MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Night Shadows


Filed under: photography

Guest Report: Tom Luce on the BBC Proms

In this guest post, Tom Luce offers his reflections on the 2018 BBC Proms:

This year’s two-month season of the British Broadcasting Corporation Promenade Concerts based in London’s Royal Albert Hall ended on Saturday, 8 September, with the iconic “Last Night” celebration.

The preceding 90 concerts followed the pattern of recent years in providing full coverage of classical music but extending still further the boundaries of performance and repertoire.

Of 23 world premiere commissions, more than half were from women composers. A Tango Prom included some dancing on the stage, and a late evening concert introduced the Senegalese star Youssou N’Dour and his adventurous mixture of West African and Cuban popular music. Another featured electronic music associated with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

An emphasis on young performers included a concert given by recent members of the BBC’s “Young Musician” program. And one of them – 19-year-old Jess Gillam – was the brilliant soloist in the saxophone and orchestra arrangement of Milhaud’s Scaramouche played during the festive final concert. There were several impressive appearances by the BBC’s “Proms Youth Choir” drawn from young singers all over Britain.

Three centenaries were recognized in the programming as well.

The end of the First World War was marked with much interesting and reflective music from that period, as well as requiems by Verdi, Brahms, and Benjamin Britten. A new commission from Anna Meredith for the opening concert illustrated the separation stress of war for fighters and their families. For the final concert, a commission from Roxana Panufnik covered both the miseries of war and the prospect of reconciliation.

Debussy’s death in 1918 was commemorated with his own and other French music of the same epoc,h including a semi-staged Pelleas et Melisande from Glyndebourne Opera and a concert performance by Simon Rattle and his London Symphony Orchestra of Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges. Several pieces by Lili Boulanger, the talented French composer who died very young in 1918, movingly reflected war losses.

The centenary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth was celebrated by stunning semi-staged concert versions of West Side Story and On the Town, much of his orchestral music, and, in the companion Proms chamber series, some songs.

Seattle readers will be interested to know that Ludovic Morlot led a fine concert of Debussy and other French music with Britain’s City of Birmingham orchestra, standing in for their musical director, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, who was on maternity leave. And also that Thomas Dausgaard, his designated successor at the Seattle Symphony, conducted four concerts. Two were with the BBC Scottish Orchestra, which Dausgaard currently directs. The others were a pair of concerts by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra he also directs, which included all six of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and six “companion pieces” newly commissioned from half a dozen contemporary composers.

The BBC is a British public corporation. It operates under a Royal Charter requiring it to provide services which “inform, educate, and entertain.” Another requirement is that its services “should be distinctive … and should take creative risks, even if not all succeed, in order to develop fresh approaches and innovative content.”

These obligations explain, and probably inspire, the creative and adventurous programming the Proms series features, and also the very high quality of associated presentation material. All the main concerts are preceded by free lectures on their most interesting features. The quality of the concert program notes is invariably outstanding.

This year’s program confirms that, in scope and quality, the series has no equal. To my knowledge, it is not unusual for Americans and others from abroad to plan their summer holidays in London so that they can attend Proms concerts to experience classical music performances of exceptional breadth and quality within a consistently innovative framework.

All of the concerts are broadcast and most remain for thirty days globally accessible through the BBC’s Radio 3 Proms website.

Making recommendations amongst such riches still available is difficult. For big symphonic events, I would go for the Morlot and Rattle concerts on 15 and 18 August already mentioned; the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s program on 22 August including Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta and Mahler’s Fourth Symphony; his Third Symphony given with great power on 2 September by the Boston Symphony; an astonishingly vigorous and harmonious Beethoven Seventh symphony given later on the same day by the Berlin Philharmonic under Kiril Petrenko, their new music director-designate; and, finally, a Berlioz concert on 5 September, in which John Eliot Gardiner and his orchestra accompanied Joyce Didonato in two movingly delivered deaths — of Cleopatra and then Dido — followed by a superb performance of Harold in Italy.

Of at least equal interest are more-intimate experiences. On 29 August, András Schiff in a late-night concert (starting at 9.30pm and finishing close to midnight) played all twenty-four Preludes and Fugues in the Second Book of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier to an impressively absorbed audience of some 3,000 people. And on 6 September, close to the end of the series, and following a fine performance of Britten’s War Requiem earlier the same evening, Peter Philips and the Tallis scholars sang a somber and touching program of Compline music entitled Before the Ending of the Day.

–Tom Luce, London 9 September 2018

Filed under: BBC Proms

Seattle Symphony Is Gramophone‘s Orchestra of the Year

As part of its 2018 Classical Music Awards, Gramophone magazine has announced the winner of Orchestra of the Year, an inaugural category whose victor was determined by a public vote. SSO was the only non-European orchestra in the running.

I wrote this for Gramophone about the award:

‘Listen boldly’ enjoins the logo which the Seattle Symphony introduced in 2011 to mark the beginning of Music Director Ludovic Morlot’s tenure. In the years since, that challenge has been directed not just to their audience but to the organisation itself. Listening boldly means acknowledging the need to reimagine its own identity and taking steps to reposition the SSO within an increasingly compartmentalised cultural landscape.


Filed under: awards, Gramophone, Seattle Symphony

Ruth Reinhardt at Lucerne Festival

The talented young conductor Ruth Reinhardt, who returns to Seattle Symphony for a major concert next month (where she was a Conducting Fellow in 2015-16), led an impressive performance of Luigi Nono’s No hay caminos, hay que caminar … Andrej Tarkowskij this past Sunday — one of the highlights of this year’s Lucerne Festival Academy.

Reinhardt gave a brief introduction to this highly challenging piece, suggesting the possibility of perceiving in the highly structured, subtle transformations to which Nono subjects his material a “metaphor for the human journey, our pilgrimage through life.

The Nono work explores spatial music as well, with discrete groups of the players subdivided into seven and positioned throughout the hall. Before and after this concert (which also included Messiaen’s awe-inducing, terrifyingly loud Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum for winds and percussion, led by Sir Simon Rattle), the Orchestra of the Lucerne Festival Academy joined the London Symphony for Stockhausen’s Gruppen.

A fascinating juxtaposition: the devoutly Catholic Messiaen, the resolutely atheist Nono.

Filed under: conductors, Lucerne Festival, Lucerne Festival Academy

Joan Tower at 80

My profile of Joan Tower, who just turned 80 this month, is in the September issue of Strings magazine.
An excerpt:

Beethoven has been an enduringly powerful
influence. Distinctly uninterested in composing
to texts, Tower is committed to the
abstract power of music that makes sense on
its own terms. “One of my goals in writing any
piece of music is trying to make it as architecturally
strong as possible. Beethoven is my
model for music that is motivated by itself. The
context is what makes things happen.
“You could write a beautiful passage, but if
it’s not in the right place, it won’t sound beautiful.
It could be contextually out of whack.
So the question becomes how to make a piece
go from beginning to end with a narrative
that is motivated strongly.”

Filed under: chamber music, Joan Tower, profile, string quartet, Strings

Kosmos Stockhausen

Getting ready to take in my first experience of Lucerne Festival’s Kosmos Stockhausen series: a seven-concert homage to the powerful postwar avant-garde guru marking what would have been his 90th birthday this year.
My adventure will begin with this afternoon’s program of GESANG DER JÜNGLINGE, REFRAIN, ZYKLUS, and KONTAKTE, featuring Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Helga Karen on keyboards, Dirk Rothbrust on percussion, and sound designer Marco Stroppa.
Then comes a solo recital with Aimard performing KLAVIERSTÜCKE I-XI, GRUPPEN with the London Symphony and Lucerne Festival Orchestra (and, as the three conductors, Simon Rattle, Jaehyuck Choi, and Duncan Ward).
I wasn’t able to make the most-touted of the series, INORI in its Swiss premiere, but I’m planning to catch it during the Academy’s tour in Berlin as part of the Musikfest Berlin.

Katharina Thalmann offers a preview of INORI for the Luzerner Zeitung here. From her interview with the composer and conductor Peter Eötvös, who collaborated closely with Stockhausen, comes this observation about the work’s contemporary resonance:

Trotzdem: «Die Interpreten in diesem Projekt kommen aus der ganzen Welt zusammen, dadurch wird die multikulturelle Haltung von Stockhausen hier in Luzern am besten repräsentiert.» Denn fast scheint es, als hätte Stockhausen mit «Inori» in die Zukunft komponiert. Die mannigfaltigen religiösen und spirituellen Symbole, die in dem Werk aufeinandertreffen, nehmen das Konzept der Globalisierung vorneweg. Diese Weltvorstellung repräsentiert die heterogene, multikulturelle Zusammensetzung des Academy-Orchesters perfekt.

Manuel Brug writes about INORI here.
And in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Jürg Huber offers this commentary.

Filed under: Karlheinz Stockhausen, Lucerne Festival, Lucerne Festival Academy

Aidan Lang to Leave Seattle Opera for Welsh National Opera


Aidan Lang announced today that he will leave Seattle Opera in June 2019 to become general director of Welsh National Opera.

That means he’ll be departing just when Ludovic Morlot ends his tenure with the Seattle Symphony — although of course Morlot’s successor is already familiar to Seattle, the much-admired Thomas Dausgaard. The SSO also has a brand-new president, Krishna Thiagarajan, who replaced Simon Woods (now helming the Los Angeles Philharmonic), began his post this month.

Aidan Lang began his statement as follows:

“I am writing to share some bittersweet news. My time with you in Seattle will come to an end this June 2019, as I have been appointed as General Director of Welsh National Opera. This decision has not come lightly as I love dearly both this community and opera company. Coming to Seattle Opera was one of the greatest honors of my life and I am still absolutely thrilled to have had created opera with you. Seattle Opera is known around the world for its enthusiastic and generous opera community, for its warmth and welcoming atmosphere for artists, and more recently, for our commitment to racial equity.”

Lang’s complete statement is here.

Filed under: music news, Seattle Opera

Robert Delaunay and the City of Lights


The Kunsthaus Zürich is currently showing the largest Robert Delaunay retrospective to be seen in Switzerland to date. Robert Delaunay and the City of Lights explores the range of this artist’s astonishing originality, framing his inspirations against the backdrop of his beloved Paris and the dynamism of the city in the early 20th century.

The entire exhibit consists of about 80 paintings and works on paper, with especially well-designed displays devoted to his emergence in the heady years before the First World War and to his return to working with abstract color and optical theory later in his career.

Blouinartinfo offers a slide show here.

Filed under: art, art history, modernism

The Devastating Loss in Brazil

From Ed Yong, this assessment of the devastating losses in the aftermath of the conflagration that destroyed the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro:

The museum’s archeological collection had frescoes from Pompeii, and hundreds of Egyptian artifacts, including a 2,700-year-old painted sarcophagus. It housed art and ceramics from indigenous Brazilian cultures, some of whose populations number only in their thousands. It contained audio recordings of indigenous languages, some of which are no longer spoken; entire tongues went up in flames. It carried about 1,800 South American artifacts that dated back to precolonial times, including urns, statues, weapons, and a Chilean mummy that was at least 3,500 years old.

Owen Burdick reports this in a Facebook post:

Incalculable loss:
“There’s nothing left from the Linguistics division. We lost all the indigenous languages collection: the recordings since 1958, the chants in all the languages for which there are no native speakers alive anymore, the Curt Niemuendaju archives: papers, photos, negatives, the original ethnic-historic-linguistic map localizing all the ethnic groups in Brazil, the only record that we had from 1945. The ethnological and archeological references of all ethnic groups in Brazil since the 16th century… An irreparable loss of our historic memory. It just hurts so much to see all in ashes.”

Cinda Gonda, translated by Diogo Almeida, about the fire at Brazil’s National Museum.

Filed under: miscellaneous

New Artist of the Month: Nilo Alcala

Nilo Alcala 3

Credit: Jei Romanes of HyperLoveArt
instagram: @hyperloveart

Congratulations to composer Nilo Alcala, Musical America‘s New Artist of the Month for September. My profile here.

When his Mangá Pakalagián (“Ceremonies”) received its world premiere by the Los Angeles Master Chorale at Disney Hall in 2015, Nilo Alcala recalls being overwhelmed and humbled by the audience’s enthusiastic reaction…


Filed under: Musical America

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