MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

A Gorgeous Chamber Music Première in Seattle

In memoriam Steven Stucky (1949-2016), whose passing was announced today.

MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Steven Stucky; photo (c) 2005 Hoebermann Studio Steven Stucky; photo
(c) 2005 Hoebermann Studio

Along with its mix of well-known and unusual repertoire, the Seattle Chamber Music Society annually commissions a brand-new work for its Summer Festival. Monday evening’s programme unveiled the selection for 2015: Cantus by the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Steven Stucky, who has gained prominence primarily as an instrumental and choral composer. (His first opera – a brilliantly witty yet at the same time touching one-act buffa to Jeremy Denk’s libretto improbably “dramatising” Charles Rosen’s The Classical Style – will receive its full stage première next week at the Aspen Festival.)

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The Seattle Symphony’s Electrifying Eroica


Ludovic Morlot

The title of my  review is actually only part of the story of last night’s  performance by the Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot. The program — which I recommend highly as one of the highlights of the season to date — will be repeated Saturday and Sunday. The Beethoven alone would be enough to justify my enthusiasm, but let me get to the other parts of the story first.

Also worth the price of admission is the chance to hear the mellifluously named French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet in Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto and the relatively rare Three Places in New England of Charles Ives.

I suspect some of the remarkably palpable energy the players manifested last night has to do with a sense of anticipation regarding the 2016 Grammy Awards coming up Monday: the SSO nabbed three nominations for the second volume of their ongoing Henri Dutilleux series on the in-house label (including for Best Orchestral Performance).

What was particularly striking in the Ives — deeply challenging pieces, despite the sudden appearance of fragments of folk Americana that momentarily give the illusion of familiar reference points — was the refinement of detail within the most opaque, thickly laden textures of this score. The boisterous energy Morlot summoned for the famous clashing marches of the second place (“Putnams’ Camp”) was all the more startling on account of that refinement — a trait that reminded me of how the conductor searches for the right detail, le ton juste, inside one of Dutilleux’s intricately wrought orchestral canvases.

It was fascinating to hear the Ives so soon after last week’s rendition of Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia. You couldn’t help comparing the method of intrusive quotations, unprepared and free-associative, and wonder at the American maverick angle that leavened Berio’s European avant-gardism. Both composers resort to a collage aesthetic that seeks to replicate the complexity and porousness of musical memory — free of irony and mind games.

Indeed, at times Morlot elicited a curious innocence and tenderness from Ives’s decidedly unsentimental memory-soundscapes. Those qualities also came to mind in the Bartók concerto. On the surface this piece can almost be read as a kind of regression or longing for simpler procedures, a revocation of the composer’s Modernist street cred.

But Bavouzet’s enchanting, subtle interpretation had a cleanness of focus that suggested a mature master taking stock and paring away the inessential. Bartók knew he was dying when he composed the Third Concerto, and in this score the musical past returns not by way of collage and quotation but as acts of allusive, loving homage (above all to Bach and Beethoven — and of course to the rich loam of folk culture that Bartók accessed in a way so unlike the Romantics).

This was especially effective in the profoundly stirring central movement (“Adagio religioso”), where the pianist gave exquisite weight and voicing to Bartók’s harmonies and crisp, wonder-evoking articulation to the birdsong. Bavouzet — who had an opportunity to study with the pianist who premiered this work, György Sándor — projected winning charm along with a clear sense of purpose in the outer movements.

He returned for a most unusual encore (playing, incidentally, the new Steinway recently purchased for the SSO): three of the Notations by a 19-year-old Pierre Boulez, composed right around the time Bartók was working on his final concerto. Bavouzet played with Zen-like presence, or like a curator displaying a set of particularly rich gems, holding them up to glisten and sparkle in the light. This week’s concerts are being dedicated to the memory of the late Boulez.

So on to the Third Symphony of Beethoven. Morlot chose this work for his very first subscription concert after stepping to the podium as the SSO’s music director in September 2011 (pairing it on that occasion, curiously enough, with Dutilleux and a Frank Zappa piece Boulez himself had conducted).

Certain aspects echoed what lingers in my memory from that performance: above all, the historically informed performance touches that conferred a certain athletic fleetness and sharper focus. These were even more apparent — and more paradoxically “radical” in brushing aside the dust from overfamiliar passages — without determining every contour of the conductor’s approach.

I’d say that’s evidence of an increased confidence and interpretive vision Morlot is bringing to this score. The hammer blow chords at the end of the first movement’s exposition, for example, were genuinely shocking, while the use of a solo string quartet to voice one of the variation passages in the introductory section of the finale underscored the idea that textural transformations are just as crucial to Beethoven’s thinking as the thematic/harmonic ones that usually command attention.

Above all, the sheer energy of collaborating with the SSO on moment-by-moment decisions in the score gave this performance the stamp of authenticity that really matters, resulting in an electrifying Eroica. Not all those decisions worked: some of the rhythmic articulations of the Funeral March were sloppy, and the volcanic whirlwind that should launch Beethoven’s extraordinary finale (is there anything about the Eroica that isn’t extraordinary?) sounded curiously listless. But Morlot and the SSO sustained an edge-of-your-seat intensity across the work’s epic span, liberating it from any trace of the routine.

And Morlot inspired much fine, indeed heroic, solo work from the players, including Mary Lynch’s achingly expressive oboe solos (a key leitmotif of the Eroica) in the Funeral March and Jeff Fair’s fearless, flawless spotlights in the famously fear-inducing trio of the Scherzo.

Really, what more can you ask of a symphony program?

–(c)2016 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Bartók, Beethoven, Ludovic Morlot, pianists, piano, Pierre Boulez, review, Seattle Symphony

Classical Editor’s Picks: February 2016


633x422Here’s my list for this month on Rhapsody:

Nature turns out to be one of the themes streaming through this month’s classical playlist. Pianist Hélène Grimaud leads the way with her latest release, Water, a concept album about the life-giving element as reflected by composers like Liszt, Debussy, and Takemitsu, with transitional sections provided by producer, composer, and DJ Nitin Sawhney.

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In Presence of a Master

Current project:

Filed under: Bartók, violinists

Igor Levit To Make Seattle Debut

Igor Levit

My Seattle Times piece on Igor Levit has now been posted:

Unclassifiable pianist Igor Levit finds meaning in composers from Bach to Prokofiev

It’s common practice in the classical-music world — and an often annoying one — to introduce young soloists by reeling off a litany of their competition prizes, strung together like a list of battles won.

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Filed under: pianists, preview, Seattle Times

Taking Chances


John Cage’s Living Room Music at Friday night’s [untitled] (presented by Seattle Symphony).

Filed under: concert programming, photography, Seattle Symphony

O Berio


photo (c)Brandon Patoc

You couldn’t come away from last night’s Seattle Symphony concert without a feeling that you’d been privy to a major occasion — a genuine historic moment for the orchestra, for music director Ludovic Morlot, and for audiences both longterm and new to the art.

The occasion was the SSO’s first time tackling Sinfonia, the Luciano Berio masterpiece that is simultaneously viewed as an icon of the end of the modernist era and as a template for postmodernism and today’s aesthetic of collage. Indeed, Berio’s project can arguably be described as a rebuttal of the main tenets promulgated by his colleagues Boulez and Stockhausen — rather as Ligeti likewise represents a powerful refutation. Even so, all of these composers are sometimes clustered together as “Modernists.”

Keep in mind that Sinfonia was composed for the New York Philharmonic’s 125th anniversary under the tenure of its dedicatee Leonard Bernstein, before the Pierre Boulez era there. A very different kind of “modern music,” in other words.

The smart thing is just to set the labels aside and recall that Berio earned a powerful reputation as a rare (at that time) contemporary “classical” composer who managed to bridge the divide between far-flung experimentalism and an apparent willingness and capacity to communicate with audiences.

His outlook was all-embracing, which, for Berio, meant a passionate conviction that music had to be intimately connected to all aspects of the surrounding cultural context. And the context of Sinfonia‘s composition, in 1968-69 — the “heavy” years of the 1960s, a time of revolution, confusion, and upheaval — still reverberates.

The SSO’s performance  — the Berio occupied the second half of the program –was prefaced by a dramatic darkening of the house and a brief, wonderfully personal video introduction from Morlot, projected onto a screen. Just enough to set the mood for a taste of that context, with a mix of musical and political reference points.

Playing to what appeared to be close to a packed house, Morlot and the SSO  were joined by the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth (for a contemporary updating of sorts of the role played by the group Berio originally had in mind — the Swingle Singers). The orchestra itself swelled across the stage, massively enlarged, with speakers placed downstage;  the amplified Roomful singers were discreetly “embedded” in their ranks  (I couldn’t tell what other elements may have been slightly amplified).

In his intro, Morlot referred to his initial experience of Sinfonia, to how hard it seemed to figure out what was happening in this music. And the sense of being inducted into a bafflingly unanticipated world drove this performance. It was irresistibly present in the opening gestures — the mysterious, almost atavistic summons from the tam-tam, which passes on to the seemingly disembodied voices of the octet.

[Boulez himself conducting Sinfonia]

From that moment forward, it was as if Morlot and the ensemble had set off sailing down a daunting, mythic river. Earlier in the week Morlot had led the Curtis Institute Symphony Orchestra in Sinfonia at Carnegie Hall, yet there was never an impression of neatly worked-out solutions and answers to Berio’s unprecedented challenges. Rather, much of the thrill came from sensing that everyone was out on a limb, unsure of how — or even whether — it would all work out.

“I think Berio’s music has inspired a lot of us to treat instruments in a virtuoso way that is nevertheless humane,” observes the composer Steven Stucky. “I mean both humane to the performers and humane to the listeners, a kind of friendly, Italian virtuosity…” For me, Morlot tapped successfully into this idea of virtuosity and complexity. Berio’s strategies came across as much more than technical adventures to be surmounted.

And the capacity of this music to shock, in a post-Rite of Spring world (the Stravinsky is of course part of Berio’s collage-scape), was in this performance also remarkable. For example, in passage where Berio isolates a gesture like a sforzando and exaggerates it through repetition, Morlot elicited a savage intensity of accentuation that suggested the struggle for a new kind of musical speech.

Much is made of the “overwriting” on the canvas of the scherzo from Mahler’s Second Symphony (in the pivotal third movement of Sinfonia). But a highlight for me was the apocalyptic “panic chord” from Mahler’s Third that also surfaces — a moment of awareness in nature, before the arrival of human consciousness, as Mahler construes it. In this reading Berio’s commentary and contextualization seemed to pinpoint the arrival of in surmountable despair, from which Sinfonia has to work out a “breakthrough” of its own.

Overall, Morlot’s account paid special heed to Berio’s interrogation of the intersection between instruments and voices, between words as purely “musical” melismas and as intelligible signifiers. The fine line dividing chaos/noise from musical sense is being renegotiated by Berio in a new social contract.

A contract that was rudely shredded by a cell phone in the row ahead of me cruelly timed to ring as accompaniment to Sinfonia‘s final measures — not a mere errant ring followed by an awkward silencing,  but the entire cycle of rings, the owner of the device displaying not the slightest degree of concern over inflicting this on his fellow humans.

Certainly the solutions of ultra-programmatic music offered by a Richard Strauss were no longer viable. Which may be why, in part, I was rather unsatisfied with the concert’s opener, the early tone poem Don Juan. Or that may just be down to the somewhat ruffled ensemble from the strings.

Morlot brought a few intriguing ideas to the score, pumping up the opening with an adrenaline rush and lingering over the tender passages with surreal, stop-motion gazes — abetted by  Mary Lynch’s glorious oboe solos and Jeff Fair’s rich, glowing horn. Some of it, though, felt like special pleading. Call it a moment of crisis, but I found myself growing impatient with Strauss’s tricks and poses.

It was delightful to hear the underrated Beethoven Second Piano Concerto in such a thoughtful, finely chiseled account — continuing Morlot and the SSO’s success with their Beethoven concerto series (the First, last October, was spellbinding).  Soloist Yefim Bronfman’s restraint, bordering even on understatement, surprised those familiar with his stentorian keyboard presence  — a quality he confirmed in a thundering encore of the scherzo from Prokofiev’s Second Piano Sonata.

One more chance to catch this program: Saturday 6 February at 8pm: go here for tickets.

–(c)2016 Thomas May. All rights reserved.





Filed under: Beethoven, Luciano Berio, Ludovic Morlot, review, Richard Strauss, Seattle Symphony

Another Layer to Berlioz

MEMETERIA by Thomas May

image ©Bernd Uhlig image ©Bernd Uhlig

Hector Berlioz’s treatment of the beloved Shakespeare tragedy in Roméo et Juliette, his “dramatic symphony” premiered in 1839, stands apart for its radical approach to narrative and musical story-telling.

It transforms the (still very recent, still-being-digested) Beethovenian legacy of the choral Ninth Symphony into something even less conventional in how it negotiates the relation between words and instruments, text and “programmatic” music.

Not the least unusual choice is the oblique way of recounting the famous story using not Shakespeare’s words but instead a libretto by Emile Deschamps that actually eliminates the figures of Romeo and Juliet themselves. They’re only spoken of in the text, whereas their big scenes are depicted by the orchestra alone.

So I was especially intrigued to see what Berlin-based choreographer (and aptonym!) Sasha Waltz does with one of my favorite scores. Her choreographed version of Roméo et Juliette premiered at Paris Opera…

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