THOMAS MAY on the arts

Finding the Light, Facing the Darkness

It seems — at least as of now — that tonight’s opening of the Met’s double bill of Tchaikovsky and Bartók will proceed as planned, despite the blizzard arriving. It’s a new production directed by Mariusz Trelinski and starring Anna Netrebko as the blind Princess Iolanta for the Tchaikovsky one-act.

Toi toi toi!

My program essay:

Only two decades separate the composition of Iolanta and Bluebeard’s Castle. Yet during these years, the music of fin-de-siècle Romanticism sounded the last gasps of a philosophy that was rapidly being made obsolete by the efforts of a diverse generation of radical younger composers. That, at least, is the narrative we’re usually told. In fact the shift toward modernism was not nearly so clean-cut or abrupt.

You can find the whole piece here (pdf: starting on p. 3 of the insert, after p. 36)

Filed under: Bartók, essay, Metropolitan Opera, Tchaikovsky

Heavy of Heart


“When your heart beats irregularly from heart disease, it does so in some predictable patterns. We think we hear some of those same patterns in his music,”says Professor of Internal Medicine Joel Howell about Beethoven, referring to findings in an article he recently co-authored: “The Heartfelt Music of Ludwig van Beethoven” (together with cardiologist Zachary D. Goldberger and musicologist Steven Whiting.

Their article, according to the abstract, “strengthens the hypothesis that Beethoven suffered from cardiac arrhythmias by placing Beethoven’s music in its historical context, and by identifying several compositions that may reflect Beethoven’s experience of an arrhythmia.”

Of course Beethoven’s best-known physical condition was his deafness, which started setting in around the turn of the century, when he was entering his thirties. The causes, however, remain a matter of speculation. In her post on the Futurity website, Beata Mostafavi remarks that additional claims have been made over the years that the composer suffered from “a litany of mysterious health problems including inflammatory bowel disease, Paget’s disease (abnormal bone destruction), liver disease, alcohol abuse, and kidney disease.”

As for the claim of an abnormal heartbeat, the new study zeroes in on such compositions as the late string quartets: in particular, the Cavatina from Op. 130 in B-flat major. Mostafavi cites the famous score indication in the middle of the Cavatina — “beklemmt” (“anguished,” “pinched,” “oppressed”), which the authors apparently render as “heavy of heart”:

[The] authors note that “heavy of heart” could mean sadness but may also describe the sensation of pressure, a feeling that is associated with cardiac disease. “The arrhythmic quality of this section is unquestionable,” they write.

I wonder, though, whether their premise might be working the wrong way. Scientists and artists approach unpredictability and patterns in a radically different way. Musical genius deliberately expresses itself via unpredictable patterns. One of the key factors that makes mediocre music mediocre and boring is precisely because (usually unconsciously) we can tell “where it’s going” as it repeats the same formulas over and over.
(Note this is NOT to be equated with the techniques of Minimalism: predictability can also be made artfully unpredictable.)

But to the extent that this study is trying to “explain” pattern aberrations, I think it may be on the wrong track. On the other hand, there are plausible arguments for a composer like Mahler — who we know did suffer from a serious heart ailment — inscribing his bio-rhythms into something like the halting rhythmic patterns at the start of his Ninth Symphony.

I’ve also seen convincing descriptions of the finale of Beethoven’s Second Symphony — one of the great examples of humor in music — as alluding to the composer’s digestive problems to create a musical joke:

Pay attention to how that chirpy opening figure is set against the rumble lower in the strings that follows it — the leap from this “hiccup” high up to the rumbles and quivers below, like a belch with belly-growl. The Second was actually considered bizarre and even shocking music at its premiere in 1803. One contemporary review on the piece as a whole: “a hideously writhing, wounded dragon that refuses to die, but writhing in its last agonies and, in the fourth movement, bleeding to death.”

Filed under: Beethoven, health, science

Happy Birthday, John Luther Adams!


A birthday salute to the marvelous composer John Luther Adams, who was born on January 23, 1953 — and who was named Musical America’s Composer of the Year for 2015 — on the heels of winning last year’s Pulitzer Prize in Music for Become Ocean.

He also recently garnered Columbia’s William Schuman Award for Lifetime Achievement, it was announced last month.

My feature on JLA and the Seattle Symphony commission of Become Ocean appears in last fall’s issue of Listen magazine — but behind a paywall, so I can’t post the whole thing here.

Explore more of the world of JLA:

— a recent Radiolab feature on the composer

–WQXR’s Meet the Composer spotlight, hosted by Nadia Sirota

–NPR’s Tom Huizenga on JLA’s new CD, The Wind in High Places

–JLA’s essay (he’s also a gifted writer) titled “The Place Where You Go To Listen”

–Kyle Gann’s introduction to JLA [pdf]

–another JLA essay: “Global Warming and Art”

And just listen:

Filed under: American music, John Luther Adams, new music



Filed under: photography

To Moscow, Moscow, Moscow!


About 10-15 years ago, it seemed one of the big trends around Chekhov productions was to ratchet up the comedy. All that tristesse and Russian pathos had become so clichéd that directors tried to outdo one another in getting audiences to laugh — too often by hard-hitting with effects that were more vulgar sit-com-y than Chekhovian non-sequitur (Kulygin’s “nonsense”).

So it intrigued me to notice some of the audience bafflement during intermission at last night’s preview of The Three Sisters in a new production by the Seagull Project soon to open at ACT Theatre. “It sounds like theater of the absurd,” insisted the woman next to me. “You can’t keep it straight what they want!”

Not humor and laughs, but frustration over the confusion of tone — which is exactly what makes Chekhov, and in particular The Three Sisters, such a formidable challenge to direct. Not the relaxed “plotlessness,” but the matter of tone For all the self-congratulation we hear about how our we “break down barriers” nowadays, so many are still glued to obvious genre distinctions: is it supposed to be a comedy? a tragedy? avant-garde? (I sensed similar reactions recently to Seattle Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, that notorious “problem play.”)

For me, the two characters who most successfully establish real Chekhovian ambiguity in John Langs’s thoughtful production (using Carol Rocamora’s translation) — though the director relies a bit too much on leitmotivic tics that turn characters into caricatures — are CT Doescher’s poignantly resigned but cheerful Tusenbach and the intelligent, suave, but gently bitter Vershinin of David Quicksall.

Julie Briskman comes closest to getting the Chekhov chiaroscuro as the oldest sister, Olga. Her mood swings feel more integrated and organic, whereas they come across as merely “quirky” in several other characters’ portrayals. Alexandra Tavares’ Masha is especially compelling in her “stolen moment” of brief happiness with Vershinin. Sydney Andrews conveys the woozy longing of Irina as a young woman on the cusp of adulthood in the first act; her later development still seems to be a work in progress. John Abramson’s captures the proto-Uncle Vanyan angst of their brother Andrey Sergeevich as he tries to put up a bold front in the face of his crushing disappointments.

Hannah Victoria Franklin plays up Natalya’s bossy boorishness and her independent streak, but the class resentment that fuels her seems lost in translation. Recently seen doing good work in New City Theater’s Hamlet, Brandon J. Simmons takes a more straightforwardly comic approach as Kulyigin but gives his pomposity an awkward edge that pays off well in his final scene with Masha.

Langs is particularly good at organizing this talented cast in the larger ensemble scenes; he’s not able to solve the complex issues of Chekhov’s tempo and pacing from these to intimate encounters — but this will probably improve as the production matures. He neatly frames the play with marching scenes featuring the army arriving at and then departing from the provincial garrison town where the Prozorov family languishes. They stomp in to the beating of a big bass drum, automatons ready for the call of duty; but at they end we see them marching in silent slow motion far upstage — and can imagine them heading straight for the trenches of the First World War.

Among the delights of this production are the design elements: Jennifer Zeyl’s birch-framed set with tricky Chekhovian seasonal changes beautifully established by Robert J. Aguilar’s lighting. Robertson Witmer’s soundscape brings out the full range of Chekhov’s “score” — in this play whose subtexts include a major role for sounds: the forest echoes, a flock of birds passing, the wind, the magic of the spinning top given as a gift to Irina by the aging army doctor Chebutykin (such a powerful symbol of frenzied but futile action).

There’s another Chekhovian music in Péter Eötvös’ gorgeous opera distilled from the play:

Filed under: Chekhov, directors, opera, review, theater

St. Lawrence String Quartet at 25

Thomas May:

Tonight the SLSQ gives the world premiere of John Adams’s Second String Quartet at Stanford.

Here’s a clip of the SLSQ playing the second movement from Adams’s First Quartet:

Originally posted on MEMETERIA:


One of my favorite string quartets is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a typical overdrive of crative activity. Here’s my recent portrait of the St. Lawrence for Stanford Arts:

“It’s a great time both to be playing in a string quartet and to be writing string quartets,” remarks Geoff Nuttall, first violinist and cofounder of the St. Lawrence String Quartet (SLSQ). He’s thrilled about how both pursuits—those of the recreative performing artist and of the composer who creates from scratch—will be fused in three distinctive ways during the course of the SLSQ’s upcoming season at Bing Concert Hall.

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Filed under: chamber music, commissions, John Adams, string quartet

Ah, Richard Strauss


A warning in the lobby for OPERA San Antonio’s recent new production of Salome by Richard Strauss. Directed by Candace Evans, it starred Patricia Racette in her stage role debut.

Filed under: opera, Richard Strauss

Sigmund Shakespeare

Steven Pinker has published a thought-provoking essay titled “Shakespeare: One of the First and Greatest Psychologists”.

Pinker focuses specifically on the scene in which Isabella pleads to the puritanical interim authority Angelo to spare her brother Claudio’s life in Measure for Measure (which is currently playing in a Seattle Shakespeare production directed by Desdemona Chiang):

Isabella compares the administration of an idealized divine justice with the all-too-fallible human justice. She reminds us that humans are capable of meting out patently cruel and pointless punishment judgments with complete confidence they are doing the right thing.

Aside from Shakespeare’s ceaselessly relevant “universality,” Pinker points to how uncannily spot-on he is with regard to the findings of contemporary psychologists:

Worse still, we humans are the last to notice our own limited nature. In seven words, Shakespeare sums up a good portion of the findings of modern psychology: “most ignorant of what he’s most assured.”

A recurring discovery of social and cognitive psychology is that human beings are absurdly overconfident in their own knowledge, wisdom, and rectitude. Everyone thinks that he or she is in the right, and that the people they disagree with are stupid, stubborn, and ignorant.

People reliably overestimate their own knowledge, and misjudge their own accuracy at making predictions. A common theme of both Shakespeare and modern social psychology is the human species’ overconfidence.

On the Bard’s use of his psychological insight to intensify the drama:

These two perspectives — that of the perpetrator or scientist, and that of the victim or moralist — color every analysis of human behavior. And here, we see Shakespeare suddenly flipping from one to the other for dramatic effect.

Filed under: directors, Shakespeare

The Tales of Hoffmann at the Met

Bart Sher’s Tales of Hoffmann production is returning to the Met this week.

Here’s my essay on Offenbach’s fascinating, problematic masterpiece for the Met Playbill (starts on p. 35 [pdf format]):

Les Contes d’Hoffmann is a most unusual swan song. In its formal ambition
and psychological scope, the opera represents a striking makeover.
Jacques Offenbach hoped to reinvent himself as an artist, proving that he
was capable of more than the wickedly satirical but lightweight brand of lyrical
theater on which his reputation had been built. And Hoffmann did secure his
place in the operatic pantheon, although the truncated version through which it first became known made a jumble of Offenbach’s original vision.

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Filed under: directors, essay, Metropolitan Opera

Wild Thang


Filed under: photography

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