MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Bach & the Mendelssohns: A Consideration by Byron Schenkman & Friends

img_5481

I was fortunate to be able to catch the season-opening program of Byron Schenkman & Friends — already in their 4th season! — at the end of an unusually packed weekend.

What a pleasurable way to regain focus: here was an intelligently programmed and charmingly presented concert that mixed masterworks with some fascinating novelties.

Most of all, it was filled with terrific music-making by colleagues whose enjoyment and passion drew the audience in. There’s always a feeling at a Byron Schenkman & Friends performance that it’s not merely about “presenting” a pre-packaged menu: it’s about sharing that experience as intimately as possible, drawing on the energy and involvement of the listeners — basically, in other words, the chamber music ideal.

Schenkman built his program around the ties that bind J.S. Bach and the Mendelssohn family — not only Felix, whose advocacy of the Thomas Cantor through his landmark revival of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829 is a famous  landmark of Bach reception, but older sister Fanny as well.

Schenkman pointed out that Fanny helped to prepare that performance of the St. Matthew Passion, and her reverence for Bach informed her own musical composition. While still in her cradle, he remarked, Fanny was lovingly described in a letter as wiggling what her prescient mother sensed were destined to be “Bach-fugue-playing fingers.”

The first half of the program was framed with tasteful accounts of Bach works as they may have been revived at a salon gathering chez Mendelssohn (say, while the siblings were growing up, or later, at Felix’s beautiful home in Leipzig).

With Schenkman at the keyboard (the Steinway typically used by Seattle Chamber Music Society for programs in Nordstrom Recital Hall, where the concert was held), Seattle Symphony principal violist Susan Gulkis Assadi played an arrangement for her instrument of the G major Sonata BWV 1027 that was redolent with color and expressivity.

Later came a version of the Concerto in F minor (BWV 1056) for piano and string quartet (with Gulkis Assadi joined by violinists Ingrid Matthews and Liza Zurlinden and cellist Geoffrey Dean), its haunting middle-movement melody — familiar from recycling elsewhere in Bach’s work — an especially effective foil to the restless turbulence surrounding it.

Schenkman eloquently introduced the work of Fanny Mendelssohn, describing her social position as a woman in an assimilated Jewish family in Biedermeier-era Germany — and the constraints to pursuing a composing career this entailed.

And the sense of palpable loss came through most unmistakably in the two selections of her work that were programmed: a Fantasy in G minor for cello and piano, with its genuinely memorable melodic pathos (Schenkman here joined by Dean), and one of her wordless Songs for the Piano, “Il Saltarello romano” (Op. 6, no. 4), one of the few pieces she managed to publish in her name.

But several pieces, according to Schenkman, she was able to publish only under her brother’s name. He referred to Felix’s well-known friendship with Queen Victoria, who once asked him to play her favorite number from his Songs without Words — whereupon he reportedly confessed that it was actually not his, but the work of his sister.

img_5483-1

Mendelssohn’s study in Leipzig

The second half of the program offered a particularly rousing account of a late-period masterpiece by Felix Mendelssohn — and one of the highlights of the 19th-century literature — the C minor Piano Trio, Op. 66. It’s the last chamber piece the composer managed to have published with his approval (in 1846) before his untimely death in 1847– less than a half-year after the devastating loss of his beloved Fanny.

Zurlinden, Dean, and Schenkman together homed in on the Romantic passions and extremes of this marvelous score — the opening shared something of the atmospheric suspense of the much earlier Hebrides Overture — allowing the consoling second theme to expand and blossom at leisure.

I also admired the refinement of tonal balances between the strings and Schenkman’s piano textures. The Bach connection came through with noble effect in the finale, with the emergence of the quasi-chorale — beautifully shaped by the players — against an agitated backdrop (an idea Brahms would later take up in his Third Piano Quartet).

Next up — Music for the Sun King — is a program devoted to one of Schenkman’s special loves: the French Baroque.

(c)2016 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Byron Schenkman, Mendelssohn, review

(Prokofiev) x2 + Beethoven 1 + Beethoven 8 = SSO Triumph

 

 

With their first subscription concert  of the new season, the Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot have already scored a home run.

If you’re a fan of new music, you’ll regret missing this; ditto if you’re fan of the core classical repertoire. That in itself gives a good indication of just how remarkable this program is.

Last weekend I previewed Gabriel Prokofiev’s new work, an SSO commission.Having now heard the first full rehearsal as well as the live world premiere of this music, I’m genuinely thrilled by what Prokofiev has accomplished.

Titled When the City Rules, his new composition is a substantial, vividly imagined, and expertly constructed half-hour-long symphonic fantasia inspired by the phenomenon of the mega-city in contemporary life. It’s not program music in the old-fashioned sense of trying to “translate” a narrative into musical terms.

When I spoke to the composer recently, he said he relished the “magical” way in which music can generate images or feelings “without being super-exact”: how it can negotiate a space between pure abstraction and a medium like film, triggering multiple subjective “plots” according to each listener, since the musical images are so “open to interpretation.”

What he does in When the City Rules is to offer a broad suggestive framework for each of the four movements: an overview of the great, looming city and the life of its citizens (think London of today, where Gabriel Prokofiev resides). His “dramaturgy” juxtaposes the big picture with suggested “close-up” moments of characters or particular feelings.

So the first movement, opening with a beautifully sustained atmosphere of layered strings, evokes “the memories that cities hold” but also the modern city’s power; an “Andante Nostalgico” touches on the melancholy associated with cities and the desire to escape to something more pristine; considerable energy and excitement come to the fore in the third movement, which taps into the nervous, ceaselessly busy energy that not only keeps the city going but is a defining trait; and a “Rondo Brilliante” finale replete with echo effects to bring the work to a bracing climax and conclusion.

But it’s no simple affirmation: by then we’ve encountered a matrix of brooding, even oppressive sounds along with Prokofiev’s most animated writing. It’s tempting to work in a sci-fi level of interpretation, of a city becoming conscious of itself and its rulership over mere mortals.

Of course the four-movement pattern just outlined can suggest a more or less classically oriented symphony as well. The point is, there’s no doubt that When the City Rules is a milestone for Gabriel Prokofiev, whether you want to use that generic touchstone or prefer to approach it as a composition sui generis.

This is no mere patchwork of “impressions” or clever soundscape-vignettes, but an ambitiously conceived large-scale piece that works in real time (though I think it could perhaps benefit from a tad more tightening in a passage here or there).

Even though Gabriel Prokofiev first caught the music industry’s attention thanks to his talent for bridging the worlds of classical music and the electronica of the popular dance club scene — his Concerto for Turntables & Orchestra was featured at the 2011 Proms — When the City Rules is, notably, written entirely for acoustic orchestra, with no electronic “bells and whistles.”

And written with marvelous flair and fluency, using its rich palette in a way that makes the orchestra itself embody a vision of the city, both as ensemble and with its prominent roles for particular protagonists (flute, cello, and trumpet, most notably, and, to wonderful effect in the “nostalgic” slow movement, a solo saxophone).

When the City Rules moreover reveals a composer with a convincing sense of where his short, often rhythmic motifs can take us, of where the music needs to “go.” Anyone expecting a one-trick game — or a repeat of Prokofiev’s orchestral rethink of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s classic “Baby Got Back” (which brought another round of viral fame during his last collaboration with the SSO and Morlot, in 2014) — is in for a big surprise.

The masterfully built-up ostinato patterns that play such a key role in When the City Rules distantly recall a trait of his grandfather, Sergei Prokofiev, as does the tone of darkened, sardonic humor and even menace they sometimes conjure. There’s also a hint of 21st-century Sacre Stravinsky in the tracks of jagged rhythms that crunch and pop.

Prokofiev’s ongoing interest in electronic and dance club music remains present as an ongoing feature. “I think those styles work brilliantly in the concert hall,” he told me, citing the pervasive use of dance rhythms in the most familiar classical music. “They just happen to be dance rhythms that are 200 years old.” And from his work DJing, Prokofiev says he has learned techniques of “mixing and cutting something up —  the way dance music will be manipulated to rise up to climaxes.” These are a contemporary version, in one way, of what Beethoven does with his slicing and recombining of short, potent motifs by way of “development.”

When the City Rules  is an extraordinary achievement, but just as extraordinary is the fact that Morlot and the SSO, within a few days of first reading through the score together, have been able to deliver such a gripping and well-polished interpretation of this music for the premiere. Jeffrey Barker (flute), Efe Baltacıgil (cello), and David Gordon (trumpet) added particular flavor with their vividly characterized solo parts.

Any commission is by definition a risk: I’d like to think the generous patrons who underwrote this one (Norman Sandler and Dale Chihuly) realize what a winner they’ve picked.

 

And Gabriel Prokofiev’s piece was only one of the success stories of the program. Grandfather Sergei was also represented, with a performance of his compact but immensely varied and orchestrally eventful Symphonic Suite from his opera The Love for Three Oranges.

Prokofiev was a master composer for the stage, but he endured an absurd amount of bad luck in that arena. This Suite is an example of some of his best opera music being siphoned off into an arrangement for the concert hall. If Prokofiev’s wash of added percussion proved  overpowering in the most vehement ensemble moments, the precision and balance of the strings were especially admirable. The detailed preparation of the Suite as a whole, with its many virtuosic flourishes,  was nothing short of astounding, considering the amount of attention needed to prepare the brand-new score of the evening.

And then the Beethoven: since these reflections have already gone on at length, I’ll have to defer my more detailed impressions until later in the ongoing Beethoven cycle this season. To quickly sum up: it’s thrilling to observe how much more confident and focused Morlot is becoming in his approach to these icons of the classical rep.

This program in particular, framed by Beethoven’s First Symphony and his Eighth, even replicated something of that growth, with Morlot stepping even further out and taking greater risks in his account of the Eighth Symphony, which rounded this abundant evening of music off with a rousing conclusion.

The program repeats Saturday and Sunday.

(c)2016 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

 

Filed under: Beethoven, Ludovic Morlot, new music, review, Seattle Symphony

Igor Levit’s Big Win

There’s so much music news I’m still trying to catch up with: including the recent announcement of pianist Igor Levit’s big win. His mammoth account of three sets of variations — and it is a fantastic recording — was named 2016 Recording of the Year, the top prize from Gramophone.

My profile of Levit appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Listen Magazine:

It’s early February, over lunch before his Seattle debut later in the evening, and Igor Levit can’t stop talking about how thrilled he is to be touring the United States. It was only two years ago that the Russian-German pianist made his first U.S. appearance — choosing the unusually intimate venue of the Board of Officers Room at the Park Avenue Armory (seating for about 150) — just a few days before jumping in at the last minute for Hélène Grimaud in a City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra concert. (He did the same for Maurizio Pollini three months later.)

continue reading

Hugo Shirley interviewed Levit when Gramophone first reviewed the recording — Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, and Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated! (Sony Classical) — for the November 2015 issue.

When I meet Levit in Berlin he is quick to make clear that he sees these composers as a trinity of equal importance. He doesn’t feel for one moment any sense of special pleading in the inclusion of Rzewski, the radical, consonant-heavy American composer (the name is pronounced ‘jefski’) whose People United was composed in 1975 as a modern complement to Beethoven’s great set of 33 variations on Diabelli’s simple little waltz.

The fact that it has 36 variations, following the 33 and 30 ‘Veränderungen’ (the German word implies something more transformational than the somewhat flat English equivalent) of the Diabellis and the Goldbergs respectively, offers just one pleasing numerical development between these works, with Bach’s set providing a foundational lexicon of variation techniques that both Beethoven and Rzewski build upon.

Congratulations, Igor Levit!

Filed under: Bach, Beethoven, Frederic Rzewski, pianists, profile

The Joyce of Music: Opening Night with the Seattle Symphony

1617_Concerts_openingnight917_CarlinMa-2014.jpg

My review of Seattle Symphony’s opening night program with guest star Joyce Di Donato has now been posted on Bachtrack:

“Wishing your lover dead is a terrible way to come back to Seattle”, remarked Joyce DiDonato, her lips twisting in mock consternation as she faced the tumultuous applause following her outrageously over-the-top rendition of “Ove t’aggiri, o barbaro” from Giovanni Pacini’s 1845 dramma lirico Stella di Napoli (the title, too, of her 2014 release blending bel canto classics and rarities).

continue reading

 

Filed under: Ludovic Morlot, review, Seattle Symphony

Gabriel Prokofiev, Agata Zubel: A New Season of Commissions at Seattle Symphony

gprokofievMy latest piece for the Seattle Times (in the Sunday edition) has now been posted online:

What drives a composer to write music — especially for a group as complex as a symphony orchestra?

The Romantic era has conditioned us to look for the answer in lofty concepts like “self-expression” and “genius.” But that represents only one variable in an intricate equation.

continue reading

Filed under: commissions, Ludovic Morlot, new music, Seattle Symphony

John Adams in Berlin

09-adamsJohn Adams has just started his season as artist-in-residence with the Berlin Philharmonic — with a program in which he also makes his debut conducting the Berliners.

BP’s Digital Concert Hall will live stream tonight’s performance (19:00 Berlin time). My essay for the Berlin Philharmonic program is available on the labeled tab here.

Filed under: Berlin Philharmonic, John Adams

RIP Edward Albee (1928-2016)

Another great artist of our time is gone. From the New York Times obituary:

“All of my plays are about people missing the boat, closing down too young, coming to the end of their lives with regret at things not done, as opposed to things done,” he said in the 1991 Times interview. “I find most people spend too much time living as if they’re never going to die.”

Jeff Lunden for NPR:

“You know, if anybody wants me to say it, in one sentence, what my plays are about: They’re about the nature of identity,” he said. “Who we are, how we permit ourselves to be viewed, how we permit ourselves to view ourselves, how we practice identity or lack of identity.”

From Playbill:

His home in Manhattan was in a loft in a former egg warehouse in TriBeCa, which he bought long before the neighborhood became trendy. Always interested in art, he filled it with large African and pre-Columbian sculpture and abstract paintings.

Several years ago, before undergoing extensive surgery, Mr. Albee penned the following note to be issued at the time of his death: “To all of you who have made my being alive so wonderful, so exciting and so full, my thanks and all my love.”

 

Filed under: Edward Albee, theater

Miller Theatre’s Salute to Steve Reich

Tomorrow’s sold-out concert at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre opens the season with a focus on Steve Reich.

The program includes two somewhat lesser-known works, both variations: Daniel Variations and You Are (Variations).  Here is the program essay I wrote for the Miller Theatre:

“The function of music is to refresh the spirit and stimulate the mind.” Alluding to J.S. Bach’s title page to the third part of his Clavierübung, Steve Reich once contributed this response to a question about the function of contemporary music.

continue reading

Filed under: essay, Steve Reich, Uncategorized

Lagrime di San Pietro

Overwhelmed by this late Renaissance masterpiece from the end of Orlando di Lasso’s life: Grant Gershon will lead the Los Angeles Master Chorale in a performance to open their season next month — in a new staging by the brilliant Peter Sellars.

A teaser, from an interview I just conducted with Sellars:

Lagrime is one of the most magnificent pieces in the history of music: vivid and complex and yet an incredibly humble last work .

Orlando at this point in his life — just 30 years after the death of Michelangelo — does not need to prove anything to anyone. He is writing because this is something he has to get off his chest to purify his own soul as he leaves the world. It’s private, devotional act of writing, but these thoughts are now shared by a community — by people singing to and for each other…”

Filed under: Grant Gershon, Los Angeles Master Chorale, Peter Sellars, Renaissance music, Uncategorized

Singing Archeology

That’s the term one of Philip Glass’s collaborators, Shalom Goldman, famously applied to the idea of transforming texts from ancient artifacts into the libretto for Akhnaten. Glass worked with Goldman and a handful of others to craft the libretto for this third in his trilogy of “portrait operas” including Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha.

I’m completely spellbound studying this work now ahead of the Los Angeles Opera production directed by Phelim McDermott and starring Anthony Roth Costanzo  (which premiered to ecstatic reviews last spring at ENO).

Glass stated that he was drawn to these iconic figures as “people who changed the world through the power of ideas rather than through the force of arms.” Recalls Glass:

I came across a work by [Immanuel Velikovsky] that was new to m: “Oedipus and Akhnaten.” It is a concise and scholarly work in which Velikovsky attempts to trace the origin of the Oedipus legend to the period of Akhnaten, the 18th-Dynasty Egyptian pharaoh who, in modern times, is looked upon as the first monotheist. Like everything else about Akhnaten, though, this one-word description hides more than it reveals.

Filed under: Los Angeles Opera, Philip Glass

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

RSS Arts & Culture Stories from NPR