MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

RIP Philip Roth (1933-2018)

Philip Roth has always been such a constant in my literary landscape.

From Charles McGrath’s NY Times obituary:

And yet, almost against his will sometimes, he was drawn again and again to writing about themes of Jewish identity, anti-Semitism and the Jewish experience in America. He returned often, especially in his later work, to the Weequahic neighborhood of Newark, where he had grown up and which became in his writing a kind of vanished Eden: a place of middle-class pride, frugality, diligence and aspiration.

Jason Diamond in Rolling Stone:

“What the Marx Brothers and Mad magazine were to comedy or the Ramones were to rock music, Roth was for American literature. He was a sly smile and smartass remark aimed at the establishment, rather than a middle finger or brick through its window.”

Here’s Roth’s own list (from 2016) of “the fifteen works of fiction he considers most significant to his life”:

“Citizen Tom Paine” by Howard Fast, first read at age 14
“Finnley Wren” by Philip Wylie, first read at age 16
“Look Homeward Angel” by Thomas Wolfe, first read at age 17
“Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger, first read at age 20
“The Adventures of Augie March” by Saul Bellow, first read at age 21
“A Farewell to Arms” by Ernest Hemingway, first read at age 23
“The Assistant” by Bernard Malamud, first read at age 24
“Madame Bovary” by Gustave Flaubert, first read at age 25
“The Sound and the Fury” by William Faulkner, first read at age 25
“The Trial” by Franz Kafka, first read at age 27
“The Fall” by Albert Camus, first read at age 30
“Crime and Punishment” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, first read at age 35
“Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy, first read at age 37
“Cheri” by Colette, first read at age 40
“Street of Crocodiles” by Bruno Schulz, first read at age 41

Filed under: American literature

Sheku Kanneh-Mason Coming to Seattle

Sheku Kanneh-Mason moved countless viewers around the world playing “Sicilienne” (attributed to*) Maria Theresia von Paradis (a contemporary of Mozart), Fauré’s “Après un rêve,” and Schubert’s “Ave Maria” at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

Because of the engagement, Kanneh-Mason had to forego what would have been his U.S. orchestral debut in LA (with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.

And so lucky Seattle gets to be the host for the cellist’s actual U.S. debut in the fall: with the Seattle Symphony under conductor Ruth Reinhardt, when he will be the soloist in Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations.

He’ll also give a concert in the Debut series at Lucerne Festival on 30 August, with his sister Isaka Kanneh-Mason at the keyboard.

*From the musicologist Michael Beckman (this fascinating update passed along to be by Elena Dubinets): “Can’t help noting that one of the cello pieces played at the royal wedding, the “Sicilienne” supposedly by Mozart’s blind contemporary Maria Theresia von Paradis, is actually a fake by the 20th century violinist and hoaxster, Samuel Dushkin. Pretty piece and perfect for a romantic ceremonial occasion…but also an exotic mashup based partly on a violin sonata by Weber.”

See Schott’s page for this score here:
“According to the latest research findings, ‘Sicilienne’ was not written by Maria Theresia von Paradis, but by Samuel Dushkin.”

Filed under: cello, Lucerne Festival, music news, Seattle Symphony

Ellen Reid: Excavating American Dreams

Here’s the piece I wrote for the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s world premiere of reams of the new word by the team of composer Ellen Reid, librettist Sarah LaBrie, and researcher Sayd Randle.

“In classical and concert music right now, a lot of people are trying to think of how to reflect the world we feel we are living in and the world we want to be living in,” says composer and sound artist Ellen Reid…


Filed under: American music, commissions, Los Angeles Master Chorale, new music

Harry Partch Fest at the University of Washington

I was lucky to catch last night’s concert, part of a weekend festival exploring the music and ideas of Harry Partch at the University of Washington.

Here’s a video of curator and professor Charles Corey introducing the Harry Partch instruments collection at UW.

Here’s a video of the final part of Partch’s The Wayward, his collection of hobo-themed pieces set during the Great Depression:

Filed under: American music, Harry Partch

Gaman at Music of Remembrance

Shokichi Tokita.jpgI had the privilege of interviewing Shokichi Tokita for my latest Seattle Times  story. As a boy of 8, he was incarcerated with his entire family at the infamous Minidoka”War Relocation Center” in Idaho soon after Pearl Harbor.


Filed under: Music of Remembrance, Seattle Times

Vivo in Te

What a pleasure to get to hear Julia Lezhneva and partner in crime Dmitry Sinkovsky again, just a couple months after the Easter Festival in Lucerne. This time was the soprano’s Seattle debut. A heavenly evening of Vivaldi and Handel, with “Vivo in Te” as their encore.

Filed under: Baroque opera, Dmitry Sinkovsky, Handel, Julia Lezhneva, Vivaldi

ABIAH Sings Nina

a2537234916_16Hat tip to Seth Parker Woods for turning me on to this release by ABIAH, available on Bandcamp.

Here’s the artist on Nina Simone as his inspiration:

Nina Simone inspires me in unimaginable ways. Upon encountering her music as a college student, I was captivated by her voice and artistry. Her prodigious piano playing and unique voice spoke to my soul. When I heard her voice, I could see the text in an almost technicolor way. At that very time, I was studying the vocal art of text painting by composers such as Schubert and Schumann. From the first time I heard Nina, she was in full display in her vocal murals. I was transfixed and sought to do the same in my own music making. The beauty of her art was also congruent to the musicianship I was acquiring. Her aspirations of being a classical pianist were akin to mine as an opera singer of African descent. I believe we both found it daunting but attainable.

Filed under: vocal music

Patricia Kopatchinskaja Comes to California

ojai-at-berkeley@2xPatricia Kopatchinskaja is an ideal choice to be this year’s music director of the Ojai Festival. In advance of the festival’s northern edition, Ojai at Berkeley, here’s my profile of this incomparable artist for Cal Performances:

Matters of technical proficiency are well accounted for in the arsenal of words that critics have at their disposal to describe what sets a musician apart. What is sorely lacking is …

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Filed under: Cal Performances, Ojai Festival, Patricia Kopatchinskaja, profile, violinists

Musical America’s Artist of the Month: Louisa Proske

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Louisa Proske; photo by Russ Rowland

Congratulations are in order for the talented and brilliantly original director Louisa Proske, this month’s featured Artist of the Month at Musical America:

Only a week is left before tech rehearsals start for Heartbeat Opera’s fourth
annual spring festival, but Louisa Proske remains intently focused on our

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Filed under: directors, Musical America, profile

A Very Palpable Hamlet from The Horse in Motion


Kevin Lin as Hamlet; photo (c) Kyler Martin for The Horse in Motion

Hamlet is usually encountered as an object of reverent study or, in performance, a vessel of virtuosity. But in its recent staging at an old Seattle mansion, The Horse in Motion found a way to turn the play back into a visceral theatrical experience — one full of discovery for bardolaters and newcomers alike.

In lieu of a traditional theater, the action was set in (and around) the Stimson-Green Mansion, a meticulously preserved 1901 home with an English Tudor Revival exterior and a wonderfully eccentric, all-over-the-place interior, located on Seattle’s First Hill.

But the novelty of presenting Hamlet as a site-specific event turned out to be just one facet of this adventurous company’s innovative take.  Brooklyn-based director Julia Sears double cast Hamlet‘s major roles among a team of eleven actors, thus creating two simultaneous productions that unfolded in different rooms of the mansion.

The audience — limited to about 40 people for each performance — was correspondingly split in two and given a cast list designed as an invitation either to the wedding of Claudius and Gertrude or to the funeral of Hamlet Senior. In various key scenes, the two casts converged in the same space, so that, for example, we saw twin Hamlets confronting the same situation — as if these parallel universes had suddenly intersected.

At these face-offs, the double Hamlets and colleagues divvied up their lines or enacted them simultaneously. Sometimes the actors from the other cast were close enough to be audible, the slightly unsynchronized delivery intensifying a sense of  patterns being eerily repeated — like a familiar ghost story retold, with just enough of a sick twist to add a new frisson.


Mario Orallo-Molinaro, Katherine Bicknell, and Kevin Lin; photo (c) Kyler Martin for The Horse in Motion

Virtuosity there was indeed, but a kind of virtuosity even more demanding than usual. For instance, Kevin Lin played Hamlet for the group to which I was assigned (the wedding party) during the second-to-last performance (28 April), homing in on the prince’s sense of desperate frustration to powerful effect. But in addition to this monumental assignment, he had to morph into Laertes for the “funeral” production and calibrate his interpretation to that of the other Hamlet, the commandingly eloquent Jocelyn Maher (who, in turn, was our Laertes).

Specific angles in the wedding cast — the intensity of the sexual bond between Claudius (Ben Phillips) and Gertrude (Tatiana Pavela) — made me curious about the parallel chemistry in the funeral cast’s scheming royal pair. Gender-blurring assignments also added a fascinating dimension to the experience. Along with the male-and-female Hamlets and Laerteses, both Hannah Ruwe and Nic Morden were double Ophelias (as well as Horatios). During the “mash-up” scenes, we saw both manifestations of Hamlet and Ophelia interacting with each other. Polonius, meanwhile, was played as a society matron by Laura Steele in both casts.

This may sound like a merely clever concept, but in performance it was riveting from start to finish, reinforcing what is at stake in Hamlet with unforgettable theatrical power. “Who’s there?” — the play’s first line, delivered urgently on a chilly, damp lawn next to the mansion — acquired fresh implications.


l to r: Jocelyn Maher (Hamlet), Mario Orallo-Molinaro (Guildenstern), Ben Phillips (Francisco), Ian Bond (Claudius), Ophelia (Nic Morden), and Hannah Ruwe (Horatio); photo (c) Kyler Martin for The Horse in Motion

Jenn Oaster’s early-20th-century smart-set costumes, enhanced by Alex Potter’s period music sound design, evoked associations from the era when the Stimson-Green Mansion was built, of ghosts from its particular past. On one level, this suggested Hamlet’s tragedy playing out in a particular context of privilege, his madness presenting as fragmentation.

But Sears’s vision probed well beyond the psychological realism that has become the default setting of too much contemporary theater. I especially relished the surreal effects of the doubling, as well as the ironic humor of defamiliarizing such iconic scenes by means of another kind of familiarity — i.e., an imagined upper class family life in this setting. (Speaking of humor. Ian Bond’s cliché-free, inventive performance as the Gravedigger in the final act was itself worth the price of admission.)

Sears and her design team made imaginative use of the variety of spaces available on the premises. Instead of a fourth wall to break, the setting itself became a protagonist, offering new elements to explore with each gently orchestrated redirection of the audience to a different room: a raging fire in the hearth, a trip up creaking stairs for the genuinely intimate bedchamber scene, a spacious ballroom where the overwrought, speedy finale of death plays out after so much anticipation. (One quibble: the amplification device for the cloaked Hamlet’s Ghost — curiously, not credited in the program listing — distorted too many words in that crucial scene.)

I asked a friend who was also part of the wedding party for his impressions of this nontraditional performance setting. He told me that the experience of  “moving along with the cast, and in such close quarters, brought us closer to the play than we ordinarily might have been.”

I’ve never actually felt nervous before during Hamlet and Laertes’ final fencing match. This time, I was viscerally aware of the nuances of the fight choreography as the rapiers clashed inches away. The only drawback was that the logistics limited the audience size, so that local theater lovers who didn’t plan ahead missed out on this remarkable experience.

As the dead bodies, doubles included, lay strewn about, not even Fortinbras (the excellent Mario Orallo-Molinaro) could set things right. Sears’s final touch removed the precious sliver of optimism the Norwegian crown prince represents, making him another victim of the sad state of this world.

–Review (c) 2018 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Horse in Motion, review, Shakespeare

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