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Opera and Esperanza

Baroque Opera and Radio-Friendly Jazz


OPERATIC REARVIEWING: Suddenly, this spring, as if by design, the occasional-but-not-at-all-dispassionate cause of opera in Santa Barbara turns the clock back several centuries to the baroque for two works over the course of a pair of weekends. After digging beautifully into the maze-like delights of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro at the Granada recently, Opera Santa Barbara moves to the more intimate context of the Lobero this weekend (Friday night and Sunday afternoon) for Gluck’s popular Orphée et Eurydice. And on May 4-6, UCSB Opera Theatre does Santa Barbara the honor of presenting Claudio Monteverdi’s masterpiece The Coronation of Poppea, a seminal pillar in opera history, premiered in 1642.

In a twist, Gluck’s opera, which premiered in 1762, draws on a mythological theme while Monteverdi’s prototypical opera was one of the first to shift from the terrain of mythology to historical material, concerning Nero’s mistress Poppea. The result is a mesmerizing example of baroque writing, formal in its way but also brimming with emotion. Though rarely staged, the opera was produced by the L.A. Opera a few years ago, to the delight of Monteverdi’s admirers and the befuddlement or indifference of more down-the-middle opera fans. This promises to be an early-music high in our midst, at Lotte Lehmann Concert Hall.

Esperanza Spalding
Click to enlarge photo

Johann Sauty

Esperanza Spalding

FRINGE PRODUCT: Esperanza Spalding, Radio Music Society (Heads Up). Santa Barbarans, like the members of many other demographic pockets around the world, feel somehow personally invested in the remarkable unfolding musical saga of the ridiculously multitalented Esperanza Spalding. The bassist/composer/singer/conceptualist/wonder woman put on a bedazzling show at Campbell Hall only shortly after being rightly heralded with the Best New Artist Grammy last year for her album Chamber Music Society, certainly one of the great jazz moments of the 2011 concert season in town.

But to these ears, Spalding has surpassed herself and painted a masterpiece with her stunning new R&B-meets-jazz project, Radio Music Society, which is the best album I’ve heard this year. I can’t get enough of it. Both albums are true to their titles. Her earlier album leaned into the “chamber-esque” zone of jazz, whereas this new model is a powerful statement in an area where, were radio more adventurous and less genre- and format-strangled, this would be music for the radio. She has boldly put herself into the too-rarely-achieved merger of vocal R&B with strong jazz elements woven into the fabric, joining the short list of hip ’70s artists like Stevie Wonder; Rufus; Earth, Wind and Fire; and, on the current scene, Robert Glasper.

“Black Gold,” a feisty and stirring statement of empowerment, is the showcased single and a fine introduction to the album, but it is full of tasty and cerebral business. Intricate big-band twists and turns amidst a soul groove on the opening “Radio Song”? Check. An infectious refrain in 11/4 on “Crowned & Kissed”? Why not? Spalding has ingeniously broached the turf where soulful genuineness and musical intellectualism meet and get along beautifully. In a local angle once or twice removed, with her fascinating arrangement of “I Can’t Help It,” she also pays respects to a fallen giant among African-American musicians, Michael Jackson, whose 805 connection is well-known (and unfortunately infamous). Her jazz cred and passion breathes life into these tracks, as when she turns the spotlight over to Joe Lovano for a strong solo on the Jackson tune, or when she pays respects to the great Wayne Shorter by lending her inventive, fresh chart on his great, spidery cool song “Endangered Species” (a highlight of the Campbell Hall show last year, as it happens).

In a parallel, hip, and artistically just universe, Radio Music Society would be on regular rotation on terrestrial radio. For now, get thee to a digital outlet, Spotify spot, or other music-acquisition source pronto and soak up the latest in the ongoing and muse-kissed Spalding saga.

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