MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Seattle Symphony’s [untitled] 3: Wow!

Friday night brought the season finale of Seattle Symphony’s innovative — and always fun — late night [untitled] series. As usual, the affair offered a program of adventurous and far-ranging chamber music, here linked by the personalities of two powerfully individual artists who feel familiar yet who remain mysteriously unfathomable.

“I am deeply superficial,” goes one of the bon mots — or Warholian koans —  in Andy Warhol Sez, a collection of seven brief pieces for bassoon and piano by American composer Paul Moravec. Each is prefaced by the bassoonist reciting a quotation from Warhol, followed by bassoon-keyboard duets that either further ironize or contradict the statement — or perhaps have nothing to do with it at all.

Moravec wrote AW Sez for David Sogg, a bassoonist with the Pittsburgh Symphony, in Warhol’s native city, but it seemed tailor-made for SSO principal Seth Krimsky. His drily sardonic recitations gave way to spirited playing that conjured multiple personalities.

Cristina Valdés, who supplied theatrically appealing counterpoint from the keyboard, returned for the second work, Tinkling or killing time in an airport lounge (and being arrested) by Yannis Kyriakides, a composer now based in the Netherlands.  The inspiration here was a scene from the documentary Thelonius Monk: Straight, No Chaser, in which the jazz legend was found wandering around Logan Airport and taken by the police to the state hospital and released after a week of observation.

Elena Dubinets, SSO’s Vice President of Artistic Planning, explained that Kyriakides created a virtual mini-piano concerto, giving a demanding and prominent role to the pianist, who frames the piece, which is based on Monk’s song Trinkle Tinkle.  Valdés conveyed the hypnotic fascination of the writing flawlessly,  which certainly mirrors the composer’s description of the airport scene: “Monk [was] seen spinning around like a whirling dervish in an airport space.”] SSO Associate Conductor Pablo Rus Broseta, leading the chamber ensemble, allowed space for the most eccentric gestures to register without sacrificing rhythmic precision.

The rest of the program was filled out by a winning and generous “sample” of a larger work: Andy: A Popera, courtesy of the Philadelphia-based collective The Bearded Ladies Cabaret. This is not a “bio-opera” but a fanciful, whimsical, at times unexpectedly incisive music theater hybrid that loosely riffs on images of an artist who was all about riffing on images.

The score itself is characteristically unclassifiable, a seamless mingling of contributions by company member Heath Allen and Dan Visconti, to a libretto and direction by the insanely talented John Jarboe (Bearded Ladies’ artistic director).

Gender is merely one category that becomes dizzyingly fluid in this show, which resurrects the artist’s mother, Julia Warhol (Malgorzata Kasprzycka) and presents the Birth of a Legend as Andrei (Mary Tuomanen) emerges from a sealed cardboard box, wielding a little camera and pinpointing members of the audience at random for their (diluted) 15 seconds of fame.

As Candy Darling, Warhol’s meta-tragic Superstar, Scott McPheeters commanded attention across the multi-level set, dying a Dido-ish death and glorying in Rebecca Kanach’s flowing, billowing costumes.

The five-member chorus was first rate, backed by a mostly rock/pop-style band that also featured SSO violinist Mikhail Shmidt on viola. The confluence of pop and classical trained voices never jarred but sounded utterly convincing — a tool to ratchet up emotions just when needed.

The whole experience was so lively and enjoyable, it seemed to end too quickly. “An artist is somebody who produces things that people don’t need to have,” according to Andy Warhol. But, as he knew, who can also make people have the need.

(c)2017 Thomas May – All rights reserved

Filed under: Andy Warhol, new music, review, Seattle Symphony

A Missing Mahler Score Identified

The autograph piano score of the first of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, “Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n,” has been discovered and identified, reports Deutsche Welle. Identified by musicologist Berthold Over, the rediscovered score — in the possession of an anonymos private owner — is the missing part of the puzzle in the  chronology of Kindertotenlieder‘s creation.

Mahler wrote three of the five songs comprising Kindertotenlieder in the summer of 1901 and then resumed the cycle in 1904, when he wrote the other two directly into the orchestral score, skipping the process of writing out a preliminary piano score. The orchestral scores from 1904 and two of the handwritten piano scores from the 1901 songs were preserved, but up to now there had been no trace of the one missing score.

According to DW: “The discovery of that fifth song — No. 1 in the official sequence — means ‘that it’s now possible to say which three were composed in 1901 and which two in 1904,’ Over explained to DW. ‘Establishing the chronological order of Mahler’s works is sometimes difficult because he didn’t date his manuscripts.'”

Alexander Odefey has a fuller report (in German) here.

 

 

Filed under: Mahler, music news

August Wilson’s Birthday

One of our very greatest playwrights would have turned 72 today.  He was only 60 when he died in Seattle in 2005.

From the New York Timesappreciation of August Wilson’s legacy:

In dialogue that married the complexity of jazz to the emotional power of the blues, he also argued eloquently for the importance of black Americans’ honoring the pain and passion in their history, not burying it to smooth the road to assimilation. For Mr. Wilson, it was imperative for black Americans to draw upon the moral and spiritual nobility of their ancestors’ struggles to inspire their own ongoing fight against the legacies of white racism.

And from the Paris Review in 1999, Wilson’s response to the question, “If you had to construct an imaginary playwright, with what qualities would you endow him or her?”

Honesty. Something to say and the courage to say it. The will and daring to accomplish great art. Craft. Craft is what makes the will and dating work and allows playwrights to shout or whisper as they choose. A painter who has not mastered line and form, mass, perspective and proportion, who does not understand the values and properties of color, is not going to produce interesting paintings no matter the weight and measure of his heart, or the speed and power of his intellect. I don’t think you can ever know too much about craft. So I would give your imaginary playwright a solid understanding of craft. All that is necessary then is ambition . . . which is as valid and valuable as anything else.

Filed under: American artists, August Wilson, theater

Morlot To Step Down in 2019

morlt-stepping-down

Photo credit: Brandon Patoc

Seattle Symphony’s press office released a statement on Friday afternoon announcing Music Director Ludovic Morlot’s decision to leave that position at the end of the 2018-19 season, after eight seasons with the orchestra.

Maestro Morlot gave the following statement:

I will be forever grateful and proud to have been given the opportunity to help write a chapter in the history of the Seattle Symphony. And what a beautiful chapter it is; thrilling performances played to full houses, the appointment of so many outstanding musicians, three Grammys, a strong list of commissions and premieres, a memorable concert at Carnegie Hall, an upcoming residency at Berkeley, and so much more. I am also extremely appreciative of the commitment that the community as a whole has offered to me at the artistic helm of this extraordinary organization. The decision to step down as Music Director when my contract comes to an end in 2019 is not one I have taken lightly. We are in the midst of a wonderful, stimulating and exciting artistic journey and I look forward to continuing this in the next two seasons. However, I feel that by 2019 the time will be right for me to explore new musical opportunities and for the Symphony to have the inspiration of new artistic leadership.

The news comes as something of a shock and is especially disconcerting to Seattle music lovers, since Morlot’s presence has done nothing less than transform the city’s music scene. His work with the SSO is a model for how to make the institution of an orchestra relevant in contemporary life while maintaining the highest musical standards.

Everyone has kept tight-lipped about whatever new project Morlot has on the horizon. In the meantime, local audiences will be savoring his every moment at the podium more than ever.

What are your favorite moments to date from Morlot’s tenure with the SSO?

The complete SSO press release is here.

Filed under: Ludovic Morlot, music news, Seattle Symphony

Timeless Machiavelli, Timely Opera: A World Premiere from Mohammed Fairouz

Prince3

photo © Marco Borggreve

My review of the new opera by Mohammed Fairouz has now been posted on Seattle Vanguard:

There’s been a huge push in recent years for those involved in the performing arts to seem as “relevant” and “relatable” as possible. Nowhere more so than in the areas mistakenly perceived as “elitist” — above all opera and orchestral music.

But writing persuasively — with no special pleading needed — about issues and dilemmas that have a contemporary urgency seems to come naturally to Mohammed Fairouz, the acclaimed Emirati-American composer whose latest work, The New Prince, just received its world premiere in an impressive production directed by Lotte de Beer at Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam. Regarded as among the most forward-looking opera companies in the world, DNO commissioned The New Prince as part of its Opera Forward Festival initiative, which promotes new artists and fresh approaches to the art form.

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Fairouz, now 31, based his first opera, Sumeida’s Song (2011), on Egyptian writer Tawfiq al-Hakim’s play about the fatal conflict between unthinking tradition and enlightened progress. Zabur, a combination oratorio and war requiem (just out on the Naxos label), embodies his powerfully moving response to the situation in Syria that seeks hope amid its harrowing musical depiction of crimes  against humanity. Next year Pittsburgh Opera will present the opera Fairouz is currently completing: Bhutto, which focuses on the former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto (assassinated in 2007), the first woman to lead Muslim majority nation. The composer, who is also active as a commentator on foreign affairs, cowrote the libretto with the journalist and novelist Mohammed Hanif.

Meet the New Prince

The New Prince is characteristic of Fairouz both in the scope of its ambition and in being so effortlessly of our time. Set to David Ignatius’ clever libretto, The New Prince imagines Niccolò Machiavelli doing the time warp across the centuries as he faces the challenge of updating the work for which his name has become notorious — and profoundly misunderstood: Il Principe (The Prince).

The premise is that the Renaissance philosopher, writer, and diplomat has been reawakened in 2032 — 500 years after The Prince had been (posthumously) published — and must substantially revise his text to appeal to a changed marketplace. His lover and Muse, the goddess Fortuna, tells him he needs to account for world historical events in the intervening centuries. And he needs a “new prince” — a protege whom he can advise about how to wield power: Wu Virtu, the president of Amerasiopia, the troubled fusion nation of the near-future.

Prince2

photo © Marco Borggreve

This basic scenario borrows the structure Jacques Offenbach used in his Tales of Hoffmann, in which a sequence of self-contained episodes we see unfolding is unified by the presence of the writer and his muse. In a framing prologue and epilogue, we see the distressed Machiavelli  try to come to terms with his lot; by the end, as in Hoffmann, he is compelled to find solace by retreating into his inner creative world.

In The New Prince, the quickly moving episodes present famous figures from history caught up in various sorts of errors that will threaten their control of power — cautionary tales Machiavelli uses to illustrate his point, though the self-absorbed Wu Virtu only half-listens and has no interest in letting the lessons sink in.

We see examples of “why princes should beware of revolutions” in the figures of Savonarola (the fiery Florentine preacher from Machiavelli’s own time), Hitler, Chairman Mao, and the revolution-counterrevolution of contemporary Egypt. Next comes the lesson on “why princes should suppress (or hide) their human urges,” starting with the first U.S. sex scandal (a cheating Alexander Hamilton) and repeated in the Clinton-Lewinsky melodrama.

The last lesson addresses “why princes must avoid a ‘collision of civilizations.’” In the aftermath of 9-11, the figures of Osama bin Laden and Dick Cheney are seen to be alter egos in their rigid appeal to abstract “higher laws” at the expense of real human beings.

Prince1

photo © Marco Borggreve

David Ignatius is a veteran writer best known as a foreign policy expert (he’s an esteemed Washington Post columnist and editor) and also as the author of such bestselling espionage novels as the first-rate Body of Lies. But this is his debut venture as an opera librettist. Using the Hoffmann model as a guide was an inspired idea. Ignatius also seems to have had the tone of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in mind — his tight verse radiates a sardonic humor throughout, even in the most disturbing sections.

At times I was even reminded of a Brechtian Lehrstück in the “parable”-like line-up of events — though, of course, the lessons intended here are never learned. Thus the lack of character “development” — save for the negative enlightenment experienced by the hero — is inherent in the narrative fabric. Most of the characters are meant to be quick sketches, not fully fleshed out psychological portraits a la naturalism.

Ignatius adds a fascinating twist to the Tales of Hoffmann model. Machiavelli himself is assigned a “ghost-writer” in the form of that eminently modern Machiavellian (in the popular sense), Henry Kissinger — whom the Italian prizes as ideally suited to serve as his “scribe and jester.”

And in place of the evil personified by Dapertutto — Hoffmann’s arch-nemesis in Offenbach’s opera — The New Prince suggests persistently recurrent human foibles as the roadblock to effective rule. Despite believing he has “figured out, at last, the trick that makes the grand game work,” Machiavelli continues to wonder at the resistance of would-be “princes” throughout history to his wisdom: “Does anyone listen? Can any power bend the chain of princely error?”

Prince6

photo © Marco Borggreve

Strong Production Values

Fairouz has composed a delightfully fluid score that unites his gift for writing for the voice with his bold symphonic imagination. The orchestra isn’t particularly large — it had to be accommodated by the pit of the Stadsschouwburg Theatre, an alternate venue used by Dutch National Opera for some of its projects — but Fairouz paints a remarkable variety of soundscapes with economy.

The opening prologue in particular sets up the world of the opera with terrifying immediacy as we see Machiavelli undergoing strappado torture at the hand of the Medicis. The intermissionless New Prince ranges wildly across stylistic references (as it does across centuries) — curt Weill-like marches, Baroque gestures, touches of Broadway and cabaret, and simple but soul-searing melodies — but amid this cornucopia of musical imagery there erupts, always surprisingly, a sudden, live-wire interjection by the orchestra.

It seems to tap right into the violence that forms a perennial bedrock of human history — and that, for all his calculation, Machiavelli is never able to subdue or suppress. Fairouz also uses a recurring harmonic sequence as a metaphoric binding device. It’s reminiscent of Philip Glass, but Fairouz makes the gesture his own by recontextualizing it into his riotously eventful score.

With his large, expressive baritone and vivid stage presence, Joshua Hopkins excelled in creating the role of Machiavelli. Fairouz reserves most of the opera’s vocal highlights for him — especially the chastened beauty of the epilogue, after so much frantic activity, in which Machiavelli resigns himself and prepares to “enter the courts of the ancients.”

There’s also some terrific material for Fortuna (strikingly characterized by Karin Strobos), but I longed for more-extended treatments of several major characters. Simon Lim’s Wu Virtu was imposing, but the character ends up feeling too much like a blank slate to make his turning against Machiavelli at the end effective.

Prince5

photo © Marco Borggreve

The New Prince calls for a large cast of 13, and filling the roles was a mix of trained opera singers, actors involved in musical theater, and young artists from DNO’s training program. Thus Kissinger was played, with roguish style, by the Broadway performer Marc Kudisch. (It’s interesting to compare his characterization with that in John Adams’s Nixon in China from 1987, which as far as I know is the first — and only other — work to have brought the diplomat to the opera stage. In Nixon he has more of a comic relief function.)

In keeping with the opera’s core idea of the recurring patterns of human nature and history — a lesson that, we sense, makes Machiavelli suffer profound disillusionment in his 500+-year-old reincarnation — several cast members played multiple roles. Barbara Walsh, doubling as Eliza Hamilton and Hillary Clinton, exuded vulnerability, while Paulo Szot was true luxury casting for a combined Alexander Hamilton, Bill Clinton, and Dick Cheney. As a supremely cocky Cheney, Szot was especially memorable in his duet with the marvelous actor George Abud’s chillingly assured bin Laden.

DNO puled out all the stops in terms of production values. Lotte de Beer proved why she’s such a prized director, shaping a brand-new, heavily ensemble-oriented show into a thoroughly engaging theatrical experience.

Her urgent pacing, along with the choreography by Zack Winokur, was perfectly attuned to Fairouz’s busy score, abetted by Alex Brok’s almost hallucinogenic lighting design (with its occasional parodies of Broadway kitsch) and the time-traveling set and costume design by Clement & Sanôu.

Conductor Steven Sloane showed affinity for Fairouz’s highly theatrical score while also eliciting a symphonic attention to detail from the Residentie Orkest.

As a counterpart to the Cheney-bin Laden scene, Fairouz and Ignatius include an appearance by the late diplomat Prince Saud al-Faisal. It’s a bit too “straight” to fit in with the tone of the rest of the opera, but the message — that there can never be a “clash of civilizations between us … it is a contradiction in terms” — introduces a hopeful counterpoint to Machiavelli’s dictum that “if we must choose between being feared and loved, we should choose to be feared.”

Perhaps the new Machiavelli, in light of his latest experiences, will reevaluate that advice and discover a more reliable method to enlighten the ideal prince.

(c)2017 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: American opera, commissions, Mohammed Fairouz, review

Times Two

One-half at least of the line-up from last night’s piano duo recital at the new Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin. Playing on his custom-made (and, for the occasion, uncovered) Steinways, Daniel Barenboim and Martha Argerich gave the following program:

MOZART/ Sonata in D Major K. 448 (375a) for Two Pianos
Sonata in F Major K. 497 for Piano Four Hands
SCHUMANN/Studies for Pedal Piano Op. 56 / Arrangement for Two Pianos by Claude Debussy
LISZT/Réminiscences de «Don Juan» de Mozart S 418

Plus, as encores, Debussy’s Lindaraja and “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker.

Filed under: Daniel Barenboim, Martha Argerich, Pierre Boulez Saal

Brecht on Stage

Filed under: Brecht, theater

Faust, Sort of…

This is Frank Castorf, aafter all. Yes, a weird way to spend Easter weekend…

“In ihren scharfen Zügen hat sich endlich auch das Weibliche vom ewig Weiblichen befreit. Weshalb am Ende, wenn die Männer infantilisiert kapitulieren, eben auch nicht ein ewig Weibliches Erlösung bringt, sondern eine Varieté-Tänzerin dafür sorgt, dass der Laden irgendwie weiter läuft.”  (Die Welt)

Filed under: Berlin, directors, Goethe, Volksbühne

Kunstreligion

 

Parsifal at Staatsoper Berlin.

Filed under: Staatsoper Berlin, Wagner

Timeless Machiavelli, Timely Opera: A World Premiere From Mohammed Fairouz

Prince2

photo © Marco Borggreve

My review of the new opera by Mohammed Fairouz has now been posted on Vanguard Seattle:

There’s been a huge push in recent years for those involved in the performing arts to seem as “relevant” and “relatable” as possible. Nowhere more so than in the areas mistakenly perceived as “elitist” — above all opera and orchestral music.

But writing persuasively — with no special pleading needed — about issues and dilemmas that have a contemporary urgency seems to come naturally to Mohammed Fairouz, the acclaimed Emirati-American composer whose latest work, The New Prince, just received its world premiere in an impressive production directed by Lotte de Beer at Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam. Regarded as among the most forward-looking opera companies in the world, DNO commissioned The New Prince as part of its Opera Forward Festival initiative, which promotes new artists and fresh approaches to the art form.

continue reading

Filed under: American opera, commissions, Mohammed Fairouz, new opera, review, Vanguard Seattle

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