MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Becoming the Light


Composer John Luther Adams with conductor Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. Seattle Symphony presents the world premiere “Become Desert” March 29 and 31. (Brandon Patoc )

And what a night: Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot have given the world premiere of Become Desert by the incomparable John Luther Adams.

My review for The Seattle Times here, where I was only able to offer a few hints of how extraordinarily original, enthralling, and transformative this music is.

Filed under: Beethoven, John Luther Adams, review, Seattle Symphony

“Become Desert” from John Luther Adams

This week brings the world premiere of the new large-scale orchestral work from John Luther Adams, which Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot will perform Thursday and Saturday. My preview for The Seattle Times:

“Close your eyes and listen to the singing of the light,” exhorts Octavio Paz in “Piedra Nativa” (“Native Stone”)….

continue reading


Filed under: American music, John Luther Adams, Ludovic Morlot, Seattle Times

András Schiff Sets Sail with His Cappella Andrea Barca


(c) Miguel Bueno

One of the several highlights at this year’s Lucerne Easter Festival for me was the performance by András Schiff, his keyboard partner Schaghajegh Nosrati, and the Cappella Andrea Barca. An evening of superb music-making.

The conceit of the program was to play works — by J.S. Bach and Mozart — only in C minor. That tonality has no monolithic connotation, of course (even in Beethoven you can find variance). What’s more, aside from contemporary aesthetic theories that did ascribe particular qualities to C minor, they all end of contradicting one another. Not to mention that the change in historical pitch over time is such that “C minor” for Bach isn’t even the same key, objectively speaking, as later.

So I can’t say I came away with any particular new insights into C minor or the affective use of tonality, with the exception perhaps of the concluding work, Mozart’s K. 491 Piano Concerto. But the focus anyway was on exquisite communication of shared values among like-minded musicians — and, here, Schiff & Co. provided pleasure and insight aplenty. The ensemble, by the way, is teasingly described by Schiff as a tribute to its fictional namesake, a peasant “probably born between 1730 and 1735 in the Marignolle hills near Florence [who] had a close connection to Mozart, for whose private concert of 2 April 1770 at the Villa Poggio Imperiale in Florence he was said to have served as page turner.” Rrright….

I was also delighted to get to experience the incredibly talented young German-Iranian pianist Schaghajegh Nosrati, who alternated with her mentor Schiff as the lead on a pair of Bach double concertos for keyboard — played here, naturally, on Schiff’s beloved Bösendorfers. Their styles make for some really interesting contrasts: Schiff’s BWV 1060 was almost geometrically precise, beautifully manicured, while Nosrati seemed more song-oriented, her cantabile in the Andante of BWV 1062 taking rapturous flight.

After intermission, Schiff and his ensemble treated us to meditations on the regis thema from Bach’s Musical Offering: the C minor theme supplied by King Frederick II, with which Bach built this endlessly fascinating edifice.

Schiff really does approach Bach as a sacred text. It’s not about trying to put his stamp on this music or to somehow make it new with an unexpected interpretive decision here, an infusion of personality there. Instead, Schiff gives you the impression of turning a key in the lock, opening up a treasure box or the entrance to a magical labyrinth.

With Mozart’s K. 491, on the other hand, I did sense a personal stamp, but not by way of indulgent effusions of emotion or “expressivity.” In fact, I don’t think I’ve experienced a more deeply engaging live account of this concerto, of which, according to lore, Beethoven was particularly envious. (There’s no question that he was lastingly inspired by it.)

What Schiff and his colleagues brought out was a subtler pathos — quite different from Beethoven and the later Romantic readings of C minor — that made Mozart’s incomparable feeling of balance and proportion utterly vivid and rich in meaning.

Earlier, the winds had provided a sort of interlude, playing Mozart’s K. 388 (384a) Nacht Musique, but they were in even more eloquent form here, where that choice suddenly made sense, given the special prominence of the winds in the scoring of K. 491. The finale’s variations conveyed something deeply enigmatic.

As encore: Schiff played a to-die-for account of Schubert’s C minor Allegretto D. 915.

Filed under: Uncategorized

Cav/Pag at Grand Théâtre de Genève

I realize it’s only the inertia of tradition that keeps Cavalleria rusticana and I Pagliacci glued together as a double-bill; otherwise they seem silly side by side, a forced pairing that makes no sense. Is it precisely this juxtaposition that makes Cav so difficult to direct? Or is it just the temptation to read too much into it, not accepting the naiveté and directness that are the essence of Mascagni’s opera?

I was thinking about this after seeing the current edition of the pair at Geneva Opera (in its pop-up temporary performance space at the Opéra des Nations). Each opera was divvied out to a separate director: Emma Dante for Cav, Serena Sinigaglia for Pag.

This Cav fell dramatically flat, while the Pag was thoroughly gripping and delivered its expected punch, plus some — the contrast in effectiveness all the more striking.

Cav had the burden of an overcooked dramaturgical conception, juxtaposing a re-enacted Passion scenario with the simple melodrama of jealous lovers and revenge, all set on a darkly-lit stage. A recurrent tableau ensemble showed Jesus on his way to the Crucifixion, hammering home an intended parallelism with Giovanni Verga’s narrative and its atmosphere of Gothic gloom, without the countervailing joy of the Easter celebrations in which it unfolds.

This dampened the built-in effect of the musical contrasts, despite the excellent work of the chorus prepared by Alan Woodbridge. The casting was weak, above all for the Turiddu (sung by Marcello Giordani, who sounded alarmingly strained at the top of his range).

I’d seen and admired Emma Dante’s Macbeth at Edinburgh International Festival last year, so the miscalculations here were surprising. New to me on the other hand was Serena Sinigaglia, who understood how to pace the interactions in Paglicacci for maximal impact. There was just one misstep, in my opinion: a prolonged meta-theater indulgence during the Prologue, with Stage Director and Co. frantically getting the set of forlorn wheat fields in place, which surrounded a simple wooden stage.

It wasn’t that cliché, but the power and intensity of the performers who brought home the ironic point that art and life literally bleed into each other. Maybe verismo isn’t the “slice of life” naturalism it’s so often claimed to be so much as an aesthetic given to its own kind of stylized artifice that tries to make sense of recurring human patterns. Certainly the presence of the crowd here felt more palpably pressuring, willing participants in this society of codes, than in Dante’s Cav.

Diego Torre delivered a genuinely terrifying Canio, and Roman Burdenko (had just sung a thrilling Alfio) gave Tonio an almost Jago-like infusion of malevolence. Nino Machaidze’s combined beauty and grit for a memorable portrayal of Nedda.

Conducting the house Orchestre de la Suisse Romande with dramatic flair as well as melting lyricism was Alexander Joel throughout the evening. He was especially attentive to the range of colorings in Leoncavallo’s more complex score.

Filed under: Geneva Opera, review

Pure Imagination: The Music of Augusta Read Thomas

My profile of Augusta Read Thomas is the cover story for the April edition of Strings magazine — part of its ongoing American Masters series.

It was a genuine pleasure to have this opportunity to write about such a wonderful and engaging composer — and committed musical citizen.

continue reading (opens as PDF)

Filed under: American music, Augusta Read Thomas, Strings

From Toscanini to Abbado: The History of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra

Filed under: Lucerne Festival

Julius Eastman Program Opens MärzMusik


I’m excited about this evening’s Julius Eastman program, which opens the 2018 MärzMusik Festival.

From artistic director Berno Odo Polzer’s statement on this year’s program:

Music offers time a centre. – This trope by John Berger puts the two main concerns of this festival – music and time – into a generative relation. Such a centre – in motion, elusive, non-geometric, plurimodal as it must be – would allow for a different point of view. From such a musical centre, one may sense the divergent temporalities each of us inhabits simultaneously, and draw relations to the ongoing fundamental transformations happening around us.

Yet the trope allows for another reading. The frozen self-image of Western art music places music outside of time as well as outside of its own time: by claiming avant-gardism – being ahead of its time, and by clinging to abstractions – timelessness, universality, structure. Contrary to this (Berger seems to suggest), music – all sorts of music – may in fact be a centre for and a portal to things temporal, may grant access to time in varied modalities.

More than ever, time – as a political category – is of the essence when it comes to learning to make sense of the erratic commotions of the present. Maybe music can help us find ways to do so. This is a time for listening.



Filed under: festivals, Julius Eastman, MärzMusik

Stephen Hawking, RIP

Stephen Hawking died at the age of 76 today, on 14 March — the birthday of Albert Einstein and Pi Day.

BBC coverage, with obituary, tributes, career highlights, etc.

–“A star just went out in the cosmos. We have lost an amazing human being. Stephen Hawking fought and tamed the cosmos bravely for 76 years and taught us all something importantabout what it truly means to celebrate about being human. I will miss him.” — theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss

Stephen Hawking website

Spiegel coverage

–Stephen Hawking’s favorite music:

Professor Stephen Hawking has nominated his three favourite classical works for a special concert at this year’s Cambridge Music Festival, which is taking place throughout this month. The festival’s theme is “Mozart, Music and Maths”, making the University of Cambridge’s Lucasian Professor of Mathematics the obvious person to approach for his all-time favourite pieces.

The concert will take place at King’s College Chapel on November 11 and will feature Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony Of Psalms, Henryk Wieniawski’s Violin Concerto No. 1 and Francis Poulenc’s Gloria.

Filed under: astrophysics, science news

Don Giovanni as Comedy

In his staging of Don Giovanni for Komische Oper Berlin (dating from 2014), Herbert Fritsch wants us to forget all about the mythology of the “demonic” that has been larded onto Mozart’s second collaboration with Da Ponte.

Put aside the heavy-weather, “D minor” brooding that E.T.A. Hoffmann emphasized, thus turning Mozart into a proto-Romantic. Forget about the Faustian echoes, the existential “aesthetic sphere” of Søren Kirkegaard, etc. etc.

Fritsch and his team zero in on Don Giovanni as above all a dramma giocoso, indeed an opera buffa, its roots in the commedia dell’arte made conspicuous. Veering far from the dangerous immoralist we tend to encounter, Günter Papendell portrays the Don as a hilarious combination of clown, matador, and vaudeville showman. Wearing a Joker-smeared smile throughout and detachable blond rug, he plays stadium-rock air guitar to accompany his mandolin serenade and disappears into Hell with his index finger pointing up, followed by a black-out. No choral epilogue, no moral to the story (sung in Sabrina Zwach’s very clever German translation).

By that point, the wonderful KOB orchestra — led by Ivo Hentschel with high energy that didn’t stint on flecks of lovely color — had the entire auditorium resounding with Mozart’s terrifying D minor. Yet it felt exhilaratingly fresh and theatrical, not the same old inevitable pattern.

Whatever criticisms one may have of Fritsch’s choices, he doesn’t “deny” or “contradict” the music — in fact, gestures showed great sensitivity to every detail of Mozart’s score — but is determined to wipe away the clichés. An interesting choice that initially baffled me but then seemed to work: the Overture is displaced until after the opening scene, breaking out like a commentary on what has just happened.

I thoroughly enjoyed this cast, especially Evan Hughes’s lanky, cheeky, self-pitying Leporello, the dynamic between Alma Sadé and Samuli Taskinen as Zerlina and Masetto, the dramatic force of Vera-Lotte Böcker’s splendid Donna Anna, and Karolina Gumos’s absurdly conflicted Elvira. (In a neat visual pun, she’s trapped in a twisting ruffle that turns her violently yellow dress into a giant question mark — “wtf???”)

The cartoonish shtick and artifice were indeed greatly enhanced by Victoria Behr’s colorful costumes and Fritsch’s own simple set of black-and-white lace design hangings in continual motion. The chorus of townspeople inched and lurched about the stage like zombies.

The aesthetic perspective here occasionally reminded me of those moments in Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous stagings where things are pushed to such a comic extreme that there’s room for unexpected reactions to emerge: especially in Don Ottavio’s two arias, rendered with heart-stopping lyricism by Adrian Stooper. The emotional dissonance is theatrically gripping, and Fritsch shows an unwavering conviction that opera is a form of theater.

Filed under: directors, Komische Oper Berlin, Mozart

Rising Up with Meredith Monk

In honor of International Women’s Day 2018, here’s a look at Meredith Monk and her Songs of Ascension.

MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Meredith Monk; photo by Masimo Agus Meredith Monk; photo by Masimo Agus

Songs of Ascension is one of Meredith Monk’s creations of the past few years. If you don’t know her incomparable music yet, this is a wonderful place to start exploring it.

Monk’s unclassifiable art is grounded in a unique understanding of the flexibility of the human voice. She loves to create new contexts in which to fathom its expressive depths. The result is music that sometimes sounds as if it had been quarried from an archeological dig or beamed in from a distant future. Both impressions emanate from Songs of Ascension, the tenth project Monk has recorded for ECM since her path-breaking Dolmen Music was released three decades ago. That discography charts her intrepid forays “between the cracks,” as Monk likes to put it, where different ways of perceiving the world through art converge.

On one level, Songs of Ascension encapsulates Monk’s aesthetic…

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Filed under: Uncategorized

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