MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

From Toscanini to Abbado: The History of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra

Filed under: Lucerne Festival

Così fan tutte at the Met

The Met’s new production of Così fan tutte, which is directed by Phelim McDermott, opened earlier this week. Here’s a link to my note for the program:

In December 1789, while he was immersed in composing Così fan tutte, Mozart concluded a letter to his friend Michael Puchberg with an invitation to stop by his apartment for an upcoming private rehearsal of the opera-in-progress….

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Filed under: Metropolitan Opera, Mozart

Julius Eastman Program Opens MärzMusik


I’m excited about this evening’s Julius Eastman program, which opens the 2018 MärzMusik Festival.

From artistic director Berno Odo Polzer’s statement on this year’s program:

Music offers time a centre. – This trope by John Berger puts the two main concerns of this festival – music and time – into a generative relation. Such a centre – in motion, elusive, non-geometric, plurimodal as it must be – would allow for a different point of view. From such a musical centre, one may sense the divergent temporalities each of us inhabits simultaneously, and draw relations to the ongoing fundamental transformations happening around us.

Yet the trope allows for another reading. The frozen self-image of Western art music places music outside of time as well as outside of its own time: by claiming avant-gardism – being ahead of its time, and by clinging to abstractions – timelessness, universality, structure. Contrary to this (Berger seems to suggest), music – all sorts of music – may in fact be a centre for and a portal to things temporal, may grant access to time in varied modalities.

More than ever, time – as a political category – is of the essence when it comes to learning to make sense of the erratic commotions of the present. Maybe music can help us find ways to do so. This is a time for listening.



Filed under: festivals, Julius Eastman, MärzMusik

Stephen Hawking, RIP

Stephen Hawking died at the age of 76 today, on 14 March — the birthday of Albert Einstein and Pi Day.

BBC coverage, with obituary, tributes, career highlights, etc.

–“A star just went out in the cosmos. We have lost an amazing human being. Stephen Hawking fought and tamed the cosmos bravely for 76 years and taught us all something importantabout what it truly means to celebrate about being human. I will miss him.” — theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss

Stephen Hawking website

Spiegel coverage

–Stephen Hawking’s favorite music:

Professor Stephen Hawking has nominated his three favourite classical works for a special concert at this year’s Cambridge Music Festival, which is taking place throughout this month. The festival’s theme is “Mozart, Music and Maths”, making the University of Cambridge’s Lucasian Professor of Mathematics the obvious person to approach for his all-time favourite pieces.

The concert will take place at King’s College Chapel on November 11 and will feature Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony Of Psalms, Henryk Wieniawski’s Violin Concerto No. 1 and Francis Poulenc’s Gloria.

Filed under: astrophysics, science news

Don Giovanni as Comedy

In his staging of Don Giovanni for Komische Oper Berlin (dating from 2014), Herbert Fritsch wants us to forget all about the mythology of the “demonic” that has been larded onto Mozart’s second collaboration with Da Ponte.

Put aside the heavy-weather, “D minor” brooding that E.T.A. Hoffmann emphasized, thus turning Mozart into a proto-Romantic. Forget about the Faustian echoes, the existential “aesthetic sphere” of Søren Kirkegaard, etc. etc.

Fritsch and his team zero in on Don Giovanni as above all a dramma giocoso, indeed an opera buffa, its roots in the commedia dell’arte made conspicuous. Veering far from the dangerous immoralist we tend to encounter, Günter Papendell portrays the Don as a hilarious combination of clown, matador, and vaudeville showman. Wearing a Joker-smeared smile throughout and detachable blond rug, he plays stadium-rock air guitar to accompany his mandolin serenade and disappears into Hell with his index finger pointing up, followed by a black-out. No choral epilogue, no moral to the story (sung in Sabrina Zwach’s very clever German translation).

By that point, the wonderful KOB orchestra — led by Ivo Hentschel with high energy that didn’t stint on flecks of lovely color — had the entire auditorium resounding with Mozart’s terrifying D minor. Yet it felt exhilaratingly fresh and theatrical, not the same old inevitable pattern.

Whatever criticisms one may have of Fritsch’s choices, he doesn’t “deny” or “contradict” the music — in fact, gestures showed great sensitivity to every detail of Mozart’s score — but is determined to wipe away the clichés. An interesting choice that initially baffled me but then seemed to work: the Overture is displaced until after the opening scene, breaking out like a commentary on what has just happened.

I thoroughly enjoyed this cast, especially Evan Hughes’s lanky, cheeky, self-pitying Leporello, the dynamic between Alma Sadé and Samuli Taskinen as Zerlina and Masetto, the dramatic force of Vera-Lotte Böcker’s splendid Donna Anna, and Karolina Gumos’s absurdly conflicted Elvira. (In a neat visual pun, she’s trapped in a twisting ruffle that turns her violently yellow dress into a giant question mark — “wtf???”)

The cartoonish shtick and artifice were indeed greatly enhanced by Victoria Behr’s colorful costumes and Fritsch’s own simple set of black-and-white lace design hangings in continual motion. The chorus of townspeople inched and lurched about the stage like zombies.

The aesthetic perspective here occasionally reminded me of those moments in Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous stagings where things are pushed to such a comic extreme that there’s room for unexpected reactions to emerge: especially in Don Ottavio’s two arias, rendered with heart-stopping lyricism by Adrian Stooper. The emotional dissonance is theatrically gripping, and Fritsch shows an unwavering conviction that opera is a form of theater.

Filed under: directors, Komische Oper Berlin, Mozart

Rising Up with Meredith Monk

In honor of International Women’s Day 2018, here’s a look at Meredith Monk and her Songs of Ascension.

MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Meredith Monk; photo by Masimo Agus Meredith Monk; photo by Masimo Agus

Songs of Ascension is one of Meredith Monk’s creations of the past few years. If you don’t know her incomparable music yet, this is a wonderful place to start exploring it.

Monk’s unclassifiable art is grounded in a unique understanding of the flexibility of the human voice. She loves to create new contexts in which to fathom its expressive depths. The result is music that sometimes sounds as if it had been quarried from an archeological dig or beamed in from a distant future. Both impressions emanate from Songs of Ascension, the tenth project Monk has recorded for ECM since her path-breaking Dolmen Music was released three decades ago. That discography charts her intrepid forays “between the cracks,” as Monk likes to put it, where different ways of perceiving the world through art converge.

On one level, Songs of Ascension encapsulates Monk’s aesthetic…

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Filed under: Uncategorized

14 Ways of Describing the Rain

Here, the experimental film from 1929 by Joris Ivens to which Hanns Eisler wrote his Op. 70 variations-score in 1941 (Vierzehn Arten den Regen zu beschreiben, in homage to his mentor on Schoenberg’s 70th birthday), using a Pierrot lunaire ensemble. This is what Daniel Barenboim selected to open the Boulez Saal’s first-anniversary concert on Sunday (alongside Schubert’s Introduktion und Variationen über Trockne Blumen and Pierrot lunaire itself).

The project inspired Theodor Adorno to collaborate with Eisler during their American exile in the 1940s on the short but potent book that first appeared in English as Composing for the Films (sic).

Eisler remarks:

What has brought about this research project is the question raised in recent years by musicians everywhere–is it really necessary to continue the current Hollywood practice of rehashing “original” scores with crumbs picked from the table of Tchaikowsky, Debussy, Ravel, Richard Strauss and Stravinsky? Is a new musical material possible? May it not even be more useful and effective?

Not hard to transpose that into our situation today…

Filed under: aesthetics, film music, Hanns Eisler, Uncategorized

Frank Castorf at Berliner Ensemble

For his first major post-Volksbühne production in Berlin, Frank Castorf has staged a version of Les Misérables at the Berliner Ensemble. It inaugurates a new relationship with BE, which itself is now its first season under Oliver Reese (following the quarter-century tenure of Claus Peymann).

Castorf brings his signature approach to Victor Hugo’s epic (whether in the full c. eight-hour “director’s cut” or “shortened” to a six-hour staging), blending characters and narrative threads from the novel with oblique references to Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s portrait of pre-revolutionary Cuba in Tres Tristes Tigres to generate a montage-like dream state of non-linear associations. The connection with the barricades of the 1848 Revolution in Paris has to do with Hugo’s pronounced support of Cuban freedom fighters.

The usual Castorf technical apparatus plays a central role: close-up real-time filming of the actors projected onto a large screen, using a fantastically lit rotating stage representing a Cuban cigar factory facade, a market stall, a sort of storage area, and a watchtower.

Excesses of physical exertion, emotion, reaction punctuate the theatrical rhythm to overwhelming, at times stupefying, effect. The most indelible performance of many highlights for me came from 85-year-old Jürgen Holtz, playing both Marius’ grandfather–in a nearly-half-hour-long opening monolog on the metaphoric sewers of Paris–and Bishop Myriel. Holtz’s portrayal of the latter’s compassion as an agent of social justice is theater at its most compelling.

Filed under: Frank Castorf, theater


In the mood to ignore this brutal Siberian cold spell and enjoy tonight’s Serse from 1738 (the Stefan Herheim production, conducted by Konrad Junghänel) at the Komische Oper.

Writes Richard Wigmore:

‘One of the worst that Handel ever set to music’, ran a contemporary verdict on the libretto of Serse, whose ‘mixture of tragic-comedy and buffoonery’ fazed London audiences in 1738. History, of course, has had its revenge. Today the very qualities that puzzled its original hearers – the lightly ironic, occasionally farcical tone, the fluid structure (many short ariosos, relatively few full-dress da capo arias) – have made Serse one of Handel’s most attractive operas for stage directors and audiences alike. There are episodes of high seriousness, above all in the magnificent sequence of Act 2 arias beginning with Serse’s aria di bravura ‘Se bramate’. But much of the invention has an airy melodiousness, whether in the dulcet minuet songs for the coquettish Atalanta, or Serse’s invocation to a plane tree, ‘Ombra mai fu’, immortalised and sentimentalised as ‘Handel’s Largo’.

 More background info here.

Complete Italian libretto here.


Filed under: Handel, Stefan Herheim

Morten Lauridsen at 75

Today marks the 75th birthday of Morten Lauridsen, a master of contemporary choral music. Here’s an essay I wrote last year for Chorus America about
Lauridsen’s impact:

On April 13, 1997, a Los Angeles audience experienced the world premiere of a piece that has since established itself internationally as one of the defining choral compositions of our time.

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Filed under: choral music, Morten Lauridsen

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