MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Primal Ooze: María Irene Fornés at New City Theater

 George Catalano, Mary Ewald, and Tim Gouran in Fornes's Mud; (c) Anya Kazanjian

George Catalano, Mary Ewald, and Tim Gouran say grace in Fornes’s Mud; (c) Anya Kazanjian

Theater done New City style tends as a rule to be remarkably intimate: its current production of MUD is staged with an unflinching up-closeness. With just one row of seats that can accommodate 20 audience members tops, you’re positioned on the same level as the performance space, separated only by a few feet and a fine mesh screen from MUD‘s primal misery.

Written in the early 1980s by María Irene Fornés (now 85) — who collaborated several times with New City in the late 1980s/early 1990s — this grimly concentrated one-act drama spans but a little over an hour yet feels as exhaustive as a classical Greek tragic trilogy in New City director John Kazanjian’s searing production.

The simple-looking but intricately detailed set co-designed by Nina Moser and Kazanjian is a claustrophobic hovel, a roughhewn, comfortless, rural outpost in which Mae (New City co-founder Mary Ewald) longs for “a decent life.” There she ekes out a caged existence with her mysteriously ailing “mate” Lloyd, who had been adopted into the family by Mae’s deceased father as a younger boy. Lloyd’s arrested development has made him a bitter parasite on Mae’s drudgery, and he stinks with resentment against her attempts to improve herself through education.

Into this dire menage enters the more refined-seeming Henry (George Catalono), whose relative (but in fact quite limited) literacy and manners suggest a beacon of civilized hope for Mae. She takes Henry on as her new lover, while the further demoted Lloyd stews in bitterness, rage, and self-pity. Nina Moser’s costumes draw maximal impact from the contrast of Henry’s modest suit and tie with Lloyd’s dirt-encrusted bare feet and soiled rags.

Mae has staked her hopes on an illusion, though, and Henry doesn’t fail to disappoint with his petty behavior when Lloyd steals his money to buy desperately needed medicine. Rendered an invalid following a sudden accident, Henry soon becomes an additional drain on Mae’s resources — even less articulate than the brutish Lloyd. Fornés’ script, filled with poetry of a severe, forlorn beauty, draws metaphorical connections between animals and these hapless humans (making memorable use of an image of the shelter-seeking hermit crab).

Kazanjian gets his superb cast to fathom the many angles of this dark parable by the Cuban-born Fornés, including its registers of black humor. Gouran play Lloyd as a sulking American Caliban but finds variety in a character who can too easily come across as a nasty stereotype. Physical gestures juxtapose his listless impotence in the first scenes against Lloyd’s savagely dancing joy over his rival’s downfall. Catalono brings out Henry’s self-important pomposity as well as his rage over being driven to rage by Lloyd’s theft — Henry knows this undoes his facade.

Mary Ewald is one of the too-little-sung gems of Seattle acting. I was deeply impressed by her portrayal of Hamlet at New City last fall — a prince tormented by his tendency to idealize — and she is a legendary interpreter of avant-garde roles. Ewald sets the tone for the shades of despair and longed-for hope with which Fornés structures her play. Her Mae is trapped but determined not to play the role of victim. She declares that she intends to “die clean” in a hospital. “in white sheets” — not in the filth Lloyd seems content to fester in. All of which intensifies the horror of the otherwise rather predictable denouement.

With snapshot-like black-outs punctuating each of Mud‘s brief 17 scenes, Lindsay Smith’s lighting — along with Smith’s sound design of elegant snippets from J.S. Bach — creates a subtle distancing effect that is crucial to Kazanjian’s production. For all the Dust Bowl social realism of its surfaces, Mud comes across not as documentary critique but as a dark modernist myth of struggle and abandon.

Mud, by María Irene Fornés, until June 13 at New City Theater, 1406 18th Ave., Seattle; tickets here.

(c)2015 Thomas May — All rights reserved.

Filed under: review, theater

Beneath Lighted Coffers

Andy Akiho; photo by Aestheticize Media

Andy Akiho; photo by Aestheticize Media

The National Symphony Orchestra’s program this weekend, conducted by Manuel López-Gómez, is titled Rhythms of the Americas. It will include the world premiere of a new Concerto for Steelpan by the composer and percussionist Andy Akiho, who was recently named winner of the The Lili Boulanger Memorial Fund.

Here’s a taste of what to expect from Andy’s new concerto. Inspired by the Pantheon in Rome, he has given the piece an evocative title: Beneath Lighted Coffers:

When the National Symphony undertook its first international concert tour under Music Director Christoph Eschenbach’s leadership in June 2012-playing at venues across the Americas-the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago was among its destinations. The NSO performed a concert in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Republic’s independence from the United Kingdom, and the following day Music Director Christoph Eschenbach was presented with a steelpan by the Prime Minister in gratitude. A tuned percussion instrument made of sheet metal that was invented in Trinidad and Tobago in the 20th century, the steelpan is a fitting symbol for the Republic’s independence from colonial domination. At that occasion Maestro Eschenbach announced that the NSO would commission a concerto for this marvelously versatile instrument.

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Filed under: National Symphony, new music, percussion, program notes

Colonnade Forest


Filed under: photography

Bell Ringing


Filed under: photography

Berlioz’s The Trojans: “A Virgilian Opera on the Shakespearean Plan”

My essay on San Francisco Opera’s upcoming new production of Berlioz’s Les Troyens is now available online:

“For the last three years I have been tormented by the idea of a vast opera,” wrote Hector Berlioz at the end of the first edition of his Memoirs, in 1854. This oblique reference to the still-to-be-written The Trojans suggests that the composer, then just 50 years old, intuited the difficulties awaiting him. “I am resisting the temptation, and trust I shall continue to resist it to the end.”


It wasn’t birth pangs per se he feared. Within an astonishing two years (1856–58), Berlioz composed both the text and the music for The Trojans, working with intense focus as he sustained a high pitch of inspiration. What he feared was the agony of getting his work produced— a struggle that, sadly, turned out to be even more bitterly disappointing than he foresaw. Fortunately, the impulse to create The Trojans proved strong enough to override his early anxieties. However improbably ambitious an undertaking, Berlioz’s magnum opus at the same time represents the inevitable culmination of his life and thought as an artist.

If the stakes seemed impossibly high for Berlioz, the same could be said of his source material. Virgil himself allegedly complained to the Emperor Augustus that he must have been “mad” to have undertaken the Aeneid. According to tradition, the dying poet (he lived from 70–19 BCE) indicated that he wanted the manuscript to be burned, for it lacked his finishing touches. Not only was Virgil competing directly with the Homeric epics venerated as the foundation of literature (to his contemporary Romans, Homer was a quasi-divine poet, already several centuries older than Shakespeare is in relation to ourselves): with the Aeneid he attempted nothing less than to rewrite the national narrative. By depicting the sufferings and victories of the Trojans, Virgil’s epic aimed to make sense of a period of cataclysmic social and political transformation.

continue reading [in pdf format]

Filed under: Berlioz, essay, San Francisco Opera, Virgil

Grand Army of the Republic Cemetery: 25 May 2015


The GAR Cemetery in Seattle, Washington was platted in 1896. It is located on the north and of Capital Hill in Seattle. The cemetery land is covered with grass, maple and oak trees and is fenced by tall shrubbery, which does not make it easily visible from the street. The cemetery is maintained by the Seattle Parks Department and the Friends of the GAR Cemetery Park.

Filed under: photography

Orpheus Ascending: Mohammed Fairouz’s New CD

Tomorrow, Tuesday 26 May, brings the NY premiere of “Sadat” — one of the works featured on this release. The Mimesis Ensemble will perform at Carnegie Hall:

MEMETERIA by Thomas May


Mohammed Fairouz’s Follow, Poet is among the most inspiring CDs I’ve encountered in quite a while. For one thing, it documents two recent works by a composer who brings to the new-music scene not just a fresh voice but a powerful intellect and — most significantly — an unclouded vision of art’s potential for our jaded age. A vision that is ambitious without being naive.

Fairouz, still just south of 30, has already channeled his imagination into an astonishing gamut of genres, from intimate chamber works to concertos and major-scale symphonies (four to date!), choral pieces, and opera and other theater works. And with Follow, Poet, he is the youngest composer in the history of Deutsche Grammophon to have an entire album devoted to his works.

Such ample gifts could easily run aground with compromised or even downright hackwork production just to fulfill the commissions that seem to…

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Filed under: Uncategorized

Congratulations to Lucerne Festival

A nice new feather in Lucerne Festival’s cap:

Classical:NEXT! has awarded its Innovation Award jointly to LF’s Ark Nova and Southbank Centre’s The Rest is Noise Festival.

Rotterdam/Lucerne, 23 May 2015

Today the mobile concert hall project known as LUCERNE FESTIVAL ARK NOVA has received the Innovation Award as part of the international conference Classical:NEXT. An international selection committee comprising music writers and bloggers from a total of 14 countries nominated 21 projects fromaround the world for innovation in the field classical music and for setting trends. Some 2000 participants from the three previous editions of the conference chose the two winning projects via an online vote. Both the ARK NOVA and The Rest is Noise Festival presented by Southbank Centre in London took first prize. Michael Haefliger, the Executive and Artistic Director of LUCERNE FESTIVAL, accepted the honor on Saturday in Rotterdam during the award ceremony.

The LUCERNE FESTIVAL ARK NOVA is the first-ever mobile and inflatable concert hall and was initiated by Michael Haefliger together with the star Japanese architect Arata Isozaki and the British artist Anish Kapoor, as well as the Japanese agency Masahide Kajimoto. The basic idea was to use art with a strong social commitment to bring comfort and hope to people living in the Tōhoku Region while reconstruction continues of the areas affected by the catastrophic earthquake on 11 March 2011. The Ark Nova was implemented for the first time in Matsushima in the fall of 2013. This project has attracted international attention for its spectacular artistic form as well as for its multifaceted programs featuring both international and local musicians. Japanese artists as well as an array of international stars performed here in 2013, and the opening event featured a youth orchestra conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. A total of 10,000 people visited the events held at the Ark Nova in its first year alone. In its second year the Ark Nova was erected in Sendai, Japan, and it proved once again to be extremely successful. An ensemble of soloists from the LUCERNE FESTIVAL ORCHESTRA performed there in the fall of 2013 and again in November 2014. For the fall of 2015 another Ark Nova music festival is planned for the Tōhoku Region in Japan.

The Classical:NEXT Innovation Award was launched to recognize innovative international projects in the field of classical music, as Classical:NEXT’s director Jennifer Dautermann explains:

‘This award aims to give international recognition
to the people who are doing the most to push
things forward with daring yet intelligent, effecti
ve and successful ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking, planning
and action.’
Among those on the nominating selection committee are Alex Ambrose (WQXR, USA), Jessica Duchen (UK), Moritz Eggert (Germany), Rudolph Tang (China), and Luis Suñén (Scherzo,Spain).

Filed under: Lucerne Festival, music news

Poppy Music


Filed under: photography

New Music from Bryce Dessner

Getting commissioned to write a percussion piece to be paired with your mentor David Lang’s the so-called laws of nature is a pretty impressive vote of confidence. And the result was Bryce Dessner‘s enchanting Music for Woods and Strings  (2013), commissioned by Carnegie Hall.

This piece has just been released on Sō Percussion’s new album. Dessner, also known as the guitarist for The National, describes the “chord stick” process he devised for the work: “Using sticks or violin bows, the players can sound either of two harmonies, or play individual strings, melodies, and drone tremolos.” This “hybrid dulcimer” sound, which he likens to “chord hockets,” shows the inspiration of American folk song tradition in its warmly layered rhythmic counterpoint.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic will premiere Dessner’s latest piece, Quilting, as part of the Next on Grand Festival of contemporary American composers, which has just gotten under way (with John Adams to lead a program on Tuesday.

A couple years ago, Dessner compiled a list of his own favorite contemporary works for BoingBoing, including both Adams’s Shaker Loops and John Luther Adams’s For Lou Harrison. I approve the man’s taste.

Filed under: American music, Bryce Dessner, David Lang, John Adams, John Luther Adams, Los Angeles Philharmonic, new music

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