Category: Arts and Music

Nixon in China: The Opera

8232John Adams’ Nixon in China has attained the status of modern classic since its premiere in 1987, but the opera is not performed frequently and is still unfamiliar to many audiences. Nonetheless there is great curiosity about the piece, as I discovered when I began work on the Spotlight program; I think I’ve gotten more questions about this opera than any other I’ve documented.

In some respects it’s easiest to begin a discussion of Nixon in China by listing what it is not:

• It’s not a dry history lesson;
• It’s not a political rant;
• It’s neither a satire nor a farce;
• It’s not unmelodic or atonal;
• It’s not strictly “minimalist” (though it certainly has elements of that style).

So…what is it? I’m not an historian, political scientist, or musicologist (and I don’t play one on TV), but in the course of shooting rehearsals and talking to the cast & production staff I’ve made a few observations.

I was already somewhat familiar with the opera in its original incarnation as directed by Peter Sellars, but this production is a fresh conception (i.e., not a re-mount) directed by James Robinson. The music and dramatic intent are the same, of course, but the new staging has some interesting features of its own. The settings are less representational and more abstract, and very colorful (I joke that it “needs more red”). The media coverage surrounding the event plays a more prominent role. There’s increased emphasis on movement, both literal (the ballet, ritualized gestures) and figurative (from exuberance to reflection). Robinson and his cast have also worked to highlight the abundant humor in the libretto. And, the piece has an expansive, “mock heroic” tone that is, dare I say it, a lot of fun.

“Fun.” Now there’s a word you don’t often hear associated with opera, particularly modern opera, yet it’s a vital component of this one. Adams and librettist Alice Goodman brought a sense of playfulness to Nixon in China, and that was reflected in the rehearsals. Of course it helps to have a director, conductor, choreographer and cast who are confident and attuned to the demands & nuances of the piece, and San Diego Opera assembled such a group. The participants seemed to be genuinely enjoying their work; I think that comes across in the Spotlight footage, and hopefully it will prove contagious for the audience.

Back to my original question: What is Nixon in China? I could say that it’s a dramatic comedy (or a comic drama), or it’s a stage spectacle, or it’s a postmodern character study; or just say it’s an evening’s entertainment and leave it at that. But I’m not the authority here – watch UCSD-TV’s San Diego OperaTalk and San Diego Opera Spotlight, then attend San Diego Opera’s Nixon in China and cultivate your own impressions. It will be time well spent.

Submitted by John Menier, Arts and Music Producer

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Oscar Fever Continues

8232Still gripped by Oscar fever?

Then go behind-the-scenes of this year’s Oscar winners at the UCSB Pollock Theater. Presented by the Carsey-Wolf Center, Script to Screen examines the process of translating a film’s script to the big screen from the perspective of the writers, directors, producers, and actors.

Don’t miss these insightful interviews with the people behind this year’s Oscar-winning films:

29316The Grand Budapest Hotel
On creating the hotel: “It really started with maps. Rather than getting bogged down into making a fancy model or even really fancy sketches, which take a big time commitment to do, it was really sort of schematically laying it out…How do we lay that all out and get the action to flow?”

Go behind-the-scenes with production designer Adam Stockhausen and producer Jeremy Dawson who worked on Grand Budapest Hotel.

29315Whiplash
“The idea was to write the saddest happy ending I could imagine…because it is true that Fletcher, in every single way, gets exactly what he wants in the end. And that hopefully makes the ending a little troubling…that, you know, that kind of behavior gets rewarded.”

Writer/director Damien Chazelle discusses the process of creating Whiplash — the story of a promising young drummer and his ruthless teacher.

29040The Theory of Everything
“Stephen’s the character that everybody knows, obviously. …It was really fun to sort of delve into the domestic side of this world and see how much Jane — and often domestic carers in the world are not the most ‘sexy’ characters to bring forth in cinema — so I thought it was really wonderful how it was balanced.”

Screenwriter/producer Anthony McCarten and Producer Lisa Bruce talk about their film, The Theory of Everything.

Browse more programs from Script-to-Screen.

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La Jolla Symphony and Chorus Brings the Magic of Classical Music to a Young Audience

8232“One of the things I love most about music is how it helps us remember our lives.” – Conductor, Steven Schick

So begins the second annual Young People’s Concert as Schick guides an audience of children and their families through a presentation of selections from Gustav Mahler’s celebrated Fifth Symphony.

“Gustav Mahler’s symphony number five is a piece about memory,” explains Schick. “Let’s do this, let’s close our eyes… I want you to imagine a person at the end of his life…”

With eyes shut and imaginations open, the young audience is taken on a journey of Mahler’s life, which is the inspiration for his symphony. Schick introduces featured instruments and melodic themes, emphasizes the unique connections both composer and listener draw from musical expression and personal experience, and fields questions from the audience.

In addition to piquing the students’ interest and enriching their musical knowledge, La Jolla Symphony and Chorus hope that the program will, in Schick’s words, “encourage our future Symphony members to pursue their musical education.”

As funding for the arts in San Diego area schools continues to languish, outreach by arts presenters has become a vital component in public education and awareness. It is in this spirit that the community-based La Jolla Symphony and Chorus inaugurated their Young People’s Concert.

Don’t miss this fun and inspiring concert. Watch the Young People’s Concert, Featuring Gustav Mahler.

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Confessions of a Motion Addict – Stephen Petronio

8232Like a written story that starts one word at a time and builds, Stephen Petronio choreographs a story that begins one step at a time, set in motion until a dance appears.

He understands that to some, modern dance is a beautiful interpretation of thoughts set to music. To others, it is an enigma, requiring explanation to understand. Petronio says you should forget about understanding it. He wants to challenge your intuitive mind and subvert your rational inquiry.

Petronio, an award-winning dancer, choreographer and performer, shares the story of his life journey from a modest Italian family through Hampshire College then to a 25 year career building a unique and powerful language of movement. In conversation with UC Davis Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Ralph Hexter, tune in to Confessions of a Motion Addict, part of the UC Davis Chancellor’s Colloquium Series.

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A Good Tune – SummerFest 2014

8232In past seasons the SummerFest programs aired on UCSD-TV tended to the eclectic, mixing different styles, eras and composers broadly representative of the chamber music genre. This year, we’re focusing on four great masters of the Classical style: Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Schubert, and Johannes Brahms.

Some definitions are useful here. We use the term classical music (note the small “c”) colloquially to include all Western “art music” (or “serious music”) from roughly the ninth century to the present, and especially the seventeenth century to the nineteenth. In fact, the loose term classical music encompasses a broad variety of forms, styles, genres, schools, movements, historical periods, and composers. The Classical period (note the capital “C”) highlighted in our programs was predominant from the mid-18th to the mid-19th centuries, and was largely developed in Germany and Austria. It derived from the Baroque period and lead to the Romantic period. The hallmarks of the Classical style include a rejection of the ornamentation of the Baroque in favor of a cleaner, simpler style, one with a lighter texture and concerned with logical development, structural balance, adherence to form, proportion, and “rightness” of phrasing. It was highly organized and melodic music, well suited to the Age of Reason. As is always the case when attempting to strictly define historical periods there was considerable overlap between the different styles, and several well-known composers are considered transitional figures – Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert, for example (though it’s been argued that Beethoven is a genre unto himself).

Each of the four composers whose works are performed in our programs made contributions to the development of Classical style. Haydn is considered the key transitional figure from Baroque to Classical; indeed, more than any other composer he may be said to have invented Classical style, and has been called the “Father of Sonata Form.” Mozart, who was a contemporary of Haydn and greatly admired the older man, worked within Classical forms and brought them to an unsurpassed degree of perfection. Schubert, an admirer of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, brought his own innovations to the style and paved the way for the Romantic era that followed. Brahms was a late Classical composer, a Keeper of the Faith who resisted the siren call of Romanticism, fighting a rearguard action against the onslaught of Richard Wagner and his acolytes.

Alas for Brahms, history was on the side of Wagner. Romanticism was followed by modernism, serialism, minimalism, aleatroricism, primitivism, Neoclassicism, New Romanticism, post-modernism, etc., etc. ad nauseam. For a time Classical style fell out of favor – with composers, that is; it never lost its allure for audiences, and by the 1970s younger composers and performers were re-discovering its charms, once again immersing themselves in study of the period and its leading figures. Perhaps they were looking for order amidst the chaos of seventy-plus years of experimentation; or perhaps the older forms were seen as a tonic against the extremely subjective and drily academic nature of much modern music, and a way to reconnect with audiences.

Or perhaps, as SummerFest Music Director Cho-Liang (Jimmy) Lin notes, it’s as simple as “a good tune is always a good tune – there’s no substitute,” and the Classical masters offered good tunes in abundance.

Watch La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest 2014 Season.

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