MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Serving up the music of memes

Another Layer to Berlioz

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Hector Berlioz’s treatment of the beloved Shakespeare tragedy in Roméo et Juliette, his “dramatic symphony” premiered in 1839, stands apart for its radical approach to narrative and musical story-telling.

It transforms the (still very recent, still-being-digested) Beethovenian legacy of the choral Ninth Symphony into something even less conventional in how it negotiates the relation between words and instruments, text and “programmatic” music. Not the least unusual choice is the oblique way of recounting the famous story using not Shakespeare’s words but instead a libretto by Emile Deschamps that actually eliminates the figures of Romeo and Juliet themselves. They’re only spoken of in the text, whereas their big scenes are depicted by the orchestra alone.

So I was especially intrigued to see what Berlin-based choreographer (and aptonym!) Sasha Waltz does with one of my all-time favorite scores. Her choreographed version of Roméo et Juliette premiered at Paris Opera in 2007 but was introduced only this year to the Deutsche Oper’s rep.

I caught a recent performance, with the title roles danced by Joel Suárez Gómez and Lorena Justribó Manion, respectively, and with Moritz Gnann conducting. It was a marvelous late-summer evening and suggested some new ways of thinking about Berlioz, even if not all of Waltz’s specific choices were effective. (It also made for a wonderful supplement to the complete performance by the Seattle Symphony led by Ludovic Morlot which I reviewed this past February.)

By adding back in the stuff Berlioz leaves out, or allows only as third-person narration — most notably, Romeo and Juliet — a staged and danced version seems to court the danger of “pushing” Berlioz’s music into the background, making it mere accompaniment to the narrative that unfolds with great visual allure. (The problematic bias of ballet music as “secondary” has much in common with the bias against film scores — another story.)

But rather than distracting from or eclipsing Berlioz’s music, the gestural vocabulary Waltz develops actually amplified aspects of the score for me. Most memorably, we can observe Juliet’s perspective, and one of Waltz’s most significant additions is to suggest the story of Juliet’s promise of liberation from the person she’s been moulded into by her family and situation. This comes to the fore in the most sublime music of the symphony, the lengthy Scène d’amour. To actually see the process of mutual discovery of Romeo and Juliet “happening” to this music gave me another layer to think about that intensified the inwardness of Berlioz’s music.

By the same token, the tone poem-like instrumental music in Part III (Roméo au tombeau des Capulets, etc.) now had its visual analogue. It moved me even more than productions of the Shakespeare source have done in the same scene — whereas I suspect that wouldn’t have been the case had this been a full-on operatic treatment, with text and singing to bring home each new phase of the story line.

Something about this “in-betweenness” — of Berlioz’s carefully scored gestural music matched with the pantomime and choreography — also managed to evade the literalness of mere recounting that was key to the composer’s motivation in opting for purely instrumental music for the loftiest and most tragic moments.

Filed under: Berlioz, choreography

Opening Night of the Berliner Philharmoniker

The new season opened with a masterful pairing of early Britten and Shostakovich: in fact, with what is arguably the most thrilling and audacious symphony Shostakovich ever wrote, the — bafflingly, frustratingly rarely programmed — Symphony No. 4.

Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliners will bring the same program to the Lucerne Festival on Tuesday.

Here’s more info and a link to the performance in BP’s Digital Concert Hall.

Filed under: Berlin Philharmonic, Britten, Shostakovich

Music of the Night

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Filed under: photography

A Day for Pierre Boulez

Pierre Boulez (photo: Georg Anderhub/LUCERNE FESTIVAL)

Pierre Boulez (photo: Georg Anderhub/LUCERNE FESTIVAL)

This past Sunday, Lucerne Festival’s Summer 2015 edition presented an entire “Day for Pierre Boulez” to mark the 90th birthday of one of music’s great revolutionaries (the actual birthday fell on on March 26). Sadly, Boulez was unable to be present in person due to health reasons, but the day argued for his profound enduring influence.

Studded across all of the programmes were eight world premieres from a collection of composers of different vintages and Boulezian inspirations…It was the works written expressly in homage to Boulez that were most revealing of the legacy and challenge he leaves his fellow composers…[T]wo new pieces by György Kurtág and Wolfgang Rihm, both performed with unwavering conviction by the young players of the Academy Orchestra, [were] the most subtle, striking, and moving tributes to Boulez’s life and music…
As the whole Day for Pierre showed, it’s not just the inspiraton of his work as composer, conductor, writer, and teacher: Boulez, it turns out, is an attitude of mind, a way of being in the creative world.

–Tom Service in The Guardian

Every concert was exquisitely curated, and established Boulez in the context of the tradition he founded…
But it was the evening’s programme in Lucerne’s world-renowned concert hall that spoke most loudly of Boulez’s legacy. New works by living masters Wolfgang Rihm and György Kurtág were performed alongside that of young composers by the Lucerne Academy Orchestra…
For the second half, the Academy orchestra donned Boulez T-shirts for the Notations, which, in one form or another, have occupied the composer all his life. The fully orchestrated versions, composed towards the end of the century, were laid bare by the presentation of the original piano pieces of 1945, written when he was just 20. It was a revelation.

–Jonathan McAloon, Telegraph

Here’s a summary of the items that were on the program for this marathon celebration:

13.30, 18.00, and 19.00 | KKL Luzern, Roof Terrace
Chiaki Tsunaba | Justin Frieh
Boulez Dialogue de l’ombre double for Clarinet and Tape

14.00 | Tribute to Boulez 1 | KKL Luzern, Lucerne Hall
Ensemble intercontemporain | students of the LUCERNE FESTIVAL ACADEMY | Matthias Pintscher
Boulez Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna | world premieres by Pintscher and Mason

15.15 and 16.00 | Tribute to Boulez 2 & 3 | Kunstmuseum Lucerne
ensembles of the LUCERNE FESTIVAL ACADEMY | Julien Leroy | Yi Wei Angus Lee | Raphaël Ginzburg | Jaclyn Dorr
Boulez Messagesquisse (two versions) |
Mémoriale (… explosante-fixe … Originel)

15.15 | Tribute to Boulez 4 | KKL Luzern, Terrace Hall
string quartets of the LUCERNE FESTIVAL ACADEMY
Berg Lyric Suite

16.00 | Tribute to Boulez 5 | KKL Luzern, Terrace Hall
string quartets of the LUCERNE FESTIVAL ACADEMY
Boulez Livre pour Quatuor

17.00 | Tribute to Boulez 6 | KKL Luzern, Lucerne Hall
Ensemble intercontemporain | students of the LUCERNE FESTIVAL ACADEMY | Matthias Pintscher | Sarah Maria Sun
Boulez sur Incises | world premieres by Holliger and Machover

18.30 | Introduction to Symphony Concert 10 | KKL Luzern,
Concert Hall
A project in response to Boulez’s Notations with Richard McNicol, and Aleksandar Aces | in cooperation with Klavier-Festival Ruhr

19.30 | Symphony Concert 10 – Tribute to Boulez 7 | KKL Luzern, Concert Hall
LUCERNE FESTIVAL ACADEMY Orchestra | Mariano Chiacchiarini | Julien Leroy | Matthias Pintscher
Boulez Notations I–IV and VII (versions for piano and for orchestra) | Pintscher Osiris | world premieres by Kurtág, Moussa, Peszat, and Rihm

Filed under: Lucerne Festival, modernism, music news, new music, Pierre Boulez

The Gloaming

The Gloaming

The Gloaming

Filed under: photography

Remembering Lenny

Thomas May:

So today Leonard Bernstein would have turned 95 [97]. If he were Elliott Carter, he’d still have about nine [seven] years left to share his genius with us — and Lord knows the world could desperately use it. I can still feel a pang when I pass by the Dakota on Central Park West; strangely, that Sunday afternoon in October when he died there doesn’t seem so far off.

I got to meet him just once, near the end of his life, when he was touring with the Vienna Philharmonic, conducting a program of Mahler Five paired with the Mozart Clarinet Concerto. I waited patiently afterward to get him to sign the book I happened to have on me — the first volume of Ernst Bloch’s Das Prinzip Hoffnung, which immediately prompted him to set aside his bottomless…

Originally posted on MEMETERIA by Thomas May:

Leonard_Bernstein_1971
Lenny in 1971, when he was rehearsing his new work Mass to open the Kennedy Center

So today Leonard Bernstein would have turned 95. If he were Elliott Carter, he’d still have about nine years left to share his genius with us — and Lord knows the world could desperately use it. I can still feel a pang when I pass by the Dakota Building; strangely, that Sunday afternoon in October when he died there doesn’t seem so far off.

I got to meet him just once, near the end of his life, when he was touring with the Vienna Philharmonic, conducting a program of Mahler Five paired with the Mozart Clarinet Concerto. I waited patiently afterward to get him to sign the book I happened to have on me — the first volume of Ernst Bloch’s Das Prinzip Hoffnung, which immediately prompted him to set aside his bottomless…

View original 509 more words

Filed under: American music, Bernstein

Dancing Mahler’s Seventh

The idioms of dance — and their metaphorical significance — are a substantial component of Mahler’s vocabulary. Curiously, though, Mahler was known to be indifferent to the traditional art of ballet. (In fact one of the scandals stirred up during his tenure as director of the Vienna Hofoper involved a disagreement with the official ballet master over the casting of a dancer in a production of Auber’s La Muette de Portici.)

But an evening of choreography to the elusive Seventh Symphony? That’s what Martin Schläpfer designed in 2013 for the company he directs, the Düsseldorf-based Ballett am Rhein. Titled Seven, with Wen-Pin Chien conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the production is playing as part of the Edinburgh International Festival this month.

Some reactions:

The switches of mood, the interruptions to themes, the unexpected instrumentalisation in Mahler all find visual echoes: you never know whether dancers will be in pointe shoes, soft shoes or jackboots, or which members of a group or a trio are going to go off with one another, or whether a romantic relationship is about to turn sour or a violent relationship sweet.

–Hanna Weibye, The Artsdesk

Martin Schläpfer, in his choreography for “Seven,” is clearly of the heroes-and-shipwreck school. His epic staging of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony is structured as a journey, in which dancers, shod in boots, ballet shoes or with naked feet, move through a picaresque variety of situations, the choreography’s imagery vividly shaped by the colours and rhythms of the score….But the work’s strengths are undercut by its failure to engage with the score’s deep musical structure. Schläpfer choreographs in blunt emphatic bursts that illuminate the surface of the score but not its architecture.

–Judith Mackrell, The Guardian

There isn’t an explicit narrative to Schläpfer’s vision, but themes of human relationships seem to hold centre stage. We see couples and small groups coming together to react to one another for a time, but mostly it ends in hostility or outright rejection. Partners are swapped and traded with casual indifference and, particularly in the outer movements, Schläpfer explores the impact on those rejected, most often women….Importantly, however, Schläpfer’s choreography is inherently musical. He has thought deeply about Mahler’s score and presented a sequence of movement that seems an extension of the action in the pit…

–Simon Thompson, Seen and Heard International

Filed under: ballet, Edinburgh International Festival, Mahler

All the World’s a Stage

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There’s breaking the fourth wall, and then there’s this:

Actress Christine Sherrill was waiting backstage to make her entrance in Signature Theatre’s production of The Fix when the doors through which she was supposed to make her entrance suddenly burst open the wrong way.

A woman stood there and delivered a dramatic request, “Where is the bathroom? I have to pee.”

All the world really is a stage.

Filed under: theater

The Dangerous God

Currently running at the Almeida as part of its “Greeks” season is a riveting production (in Anne Carson’s version) of the disturbing, tirelessly fascinating Euripides tragedy Bakkhai — as the company prefers to transliterate the title.

I agree to an extent with Dominic Cavendish’s assessment that the chorus of female bacchantes is a major weak spot as staged by James Macdonald in this production. As Cavendish puts it: “Even with the ten Bacchants on all fours, faces animal-painted, banging staves, the effect is more WI tea-party than wild tribal gathering.”

I’d also add that the humdrum music they are given by Orlando Gough — spiced with raw Balkan harmonies but never actually ecstatic — bears much of the responsibility for this weakness. That, and a shade too much ensemble gesticulation with kitschy echoes of the Macbeth witches (expanded from three to ten).

But there’s plenty of wonderful work here which more than compensates — including a staging of the early encounter between the blind seer Tiresias and old Cadmus that has a dash of Samuel Beckett’s humor. The big name draw has been the casting of Ben Whishaw as Dionysus — and he’s good at conveying the god’s savage contradictions and self-doubting.

The famous Apollonian-Dionysian dualism appears here broken down and recombined within in myriad ways: Dionysus is boyish, epicene, a smooth talker, a trickster, but, most memorably, the god does a volte-face after he’s gotten his revenge and, during the scene with Agave and Cadmus, viciously rubs it in. This is the nightmare that atheists turn to over and over to warn of the hideousness of our projections of divine entities.

So, too, Bertie Carvel undergoes a criss-cross, chiasmos transformation from stern, disciplined, “logocentric” ruler to a creature overcome by fatal curiosity — and the dissolution of borders. He trades his alpha male suit to put on campy drag, which is followed by his turn as Agave. This was far more than camp: I could have sworn I heard a kind of collective gasp in the final scene as Agave comes down from her high, in the moment when recognition dawns — their moment of catharsis.

Daniel Mendelssohn reminds us that with Bakkhai Euripides “won a posthumous first prize at that year’s [405 BCE] annual dramatic competition, an accolade that had so often eluded the irreligious and daringly experimental playwright during his lifetime.”

Of course the achievement of Euripides in Bakkhai continues to be rediscovered by each new age, reassessed according to its needs and … blinders. The enthusiasts of the 1960s found Dionysus a figure of liberation, of sexual and creative joy in the face of repression. Does our current reckoning with the consequences of religious mania make Pentheus a more sympathetic character? And what about Cadmus, grandfather to the god and worshiper, who is forced to endure seeing his descendants suffer this fate?

The final chorus of the tragedy:

The gods appear in many forms,
carrying with them unwelcome things.
What people thought would happen never did.
What they did not expect, the gods made happen.
That’s what this story has revealed.

Filed under: review, theater, tragedy

Homer’s Muse

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Filed under: photography

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