MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Proving Up in Omaha


Opera Omaha production of Proving Up, photo (c) Emily Hardman

Missy Mazzoli’s opera Proving Up, which just opened at Columbia University’s Miller Theater, made a strong impression on me when I got to see the premiere staging by James Darrah at Opera Omaha’s ONE Festival in the spring. Here’s what I wrote for Musical America:

April 27, 2018
Proving Up both opened and closed ONE Festival—I saw the final performance, on April 22—and the production was specially tailored to its non-traditional location in a gallery space at KANEKO, a set of warehouses in Omaha’s historic Old Market district that have been converted into the headquarters of the artist Jun Kaneko.
In this followup to their acclaimed collaboration Breaking the Waves (also directed by Darrah), Mazzoli and Vavrek have again hit pay dirt, crafting a suspenseful, gripping, and unsettling work of music theater. In the synergy achieved at ONE with an imaginative design team, a first-rate cast, and the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) led with complete commitment by Christopher Rountree, they have also created another durable proof of the vitality of contemporary opera.
Proving Up draws on material notably different from the Lars von Trier-inspired Breaking the Waves. Mazzoli remarked in a talkback discussion after the performance that she wanted to explore the impact of the American Dream on those who have been motivated to follow its promise but ended up failing. The mortgage crisis and Occupy Wall St. movement provided initial impulses, but the last U.S. presidential election—and the questions it raised about American values and myths—naturally left an imprint on Mazzoli’s and Vavrek’s ideas.
The opera adapts a short story published by the American writer Karen Russell in her 2013 collection Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Set “somewhere in the plains of the young State of Nebraska” just after the Civil War, Proving Up centers around the ordeal of the Zegner family, who have taken the risk of leaving the settled East Coast behind to claim their parcel of land according to the promise of the Homestead Act.
Actual ownership can only be gained after a five-year period by following a set of stipulations, including the (fictive) requirement to have a home with a glass window. Pa Zegner has managed to obtain this holy grail and agrees to share it with his neighbors so that together they can “prove up” and obtain their deeds from the awaited government inspector. How he came by the coveted window is the dark counterstory, suggesting an array of related but inconclusive narratives of retribution, vengeance, or patterns of a fateful curse.
On the surface, it operated like a gothic horror tale; but thanks to Vavrek’s well-constructed libretto and Mazzoli’s memorable characterizations—as well as the pacing and deft use of symbolism in Darrah’s staging—Proving Up had a compelling mythic resonance.
For the KANEKO space, Adam Rigg designed a 72-foot-long runway box filled with dirt as the stage—a vast grave encompassing the two small graves of the Zegner daughters. This stage divided the audience, which sat on a motley collection of old chairs, into two halves facing each other.
Wooden panels at one end formed the house and, at the other, made a sculptural formation hinting at the distant horizon. The ICE players were seated in full view on the latter side, with Rountree facing the singers (and audience). Pablo Santiago’s lighting was especially outstanding: following the spirit of the production as a whole, he recalibrated its traditional mood-setting role, making it an active character that refracted the narrative’s sustained sense of foreboding.
Mazzoli’s score for a Turn of the Screw-like chamber ensemble (three winds, two brass, a percussionist, piano/harpsichord, harp, and strings, with vernacular sonorities like harmonica used in unexpected ways) proved resourceful, original, and effective. She evoked various aspects of the natural landscape—above all a sense of dryness corresponding with the drought that contributes to the Zegners’ doom—but also convincingly depicted the extreme emotional states to which this small cast of characters is driven.
Mazzoli showed a gift for giving her characters personality with her vocal writing, using exaggerations of range to powerful effect for the terrifyingly mysterious Sodbuster (Andrew Harris) who looms in the final scenes. John Moore conveyed the ruthless drive of the patriarch but also made him pitiable, while Talise Trevigne covered a vast emotional spectrum in solos that laid bare Ma Zegner’s anguish and anger alike. In a multilayered performance, Michael Slattery captured the mixture of innocence, curiosity, and fear of the youngest son Miles, who is entrusted with the task of sharing the window. Abigail Nims and Delaram Kamareh sang in haunting harmonies as the ghostly Zegner daughters, and Sam Shapiro acted the non-singing role of the incapacitated older son.
The story’s local color has obvious relevance for audiences in the American heartland who may have descended from 19th-century homesteaders. But Proving Up is made with the imagination and purpose to speak to anyone capable of being moved by the larger questions it raises. The production’s next stop will be in New York in September; redesigning it for the Miller Theatre space promises to be an epic challenge in itself.

Filed under: American opera, Missy Mazzoli, Musical America, review

Olga Neuwirth’s Lost Highway at Oper Frankfurt


left to right: Steffen Ahrens (Ensemble Modern), Elizabeth Reiter (Alice), and John Brancy (Pete); photo (c) Monika Rittershaus

My review of Olga Neuwirth’s extraordinary video-opera, directed by Yuval Sharon at Oper Frankfurt, is now online at Musical America:

FRANKFURT, Germany—Questions give rise to more and more questions in Lost Highway, including one that kept recurring to me as I became increasingly entangled in the performance: Why is Olga Neuwirth still so woefully underrepresented in America’s new music scene? The evening I spent with Oper Frankfurt’s production (September 19) proved to be so engrossing, so provocative in all the right ways, that the neglect of her fascinating body of work seems all the more outrageous—and our loss all the more to be pitied, until it’s remedied.


Filed under: Musical America, new opera, Olga Neuwirth, Oper Frankfurt, review, Yuval Sharon

Arabic Music Days at Boulez Saal in Berlin


Friday’s opening night concert to the Arabic Music Days weekend currently under way at Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin was spirited and delightful from first to last. The vocalist, oud player, and composer Moneim Adwan introduced and led a fantastic set with fellow musicians Zied Zouari (violin), Leïla Soldevila (double bass), Yassir Bousselam (cello), and Yousef Zayed (percussion).

From the Boulez Saal description: “Moneim Adwan, born in the Palestinian city of Rafah in Gaza, is a singer, oud player, and composer whose music mixes influences from his native country and from France, where he has lived for a number of years. Questions of freedom, justice, and identity play an important role in his work, which includes collaborations with artists from the worlds of classical and traditional music. His second opera, Orfeo & Majnun, premiered this past summer at the Aix-en-Provence Festival; it brings together the Greek myth of Orpheus with the Persian-Arabic story of Layla and Majnun. At the Pierre Boulez Saal, Adwan will present a selection of Arabic songs and settings of poems by Jalal Ad-din Rumi and Mahmoud Darwish: ‘Rumi is immersed in philosophy, and Darwish writes in a musical language. Both of them paint images that touch everyone who encounters them and enter hearts without asking permission.'”

There’s also an exhibition of works by Nasser Hussein (open all weekend), as well as film screenings. Admission to these events is free. Full line-up here.

Filed under: Arabic Music, Moneim Adwan, Pierre Boulez Saal

Protest: The Aesthetics of Resistance


This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1968 student protests. One of my recent projects was to translate the collection of essays Protest: The Aesthetics of Resistance, which was conceived and edited by the remarkable Basil Rogger, together with colleagues Jonas Voegeli and Ruedi Widmer, as an undertaking with students at the Zurich University of the Arts and in conjunction with the exhibit Protest: Resistance Posters hosted by the Museum für Gestaltung in Zurich.

Published by Lars Müller in separate German and English editions, Protest “presents and reflects on present and past forms of protest and looks at marginalized communities’ practices of resistance from a wide variety of perspectives” and “considers social, culture-historical, sociological, and political perspectives as well as approaches that draw on visual theory, popular culture, and cultural studies.”

The list of contributors includes: Michelle Akanji, Friedrich von Borries, Delphine Chapuis, Teju Cole, Hans-Christian Dani, Steven Duncombe, Anna Feigenbaum, Philipp Felsch, Marleen Fitterer, Meret Fischli, Corinne Gisel, Johannes Hedinger, Knut Henkel, Henriette Herm, Larissa Holaschke, Ines Kleesattel, Wolfgang Kraushaar, Wong Chi Lui, Elisio Macamo, Eva Mackensen, Franziska Meierhofer, Tine Melzer, Rabih Mroué, Pedro Oliveira, Dominique Raemy, Maybelle Eequay Reiter, Bettina Richter, Basil Rogger, Pascal Ronc, Allan Sekula, Jörg Scheller, Joana Schertenleib, Klaus Schönberger, Alankrita Shrivastava, Viktoria Tiedeke, Zeynep Tufekci, Marius Wenger, Rosamund van der Westhuizen, Max Wild, Dominik Wolfinger, Kacey Wong, Suzanne Zahnd, and Michel Zai.

Here’s a soundtrack of “Songs of Resistance: 1942-2018” that accompanies the book.

Filed under: art exhibition, book recs, translation

Lucerne Festival Academy in Berlin


To the Orchestra of the Lucerne Festival Academy fell the honor of closing out the 2018 Musikfest Berlin — and what could possibly top their rendition of Stockhausen’s INORI as the final act?

Led by Peter Eötvös, the Academy musicians found themselves on the stage of one of the most sacrosanct spaces of Berlin’s music scene, the Philharmonie, playing the Berlin premiere of the full version of Stockhausen’s intensely beautiful “Adorations” for large orchestra and two “dancer-mimes” (hitherto given here only in a reduced version).

They’d spent the summer rehearsing it and presenting it as part of the Stockhausen homage at Lucerne Festival — the two pairs of artists who undertook the unusually demanding dancer-mime roles spent the past year mastering their parts — and everything was in place for Stockhausen’s weirdly gripping, transporting music of the spheres to cast its spell.

Spirituality and ritual comprised a thematic focus for several of the Musikfest programs. Stockhausen’s gathering of ageless gestures of prayer and worship that have been used across global cultures conveyed a contemporary longing to transcend the mania of our fragmented, restless lives and attention spans in this late-capitalist era.

Trained under the supervision of Kathinka Pasveer, Alain Louafi, and Peter Eötvösm Winnie Huang and Diego Vásquez were the dancer-mimes in this performance. At the start, they ascended the steps to the two raised platforms positioned downstage, where over the course of the 70-minute work they performed Stockhausen’s meticulously notated gestures, in sync with changes in the pitch, rhythm, and dynamics of the music. INORI has been described as a sister work to GRUPPEN, but here the focus is on synchrony rather than simultaneously unfolding polychronies.

Mostly performing from a seated position, the dancer-mimes eventually descended again from their perch, slowly retreating to an exit high behind the stage, like Bodhisattvas who have fulfilled their mission.

Filed under: Karlheinz Stockhausen, Lucerne Festival, Lucerne Festival Academy

Night Shadows


Filed under: photography

Guest Report: Tom Luce on the BBC Proms

In this guest post, Tom Luce offers his reflections on the 2018 BBC Proms:

This year’s two-month season of the British Broadcasting Corporation Promenade Concerts based in London’s Royal Albert Hall ended on Saturday, 8 September, with the iconic “Last Night” celebration.

The preceding 90 concerts followed the pattern of recent years in providing full coverage of classical music but extending still further the boundaries of performance and repertoire.

Of 23 world premiere commissions, more than half were from women composers. A Tango Prom included some dancing on the stage, and a late evening concert introduced the Senegalese star Youssou N’Dour and his adventurous mixture of West African and Cuban popular music. Another featured electronic music associated with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

An emphasis on young performers included a concert given by recent members of the BBC’s “Young Musician” program. And one of them – 19-year-old Jess Gillam – was the brilliant soloist in the saxophone and orchestra arrangement of Milhaud’s Scaramouche played during the festive final concert. There were several impressive appearances by the BBC’s “Proms Youth Choir” drawn from young singers all over Britain.

Three centenaries were recognized in the programming as well.

The end of the First World War was marked with much interesting and reflective music from that period, as well as requiems by Verdi, Brahms, and Benjamin Britten. A new commission from Anna Meredith for the opening concert illustrated the separation stress of war for fighters and their families. For the final concert, a commission from Roxana Panufnik covered both the miseries of war and the prospect of reconciliation.

Debussy’s death in 1918 was commemorated with his own and other French music of the same epoc,h including a semi-staged Pelleas et Melisande from Glyndebourne Opera and a concert performance by Simon Rattle and his London Symphony Orchestra of Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges. Several pieces by Lili Boulanger, the talented French composer who died very young in 1918, movingly reflected war losses.

The centenary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth was celebrated by stunning semi-staged concert versions of West Side Story and On the Town, much of his orchestral music, and, in the companion Proms chamber series, some songs.

Seattle readers will be interested to know that Ludovic Morlot led a fine concert of Debussy and other French music with Britain’s City of Birmingham orchestra, standing in for their musical director, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, who was on maternity leave. And also that Thomas Dausgaard, his designated successor at the Seattle Symphony, conducted four concerts. Two were with the BBC Scottish Orchestra, which Dausgaard currently directs. The others were a pair of concerts by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra he also directs, which included all six of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and six “companion pieces” newly commissioned from half a dozen contemporary composers.

The BBC is a British public corporation. It operates under a Royal Charter requiring it to provide services which “inform, educate, and entertain.” Another requirement is that its services “should be distinctive … and should take creative risks, even if not all succeed, in order to develop fresh approaches and innovative content.”

These obligations explain, and probably inspire, the creative and adventurous programming the Proms series features, and also the very high quality of associated presentation material. All the main concerts are preceded by free lectures on their most interesting features. The quality of the concert program notes is invariably outstanding.

This year’s program confirms that, in scope and quality, the series has no equal. To my knowledge, it is not unusual for Americans and others from abroad to plan their summer holidays in London so that they can attend Proms concerts to experience classical music performances of exceptional breadth and quality within a consistently innovative framework.

All of the concerts are broadcast and most remain for thirty days globally accessible through the BBC’s Radio 3 Proms website.

Making recommendations amongst such riches still available is difficult. For big symphonic events, I would go for the Morlot and Rattle concerts on 15 and 18 August already mentioned; the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s program on 22 August including Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta and Mahler’s Fourth Symphony; his Third Symphony given with great power on 2 September by the Boston Symphony; an astonishingly vigorous and harmonious Beethoven Seventh symphony given later on the same day by the Berlin Philharmonic under Kiril Petrenko, their new music director-designate; and, finally, a Berlioz concert on 5 September, in which John Eliot Gardiner and his orchestra accompanied Joyce Didonato in two movingly delivered deaths — of Cleopatra and then Dido — followed by a superb performance of Harold in Italy.

Of at least equal interest are more-intimate experiences. On 29 August, András Schiff in a late-night concert (starting at 9.30pm and finishing close to midnight) played all twenty-four Preludes and Fugues in the Second Book of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier to an impressively absorbed audience of some 3,000 people. And on 6 September, close to the end of the series, and following a fine performance of Britten’s War Requiem earlier the same evening, Peter Philips and the Tallis scholars sang a somber and touching program of Compline music entitled Before the Ending of the Day.

–Tom Luce, London 9 September 2018

Filed under: BBC Proms

Seattle Symphony Is Gramophone‘s Orchestra of the Year

As part of its 2018 Classical Music Awards, Gramophone magazine has announced the winner of Orchestra of the Year, an inaugural category whose victor was determined by a public vote. SSO was the only non-European orchestra in the running.

I wrote this for Gramophone about the award:

‘Listen boldly’ enjoins the logo which the Seattle Symphony introduced in 2011 to mark the beginning of Music Director Ludovic Morlot’s tenure. In the years since, that challenge has been directed not just to their audience but to the organisation itself. Listening boldly means acknowledging the need to reimagine its own identity and taking steps to reposition the SSO within an increasingly compartmentalised cultural landscape.


Filed under: awards, Gramophone, Seattle Symphony

Ruth Reinhardt at Lucerne Festival

The talented young conductor Ruth Reinhardt, who returns to Seattle Symphony for a major concert next month (where she was a Conducting Fellow in 2015-16), led an impressive performance of Luigi Nono’s No hay caminos, hay que caminar … Andrej Tarkowskij this past Sunday — one of the highlights of this year’s Lucerne Festival Academy.

Reinhardt gave a brief introduction to this highly challenging piece, suggesting the possibility of perceiving in the highly structured, subtle transformations to which Nono subjects his material a “metaphor for the human journey, our pilgrimage through life.

The Nono work explores spatial music as well, with discrete groups of the players subdivided into seven and positioned throughout the hall. Before and after this concert (which also included Messiaen’s awe-inducing, terrifyingly loud Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum for winds and percussion, led by Sir Simon Rattle), the Orchestra of the Lucerne Festival Academy joined the London Symphony for Stockhausen’s Gruppen.

A fascinating juxtaposition: the devoutly Catholic Messiaen, the resolutely atheist Nono.

Filed under: conductors, Lucerne Festival, Lucerne Festival Academy

Kosmos Stockhausen

Getting ready to take in my first experience of Lucerne Festival’s Kosmos Stockhausen series: a seven-concert homage to the powerful postwar avant-garde guru marking what would have been his 90th birthday this year.
My adventure will begin with this afternoon’s program of GESANG DER JÜNGLINGE, REFRAIN, ZYKLUS, and KONTAKTE, featuring Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Helga Karen on keyboards, Dirk Rothbrust on percussion, and sound designer Marco Stroppa.
Then comes a solo recital with Aimard performing KLAVIERSTÜCKE I-XI, GRUPPEN with the London Symphony and Lucerne Festival Orchestra (and, as the three conductors, Simon Rattle, Jaehyuck Choi, and Duncan Ward).
I wasn’t able to make the most-touted of the series, INORI in its Swiss premiere, but I’m planning to catch it during the Academy’s tour in Berlin as part of the Musikfest Berlin.

Katharina Thalmann offers a preview of INORI for the Luzerner Zeitung here. From her interview with the composer and conductor Peter Eötvös, who collaborated closely with Stockhausen, comes this observation about the work’s contemporary resonance:

Trotzdem: «Die Interpreten in diesem Projekt kommen aus der ganzen Welt zusammen, dadurch wird die multikulturelle Haltung von Stockhausen hier in Luzern am besten repräsentiert.» Denn fast scheint es, als hätte Stockhausen mit «Inori» in die Zukunft komponiert. Die mannigfaltigen religiösen und spirituellen Symbole, die in dem Werk aufeinandertreffen, nehmen das Konzept der Globalisierung vorneweg. Diese Weltvorstellung repräsentiert die heterogene, multikulturelle Zusammensetzung des Academy-Orchesters perfekt.

Manuel Brug writes about INORI here.
And in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Jürg Huber offers this commentary.

Filed under: Karlheinz Stockhausen, Lucerne Festival, Lucerne Festival Academy

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