MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Now Playing: He(a)r by Nordic Affect

Nordic Affect, an ensemble from Iceland that was formed in 2005 by period instrument musicians, has released a new album on the Sono Luminus label. He(a)r is “an ode to hear, here, hér [the Icelandic word for “here”], and her,” writes Halla Steinunn Stefánsdóttir, Nordic Affect’s artistic director and composer of the title piece, which is interspersed as seven tracks between the six other compositions on the album. “It springs from treasured collaborations that allowed us to ‘send sound and receive sound’ (Pauline Oliveros)” an offers a “meditation on embodiment, acoustics, and ecology. An album which rides on the wave of questions that rise and rise — Whose sounds? Whose bodies? Whose voices?”
Violinist Stefánsdóttir is joined by her colleagues Guðrún Hrund Harðardóttir (viola), Hanna Loftsdóttir (cello), and Guðrún Óskarsdóttir (harpsichord) — all of them contributing vocals as well. A total of five women composers are represented here, all in world premiere recordings about space, time, illuminating contrasts, and the auras projected by sound.
They build sonic environments that beckon and alarm, lull and awaken. Especially powerful is Warm life at the foot of the iceberg by Mirjam Tally. She found her title in the work of Estonian poet Kristiina Ehin, explaining, “I think this title describes well the character and technique of this work: contrasts between ‘cold’ airy colors in high register plus rustle, and rhythmic ‘rocky’ sections, sometimes performed with extra pressure; and gliding between these two contrasting worlds, Like a melting iceberg, unstable on the ground, rapidly vanishing.”
I’m also keenly drawn to the music of Anna Thorvaldsdóttir, represented here by two works: the exquisite violin-viola-cello trio Reflections and Impressions, which opens the ears to an entire new universe of sonorities using prepared harpsichord.
Along with Hildur Guðnadóttir’s Point of Departure, which explores the “delicate relationship between a person and her instrument, with the addition of the tuning together with other musicians and their voices,” there are also two pieces by María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir: Loom and Spirals (the YouTube track linked above), which is the last in a trilogy she has written for Nordic Affect. Its predecessor, Clockworking, became an international breakthrough for the ensemble and similarly ruminates on the meaning of time. The composer says: “In Spirals, dense chords, a lost cadence, sounding through an old piano, and fragmented sounds from old music boxes are the original departure points that the piece revolves around. These spirals are not precise or mathematical, they refer to time and musical motion.”

Filed under: recommended listening

Kurtág’s Beckett Opera

Fin de Partie

I had a chance to listen to György Kurtág’s Fin de partie, his debut opera based on Samuel Beckett’s 1957 play Endgame (setting the French text Beckett originally produced). Deutschlandfunk Kultur offered an audio stream over the weekend.

Even without the visuals of Pierre Audi’s staging, the music has tremendous resonance. I can’t wait to have a chance to get the whole experience. You encounter the super-condensed attention to the moment you expect from Kurtág (now 92), but with that intensity extended over more than two intermissionless hours, and at the service of perhaps the greatest 20th-century playwright.

The much-anticipated world premiere, postponed for years, was conducted by Markus Stenz and and staged at La Scala. The cast included Frode Olsen, Leigh Melrose, Hilary Summers, and Leonardo Cortellazzi. In March, the production moves on the Dutch National Opera.

Here’s a sampling of some of the critical reaction:

Zachary Woolfe in The New York Times:


He can revel in mood, color and agile, even raucous, rhythms because there is barely a plot to convey. A sick man in a wheelchair (Hamm), his companion (Clov), his father (Nagg) and his mother (Nell) recall the joys and sorrows of the past and curse the indignities of the present and future. That’s all; that’s everything…. Fin de Partie is a farewell not just to a life and a marriage, but also to a whole culture. Mr. Kurtag is one of the last who remain of the generation of avant-garde composers that came of age during World War II and in its wake…

Fiona Maddocks in The Guardian:

Kurtág’s compositions have always been jewelled miniatures. Fin de partie is like a glistening string of them, perfectly suited to the granular nature of Beckett’s text. Only now has Kurtág agreed to release this work in progress (he has set roughly 60% of the text) … It feels complete… Beckett once told an actor preparing the play that he must “fill my silences with sounds”. Kurtág has done just that. Far from stamping on the face of mankind, this masterly composer has caressed it with all his own life’s worth.

Renato Verga for Bachtrack:

The work consists of 12 episodes (scenes and monologues, as the subtitle reads) preceded by a prologue that uses a poem by Beckett, Roundelay, sung by the mezzo-soprano, and an epilogue. The rehearsal of the 14 musical numbers required an exhausting process that took place in the composer’s home, thus the current interpreters bring the precious suggestions of the author himself with them and that is evident in the performance.

Paul Griffiths — who furnished the libretto for another late-in-life debut opera, Elliott Carter’s What Next? — offers this insightful preview:

Kurtág’s alliance with Beckett, his long-destined companion for clarity of vision and precision of utterance, started only when he was in his sixties, and then as if by accident. Ildikó Monyók, an actress and singer, had lost her power of speech as a result of a car accident, and was relearning to enunciate words by singing them, one at a time. Kurtág was reminded of a late Beckett text, “What is the Word,” which he then set in Hungarian translation, in 1990, for Monyók to perform to prompts from an upright piano, as if enacting on stage one of her therapy sessions…

Filed under: Kurtág, new opera

Color Field

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Filed under: photography

Underworld: Imagining the Afterlife

Underworld

Funerary Vessel with Dionysos in the Underworld (detail), South Italian, made in Apulia, 350–325 BC, terracotta. Red-figure volute krater attributed to the Darius Painter. Toledo Museum of Art. Gift of Edward Drummond Libbey, Florence Scott Libbey, and the Egypt Exploration Society, by exchange, 1994.19

Brilliant exhibition at the Getty Villa: Underworld: Imagining the Afterlife

The Underworld was a shadowy prospect for most ancient Greeks, characterized primarily by the absence of life’s pleasures. Perpetual torment awaited only the most exceptional sinners, while just a select few—heroes related to the Olympian gods—enjoyed an eternal paradise. Yet as this exhibition explores, individuals did seek ways to secure a blessed afterlife. Initiation in the Eleusinian Mysteries, an annual festival in Greece, promised good fortune in both this world and the next. Outside of mainstream religious practice, devotion to the mythical singer Orpheus and the god Dionysos also offered paths to achieving a better lot after death.

Some of the richest evidence for ancient beliefs about the afterlife comes from southern Italy, particularly indigenous sites in Apulia and the Greek settlement of Taras (present-day Taranto). Monumental funerary vessels are painted with elaborate depictions of Hades’s realm, and rare gold plaques that were buried with the dead bear directions for where to go in the Underworld. These works, alongside funerary offerings, grave monuments, and representations of everlasting banquets, convey some of the ways in which the hereafter was imagined in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE.

Filed under: art exhibition, classical art, Getty Villa

Reena Esmail’s This Love Between Us

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Tonight the Los Angeles Master Chorale gives the West Coast premiere of Reena Esmail’s moving This Love Between Us: Prayers for Unity.

Here’s my program essay for tonight’s concert, which pairs her oratorio with Bach’s Magnificat.

I also had the privilege of writing this profile of Reena Esmail for Musical America.

Filed under: American music, Bach, choral music, Los Angeles Master Chorale, new music, Reena Esmail

Akropolis Performance Lab Serves Up Genet’s Subversive The Maids

Emily Testa as Solange in Jean Genet’s The Maids Mark Jared Zufelt/Aether Images
“Did I put on this dress to hear you sing about my beauty? Shroud me with hatred! Insults! Sputum!”

Even the process of booking an evening with Akropolis Performance Lab (APL) differs from the routine. There’s an aura of mystery to requesting an invitation to its current production of The Maids/The Vexations, which is under way until 24 November. The venue remains undisclosed until you’ve committed to actually attending.

Once arrived, you enter a room that’s been artfully converted into an almost uncomfortably intimate performance space — big enough to accommodate the three cast members required for Jean Genet’s play, an audience of 10-12 people tops, a piano, and a little bar. The aura is a blend of speakeasy and adventurous cabaret. A wall of mirrors serves as part of the set design, multiplying the spectators and actresses.

It all reinforces the hyper-self-consciously surreal atmosphere of APL’s remarkable interpretation. Jean Genet’s bold, one-act drama from 1947 (Les Bonnes en français) — his first play to be staged in Paris — was inspired by a real-life crime story that became the equivalent of clickbait news in 1933, when two sisters who were live-in French maids murdered their employer’s wife and daughter. But the very premise of a solid connection to “reality” at the most essential level — the sense of a real, authentic self — is subverted throughout the play, turning Hamlet’s sarcastic/melancholy “‘Seems,'” madam? Nay, it is; I know not ‘seems'” on its head.

Directed and designed by Joseph Lavy, APL’s production brings the point home by appending a preludial pantomime in which the three cast members, dressed in lingerie, strike varying exaggerated poses, interacting but interchangeable, prepared to shift roles on a dime.

And, on top of this, there’s a musical layer: the show actually begins with Zhenya Lavy — with Joseph, cofounding artistic director of APL — taking her place at the aforementioned piano and playing the enigmatic, sphinx-like harmonies of Erik Satie’s The Vexations: once, again, thrice, and over and over, through the pantomime, through the duration of the play.

Satie’s undated, single-page score (which has been variously described as an anti-Ring cycle and a kind of spell to get past a love gone sour) comes with the instruction “In order to play the theme 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities.” That total number of repetitions lasted over 18 hours when John Cage famously staged a presentation, but even at a fraction of that, Zhenya Lavy established a mood of archaic yet ironic ritual that perfectly suited the ritualistic anti-realism of Genet’s theater.

The play itself unfolds amid the accoutrements of the unnamed Madame’s wealth (or, at least, comfortably bourgeois lifestyle), as the maids Claire and Solange take turns rewriting the script of servitude, of mistress and servant. In the process, they enact rituals of domination and humiliation in all its connotations: sexual, political, social, religious.

Their shared, mutual fantasies of mutiny and sadomasochistic reversal climax in a plan to murder Madame with sleeping pill-laced tea, which will also solve the problem of her lover’s suddenly impending appearance, out on bail — after he had been denounced by Claire to the police and jailed.

Joseph Lavy also translated Genet’s text into an English that conveys the curious mixture of poetic filtering and religious ritual central to Claire’s and Solange’s game-playing (or is it even a game?) — aspects that get lost in more pointedly political renditions of the work on the English stage. Madame is also referred to as a kind of medieval “my lady” and, with her flowers and beautiful attire — briefly offered as gifts — creating a Madonna-like aura of reverence.

As Claire, Annie Paladino is spellbinding and dangerous, her ability to enter fully into each role as convincing as the speed with which she sheds one skin for the next. Her older sister, Solange, is given a complex, layered, deeply resonant performance by Emily Testa. One surprise of the casting is the youth of Madame (the excellent Catherine Lavy), which erases the generational distance between the characters and underscores the riddling interchangeability of identities.

All three are coached in APL’s characteristic focus style of ensemble-focused training, a refreshing, much-needed antidote to the default, watered-down “method” that dominates commercial theater and media. This company offers a wonderful, praiseworthy alternative to such predictable and formulaic theater-making.

Review (c) 2018 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Akropolis Performance Lab, review, theater, Uncategorized

Byron Schenkman & Friends Explore Handel’s Italian Cantatas

Sunday evening’s Byron Schenkman & Friends program looks delicious: focusing on two early cantatas by Handel (including Vedendo Amor from his sojourn in Rome), it also includes some of his instrumental music plus pieces by Domenico Scarlatti, Antonio Caldara, and Anna Bon.
For some background, here’s my piece in this month’s Juilliard Journal on Handel in Rome (on p. 16).

Complete program:

George Frideric Handel:
Sonata in G Major, op. 1, no. 5, for flute and continuo

Domenico Scarlatti:
Four keyboard sonatas, K. 238, K. 239, K. 99, K. 100

George Frideric Handel:
Cantata “Vedendo Amor” for voice and continuo

Antonio Caldara:
Cantata “Soffri, mio caro Alcino” for voice and continuo

Anna Bon:
Sonata in F Major, op. 1, no. 2, for flute and continuo

George Frideric Handel:
Cantata “Mi palpita il cor” for voice, flute, and continuo

Performers:
Reginald Mobley

COUNTERTENOR
Joshua Romatowski

FLUTE
Nathan Whittaker

CELLO
Byron Schenkman

HARPSICHORD

Concert starts 7pm on Sunday 18 November at Benaroya’s Nordstrom Recital Hall.
Tickets here.

Filed under: Byron Schenkman, Handel, Juilliard

Bizet’s Pêcheurs de Perles at the Met

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Here’s the program essay I wrote for the Met’s production of Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles directed by Penny Woolcock.

Filed under: Georges Bizet, Metropolitan Opera

Pascal Dusapin’s New Double Concerto Soars in Seattle

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Viktoria Mullova and Matthew Barley, with Ludovic Morlot and Seattle Symphony; image (c) James Holt

For Musical America, I reviewed Seattle Symphony’s program of Pascal Dusapin’s wonderful At Swim-Two-Birds (in its U.S. premiere), Debussy’s Petite Suite, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4:


SEATTLE—Making its U.S. premiere at the center of Seattle Symphony’s most recent program, Pascal Dusapin’s At Swim-Two-Birds (heard on November 8) immediately stood out as one of the most significant commissions in music director Ludovic Morlot’s tenure (which draws to a close at the end of this season).

continue [paywall]

Filed under: Debussy, Musical America, Pascal Dusapin, review, Tchaikovsky

Eleventh Hour

In honor of Armistice Day, on the 100th anniversary.
Gustav Holst: Ode to Death, H. 144, Op. 38 (1919), which sets a passage from When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d by Walt Whitman.

Come lovely and soothing death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later delicate death.

Prais’d be the fathomless universe,
For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious,
And for love, sweet love—but praise! praise! praise!
For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding death.

Dark mother always gliding near with soft feet,
Have none chanted for thee a chant of fullest welcome?
Then I chant it for thee, I glorify thee above all,
I bring thee a song that when thou must indeed come, come unfalteringly.

Approach strong deliveress,
When it is so, when thou hast taken them I joyously sing the dead,
Lost in the loving floating ocean of thee,
Laved in the flood of thy bliss O death.

From me to thee glad serenades,
Dances for thee I propose saluting thee, adornments and feastings for thee,
And the sights of the open landscape and the high-spread sky are fitting,
And life and the fields, and the huge and thoughtful night.

The night in silence under many a star,
The ocean shore and the husky whispering wave whose voice I know,
And the soul turning to thee O vast and well-veil’d death,
And the body gratefully nestling close to thee.

Over the tree-tops I float thee a song,
Over the rising and sinking waves, over the myriad fields and the prairies wide,
Over the dense-pack’d cities all and the teeming wharves and ways,
I float this carol with joy, with joy to thee O death.

Filed under: anniversary

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