MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

National Youth Orchestra: Season 2


The National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America has just launched its second season. Tomorrow brings the NYO to Carnegie Hall for its official debut there, with a program of music by Bernstein, Britten (Gil Shaham soloing in the Violin Concerto). Mussorgsky, and a newly commissioned orchestral piece by Samuel Adams. David Robertson is serving as the NYO’s conductor this year.

For the new season I wrote a feature that appears in the Summer 2014 issue of Listen: Life with 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 ofindignant but thoughtful counterarguments in response.

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Filed under: American music, commissions, education, essay

Message in a Bottle


Filed under: photography

Built-In Beauty

Photo by Monique Blanchard

Photo by Monique Blanchard

My latest piece for City Arts :

The Smith Tower celebrated its 100th birthday earlier this month, and to mark the architectural anniversary visitors were able to enjoy the Tower’s Chinese Room and the vistas from the Observation Deck for the original admission price collected in 1914—a budget-busting 25 cents.

Of course, Smith Tower is always just “there,” part of the ever-present scenery of daily life in downtown Seattle. Maybe on your checklist of show-off-the-city items for visitors. But try for a moment to ignore the familiarity of icons like this.

Because architecture is so integrated into our everyday patterns, it’s easy to take the urban landscape for granted—buildings, facades, interiors, walkways, skylines—yet at the same time they profoundly influence the way we experience those everyday patterns, at however unconscious a level.

It’s the mission of the Seattle Architecture Foundation (SAF) to “awaken people to these influences and increase the public’s awareness and appreciation of design in the built environment.” To that end, SAF is currently offering a baker’s dozen of walking tours both downtown and in a variety of other neighborhoods, each conducted by members of their reserve of highly trained tour guides.

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Filed under: aesthetics, American history, architecture, city life

Current Playlist: Aschenmusik


It’s always interesting to see which composers turn out to be soul mates — especially when the affinity crosses barriers of time and cultural expectations.

The extraordinary Swiss musician Heinz Holliger — oboist supreme, composer, and conductor — has followed the traces of Robert Schumann throughout his life, always with revealing and sometimes surprising results. This new release from ECM weaves together music by Schumann (viewed, so to speak, from an oboist’s perspective) and one of Holliger’s own Schumann homages, Romancendres (2003) — an attempt to rescue his predecessor’s burned Romances for Cello and Piano “from the ashes” (hence the current album title, Aschenmusik).

ECM has recorded this Holliger composition before (on another intriguing program that includes the Swiss composer’s overlayering of texts by Hölderlin for a reimagining of Schumann’s Gesänge der Frühe, from 1853, the same year as the burnt Romances). But Aschenmusik, released to celebrate Holliger’s 75th birthday this year, also showcases his breathtaking musicianship as an oboist. The entire CD is dedicated to Holliger’s late wife, the harpist Ursula Holliger, who died in January of this year.

Granted, the tracklist is somewhat peculiar, juxtaposing Romancendres (for cello and piano) with Schumann rarities as well as other pieces arranged for oboe or cello. So we have the Six Studies in Canon Form, Op. 56 (1845), for oboe d’amore, cello, and piano; the Three Romances for Oboe and Piano, Op. 94 (1849); the Intermezzo from the “FAE Sonata” in A minor, WoO 2 (1853), reworked for oboe d’amore and piano; and an arrangement of the Violin Sonata No. 1 in A minor, Op. 105 (1851), substituting cello for violin (thus suggesting a sonic coherence with Holliger’s own cello-piano piece).

But listening to the whole program — and late nights seem especially amenable to this music for some reason, I find — gives the impression of a very personal encounter with Schumann, an encounter that seeks to go beyond the myths.

Holliger observes (in an interview with Claus Spahn included in the booklet) how his own views of Schumann have changed over the years, with regard to the Romances for example: “25 years ago I wanted to show that [they] are not only romantic and poetic, but very precise and elaborate in their workmanship. Today I can treat them with greater license. Their linguistic character is more important to me. I try to play them like three completely different poems.”

Indeed his variety of expression is captivating, abetted by sensitive accompaniment at the keyboard from Austrian pianist Anton Kernjak. One of Holliger’s main insights here is that “in trying to write tightly structured music [Schumann] intensified the poetic.”

Aschenmusik prompts reflections on the distance between a composer’s imagined creations and what makes it to “the real world” of pen and paper, manuscript — and then what relation later generations have to these artefacts. Music history is full of stories of composers revising, frustrated by first performances, or rejecting works wholesale and consigning them to the flames.

But in the case of Schumann’s lost Cello Romances, it was those who loved him who thought they were doing right by destroying his work: Clara Schumann, acting on the advice of Brahms, thought she was “safeguarding” her husband’s reputation by suppressing this and other works from his final lucid period. The fear was that the music would be perceived as showing evidence of a deteriorating mind — which in fact became a self-fulfilling prophesy in the case of the rediscovered Violin Concerto, whose reception has been complicated precisely by this bias surrounding the score.

Holliger points out that his Romancendres — performed together with the warmly expressive principal cellist of the Zurich Tonhall Orchestra, Anita Leuzinger — does not aim “to reconstruct a lost Schumann work,” though his “initial impetus was to rebel against this barbaric act of destruction.”

My idea was that Schumann’s entire life is contained in the ashes of the burnt Cello Romances, That’s why I wrote the four middle movements of “Romancendres” from the viewpoint of a dying man whose entire life passes through his mind in fractions of a second at the moment of his death.

Filed under: CD review, Schumann

Studie in Rosa

Sub Rosa

Sub Rosa

“Rose, oh reiner Widerspruch, Lust, niemandes Schlaf zu sein unter soviel Lidern” — Rainer Maria Rilke

Filed under: photography

Nietzsche vs. Dawkins


The event itself is far too great, too distant, too remote from the multitude’s capacity for comprehension even for the tidings of it to be thought of as having ARRIVED as yet. Much less may one suppose that many people know as yet WHAT this event really means — and how much must collapse now that this faith has been undermined because it was built upon this faith, propped up by it, grown into it; for example, the whole of our European morality.

-Friedrich Nietzsche, Die fröhliche Wissenschaft

Michael Robbins cites that passage in his recent review of Atheists: The Origin of the Species by Nick Spencer, who directs the London-based, Christian think-tank Theos.

Spencer ventures an historical traversal of the intellectual history of atheism, wherein “one of his most trenchant themes is that it is more proper to speak of atheisms and of various species of atheist.” (It’s worth noting — as the classical scholar Barbara Graziosi does in her excellent and highly recommendable “reception history” of the pagan Greek gods, The Gods of Olympus: A History — that for the ancient Greeks, the alpha-privative word “atheos” [ἄθεος] didn’t normally connote an unbeliever, but rather “someone whom the gods had abandoned.”)

Robbins describes how Nietzsche’s atheism is positioned historically by Spencer:

Nietzsche realized that the Enlightenment project to reconstruct morality from rational principles simply retained the character of Christian ethics without providing the foundational authority of the latter. Dispensing with his fantasy of the Übermensch, we are left with his dark diagnosis. To paraphrase the Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, our moral vocabulary has lost the contexts from which its significance derived, and no amount of Dawkins-style hand-waving about altruistic genes will make the problem go away. (Indeed, the ridiculous belief that our genes determine everything about human behavior and culture is a symptom of this very problem. [sic*])

The point is not that a coherent morality requires theism, but that the moral language taken for granted by liberal modernity is a fragmented ruin: It rejects metaphysics but exists only because of prior metaphysical commitments. A coherent atheism would understand this, because it would be aware of its own history. Instead, trendy atheism of the Dawkins variety has learned as little from its forebears as from Thomas Aquinas, preferring to advance a bland version of secular humanism.

(*”sic” because this reads like a caricature of Dawkins’s theories — precisely the kind of superficial, gross misunderstanding of which Spencer is accusing the new atheists.)

More and more, Nietzsche’s importance for Mahler begins to make sense…

Reviewing Spencer in The Guardian, meanwhile, Julian Baggini observes:

Spencer is here promoting the conception of “religiosity as pattern of life rather than a set of verifiable propositions”. On this view, what matters is not whether difficult doctrines such as eternal damnation or even Christ’s resurrection are true or false, but that a life guided by such ideas is somehow richer, more complete, more directed towards a higher good.

If that is right, then atheists who have criticised religion for its doctrines have spectacularly missed the point, “tilting at theological windmills”. But as Spencer himself argues, we didn’t see “theological liberalism redrawing the lines” until the last decades of the 19th century, and, even then, only a minority accepted the new map.

Filed under: book recs, philosophy

Birthday Salute to Sir Harrison Birtwistle

And so Sir Harry turns 80! Harrison Birtwistle has created some of the most strangely arresting soundscapes among the composers of our time. It’s extremely difficult music to write about, as I’ve discovered with various assignments over the years. Music that defies even more than most the feeble attempt to circumscribe it with mere words — it makes mincemeat of those who try — but that can strike you as uncannily direct and visceral. (See what a knot he just got me caught up in?)

Among my favorites of his “satellite” works are Earth Dances, The Shadow of Night, and Night’s Black Bird — disturbing and thrilling works Birtwistle conceives as orchestral “processions” and “imaginary landscapes.”

All of these seem to be parts of a vaster, labyrinthine work-in-progress, with a number of threads interwoven among them. Chief among these is a tension between linear and circular patterns, between an “ordinary” sense of chronological time and a heightened awareness of other kinds of times.

Tom Service offers this lovely, user-friendly intro to the utterly distinctive world of Sir Harrison Birtwistle, including Panic, The Cry of Anubis, Secret Theatre, Earth Dances, and the Violin Concerto.

In his excellent series of guides to contemporary composers, Service writes:

So where was the crucible of Birtwistle’s creative imagination? Manchester in the 1950s. Born in Accrington in 1934, and growing up as a clarinetist playing in local theatre bands, Birtwistle studied in the north west with what would become an (in)famous group of composers and musicians: Alexander Goehr, Peter Maxwell Davies, pianist John Ogdon, and trumpeter, conductor, and composer Elgar Howarth.

The usual story about what this “Manchester school” achieved was that they ripped up the rule book, and made British music confront contemporary continental modernisms that previous generations and the establishment had been frightened of. That’s true, to the extent that Harry, Max, and Sandy did engage with and devour everything they could get their hands on by Schoenberg or Webern or Stravinsky, and one of the pieces that changed Birtwistle’s life was Boulez’s “Le marteau sans maître.”

But just as there was a move to the modern, there was an equivalent excavation of the musical and mythical past, as Max and Harry delved into medieval music, into plainchant and polyphony, to find new-yet-old ways of structuring and thinking about what music could be.

Filed under: anniversary, composers, new music

A Derek Bermel Premiere

The composer Derek Bermel gives an introduction to his new Piano Trio, titled Death with Interruptions after José Saramago’s novel. Commissioned by the Seattle Chamber Music Society, it receives its world premiere on tonight’s program, part of the 2014 Summer Festival.

My recent preview of the Summer Festival includes more on Death with Interruptions from my interview with Bermel.

Filed under: chamber music, commissions, new music

R.I.P., Lorin Maazel (1930-2014)

Early into this year we lost one of the greatest musicians of our era with the death of Claudio Abbado. Today brings the sad news of Lorin Maazel’s sudden passing. These were the great conductors I grew up with, so another stark reminder of how quickly that world is fading away.

I recall a very engaging conversation with Maestro Maazel some years ago about his thoughts on Richard Strauss. (Unfortunately the interview is no longer online and I don’t have the file handy so can’t post it for the time being at least.)

Here are a few of the immediate critical reactions:

Maazel was a musical titan who ruled at the podium with a cool, penetrating technical brilliance. This made him a divisive figure through his career, particularly since he didn’t suffer fools lightly…

Anne Midgette

Mr. Maazel was a study in contradictions, and he evoked strong feelings — favorable and otherwise — from musicians, administrators, critics and audiences.
He was revered for the precision of his baton technique, and for his prodigious memory — he rarely used a score in performances — but when he was at his most interpretively idiosyncratic, he used his powers to distend phrases and reconfigure familiar balances in the service of an unusual inner vision.

Allan Kozinn

Some reactions from the Twittersphere:
Esa-Pekka Salonen: “Thank you for many unforgettable experiences, Maestro. You had many huge fans among colleagues. I for one certainly.”

Robert Lind: “Rest in peace Lorin Maazel! I remember well when I sang Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with you a few years ago!”

Matthew Worth: “RIP, Maestro. You gave me one of my first professional jobs after conservatory. Thank you for your faith and nurture.”

And from a 2011 profile in The Guardian by Nicholas Wroe, when Maazel was in London to conduct the Philharmonia in Mahler:

“To be honest I don’t look back with great satisfaction at all the various people I’ve been over the decades,” [Maazel] says. “In fact I often shake my head in dismay at the immaturity and puerile view of life and have the greatest compassion for young people who are going through these same stages. But hopefully you mature and you get smarter, in life and in music. If you sharpen your mind and become open to new ideas you become less enclosed in the ghetto of your fanaticisms.”

He says his relationship with the Mahler symphonies has been lifelong education, “and the place where you learn is on the job. I’m not sure I could listen to my early recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic today. Not because they would be wrong or bad, but the maturing and learning process only progresses inch by inch over the years so this lifetime of interaction with the music now feels part of a much larger experience.

In fact it feels more akin to jumping out of a window and seeing your life pass before your eyes, and I now find myself delivering a performance, simultaneously, both in retrospect and in the present moment. Of course I’m very familiar with interacting with masterpieces, but the emotions engendered by the music are leaving me overwhelmed at the end of the performance. And I’m not the sort of person who is accustomed to being overwhelmed.”

Filed under: conductors, music news



Filed under: city life, photography

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