MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

The Coming-Soon-Park: Philippe Quesne at On the Boards

What a delightful way to launch the new season: over the weekend, On the Boards presented La mélancolie des dragons, a visual-theatrical tone poem by the Paris-based theater artist Philippe Quesne featuring his Vivarium Studio.

I’d only read about Quesnes before, having missed his previous appearance at On the Boards over four years ago in L’Effet de Serge. Once you’ve experienced his work live, en personne, it’s even more obvious that, like music, it really can’t be captured by the proxy of words.

The mise en scène initially signals that a hyper-realistic play is perhaps about to unfold: a run-down VW Rabbit sits stranded on the stage, as if exhausted from hauling a mysterious trailer. The wintry landscape is framed by snow-covered trees that are part-Chekhov, part-Stephen King: as the audience visibly shivers settling into their seats, you half wonder whether some menacing interloper would come stalking through the treeline.

But it all turns out to be the setup for a gracefully quirky homage to the evocative power of theater. The “realistic” stage picture opens up a world of surprising invention whose only unifying story line riffs on the magical connection between performer and audience.

Audience in this case enters into the picture in the figure of Isabelle, the far-from-menacing interloper who happens upon the stranded Rabbit and its inhabitants and offers to help. Though apparently a chance encounter, she is greeted warmly by a band of seven men on the road touring their “show.”

Before that comes a lengthy preludial section: the lights come up on four of these guys sitting in the car (all sporting metal-style, shoulder-length hair), sharing a bag of chips, drinking cans of Rainier beer, and rocking out to an ADD-driven setlist of AC/DC and The Scorpions.

No words, just a silent theater of gestures and movement accompanied by music. In fact, though the VW’s in dismal shape (Isabelle pokes beneath the hood, liberating alarming puffs of smoke), the sound system carries on unperturbed. Music is an integral component of Quesne’s vivarium, and later in Mélancolie the soundtrack makes way for some very apt Haydn.

Once all the characters have been revealed, spoken dialogue is introduced. We learn that these men have been peddling their nameless show: a sort of mobile, minimalist amusement park on wheels. “Really?” exclaims Isabelle in wonder. “Can you show me?”

Which is of course both Mélancolie‘s theme and process: the show-me part of theater that makes us sit up and eagerly watch, casting aside the drive for interpretation — whether that means fitting it all into a coherent plot or getting to the bottom of some putative motivation. Image is message in the world of Quesne.


Or rather, images and their enjoyment. Isabelle, and we, are treated to a parade of sometimes silly, sometimes buoyant “acts”: dancing wigs, a machine that blows bubbles, a tub of water made to spew in a “geyser,” enormous pillow-like balloons that are gathered into an installation, like a zany, tripped-out Stonehenge.

Isabelle’s reactions, and the reactions of her entertainers to her reactions, are just as fun to watch as what’s being displayed. At the climax, the varied attractions are mixed together into a lighter-than-air Gesamtkunstwerk.

Amid all the frothiness, Quesne does weave in some clever metatheatrical commentary, poking gentle fun at that logocentric need to make it all make sense.

When Isabelle is being introduced to the “installation” of books, Quesne humorously harps on an anthology of writings on melancholy and a children’s book about dragons. Aha! So that’s what it’s about!

“We are…autonome!” declared one of the entertainers, lauding their DIY inventiveness but also suggesting the best attitude for watching the show.

There’s also some delicious banter about texts versus images, and Antonin Artaud gets name checked, as if to seal the piece with experimental-theater cred. All very sweetly tongue in cheek.

Quesne’s theater artistry is rooted in his work as a visual designer for opera, theater, even exhibitions. He also likes to compare his sensibility to that of an entomologist. (He began studying insects as a hobby when he was a kid.)

But while much of the amusement of this show emerges from observing the naive, childlike wonder of Isabelle and the showmen, Quesne steers clear of any tone of mockery or superciliousness. It’s a subtle balancing act: and therein lies Mélancolie‘s real magic.

–(C)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: On the Boards, review, theater

Magical Magiya

A taste of a young composer who’s got a great season ahead of him:

Sean Shepherd‘s Magiya for the National Youth Orchestra in its inaugural season two years ago, from the BBC Proms.

Filed under: American music, new music

“Lament and Moaning of a Heart”

Igor Stravinsky and Charlie Chaplin

Igor Stravinsky and Charlie Chaplin

An apparent missing link in the development of the young Igor Stravinsky has been unearthed.

Titled Funeral Song (Pogrebal’naya Pesnya in Russian), the piece was written by the 26-year-old composer as a memorial to his recently deceased mentor Rimsky-Korsakov in 1908. After a single performance, the manuscript was never published and was long believed to have been irretrievably lost in the 1917 upheaval and its aftermath.

But it turned out to be hibernating amid a pile of old manuscripts gathering dust somewhere inside the St. Petersburg Conservatory.The Stravinsky authority Natalya Braginskaya described the find at hte International Musicological Society in St Petersburg early this month.

According to the eminent Stravinsky expert Stephen Walsh:

Stravinsky recalled it as one of his best early works, but could not remember the actual music.
Braginskaya, who has studied the orchestral parts (the full score has not turned up and will need reconstructing), describes “The Funeral Song” as a slow, unvarying processional with contrasting instrumental timbres: a dialogue of sonorities, very much as Stravinsky himself vaguely remembered it in his autobiography 25 years later. There are echoes of Rimsky-Korsakov, but also, she says, of Wagner, whose music Stravinsky admired more than he was later prepared to admit.

In his post on the find, Zachary Woolfe quotes from one of the reviews of the premiere (which predated Stravinsky’s sudden fame with The Firebird in Paris:

One critic described “the lament and moaning of a heart against the backdrop of a somber landscape,” while another chastised it for chilliness: “Better keep silence if losing a friend and teacher leaves us cold.”

Filed under: music news, Stravinsky

“What Kind of a God Lets Others Fight for Him?”

I’m still processing my reactions to the Deutsches Theater’s production of Nathan the Wise, the Enlightenment masterpiece from 1779 by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing.

“Provocative” would be an understatement — though provocation (or at least the semblance thereof) is mother’s milk in this theater scene by comparison with the usual fare in the English-speaking world.

At least it can’t be denied that director Andreas Kriegenburg, along with his designers Harald Thor (sets) and Andrea Schraad (costumes), has created a visually arresting production: inspired by the enigmatic monolith at the opening of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s dominated by a large wooden cube — here, a ramshackle, hut-like structure that comically, unpredictably, moves back and forth on the stage.

The Kubrickian impetus is also apparent in a lengthy pantomime-prelude that has nothing to do with Lessing. Kreigenburg shows two “clay figures,” man and woman after the moment of their creation in the process of discovering each other, but then enters in original sin…by way of a primeval “us against them” pattern the cast enacts. And then a childish voice reminds everyone: “But what about the Lessing?” — and the “play” begins.

The comedy is the thing here: Kriegenburg has dared to radically rethink this sacred text of Enlightenment tolerance as an “archaic comic strip” in which the characters — still decked out in their primordial clay but adorned with cliched bits of dress and props to signify their religious affiliations — waddle about in the comic style of silent films, recalling Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd in their gestures. (Some of their stage movement also called The Walking Dead zombie dramaturgy to mind, though I couldn’t tell whether that was intentional.)

Jörg Pose (Nathan), Bern Moss (Saladin), and Elias Arens as the arrogant young Templar play out their roles, but their gestures and even declamation of Lessing’s poetic text are riddled with an eccentric, frequently strained, range of comic moves. The shtick at times gives way to the crudest potty humor, as when the Patriarch — (Natali Seelig, outfitted in a grotesque fat suit) — holds his conference with the naive Templar while on the can. And all of this is accompanied by an almost ceaselessly piped-in soundtrack of clownish music, as if these were routines they had performed over and over.

The dramaturgical notes for the production speak loftily of the relation between comedic form and the “supremely serious” content of Lessing’s text. But is Kriegenburg merely underscoring a profoundly cynical understanding of Lessing’s vision as not only a marvelous “fairy-tale” with a “utopian conclusion” but, literally, a farce in the face of historical — and present-day — reality?

Does this explain his avoidance of allusions to gravely serious issues in the news today, to which an “earnest” director would clearly want to relate Lessing’s play — from the refugee crisis to the atrocities of Daesh? Such topical allusions as do appear are treated as jokes.

And yet, in the scene Nathan’s recitation of the famous Ring Parable, the tone changed, perhaps even in spite of the context. Much of the critical reaction I’ve seen has been pretty vehemently negative, but I can’t say my own experience was. At times I was reminded of the eccentric, apocalyptic humor of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, at others of the craziness of Charles Ludlam and the Ridiculous Theater, where iconoclastic absurdity can suddenly trigger a shocking reversal into something profound.

Perhaps it was just the chance to encounter Lessing’s magnificent text again (in English here), however distorted.

(c)2015 Thomas May — All rights reserved.

Filed under: directors, Enlightenment, Lessing, theater

Yo-Yo Ma and the Bach Cello Suites


The superstar cellist’s performance from last week at the BBC Proms can still be streamed here:

David Karlin gave Ma a five-star review on Bachtrack:

One man. Four strings. Thirty-six dance movements. Five thousand listeners, perfectly hushed, many of them having queued for hours and rushed to fill the promenade space of the Royal Albert Hall as soon as the ushers let them out of their starting blocks. Yo-Yo Ma’s late night Prom – a performance of all six of Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites – was an eagerly anticipated event and a giant undertaking. Many of the audience were cellists (two and half hours of unaccompanied cello is a tall order for anyone else) and the atmosphere in the hall was electric.

Alexandra Coghlan at The Arts Desk:

This humility serves Ma well in music that holds a mirror up to any performer, exposing affectation or excess just as clearly as coldness or humourlessness. His Bach is intimate but not introverted, free and improvisatory in spirit but meticulously prepared and understood. He began as he meant to go on, with a G major Prelude so casual and direct it was as though we were joining a conversation in mid-flow. It was the only possible start to a musical epic – just the right degree of bathos, reminding a crowd bedding down for a long evening of serious music of the wit and overflowing good humour also be found here.

John Allison at The Telegraph:

Post-concerto encores drawn from these suites are, of course, common at the Proms, but this was the festival’s first complete performance. The bucolic Prelude to the Suite No. 1 in G major signalled what was to come, a performance full of dynamic shading and carried on warm tone quivering with life. The solemnity with which he placed the low, phrase-ending notes in the Sarabande pointed towards the evening’s more profound moments, several of them encountered in the tragic-sounding D minor suite, though even here he found wild abandon in the closing Gigue.

From George Hall’s review

During a magisterial survey of these complex, subtle compositions, Ma’s attention to detail was as notable as his grasp of the bigger picture. The playing was at times tender and introverted, at others bold and sonorous. Throughout, Ma held the measure of Bach’s organic, largely abstracted dance movements and unfolded them before the audience in a way that was intellectually satisfying and heartfelt.

Filed under: Bach, BBC Proms, Yo-Yo Ma

Listening to Iceland

(JPEG Image, 750 × 750 pixels)

With just a few hours here and there over the years spent during layovers at Keflavik Airport, I have yet to make a proper excursion to Iceland (and that most certainly is on my list). But for the time being there’s the composer Anna Thorvaldsdottír.

Her recent release on Sono Luminus, titled In the Light of Air, might seem like another “soundscape” to the casual ear: a cinematic evocation that comfortably conforms to the images we’ve filed away for a specific place on the planet.

A lot of Sibelius gets talked about this way, and it’s happened to John Luther Adams and Alaska as well. But — as with Sibelius and JLA — that’s only a superficial point of entry with Thorvaldsdottír. If these are soundscapes, they’re filled with surprises that question the clichés.

The pregnant repetitions of notes, eerie glides along the strings, the harp’s piquant fall: they all become strangely, even disturbingly, alluring, their gathered patterns distilling an unusual blend of calm and unease: Thorvaldsdottír awakens slumbering mysteries.

Scored for viola, cello, harp, piano, percussion, and electronics, In the Light of Air is a suite comprising four movements: “Luminance,” “Serenity,” Existence,” and — the longest of the four — “Remembrance.” Thorvaldsdottír builds lucid but unpredictable textures using this lovely instrumentarium, with each player eventually emerging as a soloist against the context of the others. The result touches on the archaic, with early musicy drones, but also brings to mind a sci-fi adventure Morton Feldman might have imagined.

Thorvaldsdottír conceived In the Light of Air as an installation integrating music and a lighting design that reacts to both the playing and the breathing of the musicians: the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), who premiered the work at the Reykjavik Arts Festival on May 25th 2014.

“Internally I hear sounds and nuances as musical melodies and enjoy weaving various sounds together with harmonies and lyrical material,” says the composer. “Structurally I like working with perspectives of details and the unity of the whole and the relationship between the two.”

Thorvaldsdottír additionally designed an installation of metallic ornaments tom complement her music — known as klakabönd (“a bind of ice”) in Icelandic — which were realized by Svana Jósepsdóttir. Here’s a video that gives at least a little flavor of that experience:

Filed under: CD review, new music

New Leadership at the Lucerne Festival Academy

Wolfgang Rihm

Wolfgang Rihm

Add this to the news about major changes in the Lucerne Festival leadership, including the announcement that Riccardo Chailly is taking on the role left behind by Claudio Abbado heading the LF Ochestra.

The Festival’s other big pillar, the Lucerne Festival Academy, will now be helmed by the eminent composer Wolfgang Rihm, with his younger peer Matthias Pintscher at his side as Principal Conductor.

About his future plans, Rihm stated:

“For young artists it can be tremendously enlightening to work with composers from their own time. It often happens that misleading, myopic views that are commonplace impede access to the reality of a score. Conversely, an encounter with praxis is often essentially more important for young composers than yet another turn of the artificial screw.

For imagination also arises from knowledge of the technical conditions for realizing a score. And so this is what we expect from an Academy: that cultural spheres of knowledge and skill will be brought into mutual contact, shaping and enhancing each other in terms of the potential for understanding and realization. A musical text requires a performance that makes it a reality. Yet this is a form of prefigured understanding. Academy is dialogue!

Filed under: Lucerne Festival, music news

Gramophone and ECHO Klassik Awards 2015


I’m beginning to catch up on some big news items after being sidelined by deadlines.
The ceremony honoring the Gramophone Classical Music Award Winners for 2015 will take place at St John’s, Smith Square, London, on September 17. At this ceremony the winners of the special awards — including Recording of the Year, Artist of the Year, and Lifetime Achievement — will be revealed.

And here’s the complete list of winners in the 12 categories of the Gramophone Award”

Baroque Instrumental

JS Bach: Cello Suites; David Watkin vc (Resonus)

Baroque Vocal

Monteverdi: Vespri solenni per la festa di San Marco; Concerto Italiano / Rinaldo Alessandrini (Naïve)


Smetana: String Quartets No 1 (From My Life) & 2; Pavel Haas Quartet (Supraphon)


Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius. Sea Pictures; BBC SO and Chorus/Sir Andrew Davis (Chandos)


Beethoven: Piano Concertos 3 & 4; Maria João Pires/Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Harding (Onyx)


Nørgård: Symphonies Nos 1 & 8; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Sakari Oramo (Dacapo)

Early Music

The Spy’s Choirbook; Alamire; English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble/David Skinner (Obsidian)


Bach: English Suites Nos 1, 3, & 5; Piotr Anderszewski (Warner Classics)


R Strauss: Elektra; Soloists; Orchestre de Paris / Esa-Pekka Salonen; Stage director Patrice Chéreau; video director Stéphane Metge (Bel Air Classique)


Bruckner: Symphony No 9; Lucerne Festival Orchestra/Claudio Abbado (DG)


A French Baroque Diva; Carolyn Sampson Ex Cathedra/Jeffrey Skidmore (Hyperion)

Solo Vocal

Schubert: Nachtviolen; Christian Gerhaher, Gerold Huber (Sony Classical)

The ECHO Klassik Awards were also announced in Berlin, with a ceremony to follow on October 18 at the Konzerthaus. Find the complete list of 58 winners here.

Filed under: music news

Video of the Day

From the Royal Burgers’ Zoo in Arnhem, the Netherlands: note the selfie-taking at the end.

Notes Gretchen Vogel

Researchers say it’s not clear whether Tushi was annoyed by the drone or only curious — they say her facial expression suggests she wasn’t particularly afraid. But the footage is evidence that her actions were planned and deliberate, and it shows just how resourceful chimps can be at using whatever materials are available as tools.

Filed under: animal behavior, science news

RIP Oliver Sacks

So sad to learn the news that Oliver Sacks died on 30 August. The final blog post on his website (dated 14 August 2015) thanked his fans for their messages of support, noting that they are “a daily reminder to the good doctor of his long, adventurous life, the high points of which have always been his communion and conversation with his readers and the privilege of seeing and helping his patients.”

Also in August Sacks published an opinion piece in The New York ZTimes: “Sabbath,” in which he observed:

And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.

Rest in peace, Oliver Sacks.

Filed under: Oliver Sacks

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