MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Language Extinction

2nd-century mural from Teotihuacan, Mexico, depicting a person emitting a speech scroll from his mouth (via Wikipedia)

2nd-century mural from Teotihuacan, Mexico, depicting a person emitting a speech scroll from his mouth (via Wikipedia)

Fascinating New Yorker article by Judith Thurman on dying languages:

Linguists acknowledge that the data are inexact, but by the end of this century perhaps as many as fifty per cent of the world’s languages will, at best, exist only in archives and on recordings…. If the historical rate of loss is averaged, a language dies about every four months.


[T]he loss of languages passed down for millennia, along with their unique arts and cosmologies, may have consequences that won’t be understood until it is too late to reverse them.


If peripheral languages are to survive, they will have to find a way to coexist with what Bob Holman calls the “bully” languages.

Filed under: language

“Musik ist eine heilige Kunst”

After Kate Lindsey’s superb performance as The Composer in Seattle Opera’s Ariadne auf NaxosI just can’t get Strauss’s music out of my head.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: “He who wishes to live must surpass himself, metamorphose, forget. And yet, persist, not forget, be faithful – that is what everyone’s dignity means.”

Filed under: Kate Lindsey, Seattle Opera, Strauss

Gustav at an Angle

Gustav Mahler by Auguste Rodin (1909); bronze (National Gallery of Art)

Gustav Mahler by Auguste Rodin (1909); bronze (National Gallery of Art)

Filed under: Mahler, photography

Seattle Opera: Buffing the Buffa in Ariadne

Kate Lindsey (The Composer) and Sarah Coburn (Zerbinetta); photo (c) Elise Bakketun

Kate Lindsey (The Composer) and Sarah Coburn (Zerbinetta); photo (c) Elise Bakketun

My review of Ariadne auf Naxos has now been posted on Bachtrack:

At the end of Seattle Opera’s previous production – a refreshing new staging of Handel’s Semele – the ill-fated heroine is burned by Jupiter’s glorious fire, but the god Bacchus emerges from her destruction: “born as my mother expired in the flames”, as Hugo von Hofmannsthal has the wine god explain in his libretto for Ariadne auf Naxos.

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Filed under: directors, review, Seattle Opera, Strauss

Pacific MusicWorks Retunes The Magic Flute

Cyndia Sieden and Mary Feminear

Cyndia Sieden and Mary Feminear

My review of Pacifc MusicWorks’ Magic Flute production has now been posted on the Musical America site. (The complete review is behind MA’s paywall.) This was a delightfully fresh take on the Mozart classic, matching historically informed performance values with a provocatively revisionist staging (including a newly commissioned translation/adaptaton of Schikaneder’s libretto):

SEATTLE — A couple years after the conductor, lutenist, and recent Grammy laureate Stephen Stubbs resettled in his native Seattle in 2006 — following three decades based in Europe (mostly in Germany) — he established Pacific MusicWorks, a production company focused primarily on presenting Baroque opera and oratorio in innovative collaborations. PMW’s latest project, which closed on Sunday, offered a fresh perspective on The Magic Flute by combining period instruments with a provocatively anti-traditional staging directed by Dan Wallace Miller and a newly commissioned translation and adaptation of the libretto by the playwright Karen Hartman.

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Filed under: directors, early music, Mozart, opera, review, Stephen Stubbs

After Life: Music of Remembrance Premieres New Opera

Robert Orth (Picasso) and Catherine Cook (Gertrude Stein); (c) Michael Beaton

Robert Orth (Picasso) and Catherine Cook (Gertrude Stein); (c) Michael Beaton

Just posted on Bachtrack, my latest review is of the world premiere of After Life by Seattle’s Music of Remembrance:

“Questions remember me,” sings the unnamed girl in After Life, the one-act opera by composer Tom Cipullo and librettist David Mason that received its world première on Monday evening in Seattle. Rounded up by the Nazis and sent from her orphanage in a French village to a concentration camp, the girl sings to us from the ‘other side’, the voice of a life stolen by the Holocaust. She knows she has been forgotten – yet the girl’s poignant questions make her presence indelible as she encounters the spirits of Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso in the afterlife: two famous figures who survived the war while also living in France.

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Filed under: Holocaust, Music of Remembrance, new opera, review

Not an Ima-Titian

photo by  Lucy Millson-Watkins/English Heritage

photo by Lucy Millson-Watkins/English Heritage

Titian’s Mistress, long regarded as a post-Titian imitation, turns out to be Titian’s painting, according to English Heritage conservator Alice Tate-Harte. From The Guardian:

It was a heart-stopping moment when the conservator Alice Tate-Harte gently cleaned off centuries of thick black paint and grime and uncovered square Roman letters spelling out the name TITIANUS. The reputation of the bare-breasted young woman in the painting was instantly transformed: she has turned out to be a genuine work by one of the most revered masters of European painting, not a much later imitation of his style.


The painting of a woman half-wearing a sumptuous gold braid-trimmed silk and fur robe was known as Titian’s Mistress but was believed to have been painted long after his death in 1576. It has been hiding in public view for centuries. Now cleaned of layers of overpainting covering up historic damage, including the time when it was slung into a chest of booty looted from the Spanish royal collection, it will go on display this summer for the first time as a genuine Titian at Apsley House, the palatial London home of the Duke of Wellington, now in the care of English Heritage.

Filed under: art, Titian

The Horror! The Horror!

Daniel Cilli; © Steve di Bartolomeo

Daniel Cilli; © Steve di Bartolomeo

I wish I’d been able to see the American premiere of Tarik O’Regan’s opera based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It was given by San Francisco’s Opera Parallèle in an all-too-brief production.

The intrepid Lisa Hirsch reports:

All things considered, it’s something of a surprise that Tarik O’Regan’s opera Heart of Darkness took four years to reach the United States after its 2011 premiere at the Royal Opera’s Linbury Studio Theatre. Its brevity and eloquence, as well as the small forces it requires, make it a natural for adventurous opera companies everywhere.

Leave it to the ever-alert Opera Parallèle, champion of contemporary and 20th-century opera, to remedy the situation. Its production, strongly cast and beautifully played, scores another success for the company and makes a strong case for the opera.”

Here’s Joshua Kosman’s assessment:

The immersive qualities of the opera have two sources. One is the kaleidoscopic inventiveness of O’Regan’s score, which uses a chamber ensemble and vivid vocal writing to conjure up the moral miasma of the African interior as Marlow encounters it, and to delineate the few nuggets of action that move the plot forward.”

And over at Bachtrack, Jamie Robles writes:

Opera Parallèle’s production visuals enhance the move from scene to scene, adding to the music’s flow. A large screen fills the back of the stage, and across it projections splash colorful images of Ohio-based illustrator Matt Kish, taken from his book interpreting The Heart of Darkness, which offers one illustration for each page of the novella. Kish’s work is similar to that of many graphic novel artists: highly stylized with geometric and simplified forms; the colors are bright and primary with heavy black outlines. The imagery has the simplicity of cartoons, and also their instantaneous impact. Interestingly, the artwork was similar to Phillips’ graphic reworkings of the pages in The Humument.

Filed under: new music, Tarik O'Regan

Sibelius and Mahler at the NSO

mahler_138     sibelius

This week’s National Symphony program pairs Sibelius and Mahler, with Christoph Eschenbach conducting.

Here’s a debate from the Talk Classical site pitting the two composers against each other as symphonists:

Two of the greatest symphonists of the 20th century…but who is greater?

Sibelius and Mahler both took on the symphony with quite different philosophies. In their famous exchange, Sibelius said: ” I admire the symphony’s style and severity of form, as well as the profound logic creating an inner connection among all of the motives,” whereas Mahler said: “The symphony is like the world; it must embrace everything.”

Who is right here? Both? Neither?

As an admirer of both symphonists, my vote goes to Sibelius. While Sibelius’s seven symphonies often lack a sort of “hysteria” and hyper-emotion that one encouters in Mahler, his works can still certainly elicit strong emotional responses. And he does this within fairly strict means, concentrating the musical rhetoric so every theme, phrase, motive and note seems to be concentrated with meaning.

Plus, Sibelius seems to have a masterful handle on the symphonic form, which I think is important here. A symphony is not a suite or a rhapsody; it, by its very definition, has rules and conventions. Sibelius seems to take the symphony head on and make music that adheres to the “severity of style.” whereas Mahler seems to go more rhapsodic and bend the rules quite a bit more.

Not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with that; again, I love Mahler’s symphonies. But from a technical standpoint, Sibelius seems to understand symphonic form much better.

Obviously, there are no right or wrong answers here; not one of us can say definitively who is the greater. But I think a civil and respectful discussion on this would be most interesting!

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Filed under: Mahler, National Symphony, Sibelius

The Contemporary Sublime


My program essay for the LA Master Chorale’s final program of the season have now been posted:

That frisson moment: it might be the dimming of the lights preceding the curtain’s ascent, the split second of blankness before a film’s establishing shot,   the conscious focus on the upbeat of silence that ushers in a musical performance. Few contemporary composers have mastered the secret of this moment – the   limitless mystery it contains – as effectively as Arvo Pärt. “Silence is like fertile soil,” Pärt has said, “which, as it were, awaits our   creative act, our seed.”

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Filed under: program notes,

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