MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Current Playlist: Music of George Walker


An update: Here’s another (unnumbered) volume in the Albany Records series featuring George Walker‘s music. (The label also has a series focusing on Mr. Walker as pianist.

Highlights are Music for 3 (1971) and his Piano Sonatas No. 3 (1976) and No. 5 (2003), along with several songs to the poetry of Emily Dickinson, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Robert Burns, and others.


Albany Records has added a fourth volume to its laudable series of recordings of music by George Theophilus Walker. At 92 (going on 93), Mr. Walker remains an active composer and was recently nominated for New Jersey’s Hall of fame — he resides in Montclair — and if he wins, it would make a lovely addition to his accolades. They just happen to include a slew of honorary doctorates, AASCAP’s Aaron Copland Award, induction into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame … oh, and a Pulitzer, which he received in 1996 for his Whitman-inspired Lilacs.

These are sensitive but rigorous performances and give a wonderful spread of Mr. Walker’s career, from Antifonys for String Orchestra (love the title), originally composed in 1967 for double string quartet, and the Pulitzer-winning Lilacs for Voice and Orchestra to several compositions that prove Mr. Walker’s creative energy has not dimmed.

I’m especially attracted to the 2012 work Sinfonia No. 4 (“Strands”), which I recently heard as part of the National Symphony’s innovative New Moves series. (My notes on the piece are here.) To be honest, the account on this CD is a good deal richer and more compellingly shaped than what I heard in the live performance. Conductor Ian Hobson, leading Poland’s Sinfonia Varsovia, not only gets the solemnity and idea-dense intricacy of this music but knows how to articulate its drama, its transitional energy.

Mr. Walker explains that the guiding idea behind the title “Strands” involves an “interplay” of thematic material that’s both severely compact and, with the subtle introduction of two quotations from spirituals, visionary and affirming. Given the task of writing a short “concert opener” with this commission, he chose a complex, densely argued soundscape over an easy crowd-pleasing rouser. It’s powerful stuff.

I hadn’t realized Mr. Walker originally wrote Lilacs with Vinson Cole in mind. Mr. Cole has had an illustrious career at Seattle Opera — I’ve heard his exquisite tenor on several occasions — but he was “unable to sing the part” at the world premiere in 1996 by the Boston Symphony under Seiji Ozawa. They had commissioned Lilacs as a brief work for a concert to commemorate the legendary tenor Roland Hayes. Mr. Walker therefore was asked to reconfigure the piece for a soprano, Faye Robinson, who sang the solo part in the premiere. (Geoff Gehman has the whole story here.)

On this recording Albert Rudolph Lee provides the originally intended tenor solo, singing this demanding, high-lying part with emotional fervor and conviction. As for the “eight minutes” originally stipulated by the commission, we’re fortunate that Mr. Walker followed his muse and composed a characteristically eloquent piece of 14 minutes (divided into four sections), the whole packed with gripping ideas and fragrant sound colors.

Further evidence of Mr. Walker’s phenomenal creative drive at an advanced age is found in Movements for Cello and Orchestra, another product of his 90th year (2012). Dmitry Kousov is the splendid protagonist in this inventive rethinking of the cello concerto format.

For more information on this American treasure, Ethan Iverson has conducted an interview at dothemath.

(c) 2014 Thomas May – All rights reserved.

Filed under: American music, CD review, new music

Forever Young


My latest article for Listen magazine has now been published.

This was an especially inspiring assignment. After another season of doom and gloom about the future of music, discovering how motivated these young musicians are — how determined to make the most of their gifts — gave me a real boost:

The inspiring players of Carnegie Hall’s National Youth Orchestra debunk the myth of the ‘death’ of classical music.

It’s a ploy that always generates controversy: announce the death of “classical music” (however you define it), furnish your obituary with a sauce of ominous statistics and watch your site traffic explode. Another death knell hit the blogosphere and Twitterverse this January, courtesy of a Slate article titled “Requiem: Classical Music in America Is Dead,” which came illustrated with a gray-haired conductor stationed in front of a tombstone. Predictably, the piece triggered a raft of
indignant but thoughtful counterarguments in response.

What tends to become the focus of such discussions tends to be the problem of aging audiences and how to attract a new fan base, as well as how to reinvigorate the repertoire and make it meaningful for twenty-first century listeners. But a third — neglected — element is just as vitally important: the perspective of the musicians who bring it all to life in real time. What’s being done to ensure that this side of “the holy triangle of composer, performer, and listener” (to borrow Benjamin Britten’s phrase) is aligned with whatever reforms are undertaken regarding the other two?

On the American scene, one of the most inspiring recent initiatives to cultivate young talent begins its second year this summer. The National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America (NYO) was launched by Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute last year, when the ensemble’s young members gathered from around the country at the beginning of July to prepare for a series of concerts that culminated in a tour to Russia and the London Proms. The same structure — a period of rehearsal and intensive preparation leading up to a high-adrenaline period of performances on the road — is being used this year.

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Filed under: American music, orchestras, youth

The Devil Made Me Do It

MEMETERIA by Thomas May


I came across this very interesting London Review of Booksdiscussion of Brian Levack’s The Devil Within Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West by Terry Eagleton. According to the jacket copy by one of my erstwhile employers, Yale University Press, Levack’s examination of the epidemic of reported demonic possessions in Reformation Europe takes into account “the diverse interpretations of generations of theologians, biblical scholars, pastors, physicians, anthropologists, psychiatrists, and historians.”

The “common sense” model today of course ascribes what was believed to be or presented as possession to the symptoms of mental or physical illness. But Levack’s contextual approach argues that “demoniacs and exorcists—consciously or not—are following their various religious cultures, and their performances can only be understood in those contexts.”

Eagleton, a prominent literary critic who delivered the Terry Lectures in 2008, homes in on this cultural contextualization as a problematic method:

“In [Levack’s] view, falling prey to…

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Filed under: Uncategorized

Current Playlist: El Maestro Farinelli

As I try to work through some of the titles that have grabbed my attention from the most recent pileup of CD releases:

El Maestro Farinelli with countertenor Bejun Mehta and Pablo Heras-Casado conducting the Concerto Köln. I have yet to hear anything routine from the amazing Spanish conductor. These performances of music by little-heard Baroque opera composers (including Porpora, Hasse, de Nebra, Jomelli, Corradini, Marcolini, and Traetta; there’s also a C.P.E. Bach Sinfonia title “Fandango”) show off the many-faceted Maestro Heras-Casado’s early-music expertise.

The guiding idea behind the program is to retrieve works Farinelli produced during the years he served as an imperial impresario in Madrid and Aranjuez — works long since fallen into oblivion. (Apparently many of these composers’ orchestral scores were destroyed in a palace fire in the 19th century.)

Mehta sings only two numbers (one a brief zarzuela duet with a decidedly non-“HIP” overdubbing of his voice for both parts) but channels all the mystery and charisma of an 18th-century Klaus Nomi for the compelling Porpora aria (“Alto Giove, è tua grazia,” from Polifemo). I wish there were more vocal music here.

Heras-Casado and the players bring stylish, pointed energy to the instrumental selections — the bulk of the material here — but my first impression is that too much of the program may be the 18th-century equivalent of easy-listening music, perky and caffeinated as it is. But what’s wrong with guilty pleasures? (Note: This is Heras-Casado’s debut for Archiv Produktion label just relaunched by Deutsche Grammophon.)

Filed under: Baroque opera, CD review, conductors

El Niño in Spoleto: Perspectives on the Miraculous


The Spoleto Festival USA for 2014 just opened with a production of a John Adams masterpiece, El Niño, fully staged by John La Bouchardière. Here’s the essay I wrote for Spoleto’s book:

Is it possible to be touched by a sense of the miraculous today? In our guarded, cynical age, can we feel anything remotely similar to the experience of wonder that was the norm rather than the exception for most of human history?

Just before the turn of the millennium, John Adams began a risky new project to explore art’s power to re-enchant us. El Niño is the intensely beautiful and moving result. It’s a work that offers an unforgettable entrée into his musical world — and one that tends to keep a high position on the favorites list of the composer’s most ardent fans.

“I’m very interested in the dramatic staging of musical works,” says Spoleto Festival USA’s new Director of Choral Activities Joe Miller, “and so I proposed doing El Niño at the Festival. One of the aspects that draws me so strongly to it is how Adams presents different perspectives on such a familiar story. I also love novels written about the same event from many different character perspectives. Adams does something very similar here.” Miller explains that the libretto’s use of other perspectives from Latin American poets to supplement and comment on the biblical narrative of Jesus’ nativity calls for an extraordinary richness of musical perspectives as well: “It resembles a website where you click on a link and are able to continue exploring with more depth. Adams brings up these other references within the basic narrative frame.”

For example, the 20th-century feminist novelist and poet Rosario Castellanos (1925-1974), who came of age in the mountainous country in the south of Mexico, provides the textual source for some of the most psychologically pivotal moments in El Niño. One of these is her poem “Memorial de Tlatelco,” about the killing of hundreds of students by police during a heated political protest in Mexico City in 1968. Adams sets this as the dramatic climax of the second part. This soprano aria forms the dark heart of El Niño, the violent negation of all the hope encompassed by the imagery of birth. “Castellanos brings a grittiness and reality to this story, along with a sense of skepticism, that make the hopefulness the piece attains again have all the more meaning,” says Miller.

The conductor’s love affair with El Niño began when he was invited to prepare the choral forces for a high-profile performance at Carnegie Hall in 2009. Adams himself was on hand as lead conductor. “What he imprinted on me was his incredible attention to each detail of his score,” recalls Miller, “and his over-the-top enthusiasm for each of the characters, coaching the singers in nuances of the Spanish text.”
The prevalence of non-scriptural Spanish sources represents a key to Adams’s vision in El Niño. Working with his longtime artistic collaborator and friend, the director Peter Sellars (to whom El Niño is dedicated), Adams crafted a libretto from pre-existing sources.

Together they worked out a schema to interweave the well-known “plot points” as depicted in the New Testament — the Annunciation and mystery of the virgin birth, Mary’s visitation with her cousin Elisabeth, the humble surroundings of the birth itself, the homage of the Three Wise Men, Herod’s massacre of the innocents, and the flight into Egypt — with folk-like tales from the apocryphal gospels and poetry spanning from the Middle Ages to the 20th century — much of it by Latin American women poets.

By interpolating the voices of these women, Adams and Sellars wanted to add a fresh perspective to the conventional account of the nativity. A retelling of that specific narrative, Adams realized, could simultaneously serve as the basis for far-ranging meditations on the miraculous reality of birth in general. Mary’s experience of pregnancy in El Niño represents the pregnancy of women across time, much as the birth of Jesus figures the birth of all children.

“All of us know the nativity story, but what we don’t see and hear about is a palm tree bending on the command of the Christ child to quench the thirst of his mother,” remarks Spoleto Festival USA General Director Nigel Redden. “We don’t expect Spanish language poetry from other centuries to suddenly show up the middle of a depiction of the nativity. Through taking up this story John [Adams] is trying to remind us of what redemption means. But it’s a story that is fundamentally incomprehensible to us today in the way that it was for well over a millennium to people.”

An attempt to rekindle the sense of the miraculousness that fuels this story inspired the choices made by Peter Sellars for his inaugural staging of El Niño (which received its world premiere in Paris in December 2000). Sellars’s central concept was to emphasize the everydayness of the characters; their story unfolds in tandem with an accompanying silent film in which Latino actors from Los Angeles re-enacted a contemporary allegory of the Nativity.

“I think Sellars’s idea of a social allegory of outsiders is very valid,” observes Redden, “but we decided on an entirely different approach.” He invited the British stage director John La Bouchardière to develop a full-scale staging for the Memminger Auditorium. Ever since El Niño’s initial unveiling in a theatrically staged context, performances have tended to go in the direction of straightforward concert presentations in the manner of an oratorio — looking back to the role of Handel’s Messiah as an important model for Adams’s conception. This new production by Spoleto Festival USA therefore represents a significant new chapter in the reception history of a major contemporary masterpiece.

“I wanted to push it as far as possible in the other direction of a dramatic staging,” explains La Bouchardière, “whilst accepting the conventions of the piece itself. He points out that this aspect of El Niño; could be confusing to audiences expecting a linear narrative with one-on-one, naturalistic correspondence between the performers and characters. Instead, roles are fluidly exchanged. Both the soprano and mezzo-soprano, for example, represent different aspects of Mary, while the bass-baritone alternately sings the parts of Joseph and Herod and, at one point, even projects the voice of God. “It became important to find a way to play the story that would allow these characters to be consistent.”

La Bouchardière found a solution in his research into medieval miracle plays and didactic religious plays used by Franciscans in the New World (see p. X for director’s note), , providing “vessels” that anchor the biblical characters in a recognizable iconography. “They provide a way of accessing the nativity play through the medieval world — the last period in which miracles were believed in, in which the story was not told as a metaphor,” La Bouchardière elaborates. “John Adams, for example, was brought up to think of religious stories as allegories, and he wrote El Niño as an attempt to understand what is meant by a miracle. In our staging, the subject is not just the story of Jesus’s birth but the story of us and Jesus’s birth. We see the characters onstage reacting to the narrative, as in the Memorial scene itself.”

Redden draws an analogy with our internet age of too-much-information: “To some extent with so many instant answers at our disposal, we’ve lost the excitement and majesty of the unknown. This new production seeks a way not just to make the old familiar story surprising and fresh again but to have it captivate us with that newness as well.”

For Joe Miller, the music Adams has created makes this possible. “El Niño combines a sense of heat — the heat of the street — and pulsation with ingenious orchestration. There is both lyricism and athleticism to the vocal writing, and the music for the countertenors is pointillist. It all conveys a tremendous sense of light and wonder. El Niño is a very 21st-century work because it is so active and alive.”

(c) 2014 Thomas May – All rights reserved.

Filed under: American music, American opera, John Adams

A Van Gogh Acquisition in D.C.

Vincent van Gogh, Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, 1890

Vincent van Gogh, Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, 1890

Delirium: the state induced by a mere couple hours at the National Gallery of Art, my old home away from home in Washington, D.C. This time I was able to finally see the National’s most recent acquisition: Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, which Vincent van Gogh painted most likely mere weeks before his suicide in 1890. This marks the ninth van Gogh painting in the National’s collection, six of which are on view (along with another 11 prints and drawings that can be seen by appointment.)

Hanging in the same gallery as five other late-period van Goghs — Girl in White (1890) (also from Auvers) La Mousmé (1888), The Olive Orchard (1889), Roses (1890), and Self-Portrait (1889) — the new acquisition invites the viewer to make some very interesting comparisons. Both the sense of a mystical energy animating the landscape and the drive toward abstraction seem to me the most striking features here.

Green Wheat Fields, Auvers came into the possession of the artist’s brother Theo and was sold to a Berlin collector in 1906, who later sold it to the great National Gallery benefactor Paul Mellon in 1955. Mellon’s widow, Rachel Lambert Mellon, was given rights of possession of this painting for her lifetime but chose to relinquish it to the National Gallery. What must it feel like to have such an intriguing masterpiece in your home (in Upperville, Virginia, for Mrs. Mellon), day after day? How does one make the decision to then “relinquish” it for the public good?

Notice where van Gogh places the horizon, the mirroring undulations of fields, flowers, clouds, road (or is it a river?). And the pulsating energy, reflecting an elemental joy despite the artist’s psychological condition at this moment in his life. Mary Morton, curator of French paintings at the National, observes the following:

Because there is so little to read in the composition, the focus is on the color but even more so on brushwork — the clouds whipping around in spinning circles, opening out and closing in, van Gogh’s brush squiggling across the surface in long calligraphic strokes. The paint is applied in thick impasto, creating the marvelous textured surface of van Gogh’s best loved paintings. Through his dynamic touch and vivid, unmediated color, van Gogh expresses the intense freshness of this slice of countryside.

Filed under: art exhibition, art history

Walk on the Wilde Side

MEMETERIA by Thomas May


Creating quite the stir was of course second nature to Oscar Wilde, and he set many tongues wagging throughout the course of his extensive North American tour in 1882. Nowadays we have complex PR machines. Back then it was Oscar giving interviews to the local papers to generate buzz for his series of lectures on “the science of the beautiful.” He set the tone immediately upon disembarking in New York after his less-than-pleasing encounter with the Atlantic Ocean by (allegedly) proclaiming to the customs agent: “I have nothing to declare except my genius.”

Wilde ended up making some 140 appearances at cities and towns across 15,000 miles of the continent, alighting in gilded age salons and mining town saloons alike. Anthony Paletta sums up some of the press reaction to his first lecture, in New York, billed as having something to do with the “English Renaissance”:

[It] seems to have…

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Where’er You Walk: Handel’s Semele in Seattle

Director James Darrah rehearsing Semele

Director James Darrah rehearsing Semele, with Haeran Hong as the title heroine; photo by Steve Korn

Music lovers in the Seattle area will not want to miss this weekend’s performances of Semele, a joint effort by Pacific MusicWorks and the University of Washington School of Music.

I was lucky to be able to attend one of the rehearsals, where I found myself spellbound by the flow of ideas and inspired rapport between director James Darrah and the cast — all this without a stage or costumes and only harpsichord accompaniment. Semele is a late Handel work (1743) that never fit comfortably into the era’s expectations for either opera or oratorio, but Darrah and company are treating it as the liveliest brand of music theater, full of humor, wit, enchantment, and (literally and figuratively) epiphany.

It’s easy enough to imagine the musical and theatrical potential Handel saw in this material, retooling a libretto more than 30 years old — it includes the work of Alexander Pope — which itself retells the classical myth of Semele and Zeus/Jupiter. The human Semele has a fateful love affair with none other than the king of the gods, triggering the jealousy of his wife. Juno’s plan to avenge herself results in the destruction of Semele as a mortal woman but leads to the birth of Dionysus/Bacchus — a boon for humanity.

Handel knew how to carve into the meat of the mythic matter with this story of human aspirations for the impossible, of divine vulnerability to human emotion, of the power of irrepressible desire. A century later, Wagner noted the archetypal aspects of the tale and its similarities to Elsa’s ill-fated questioning of Lohengrin in another human-meets-transcendent encounter. (Another variant is found in Apuleius’s marvelously elaborate narrative of Cupid and Psyche.)

Seattle has tended to be a Handel-deprived zone for far too long, but Stephen Stubbs — the visionary artistic director of Pacific MusicWorks — is changing the playing field with his musically and theatrically stimulating advocacy of early and baroque composers. An internationally acclaimed musical director and lutenist, Stubbs marries the energies of his early music expertise with an appreciation of cutting-edge stage direction and interdisciplinary artistic creativity.

And his choice of the Los Angeles-based director and visual artist James Darrah bodes well. (Darrah has worked with the likes of Peter Sellars and John Adams, and among his upcoming projects is a collaboration with Michael Tilson Thomas next month for the San Francisco Symphony’s semi-staged production of Peter Grimes.)

During the rehearsal I saw, Darrah was coaching the appealing cast of young artists singing the chorus into how to develop into a major character in their own right rather than a passive, fly-on-the-wall musical presence. The chorus became a visible and dynamic extension of the power play among Semele, Juno, and Jupiter. And far from purveying an arbitrary “concept,” Darrah showed with his sensitivity to the subtexts of Handel’s melody and counterpoint that he commands an intimate understanding of the score and of the way Handel constructs his narrative arc.

It should be fascinating to compare the final results of performance with what will happen on the Seattle Opera stage next February-March, when the director Tomer Zvulun returns for a mainstage production of Semele. Meanwhile, Stubbs is spearheading experiments in smaller-scale productions involving partnerships between different organizations and even with companies across the Northwest — all of which promises to enliven the ecology of Seattle’s art scene, for early music and contemporary composers alike.

If you go: Pacific MusicWorks and the University of Washington School of Music present Handel’s Semele Friday and Saturday, May 16 and 17, at 7:30 pm and Sunday, May 18, at 2:00 pm at UW’s Meany Hall. (Sunday’s matinee performance is presented by the student cover cast.) Tickets at 206.543.4880 or 1.800.859.5342 or here.
(c) 2014 Thomas May All rights reserved.

Filed under: directors, Handel, opera, Pacific MusicWorks

Lawrence Brownlee, Tenor of Grace

Larry Brownlee just wrapped up the Met’s season with the final “Puritani” performance over the weekend and will be giving a recital Tuesday 13 May sponsored by Vocal Arts D.C.

MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Lawrence Brownlee as Almaviva in, one of his signature roles; photo by Ken Howard Lawrence Brownlee as Almaviva in iBarber, one of his signature roles; photo by Ken Howard

The marvelously gifted tenor Lawrence Brownlee makes his Los Angeles Opera debut as Tamino this coming weekend in the Barrie Kosky production of The Magic Flute. Here’s a profile I recently wrote about Larry for Seattle Opera, where he appeared last month as Tonio in The Daughter of the Regiment:

Nowadays no American tenor is more in demand than Lawrence Brownlee when it comes to the bel canto repertoire. And it’s easy to imagine the impression Brownlee’s voice—with its signature combination of sweetness, warmth, and flexibility—would have made on Gaetano Donizetti, or any of the bel canto composers. With their elegant melodies and deeply felt emotions, they were writing, it seems, specifically to Brownlee’s strengths, and he has proved that he has the versatility to excel in the distinctive styles developed by…

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Filed under: singers

New Moves with the NSO

Thomas Wilkins

Thomas Wilkins

This weekend brings the next installment in the National Symphony Orchestra’s current NEW MOVES: symphony + dance festival. I enjoyed researching this material to write the program essays for all three programs, which are being conducted by the Omaha Symphony’s Thomas Wilkins. Each program pairs classic American rep with music by living composers.

This second of the three programs features the Timpani Concerto No. 1 (“The Olympian”) by James Oliverio. Here’s a bit of my intro to his work:

The composer, educator, and new media producer James Oliverio (now based in Florida) has been redefining what it means to be a creative artist in the 21st century. “As composer there are two main ‘instruments’ that I work with: the symphony orchestra and the digital media studio,” he says, envisioning a music of the future that bridges the gap between traditional acoustic instruments and our rapidly evolving digital world. “Ultimately I want to unite them — to remove the distinction between my digital and orchestral endeavors,” adds Oliverio, an acclaimed pioneer of globally synchronized performing arts collaborations. (The rest can be found here.)


More on the amazing Jauvon Gilliam, principal timpanist of the NSO, from Andrew Lindemann Malone’s blog post. Writes Malone:

Not everyone who attends orchestral concerts knows that the timpani is not a fixed-pitch instrument; drummers tune them through the use of a foot pedal. So to play the right notes, you have to have both your hands and your feet in the right spot. With the typical orchestral complement of four timpani, this is challenging enough; as Gilliam says, “it’s like a choreographed dance. You can overshoot it, you can undershoot it, it’s just like if you do a pirouette.” To really master the instrument, “you almost have to have four different brains or have your brain in four different compartments.”

It’s an unusual role for an instrument that normally sits in the back and makes everything sound fuller and more forceful, but Gilliam doesn’t mind the change. “My job is to support people. I really enjoy that, that’s what I love about my job,” he says, but performing a solo is a “different way of doing things, and it allows me to expand my talent. It allows me to be a better musician.”

The concerto is also, he says, “the hardest thing I’ve ever played” — a challenge worthy of the title “The Olympian,” and a summit only scalable for a man who’s sure on his feet.

Here’s Jauvon Gilliam’s own blog post on “The Olympian.”

And here’s a radio interview WETA’s Nicole LaCroix conducted with Wilkins (beginning), Gilliam (6:15), and Oliverio (at 9:15).

Filed under: American music, new music, programming innovation

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