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In the L.A. classical music scene, the music comes first

Critic's Notebook: New York and Minnesota's financial issues and cancellations stem from a lack of vision and commitment. L.A. is a different story.

October 09, 2013|By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic
  • Members of Local 1 International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees are reflected in a window as they picket outside of Carnegie Hall.
Members of Local 1 International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees… (Spencer Platt / Getty Images )

It was said to have been a disastrous seven days for classical music in America. "Hell week" is what Russell Platt called it in the New Yorker last week.

New York City Opera declared bankruptcy and shut down. Minnesota Orchestra's music director Osmo Vänskä resigned in frustration over a contract dispute that forced management to cancel all of last season and, still unresolved, resulted in the cancellation of a high-profile tour to Carnegie Hall next month. Speaking of Carnegie, the country's most famous hall canceled its opening night gala last week because of a strike by the stagehands.

Yet the classical music mood in Los Angeles has been downright festive. The Los Angeles Philharmonic just concluded its usual no-drama contract negotiations and celebrated the 10th anniversary of Walt Disney Concert Hall in high style.

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At a gala concert, even Hollywood celebrities sat in awesome silence through John Cage's "4'33"," taking in the glory of a great and welcoming cultural space. Gustavo Dudamel ended the evening with "When You Wish Upon a Star." Wish fulfilled.

A week earlier the Los Angeles Master Chorale had celebrated its 50th anniversary with its own glorious gala in Disney. Across the street at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles Opera will become the first opera company to present the original Robert Wilson production of Philip Glass' "Einstein on the Beach" as part of a regular season.

Six years ago New York City Opera had hoped to have that distinction, and failed.

Does all this mean that L.A. is in some kind of uncanny classical music bubble? Einstein on the beach, indeed. Have we somehow slipped into an alternate universe only Hollywood could conjure up, where surfers and sun worshipers are so dazed by the latest Santa Ana that they now accept Beethoven as one of the Beach Boys?

No, there is no bubble. And, no, classical music is not in crisis.

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L.A.'s supposed good luck was to get a new concert hall that became a draw all by itself. Ironically, halls appear, on the surface, to have been behind the bad news last week.

New York City Opera lost its bearings two years ago when it found it could no longer afford to remain in its longtime home at Lincoln Center and became an itinerant company. A major bone of contention for the musicians in Minnesota was that the orchestra's management raised $47 million to renovate Orchestra Hall while insisting that musicians take significant pay cuts, some by as much as a third. Carnegie's closure was over stagehands wanting to unionize a new education wing.

But these are not the underlying causes of calamity or accomplishment. The deeper issue is that of vision and commitment.

A scrappy company for all its 70 years, New York City Opera went bust for many financial reasons. But its ultimate failure was that of nerve.

A radical, Gerard Mortier was meant to be the company's savior when hired in 2007 to run the company after he left Paris Opera in 2009. He had great plans. They included the first revival of "Einstein" since 1992, the commissioning of Philip Glass' "The Perfect American" and Charles Wuorinen's "Brokeback Mountain." Mortier was expected to audaciously take on City Opera's next door neighbor, the Metropolitan Opera.

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But once the recession hit, Mortier's budget was halved. He resigned in protest and all of his projects were killed. Mortier's successor, George Steel, attempted to keep a financially crippled company going, but bit by bit the offerings became more slender.

By the time Steel announced late last month that he needed $7 million by Oct. 1 to stay afloat, no one really cared enough about the company once known as the people's opera and a laboratory for such great singers as Beverly Sills and Plácido Domingo.

What if City Opera had stood behind Mortier, prohibitively expensive as that seemed at the time? Mortier just might, with charisma and grand vision, have raised the millions he needed. The fact is Mortier's great works came about anyway. We have the "Einstein" revival now thanks to outside producers who stepped in and moved the mountains City Opera couldn't. Mortier relocated to Madrid's Teatro Real, where he premiered "The Perfect American" this year and where, despite his having been removed from heading the company, "Brokeback" is slated for January.

People do care about the Minnesota Orchestra. Here again, the recession had hurt the orchestra, and management responded with disastrous cutbacks. Players' salaries had been rising steeply. Now they needed to fall.

The fundraising for Orchestra Hall's improvements is a red herring. A better hall has a great potential for generating further support, which is all the more reason City Opera needed to stay in its newly renovated David H. Koch Theater.

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