MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Haydn Turns 283

In honor of Haydn, one of the greatest of the greats, who “may” have been born on this date in 1732, give or take a few days. For its 2015 Summer Festival, which focuses on the theme of “humor” (in the widest possible sense), the Lucerne Festival will open with a program pairing Haydn and Mahler (Bernard Haitink will conduct the Lucerne Festival Orchestra): specifically, Mahler 4 and Haydn’s Symphony in C, (“Il distratto,” aka “Der Zerstreute”), which originated as incidental music for the stage. I’m going to be listening closely to a lot of Haydn in the near future as I prepare program essays for the Festival.

Filed under: anniversary, Haydn, Lucerne Festival

Seattle Symphony’s Sibelius Festival: Part III

Thomas Dausgaard

Thomas Dausgaard; photo (c) Morten Abrahamsen

My review of the final program in Seattle Symphony’s just-completed Sibelius Festival is now live at Musical America. The program included Symphonies 5-7. It’s a subscriber site with a paywall, so I can’t post more than the teaser here:

SEATTLE—-At the beginning of his  journey through the seven symphonies of Jean Sibelius, Thomas Dausgaard hinted at the big picture Seattle Symphony audiences could expect: “These works are about a search for the essentials…

complete review

Filed under: review, Seattle Symphony, Sibelius

Concluding the Sibelius Festival in Seattle

sibelius

With the strings leaning in to one of the most powerfully orchestrated C major chords of the 20th century, the Seattle Symphony’s ambitious Luminous Landscapes Sibelius Festival has reached its conclusion. (There’s also a curious Nachtisch to this week’s final program: after the orchestra players cleared the stage on Thursday, we were treated to a mini-recital of nine Sibelius lieder, with soprano/pianists Maria Männistö and Christina Siemens alternating roles.)

For fellow music lovers (and Sibelius completists) who’d been present for all three programs this past month, there was an added sense of satisfying closure that was maybe, just maybe, a bit reminiscent of being with a Ring audience at Seattle Opera as the final chord of Götterdämmerung fades out.

On Sunday you can listen to the entire marathon via the KING FM Seattle Symphony Channel, KING FM 98.1’s new collaborative project with the SSO. On March 29 the marathon starts at 12:01 a.m. with a looping 24-hour stream of the seven symphonies, the Violin Concerto (with soloist Pekka Kuusisto), and Finlandia — all with Thomas Dausgaard conducting, recorded live from the past month’s performances.

My previous coverage of the Sibelius Festival:

review of Sibelius Program I for Bachtrack

review of Sibelius Program II for Musical America

review of Sibelius Festival Program III for Musical America

And a glance at San Francisco Symphony’s recent “Creation” program, which included the composer’s fascinating, brief tone poem Luonnotar.

We’re still early in this 150th anniversary year honoring Sibelius. The birthday itself falls in December — which somehow seems just right for a composer so associated with Northern landscapes. Many orchestras have therefore planned Sibelius-related programs for the coming season as well. But the Seattle Symphony is the only U.S. orchestra to have performed an entire Sibelius symphony cycle back-to-back to mark the anniversary. It’s been a genuinely laudable artistic milestone for the ensemble.

Filed under: programming, Seattle Symphony, Sibelius

Bon Anniversaire à Pierre Boulez

There’s a lot more reflection on Pierre Boulez to come this year — including an entire day that Switzerland’s Lucerne Festival is devoting to his work on 23 August — but today marks the official 90th birthday of the French master.

Here’s a roundup of some recent commentary on Boulez and his inarguable impact on musical life in our time:

Ultimately I think Boulez is a great optimist, despite the shadows that coloured his early years. In the end what he believes is simple: today’s music has to be different from the music of the past.

That’s a natural thing. Western music continues to evolve and transform and change. And those that don’t agree, well … they’re wrong!

George Benjamin in The Guardian

America can’t be discovered out of nothing. In Boulez’s music you immediately hear everything that he has come into contact with – and that is an enormous amount. Even Bach.

Daniel Barenboim

The tie between heart and brain characterizes Boulez’s music. “I claim the right for music to have many levels of perception,” he told DW in 2003. “Works […] that take time to solve are the works that remain in your memory for a long time.”

Deutsche Welle

For those who carp about Boulez’s conducting activities allegedly having taken his attention away from composition – they generally seem not to like his music very much, so it is not immediately clear why they should care – the Notations should stand as a rebuke. Boulez himself has owned that he would have been unable to compose the pieces without the experience of conducting Wagner and Mahler. With every listening, that claim becomes more and more unarguable. The virtuosity in orchestral writing is staggering, in its way as much so as that of Ravel, or indeed Mahler.

Mark Berry (aka Boulezian) reviewing the BBC’s “Total Immersion Day”

Boulez’s style is explosive. He detonates a germ of an idea and, like a seed, it grows a sonic forest. The common fallacy is that pieces as highly and intricately structured as these require technical understanding. But you don’t need to be a botanist to be stirred by a field of wild flowers.

Mark Swed in the Los Angeles Times

My development really went backwards through time. I got to know Berg, I got to know Webern, I got to know Schönberg … and then I got to know Mahler. It was totally reversed – because there was no tradition whatsoever.

Pierre Boulez at UE’s Musik Salon

See Amanda Angel’s list of Boulez’s Top Five Transformations at WQXR.

france musique has a podcast and other material on Boulez currently available.

Also make sure to check out the content-rich Boulez-90 site at Universal Edition.

Filed under: anniversary, new music, Pierre Boulez

Seattle Symphony’s Sibelius Festival: Part II

Pekka Kuusisto; photo (c) Kaapo Kamu

Pekka Kuusisto; photo (c) Kaapo Kamu

My review of the second program of the Seattle Symphony’s Sibelius Festival has now been posted on Musical America. MA is a subscriber site, so I’m limited to posting the link here:

The Seattle Symphony has been on a winning streak of synchronicity when it comes to favorably timed good news. Last year [Musical America Composer of the Year] John Luther Adams’s…

continue reading (The full review appears behind Musical America‘s subscriber paywall.)

Filed under: review, Seattle Symphony, Sibelius

Where the Weeping Willows Wave

Wonderful program over the weekend from Pacific MusicWorks: “An American Tune,” which was aimed at recapturing the sound of vernacular American music — through songs and instrumental pieces — from the nineteenth century.

The program was beautifully curated and beautifully, at times movingly, executed. For this occasion Stephen Stubbs exchanged his lute for a couple guitars. The recent Grammy Award-winner and artistic director of PMW conceived the program for a chamber-size group of colleagues. Stubbs was joined by Tom Berghan on banjo (Berghan was a lute duet partner from Stubbs’ early days in Seattle), mandolinist John Reischman of the Jaybirds, violinists Tekla Cunningham and Brandon Vance, and soprano Catherine (Cassie) Webster.

As a model, Stubbs decided to apply the ideas and practical skills of the “historically informed performance practice” movement, to which he’s devoted his career, to the wealth of musical traditions that were hybridized and became popular in America of the nineteenth century: the American of the expanding frontier, of the Civil War, of the parlor and the fairground.

Stubbs remarks that the skills of the early music movement evolved “to cope with filling in the blanks where notational records were incomplete and the aural traditions broken or hopelessly confused” — ergo, he realized, these skills “were the very ones that had a chance of penetrating the original spirit and sound of the vast panorama of ‘lost’ American music.”

And vast it is. For this program, instead of looking to European institutional models like the orchestra or other fixed ensembles — which many “classical” American music programs attempt to do — the idea was to focus on the following areas: the popular song model established by Stephen Foster, a gathering of songs associated with the Lincoln years, music of the frontier from the era of westward expansion, and American folk song in the specific form of the murder ballad subgenre. These sets were interspersed with instrumental numbers exemplifying the American folk fiddling tradition characteristic of Appalachia.

Stubbs et al. performed to a capacity audience in the Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya (while the second program of the Sibelius Festival, acoustically secure and sealed off, was at the same time booming under Thomas Dausgaard’s baton in the big hall below). In place of the sentimental tinge of nostalgia that a familiar tune like “My Old Kentucky Home” usually evokes, it was intriguing to hear this in the context of lesser-known vocals and instrumentals. Webster’s soulful phrasing and timbre made it easy to fill out a throughline connecting singing styles of the era and popular idioms today. The quintet of plucked and bowed strings added a wealth of colors and expressive nuances.

Notoriously, Foster also wrote for black-face minstrel shows, represented here by the songs “Nelly Bly” and “Angelina Baker.” “This … unsettling phenomenon,” notes Stubbs “…was too pervasive to ignore. To take only the positive side into account, it was a vehicle for the influence of African music, dance, and instruments (particularly the banjo) to put down widespread and permanent roots in our musical culture.”

Richard Millburn’s “Listen to the Mockingbird,” we learned, was held in high regard by Lincoln. It’s a wistful song of a beloved who has died young: the mockingbird sings over her grave, is “still singing where the weeping willows wave.” The synergy between the ensemble and Webster reached fever pitch in the lengthy cowboy song “The Buffalo Skinners.” They also gave a haunting account of the murder ballad “Two Sisters/The Wind and the Rain” (a tune which left its mark on Bob Dylan’s “Percy’s Song”).

In preparing the four-part setting for violins and guitar of the Mormon hymn “Come, Come, Ye Saints,” “with the banjo taking an ornamental approach to the melody,” Stubbs writes that they experienced an “aha moment”:

The connection to the early seventeenth century sound of the English “broken consort” was immediate and unmistakable. In the earlier context, plucked and bowed strings provide the harmonic framework while the solo lute decorates the melody — this is the earliest form of specifically orchestrated music in the European tradition, and here it is again in a hymn from Utah!

(c)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: American music, early music, review, Stephen Stubbs

Verdi’s Ernani at the Met

The Met’s production of Ernani is back on the boards. Here’s my essay for the Met’s program:

With Ernani, the fifth of his 28 operas, Verdi was able to exercise a degree
of control over the creative process that had been unprecedented
thus far in his career. Not only did he enjoy one of the key successes of
his early years as a result, but the experience also helped clarify his sense of the
untapped potential for a powerful new style of music drama hidden behind the
conventions of Italian opera.

continue reading (p. 39 of pdf)

Filed under: essay, Metropolitan Opera, Verdi

Master Johann Sebastian

No words, just the music:

Filed under: Bach

Homage to Richter

On his centenary:


And check out Steve Wigler’s lovely appreciation of “the greatest pianist I ever heard.”

Filed under: anniversary, pianists

Three Sisters

sisters

Filed under: photography

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