MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Bach Meets Dot Matrix Printer

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Fountain of Plenty

Fountain of Plenty

Fountain of Plenty

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The Golden City and Its Opera

MEMETERIA by Thomas May

photo by  Mike Hofmann photo by Mike Hofmann

My cover story on San Francisco Opera and how it reflects the city’s love affair with the art is now online in the Spring issue of Opera America magazine.

On October 15, 1932, while the country was sinking deeper and deeper into the quicksand of the Great Depression, San Franciscans took time out to ignore the prevailing gloom and celebrate the official opening of the long-coveted home for their new opera company, the $5.5 million War Memorial Opera House. The Naples-born conductor and cultural impresario Gaetano Merola, who had founded San Francisco Opera and inaugurated its first season nine years previously with La bohème, turned once again to Puccini for the occasion and led a performance of Tosca. Addressing the packed audience during intermission, Wallace M. Alexander, the company’s new president, proudly announced: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your opera house, your own rich heritage.”


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A Heroine of Singular Complexity: Verdi’s Timely, and Timeless, La Traviata

Saimir Pirgu (Alfredo) and Nicole Cabell (Violetta). ©Cory Weaver/SFO

Saimir Pirgu (Alfredo) and Nicole Cabell (Violetta). ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

(San Francisco Opera’s revival of La Traviata has just opened. Following is the full version of the essay I wrote for SFO’s program book.)

On New Year’s Day of 1853 — more than two weeks before the opening of Il Trovatore — Giuseppe Verdi wrote to one of his businessmen-friends about the challenges of finding suitable libretti: “I want subjects that are new, great, beautiful, varied, daring … and daring to an extreme degree, with new forms, etc., and at the same time [that are] capable of being set to music.”

The thirty-nine-year-old composer goes on to mention his latest project, a new opera for La Fenice in Venice. Based on La Dame aux Camélias, the recent stage sensation by Alexandre Dumas the Younger, Verdi writes, “[it] will probably be called La Traviata. A subject for our own age. Another composer would perhaps not have done it because of the costumes, the period, or a thousand other foolish scruples, but I did it with great pleasure. Everyone complained when I proposed putting a hunchback on the stage. Well, I wrote Rigoletto with great pleasure. The same with Macbeth.”

Even set against his bold treatments of Victor Hugo and Shakespeare, Verdi was fully aware that he was taking an unusual risk by adapting such contemporary material for the opera stage. It was one thing to lace his operas with political themes “topical” for Risorgimento Italy, but something else altogether to address contemporary sexual mores and issues of social class not as light-hearted comedy but as full-on tragedy.

Still, for us today, it’s admittedly hard to think of La Traviata as controversial. This nineteenth work in Verdi’s oeuvre is not just a box office guarantee, but for many the very definition of opera.

La Traviata: 2014 production at San Francisco Opera; ©Cory Weaver/SFO

La Traviata: 2014 production at San Francisco Opera; ©Cory Weaver/SFO

Over the past five years La Traviata has securely held its position as the opera most frequently performed around the world: Violetta even surpasses her fellow tubercular Parisian, La Bohème’s Mimì, as far as this measurement of popularity goes. Popular culture is replete with variations on both stories: for the (once) hip Bohemians of Rent there are the hallucinogenic colors and all-star remake of “Lady Marmalade” of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!

La Traviata was the opera chosen to launch the past season at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, marking Verdi’s bicentennial year. Any controversy that is generated comes from interpretive decisions: Dmitri Tcherniakov’s new production at La Scala, rather tamely set in the present, was theatrically booed by the loggionisti.

(Without doubt this was a reaction more vociferously negative than the fabled “fiasco” of the world premiere on March 6, 1853, which really came down to a mostly tepid response. Verdi himself stoked the legend of a disastrous opening-night reception, and the next staging a year later, also in Venice and with a slightly altered score, became an indisputable success.)

Nicole Cabell (Violetta) and Saimir Pirgu (Alfredo). ©Cory Weaver/SFO

Nicole Cabell (Violetta) and Saimir Pirgu (Alfredo). ©Cory Weaver/SFO

The irony of this is rich, because with La Traviata Verdi intended for the first time to have an opera staged with contemporary dress, though in the event he was compelled to accede to the Venetian censor’s demand to shift the period back to “circa 1700” as a comfortably safe temporal buffer. (The censorship situation there, it should be noted, was considerably more liberal than that found in other leading Italian theaters; it was for the same house in Venice that Verdi had written Rigoletto two years before.)

In later revivals Verdi acquiesced to this historical distancing. As a consequence, by the time operagoers finally encountered stagings of Verdi’s original vision of a work that would actually be set in the era in which it was composed, La Traviata had already become a “period piece.”

One of the chief arguments against directorial updatings — that they betray the composer’s original “intentions” — would have to take into account this sort of compromise constantly imposed on Verdi in order to get the subjects he chose to set to music produced. (Even the title — usually translated “The Fallen Woman,” though more literally it means “The Woman Who Went Astray” — documents a compromise for the title Verdi originally wanted: Amore e Morte.)

But the issue of Traviata’s temporal setting represents the mere surface. The great Verdi expert Julian Budden rightly points out that the lofty language indulged in by Verdi’s ever-compliant, ever-bullied librettist for the project, Francesco Maria Piave (recently responsible for adapting a Victor Hugo to the libretto of Rigoletto) at times ventures far from Dumas, giving an overall impression that is old-fashioned and “strictly operatic.” As a result, “even if [Verdi] had had his way in 1853 the modern setting would have seemed purely metaphorical.”

Instead, the bold modernity of La Traviata — the sense that this is “a subject for our own age” — has to do with the challenges Verdi set himself to grapple with a new kind of psychological realism: a realism of intimate, internal emotions as opposed to the grand passions that burn in Traviata’s swashbuckling immediate predecessor, Il Trovatore.

At one point Verdi was in fact working on both operas concurrently, and the most identifiably Trovatore-like moments in the score of Traviata are precisely those in which Verdi adheres most obviously to the conventional forms of the cabaletta (the “flashy,” usually faster-paced final section of a lengthy aria or duet).

Traviata‘s psychological realism was prompted by the subject matter of high-class prostitution and intimate relationships projected against the screen of modern urban life, with its ugly realities and fears, in particular those of poverty, alienation, and disease. In La Traviata Verdi turns to the raw facts of everyday life as experienced by people we can recognize (however costumed or wigged).

Nicole Cabell (Violetta). ©Cory Weaver/SFO

Nicole Cabell (Violetta). ©Cory Weaver/SFO

If we consider the realm of visual arts, the revolution represented by Édouard Manet in this regard still lies ahead: in 1863 he caused consternation by representing prostitution in Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, which he followed later that year with the even more-controversial Olympia, updating the idealized and mythological image of Venus into a present-day courtesan.

Not until a pair of works that premiered in 1816 (both produced in Naples) — already within Verdi’s lifetime—did Italian opera even begin to represent death onstage for the first time: the long-lived Michele Carafa’s Gabriella di Vergy and Otello (when permitted by the censors) by his contemporary Gioachino Rossini.

And the terrifying details of death by tuberculosis had no operatic precedent. (The ill-fated Antonia from Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann and both Leoncavallo’s and Puccini’s takes on La Bohème were still decades in the future.) “Poetic” dementia of the Lucia-di-Lammermoor brand is a far cry from the pathology of Violetta’s deathbed scene.

Our very first glimpse of the heroine onstage, in fact, specifies that she is consulting with Doctor Grenvil in the middle of her party. For a more-pertinent perspective on the contemporary and moral relevance of the situation depicted by Dumas and Verdi — in contrast to the tropes of Romantic individualism already established by Victor Hugo, even if his plays defied the censors — it might be useful to think of the original impact of plays like The Normal Heart and Angels in America in daring to channel the emotions caused by the AIDS crisis for the stage.

In The Literary Lorgnette, her study of the links between opera and literature in nineteenth-century Russia, Julie A. Buckler explores La Traviata’s legacy to the East, from the time it was first presented during the week of coronation festivities for Tsar Alexander II in 1856.

The opera, observes Buckler, “occupied a problematic social and aesthetic middle ground for Russian critics, depicting the demimonde [the term Dumas himself coined for the openly “secret life” of high-class sex workers] with an unnerving blend of Romantic and Realist convention.”

A new production by a Russian troupe in 1868 prompted an indignant review from the composer and critic Alexander Serov. Buckler quotes his objections to the “hospital-like” effect of the deathbed scene in particular. Serov fretted that in the future operas will be written in which “we will be taken, probably, into a clinic and made to be witnesses of amputations or the dissection of corpses!”

Nicole Cabell (Violetta). ©Cory Weaver/SFO

Nicole Cabell (Violetta). ©Cory Weaver/SFO

This fear of the opera’s corporeality and representation of disease, as Buckler points out, is inevitably linked with anxiety about its representation of sexuality. In his first private encounter with Violetta, Alfredo warns that her lifestyle is killing her, that she needs to take better care of her health — and, surely enough, she begins to convalesce during their idyll in the country, far from the sensual stimulation of Paris. Violetta’s situation fuses the three major themes of sex, sickness, and money.

Susan Sontag handily characterizes this fusion in her influential Illness as Metaphor, emphasizing the connotations shared by frivolous spending (with its implications of sexual promiscuity) and “consumption,” the word commonly used for tuberculosis: “Early capitalism assumes the necessity of regulated spending, saving, accounting, discipline—an economy that depends on the rational limitation of desire. TB is described in images that sum up the negative behavior of nineteenth-century homo economicus: consumption; wasting; squandering of vitality.”

Much has been made of the immediate enthusiasm with which Verdi reacted to seeing Dumas’ play while he was staying in Paris in 1852, soon after it opened. Despite the pressures of getting Trovatore produced, Verdi simultaneously completed his score for Traviata at record speed. Of course it is an inherently dangerous prospect to attempt to tease out connections between an artist’s personal life and an autonomous work of art.

Alexandre Dumas, fils

Alexandre Dumas, fils

Budden belabors that point by ridiculing the commonplace assumption that Verdi responded so strongly to Violetta’s story because, by this time, he was cohabiting with Giuseppina Strepponi, a former singer (she created the role of Abigaille in Nabucco) regarded by the provincials in Busseto, where he lived, as a woman of “loose virtue” on account of her illegitimate children from previous affairs.

Yet Verdi hardly need have fictionalized Giuseppina as Violetta to be attracted to the themes involved in La Dame aux Camélia — and to the larger archetype of real or perceived “fallen women” he created in six operas between 1849 and 1853, as examined by the late Joseph Kerman in his essay “Verdi and the Undoing of Women.” These women, who “are condemned for their sexuality” and as a result “suffer or die,” “may have allowed the composer a way to reflect on the social and private implications of his affair.”

Writes Kerman: “Of course Verdi would never have dreamt of equating Strepponi with Violetta. The point is that Violetta allowed him to explore feelings of love, guilt, and suffering that he learned from his experience as Strepponi’s lover. Verdi explored similar feelings in other operas around the same time,” though Kerman adds that “the fallen woman syndrome retreats” from his work after Traviata as new concerns come to the foreground.

Nicole Cabell (Violetta) and Vladimir Stoyanov (Germont). ©Cory Weaver/SFO

Nicole Cabell (Violetta) and Vladimir Stoyanov (Germont). ©Cory Weaver/SFO

The adultery represented in Stiffelio, the opera he wrote just before the experimental breakthrough of Rigoletto, in some ways can even be seen as a trial run for Traviata with its near-contemporary (early nineteenth-century) setting and focus on conflicting bourgeois values.

The source material for La Traviata — the play by Dumas, in turn adapted from his very first literary success, a novel published in 1848 — itself stands in a complicated relationship to the “raw data” of the author’s experience, even if some degree of both the novel’s and the play’s popularity involved the titillating glimpses they afforded “behind the scenes” into the illicit liaisons of well-to-do Parisian society.

Dumas’s novel, never out of print and recently published in a delightfully fresh new translation by Liesl Schillinger, includes nitty-gritty details about money and the day-to-day life of a high-class prostitute.

Naming his heroine Marguerite Gauthier, Dumas famously drew on his real-life affair with the already legendary courtesan Marie Duplessis but has long been castigated by feminists — as has La Traviata, to be sure — for co-opting a woman’s experience, distorting Marie Duplessis’s own autonomy through the filter of male desire and creating a hybrid “Madonna–whore” to fulfill the full spectrum of that desire. (Ironically, Dumas has been credited with coining the word “feminist” in a later pamphlet from 1872, L’Homme-Femme.)

In her recent biography of Duplessis, The Girl Who Loved Camellias, Julie Kavanagh traces the differences between the cultural icon of literature, stage, and screen and the real person who fled an abusive father and her native Normandy, arriving in Paris at the age of thirteen and transforming herself from an impoverished waif into an independent and sophisticated woman “determined to profit from Parisian culture and sample the same hedonistic pleasures available to men.”

But the treatment of Duplessis by Dumas was in its own way multifaceted, remarks Kavanagh. The novel was “part social document, part melodrama, both ahead of its time and rigidly conventional,” while the play remained an object of admiration by no less than Henry James. She quotes the latter’s verdict: “[Dumas] could see the end of one era and the beginning of another and join hands luxuriously with each.”

And what about Verdi’s treatment of the character originally inspired by Duplessis? Kavanagh finds that both Dumas and Verdi “softened her, capitulating to the romantic ideal that sought to exonerate and desexualize the fallen woman.” In Verdi’s opera, the “sordid” details of Violetta’s profession are essentially erased, her disease filling its place. She is in fact “etherealized”: “Un dì, felice, eterea” (“One day you appeared before me, happy, ethereal”) sings Alfredo in his early confession of love.

Indeed, the very first music Verdi gives us, in the Prelude — a musical portrait of Violetta — is a kind of sonic dematerialization. Divided violins suggest a sickly halo for this suffering saint. The faint similarity to Wagner’s “spiritual” string sound in the Prelude to Lohengrin (premiered in 1850, though not produced in Italy until 1871) only underscores the divergent aesthetics: increasingly, Wagner would turn to legend and myth as the vehicle for psychological truth, whereas here, for Verdi, the life we find around us serves that purpose.

Nicole Cabell (Violetta). ©Cory Weaver/SFO

Nicole Cabell (Violetta). ©Cory Weaver/SFO

The Prelude as a whole captures the heroine’s ambiguity: a woman who has sacrificed for love but who has also been defined by her devotion to pleasure. Despite having to shift the period of the action, Verdi incorporates an unmistakable sense of place — of the modern city par excellence, Paris, an epicenter of pleasure — through the endlessly dancing gestures of his music.

Waltz time is the identifiable signature of La Traviata, essential to its unique tinta; later, in the third-act prelude, the “halo” music is supplemented by a haunting melody breathing the melodic spirit of Chopin.

Why has La Traviata remained so enduringly contemporary for all its Romantic sublimation of the characters’ sexuality? If the plot shows Violetta being victimized, “redeemed” by her sacrifice, it is ultimately the music Verdi imagined that mediates our experience of these events. As Kerman eloquently notes: “Music traces the response of the characters to the action — and operas, like plays, are not essentially about the vicissitudes of women (or men); operas are about their responses to those vicissitudes.”

Take, above all, the remarkable duet between Violetta and Giorgio Germont that is the hinge of the opera—a duet far more involved in its musical design and emotional range than the two we get in the outer acts for the pair of lovers. We might be chagrined by Violetta’s willingness to accede to the senior Germont’s demands, but the music lays bare the psychological intensity both characters experience at each stage of the argument.

Vladimir Stoyanov (Germont). ©Cory Weaver

Vladimir Stoyanov (Germont). ©Cory Weaver

The achievement is comparable in its way to the pivotal duet between Wotan and Fricka at the heart of Wagner’s Ring, though Germont emerges as more psychologically complex. “Germont is not the monster of patriarchal authority that he is in the play,” Kerman writes. “Music recasts him as a fellow human being who moves her by his own unhappiness.”

Overall, Verdi still found it necessary at this point in his career to balance the expectations represented by the conventional formalities of Italian opera with the unique musical needs of a particular dramatic situation.

That explains how La Traviata can seem to look ahead, particularly in its novelty of material and psychological acumen, while adhering to the mold of the Italian operatic tradition Verdi had inherited — though beautifully pared down and simplified to their essence for this admirably economical score.

Saimir Pirgu (Alfredo) and Nicole Cabell (Violetta). ©Cory Weaver/SFO

Saimir Pirgu (Alfredo) and Nicole Cabell (Violetta). ©Cory Weaver/SFO

In their recent A History of Opera, Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker draw attention to this paradox, noting that “this outward conformity” to musical tradition disguises two key ways in which the opera “breaks new ground.” One is the series of musical cues — above all the waltz, with its implications of “social velocity and uncertainty” — that provide local color and root the drama in the modern urban world, whatever the visuals may have signaled.

More importantly, for Abbate and Parker, is the expansion from “exquisite solo expression” to the confrontation of the great duet in Act Two. The story, they write, “confronts some of the most vexed issues surrounding sexuality, not least whether women had the right to choose their own destinies. These were matters that preoccupied people at the time, but had never before been raised so overtly on the operatic stage.”

La Traviata, then, reminds us of the potential for opera to remain relevant, to innovate while staying true to the universal. And the depth and dimension of Verdi’s portrayal of Violetta, who stands apart in the composer’s canon as a heroine of singular complexity, will continue to pose an inexhaustible challenge to singers — and to fascinate audiences as long as opera is performed.

(c) 2014 Thomas May — All rights reserved.

Filed under: essay, San Francisco Opera, Verdi

Head in the Clouds

Head in the clouds

Head in the clouds

Filed under: photography

Strauss at 150

“The life which began with a comet-like blaze of sensational excitement ended with a long sunset in which exile and the threat of disgrace cast lengthening tragic shadows. … The enigma of Richard Strauss, the why and the wherefore of the man and the musician, will perhaps never be solved,” writes Michael Kennedy in his biography Richard Strauss: Man, Musician, Enigma.

No matter how confident his peers became that they understood Strauss and his place in music history, he remained — and remains — elusive.

Back in 1992, in the collection of essays and writings titled Richard Strauss and His World (edited by Bryan Gilliam for the Princeton Press series), the head-spinningly prolific conductor and scholar Leon Botstein nailed it: If you dig past convention, in Strauss you will find “a continuous evolution in technique and aesthetic ambition rather than a set of discontinuous breaks.”

Botstein continues: “There may have been neither a radical shift in direction nor a decline in artistic quality between 1910 and 1941. Each period has its masterpieces.”

And: “Strauss was the first composer to deconstruct the conventional historical narrative … in which style in the arts was evidence of a spiritually unique and unified discrete historical period.”

As the music world reassesses Strauss’s legacy throughout this 150th anniversary year, perhaps some of the cliches and pat explanations that remain common currency will be challenged a little more.

Filed under: Strauss

Shaking Booty with the Seattle Symphony?

I like big risks and I cannot lie….

So the Seattle Symphony gave a special one-off concert last weekend, part of its Sonic Evolution series. The series — just one of the many ideas music director Ludovic Morlot inaugurated in his first season three years ago — is basically about connecting the orchestra with other musical genres spawned in the Seattle region.

For this latest edition of the series, a trio of young (or youngish) composers was commissioned to write original orchestral pieces responding in some way, with no strings, so to speak, to musical figures linked culturally or biographically with Seattle. There was the Portuguese Luís Tinoco; Du Yun, a Chinese-born composer based in New York; and Gabriel Prokofiev, who is, yes, the grandson of Sergey, who is based in London. (He’s the only one of seven Prokofiev grandchildren with a career in music.)

Composer Du Yun

Composer Du Yun

Their new compositions drew loosely on source inspirations, respectively, from Bill Frisell (who lives in the region), Ray Charles (who made his first recording in Seattle, the town “where I got my start,” as Charles once said), and the hip-hop legend Sir Mix-A-Lot. The latter’s onstage performance, backed by the Seattle Symphony, is of course what grabbed the headlines.

A final segment of the program was given over to a local band called Pickwick; they performed three of their soul-infused songs to the accompaniment of the SSO, in arrangements by David Campbell (a Seattle native who’s done lots of work for film soundtracks).

Sure, the loaded concept of “crossover” has been responsible for many a dubious or at best misguided project. The standard critique runs something like this: if you present an orchestra playing versions of “pop music,” it dilutes the original into a sappy, watered-down product while making a mockery of the players’ musicianship. Neither constituency (the classical or pop audience) is likely to find the result appealing, so what you get is music that exists in a kitschy limbo, a no-man’s-land of pointless vulgarity.

All too often that actually is the case, as we all know from any number of dreadful PBS pledge promos. But — a big but — that kind of simplistic, pandering crossover doesn’t fairly describe what the Sonic Evolution project is after. And certainly not what actually happened on Friday night’s concert.

Sonic Evolution

It’s been amusing to see how many commentators who weren’t actually there consider themselves entitled to pontificate. (And yes, there really is an “aura” aspect to these concerts that you can’t absorb via youtube osmosis.)

I’m referring mostly to the naysayers who conclude that such efforts spell the doom of civilization, but just as much to the hipster pundits who think everything else the Symphony does is irrelevant or that the pairing of Sir Mix-A-Lot and Morlot represents a rare moment of cultural credibility that you don’t get with business as usual.

Many seem to assume that the whole concert was about having the SSO play Sir Mix-A-Lot “covers” in a madcap attempt to fill the house and stir up media attention. Do they really think an entire season has been planned around busily orchestrated versions of pop music icons? That there’s going to be no more Brahms or Bach or Beethoven — or Dutilleux and Ravel, to mention the splendid program that also took place last week, one which happens to serve as a perfect example of the level of artistic excellence at which the SSO is playing these days?

In fact, Prokofiev crafted two orchestrations of hits by Sir Mix-A-Lot (“Posse on Broadway” and “Baby Got Back”), but his main event was a completely new composition titled Dial 1-900 Mix-A-Lot. In my opinion this was the most interesting music of the program, brimming with invention and a one-of-a-kind orchestral imagination. Among the challenges Prokofiev set himself was to deploy the full orchestra on its own terms, without resorting to boring cookie-cutter gestures and predictable sectional blocks. (Prokofiev discusses the process of working on this piece on his blog.)

Gabriel Prokofiev

Gabriel Prokofiev

Besides, you’ve got to admire a piece that prompts this in the program note (written by my friend Aaron Grad, also a composer): “A recurring four-note motive, for instance, traces the rhythm of the opening phrase from ‘Baby Got Back’: ‘I like big butts.'”

I also very much enjoyed Tinoco’s kaleidoscopically orchestrated ruminations in FrisLand, which he describes as “an imaginary voyage through an (also imaginary) sound-world inspired by Frisell’s music.” It was interesting to learn about the juxtaposition of Ray Charles with a bit of Buddhist folklore in Du Yun’s Hundred Heads, though I admit that the musical argument of her piece left me puzzled; here the fusion didn’t persuade me.

Luís Tinoco

Luís Tinoco

What I did find cringeworthy about the concert, though I haven’t seen anyone else mention it, was the final set spotlighting Pickwick. I’m sure they’re eminently enjoyable on their own terms, in their usual setting. But this was the part that for me reeked of cheesy crossover. Why? The three songs were two much of a kind, but most of all because of the dreary paint-by-numbers arrangements that wasted the resource of the SSO, making it into a predictable jukebox of fizzing tremolo strings, etc. etc. No imagination.

So why have some people gotten so riled up over the orchestra sharing the stage with Sir Mix-A-Lot and a bevvy of eagerly dancing women? This was one part of the program, and the spirit overall seemed genuinely joyful; certainly the musicians appeared to be having fun with the playfulness of it.

No one can seriously believe this is the Trojan horse that will suddenly yield a concert hall full of converts to Bruckner. That’s not the intention anyway, and Bruckner will still be waiting there for those fortunate enough to discover what he has to offer. But it was exciting to realize that a significant portion of the audience had never once been inside the Benaroya Hall auditorium before. And they stayed and heard some “serious” concert music by worthwhile composers at work today; they also had a blast encountering very familiar music in an unusual context.

I admire the Seattle Symphony and Morlot’s willingness to take these kinds of risks. It’s not just about trying out gimmicks. They honestly are walking the talk, putting into action the themes that had just been discussed at this year’s League of American Orchestras Conference, which had wrapped up earlier that day in Seattle: the need to rethink how our orchestras can connect with their local audiences and how the concert experience itself can be innovated, can become an event that leaves a mark. That means being willing to stumble, to get parts wrong, even to have people question your sanity.

(c) 2014 Thomas May – All rights reserved.

Filed under: new music, programming innovation, Seattle Symphony

Impressing Their Peers: All Eyes and Ears on Seattle


New review on Bachtrack:

Talk about keeping the pressure on: Only last month the Seattle Symphony and music director Ludovic Morlot journeyed to Carnegie Hall for an unusually high-stakes concert and attracted a good deal of press coverage — not least because one of the works featured had just won the Pulitzer Prize in music (John Luther Adams’s Become Ocean, a Seattle Symphony commission). Thursday night’s all-French program meanwhile attracted special scrutiny from movers and shakers throughout the American orchestral scene.

This time the ensemble was playing on its home turf at Benaroya Hall, where it welcomed a sizable number of guests in town for the annual conference of the League of American Orchestras. Under the slogan “Critical Questions/Countless Solutions”, some 1,000 participants representing the breadth of America’s orchestral life had flocked to Seattle. Their mission: to brainstorm ways to engage audiences more meaningfully. Ideas ranged from more innovative concert formats and digital initiatives to suggestions for making orchestras “the heartbeats of our cities”, as Morlot put it.

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Thomas May

Filed under: concert programming, review, Seattle Symphony

The League of American Orchestras in Seattle


Seattle really is the place to be when it comes to envisioning the future of the American orchestra. The future, as in: not another whine-fest of grumpy old men (or ill-informed hipster “observers”) bewailing “the death of classical music,” but the future as a challenge to rethink the “binaries” that shackle the art, that limit how we conceive the culture of performance.

That’s the message enticingly floated by flutist extraordinaire, new music advocate, innovative entrepreneur, and MacArthur genius Claire Chase, who gave the keynote speech for this year’s edition of the League of American Orchestras Conference: “Critical Questions, Countless Solutions.”

The 2014 Conference has just gotten under way, and the choice of Seattle is especially fortuitous. The Seattle Symphony under Ludovic Morlot is gaining wider recognition as an engine for smart orchestral innovation. Their major commission of music by John Luther Adams won this year’s Pulitzer Prize in Music. And the Symphony did something more than hit a home run with its Carnegie Hall performance last month, which inspired Alex Ross to write (and League President and CEO Jesse Rosen to quote during his presentation yesterday at Benaroya Hall): “When conductor, players, and administrators are of one mind, an orchestra can become a singularly vital beast.”

The opening session got a nice launch with a brief concert by the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra under Stephen Rodgers Radcliffe: Joshua Roman contributed the solo cello part to Aaron Jay Kernis’s Dreamsongs for Cello and Orchestra, which was followed by a Wagnerian excerpt (Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey). Deborah Rutter, incoming new President of the Kennedy Center (and a major force in making this concert hall a reality back in the 1990s), gave a heartfelt and quite moving tribute speech to Wayne S. Brown. Brown then appeared onstage to accept the League’s prestigious Golden Baton Award.

Ending the afternoon was a duo session by Joshua Roman and Gabriel Prokofiev (performing the latter’s Cello Multitracks, which mixes live acoustic playing with “electronica” to effect a cello nonet). Claire Chase introduced herself with a superb performance of a piece she says changed her life: Edgard Varèse’s Density 21.5.

Note the prominence of non-orchestral music here. It might seem odd for the opening session of an orchestral conference, but the point seemed to be that the standard model of full-scale orchestral performances can benefit from a flexible context of solo and chamber playing, a dialogue with other forms of music-making.

Chase waxed on about her hero Varèse’s pronouncement that “music, which should pulsate with life, needs new means of expression.” There were a lot of heady suggestions drawing on her experiences spearheading the contemporary music ensemble ICE, but this was primarily a mood setter. Some will say it’s just another variant of the standard pep talk self-congratulation. One friend and colleague points out that you can’t just leap-frog past ingrained traditions of performance, not to mention the nitty-gritty of musicians’ contracts that are in place, to will new models into being.

At the other extreme, the promise of “countless solutions” can, after all, lead nowhere: if there are too many options, how is any to have a lasting, meaningful impact? But what I heard in Chase’s remarks was a provocative invitation to do more than daydream about a promising future. Let’s see what concrete suggestions emerge from the next few days of sessions, brainstorming, and conversation.

–Thomas May

Filed under: American music, music news, new music, orchestras

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