MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

“Time’s Friction”


The last day of the year, the eve of a new start. Not a bad moment to recall a key passage from The Hamlet, the first novel of William Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy: the passage in which Mink Snopes, having murdered the landowner Jack Houston, is searching by night for the corpse he had hidden. Writes Faulkner:

So he [Mink] held himself still for the space of a hundred, trying to orient himself by looking back up the slope… Then he went back … trying to recognize by its shape and position the tree where eh had left the axe, standing in the roar not of silence now but of time’s friction. He thought of starting from some point which he knew was below the tree he sought and searching each tree as he came to it, but the sound of time was too loud.

In his essay “Faulkner’s Augustinian Sense of Time,” Seemee Ali argues that the famously fluid temporality in Faulkner is closer to the interweaving of past, present, and future elucidated by St. Augustine than it is to “Bergsonian” metaphysics:

Beginning with “The Hamlet,” the elasticity of time in Faulkner’s corpus is not simply a matter of personal perception for his characters. Time’s manifold variety is an ontological fact that they are forced to confront. In the “Confessions” Augustine puzzles over this ontological condition….

Faulkner intuits the complexity that Augustine articulates … that the apprehension of history, the attentionto the present, and hope for the future are all the work of the mind. Calling the mind to attention, to expectation, and to remembrance is the ambitious task that Faulkner’s fiction sets for itself at the very moment Mink Snopes murders his enemy and discovers his consioucness stymied by “time’s friction.”

But what about the sounds time is making — the noise of time?

Filed under: aesthetics, American literature

Coming into the Light: Tchaikovsky’s Final Opera

Enjoy your Nutcracker this season, but me, I’d much rather have the other part of the double-bill with which the ballet was first paired in 1892: the one-act fairy-tale opera Iolanta.

I’m currently admiring Peter Sellars’s enlightening interpretation, paired on DVD with Stravinsky’s Perséphone from a production at the Teatro Real.

“It is a very radical opera, it is the start of symbolism in Russia, of modern art, of the search for light,” says Peter Sellars in an interview for El País.

Iolanta was Tchaikovsky’s very last opera and suffered from terrible bowdlerization under Soviet authorities. A new production starring Anna Netrebko — in a double-bill with Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle and directed by Mariusz Trelinski — comes to the Met early in 2015.

Filed under: directors, Metropolitan Opera, Tchaikovsky

Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage

J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248

Filed under: Bach

What Is It About Messiah?


My recent essay on the unusual (if most popular) of Handel’s oratorios:

Handel’s masterpiece has long been at the heart of the repertory, but it marked an unusual departure for the composer

If you could do the time warp and choose a few of the legendary premieres in music history to be teleported back to, what would make your list? Likely contenders might be Beethoven’s Ninth, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, perhaps Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique and Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, and — surely Messiah?

This list forms the basis for Thomas Forrest Kelly’s lecture series, published as First Nights, which teems with fascinating factoids to help us reimagine what the scenes of said premieres may have been like. Following the public rehearsal of Messiah on April 9, 1742, the official world premiere occurred on April 13, 1742, at the Great Music Hall in Dublin, having been postponed a day to allow for “several persons of distinction” to be able to attend; the “ladies who honour this performance with their presence” were requested to attend “without hoops” so as to make room for others. All told, the Great Music Hall would have accommodated about 700 (hoopless) people — though of course a seat would be reserved for our prospective time-traveler.

continue reading

(c)2014 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: choral music, essay, Handel, oratorio, sacred music

Solstice Eve


Filed under: photography

“Ihr Habt Nun Traurigkeit”

Perhaps the most beautiful music Brahms ever composed:

Filed under: Uncategorized

Protected: How City Arts Tried to Hijack a Seattle Symphony Premiere

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Filed under: American music, commissions, journalism, new music, Seattle Symphony

World Premiere in Seattle: Mason Bates’s Cello Concerto

If you think symphony orchestras are merely about curating and presenting music by dead composers, you’ve been missing out on some remarkable experiences from the likes of the Seattle Symphony. The orchestra got a whopping six nominations for the 2015 Grammy Awards(R) announced last week — three of them for the apocalyptic Become Ocean by John Luther Adams, composer who fuses innovative sound painting with philosophical and environmental meditations.

And this week’s concerts bring the world premiere of a cello concerto Mason Bates has written for Joshua Roman, former principal cellist of the SSO who has since pursued a career as a freelance artist and new-music advocate. The program will also include Prokofiev’s Suite from Lieutenant Kijé and excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s ballet Sleeping Beauty. On the podium will be the young Lithuanian conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. She has been making news this season as assistant conductor under Gustavo Dudamel at the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

In October the Baltimore Symphony announced the results of a study investigating programming trends this season among 22 major American orchestras. They found that Bates is the second most frequently performed living composer (after John Adams — the other Adams, no relation to John Luther Adams).

“With a new concerto, you always get a lot of tune-ups on the first drive out,” says Bates, speaking by phone from his home in Oakland, California. Bringing a piece of music to life, he adds, is “one of the most exciting things. People in Seattle will get to hear the energy and excitement of that process.” The Cello Concerto is one of three major premieres on the calendar this season for the hugely-in-demand Bates. The others include the first recording of his acclaimed new Violin Concerto for Anne Akiko Meyers and a “surreal symphonic suite” called Anthology of Fantastic Zoology.

The 37-year-old composer enjoys a close relationship with the San Francisco Symphony, where Michael Tilson Thomas has long been one of his major advocates. Last season they presented a two-week festival titled “Beethoven & Bates.” Bates also has won over the likes of conductor Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony. For several seasons he and peer Anna Clyne have been shaking things up in the Windy City as dual composers-in-residence. (Clyne’s piece Prince of Clouds, which was released on a recording with music by Bates, is a contender in the 2015 Grammys for Best Contemporary Classical Composition.)

Bates is also famous for his alter ego as a DJ (he goes by the moniker “Masonic”). In San Francisco and many other cities Bates presents a counterpart to his orchestral performances in the form of after-hours sessions of immersive electronica. Sometimes these take place in areas of a city’s concert hall — a bit like the [untitled] series Seattle Symphony has instituted in the Benaroya Hall lounge since Ludovic Morlot’s tenure began.

Bates’s website includes separate tabs for “classical” and “electronica,” but much of his orchestral work magically fuses the two. Mothership is a good example: it was commissioned for the pioneering YouTube Symphony by Tilson Thomas, which premiered it in 2011.

And the YouTube Symphony project sprouted another significant musical friendship. “[Joshua Roman] and I got thrown together in a kind of shotgun wedding with the YouTube Symphony. We were both on the program in New York and were scheduled to play later that evening at Poisson Rouge. We had never played together before, but that night we did an electro-acoustic improvisation. The second stop in our musical relationship was a piece for his series at Town Hall in Seattle.” This later become Carbide & Carbon (named for the building in Chicago), “an unbelievably difficult piece for solo cello which he played from memory a month after receiving the score.”

Bates and the 31-year-old Roman first met in Seattle at the Seattle Chamber Players Icebreaker Festival of new music in 2008, so the Cello Concerto represents a kind of homecoming. “Throughout the planning and writing of the piece, “ says Roman, “Mason and I have been in close contact. He’s done a remarkable job of making me feel like the concerto was written for my playing style and fingers. Add to that my previous performances and two-year tenure with the Seattle Symphony, and this week is full of powerful connections and emotions for me. I’m overjoyed to be premiering this exciting piece with an orchestra that feels like family.”

“This piece is about Josh,” Bates explains. “It’s about the personality he brings to the cello as an instrument. “He can play any note and make it sound so good. That comes from the tone he has, which is a combination of absolute precision and at the same time an incredibly musical sensibility. Josh makes you forget about the technique, even about the instrument. He just transports you into the musical world of the composer. It’s like that line from Yeats, “how can we know the dancer from the dance.” He makes it all sound so natural.” Overall, the Cello Concerto is “more introverted in a way, a piece that comes from the inside of the cello.”

Although the Cello Concerto is more “traditional” in the sense that Bates doesn’t use any of his palette of electronica in the score, traces of that sensibility come through in the exotic sounds of the kalimba (African thumb piano), which “have a delicate ringing texture. I thought this would lay out an interesting rhythmic bed for the opening theme. And this piece reflects the influence of electronica on my thinking, for example in some of the rhythmic activity in the final movement.”

What does Roman most look froward to with this premiere? “The process of learning a piece without having preconceived notions from repeated hearings of other cellists, the benefit of being able to communicate directly with the composer about their intentions, and the responsibility of presenting it for audiences to have a fresh experience and future performers to continue the life of the piece are all strong factors. Cellists, in particular, were often overlooked in past centuries, so even though we have great concertos from a few of the masters we are constantly seeking to build the repertoire.”

(c) 2014 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: American music, commissions, new music, Seattle Symphony

River Walk Renaissance


My feature on the birth of a new company, OPERA San Antonio, appears in the current issue of LISTEN. I can include only the teaser here (the full article is behind a paywall):

In today’s performing arts climate, the launch of a new American opera company is bold enough to seem downright contrarian. But nothing got in the way of OPERA San Antonio’s official inauguration in September with a stylish production of Fantastic Mr. Fox — one of a series of events to ring in the city’s glistening new arts palace on the River Walk, the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. Tobias Picker’s family-friendly opera, based on the beloved story by Roald Dahl, turned out to be a shrewd choice…

Filed under: American opera, essay, opera, opera companies

The Romance of the Ruin


Filed under: photography

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