MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Serving up the music of memes

In Presence of a Master

Current project:

Filed under: Bartók, violinists

Igor Levit To Make Seattle Debut

Igor Levit

My Seattle Times piece on Igor Levit has now been posted:

Unclassifiable pianist Igor Levit finds meaning in composers from Bach to Prokofiev

It’s common practice in the classical-music world — and an often annoying one — to introduce young soloists by reeling off a litany of their competition prizes, strung together like a list of battles won.

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Filed under: pianists, preview, Seattle Times

Taking Chances


John Cage’s Living Room Music at Friday night’s [untitled] (presented by Seattle Symphony).

Filed under: concert programming, photography, Seattle Symphony

O Berio


photo (c)Brandon Patoc

You couldn’t come away from last night’s Seattle Symphony concert without a feeling that you’d been privy to a major occasion — a genuine historic moment for the orchestra, for music director Ludovic Morlot, and for audiences both longterm and new to the art.

The occasion was the SSO’s first time tackling Sinfonia, the Luciano Berio masterpiece that is simultaneously viewed as an icon of the end of the modernist era and as a template for postmodernism and today’s aesthetic of collage. Indeed, Berio’s project can arguably be described as a rebuttal of the main tenets promulgated by his colleagues Boulez and Stockhausen — rather as Ligeti likewise represents a powerful refutation. Even so, all of these composers are sometimes clustered together as “Modernists.”

Keep in mind that Sinfonia was composed for the New York Philharmonic’s 125th anniversary under the tenure of its dedicatee Leonard Bernstein, before the Pierre Boulez era there. A very different kind of “modern music,” in other words.

The smart thing is just to set the labels aside and recall that Berio earned a powerful reputation as a rare (at that time) contemporary “classical” composer who managed to bridge the divide between far-flung experimentalism and an apparent willingness and capacity to communicate with audiences.

His outlook was all-embracing, which, for Berio, meant a passionate conviction that music had to be intimately connected to all aspects of the surrounding cultural context. And the context of Sinfonia‘s composition, in 1968-69 — the “heavy” years of the 1960s, a time of revolution, confusion, and upheaval — still reverberates.

The SSO’s performance  — the Berio occupied the second half of the program –was prefaced by a dramatic darkening of the house and a brief, wonderfully personal video introduction from Morlot, projected onto a screen. Just enough to set the mood for a taste of that context, with a mix of musical and political reference points.

Playing to what appeared to be close to a packed house, Morlot and the SSO  were joined by the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth (for a contemporary updating of sorts of the role played by the group Berio originally had in mind — the Swingle Singers). The orchestra itself swelled across the stage, massively enlarged, with speakers placed downstage;  the amplified Roomful singers were discreetly “embedded” in their ranks  (I couldn’t tell what other elements may have been slightly amplified).

In his intro, Morlot referred to his initial experience of Sinfonia, to how hard it seemed to figure out what was happening in this music. And the sense of being inducted into a bafflingly unanticipated world drove this performance. It was irresistibly present in the opening gestures — the mysterious, almost atavistic summons from the tam-tam, which passes on to the seemingly disembodied voices of the octet.

[Boulez himself conducting Sinfonia]

From that moment forward, it was as if Morlot and the ensemble had set off sailing down a daunting, mythic river. Earlier in the week Morlot had led the Curtis Institute Symphony Orchestra in Sinfonia at Carnegie Hall, yet there was never an impression of neatly worked-out solutions and answers to Berio’s unprecedented challenges. Rather, much of the thrill came from sensing that everyone was out on a limb, unsure of how — or even whether — it would all work out.

“I think Berio’s music has inspired a lot of us to treat instruments in a virtuoso way that is nevertheless humane,” observes the composer Steven Stucky. “I mean both humane to the performers and humane to the listeners, a kind of friendly, Italian virtuosity…” For me, Morlot tapped successfully into this idea of virtuosity and complexity. Berio’s strategies came across as much more than technical adventures to be surmounted.

And the capacity of this music to shock, in a post-Rite of Spring world (the Stravinsky is of course part of Berio’s collage-scape), was in this performance also remarkable. For example, in passage where Berio isolates a gesture like a sforzando and exaggerates it through repetition, Morlot elicited a savage intensity of accentuation that suggested the struggle for a new kind of musical speech.

Much is made of the “overwriting” on the canvas of the scherzo from Mahler’s Second Symphony (in the pivotal third movement of Sinfonia). But a highlight for me was the apocalyptic “panic chord” from Mahler’s Third that also surfaces — a moment of awareness in nature, before the arrival of human consciousness, as Mahler construes it. In this reading Berio’s commentary and contextualization seemed to pinpoint the arrival of in surmountable despair, from which Sinfonia has to work out a “breakthrough” of its own.

Overall, Morlot’s account paid special heed to Berio’s interrogation of the intersection between instruments and voices, between words as purely “musical” melismas and as intelligible signifiers. The fine line dividing chaos/noise from musical sense is being renegotiated by Berio in a new social contract.

A contract that was rudely shredded by a cell phone in the row ahead of me cruelly timed to ring as accompaniment to Sinfonia‘s final measures — not a mere errant ring followed by an awkward silencing,  but the entire cycle of rings, the owner of the device displaying not the slightest degree of concern over inflicting this on his fellow humans.

Certainly the solutions of ultra-programmatic music offered by a Richard Strauss were no longer viable. Which may be why, in part, I was rather unsatisfied with the concert’s opener, the early tone poem Don Juan. Or that may just be down to the somewhat ruffled ensemble from the strings.

Morlot brought a few intriguing ideas to the score, pumping up the opening with an adrenaline rush and lingering over the tender passages with surreal, stop-motion gazes — abetted by  Mary Lynch’s glorious oboe solos and Jeff Fair’s rich, glowing horn. Some of it, though, felt like special pleading. Call it a moment of crisis, but I found myself growing impatient with Strauss’s tricks and poses.

It was delightful to hear the underrated Beethoven Second Piano Concerto in such a thoughtful, finely chiseled account — continuing Morlot and the SSO’s success with their Beethoven concerto series (the First, last October, was spellbinding).  Soloist Yefim Bronfman’s restraint, bordering even on understatement, surprised those familiar with his stentorian keyboard presence  — a quality he confirmed in a thundering encore of the scherzo from Prokofiev’s Second Piano Sonata.

One more chance to catch this program: Saturday 6 February at 8pm: go here for tickets.

–(c)2016 Thomas May. All rights reserved.





Filed under: Beethoven, Luciano Berio, Ludovic Morlot, review, Richard Strauss, Seattle Symphony

Another Layer to Berlioz

MEMETERIA by Thomas May

image ©Bernd Uhlig image ©Bernd Uhlig

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 favorite scores. Her choreographed version of Roméo et Juliette premiered at Paris Opera…

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Filed under: Uncategorized

Urban Living


Filed under: photography

Before … and After … and Now: Rabih Mroué’s Riding on a Cloud

On the Boards_Rabih Mroue

Fans of experimental theater and performance art are likely to already have Rabih Mroué’s latest show on their radar: titled Riding on a Cloud, it opened last night at On the Boards and plays through Sunday. But anyone interested in the issues that theater is so ideally suited to explore should see this unclassifiable performance. Anyone interested in the paradoxical truce between fiction and reality that underlies the very impulse to make art.

The Beirut-based Mroué wields a beguiling mixture of provocation and poetry, using his medium to pose fundamentally human questions about the identities we invent and the stories we fabricate to make sense of our past and present reality.

In Riding on a Cloud Mroué turns to the story of his own family– specifically of the youngest sibling, Yasser. Near the end of the Lebanese Civil War, in 1987 (when he was 17), Yasser was shot in the head by an urban sniper. He survived improbable odds, forced to slowly relearn as a young adult the lessons he had tackled in kindergarten.

Along with aphasia, one side effect of Yasser’s injury is the loss of his ability to process representations: he could no longer recognize the image of a person or thing (say, in a photograph) when abstracted from the reality — even including photographs of himself.

But the story that Riding on a Cloud seeks to tell isn’t the story of the war’s endless cycles of violence and suffering. Aside from a few specifically political references, Mroué shows no interest in dissecting blame for the war in this piece. (Some of his other theater works address different aspects of the conflict.) Most importantly, Riding on a Cloud does not offer a feel-good dramatization of “the human condition” and our capacity to heal; it’s not an entertainment to stir up emotions and then offer redemptive resolution.

Mroué works with fragmentary scenes, stringing them together by way of loose associations rather than linear narrative logic. There are many narrative tangents — the coincidence of his grandfather, Hussein Mroué (a significant Arab-Marxist philosopher), being assassinated by fundamentalists on the same day Yasser is shot by the sniper, or the sexual kindness a Soviet nurse shows Yasser when he is recovering — but before we can become too invested in any one of them, Mroué shifts his focus to provoke a fresh set of questions.

Moreover, he frames the entire piece so that we’re continually reminded of the divergence between what we’re seeing and what it seems to represent: Mroué’s dramaturgy, in other words, seeks to mirror Yasser’s Oliver Sacks-like condition — to see in it a kind of metaphor for the condition of art.

Rabih Mroué has written the script that Yasser actually performs — in Arabic, with subtitles and accompanying visuals on a large screen centerstage. Both language and visuals serve as the playwright’s tools to undermine the naive unification of what is represented with reality.  To what extent are these Yasser’s autobiographical memories, in sync with the “I” onstage who re-enacts them through narrative?  Should we understand Yasser to be representing or playing “himself”? How much is fantasy?

Through most of the show, Yasser is stationed at a desk downstage right (reminiscent of Spalding Gray). From there, casually dressed, he operates a complicated regimen of discs and tapes: a turntablist spinning memories. His voice is beautifully hypnotic, his Arabic flowing with elegant rhythms and poetic clarity. (The title Riding on a Cloud apparently comes from one of Yasser’s poems.)

But on occasion Yasser unpredictably abandons the role of performer and walks behind the screen, reappearing as a spectator of its images, of the stage. This juggling act between inside-out, role playing and reality, gives Riding on a Cloud a subtle, quizzical tone that’s best reflected by the often silent, attentive audience. We are given no cues to guide us to the “appropriate” response (which, in theater-as-entertainment typically manifests in the catharsis of corporate laughter as a relieving signal that “we get it”).

Throughout the piece are woven more abstract, non-narrative segments that give a taste of Mroué’s other projects as a video and installation artist. (Riding on a Cloud just appeared at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and was performed last year at MOMA in New York City, which earlier exhibited his pigmented inkjet prints The Fall of a Hair: Blow Ups drawing on cell phone images of violence.)

We see a sequence of TV screen snow shots, all the more mesmerizing in their variety: random “noise” usually left to be ignored, that here suddenly seems to offer an important clue, if only we could unlock its meaning…. Is this the image of the representations Yasser confronted after his injury?

In another memorable image, a video close-ups on a piano keyboard as five fingers painstakingly pluck out a slow melody. Its simplicity evokes the radical concentration of Arvo Pärt.

By its nature Riding on a Cloud provokes an uneasiness — the show is driven by a series of questions that beget more questions in their wake — but Mroué leavens this remarkable material with a welcome blend of warmth, humor, and humility.

The effect overall is marvelously liberating: as the artist points out in a recent interview, when we are forced to question everything, to meet reality (including ourselves) as a stranger, that means we have to abandon cliches and stereotypes as well. “You have to introduce yourself to yourself again.”

(C)2016 Thomas May. All rights reserved.


Filed under: On the Boards, review, theater

Collapsing Borders and Boundaries


Kid Koala - Nufonia Must Fall - Noorderzon_Festival_2014_@_Groningen_NL_ Jørn-Mulder-93

My preview of two upcoming events at Stanford Live has now been psoted:

The coming weeks feature two unusual programs in Stanford Live’s ongoing performance season—each featuring a uniquely unclassifiable collaboration with chamber musicians. Singer-songwriter and composer Gabriel Kahane joins with the innovative string quartet Brooklyn Rider to bridge the gap between folk-pop songs and instrumental music. And in Nufonia Must Fall, DJ extraordinaire Kid Koala transforms his graphic novel into a one-of-a-kind music theater/film hybrid with the help of the Afiara Quartet, director-designer K. K. Barrett, a team of puppeteers—and a timeless tale of robots in love.

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Filed under: new music, preview, Schubert

Happy Birthday, Wolfgang!

Filed under: Mozart

The Miró Quartet’s “Transcendent” Project

MEMETERIA by Thomas May

miro1.jpgTo celebrate its 20th anniversary year, the Miró Quartet has been pursuing some characteristically innovative and ambitious projects. This week the group announced the winner of its Transcendence Education Project: the Fox Chapel Area High School Orchestra in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Entrants had been invited to submit a 30-second video on the topic of ‘musical transcendence’ with prizes including a free masterclass and other chances to interact with the Miró Quartet.

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Filed under: Uncategorized

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