MEMETERIA

THOMAS MAY on the arts

Earth Day 2014

Two musical selections for this day:

An overview of the world of John Luther Adams:

and a journey with Beethoven:

Filed under: Beethoven, nature

The Golden City and Its Opera

photo by  Mike Hofmann

photo by Mike Hofmann

My cover story on San Francisco Opera and how it reflects the city’s love affair with the art is now online in the Spring issue of Opera America magazine.

On October 15, 1932, while the country was sinking deeper and deeper into the quicksand of the Great Depression, San Franciscans took time out to ignore the prevailing gloom and celebrate the official opening of the long-coveted home for their new opera company, the $5.5 million War Memorial Opera House. The Naples-born conductor and cultural impresario Gaetano Merola, who had founded San Francisco Opera and inaugurated its first season nine years previously with La bohème, turned once again to Puccini for the occasion and led a performance of Tosca. Addressing the packed audience during intermission, Wallace M. Alexander, the company’s new president, proudly announced: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your opera house, your own rich heritage.”

[Reprinted by permission of Opera America, the quarterly magazine of the national service organization for opera.]

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Filed under: American opera, essay, San Francisco Opera

Music for the Day: J.S. Bach/Easter Cantata

Der Himmel lacht, die Erde jubiliert, BWV 31: Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Concentus musicus Wien :

Filed under: Bach

Poem for the Day: “Redemption”

Salish

“Redemption”

Having been tenant long to a rich lord,
Not thriving, I resolvèd to be bold,
And make a suit unto him, to afford
A new small-rented lease, and cancel th’ old.

In heaven at his manor I him sought;
They told me there that he was lately gone
About some land, which he had dearly bought
Long since on earth, to take possessiòn.

I straight returned, and knowing his great birth,
Sought him accordingly in great resorts;
In cities, theaters, gardens, parks, and courts;
At length I heard a ragged noise and mirth

Of thieves and murderers; there I him espied,
Who straight, Your suit is granted, said, and died.

–George Herbert

Filed under: poetry, spirituality

John Adams’s Gospel

Gospel

Since my essay is included in this recording, I have to recuse myself from offering a review, but I can say that I consider The Gospel According to the Other Mary among John Adams’s most profound accomplishments. It certainly probes new ground for this ever-evolving, brilliant musical mind.

As for the critical reactions I have seen, nothing yet has come to my attention that seriously grapples with the full complexity of this score.

A curious note: Gospel was among this year’s Pulitzer finalists. I think it’s a safe bet that this year marks the first time two composers sharing the same last name were up for the same prize, which in this case was taken by John Luther Adams for Become Ocean.

If you haven’t had a chance to explore this Adams/Peter Sellars collaboration, do yourself a favor.

Filed under: American music, directors, John Adams, new music, spirituality

Stéphane Denève and Paul Lewis with the Seattle Symphony

Stéphane Denève; photo by J Henry Fair

Stéphane Denève; photo by J Henry Fair

My review of this week’s Seattle Symphony program, with guest conductor Stéphane Denève and pianist Paul Lewis, is now live on Bachtrack:

This week’s Seattle Symphony programme brings the third and last of the current season’s co-commissions — all of which are United States premières — with The Death of Oscar by James MacMillan. Music director Ludovic Morlot led the SSO in the previous two (Pascal Dusapin’s violin concerto Aufgang and Alexander Raskatov’s piano concerto Night Butterflies); for the MacMillan, Stéphane Denève, a champion of the composer since his tenure with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, was on hand as guest conductor. Denève had also premièred The Death of Oscar in November in Stuttgart, where he currently helms the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra.

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Filed under: Beethoven, commissions, conductors, review, Seattle Symphony

Poem of the Day: “Carrion Comfort”

afternoon

“Carrion Comfort”

NOT, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.

–Gerard Manley Hopkins

Filed under: poetry, spirituality

Writing Biography in the Digital Age

handwritten-letter

Another letter found buried in the archives: think of how the discovery of a little slip of paper covered in a quirky scrawl can suddenly light fires and get a bevy of scholars toiling away to reconsider an already-much-dissected literary life. So how do biographers cope with the overload of information in this digital age of electronic communication?

Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin has published an interesting essay at The Millions, “You’ve Got Mail: On the New Age of Biography,” which takes up the issue of “the sudden digitization of the self, and the behavioral changes that have followed.”

How to decipher tone, often a challenge in conventional correspondence anyway, can require real virtuoso skill when it comes to the easily tossed-off exchanges of emails — particularly with a literary mind at work. “How does the rise of email change our understanding of great minds and great works. And why?” Ní Mhaoileoin ponders. Not to mention the data from social media — what a rabbit hole opens up when certain writers take to the Twittersphere…

But there’s also a loss:

The loss of handwriting, with all its eloquent untidiness, is a recurring anxiety for biographers and scholars, who have for so long relied on scratchings out, doodles, marginalia, and edits as clues to the author’s mind-set and process. Benjamin Moser described seeing in his subject’s handwriting, as one never could in an email, “how feverishly Sontag, given what looked like a death sentence when she was barely 40, sketched out the meditations on cancer that would become Illness as Metaphor.” Word processing, no matter how daring your font choice, erases individuality.

And the new data themselves aren’t necessarily as failsafe in “a digital fortress” as is often assumed: “[E]lectronic content actually faces far greater threats than traditional materials like diaries, files, and letters” from phenomena like “bit rot, unstable storage devices, technical failures, or systemic obsolescence…”

Ní Mhaoileoin once again turns to the example of Susan Sontag, noting the quirky tone she adopted in e-mails (sometimes sent with the subject line “Whassup?”). This apparently left her correspondents “unsure of how to interact with the iconic critic on such casual terms.” How should a potential biographer approach Sontag’s “playful, tender, slightly wacky” attitude when sorting through the evidence of her emails? Take them as confirmation of hints from her diaries — “that her intellect and reputation prevented her from receiving the love and tenderness she craved?”

The task of the biographer is to answer questions like these, with whatever sources are available. Lytton Strachey, who carried the genre from the stodgy tomes of the 19th century to the insightful explorations of the 20th, suggested in his preface to Eminent Victorians that the good biographer can “row over that great ocean of material, and lower down into it, here and there, a little bucket, which will bring up the light of day.” The rise of the e-mail may generate a host of practical and technical challenges, but the art of biography, as cherished by [Michael] Holroyd, need not suffer as a result.

Filed under: aesthetics, biography, literary criticism

2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music

John Luther Adams

John Luther Adams

And the winner is … John Luther Adams. This is especially exciting news, since Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony will be taking Become Ocean, the large-scale work they recently commissioned from Mr. Adams, to Carnegie Hall next month as the centerpiece of their Spring for Music program.

The Pulitzer Prize citation states:

Awarded to “Become Ocean,” by John Luther Adams, premiered on June 20, 2013 by the Seattle Symphony, a haunting orchestral work that suggests a relentless tidal surge, evoking thoughts of melting polar ice and rising sea levels (Taiga Press/Theodore Front Musical Literature).

In his review of the world premiere last June for The New Yorker, Alex Ross memorably wrote:

Anyone who has gone down a stretch of road and then reversed course knows that a landscape does not look the same when viewed from opposite directions. One mystery of “Become Ocean” is how different the material often sounds during the second half of the [overall] palindrome [structure]. The section after the first climax is thick with minor chords, particularly in the brass. Somehow, as these chords loom again in the buildup to the final climax, they take on a heavier, more sorrowful air. There is a sense of unwinding, of subsiding, of dissolution… That a piece constructed with such fanatical rigor can convey such potent emotion is the greatest mystery of all.

In an interview from 2011 with Molly Sheridan of NewMusicBox, Mr. Adams explains that his music is “never about representation or reproduction” but about “authentic personal experience, about the primary experience of being there and paying attention.”

Music is not what I do; music is how I understand the world. I hope that if I find myself in a singular place: wilderness, urban, indoors, outdoors, real, imaginary—doesn’t matter—if I find myself in a real place, a true place, and I am paying attention, then maybe I hear something that becomes music. If that happens, then I hope the music floats away, takes on a life of its own, and becomes something else to you when you hear it. What I may have experienced, what I may have been reading, or looking at, or listening to, or thinking about when I was in that place working on the music really doesn’t matter. What matters is the music and how it touches you.

Filed under: American music, culture news, new music, Seattle Symphony

How Much Does That Picture Cost?

Originally posted on MEMETERIA:

Rothko-No. 61
Mark Rothko: No. 61 (Rust and Blood), 1951; LAMOCA

The Florida-based art historian and curator Daniel A. Siedell reflects on art’s spiritual cost in a recent interview with Meaghan Ritchey for The Curator:

Being human means dealing with limitations. I think that the overly romantic idea that somehow creativity only takes place when you’re free of restrictions keeps a lot of good art from entering the world—or, perhaps, it actually prevents a lot of bad work from entering the world…What makes the existence of art in the world so remarkable is that it comes at great cost, sometimes through enormous challenges, but almost always through the slow drip of inconveniences, frustrations, and self-doubt.

This is why I am fascinated by what happens in the studio as the artist devotes her life to making artifacts that have no apparent use in the world, artifacts that are often ignored…

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Filed under: Uncategorized

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