‘Wild Things’ Invade Disney Hall

“Where the Wild Things Are” original drawings by Maurice Sendak, used with permission of the Los Angeles Philharmonic PR department. All rights reserved.

October 12, 2012: Review of Thursday night performance by David Gregson

Los Angeles Philharmonic at Disney Hall
MAURICE RAVEL: Mother Goose (with video)
OLIVER KNUSSEN: Where the Wild Things Are (with video)

Although I maintain this Opera West website and write here almost exclusively about opera, my personal tastes range widely into other music related areas — piano and organ recitals, as well as choral, chamber music and symphony concerts. I live in San Diego, but for years I have braved the Highway 5 to Highway 101 (heavy) traffic corridor, usually driving up and back on the same night, as a season subscriber to the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

And it may surprise someone living under that proverbial rock to discover that a very great deal of opera has been going on lately in the LA Phil’s Disney Hall home — with its great acoustics and increasing uncomfortable seats, now aging badly and the majority of them always having lacked comfortable leg room.

This 2012-2013 season we can expect several major offerings which can be legitimately discussed here at Opera West: Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conducting a very rare performance of Manuel de Falla’s complete La Vida Breve; Gustavo Dudamel leading a semi-staged version of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro; the West Coast premiere of Peter Eötvös’s Angels in America as part of the Green Umbrella series; and a semi-staged version of John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary conducted by Dudamel.

Also, thanks to visitors like the UK’s Philharmonia, there will be one concert performance of Berg’s Wozzeck conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. And then there are semi-operatic things like the Handel and Haydn Society presentation of Handel’s oratorio Jeptha conducted by Harry Christophers — or the Los Angeles Master Chorale performing the Monteverdi Vespers with the Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra. I would not want to miss any of these things — and I am certain I am forgetting to mention something.

Thursday night marked the start of a three-performance run of Oliver Knussen’s remarkable Where the Wild Things Are, a stunning piece of 20th-century orchestral writing with voices (1979/1983) — and while it is supposed to be a one-act opera, I would prefer to hear the music with unmoving soloists placed simply in front of music stands. I found all the peripatetic performers and video projections extremely distracting, although more so in the Maurice Ravel Mother Goose that opened the program than in the Knussen opera. The “Wild Things,” inspired by the illustrations in the late Maurice Sendak’s popular children’s book, is often performed in tandem with Knussen’s other Sendak inspired work, Higglety Pigglety Pop!, but at this concert, it was paired with Ravel’s ravishing fairy tale suite, a work that exists in two different piano versions and was later scored by the composer for a ballet given first in 1912 by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.

It occurred to me that the plot outline (such as it is) of “Wild Things” is so similar to Ravel’s one-act opera, L’enfant et les sortilèges, another story about a naughty child interacting with fantasy creatures before returning to Mama, that L’enfant would have made a more interesting pairing. But that would have been much more complicated and much more expensive too, I suspect. Many more singers are required for that wondrous Ravel score with a text by Colette.

Earlier this year I visited Berlin and, by an amazing coincidence, heard Dudamel conduct the Ravel Mother Goose with the Berlin Philharmonic. This performance, I am sorry to say, put the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s efforts last night to total shame. Perhaps Dudamel was as distracted by all the goings-on as I was. Stage left there was a family grouping with kids anxiously awaiting their mother (or was it a governess?) to read them stories. A giant screen that hung in front of the organ pipes displayed video projections, largely quasi-animated versions of famous Gustave Doré etchings of the best known Charles Perrault fairytales such as “Puss in Boots,” “Tom Thumb,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Sleeping Beauty.” A much smaller screen was placed in the upper regions of the balcony, presumably so those people with the wrong sort of tickets (those not facing the big screen at all!) could see what was going on.

What are these allegedly brilliant creative artists thinking? Why offer concerts which discriminate utterly against certain ticket buyers? My subscription seats are wonderful in Row F of Orchestra West, but my neck almost killed me while screwing my head towards a view of the screen on the bias (as it were), and I mostly gave up watching. Apologies to Netia Jones, director, designer and video artist. Just make a DVD, please, and I can view it at home, thank you. I have a great TV and it does not break my neck to see it.

As for the orchestra’s playing — it was the sloppiest I have ever heard the LA Phil under Dudamel! In Berlin the piece was heavenly. I would hate to be forced to admit that Berlin has a better orchestra. Not possible! Right?

Fortunately, Where the Wild Things Are was brilliantly played by our very own Phil led by our Maestro, and the oddly composed part (for the character of the naughty boy, Max) was superbly carried off by soprano Claire Booth, who also had to run around the stage dressed in a “homemade,” loose fitting white wolf costume whilst interacting with the video projections. These projections, by the way, maintained the integrity of the original Sendak illustrations, simply adding an element of movement that, in an important sense, added nothing intrusively new. But here, as with the Ravel work, there were real humans moving about the stage and sometimes hiding behind a screen — singers who were providing Wild Thing noises and song.

With all the distractions, the evening put my nerves on edge — especially after a 3 1/2 hour car trip up to LA through torrential rain squalls and flooded freeway surfaces. Fortunately, the trip back was much easier. I would have taken a hotel — but Madonna was at the Staples Center, and every downtown room seemed to be booked.

As a final note, I find my love of Knussen’s complex scores quite intriguing, especially as I have never been a fan of the Sendak books and drawings. I guess I understand why naughty Max oscillates between a need for Mama’s “hot food” at home and his fantasy world with its edge of rebellion. Knussen’s music is an amazing adult overlay on a childish fantasy. No surprise, therefore, that the LA Phil warned parents against bringing their kids to this event. Knussen’s fantasy world is for sophisticated adults.

I might addd, Knussen’s sly references to works that he likes and that have influenced him are great fun to spot!


Los Angeles Philharmonic
Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Netia Jones, Director, Designer and Video Artist

Claire Booth: Max
Susan Bickley, Mama and Tzippy’s: voice/Female Wild Thing
Christopher Lemmings: Moyshe/Wild Thing with Beard
Jonathan Gunthorpe: Aaron/Wild Thing with Horns
Graeme Broadbent: Emil/Rooster Wild Thing
Graeme Danby: Bernard/Bull Wild Thing
Charlotte McDougal


Leave a Comment