MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Pecking Order: The Golden Cockerel a Crowing Success at Santa Fe Opera

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TIM MIX (KING DODON) PHOTO CREDIT: PAUL HORPEDAHL FOR SANTA FE OPERA, 2017

Even though it’s still more or less a rarity for American audiences nowadays, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel can seem surprisingly — indeed, unnervingly — familiar to audiences enduring the current political moment.

At least that’s one of the main premises of the new production Santa Fe Opera is presenting this season (a co-production with Dallas Opera). Also marking its company debut, Rimsky’s final opera (better known by its French title, Le coq d’or) actually has a direct American connection as regards its source.

The libretto by Vladimir Belsky is an adaptation of a verse fairy-tale by Pushkin, who got the story from none other than Washington Irving (specifically, from The Legend of the Arabian Astrologer, one of his Tales of the Alhambra inspired by the American writer’s travels in Spain).

Despite those far-flung historical connections, Cockerel — the final opera by the prolific Rimsky (completed in 1907) — posed a trenchant contemporary critique of Tsar Nicholas II that, especially in the aftermath of the disastrous Russo-Japanese War, was obvious enough to cause trouble with the censors. Rimsky died before the opera could be premiered (in 1909 in Moscow).

 

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VENERA GIMADIEVA (QUEEN OF SHEMAKHA) AND TIM MIX (KING DODON) PHOTO CREDIT: KEN HOWARD FOR SANTA FE OPERA, 2017

Cockerel involves an odd, both beguiling and baffling combination of dramaturgical registers such that it’s a challenge to stage the work outside its Russian context, which boasts a rich performance tradition of Rimsky’s operas (despite or even because of the composer’s posthumous hurdles with Soviet cultural authorities).

The framework is standard-issue fairy-tale: in a land long ago, King Dodon hopes to put an end to the threat of warfare from beyond his borders and even considers building a wall. As he seeks advice, a mysterious Astrologer presents him with the ideal solution: a beautiful Golden Cockerel that only needs to be perched atop a building to keep watch. It acts as a kind of early-warning system, allowing the King to indulge in his love of sleep and food worry-free.

But when the warning comes, he goes on a pre-emptive war, only to be seduced by his enemy, the Queen of Shemakha. She cajoles him into a marriage to gain his kingdom, and they return to the capital. But the Astrologer had extracted a promise that the grateful Tsar would give him anything he requested. Naturally, the Astrologer now demands the new Queen for himself. The King reacts violently, and the Golden Cockerel fatally pecks him.

That’s just the scaffolding. Infused into the fairy-tale story line are elements of political satire, allegory, Orientalism, and intoxicating late Romanticism. The Golden Cockerel even became an inspiration for modernist trends thanks to the Paris production by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes company in 1914, which put a distancing wedge between the music and story by keeping the singers to the sides while dancers enacted the roles.

Director Paul Curran and the creative team accentuate the satirical elements with a kind of broad comedy that wouldn’t be out of place in a Saturday Night Live skit.  Gary McCann (responsible for the set and costumes) imprisons Tsar Dodon in a fat suit, his jello-y bulges on display when he snoozes in his long red underwear (though he is hilariously undersized for a throne many times too big for him).
Near the culmination, this master of blustering incompetence appears decked out in a modern suit with a flaming red tie (yes, that‘s the blowhard he’s meant to evoke, tho Dodon possesses certain charming aspects that undo the implied comparison). His new Queen is wearing a smart white pantsuit. 

The clowning and pratfalls grow a bit tiresome, however, and make for a dragging first act. In the second, when Dodon heads off to the Queen’s neighboring land and is engaged by her entrancing musical and choreographic come-on, the shtick really begins to wear thin.

By way of compensation, the visuals added something of the missing note of mystery, fantasy, and even potentially sinister undertow. McCann’s costumes, alluding to the Ballets Russes era, exploded with color and folk exuberance, as well as the trendy Orientalism of that period. Enhanced by Paul Hackenmueller’s lighting, his set design relied on a large wavy metal curve and Constructivist-inspired swirls (a way of paying homage to the opera’s Modernist connections).

The curve was used for Driscoll Otto’s projections, whose beautifully intriguing imagery included opulent patterns and disturbingly surreal dreamlike sequences — dreams and the psyche figure heavily in the story — though the projections for the Golden Cockerel itself were surprisingly unimpressive (and difficult to see because of the angling of the large curve). During last night’s performance (July 28), a dramatic lightning storm provided perfectly counterpointed timing for the dark “invasion” scene, into which the Queen of Shemakha enters, Kundry-like, ready to disarm the enemy with her own brand of warcraft.

The cast ranged from adequate to wonderful. After Eric Owens bowed out of the assignment, baritone Tim Mix took on the role of King Dodon. He showed a delightful sense of comic timing and sang with musical intelligence but lacked power and needed depth. As his main general Commander Polkan, bass Kevin Burdette was scene-stealingly funny, a very effective character singer who gets a nasty comeuppance.  

As Dodon’s sons, who end up slaughtering each other in battle, Richard Smagur and Jorge Espino underscored the fatal hereditary mix of arrogance and idiocy. Singing offstage, Kasia Borowiec lent her lovely soprano to the Cockerel’s (a-little-too-repetitive) crowings. (The Cockerel is conceived as a female role in the tradition of so many other ornithological characterizations, despite the bird’s sex.)

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VENERA GIMADIEVA (THE QUEEN OF SHEMAKHA) AND TIM MIX (KING DODON) PHOTO CREDIT: KEN HOWARD FOR SANTA FE OPERA, 2017

The star of the evening was the Russian soprano Venera Gimadieva in the virtuosic role of the Queen of Shemakha. Rimsky lavishes his most alluring, exquisitely ornamented music on her (including in the number “Hymn to the Sun”). Aside from some lingering insecurities with intonation, Gimadieva handled her gorgeous coloratura with nuance and panache, executing some breathtakingly tapered notes. She also showed graceful and arresting stage presence, a delightful foil in her dancing to the fat-footed, bloated King as she wraps him around her finger. 

Also superb was alto Meredith Arwady as Amelfa as a loyal royal servant, a substitute Mom to the King whose voice by itself is like a character, immense, sturdy, amber, and richly reverberant in the astonishingly low notes Rimsky writes for the part.

He also writes a double-take-inducing high E for the high-flying tenor Astrologer, who frames the opera as an it’s-just-make-believe-after-all mise-en-abyme. Barry Banks, brandishing moody sunglasses and an Andy Warhol air, suggested a hint of the eerie, E.T.A. Hoffmann-esque in his portrayal, contributing another layer that otherwise tended to be sacrificed in favor of the satirical.

Actually, there was another star of the evening: conductor Emmanuel Villaume, who coaxed consistently expressive, multi-hued, luminous playing for Rimsky’s scintillating score. He clearly treasures its shimmering beauties and gave the musicians time to indulge in the soloistic writing, but judiciously, and in ways that enhanced the theatricality onstage.  

If you go: Santa Fe Opera’s production of The Golden Cockerel by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov continues through Aug. 18. Information and reservations here.

Review (c) 2017 Thomas May — all rights reserved

Filed under: review, Santa Fe Opera

The Apple of His Eye: Review of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs

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EDWARD PARKS (STEVE JOBS) AND JONAH SORENSON (YOUNG STEVE JOBS) PHOTO CREDIT: KEN HOWARD FOR SANTA FE OPERA, 2017

My review of the new Mason Bates/Mark Campbell opera is now out on Musical America:

SANTA FE, N.M.—“Hope or hype? … Score or snore?” Early into The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, the snappy questions pour out in rapid-fire succession from an ensemble attending the first public announcement of the iPhone in 2007.

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Filed under: American opera, Mark Campbell, Mason Bates, Musical America, review, Santa Fe Opera

Vancouver Bach Festival 2017

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Last summer, Early Music Vancouver inaugurated an annual Bach Festival, and this year’s edition focuses on the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation.

A number of prominent Seattle-based artists are heading north to perform: Stephen Stubbs, Byron Schenkman, and Tekla Cunningham. The festival’s 14 concerts run  August 1-11, 2017 (most of them at Christ Church Cathedral downtown).

Along with music by J.S. Bach, the program spans the historical spectrum from Renaissance polyphony, Latin American Baroque, 18th century opera to Romantic composers, along with contemporaries like Philip Glass featured on  cellist Matt Haimovitz’s “Overtures to Bach” concert.

The complete lineup:

Overtures to Bach
August 1 at 6pm and 9pm
Renowned as a musical pioneer, Canadian cellist Matt Haimovitz performs four of Bach’s beloved Cello Suites preceded by new commissions written by composers including Philip Glass and David Sanford that anticipate, reflect, and transform the originals.

Schumann Dichterliebe and Brahms Four Serious Songs
August 2 at 1pm
Internationally acclaimed Canadian baritone Tyler Duncan and pianist Erika Switzer,  playing an original 19th century fortepiano.

Songs of Religious Upheaval: Byrd, Tallis, Tye – Music from Reformation England
August 2 at 7:30pm (Pre-concert talk 6:45pm)
Cinquecento sings  music of William Byrd, Thomas Tallis, and Christoper Tye
Lutheran Vespers: Songs for Troubled Times
August 3 at 1pm
Eleven Vancouver-based performers offer a complete Lutheran vespers written to provide comfort and consolation following the Thirty Years’ War and its aftermath
Bach’s Italian Concerto
August 3 at 7:30pm (Pre-concert talk 6:45pm)
The French Overture and the Italian Concerto performed by harpsichordist Alexander Weimann.  Swiss baritone and founding musical director of Gli Angeli Genève Stephan MacLeod joins Weimann for cantatas  by Handel and  Bach
Conversions: Mendelssohn, Moscheles, and Bach
August 4 at 1pm
Fortepianist Byron Schenkman & cellist Michael Unterman perform works by Mendelssohn and Moscheles, two Jewish artists who converted to Christianity to conform to social norms.
Handel in Italy: Virtuosic Cantatas
August 4 at 7:30pm (Pre-concert talk 6:45pm)
Terry Wey and Jenny Högström perform cantatas and love duets by Handel from his early Italian period, along with a duet by Agostino Steffani (one of Handel’s mentors)
Playing with B-a-c-H: Sonatas for Violin by Telemann, Pisendel and J.S. Bach
August 8 at 1pm
Baroque violinist Tekla Cunningham performs a solo Bach partita, a Pisendel
solo sonata, and two solo Telemann fantasias
Before Bach: “The Fountains of Israel” by Johann Schein (1623)
August 8 at 7:30 pm (Pre-concert talk 6:45pm)
European vocal ensemble Gli Angeli Genève sing Johann Schein’s Israelis Brünnlein
Bach for Two Flutes
August 9 at 1pm
Janet See and Soile Stratkauskas play Baroque flutes, with Christopher Bagan on harpsichord
Heavenly Love: Sacred Arias for Counter-Tenor
August 9, at 7:30pm (Pre-concert talk 6:45pm)
Alex Potter sings music by Buxtehude, Schütz, Purcell, and Strozzi
Bach Transcriptions – Victoria Baroque Players
August 10 at 1pm
Bach’s trio sonatas for organ transcribed for chamber ensemble

Music of Missions and Mystery: Latin American Baroque
August 10, at 7:30pm (Pre-concert talk 6:45pm)
Pacific MusicWorks and director Stephen Stubbs
J.S. Bach St. John Passion at the Chan Centre
August 11, at 7:30 pm (Pre-concert talk 6:45pm)
The Pacific Baroque Orchestra, the Vancouver Cantata Singers, and a cast of seven soloists led by Alexander Weimann

To complement the artist lineup, EMV will offer an array of thought-provoking film screenings and expert talks

Filed under: Bach, festivals, music news

Silver Apples and Cloudless Sulphur Skies

For the anniversary… [reblogged from 2013]

MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Morton Subotnick, who at 80 looks as eager as ever to experiment with his Buchla and laptop, rolled into town recently to perform a decades-spanning program at Seattle’s Town Hall. Joining him onstage was Berlin-based video artist Lillevan. The two have been collaborating on several projects in recent years, and both are obviously so well attuned to each other’s aesthetic that they can improvise with pre-existing material. It all added up to a blissed-out gesamtkunstwerk for synth geeks and video art aficionados.

The concert’s official title – “From Silver Apples of the Moon to A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur IV: LUCY” – refers to the main sources for the prerecorded music Subotnick used to build the performance in tandem with Lillevan’s abstract imagery of fluid and fractal-like shapes in restless transformation. Subotnick describes his current process:

For each season of performances I create a new hybrid Ableton-Buchla “instrument”…

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Filed under: Uncategorized

All the World’s a Reflected Dot

IMG_6658Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors is this year’s big blockbuster exhibit at Seattle Museum of Art. (Kusama moved to Seattle in 1957 for a year before heading to New York. In Seattle she had her first important American show at the legendary Zoë Dusanne Gallery.)

I’m still processing my contradictory reactions to Infinity Mirrors. Here, the usual inflated hype is actually more germane than usual, since it ironically underscores aspects of Kusama’s aesthetic.

T.S. Flock gets it in this piece for the Seattle Weekly, one of the most incisive critiques I’ve seen so far of the show.

This notion is what ties the Infinity Room format to Kusama’s other calling card: dots. The earth itself is a dot. Everything is a dot. In Kusama’s worldview, everything is atomized into dots in an incomprehensibly large universe, and the sense of a singular continuity (i.e., ego, monument, institution) is “obliterated” by her dots. …

After all, the Infinity Rooms are simultaneously self-negating and self-centering, just as Kusama’s dot motif sees a unified whole among discrete particles. Isn’t that a fine definition of love between humans?

Margo Vansynghel offers another insightful take:

 Framing the story as the “artist-in-mental-hospital-who-makes-art-as-therapy” robs her of nuance and due credit. …

Maybe Kusama, intentionally or not, has been mirroring back to us what we created, a world of endless reflections of the same thing. She plays the leading role in this society of the spectacle. In November, wax museum Madame Tussauds Hong Kong opened up a polka-dotted “artistic themed” Kusama “zone.” One wonders where the art ends and her life, and the spectacle, begins. Critics have argued that she turned her mental illness into a spectacle, too. I don’t agree. The more interesting question though: If your antidote is turned into an art-world or Instagram commodity, how effective is it? And if you place the visitor in front of the mirror and it spins out of control, who’s to blame? In this uncertainty the show becomes truly interesting.

 

 

Filed under: aesthetics, art exhibition, Uncategorized

Profile of Cellist Seth Parker Woods

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Seth Parker Woods; photo by Michael Yu

My profile of the cellist Seth Parker Woods is the cover story for the August issue of Strings magazine:

“Question authority” isn’t just a political slogan. This quintessentially Socratic imperative is also characteristic of visionary artists who are drawn to challenge cultural assumptions that put a damper on the power of the art they practice. For Texas-born cellist Seth Parker Woods, pushing boundaries and definitions comes naturally—both for his own creative development and for his overall sense of mission.

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Filed under: American music, cello, profile, Strings

At Play and In Flight: Some Recent Summer Festival Concerts with Seattle Chamber Music Society

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composer-vocalist Lisa Bielawa; photo by Daniel Clark

The Seattle Chamber Music Society’s 2017 Summer Festival has now reached its midway point, with a delicious program last night devoted to French music (in honor of Bastille Day). The Taiwanese-American violinist Paul Huang in particular stood out (in the free prelude concert) with an account of César Franck’s Violin Sonata that was simultaneously passionate and also lucidly constructed. Paige Roberts Molloy matched Huang’s intensity with her strong keyboard personality.

Molloy played a big role in the main course itself, teaming with Max Levinson for a pair of four-hands piano delights: Debussy’s early Petite Suite and Bizet’s Jeux d’enfants (source of the orchestral Petite Suite we heard not long ago from the Seattle Symphony and Morlot).

The duo teased out the textural richness of the four-hands writing and also enjoyed teasing the audience with the ample humor of music-as-mimicry (especially in Bizet’s sonic imaginings of children at play). A similar angle, but magnified to a small ensemble of ten players, enlivened the concluding work, Saint-Saëns’ Carnaval des Animaux. Each of the composer’s clever vignettes was neatly etched and characterized, from the two-note joke of “Le coucou au fond des bois” (Anthony McGill as luxury casting on clarinet) to lightly shaded mystery in “Aquarium.”

Together with the less-often-heard piano suites, the hyper-familiar Saint-Saëns acquired a fresh coat of childlike wonder — or the wonder resulting from grown artists reimagining and trying to recapture something of that wonder. In that context, it also provoked some interesting questions about this particular subfield of “program music.” In contrast, say, to a grandiose R. Strauss tone poem, is it the miniaturism here — in terms of instrumentation as well as size — that makes these pieces tend to be more “about” a textural gesture?

Those works in turn made for an unusual context in which to revisit the String Quartet in F major by another great poet of childhood, Maurice Ravel. Huang, playing first violin, was joined by violinist Tessa Lark, Cynthia Phelps on viola, and Ronald Thomas on cello. They gave an engaging performance that paid special attention to Ravel’s fascinating rhythmic language, with remarkably vivid ensemble playing for the second and fourth movements.  They also succeeded in balancing structural clarity with a drive and boldness that, from less-experienced musicians, might have risked murkiness.

Fictional Migrations

This Summer Festival week began with the excitement of a world premiere. The program on Monday (10 July) unveiled this year’s commission by the SCMS Commissioning Club: Fictional Migrations by Lisa Bielawa. An important and original voice among today’s composers, she is also a performer and has toured as a vocalist with the Philip Glass Ensemble.

The prolific Bielawa, born in San Francisco in 1968, has recently been earning widespread attention in the contemporary-music scene for her ambitious, trail-blazing, highly collaborative Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch’s AccuserIt’s a “made-for-TV-and-online opera” in a dozen episodes focusing on a gifted teenage girl who becomes obsessed with female visionaries across history.

Somehow among her many other projects, Bielawa found time to write the 12-minute Fictional Migrations. The fact that the piece is scored for flute, French horn, and piano is your first clue to its unusual character. Bielawa pointed out that she was initially intrigued — if not intimidated — by the challenge inherent in working with such an apparently “absurd” sonic combination.

Her approach is to avoid futile attempts at “homogenizing” these three instruments into something tamer but rather to accentuate, even exaggerate, their distinctive characters. In her introductory note, Bielawa points out that she also wanted to develop some “reveries” prompted by another composer she deeply admires, Olivier Messiaen. The latter was a household staple when she was growing up, since both of her musician parents were fans of the French master. Fictional Migrations is dedicated to the memory of Messiaen (in observance of the 25th anniversary of his death).

The most obvious Messiaenic influence is Bielawa’s allusion to birds and birdsong, a signature inspiration for Messiaen’s musical language. She writes that she had in mind the story of  Alcyone from ancient Greek mythology “who, thinking her lover Ceyx is dead, throws herself into the sea, only to find herself transformed into a bird, flying towards him (also now in bird form).”

Bielawa also notes an impetus from “speculative fiction and the new surge of minority and feminist writers who are embracing this form — a cousin of science fiction that poses the question ‘What if?’ in relation to current cultural narratives.”

Fictional Migrations is not a piece of straight-ahead program music. Bielawa has instead constructed a “fictional” encounter among these very different sonorities. There’s not even an obvious throughline correspondence between the instruments and characters of the Alcyone story. Rather, Bielawa translates the pattern of Ovidian metamorphosis into instrumental terms: the flute and horn in particular at times play “themselves” but more often than not seem to be attempting to transcend their identities, to become something else — and to negate the gendered stereotypes of how they should sound. Bielawa shows that process at the very beginning, with an aleatoric section for piccolo at its most aggressive and shrill.

What’s more, the writing is hyper-virtuosic and highly individual for each instrument, so they are not encouraged to fuse into pleasant but bland “harmony.” The players were all first-rate. Lorna McGhee’s piccolo/flute conveyed an astonishing array of moods and affects, brilliantly articulated, while hornist Jeffrey Fair never lost his golden tone amid the dangerously difficult registral transitions. Bielawa had collaborated with pianist Andrew Armstrong, but a last-minute “cooking accident” sidelined him; in his stead, Jeewon Park accomplished the heroic feat of mastering the keyboard part, which is replete with thunderous, heavy waves and intricately nuanced figurations.

Bielawa has created an immersive, provocative soundscape, filled with “made-up birds,” she writes, that “exist in a world where prisoners fly out of captivity effortlessly, and we all magically transcend death and suffering.”

Framing the premiere were two pieces that also deviate from the chamber music “norm” in their scoring. The opener was Mozart’s K. 423 Duo for Violin and Viola in G major, with violinist Augustin Hadelich’s silky, exquisite phrasing itself was worth the price of admission; his partner was Michael Klotz, playing his viola with patrician refinement.

And a blockbuster to conclude: Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet, with its double bass instead of a second violin to give an ampler sound. The players — Andrew Wan (violin), Richard O’Neill (viola), Ronald Thomas (cello), Joseph Kaufman (bass), and George Li (piano) — collaborated with in-the-moment flashes of color and expression that are what you hope for in live chamber music.

Review (c) 2017 Thomas May — All rights reserved

Filed under: chamber music, new music, review, Seattle Chamber Music Society

Harmonium in Londinium

First night of the BBC Proms 2017! Tonight’s program includes a world premiere for the opener — Tom Coult’s St John’s Dance — Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the remarkable Igor Levit as soloist, and Harmonium by John Adams, with Edward Gardner on the podium. 

Harmonium is an early Adams work — his first major commission for San Francisco Symphony — and sets poetry by Emily Dickinson and John Donne. Adams recalls:

Harmonium was composed in 1980 in a small studio on the third floor of an old Victorian house in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. Those of my friends who knew both the room and the piece of music were amused that a piece of such spaciousness should emerge from such cramped quarters.

Filed under: BBC Proms, Beethoven, John Adams

Seattle Chamber Music Society’s 2017 Summer Festival

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Jame Ehnes, left, Ani Aznavoorian and Andrs Daz in performance from a previous Seattle Chamber Music Festival Summer Festival. (Paul Joseph Brown)

I spoke with James Ehnes for the Seattle Times about the upcoming Summer Festival:

Seattle Chamber Music Society’s 2017 Summer Festival to feature musical postcards from across Europe, an American composer’s world premiere and a community performance of Bach before the closing open-air concert at Volunteer Park.

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

Connecting the Dots: Steve Jobs on the Opera Stage

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Edward Parks III, who will create the role of Steve Jobs; photo: Dario Acosta/Santa Fe Opera

My feature for Opera Now on The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, the new opera by Mason Bates and Mark Campbell being premiered later this month at Santa Fe Opera:

Six years after his death at the age of 56, Steve Jobs has achieved an almost mythical status as the cultural icon and technological innovator behind Apple.

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Filed under: American opera, Mason Bates, Santa Fe Opera

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