MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

At BAM: An Early Turnage Opera Still Packs a Punch

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Photo: Richard Termine


My Musical America review of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s debut opera Greek, given its belated New York premiere at BAM in a visiting production directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins:

NEW YORK–Raw rage and political engagement were the driving forces behind Mark-Anthony Turnage’s debut opera Greek. Familiar enough for a young artist just setting out, such motivations can make a powerful initial impact but tend to give the art they inspire a rapidly expiring shelf-life. And yet Greek has not staled in the three decades since its premiere.

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Filed under: Mark-Anthony Turnage, Musical America, review

Plaudits

IMG_0080Gianni Schicchi accepts the applause.

Filed under: photography

John Adams on the Yin and Yang of His Musical Life

My story for the Juilliard Journal on John Adams as he returns to conduct the Juilliard Orchestra next week at Alice Tully Hall. Program details here.

“What does it take to move us from our customary place?” John Adams asked in his commencement speech to the Juilliard class of 2011. “That is what we want when we confront a work of art, whether it’s a completely new creation or an impassioned performance of a masterwork from the past.” The acclaimed composer returns to Juilliard December 10—this time to conduct the Juilliard Orchestra in a program that pairs the Brahms Fourth Symphony with two 21st-century pieces: Ciel d’hiver by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho and Adams’ own Doctor Atomic Symphony.

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Filed under: Brahms, conductors, John Adams

Esa-Pekka Salonen to San Francisco Symphony

The ever-adventurous Esa-Pekka Salonen will take over the reins from Michael Tilson Thomas to lead San Francisco Symphony after Michael Tilson Thomas steps down in 2020.

From Michael Cooper’s report in the New York Times about this decidedly inspired choice:

“He definitely is somebody who has that sense of the interesting mission that the West Coast has been on for a while, and he has certainly been a part of it,” Mr. Thomas said, adding: “I’ve always felt with the San Francisco Symphony, since I first began to work with them, that they are really up for looking at things in new ways.”

From the San Francisco Symphony press release:

“From the very first approach, the San Francisco Symphony leaders and musicians and I were buzzing with
possibilities,” said Esa-Pekka Salonen. “The ‘what-ifs’ of the orchestra world were suddenly on the table in a real
way. Here is a top symphony orchestra in the place in America where things start; where the ways things have always
been done are interrogated, and where problems are first identified and then solved. In San Francisco itself and in
the San Francisco Symphony, I see both the big ideas being thought and the actual work being done, and that, to me,
is irresistible.
I wasn’t looking for another Music Directorship. I am so proud of the work we did together at the Swedish Radio
Orchestra, at the LA Philharmonic, and at the Philharmonia Orchestra, and that those organizations where I’ve held
music director titles thrive without me gives me great joy. But there was a ‘no brainer’ aspect to this that I’ve been
fortunate to have experienced a few times before in my career, so I know it when I see it. The San Francisco
Symphony is an ensemble and an organization at the top of their game, renowned for their interpretations of
masterpieces and unafraid to treat new works the same way. They have had the powerhouse combination of
Michael’s exacting musicality and freedom of spirit for 25 years: a legacy I’m privileged to inherit.“

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Filed under: conductors, music news

Going Greek

Preparing for Mark-Anthony Turnage’s 1988 opera Greek, to Steven Berkoff’s retelling of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. BAM is presenting this staging by Joe Hill-Gibbins in a co-production with Opera Ventures and Scottish Opera.

Filed under: new opera

In a Hammershøi Mood

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Filed under: photography

Now Playing: He(a)r by Nordic Affect

Nordic Affect, an ensemble from Iceland that was formed in 2005 by period instrument musicians, has released a new album on the Sono Luminus label. He(a)r is “an ode to hear, here, hér [the Icelandic word for “here”], and her,” writes Halla Steinunn Stefánsdóttir, Nordic Affect’s artistic director and composer of the title piece, which is interspersed as seven tracks between the six other compositions on the album. “It springs from treasured collaborations that allowed us to ‘send sound and receive sound’ (Pauline Oliveros)” an offers a “meditation on embodiment, acoustics, and ecology. An album which rides on the wave of questions that rise and rise — Whose sounds? Whose bodies? Whose voices?”
Violinist Stefánsdóttir is joined by her colleagues Guðrún Hrund Harðardóttir (viola), Hanna Loftsdóttir (cello), and Guðrún Óskarsdóttir (harpsichord) — all of them contributing vocals as well. A total of five women composers are represented here, all in world premiere recordings about space, time, illuminating contrasts, and the auras projected by sound.
They build sonic environments that beckon and alarm, lull and awaken. Especially powerful is Warm life at the foot of the iceberg by Mirjam Tally. She found her title in the work of Estonian poet Kristiina Ehin, explaining, “I think this title describes well the character and technique of this work: contrasts between ‘cold’ airy colors in high register plus rustle, and rhythmic ‘rocky’ sections, sometimes performed with extra pressure; and gliding between these two contrasting worlds, Like a melting iceberg, unstable on the ground, rapidly vanishing.”
I’m also keenly drawn to the music of Anna Thorvaldsdóttir, represented here by two works: the exquisite violin-viola-cello trio Reflections and Impressions, which opens the ears to an entire new universe of sonorities using prepared harpsichord.
Along with Hildur Guðnadóttir’s Point of Departure, which explores the “delicate relationship between a person and her instrument, with the addition of the tuning together with other musicians and their voices,” there are also two pieces by María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir: Loom and Spirals (the YouTube track linked above), which is the last in a trilogy she has written for Nordic Affect. Its predecessor, Clockworking, became an international breakthrough for the ensemble and similarly ruminates on the meaning of time. The composer says: “In Spirals, dense chords, a lost cadence, sounding through an old piano, and fragmented sounds from old music boxes are the original departure points that the piece revolves around. These spirals are not precise or mathematical, they refer to time and musical motion.”

Filed under: recommended listening

Kurtág’s Beckett Opera

Fin de Partie

I had a chance to listen to György Kurtág’s Fin de partie, his debut opera based on Samuel Beckett’s 1957 play Endgame (setting the French text Beckett originally produced). Deutschlandfunk Kultur offered an audio stream over the weekend.

Even without the visuals of Pierre Audi’s staging, the music has tremendous resonance. I can’t wait to have a chance to get the whole experience. You encounter the super-condensed attention to the moment you expect from Kurtág (now 92), but with that intensity extended over more than two intermissionless hours, and at the service of perhaps the greatest 20th-century playwright.

The much-anticipated world premiere, postponed for years, was conducted by Markus Stenz and and staged at La Scala. The cast included Frode Olsen, Leigh Melrose, Hilary Summers, and Leonardo Cortellazzi. In March, the production moves on the Dutch National Opera.

Here’s a sampling of some of the critical reaction:

Zachary Woolfe in The New York Times:


He can revel in mood, color and agile, even raucous, rhythms because there is barely a plot to convey. A sick man in a wheelchair (Hamm), his companion (Clov), his father (Nagg) and his mother (Nell) recall the joys and sorrows of the past and curse the indignities of the present and future. That’s all; that’s everything…. Fin de Partie is a farewell not just to a life and a marriage, but also to a whole culture. Mr. Kurtag is one of the last who remain of the generation of avant-garde composers that came of age during World War II and in its wake…

Fiona Maddocks in The Guardian:

Kurtág’s compositions have always been jewelled miniatures. Fin de partie is like a glistening string of them, perfectly suited to the granular nature of Beckett’s text. Only now has Kurtág agreed to release this work in progress (he has set roughly 60% of the text) … It feels complete… Beckett once told an actor preparing the play that he must “fill my silences with sounds”. Kurtág has done just that. Far from stamping on the face of mankind, this masterly composer has caressed it with all his own life’s worth.

Renato Verga for Bachtrack:

The work consists of 12 episodes (scenes and monologues, as the subtitle reads) preceded by a prologue that uses a poem by Beckett, Roundelay, sung by the mezzo-soprano, and an epilogue. The rehearsal of the 14 musical numbers required an exhausting process that took place in the composer’s home, thus the current interpreters bring the precious suggestions of the author himself with them and that is evident in the performance.

Paul Griffiths — who furnished the libretto for another late-in-life debut opera, Elliott Carter’s What Next? — offers this insightful preview:

Kurtág’s alliance with Beckett, his long-destined companion for clarity of vision and precision of utterance, started only when he was in his sixties, and then as if by accident. Ildikó Monyók, an actress and singer, had lost her power of speech as a result of a car accident, and was relearning to enunciate words by singing them, one at a time. Kurtág was reminded of a late Beckett text, “What is the Word,” which he then set in Hungarian translation, in 1990, for Monyók to perform to prompts from an upright piano, as if enacting on stage one of her therapy sessions…

Filed under: Kurtág, new opera

Color Field

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Filed under: photography

Underworld: Imagining the Afterlife

Underworld

Funerary Vessel with Dionysos in the Underworld (detail), South Italian, made in Apulia, 350–325 BC, terracotta. Red-figure volute krater attributed to the Darius Painter. Toledo Museum of Art. Gift of Edward Drummond Libbey, Florence Scott Libbey, and the Egypt Exploration Society, by exchange, 1994.19

Brilliant exhibition at the Getty Villa: Underworld: Imagining the Afterlife

The Underworld was a shadowy prospect for most ancient Greeks, characterized primarily by the absence of life’s pleasures. Perpetual torment awaited only the most exceptional sinners, while just a select few—heroes related to the Olympian gods—enjoyed an eternal paradise. Yet as this exhibition explores, individuals did seek ways to secure a blessed afterlife. Initiation in the Eleusinian Mysteries, an annual festival in Greece, promised good fortune in both this world and the next. Outside of mainstream religious practice, devotion to the mythical singer Orpheus and the god Dionysos also offered paths to achieving a better lot after death.

Some of the richest evidence for ancient beliefs about the afterlife comes from southern Italy, particularly indigenous sites in Apulia and the Greek settlement of Taras (present-day Taranto). Monumental funerary vessels are painted with elaborate depictions of Hades’s realm, and rare gold plaques that were buried with the dead bear directions for where to go in the Underworld. These works, alongside funerary offerings, grave monuments, and representations of everlasting banquets, convey some of the ways in which the hereafter was imagined in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE.

Filed under: art exhibition, classical art, Getty Villa

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