MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Chineke! Makes Proms Debut


This evening is Prom 62, in which the Chineke! Orchestra makes its BBC Proms debut.
One of Chineke!’s founding cellists is Seth Parker Woods, whom I wrote about for this month’s cover issue of Strings magazine. They’ll also be playing music by George Walker for the first time on a Proms program.

link to broadcast from BBC Radio 3

Filed under: BBC Proms, George Walker, Seth Parker Woods

Patricia Kopatchinskaja in Lucerne

More musical revelations at Lucerne Festival: thrilling Bartók Violin Concerto No. 2 featuring Patricia Kopatchinskaja in an unimprovable program of Bartók and Haydn by Mahler Chamber Orchestra led by the impeccable François-Xaver Roth.
The Haydn (Symphonies 22 and 96) was sleek and proto-Modernist in Roth’s interpretation, overflowing in invention and brought to life by the exquisitely fine-tuned playing of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

The Bartók Second — nicely complemented by the Dance Suite — spurred all Kopatchinskaja has to give: from her feistiest, most earth-rooted playing to star-drunk lyricism.

And then there was a post-concert treat in the “Interval,” from Kopatchinskaja plus her parents (dad Viktor on cimbalom and mom Emilia playing violin), with Venezuelan double-bassist Johane Gonzales: incisive Kúrtag and wonderful folk music arrangements.

Last night brought out still another side of Kopatchinskaja’s all-embracing artistry, in a Late Night concert with the Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra led by Matthias Pintscher.

It’s clear that the Moldovan soloist regards Ligeti’s Violin Concerto as one of the ultimate masterpieces of the repertoire. Hearing her play it, you feel this is the only music in the world that matters, a world within world of where the concept of  virtuosity itself is reimagined from the ground up.

Kopatchinskaja is the perfect violinist to advocate Ligeti’s wildly imaginative ideas, but also the formal ingenuity and, yes, melodic grace of this score. She also brought out the best from the incredibly gifted young Academy musicians. I can’t wait to hear the full ensemble shine in Monday’s all-Cerha concert.

The program also included fascinating performances of composer-in-residence Michel van der Aa’s Hysteresis for clarinet, ensemble, and tape, with Martin Adámek  as the soloist and Ligeti’s Piano Concerto, with pianist Dimitri Vassilakis.

Filed under: Bartók, Haydn, Ligeti, Lucerne Festival, violinists

Alice Goodman: New York Times Profile


Alice Goodman in Fulbourn, England. Credit Nadine Ijewere for “The New York Times”

My New York Times story on the poet and librettist Alice Goodman is now online:

When “Nixon in China” had its premiere at Houston Grand Opera on Oct. 22, 1987, there had never been anything quite like it. No previous American opera — perhaps no opera, ever — had so boldly dealt with recent political history…


Filed under: Alice Goodman, American literature, American opera, John Adams, librettists, New York Times, Peter Sellars, Uncategorized

Krapp’s Last Tape

Getting in the mood for Beckett tonight at Edinburgh International Festival.

And companion piece Not I:


Filed under: theater

In Search of Identity at Lucerne Festival

160812_16300_EO_LFO_Chailly_Solisten_Choere_P_Fischli_Lucerne_FeThe 2017 Summer Festival — which is all about the theme of “identity” — begins today in Lucerne as Riccardo Chailly leads the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in an all-Strauss program.

From accentus:

“Accentus Music is delivering the live video stream of the Lucerne Festival’s opening concert on Friday, August 11th, at 6:30 p.m. [CET]. The ceremonial act which is going to take place in the KKL Lucerne will be streamed simultaneously open-air at Lucerne’s Inseli Park as well as on Facebook Live. The Lucerne Festival Orchestra and its music director Riccardo Chailly will be performing three symphonic poems by Richard Strauss: Thus Spoke ZarathustraDeath and Transfiguration as well as Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. 

Filed under: Lucerne Festival, music news

R.I.P. Barbara Cook

Filed under: American music, Bernstein, music news

Trying to rethink Madame Butterfly at Seattle Opera


Alexey Dolgov (Pinkerton) and Lianna Haroutounian (Cio-Cio-San); photo by Jacob Lucas

My review for Bachtrack of the new Madame Butterfly production opening Seattle Opera’s season:

How well do we really know Madame Butterfly? So iconic that, for some, it’s the archetype of the art form itself, Puccini’s mega-popular opera has recently been coming in for renewed scrutiny.


Filed under: Puccini, review, Seattle Opera

Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered: Alcina Casts Surprising Spells in Santa Fe


Elsa van den Heever (Alcina) © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017

My review of Santa Fe Opera’s Alcina for Bachtrack:

George Bernard Shaw crystallised longstanding biases when he declared that Handel’s operas were “only stage concerts for shewing off the technical skill of the singers”. David Alden, a longstanding maverick director and hero of Regie-philes, made his reputation in part through his striking interpretations of Handel. If anything, his production of Alcina, which he first staged at the Opéra National de Bordeaux in 2012 (with many of the same singers), pushes too far in the opposite direction to the theatrically static fossil of Shaw’s stereotype.


Filed under: directors, Handel, review, Santa Fe Opera

Reena Esmail: Musical America‘s New Artist of the Month

reena-esmail-amber2The remarkable young composer Reena Esmail is Musical America‘s New Artist of the Month for August 2017:

At Chorus America’s annual conference this past June in Los Angeles, a general session devoted to the topic “The Medicine of Music” featured a singalong demonstration of a new interactive choral work titled Take What You Need. It wasn’t only the members of Street Symphony and the Urban Voices Project, a community choir of singers from LA’s Skid Row neighborhood, who appeared transformed as they sang this music by Reena Esmail. The large audience of choral professionals from around America joined in, visibly moved by this confirmation of musical meaning.
“It was such a powerful moment, because I’ve always wanted my music connect people to one another,” Esmail told me in a recent interview.
As Composer-in-Residence with Street Symphony (cofounded by LA Philharmonic violinist Vijay Gupta as a project to bring music to the homeless population), Esmail created the anthemic Take What You Need last year as a vehicle for the disenfranchised from the Skid Row community to join with professional musicians and tell their deeply moving personal stories. Following the model of the Kronos Quartet’s Fifty for the Future Initiative—in which Esmail herself has participated—Street Symphony recently made the piece available for free use to community organizations (on the website, who are encouraged to adapt it to accommodate specific performers and contexts.
“It started as a piece for string quartet and four singers but now there arrangements for everything from piano and one singer to orchestra and double choir. Even down to the very practical compositional choices, this piece is designed to value the needs of musicians and community alike, and to allow a warmth and mutual understanding to develop between them,” says Esmail.
A consistent focus of the work by this 34-year-old composer has been on mediating between cultural contexts that are normally kept separate. In 2016 she produced her most ambitious score to date, the oratorio This Love Between Us, on a co-commission from Juilliard 415 and Yale’s Schola Cantorum. Setting statements from the canonical texts of seven major religious traditions of India, This Love underscores “how each of these faith traditions approaches the topics of unity, of brotherhood, of being kind to one another” and blends Indian and Western classical styles in unique ways for each section. Writing it during the 2016 U.S. presidential election period added a layer of urgency and purpose, adds the composer.
Another major achievement of the past year has been the world premiere of her Clarinet Concerto, which Esmail wrote for the Albany Symphony and soloist Shankar Tucker. “In most situations, I am the conduit between Western and Indian music, but occasionally I get to work with a musician who has that dual training and can cross over like I do.” Esmail also enjoys an ongoing relationship with the Albany Symphony—next year will unveil another new commission, for Hindustani vocalist and orchestra, as part of their American Music Festival—which means, she says, that “I know the musicians, so I feel comfortable inviting them to try new ways of playing, and to join with me as I explore the spaces between these two musical worlds.”
Esmail refers to her unique manner of collaboration, which sets aside the abstract and instead is tailored to the character and knowledge of the performers she works with: “Western notation alone does not convey everything I want to share with my musicians. So I often make a recording of myself singing key melodic phrases as part of the ‘score.’ Indian music is essentially taught by call and response, and I want the Western performers to have a chance to interact with my work in that same way.”
The result is a 21st-century conception of what it means to “compose” music: “Our world is now connected to the point that the score doesn’t have to be limited to what can be written on paper. I want musicians to remain grounded in their own technique, but then to explore how that technique can enable them to move into new spaces.”
It’s a process that came in handy when Esmail was asked to collaborate with David Harrington of Kronos and violinist Kala Ramnath to shape Amrit (one of the works included in Kronos’ Fifty for the Future open library of a new repertoire for our time). “I was literally sitting between these two musical luminaries, translating between them in real time. It felt like I was translating between the leaders of two great nations, trying to convey their thoughts to one another in a way that felt direct but respectful, that acknowledged and honored the values of both of their musical traditions.”
Esmail spent most of her early life navigating between siloed cultural identities. She grew up in Los Angeles, her father a Muslim from Pakistan and her mother a Catholic raised in Kenya. “Because of my Indian diaspora background, I often felt that my choice to be a Western musician separated me from my cultural heritage. That is why so much of my work now exists between the traditions of Western and Indian classical music. I am often the musical Other in both directions: as the representative of Indian music among Western musicians or vice versa.”
But Esmail has turned this into a creative advantage—both for herself and for the performers she works with: “When you take a step outside of a single system of music, it allows you think a little more broadly, and to use your perspective to draw together groups of people who wouldn’t otherwise interact with each other.”
Although her parents are not musical, they encouraged Esmail to pursue her obvious passion. Initially she fashioned herself after singer-songwriters and Broadway composers before gravitating to classical piano, which remained her focus through high school, until she was accepted as a composition major at Juilliard. “One of my teachers at the LA County High School for the Arts saw that I was wired like a composer, even though I’d barely written any formal music at that point.”
After Juilliard, Esmail went on to Yale’s graduate program in composition. Her thesis was on collaborative practices between Hindustani and Western music, which she continues to foster through Shastra, an organization she cofounded with Payton MacDonald to encourage this cross-cultural work among musicians. Esmail speaks of her most significant mentors in terms of family: “Susan Botti is my composer-mom. She immediately understood who I was in a way no one else had up to that point. And Aaron Jay Kernis is my composer-dad. He knows how to ask exactly the right questions, and has often believed in my ideas before I did.”
A Fulbright to India proved revelatory. She studied Hindustani vocal music with sitarist Gaurav Mazumdar (whose appearance this month on the BBC Proms spotlights the connections between Philip Glass and Ravi Shankar) but also traveled far and wide across the country, interacting with professional musicians and local street musicians alike.
“I grew up bilingual, in an Indian family. But studying Indian music in India, in the only place in the world where I am not a minority, allowed me to engage deeply on so many levels. It gave me an irreplaceable sense of identity and belonging. I strive to recreate that feeling in the music I write.”
One upcoming project that especially excites Esmail is a piano trio she is writing for cellist Joshua Roman and his new music series at Seattle’s Town Hall. “While I divide my time equally between orchestral, choral, and chamber music, I think my voice as a composer feels most like a chamber music voice. I’m so drawn to this exchange and dialogue that happens in small ensembles, to this kind of intimate interaction between people.”

See profile at Musical America

Filed under: Musical America, new music, profile

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