THOMAS MAY on the arts

Solstice Eve


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“Ihr Habt Nun Traurigkeit”

Perhaps the most beautiful music Brahms ever composed:

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How City Arts Tried to Hijack a Seattle Symphony Premiere

Leah Baltus, City Arts Editor in Chief

Leah Baltus, City Arts Editor in Chief

City Arts’ slickly calculated clickbait strategy

The arts journalism scene across America couldn’t really deteriorate further, could it? Pull your head out of the sand and shed that last shred of optimism.

Along comes the platform site City Arts, where “we aim to feed cross-pollination [sic] and shake things up a bit.”

Those who know and love the arts in Seattle are all too aware of the currently bleak situation regarding coverage of the arts here. The city has suffered more than its fair share of the decline in serious critical engagement with what’s happening all around it — and this just when there’s a remarkable array of significant creativity taking place all across the arts. Sadly, a huge amount of this is ignored, or treated as punchy ad copy, or shoehorned off into some automaton editor’s cubbyhole.

But that’s another, much, much bigger story.

I’ve written for City Arts on and off from its inception in print form, under its smart and creative originator, Jeffrey Hirsch — who has since moved on to other things (to City Arts’ loss but the Frye Museum‘s gain). After a long hiatus, I started again this year to make the occasional contribution.

But yesterday I demanded that my latest one be pulled within hours of its publication; you can now find it here, on my own blog.

Why? Please forgive the boring exposition of detail, but the record does need to be made clear. For years I have written about the work of the composer Mason Bates, for a variety of national publications — and of course about the Seattle Symphony. So naturally I was interested in a story about one of the SSO’s big commissions this year: a new Cello Concerto by Mason Bates written for Joshua Roman as the soloist.

I was on the verge of pitching one of the national magazines when City Arts took the initiative to commission me to write a preview. I accepted the commission (and substantially, shamefully sub-market fee) since I realized that, for now, this is an important Seattle arts story and I wanted to bring it to the attention of local readers.

I filed my copy by the deadline — several days before the SSO’s world premiere on 11 December 2014. In my typical experience, these sorts of previews have been posted, with minimal touch-up editing, at the very latest a full day before the event in question.

But still on the day of the premiere, my concerto preview was nowhere to be seen. I sent a query to the subaltern, who had confirmed original receipt of my copy days before. She responded by immediately posting the piece, writing “It’s up – we were (and still are) having some internal debate over Bates’ recent offensive tweets. Sorry for the delay” — acknowledging the fact of a delay according to normal City Arts procedure.

I in turn asked what she was referring to, since no one from City Arts had contacted me regarding any unusual issue with Mr. Bates or any rethinking the story that was desired, nor had I heard a single reference to unruly happenings in the Twittersphere — “offensive” or otherwise — on the part of Mr. Bates.

To this the subaltern offered no response. That response came when I was alerted a few hours later to the appearance of a “counterattack” piece on City Arts by Mr. Nat Evans: “Know Your Racist Composers”, with a quote from my own just-published preview. City Arts‘ own plug reads “The case against Mason Bates and the Seattle Symphony’s unanswered misstep.”

The obvious — and obviously intended — implication is that there had been an ongoing debate regarding “the racism of Mason Bates,” that City Arts was presenting a reasonable pro and con exchange about a well-known public controversy — and, significantly, that the “other” side (meaning my preview, as somehow representative of SSO’s position, and the SSO itself) was stonewalling or otherwise ignoring an uncomfortable matter. City Arts, by contrast, was taking a noble, righteous approach, publishing “the other side” to make all views are given equal airing.

Except that there WAS no exchange. No one from City Arts contacted me. No one expressed an interest in getting Mr. Bates’s response on the record to these sudden allegations. Mr. Evans never contacted me, nor did he even contact Mr. Bates for comment.

Since I’m not a stalker of Mr. Bates on social media, I don’t follow and track every photo he posts. Call it journalistic negligence, but I failed to do just that when he posted pics of his family for Halloween this year. Follow Mr. Evans’s piece for the in-depth background on and analysis of the offensive picture that is the basis for his accusation.

But note that, as a commenter writes there, Mr. Evans blatantly omitted the apology Mr. Bates posted on 2 November on Twitter:

Instead of reporting the complete facts, Mr. Evans extends his charge of racism to promoter of genocide: “The underlying conclusion was that whites were right in forcibly removing or committing genocide against the indigenous people of North America.”

As an internationally recognized phenomenon in today’s new-music scene, Mr. Bates has, not surprisingly, become the target of a considerable amount of resentment and elicited envy from less-successful peers.

Jonathan Zwickel, City Arts Senior Editor; photo (c) Joe Mabel

Jonathan Zwickel, City Arts Senior Editor; photo (c) Joe Mabel

It became instantly obvious that Leah Baltus and her sidekick, Senior Editor Jonathan Zwickel, had decided to push the “Bates-the-racist/genocidal maniac” story pitched to them by Mr. Evans. When the piece originally commissioned came in — my piece — they held on to the copy in bad faith to tee up the attack by Mr. Evans without consulting me to 1) reveal that this was an issue and 2) allow for a response or pose a followup question to Mr. Bates.

Even more than sex, a charge of racism is what sells these days. City Arts wanted to push this narrative — without fact checking, without consulting the author of the major interview they had just commissioned with the composer being attacked. This is Propaganda 101, the stuff they learn at the Julius Streicher Academy for Character Assassination. Even Fox News, on rare occasion, gets embarrassed stooping to such tactics.

I demanded that my original piece be removed from this context that was constructed on the sly around it in a slickly calculated clickbait strategy. It took two requests before Ms. Baltus responded, disingenuously — and dishonestly, according to the prior email testimony of her subaltern — “That both pieces were published today is coincidence, based on the timing of the show.”

Ms. Baltus, whose credentials as City Arts editor in chief apparently extend to an omniscient awareness of the personal moral failings of all artists covered by her site, helpfully adds in her email response: “For me, running both pieces effectively considered the new Bates composition AND the implications of his personal behavior on broader social issues. Both merit attention in my view.”

However, in her fervor to “shake things up a bit,” Ms. Baltus pre-emptively decided that Mr. Bates himself did not merit the fundamental journalistic privilege of the right to comment on a very grave charge.

Nat Evans

Nat Evans

Mr. Evans informed the public of his scoop on the day of the premiere, pontificating that Seattle’s “cultural leaders should follow suit” — that is, should show respect and empathy for Indigenous Peoples by having refused to perform the new work.

Why, then, did Mr. Evans wait till the very last minute to reveal his findings? If he did have a conversation with “cultural leaders”/SSO staff and told them of the serious injury they would be committing by continuing with the performance, why does he not mention this? If not, why did he not have that conversation?

A final note: Mr. Evans’s and/or Ms. Baltus’s reliability with regard to the comprehension of simple factual prose is open to question. The first sentence of Mr. Evans’s piece declares that Mr. Bates “is the second-most performed living composer in the orchestral repertoire.”

But the copy I originally submitted to City Arts had clearly stated the context: that the ranking was based on programming for the current season only: “In October the Baltimore Symphony announced the results of a study investigating programming trends this season among 22 major American orchestras. They found that Bates is the second most frequently performed living composer (after John Adams — the other Adams, no relation to John Luther Adams).”

UPDATE (Sunday 14 December 2014)

I just received a request from Nat Evans to include this additional background information:

Towards the end of November I read that Mr. Bates had a piece being performed here in Seattle. Like many of my colleagues I was really upset and disgusted by his posts around Halloween, and when I heard about this performance I contacted the symphony through social media as well as emails letting them know that I felt it was detestable, that they have a responsibility as an organization to be accountable for who they commission, etc. I never received a response to any of my queries, and did not set out with the intention of writing about it publicly.Eventually I decided to contact a couple people to see if they’d publish an open letter to the symphony/Bates calling on them to address the issue. City Arts was interested, but suggested I re-write my letter in the form of a short article instead. Editor Jonathan Zwickel told me all this in a brief phone call, during which he mentioned that there was going to be a ‘little preview thing’ – or something to that effect – that to me indicated it would be a short paragraph or something – not a full article, and he did not mention that Thomas May would be writing it.

I wrote the article, then Jonathan took over. He edited the piece extensively without consulting me on it, and what must’ve been last minute added the sentences up top linking to Mr. May’s article which, again, I was not aware of. I did not even realize that this had happened until it was live. I found it very odd and had mixed feelings about the product that had been put out into the world because I hadn’t been consulted on Jonathan’s edits. This included a short sentence about Bates apology – which – I don’t know what happened but it did not make it in after Mr. Zwickel’s edits and when I emailed City Arts to correct it they declined to do so.

Although I stand by the article as I think it is important to keep each other accountable for our actions, I sincerely regret the way City Arts handled this issue, especially in regard to Mr. May, who is a valuable member of our arts community here whom I hold in high regard. Clarity, openness, and accountability were the aim of my actions, but it is a shame that the same values were not followed at City Arts.
– Nat Evans

UPDATE: 16 December 2014

Leah Baltus has published a retraction:

Monday, December 15, 2014 | by Leah Baltus

The following is an editor’s note:

On Thursday, Dec. 11, City Arts published two related online posts. The first was a preview about a concerto written by Bay Area composer Mason Bates, which was commissioned by the Seattle Symphony and premiered at Benaroya Hall Thursday night. The second post was a guest opinion piece written by a local composer and focused on a series of Tweets by Bates, in which he shared a photo of himself and his family dressed as Native Americans on Halloween, as well as subsequent Tweets in which he addressed the photo in the wake of online criticism. The post strongly criticized Bates and implicated the Seattle Symphony.

Though we stand by the merits of the preview, it was removed from the site at the request of its author. We have also removed the guest opinion piece upon discovering fundamental errors that we failed to identify, most especially that the Seattle Symphony previously knew nothing of the Tweets.

We regret this failure.

(c) 2014 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: American music, commissions, new music, Seattle Symphony

World Premiere in Seattle: Mason Bates’s Cello Concerto

If you think symphony orchestras are merely about curating and presenting music by dead composers, you’ve been missing out on some remarkable experiences from the likes of the Seattle Symphony. The orchestra got a whopping six nominations for the 2015 Grammy Awards(R) announced last week — three of them for the apocalyptic Become Ocean by John Luther Adams, composer who fuses innovative sound painting with philosophical and environmental meditations.

And this week’s concerts bring the world premiere of a cello concerto Mason Bates has written for Joshua Roman, former principal cellist of the SSO who has since pursued a career as a freelance artist and new-music advocate. The program will also include Prokofiev’s Suite from Lieutenant Kijé and excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s ballet Sleeping Beauty. On the podium will be the young Lithuanian conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. She has been making news this season as assistant conductor under Gustavo Dudamel at the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

In October the Baltimore Symphony announced the results of a study investigating programming trends this season among 22 major American orchestras. They found that Bates is the second most frequently performed living composer (after John Adams — the other Adams, no relation to John Luther Adams).

“With a new concerto, you always get a lot of tune-ups on the first drive out,” says Bates, speaking by phone from his home in Oakland, California. Bringing a piece of music to life, he adds, is “one of the most exciting things. People in Seattle will get to hear the energy and excitement of that process.” The Cello Concerto is one of three major premieres on the calendar this season for the hugely-in-demand Bates. The others include the first recording of his acclaimed new Violin Concerto for Anne Akiko Meyers and a “surreal symphonic suite” called Anthology of Fantastic Zoology.

The 37-year-old composer enjoys a close relationship with the San Francisco Symphony, where Michael Tilson Thomas has long been one of his major advocates. Last season they presented a two-week festival titled “Beethoven & Bates.” Bates also has won over the likes of conductor Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony. For several seasons he and peer Anna Clyne have been shaking things up in the Windy City as dual composers-in-residence. (Clyne’s piece Prince of Clouds, which was released on a recording with music by Bates, is a contender in the 2015 Grammys for Best Contemporary Classical Composition.)

Bates is also famous for his alter ego as a DJ (he goes by the moniker “Masonic”). In San Francisco and many other cities Bates presents a counterpart to his orchestral performances in the form of after-hours sessions of immersive electronica. Sometimes these take place in areas of a city’s concert hall — a bit like the [untitled] series Seattle Symphony has instituted in the Benaroya Hall lounge since Ludovic Morlot’s tenure began.

Bates’s website includes separate tabs for “classical” and “electronica,” but much of his orchestral work magically fuses the two. Mothership is a good example: it was commissioned for the pioneering YouTube Symphony by Tilson Thomas, which premiered it in 2011.

And the YouTube Symphony project sprouted another significant musical friendship. “[Joshua Roman] and I got thrown together in a kind of shotgun wedding with the YouTube Symphony. We were both on the program in New York and were scheduled to play later that evening at Poisson Rouge. We had never played together before, but that night we did an electro-acoustic improvisation. The second stop in our musical relationship was a piece for his series at Town Hall in Seattle.” This later become Carbide & Carbon (named for the building in Chicago), “an unbelievably difficult piece for solo cello which he played from memory a month after receiving the score.”

Bates and the 31-year-old Roman first met in Seattle at the Seattle Chamber Players Icebreaker Festival of new music in 2008, so the Cello Concerto represents a kind of homecoming. “Throughout the planning and writing of the piece, “ says Roman, “Mason and I have been in close contact. He’s done a remarkable job of making me feel like the concerto was written for my playing style and fingers. Add to that my previous performances and two-year tenure with the Seattle Symphony, and this week is full of powerful connections and emotions for me. I’m overjoyed to be premiering this exciting piece with an orchestra that feels like family.”

“This piece is about Josh,” Bates explains. “It’s about the personality he brings to the cello as an instrument. “He can play any note and make it sound so good. That comes from the tone he has, which is a combination of absolute precision and at the same time an incredibly musical sensibility. Josh makes you forget about the technique, even about the instrument. He just transports you into the musical world of the composer. It’s like that line from Yeats, “how can we know the dancer from the dance.” He makes it all sound so natural.” Overall, the Cello Concerto is “more introverted in a way, a piece that comes from the inside of the cello.”

Although the Cello Concerto is more “traditional” in the sense that Bates doesn’t use any of his palette of electronica in the score, traces of that sensibility come through in the exotic sounds of the kalimba (African thumb piano), which “have a delicate ringing texture. I thought this would lay out an interesting rhythmic bed for the opening theme. And this piece reflects the influence of electronica on my thinking, for example in some of the rhythmic activity in the final movement.”

What does Roman most look froward to with this premiere? “The process of learning a piece without having preconceived notions from repeated hearings of other cellists, the benefit of being able to communicate directly with the composer about their intentions, and the responsibility of presenting it for audiences to have a fresh experience and future performers to continue the life of the piece are all strong factors. Cellists, in particular, were often overlooked in past centuries, so even though we have great concertos from a few of the masters we are constantly seeking to build the repertoire.”

(c) 2014 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: American music, commissions, new music, Seattle Symphony

River Walk Renaissance


My feature on the birth of a new company, OPERA San Antonio, appears in the current issue of LISTEN. I can include only the teaser here (the full article is behind a paywall):

In today’s performing arts climate, the launch of a new American opera company is bold enough to seem downright contrarian. But nothing got in the way of OPERA San Antonio’s official inauguration in September with a stylish production of Fantastic Mr. Fox — one of a series of events to ring in the city’s glistening new arts palace on the River Walk, the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. Tobias Picker’s family-friendly opera, based on the beloved story by Roald Dahl, turned out to be a shrewd choice…

Filed under: American opera, essay, opera, opera companies

The Romance of the Ruin


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Seattle Symphony’s Dvořák-Fest Begins

Thomas May:

In honor of Trifonov’s 2015 Grammy nomination for Best Classical Instrumental Solo (The Carnegie Hall Recital on DG).

Originally posted on MEMETERIA:

Daniil Trifonov: (c) Dario Acosta

Daniil Trifonov: (c) Dario Acosta

My review of the Seattle Season’s opening concert of the season — including pianist Daniil Trifonov’s spectacular SSO debut — is now live on Bachtrack:

Music by Antonín Dvořák was included on Ludovoc Morlot’s first-ever programme leading the Seattle Symphony, which took place in October 2009. At the time – two years before coming on board as music director – Morlot was a visiting conductor, and he offered the barest sampling of his thoughts on Dvořák (three of the Legends).

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Thy Choiring Strings


O Sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the prairies’ dreaming sod,
Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend
And of the curveship lend a myth to God.

–Hart Crane, To Brooklyn Bridge

Filed under: photography, poetry

Consuming Consumption: TB on the Opera Stage

Originally posted on MEMETERIA:


On the TB angle in Puccini (for San Francisco Opera’s La bohème:

“But if she’s dying of that dreadful disease, how could she still sing such gorgeous music?” It’s a question opera-goers often get asked when trying to describe what happens at the climax of one of the most beloved works in the repertoire. In the famous scene from the film Moonstruck, the character played by Cher —who is seeing La Bohème for the first time — notices the paradox and declares, “I didn’t know she was going to die!”

But Mimì’s tragic demise isn’t a medical documentary: it’s depicted in the context of a cultural and artistic tradition in which a wide range of diseases — whether of the body or of the mind — carried powerful symbolic meanings. Influenced by the legacy of Italian opera as well as by Wagner, Puccini was intimately familiar with the sudden…

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Die Meistersinger

My new essay on Die Meistersinger for the Metropolitan Opera’s program book (production starts 2 December 2014):

In the spring of 1861, Richard Wagner endured the very worst humiliation of his mature career—a humiliation of Beckmesserian proportions. The high-profile revival of his early opera Tannhäuser, thoroughly revised for its Paris premiere, caused such a scandalous uproar that Wagner pulled up stakes and canceled the production after only three performances. That failure reinforced his burning sense of resentment against the opera capital of the world, where he had already experienced crushing rejection nearly two decades before.

continue reading (essay starts on p. 42 of pdf)

Filed under: essay, Metropolitan Opera, Wagner

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