perfectly acceptable seat. On Saturday afternoon, an ambitious music lover could have preceded the Philharmonic with a matinee of "Boris Godunov," excitingly done. Other weekends, check the university opera departments.

Sunday, and once again about broke, I used my remaining $5 for admission to the Orange County Museum of Art, where there were musical installations by a unique and astonishing composer-artist-inventor--Trimpin. In one room, he has hooked up a dozen toy pianos to operate like player pianos, operated by a jukebox. At a quarter a pop (now I'm in debt!), you can hear delightfully intriguing new works by local composers. Everyone who enters the room does so with a smile.

Such an installation may be rare; it was around for a month, courtesy of the Eclectic Orange Festival. But more like it are promised for future festivals, and museums are often good places to find interesting, inexpensive music. Sunday afternoons there are free concerts at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

On the drive home from Orange County, I catch the live broadcast of one, over KMZT-FM (105.1), and it is a rare live appearance of one of the last of the old-school Romantic pianists, Abbey Simon.

* Laser Blazer, 10587 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 475-4788.

* Los Angeles Philharmonic, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 850-2000. Prices start as low as $12.

* Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos, (800) 300-4345. Ticket prices vary.

* Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach, (949) 759-1122. $5.

* Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles (323) 857-6000.

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