Video: Beethoven: Overture to ‘Egmont’

A very young Sergiu Celibidache conducts the Berlin Philharmonic in 1950 in the ruins of the old Philharmonie.

Review: ‘The News’ at Long Beach Opera

Here’s a phrase you don’t hear too often these days. Read it out loud for full impact: “The News” is pretty good.

This listener was surprised that it was. Presented by ever-wandering Long Beach Opera on Sunday evening (repeated June 25-26) at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, “The News” (not the be confused with Hindemith’s “News of the Day”) is billed as a “Techno-Video-Pop Opera” composed by “the Warhol of modern music,” a fellow who calls himself JacobTV with a straight face, and Dutch no less.

Excuse me, but no thank you.

Turns out, though, that the composer is a clever fellow and smart enough to pull off what he has in mind, a satire on cable and television news, an easy target to be sure, but one that can use plenty of hitting nonetheless.

The opera takes place on the set of a news broadcast (the station is dubbed KLBO here) with two anchors, both female, both good looking in a dolled up anchor kind of way. The anchors initially sit behind a desk, as the production crew mills about, the broadcast about to begin.

What ensues proves not unrecognizable in form. “The News” is a mixture of “The Daily Show” and Steve Reich, of Michael Moore and pop music and absurdist theater. A wide screen stretches about the stage and upon it are screened a series of news segments (we see Trump right off), found objects from the mainstream media.

JacobTV slices and dices the spoken phrases therein, repeats them and turns them into little rhythmic riffs, the tonal inflections becoming melody. A nine piece band at the rear of the stage — including a saxophone choir, trumpet, trombone, percussion, electric guitar and bass — takes up the riffs and generally turns them into a cheerful thrum of pop, jazz and minimalism. The band is ably conducted by Andreas Mitisek, general director of the company and here doubling as a producer of the news broadcast.

Our two anchors (Loire Cotler, who specializes in rappy, rhythmic patter, and Maeve Hoglund, who introduces a soaring lyricism) interact with and echo the video segments, cavorting all the while like a pair of Mick Jaggers, slowly disrobing as the opera proceeds, both eventually doing the news with fake breasts exposed.

The point of it all is not just that the news is bad and that the human race is a tribe of idiots (though that seems clear enough) but that the way the media covers it all is nothing but a gigantic joke. (Strangely, Fox News clips were used sparingly.) Thus the ironic party atmosphere encouraged by the anchors.

What’s more, JacobTV intersperses the jokey real news segments with episodes in a more documentary style, with real people (not talking heads) talking about their plights in, say, Syria and Somalia. These minor-keyed numbers are often quite haunting in mood.

The one flaw in the performance — and this listener considers it a major one — was the sound design. Perhaps this kind of multimedia extravaganza is ultimately unperformable, mixing as it does live music with video sound, amplified instruments with acoustic, and operatic voices singing into microphones. At any rate, one understood perhaps one in ten words sung and the musical textures were muddy, monochromatic and over reverberant.

In the end, “The News” unwinds as a number opera, 32 music videos, like a Handel opera for post-modern times. It would benefit from cuts — most points were made several times — though all of the music is entertaining enough and director Tanya Kane-Perry keeps everything moving along in a lively manner.

You do feel your heart sinking as the opera proceeds, however. “The News,” I’m afraid, is also depressing.

photo: Keith Ian Polakoff

Music critic laid off (June 19)

Just to be clear, it’s virtually impossible to make a living as a freelance journalist, even harder as a freelance music critic.

The pay per article is too low. The self-employment tax is too high. You don’t have health care or benefits.

I’ve had experience going down this road. For 11 years in the 1980s and 90s, I worked full and half-time in the University Research Library at UCLA while freelancing as a music critic first for the Herald Examiner and then for the L.A. Times. At the Times I was their workhorse, and only ever managed to match my half-time UCLA salary once or twice. I got my healthcare at UCLA too. …

Which is not to say I don’t appreciate the offers to freelance I’ve received. I do very much! …

Newspapers (and by that I mean both online and print versions) have done an extraordinarily poor job of chronicling their own decline and demise. …

I don’t know how many clicks the lark I mentioned in a previous post accumulated, but I would bet plenty. It was all over Twitter. …

Lots of support still pouring in, and I thank every one of you. …

“Sir, I have found you an argument; but I am not obliged to find you an understanding.” — Samuel Johnson

Music critic laid off (day 6)

“You may scold a carpenter who has made you a bad table, though you cannot make a table. It is not your trade to make tables.” — Samuel Johnson.

I managed to get my photo on my Twitter account.

Lots of support still coming in (thanks). Today I heard from a number of music critic colleagues. It’s a wonderful fraternity (with female members).

Thanks for all the offers to freelance. I freelanced for many years at the L.A. Times and elsewhere. Right now, I’m pursuing something more secure, with benefits, but I won’t say never.

What if I could make this site work? Hmmm.

I’m very excited by the news that my friend and colleague Tim Page has edited another volume of the writings of Virgil Thomson for Library of America. It will include his “sassy” first hardcover “The State of Music,” his autobiography, selections from other books and some 150 (!) pages of uncollected articles, many of them originally published in The New York Review of Books. It’s due in late August.

I should stop numbering these things.

Music critic laid off (day 5)

The knight on white steed hasn’t shown up, but we didn’t expect him or her to.

Samuel Johnson had a patron but that didn’t work out so well.

Made progress on unemployment.

National coverage on lay off from Slipped Disc and Musical America.

Rich Capparela mentioned me on KUSC. Thanks, Rich!

A well regarded tweeter is bringing attention to the situation.

I’m very grateful for the outpouring of support. But how do we get music criticism going again in Orange County?

I’m on Twitter now, for what it’s worth. My first follower is the best music critic in the country.

Just as a lark, let’s everyone click on my last review at the newspaper I used to work for. Then click again. We could make it the “most read” item on the website and freak everyone out.

Music critic laid off (day 4)

See previous posts for backstory.

My new email address is

I apologize for not answering all emails, Facebook messages, comments, etc. I am hugely boosted by your support, and thankful too. Do know that I have read everything.

Arts writing should be put on the same basis as that which it reports on and critiques. Right now, arts writers write about the non-profit world for for-profit publications. And yet … for-profit publications ought to figure out a way to do it too.

Finally, Rick Stein of Arts Orange County wrote my former newspaper a letter of protest.

Music critic laid off (day 3)

Some thoughts, none profound.

The outpouring of support has been kind of overwhelming, certainly flattering and a much needed boost. I thank you all more than I can say. I should get laid off more often. And here I thought everyone hated music critics.

Many commenters want to see my layoff as another nail in the coffin of our culture. While there is some truth to that, I think there is something simpler going on, a structural problem.

There are probably as many, or more, readers of classical music criticism today as there ever was. But previously, music criticism survived as part of a printed newspaper, which was predicated on the “bundle” model, just like 500-channel cable. All the topics in the paper supported the others — from the bridge column to sports, from hard news to the funny pages — and all boats floated higher for it. No topic had to survive on its own. The paper was a community, even a team of rivals.

But as newspapers have moved online, a different model has been adopted. Now, every topic has to survive on its own, because online readers don’t generally read the paper as a bundle. They pick and choose topics, from different publications, all over the internet. Each topic is an island. Think of it as a “streaming” model. What’s more, now newspapers can see exactly how many readers click on a story, and they see that music criticism has a relatively small online readership, though, as said, probably not that different in terms of numbers than it ever had.

The tone of eulogy in many of the comments I’ve read is understandable, but disconcerting and depressing. I’m still here and I have some ideas. Let’s see what happens. Let’s not let the bad guys win.

Lastly, the “blockhead” quote from yesterday was from Samuel Johnson.  You can look it up … online.

Music critic laid off (day 2)

See previous post for the backstory.

Three things.

I was on my way to Gustavo Dudamel’s debut at L.A. Opera on Friday when I was laid off. I could have still gone and reviewed it here (for free) but as you will understand I didn’t feel up to it. And no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.

I was not fired for cause (as the lawyers say) or for the quality of my work. In fact, I was told the quality of my work had nothing to do with it. Just need to make that clear.

The paper retains at least two staff writers who review pop concerts and write about pop culture, so I’d say there’s a bit of reverse elitism going on here. I was not given the chance to write about other subjects, as when I wrote that laff fest celebrity column known as People for two years.

OK, four things. I’ve worked at the paper a little short of 18 years and was given two weeks severance. I’m looking for a lawyer who will work pro bono or for a small fee to help me get some more severance.

Long Live Music Criticism!

Another music critic laid off

This time it’s me!

I was told that they are restructuring, and going in a different direction.

What can I say? I’m stunned and looking for work. Perhaps that’s enough for now.

Though I’d like to say at least one more thing: Long Live Music Criticism!


Classical Life: Sunday night concert

Rossini: Overture to “La Cenerentola.” Carlo Maria Giulini conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Panufnik: Piano Concerto. Ewa Kupiec, piano; Łukasz Borowicz conducts the Konzerthausorchester Berlin.

Haydn: Symphony No. 103, “Drumroll.” Antal Dorati conducts the Philharmonia Hungarica.


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