MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Satyagraha Comes to LA

My article on the production of Philip Glass’s sublime Satyagraha is here (starting p. 24).
The production, directed by Phelim McDermott and conducted by Grant Gershon, runs till November 11. (Video above from its first staging at English National Opera.)

Filed under: essay, Grant Gershon, Phelim McDermott, Philip Glass

Intermission Over

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Filed under: photography

Another Tokyo Night

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Filed under: photography

Andrew Norman’s Sustain

I finally had a chance to listen to Sustain, the major new Andrew Norman piece, thanks to the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s online, on-demand (free) broadcast of the 4 October 100th-anniversary season kickoff concert, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel.

The entire program is terrific: Esa-Pekka Salonen’s LA Variations and the Beethoven Triple Concerto on the first half, with Sustain, an LA Phil commission and receiving its world premiere here, filling the second. But you should especially get excited about Norman’s composition. It’s a big piece, ambitious, visionary, otherworldly, spun from fascinating aural patterns that seem to wormhole and teleport across vast astronomical spaces.

Such purposeful originality here: the multilayered connotations of the title are by no means merely incidental. There’s no question now that Norman is a major, significant voice. Especially given its spatial conception, Sustain obviously has to be experienced live. But I highly recommend checking out the broadcast while it’s still available as a temporary compromise.*

Mark Swed writes: ” In an exceptional feat of musical transformation, we wind up in an indefinable new dimension. This is something new.”

And in the New York Times, Seth Coulter Walls discerns “a sublime new direction for the composer”: “Over the final third of ‘Sustain,’ this unusual merger between restraint and hyperactivity could hypnotize … Even when the dynamic level increases to an undeniable roar, there is a smoothness to the piece.”

*Look for the little link button (a bit hard to find) on this page, right below the words “in case you missed it – or want to relive the magic – we’re bringing it to you here on KUSC.org on demand!”

Filed under: Andrew Norman, Los Angeles Philharmonic, new music

Within and Without: Addressing Citizenship through Artistic Engagement


Cal Performances at Berkeley has an especially compelling season lined up and is genuinely engaged with issues critical to our time — including the premiere of a new work commissioned by composer Jimmy López and writer-playwright Nilo Cruz. Here’s my preview:

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Filed under: Cal Performances, Jimmy López, Uncategorized

Hip To Be HIP

Cracked Orlando

Enraged Alcina (Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, mezzo-soprano) casts a curse on the love of Angelica (Sharon Harms, soprano) and Medoro (Brian Jeffers, tenor); from Jonathan Dawe’s Cracked Orlando: dramma per musica e fractals at Juilliard, 2017; photo by Nanette Melville

My story on the creative connections between early music performers and contemporary composers is the current cover story in Early Music America Magazine‘s fall 2018 issue:

When early and new music intersect, alliances are opening up a sense of fresh potential for both sides …

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Filed under: early music, feature, new music

Apocalypse Not Yet: Jaap van Zweden and the NY Phil Combine New Work with Bruckner 8

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Jaap van Zweden; image (c) © Hans van der Woerd

Here’s my review of Jaap van Zweden and the New York Philharmonic in their recent program of a new work by Conrad Tao and Bruckner:

It’s been a month of firsts for the New York Philharmonic: along with the start of its inaugural season with music director Jaap van Zweden, each programme since the opening gala has included a world première…

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Filed under: Jaap van Zweden, New York Philharmonic, review

Heavenly Bodies

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From the Met’s show Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.

Filed under: art exhibition, photography

Proving Up in Omaha

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Opera Omaha production of Proving Up, photo (c) Emily Hardman

Missy Mazzoli’s opera Proving Up, which just opened at Columbia University’s Miller Theater, made a strong impression on me when I got to see the premiere staging by James Darrah at Opera Omaha’s ONE Festival in the spring. Here’s what I wrote for Musical America:

April 27, 2018
Proving Up both opened and closed ONE Festival—I saw the final performance, on April 22—and the production was specially tailored to its non-traditional location in a gallery space at KANEKO, a set of warehouses in Omaha’s historic Old Market district that have been converted into the headquarters of the artist Jun Kaneko.
In this followup to their acclaimed collaboration Breaking the Waves (also directed by Darrah), Mazzoli and Vavrek have again hit pay dirt, crafting a suspenseful, gripping, and unsettling work of music theater. In the synergy achieved at ONE with an imaginative design team, a first-rate cast, and the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) led with complete commitment by Christopher Rountree, they have also created another durable proof of the vitality of contemporary opera.
Proving Up draws on material notably different from the Lars von Trier-inspired Breaking the Waves. Mazzoli remarked in a talkback discussion after the performance that she wanted to explore the impact of the American Dream on those who have been motivated to follow its promise but ended up failing. The mortgage crisis and Occupy Wall St. movement provided initial impulses, but the last U.S. presidential election—and the questions it raised about American values and myths—naturally left an imprint on Mazzoli’s and Vavrek’s ideas.
The opera adapts a short story published by the American writer Karen Russell in her 2013 collection Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Set “somewhere in the plains of the young State of Nebraska” just after the Civil War, Proving Up centers around the ordeal of the Zegner family, who have taken the risk of leaving the settled East Coast behind to claim their parcel of land according to the promise of the Homestead Act.
Actual ownership can only be gained after a five-year period by following a set of stipulations, including the (fictive) requirement to have a home with a glass window. Pa Zegner has managed to obtain this holy grail and agrees to share it with his neighbors so that together they can “prove up” and obtain their deeds from the awaited government inspector. How he came by the coveted window is the dark counterstory, suggesting an array of related but inconclusive narratives of retribution, vengeance, or patterns of a fateful curse.
On the surface, it operated like a gothic horror tale; but thanks to Vavrek’s well-constructed libretto and Mazzoli’s memorable characterizations—as well as the pacing and deft use of symbolism in Darrah’s staging—Proving Up had a compelling mythic resonance.
For the KANEKO space, Adam Rigg designed a 72-foot-long runway box filled with dirt as the stage—a vast grave encompassing the two small graves of the Zegner daughters. This stage divided the audience, which sat on a motley collection of old chairs, into two halves facing each other.
Wooden panels at one end formed the house and, at the other, made a sculptural formation hinting at the distant horizon. The ICE players were seated in full view on the latter side, with Rountree facing the singers (and audience). Pablo Santiago’s lighting was especially outstanding: following the spirit of the production as a whole, he recalibrated its traditional mood-setting role, making it an active character that refracted the narrative’s sustained sense of foreboding.
Mazzoli’s score for a Turn of the Screw-like chamber ensemble (three winds, two brass, a percussionist, piano/harpsichord, harp, and strings, with vernacular sonorities like harmonica used in unexpected ways) proved resourceful, original, and effective. She evoked various aspects of the natural landscape—above all a sense of dryness corresponding with the drought that contributes to the Zegners’ doom—but also convincingly depicted the extreme emotional states to which this small cast of characters is driven.
Mazzoli showed a gift for giving her characters personality with her vocal writing, using exaggerations of range to powerful effect for the terrifyingly mysterious Sodbuster (Andrew Harris) who looms in the final scenes. John Moore conveyed the ruthless drive of the patriarch but also made him pitiable, while Talise Trevigne covered a vast emotional spectrum in solos that laid bare Ma Zegner’s anguish and anger alike. In a multilayered performance, Michael Slattery captured the mixture of innocence, curiosity, and fear of the youngest son Miles, who is entrusted with the task of sharing the window. Abigail Nims and Delaram Kamareh sang in haunting harmonies as the ghostly Zegner daughters, and Sam Shapiro acted the non-singing role of the incapacitated older son.
The story’s local color has obvious relevance for audiences in the American heartland who may have descended from 19th-century homesteaders. But Proving Up is made with the imagination and purpose to speak to anyone capable of being moved by the larger questions it raises. The production’s next stop will be in New York in September; redesigning it for the Miller Theatre space promises to be an epic challenge in itself.

Filed under: American opera, Missy Mazzoli, Musical America, review

Olga Neuwirth’s Lost Highway at Oper Frankfurt

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left to right: Steffen Ahrens (Ensemble Modern), Elizabeth Reiter (Alice), and John Brancy (Pete); photo (c) Monika Rittershaus

My review of Olga Neuwirth’s extraordinary video-opera, directed by Yuval Sharon at Oper Frankfurt, is now online at Musical America:

FRANKFURT, Germany—Questions give rise to more and more questions in Lost Highway, including one that kept recurring to me as I became increasingly entangled in the performance: Why is Olga Neuwirth still so woefully underrepresented in America’s new music scene? The evening I spent with Oper Frankfurt’s production (September 19) proved to be so engrossing, so provocative in all the right ways, that the neglect of her fascinating body of work seems all the more outrageous—and our loss all the more to be pitied, until it’s remedied.

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Filed under: Musical America, new opera, Olga Neuwirth, Oper Frankfurt, review, Yuval Sharon

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