MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Another Birthday Salute: John Adams at 68


A toast to John Adams, who needs no introduction. Today, as Mr. Adams turns 68, he continues to astonish with his inexhaustible creative drive.

Just last month the St. Lawrence String Quartet unveiled his Second Quartet at Stanford University. At the Grammies the St. Louis Symphony and David Robertson’s recording of City Noir and the Saxophone Concerto nabbed the award for Best Orchestral Performance. And next month brings the world premiere of Scheherazade.2, a “dramatic symphony for violin and orchestra.”

This very weekend, Opera Omaha is presenting a new production of his 2006 opera A Flowering Tree directed by James Darrah and conducted by Christopher Rountree.

Composed by John Adams, “A Flowering Tree” made its debut in 2006 and is still relatively unfamiliar to opera lovers. It has its roots in a 2,000-year-old Tamil Indian folk tale and is decidedly dark…
Although this all might seem narratively challenging to communicate in just a little over two hours, James Darrah delivered a mesmerizing production.

–Kim Carpenter,

The works Mr. Adams has given us since my anthology was published nearly a decade ago show this American master working at a sustained peak of creative power. Here’s to many more years to come!

Filed under: American music, anniversary, John Adams

Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette Symphony toute entière


Hector Berlioz didn’t even know English when he saw his first stagings of Shakespeare in 1827 in Paris, performed by a British company on tour. But it didn’t matter. “Shakespeare, coming upon me unawares, struck me like a thunderbolt,” he later recalled. “The lightning flash of that sublime discovery opened before me at a stroke the whole heaven of art, illuminating it to its remotest depths.”

Those reverberations mixed with the young French artist’s discovery of the Beethoven symphonies around the same time. And both epiphanies propelled Berlioz along his adventurous course as a musical revolutionary.

The work that fuses Berlioz’s reimagining of what a symphony could be with his Shakespearean obsession is Roméo et Juliette. Last night the Seattle Symphony performed RnJ in its entirety — to my knowledge, for the first time in their history. Ludovic Morlot led the expansive forces called for by the score: three vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra (in this case splitting the first and second violins to left and right). There’s even a touch of acoustical “space music” in the positioning of a brief double choir offstage.

It’s a mammoth score (all told, around an hour and a half — not counting the intermission that was inserted here after the “Queen Mab Scherzo”). The instrumental sections are played as a kind of abridged suite often enough, but encountering the whole megillah is a rarity that brings home how radical were Berlioz’s ideas about music and its relation to text and drama. The result is that RnJ is more or less an acknowledged masterpiece that contains some of this genius’s finest music, yet, oddly, as a whole the work remains more often talked about than heard.

Following Maestro Morlot’s work with specific composers since his tenure began here has been fascinating — and the Berlioz thread has proved particularly satisfying artistically (La Damnation de Faust in his first season, an electrifying Symphonie fantastique this time last year).

Morlot and his musicians are showering love on Roméo et Juliette. Sorry if that sounds schmaltzy, but there’s really no other way to put it: the breathtaking precision of their dynamic shadings, the intensified expressivity, their Zen-like focus on detail, the awareness of complicated, even contradictory emotions in this score.

Berlioz carries further the idea from the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth of the instruments trying to break out into words by doing the opposite: after an orchestral introduction — the discipline of fugal writing paradoxically depicts violent disorder and passion — he stages an overall summing up of the play’s main action in a prologue “act” that features chorus and two soloists positioned behind the strings. (Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo contributed her velvety mezzo and tenor Kenneth Tarver sang with elegant fervor.)

But already you sense the instruments straining to take over the telling, with solemn, commanding rebukes from trombonist Ko-ichiro Yamamoto and the brass ensemble standing in for the Prince of Verona. And Berlioz reserves the most sublime passages for his orchestra, above all in the scene of Romeo alone and the nocturne of the young lovers meeting in the garden of the Capulet residence, beneath Juliet’s balcony. The woodwinds played with soulful poignance, with admirably individualized phrasing from Mary Lynch on oboe and clarinetist Ben Lulich; bassoonist Seth Krimsky sustained a mood of deep, anxious melancholy later in the Tomb Scene.

(The playing was so precise and riveting that I encountered a novel torture to add to the usual litany of cell phones, coughers, page-turners, seat kickers, and other occupational hazards of the concert hall: the penetrating sound that a pair of leather shoes squeaking against each other can generate, as a patron helpfully demonstrated during one of the score’s most heartbreaking moments.)

Morlot tenderly shaped the ebb and flow of the scène d’amour, with its sudden pullings-back and renewed outbursts of pained passion. Richard Wagner (Berlioz’s junior by a decade) was there at the historic premiere of this “symphonie dramatique” in Paris in 1839, and it was an epiphany for Little Richard as well.

It’s enlightening to compare/contrast the passionate melody of this music with its transmogrification in Tristan: the Classical transparency of Berlioz’s sensibility survives his most radical harmonic ideas, so that the French composer’s love music still betrays a moving awareness of limits and fragility that is a far reach from the oceanic transports Wagner permits his lovers to experience.

The players’ crisp focus on detail paid off richly, too, in the gorgeously nimble, ear-tickling “Queen Mab Scherzo” — Berlioz’s rendition, purely through the means of orchestral language, of Mercutio’s ingenious speech about the “fairies’ midwife.” Jeff Fair’s horn solo was outstanding, and Michael Werner’s light-as-a-feather pings on hand-held crotales echoed dreamily against infinitesimally delicate pizzicati. The rehearsals must have been incredibly focused, resulting in a lightning speed tempo and crystal-clear textures that throw the sheer weirdness of this music in high relief.

It should be noted that the text set by Berlioz — no mean wordsmith himself — originated in his own paraphrasing and rewriting, only loosely based on Shakespeare’s original; he had the poet Émile Deschamps craft this into a libretto, thus avoiding direct “competition” with Shakespeare’s verse. The “words” and actions of the lovers themselves are reserved strictly for the orchestra to impart.

Another highlight was Juliet’s Funeral March and the Tomb Scene (in the third part or “act,” which was performed after the intermission). A smaller subset of Joseph Crnko’s Seattle Symphony Chorale had appeared for the narrative of the Prologue. Here they came out in full force and sang with clarity and power. The restraint of their single repeated unison E gave way to emotion-laden elegy, its resplendent polyphony expertly balanced.

Arguably the lengthy finale is the weak link in Berlioz’s conception of this symphony-opera-oratorio hybrid. All the pain, longing, and ecstasy — and violence — that lead to the denouement feel swept aside in a superficially rousing reconciliation, the most overtly operatic scena of the work. Here Berlioz gravitates more obviously back toward the Beethovenian Ninth model of a choral finale. Baritone David Wilson-Johnson — filling in at the last minute — delivered the significant part of the peace-maker Friar Laurence with flair and charisma.

But Berlioz knew that “the very sublimity of this love” is beyond words, though not beyond expression. To access this he focuses in Roméo et Juliette on, as he described it, “the language of instruments, a language richer, more varied, less restricted, and thanks to its very indefiniteness, incomparably more potent.”

There’s one more chance to hear this performance of Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette: Saturday 14 February 2015 at 8 pm at Benaroya Hall. Tickets here.

UPDATE: I asked SSO staff about an odd commotion that took place just as concertmaster Alexander Velinzon came out. A man started shouting something in an agitated voice (I couldn’t make out what he was saying) and walked up the aisle holding a pen and pointing it at one of the ushers. Apparently police were notified and came to Benaroya Hall after the gentleman had exited the hall. I’m told there were no other problems and that he was given a refund for the ticket he had purchased.

On Twitter, Terry Miller wondered whether the disturbance was from the Montague or Capulet side.

(C)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Berlioz, conductors, review, Seattle Symphony

The Bang on a Can Marathon Comes to Seattle

Bang on a Can All-Stars

Bang on a Can All-Stars: image (c) Peter Serling

Here’s a performance/happening you’re not going to be able to file away into one of the familiar musical categories. Is it classical (because, you know, strings and other traditional instruments, complicated scores being interpreted)? Experimental, maybe avant-garde? “Crossover” (whatever that‘s supposed to mean nowadays)? Let’s just call it a one-of-a-kind event: the first-ever Seattle edition of the annual Bang on a Can marathon. It takes over the Moore Theatre this Sunday, February 15, for six hours of blissful music-making.

You know how the phrase “classical music concert” used to imply a mostly predictable format? That’s no longer a safe assumption, thanks to the innovative thinking of orchestras like the Seattle Symphony and music director, Ludovic Morlot — thinking that involves not just the content of a concert but the venue where it’s performed.

By the same token, there once was a time when the prospect of a “new music” (aka “modern music”) program signaled a ritualistic exercise in high-toned concentration. Back in 1987, a trio of like-minded young composers — Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon, and David Lang — put together a 12-hour marathon of adventurous music in a SoHo art gallery (when NYC’s SoHo was still SoHo). That one-off event was intended to attract curious ears to the energy and excitement and variety of music being composed in our time outside the commercial formulas of the pop industry — and outside the confines of the concert hall.

The inaugural marathon turned out to be the birth of a performing arts organization that’s now a major international force in the realm of contemporary classical music (another unsatisfactory term for a whole world of music that can’t be readily defined). More than a quarter century on, Bang on a Can remains “dedicated to the support of experimental music, wherever we would find it.” It commissions and records new works, develops programs to foster a new generation of audiences and musicians, and presents numerous events, including the annual Bang on a Can Marathon.

The appeal of the marathon format, according to co-founder and composer (and Dan Savage look-alike) Michael Gordon, is that it encourages people to “let down their guard. The event is aimed at people who are interested in broad listening, who come to listen with open hears. Many people know what they like and might come to the Marathon to hear that type of music. The next thing on the line-up will be completely different, something they would have never come across otherwise. Everything moves quickly and the sets are pretty short. So they start listening to things that they wouldn’t normally encounter. That’s basically the whole point: to broaden your listening and to have a good time with it.”

The venue is important for that context. Seattle’s Bang on a Can Marathon is being co-presented by Seattle Theatre Group and On The Boards at the Moore Theatre. Gordon refers to Bang on a Can’s MO of performing in “neutral spaces, audience-friendly spaces” that shed any of those lingering fears (however unjustified) of the concert hall as a place where only the musically initiated can feel comfortable. He points out that museums and public spaces like the Winter Garden in New York have served this purpose well.

Gordon also has praise for the Seattle Symphony’s recent initiatives under Ludovic Morlot: “They’re doing a lot of progressive work — not only reaching out into other communities but also by doing a lot of interesting commissioning. Orchestras have to change their attitudes. The SSO is on the forefront of finding a way to be relevant today.”

Bang on a Can’s Marathon will mix in work from adventurous Seattle-based or -associated composers and musicians with pieces by each of the organization’s co-founders. The whole event will be framed by new-music “classics” that have had a profound — and not always acknowledged — impact on the music world at large: Brian Eno’s ambient masterpiece, Music for Airports, and Music for 18 Musicians, one of Minimalist Steve Reich’s signature works.

“The Marathon is all about finding people who are pushing the boundaries of their kind of music and letting that be the thread that goes through each of the acts,” says Jherek Bischoff, who was asked to curate the Seattle festival. “Pushing boundaries is one thread.” Another is serendipity: “Someone might come for the hip-hop segment [featuring Shabazz Palaces] and then they’ll happen to hear some modern classical right next to it.”

Bischoff, who comes from a family of musicians, was raised on a sailboat and on Bainbridge Island. He began his career as a multi-instrumentalist: “I started with the saxophone, moved on to tuba and then to bass — and then things stated getting crazy with way too many instruments…” Not surprisingly, Bischoff channels his talents into myriad musical activities, from performing and composing to producing — and, now, curating.

“People I wanted to include sprang to mind right away,” Bischoff explains. “For me, it’s exciting to give them the opportunity to play at the Moore. One of those people is Morgan Henderson. He’s the perfect example of what Bang on a Can is doing, which is to take someone who totally goes under the radar and put them in the spotlight. Morgan is one of the most talented musicians I know. He plays bass in the hardcore band The Blood Brothers but then he also plays flute in the Fleet Foxes band — the exact opposite type of music and instrument.”

Jherek Bischoff

Jherek Bischoff

Another figure Bischoff was eager to add to the line-up is Seattle pianist Gust Burns. “He’s one of the most insanely technically proficient pianists I’ve heard, and at the same time he’s also a wonderful improviser. When you see him perform, you can’t believe that there’s just one person making all that sound with the piano.”

Bischoff, who moved to Los Angeles a few months ago, will also bring along his own recent efforts as a composer: “It’s ambient orchestral music that was inspired by my time out at the cistern in Fort Worden State Park [in Port Townsend], where I did a residency. The cistern is a two-million-gallon water tank underground that has a 45-second reverb. I improvised there for days and recorded the whole thing and ended up turning some of those improvisations into full-blown orchestral pieces.” The results will be performed by the Scrape Ensemble (strings) with Bischoff on bass and “a bunch of reverb piped in to give you a bit of a sense of that alternate space.”

Along with those mentioned above and the Bang on a Can All-Stars, other artists on the roster include the duo Jesssika Kenney & Eyvind Kang, Jim Knapp, Greg Campbell, and California-based red fish blue fish.

But isn’t four hours of musical discovery a bit overwhelming? Bischoff points out that it’s perfectly fine for the audience to weave in and out and take breaks — much as became the custom during performances of a mammoth work like Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach. “You can step out to get a drink. The Bang on a Can marathon I attended in New York took place in a big atrium and there was even a food court where you could go to eat and watch as the music played on.”

If you go: The Bang on a Can Marathon’s Seattle edition is being co-presented by Seattle Theatre Group and On The Boards at the Moore Theatre, Sunday, February 15, from 4 to 10 p.m. Tickets here.

(C)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: new music, preview, programming innovation

Ghosting in LA

Patricia Racette (Marie Antoinette) and Christopher Maltman (Beaumarchais): © Craig Mathew | LA Opera

Patricia Racette (Marie Antoinette) and Christopher Maltman (Beaumarchais): © Craig Mathew | LA Opera

One of the most thrilling evenings I’ve experienced in years at the opera house — at the theater in general — was last weekend’s opening night of Los Angeles Opera’s new production of The Ghosts of Versailles.

Here’s a quick overview of the critical reaction so far:

It’s comic and serious, entertaining and erudite, silly and thoughtful, emotional and mysterious, harrowing and uplifting, intimate and over-the-top — and the more times you see it, the more you’ll find in it and the more you’ll get out of it. It helps to be an opera or history buff to get all of the references, reminiscences and send-ups, but it’s not necessary.

–Richard S, Ginell, Los Angeles Times

James Conlon in the pit showed an absolute mastery of the score and LA Opera Orchestra played like angels for him. Through an evening of very challenging harmonies and swift changes of tempo they alighted on each new melody with precision and a transparency that I hadn’t enjoyed in this work before…

A better performance of this large and complex work couldn’t possibly be hoped for and I can’t express strongly enough what a tremendous experience it was to see live. We were “in the presence of the composer’ last night as they say.

–Patrick Mack,

In an achingly beautiful LA Opera production, the ghosts of monarchies and revolutions past materialize before our eyes at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. We are enveloped in an exquisite postmodern version of Marie Antoinette’s little theatre at Versailles, awash in dusty blues and pearlescent greens. It is the world of John Corigliano’s opera, The Ghosts of Versailles.

–Jane Rosenberg, The International Review of Music

It’s all interesting and entertaining if not invariably arresting. Written for the Metropolitan Opera, which gave the premiere in 1991, “Ghosts,” lasting nearly three hours on Saturday, seems rather loosely-knit and bloated. The jokes, pretty good though sometimes fairly broad, don’t always sit right with the ostensibly serious subject matter. When all is said and done, the whole is about as deep as an episode of “The Twilight Zone.”

–Timothy Mangan, Orange County Register

With an expensive stage set that rivals the royal opera house in Versailles and a large cast that includes a headless Marie Antoinette and a rabid army of French Revolutionaries — as well as an exotic temptress portrayed by a certain Broadway star who enters astride a hot-pink elephant — L.A. Opera’s production of The Ghosts of Versailles at the Chandler Pavilion is a visually stunning affair.

–Falling James, LA Weekly

Patricia Racette gives a commanding performance as Marie Antoinette, combining wistfully naïve nostalgia with nightmarish horror.

–Jim Farber, San Francisco Classical Voice

In the end, there wasn’t even enough room on stage! At the curtain call the cast stretched the entire width of it with several getting squeezed out of the final bow. Corigliano’s opera really is larger than life, and, appropriately, the last person brought out was the composer himself. The Ghosts of Versailles, over 20 years after its première, (which was 11 years after it was commissioned) was worth the wait. While the opera isn’t perfect, it is a colossal achievement. William M. Hoffman’s poetic libretto with Corigliano’s evocative fusion of styles makes not only an impressive spectacle of theater, but an opera of intense feeling and LA Opera’s production captures that magic exquisitely. It was a triumph.

–Matthew Richard Martinez,

Filed under: American opera, directors, John Corigliano, Los Angeles Opera

Happy Birthday, John Luther Adams!

Reblogging this in honor of JLA’s Grammy win for “Become Ocean” — which also brings the Seattle Symphony Orchestra its first-ever Grammy. Congratulations!

MEMETERIA by Thomas May


A birthday salute to the marvelous composer John Luther Adams, who was born on January 23, 1953 — and who was named Musical America’s Composer of the Year for 2015 — on the heels of winning last year’s Pulitzer Prize in Music for Become Ocean.

He also recently garnered Columbia’s William Schuman Award for Lifetime Achievement, it was announced last month.

My feature on JLA and the Seattle Symphony commission of Become Ocean appears in last fall’s issue of Listen magazine — but behind a paywall, so I can’t post the whole thing here.

Explore more of the world of JLA:

— a recent Radiolab feature on the composer

–WQXR’s Meet the Composer spotlight, hosted by Nadia Sirota

–NPR’s Tom Huizenga on JLA’s new CD, The Wind in High Places

–JLA’s essay (he’s also a gifted writer) titled “The Place Where You Go To Listen”

–Kyle Gann’s introduction

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Filed under: Uncategorized

Going Organic


The other night it was lovely being reminded of how Hurricane Mama, Disney Concert Hall’s fabulous organ, holds court even when that gorgeous monster’s not being played. So I wanted to share this article on the resurgence of the organ in the concert hall, which included a focus on Paul Jacobs and Cameron Carpenter. I published this piece back in the spring of 2012 in Symphony magazine:

Going Organic: The King of Instruments Makes a Comeback in the Concert Hall

Blame it on Stravinsky. Explaining why he opted against using the organ in his Symphony of Psalms, the composer complained that “the monster never breathes.” His notorious putdown may have only mirrored a larger bias fashionable in the heyday of modernism. Still, as a revered musical icon, Stravinsky condemned the organ in a way that reverberated through much of the latter half of the 20th century. A similar attitude can still be encountered among those who write off the instrument as the concern of a specialist, even fringe constituency. Yet several recent trends indicate that the organ is earning a rediscovered sense of respect—and creating remarkable musical pleasure—in concert halls across North America.

In February, for example, California’s Pacific Symphony and music director Carl St.Clair gave the world premiere in Orange County’s Segerstrom Hall of Michael Daugherty’s organ concerto, The Gospel According to Sister Aimee, which dramatizes the life and career of “the first important religious celebrity of the new mass media era,” as the composer describes it. The piece represents one among an extraordinary range of fresh commissions intended to take advantage of the renaissance of pipe organs that have sprouted up in newly built or renovated concert halls during the past twenty years.

“The organ is like an orchestra in itself, so in effect a concerto is like writing for two orchestras,” says Daugherty, homing in on the special appeal of writing for organ and orchestra. “Yes, this is the king of instruments, but it can produce delicate sounds, too. It’s like the field of percussion, where you have a range from the powerful and loud to the very soft and subtle. You can get hundreds of different timbres from a great organ.” He adds that in the past few years, concerts of original music presented by his students at the University of Michigan have increasingly demonstrated an interest in the organ.

continue reading [Note: please navigate to p. 30 of the linked online magazine]

(c)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: American music, essay, organ, programming

Carousel at the 5th Ave: A Byrd’s-Eye View

Donald Byrd

Donald Byrd

After creating a buzz with last week’s announcement of an especially appealing eight-show season for 2015-15, the 5th Avenue Theatre is about to unveil its new production of Carousel. Laura Griffith and Brandon O’Neill (on the heels of his Broadway debut in Disney’s Aladdin) star as Julie and Billy in a new production directed by 5th Avenue’s producing artistic director Bill Berry, with music supervisor Ian Eisendrath leading a 21-piece orchestra.

The early Rodgers & Hammerstein classic gets a fresh airing in this fourth major collaboration between the 5th Ave and Spectrum Dance Theater — for my money, one of the most creatively stimulating and innovative performing arts companies on the Seattle scene.

Donald Byrd, Spectrum’s artistic director, brings his dancers back to the 5th after choreographing a thought-provoking, insightful interpretation in 2012 of Oklahoma! – the groundbreaking Rodgers & Hammerstein musical from 1943 that preceded Carousel by two years.

I recently spoke to the Bessie Award-winning, Tony-nominated choreographer about his latest engagement with an icon of American musical theater.

What makes a work like Carousel, now seven decades old, still work for audiences today? How do you find it resonates for people today?

DB: The appeal is that it is a classic. We wouldn’t have the kinds of musicals we enjoy today if it wasn’t for these Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals. They invented the book musical in many ways. And it’s also important to be reminded of why they work so well and tell us something about storytelling in the musical theater that contemporary musicals often don’t do as well.

For me it’s exciting to go back to the source and see how they build a show with a classic arc and climax. As with any classic, you can learn something different and deepen your understanding every time you come back to it. For example, Oklahoma! says something about how dance can work in the modern musical. With Carousel it’s a much darker story, and that points to the range and breadth of what a musical theater piece can be and do.

You were personally encouraged by Agnes de Mille, the legendary choreographer of the original show, when you were embarking on your own career. What is significant for you about her contributions? How did she demonstrate that dance can fit into those possibilities?

DB: She was interested in how to tell a story and also in how to tell an American story. Even though the source material [the 1909 play Liliom by Hungarian writer Ferenc Molnár] is not American, they created a very American story in the way they told it.

De Mille really wanted to have an American dance and American themes and heroes and heroines. Sometimes her dances may look and feel old-fashioned, but if you keep in mind what she was after, you start to see beyond that.

How did you decide to approach or reference the original ballets De Mille choreographed for Carousel — and Oklahoma!, for that matter?

DB: I found myself wanting to honor what Agnes De Mille did and to make sure that somehow her values are embedded in what I do with the shows. I follow the scenario she created, but i don’t use her movement necessarily — though I do quote here. In the big ballet [the “Billy Makes a Journey” scene in the second act], the first thing is a quote.

Yet in your version of Oklahoma! you introduced an intriguing Freudian dream sequence.

DB: The dream sequence I used for the Oklahoma! ballet looked at how artists of that period were all talking about sex and Freud. Psychology doesn’t play such a deeply rooted role in Carousel, but one of the show’s themes is about how what we desire is both to be able to give and to receive love. This manifests itself in a desire to be accepted — and also in the impulse to push people away and to create the Other. Louise [the daughter of Julie and Billy] is definitely the Other.

Community is important in both Oklahoma! and in Carousel. And what a close-knit community creates is outsiders. At the same time, there’s a fascination with the Outsider. Carrie, Julie’s best friend, shows this when she considers her options regarding the person she can marry. She has a choice between someone very rigid, like Enoch Snow — a version of a young Tea Party Republican — or someone exciting like Billy Bigelow, the dangerous bad boy.

He’s like an animal that is caged. When he’s domesticated, what does he do? This manifests itself later in the show with his daughter Louise, who also has Billy’s spirit.

Tell me more about your take on the character of Billy Bigelow.

DB: In some ways Carousel is really about a type of person. It makes me think of the Heath Ledger character in Brokeback Mountain: here’s a person completely ill-equipped to deal with his situation, He has no tools to express his circumstances and his internal life to the outside world. I think [Carousel‘s hero] Billy Bigelow is somebody who has no tools to express a very essential part of life. How do you express that you love somebody?

On top of that — and this gets back to how Carousel still resonates for audiences of today — Billy is living in an America that’s changing in the 19th century. It’s a little bit like what we have going on now, for working people at least. Billy’s a barker at a carnival, but after he loses his job he discovers he doesn’t have any skills. So he’s in a situation of feeling forced to do something morally that he doesn’t agree with when he attempts the ill-fated robbery. And he’s unable to express his love for Julie. He resorts to domestic violence, a classic manifestation of his sense of being a failure. How do you cope when you’re not prepared to do the things you need to do to live in the world?

Another thread that runs through Carousel is a kind of ambition which is very American. Louise [Billy and Julie’s daughter] is an outsider because of what her father has done but she’s ambitious to succeed at something. In theory America is classless, but Louise finds she is somehow locked out. This seems to be one of the directions the country is moving into again. Read Thomas Piketty’s Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century, where talks about a new class of the super-rich that comes from inherited wealth, while the rest of us are locked outside of that. These are some ways of looking at this musical that show how it resonates with the America we live in today.

Photo by Jeff Carpenter

Photo by Jeff Carpenter

What stands out for you this time in your collaboration with 5th Avenue Theatre?

DB: Spectrum is even more integrated into the entire production than we were in Oklahoma!. For example, the famous clambake scene in the first act — “June is Bustin’ Out All Over” — is all about hormones flowing at springtime and all the hot-and-bothered excitement and horniness that goes along with that. But in the original there was a pretty dance for the women that but didn’t have much to do with what the song was about. It was followed by a number in which all the men had a hornpipe dance. We thought it was weird that in this number about sex there was no dancing together of couples. But in the movie (which De Mille didn’t choreograph), they did a big dance number for “June,” so we decided to add a newly invented dance number within that number.

Looking back, what do you make of the fact that your choreography for the dream sequence in Oklahoma! generated so much controversy? Do you expect any similar reactions this time around?

DB: The story itself is already controversial. There’s nothing I can do that can make it any more controversial. Carousel is not really what many people think of as typical “musical theater” material.
I think the production is adult but will not be controversial.

To me it seems people were overreactive with Oklahoma!. It was their interpretation of the staging that made it controversial: it resonated in a way that created discomfort. Places like Seattle that perceive themselves as being really progressive don’t like to have this brought it up for them.

A lot of it was generational: people who grew up in the Civil Rights era were in general more reactive than people who were younger. It’s about not wanting to revisit these issues. When they’re further back, like 12 Years a Slave, then it’s easier to handle, but not when we’re talking about history that is too recent. So part of it comes down to people not wanting that stuff to be there — references to lynching or to racist stereotypes of the oversexed Black man.

But those prejudices are there and we need to look at them. There’s nothing wrong with being uncomfortable! Sometimes you need to be uncomfortable to wake up to reality. When I first did The Minstrel Show, Yusef Hawkins was beaten to death by a gang of white kids in Bensonhurst. I remember thinking: How could this happen in 1989!” I thought all of that was over, but it really woke me up. We often assume things are done when it comes to social justice issues. But they’re not done.

What are some things that might make us feel productively uncomfortable in Carousel?

DB: The feeling that comes from being on the outside, recognizing that we do in fact have a class system. Carousel also shows people facing judgment about whether it’s appropriate to be in love with or to marry a certain person. And the issue of domestic violence runs through the show as well. Carousel shows us that it’s important to address the reason behind why people behave the way they do.

(C)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: dance, Donald Byrd, interview, musical, Spectrum Dance

Watching You



Filed under: photography

Love Save the Queen: The Ghosts of Versailles


This Saturday brings the opening of Los Angeles Opera’s new production of The Ghosts of Versailles by John Corigliano and William Hoffman.
Here’s my essay for LA Opera’s program:

There’s an entire category of landmark operas that originally met with resistance from their own composers. Take Ariadne auf Naxos. In its first version, the work posed so many problems that a frustrated Richard Strauss shelved the project for several years. And when he was approached by director Peter Sellars with the concept for his first opera—a venture tentatively titled Nixon in China—John Adams initially kept a skeptical distance.

The inception of The Ghosts of Versailles couldn’t have offered a more encouraging set of circumstances. Desiring to present a brand-new work to celebrate its upcoming centenary season, the Metropolitan Opera was determined to pull out all the stops. What composer would not leap at the chance—especially given such a spectacular context for his debut opera?

continue reading

Filed under: American opera, essay, John Corigliano, Los Angeles Opera

Happy (Belated) Birthday, Philip Glass!

I’ve been so under the gun with deadlines of late I missed posting a birthday nod on the actual birthday — January 31 (78!) — but any season is a season for the music of Philip Glass as far as I’m concerned.

Along with the composer’s own forthcoming memoir, Words Without Music, Glass has confirmed that he will be scoring Josh Trank’s latest Fantastic Four film with Marco Beltrami. Trank is reportedly thrilled:

The first words out of his mouth were, “I just saw your movie and it’s very philosophical.” We were talking about the philosophy of Chronicle and it gave me goosebumps. We invited him out to set and he came to set for like three days and had a great time. He was blown away by the scale of the film. I’ve been working with him for almost a year now and he’s so inspiring. He’s such a humble, amazing guy.

Filed under: music news, Philip Glass

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