MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Joshua Sofaer’s Rubbish Collection

As a foretaste of the upcoming Seattle Art Fair, Seattle Art Museum is currently hosting a series of talks by contemporary artists about their practice. The first one took place this week.

In it Joshua Sofaer, who focuses on projects involving collaboration and participation, talked about his recent effort at the Science Museum in London: The Rubbish Collection.

During the first phase, visitors to the Science Museum last summer were invited to participate by “sorting and documenting of one month’s worth of rubbish generated by the Science Museum’s visitors, staff, contractors, and exhibition projects to create a growing visual archive of the things we throw away from day to day… With a focus on sustainability and reuse, The Rubbish Collection confronts the materiality of rubbish and highlights that the things we throw away do not disappear but are transformed.”

Says the versatile British artist Sofaer: “Museums generally display items that have some special status, that are rare, or valuable. But in this project, I want to give the ‘museum treatment’ to the stuff it would normally throw away.”

I was intrigued to learn that Sofaer had also recently directed a staging of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion at the Folkoperan in Stockholm:

In this production the recitative which carries the biblical text has been replaced by filmed interviews that are projected on a screen which covers the wall behind the stage. In the interviews, singers and musicians share personal stories which concern the big themes of the passion: forgiveness, guilt, pain, fear, loneliness, and love.

The staging is kept simple, with the ensemble, including the orchestra, on stage all the time. As one body of people, they act as collective witnesses, with soloists emerging from the amongst them in a series of tableaux.

At the start of his talk, Sofaer quoted this famous statement by French Fluxus artist Robert Filliou as his own “rallying cry”: “‘Art is what makes life more interesting than art.”

Filed under: aesthetics, art, art exhibition

How Janáček Bucked the Trend

In a Janáček mood after hearing last night’s mesmerizing performance of Zápisník zmizelého (“The Diary of One Who Disappeared”) at the Summer Chamber Festival. This song cycle/minidrama of a hapless farm boy’s seduction by a mysterious Gypsy woman was performed with minimal but haunting staging. Great work by tenor Nicholas Phan, mezzo Sasha Cooke, and pianist Jeremy Denk, along with singers Rena Harms, Nerys Jones, and Rachelle Moss.

(Copy of the score here, with its killer tessitura for the tenor.)

Unfortunately I missed the prelude concert featuring Benjamin Beilman and Denk in Janáček’s Violin Sonata. (Beilman and cellist Efe Baltacıgil gave a marvelous rendition last week, along with pianist Anna Polonsky, of the rarely heard Shostakovich First Piano Trio.)

Here’s Ian Bostridge — who even made a documentary about Diary — on the real significance of Janáček’s legacy:

It’s telling, I think, that the voice came first. Janácek’s musical creativity needed an immersion in humanity, in emotion, in flesh and blood, to sustain it. In that sense, he was a world away from the mainstream of German modernism (Schoenberg, Webern et al) or the success story of international eclecticism, Stravinsky, for whom music was about music, not really an expressive art form at all. Stravinsky wrote few songs, and his one opera, ‘The Rake’s Progress’, brilliant and moving as it is, remains cumulatively cold and detached.

If Janácek’s music lives with an extraordinary power and urgency, it is because he bucked the trend of musical abstraction. He did so because he couldn’t avoid it, because it was in his temperament to confuse the personal and the aesthetic. This is something of an intellectual puzzle – how, after all, do we turn feelings into music? – and, at the same time, an artistic miracle.

Filed under: chamber music, Leoš Janáček

James Ehnes on His “Other” Life as a Chamber Musician

photo © Benjamin Ealovega 2012

photo © Benjamin Ealovega 2012

Here’s my piece for The Strad about violinist James Ehnes and his string quartet, who recently opened Seattle Chamber Music Society’s 2015 Summer Festival:

James Ehnes has long been a familiar presence on the international circuit, but he remains known to many music lovers primarily as a solo violinist — a virtuoso who, armed with a stunning technique, also has something compelling to say. When he does appear in chamber programmes, it’s often been with a piano partner or in varying chamber formations.

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Filed under: Beethoven, chamber music, James Ehnes, Seattle Chamber Music Society

Jon Vickers, RIP

In honor of Jon Vickers, who died on Friday. He stopped singing live before I was able to have that experience, but even on recordings you can get a sense of how he cast a spell on his audiences.

Read Anthony Tommasini’s excellent obituary:

He once touched on the impetus of his artistry in a graduation address in 1969 at the Royal Academy of Music in Toronto. “I sang because I had to,” he said. Singing, he explained, was “an absolute necessity, fulfilling some kind of emotional and even perhaps physical need in me.”

Richard Osborne at Gramophone offers an assessment:

Vickers was sometimes accused of pushing too far, of breaking the mould of the roles he played: Laca in Jenůfa, Alvaro in La forza del destino, the uninhibitedly promiscuous Nerone in Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea. And Tristan. Though he was a practised Wagnerian, proud to have been Knappertsbusch’s last Parsifal, Vickers mistrusted Wagner in general and Tristan in particular – ‘a glorification of Wagner’s own immorality’ as he put it. Robin Holloway summed up the terribilità of Vickers’s Tristan when he wrote of the Third Act of the Karajan recording: ‘There is no doubt whatsoever about the stature of this unique tour de force, but it remains an extreme – something unique as if the story were, just this once, literally true [my emphasis].’

Filed under: Jon Vickers, music news, opera

Kafka’s The Trial in Seattle’s Ellis Island

Greta Wilson, Sara Mountjoy-Pepka, Sydney Andrews, and Darragh Kennan in The Trial; photo credit: Chris Bennion/New Century Theatre Company

Greta Wilson, Sara Mountjoy-Pepka, Sydney Andrews, and Darragh Kennan in The Trial; photo credit: Chris Bennion/New Century Theatre Company

Coming up early next month is a workshop of a new chamber opera by Sarah Mattox, Heart Mountain, presented by Vespertine Opera Theater. This will take place in the site-specific space of the repurposed INS building in Seattle. Here’s a piece I wrote a couple years ago about another theater work that made use of that space for an adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial:

Arbitrary, inscrutable bureaucratic authorities with the power to determine individual fates. The tension of not knowing. The cruelly frustrating uncertainty of the whole process. In spite of the trappings of reality, life’s daily rituals twisted into a surreal waiting game.

That’s an impressionistic précis of Franz Kafka’s The Trial in the brand-new theatrical adaptation currently being presented by New Century Theatre Company. But it could also describe what generations of immigrants who hoped to become U.S. citizens experienced while being detained in the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) Building located south of the ID and east of Century Link Field.

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Filed under: review, theater

Titania’s Out on Coffee Break


Filed under: photography

Leon Kirchner at Seattle Summer Chamber Festival

I was happy to hear Leon Kirchner’s (1919-2009) Trio No. 1 from 1954 programmed on the second concert of the ongoing Summer Chamber Festival. Cellist Ronald Thomas, together with violinist Augustin Hadelich and pianist Orion Weiss, gave an involving and committed performance of this complex score.

By way of introduction, Thomas charmingly recounted memories from years ago of the eccentric composer watching over rehearsals and reacting to the sound of his music. He framed the Trio as a work still rooted in the “gestures of Romanticism” beneath its imposing dissonance and rhythmic complexity. “Imagine it’s Richard Strauss, only with the notes not quite right.”

Filed under: American music, chamber music

Glass on Galileo

A few years ago I was delighted to find Portland Opera’s young artist program presenting Galileo by Philip Glass and headed down to see the production. Here’s the review I wrote:

Here’s something that happens once in a blue moon in our fair Northwest: a chance to see an opera by an iconic contemporary composer in a production being recorded for said composer’s own label. The icon in question is Philip Glass, whose 2001 chamber opera Galileo Galilei just opened [April 2012] in a brand-new staging by Portland Opera that also represents the work’s West Coast premiere.

Though Galileo confounds expectations in its relatively lightweight approach to the fraught topic of science and religion, the production offers an engaging and often refreshingly poetic entrée into Glass’s special brand of music theater.

Presented as the main annual production showcasing the company’s emerging artists, this actually marks Portland Opera’s second outing with a Philip Glass opera. When PO presented Orphée in 2009 (part of Glass’s “Cocteau trilogy,” in a production imported from Glimmerglass Opera), it inspired hands-on involvement from the composer. The result was memorialized in the company’s first-ever commercial recording. The Galileo release to be edited from PO’s live performances will likewise be the first recording of that opera.

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Filed under: new opera, Philip Glass, Portland Opera



Filed under: photography

Chamber Seattle

This evening brings the opening of the month-long Summer Festival presented by the Seattle Chamber Music Society. James Ehnes, director of SCMS, will be here with the Ehnes Quartet to perform a mini-Beethoven festival of three string quartets tonight, Wednesday, and Friday.

The YouTube sample here is of the Ehnes Quartet from their recording of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8.

Later in the month (20 July) SCMS will present the world premiere of this year’s commissioned work: Cantus by the wonderful Steven Stucky (whose first opera, The Classical Style receives its first-ever full staging later this month at the Aspen Festival.

Filed under: chamber music, James Ehnes, Seattle Chamber Music Society

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