MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Written on Skin


It never ceases to amaze me: not just the number of tattoo parlors in Seattle, but their continual activity, day and night, buzzing without cease. Can there really be that much skin here to supply the needle?

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Forever Young

MEMETERIA by Thomas May


My latest article for Listen magazine is now live.
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.

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RIP Julius Rudel (1921-2014)

Remembering the conductor Julius Rudel, one of the personalities who shaped my love of opera as I was first discovering what the art was all about.

Mr. Rudel died on Thursday at the age of 93 in his home in Manhattan. How sad he was able to witness the death of New York City Opera, the company he did so much to transform into a significant force in the opera world.

From the New York Times obituary:

His company never rivaled the proud Met, with its world-class stars and grand stage productions. Nor was it meant to. But Mr. Rudel won international acclaim with innovative programming. It included premieres of many American operas, high-quality Broadway musicals, Gilbert and Sullivan romps and contemporary European musical dramas, besides the classical repertory of Mozart, Puccini and Verdi, often remastered into English and given novel production twists.

Filed under: conductors, music news, opera

Poetry’s “Thereness”

MEMETERIA by Thomas May

William Carlos Williams: passport photo, 1921 William Carlos Williams: passport photo, 1921

In “Reading the Difficult: A new critique of the New Criticism” – an article in this month’s Poetry magazine – Peter Quartermain reflects on the confounding “simplicity” of the kinds of poems that the New Critics disdained. With all their armory of explication de texte, interpretive analysis, and scansion exercises, they were at a loss when confronted with poems that don’t “care whether you are puzzled or not” but simply exist as “an event, and you can join it, take part in, or not.”

Especially in the case of the short poems of William Carlos Williams, there is an “implacability in the language that resists both paraphrase and explication. The language is so spare, the details so sparse, the statement so stubbornly there before the reader, uncompromising, that the reader’s knowledge cannot intervene, cannot interfere with the poem; indeed it renders that knowledge…

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Seattle Symphony’s Stravinsky Marathon

A costume sketch by Léon Bakst for The Costume sketch by Léon Bakst for The Firebird

Costume sketch by Léon Bakst for The Firebird

My review of the Seattle Symphony’s final concert of the season:

The past few months have brought the ensemble far more exposure than usual (an appearance at Carnegie Hall, a concert for the League of American Orchestras, the launch of an in-house label): its appetite for new challenges seems unstoppable.

So it’s hardly surprising that music director Ludovic Morlot is concluding the current season with an all-out marathon of orchestral virtuosity. The program of Stravinsky’s three pre-First World War ballet scores for the Ballets Russes in their entirety lasts close to three hours and, out of necessity for the players, requires two intermissions. It drew what appeared to be a close-to-packed house.

No matter how well we think we know this music, the opportunity to hear the young Stravinsky’s three iconic ballets back to back is bound to prompt new perspectives. And Morlot’s deeply sensitive interpretation of the uncut, sumptuous score for The Firebird (1910) did precisely that – all the more so since, only two weeks before, he’d led the SSO in the complete Daphnis et Chloé, also for the Ballets Russes, which was premiered in 1912, the year between Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913).

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Filed under: review, Seattle Symphony, Stravinsky

Midsummer Medley




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Bleeding Together, Falling Apart: Marc Weidenbaum on Aphex Twin

MEMETERIA by Thomas May


There are some real gems in the innovative, ongoing 33 1/3 series from Bloomsbury (which now numbers 90 crisp little volumes) — and I’m not claiming that just because I personally know several of the authors. Or because two of the most dazzling of those gems are by friends: Mike McGonigal on My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless and the latest in the series, on Aphex Twin’s seminal Selected Ambient Works Volume II by Marc Weidenbaum.

If you haven’t discovered it yet, I also highly recommend Weidenbaum’s fascinating and long-running webzine disquiet — named in honor of the Portuguese poet, critic, and philosopher Fernando Pessoa — where you can find his fascinating collaborations, interviews, experiments, and musings on ambient and electronic music.

Just published last month, his new book is already harvesting a bumper crop of impressive reviews — and deservedly so. Any in-depth consideration of a musical landmark needs to offer…

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Ballets Russes: “When Art Danced with Music”


Time to get in the mood for this weekend’s final subscription concerts of the Seattle Symphony’s season — and Ludovic Morlot has planned one hell of a program, with all three of Stravinsky’s blockbuster pre-WW I ballets.

I’m recalling the National Gallery of Art’s thought-provoking exhibition Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909–1929: When Art Danced with Music last fall. The show gave a dazzling overall impression of the many different areas of creativity that the wizard Serge Diaghilev somehow managed to draw together (not without a massive amount of drama): composers, writers, painters, sculptors, costume and set designers, lighting artists, researchers, propagandists, and naturally musicians and dancers.

Diaghilev’s brain itself must have been a Gesamtkunstwerk. This was the way to out-Wagner Wagner, and Stravinsky certainly intended to do that.

The exhibition also probed into future connections, the way these artists set currents in motion that would give birth to Cubism, Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism.

The always-brilliant Philip Kennicott points out that “the legend of the Ballets Russes was always a bit better — and better tended — than the reality of what the troupe and its lead artists left behind.” He offers this handy summary of what the lasting impact of the Ballet Russes as a crucible of experiment:

In less than two decades’ time, one sees the invention of something so familiar we take it for granted, the free mixing of commercial entertainment and more traditional forms of art, the valorization of branding and fashion within the intellectual realms of culture, and the troubling, persistent and essential fracturing of art into style and substance.

And it’s important to realize how much of Diaghilev’s legend became linked to the power of celebrity:

Much of what is on display falls into the category of holy relics: Costumes worn by dancers who are legendary names; programs and photographs and publicity posters from tours of the company that are still spoken of in reverential terms by those who remember or knew someone who was there. Theater, including ballet, invites hero worship, and there are many objects in this exhibition that appeal to our celebrity pleasure receptors more than our artistic ones.


[T]hat’s the difference between performance and the plastic arts. The allure of the former is all about the moment, the luck of being present, the willful illusion that magic is happening. Diaghilev sold that dream, perhaps more effectively than any impresario before or since.

Filed under: art exhibition, ballet, Seattle Symphony, Stravinsky

Rigoletto and Its Curse

The Jester</i.  George Henry Hall (1825-1913)

The Jester, George Henry Hall (1825-1913)

Since today the Met begins its summer schedule of HD broadcast encores with Rigoletto here’s an essay I wrote for San Francisco Opera on Verdi’s rethinking of the elements of melodrama:

Master of the theater that he was, Verdi liked to recall a childhood incident in which real life seemed to trump the most hair-raising effects imagined for the stage.

At the local church in his native village of Roncole, young Verdi found his attention naturally drawn to the music he heard during worship services. One day, while serving as an altar boy, he became so distracted from his duties that the priest celebrating Mass kicked him. The boy went tumbling down the steps of the altar and, humiliated by this abuse, at once muttered a curse that the priest be struck down by lightning. The vindictive wish became reality eight years later when the offending cleric was instantly killed by a thunderbolt.

As an illustration of the apparent effectiveness of a curse—all the more alarming for being unforeseen—this episode might have found itself right at home in Verdi’s operatic universe. The device of the curse (along with its corollary, revenge) is, after all, as commonplace in nineteenth-century opera as the elaborate car chases meant to set the pulse pumping in blockbuster action films.

Curses in one form or another figure prominently throughout Verdi’s operas. Think of the early breakthrough work Nabucco (which actually dramatizes a moment of divine retribution in the form of a lightning bolt), Macbeth, with its collective imprecation against Duncan’s murderer, the gypsy curse of Il Trovatore, or Simon Boccanegra’s thrilling Council Chamber finale.

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Filed under: essay, San Francisco Opera, Verdi

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