MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Serving up the music of memes

Tannhäuser at the Met

Tannhäuser has returned to the Met. Here’s my essay for the Met’s program:

Wagner never completely came to terms with Tannhäuser. On the
evening of January 22, 1883, less than a month before his death, he
ended a conversation with his wife Cosima by playing the Shepherd’s
Song and Pilgrims’ Chorus on the piano. In her diary entry for that day, Cosima quotes her husband lamenting that, “he still owed the world a Tannhäuser.”

Even if Wagner was merely referring to a production suitable for Bayreuth
(where the opera would be posthumously introduced under Cosima’s direction
in 1891), he remained anxious long after Tannhäuser’s premiere in 1845 abouthow to improve what he had created.

This anxiety bordered on obsession: Tannhäuser stands alone among the canonical Wagner operas as a continual “work-in-progress” over which the composer restlessly fretted, rethinking its premises on the occasion of each new production and periodically subjecting it to revision.

continue reading [pdf: p. 40]

Filed under: essay, Metropolitan Opera, Wagner

John Luther Adams at the Miller Theatre

Last night Columbia University’s Miller Theatre presented the opening of its John Luther Adams concert trilogy celebrating JLA as this year’s Schuman Award winner.

Together these three concerts are presenting JLA’s trilogy of large-scale memorials to his parents and to his musical parent (Lou Harrison). Last night Steven Schick conducted ICE in a luminous performance of Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing: music you wish would never have to come to an end.

Especially notable was the sustained realization of the sheer sensuousness of JLA’s voicings, so deftly counterbalanced with the abstract structure of the piece.

Here’s the essay I wrote for these programs:

Extraordinary Listening: A John Luther Adams Trilogy

“Music is not what I do. Music is how I live. It’s not how I express myself. It’s how I understand the world.”
—John Luther Adams

One among many moments of dazzling clarity in the writings and reflections of John Luther Adams, this artistic credo points to a composer deeply rooted in the American maverick tradition of figures like Lou Harrison, John Cage, and Morton Feldman: figures who have operated outside the business-as-usual conventions of making and thinking about music.

continue reading

Filed under: John Luther Adams, new music essay

Paul Taub Presents New Works for Flute + Ensemble

The intrepid flutist Paul Taub — a terrific force for new music in Seattle — is planning to present a program of five new commissions of works for chamber music and flute. The event is planned for 20 November at Seattle’s Chapel Performance Space.

The composers in the lineup are Tom Baker, Andy Clausen, David Dossett, Jessika Kenney, and Angelique Poteat. They’ve been asked to write pieces for an ensemble of flute (Taub) as well as clarinet (Laura DeLuca), cello (Walter Gray), contrabass (Joe Kaufman), piano (Cristina Valdes), and percussion (Matthew Kocmieroski).

Given Paul’s credentials as a passionate and effective new music advocate — he’s also a member of the adventurous Seattle Chamber Players — this program should be well worth attending.

Here’s some more from the press release on the criteria for this project:

Composers Tom Baker, Andy Clausen, David Dossett, Jessika Kenney and, Angelique Poteat have been chosen to participate in this project because of the high artistic quality of their work, the diversity of their styles, the varied stages of their career trajectories, and above all, because their music truly speaks to the public.

The variety of musical styles is a key element of the project. Baker and Kenney are well-established “mid-career” composers, with impressive resumes and works that have been played internationally. Poteat, in her late 20s, is emerging as a significant voice in the Seattle and national music world, with recent pieces commissioned by the Seattle Symphony. Emerging composers Dossett and Clausen (whose band The Westerlies has taken the jazz world by storm), are recent college graduates (Cornish College of the Arts and the Juilliard Jazz Program). The composers’ musical styles are varied and contrasting, with influences as diverse as jazz, electronics, Persian modes, classical music and improvisation.

Filed under: commissions, music news

Morlot and the Seattle Symphony Risk Traditional Rep

Opening Night Gala

My latest review of Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony is now live on Musical America (behind a paywall).

Here I cover the first two programs of the season that recently began (Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony and Mahler 1 in the first, Strauss’s Don Quixtore and Brahms’s Third Symphony in the second):

Now in his fifth season as the Seattle Symphony Orchestra’s music director, Ludovic Morlot has hit a sweet spot. The momentum he initially brought to the SSO has not slackened…

continue reading on Musical America (behind paywall)

Filed under: conductors, Ludovic Morlot, review, Seattle Symphony

A View from the Bridge at Seattle Rep

Seeing the excellent production of A View from the Bridge currently running at Seattle Rep, I was reminded of Arthur Miller’s genius for distilling his themes and situations into pared-down forms that are unrelentingly direct.

But the straightforwardness is deceptively simple: Miller’s plays make their stunning impact with the resonance of myth and archetype. Seattle Rep’s production certainly delivers that one-two punch: directed by Braden Abraham, the pacing is as tightly wound as the boxing lesson Eddie Carbone gives Rodolpho. (It’s fascinating to contrast Miller’s emulation of Greek tragedy with that of Eugene O’Neill or of his contemporary Tennessee Williams.)

Mark Zeisler’s gruff but not uncharming Eddie sounded the right note of insecurity that is the character’s fatal flaw (a bit overdetermined, perhaps, in Miller’s hint of a homoerotic attraction to Rodolpho in addition to Eddie’s jealousy over his niece Catherine — but Zeisler downplays the former in any case).

In much of the first act (does anyone perform the original free-verse one-act version anymore?) it seemed some of the audience wanted to defang what was making them uncomfortable about Eddie by trying to view the play as a comedy — Eddie as an Archie Bunker type they could easily mock. But Miller is no sit-com, and fortunately the isolated outbursts of giggles and snickering soon died out.

Amy Danneker makes a compellingly conflicted Catherine, gradually finding her way toward self-determination, with prodding from her Aunt Bea (played with great sympathy by Kristen Potter). Frank Boyd brings an interesting mix of passion, goofiness, and naivete, to Rodolpho. As his brother Marco — and fellow “submarine” (hidden illegal immigrant), Brandon O’Neill hides his simmering desperation uncomfortably until it inevitably comes to a boil at the play’s climax.

Leonard Kelly-Young is all gruff 1950s noir as the lawyer Alfieri, Miller’s take on the ancient chorus. Yet his final speech, about “settling for half,” delivers possibly the play’s most searing moment: “And so I mourn him — I admit it — with a certain…alarm.”

But back to the mythic/archetypal aspect of Miller’s dramaturgy. At the same time, View is deeply rooted in its 1950s setting, politically, socially, culturally. This fusion of place and realism with the archetypal reminded me of Edward Hopper, as did the superb work of the design team: Scott Bradley’s sets, Rose Pederson’s costumes, Geoff Korf’s lighting.

And that combination of realism and archetypes of course brings to mind the verismo aesthetic. So it’s no surprise View has been made into an opera (in fact, more than once): most famously, into a work of American verismo by William Bolcom.

One of the several reasons André Previn’s opera A Streetcar Named Desire is so unsatisfying, in my opinion, is the superfluous prospect of translating Tennessee Williams’s theater, inextricable from his language, to this medium. But Miller offers a composer more genuinely operatic possibilities.

Reviewing Lyric Opera of Chicago’s world premiere production of the Bolcom opera in 1999, the critic Philip Kennicott makes some thought-provoking observations:

If you believe what seems to be a growing consensus in American opera–that pursuing stylistic and dramatic originality is a dead end–then this can be judged a truly great American opera. Bolcom mixes it up–barbershop quartets, jazz, Broadway flourishes and Puccini–creating an unapologetic and dizzying stylistic mix. Had this opera been written while Bernstein was at his peak, reviewers would have proclaimed a new genius to rival the master.

If you believe that new opera need offer only a good evening of musical entertainment, stylistic and musical originality be damned, then Bolcom’s opera will seem like a mongrelized family portrait of the last century of operatic history.


Bolcom … seems to argue that this opera isn’t just more mix-it-up postmodernism but a genuine American verismo work that just happens to have been written in 1999 (and is meant to sound like 1955).

I expect that many listeners will have exactly the same reaction to this paradox of late-20th-century opera–is it really indistinguishable from the music theater we love from an earlier era?–as I did. They will enjoy it yet question the artistic integrity behind it.

Nonetheless, Bolcom’s new work has a feeling of tragic grandeur to it, and the Lyric Opera production spares no effort to underscore it.

Filed under: Arthur Miller, opera, review, theater

Brian Friel RIP

Filed under: playwrights

András Schiff on Bach

“Each day when I get up (and if there’s a piano) I have to play Bach for an hour. That’s how my day begins.”

Filed under: Bach, pianists

Remembering Auden

W.H. Auden died on this day in 1973 in Vienna. And just in time to mark the great poet’s legacy: Edward Mendelson’s splendidly edited series of Auden’s complete prose writings has been completed with volumes V and VI.

“This is what scholarly publishing is meant to be,” writes the critic Michael Dirda. His review continues:

Over the years I’ve collected Auden’s books — both his own and the works he edited — and so I feel reasonably familiar with his writing. But there’s much here I’d never seen before. At the same time, these pages refresh our appreciation of, say, the poet’s introduction to Anne Fremantle’s “The Protestant Mystics” or to his own selection of Dryden’s verse by showing them as products of a busy professional life.

Moreover, Mendelson’s notes and appendices contribute illuminating, and sometimes amusing, extra-textual detail….

[E]verything [Auden] says about poetry is sharp and authoritative: “In judging a poem, one looks for two things: craftsmanship — it should be a well-made verbal object; and uniqueness of perspective — nobody but the author could have written it.”

Filed under: anniversary, Auden, poetry

Slipped Disc Slip-Up

Grigory Sokolov's letter

Grigory Sokolov’s letter

A news item that — shockingly — has so far fallen through the cracks at Norman LeBrecht’s Slipped Disc: the pianist Grigory Sokolov has refused to accept the 2015 Cremona Music Award because one of the previous winners was Norman LeBrecht.

The Clasical Music blog reports that Sokolov posted this statement in Italian and Russian on his website:

Dear Mr. Bianchedi, ladies and gentlemen of Comitato Artistico di Cremona Mondomusica e Piano Experience.

‘I refuse to receive the prize, Cremona Music Award 2015. According to my ideas about elementary decency, it is shame to be in the same award-winners list with Lebrecht. G. Sokolov’

Filed under: music news

Crow Pose


Filed under: photography

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