MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Frank Gehry at 90

The brilliant architect Frank Gehry turns 90 on 28 February. He has had an indelible impact on the world of music, and at one of his recent masterpieces, the Pierre Boulez Saal — which he designed pro bono — the occasion will be celebrated with a concert of Boulez and Schumann. Honored to have written the program notes for this concert.

Filed under: Frank Gehry, Pierre Boulez

Dido and Aeneas at Juilliard

Here’s my program essay for Juilliard Opera’s production of Dido and Aeneas at the Willson Theater, directed by Mary Birnbaum and led by Avi Stein, with choreography by Claudia Schreier. Closes tomorrow.

“Even this little boarding-school opera is full of [Purcell’s] spirit, his
freshness, his dramatic expression, and his unapproached art of setting
English speech to music.” This was the verdict that Cornetto di Basso (aka
George Bernard Shaw, using his pen name as a music critic) reached when
covering an otherwise less-than-thrilling performance of Dido and Aeneas
in 1889. Though two centuries old by then, the score had only first been
published in 1841; the opera would not be performed outside England until
1895, when the bicentennial of Henry Purcell’s death stimulated curiosity
about his work.

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Filed under: Henry Purcell, Juilliard

Seattle Baroque Partners with Whim W’Him


Seattle Early Music is presenting a collaboration between Seattle Baroque Orchestra and Whim W’Him this weekend in a production of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater choreographed by Olivier Wevers and led by Alexander Weimann. Here’s my preview for Early Music America:

SEATTLE — It’s one of the best-loved scores in the literature — and has been so for nearly three centuries. Yet the Stabat Mater — the final work Giovanni Battista Pergolesi completed before his death in 1736 at the age of 26 — continues to allow for an extraordinary variety of interpretations. The emotional involvement and straightforward lyricism that make it so enduringly popular are precisely what have rendered Pergolesi’s setting suspect for those alarmed by such characteristics in sacred music.

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Filed under: choreography, early music

Seattle Symphony Announces 2019-20 Season

As part of its inaugural season under new Music Director Thomas Dausgaard, Seattle Symphony has just announced an impressive and inspiring lineup of 25 living composers: John Adams, Eddie Mora Bermúdez, Anna Clyne, Chick Corea, Charles Corey, Anthony DiLorenzo, Reena Esmail, Janice Giteck, Daniel Kidane, Elena Langer, Hannah Lash, Flo Menezes, Olga Neuwirth, Juan David Osorio, Angelique Poteat, Huang Ruo, David Sampson, Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez, Kate Soper, Bent Sørensen, Tyshawn Sorey, Conrad Tao, Lotta Wennäkoski, Ryan Wigglesworth, and the 2020 Celebrate Asia Composition Competition winner.

Composer-in-residence Tyshawn Sorey will write a Cello Concerto for artist-in-residence Seth Parker Woods. Other SSO commissions: Reena Esmail’s Sitar Concerto — which promises to be a highlight of the season, given her inspired work to date — Elena Langer’s Figaro Gets a Divorce Suite, Hannah Lash’s Double Harp Concerto, and Angelique Poteat’s Cello Concerto, and pieces by Charles Corey and Janice Giteck. (Concertos clearly remain one of the most popular orchestral genres contemporary composers seem to prefer.)

I’m less excited about yet another Rachmaninoff concerto festival — but tickets do need to be sold — and we’ll have to see how the obligatory Beethoven Festival for the 2020 anniversary year works out. I do like juxtaposition of the symphonies with several of the above-mentioned commissions.

And there will be plenty of upcoming news about the soon-to-open Octave 9 project.

The complete press release can be found here.

Filed under: season programming, Seattle Symphony, Thomas Dausgaard

Schubert and Britten et al. from Byron Schenkman & Friends

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Byron Schenkman, Jeff Fair, and Zach Finkelstein

Still basking in the emotions from Sunday evening’s program courtesy of Byron Schenkman & Friends – said friends on this occasion being tenor Zach Finkelstein (in his Nordstrom Recital Hall debut), Seattle Symphony principal horn player Jeff Fair, and cellist Nathan Whittaker.

Schenkman’s programming is always an art in itself, but this one really stood out for its combination of poetry and music, focusing on a pair of composers who rank among the most sensitive writers for the voice. Schubert lieder framed the evening, with a set of four songs to begin — “Der Musensohn,” “An die Laute,” “Ganymed,” and “Du bist die Ruh” — and “Auf dem Strom,” one of the miraculous products of his final year, at the close.

Finkelstein’s refined, expressive phrasing and gorgeous tone hit the mark. The tenor was alert to every nuance Schubert uses to paint the emotions evoked by the poet, adding just enough pressure and urgency to make an apparently simple melodic turn suddenly light up with hidden colors. (See the video below for more on this wonderful singer, including some of his insights on Britten.)

“Auf dem Strom” — thought to be possible a tribute to the late Beethoven, who had died the year before — came off as a thoroughly involving miniature drama. I also admired Schenkman’s affinity for this repertoire, which shows off a very different side of his artistry from the early music fare I more frequently hear him perform. Jeff Fair emphasized the touching mellifluousness of the horn part, with hints of nostalgic heroism as well.

Schenkman, Finkelstein, and Fair all have collaborated on a to-die-for recording of all five of Benjamin Britten’s Canticles, which came in 2017. Before performing the two Canticles featured on this program, Schenkman and Finkelstein read the long, intricate poems which Britten set to music: Canticle I, Op. 40 (“My Beloved Is Mine”) by Francis Quarles, composed in 1947 for his life partner, tenor Peter Pears; and 54 the 19Canticle III, Op. 55 (“Still falls the rain: The raids 1940. Night and dawn”), to a poem by Edith Sitwell, which calls for a solo horn part in addition to the piano accompaniment.

These two highly contrasting pieces — the one a mystical ode to love, the other an unsparing reflection on human nature’s darkest side, while still reaching for hope — made for a powerful juxtaposition. Canticle III is of Turn of the Screw vintage and felt both cathartic and emotionally exhausting.

When introducing the first Canticle, Schenkman pointed out the composer’s bravery in living with a same-sex partner during a period when Alan Turing was subjected to such injustice, recalling, too, how Queen Elizabeth sent a personal letter of condolence to Pears following his companion’s death in 1976. Schenkman also referred to Britten’s role in reaffirming the stature of Mendelssohn following the Nazis’ attempt to erase him from history, noting how Mendelssohn himself played a pivotal role in rescuing nearly lost Schubert masterpieces from oblivion.

Schenkman and Nathan Whittaker gave a glowing account of Mendelssohn’s Variations concertantes for cello and piano, Op. 17, after the first Canticle. The cellist also treated listeners to the solo piece The Fall of the Leaf by Imogen Holst (daughter of Gustav Holst and a close friend of Britten and Pears). Written in 1963 for Pamela Hind o’Malley, it comprises “short studies … on a 16th-century tune” from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book (by Martin Peerson). More eloquent, even grief-stricken, than restrained, Whittaker brought out the thoughtful melancholy of the descending, fatalistic theme, while playfully suggesting the ghost of a lute in Holst’s pizzicato chords.

Filed under: Britten, Byron Schenkman, review, Schubert

Pēteris Vasks in Seattle: Light and Faith

Many thanks to flutist extraordinaire Paul Taub for making this memorable portrait concert of Pēteris Vasks happen, together with the Baltic Arts Northwest Council and the Nordic Museum. Despite the ongoing Seattle snowmageddon, with a fresh onslaught starting mid-afternoon, the matinee event proceeded as planned.

The 72-year-old Latvian composer was in attendance and warmly thanked Taub and his fellow musicians for their heartfelt renditions of his music. Joining Taub were the Skyros Quartet (Sarah Pizzichemi, Rachel Pearson, Justin Kurys, and Willie Braun), the chamber vocal Mägi Ensemble, and Travis Gore on double bass.

Beginning with Taub’s enchanting account of Ainavar ar putniem (Landscape with Birds) from 1980, the program offered an excellent sampling of pieces solo and chamber, vocal and instrumental. Travis Gore played the solo Bass Trip (2003), and the Mägi Ensemble gave the U.S. premiere of the version for women’s voices of Plainscapes (which exists in versions for 8-voice choir plus violin and cello as well as piano trio); they were accompanied by Pizzichemi on violin and Braun on cello. The Mägis also sang a set of folk songs — including the cycle Dzimtene (Motherland) — that display Vasks’s intriguing treatment of archaic material and technique.

I especially loved the solo Sonata (1992) for flute/alto flute and how Taub sensitively conveyed Vasks’s musical “borrowings” from nature, from bird calls and animal sounds. Similar devices grace the String Quartet No. 2 (1984), titled Vasaras dziedājumi (“Summer Tunes”). The Skyros wove its alluring atmospheres, suggesting the connections between the composer’s well-known reverence for nature and his spirituality in this pantheistic soundscape, touched too by genuine melancholy.

From an interview with Vasks quoted in the program notes by Guntis Šmidchens: “Right now it seems to me that there is so little time left, I have to write about light and faith. All the dramas and complications, let’s leave those aside … Music must knock you out of the everyday. But the main thing is that this doesn’t lead to collapse, that after the shock there should be spiritual purification… There’s a feeling that our life is too lukewarm. Lacking ideals, lacking faith. If you have no faith, how can you live?”

Filed under: chamber music, new music, Pēteris Vasks

Tan Dun’s Moving Buddha Passion Gets Its U.S. Premiere by LA Philharmonic

Hands-down one of my highlights of the season so far: Tan Dun’s Buddha Passion, which I reviewed here for Musical America:

LOS ANGELES—A signature of Tan Dun’s most successful compositions is his gift for mixing putatively disparate elements into powerfully original amalgams. To make that happen means being able to take serious risks—and the premise behind Buddha Passion is nothing if not bold. The audience’s euphoric reaction at Walt Disney Concert Hall, where the Los Angeles Philharmonic and a cast of guest performers under Gustavo Dudamel gave the United States premiere on February 8, confirmed the tangible impact of Tan’s wildly imaginative gamble here.

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Filed under: Gustavo Dudamel, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Musical America, review, Tan Dun

Guest Review: Les Troyens in Paris

Tom Luce contributes the following report on the much-discussed Paris Opera production of Berlioz’s operatic masterpiece as staged by Dmitri Tcherniakov:

The new production at the Opéra Bastille of Berlioz’s great Virgil-inspired account of the Trojan War and Aeneas’s dalliance with Dido the Carthaginian Queen is the fourth the city has seen in the last 30 years. The 1990 production, which was staged by Pierre Luigi Pizi, celebrated the opening of the new Bastille opera house. A fine production by Yannis Kokkos under John Eliot Gardner’s musical direction was given at the Théâtre du Châtelet in 2003. Herbert Warnicke’s Salzburg version was repeated at the Paris Opera in 2006, with Sylvain Cambreling conducting.

The Russian Dmitri Tcherniakov staged this new production, with the company’s music director Philippe Jordan on the podium, which marks the 350th anniversary of the Paris Opera, the 30th of its home at the Bastille, and the 150th of the composer’s death.

The staging has excited controversy and the singing and playing admiration. Tcherniakov gives the work contemporary settings. The first part — the conquest of Troy by the Greeks after the Trojans thought they had won — takes place in a modern, badly war-damaged environment suggesting recent Balkan or Middle Eastern conflicts. This was generally effective and provided a convincing setting for a stunning vocal and dramatic performance by Stéphanie d’Oustrac as the unbelieved prophetess of doom Cassandra (graduating from the part of Ascanius, which she had sung in the John Eliot Gardner performances). Stéphane Degout as her lover Chorebus contributed another outstanding performance amongst a generally fine cast matched by formidable singing and acting from the chorus.

Some features of Tcherniakov’s interpretation were more questionable. King Priam of Troy and his family are shown on a separate corner of the stage in a protected regal environment and introduced one by one in a dumbshow before the real opera begins. A video suggests that Cassandra’s contrarian attitude stems not from a power of prophecy but rebellion against her father the King because he sexually abused her as a child. Aeneas is portrayed as being secretly in league with the attacking Greeks. These notions might be intriguing if found in a fantasising modern playwright’s revisionist interpretation of the Trojan legend, but they have no basis in or consistency with either Virgil’s or Berlioz’s versions. Overall, however, they were not important or obtrusive enough to undermine the power and vividness of Tcherniakov’s presentation of the first two acts of the opera and the conviction with which the performers conveyed it.

Sadly, the same cannot be said of his directorial intrusions into the three Carthage acts. These are not set as Berlioz specified — in Dido’s Royal Park, then a forest, and, finally, the Trojans’ camp near the port from which they leave for Rome — but occur throughout in the communal meeting hall of a “Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Traumatised War Victims.” The cast initially does not take the parts attributed to them by Berlioz but are all either residents or care staff who, in supposedly therapeutic amateur dramatics, act out the roles of Dido, Aeneas, of Carthaginians and Trojans, etc.

All of the scenes are accompanied by normal features of a modern-care clinic — stretching classes and a television set constantly showing up-to-date news programmes which, in the 6 February performance I saw included (fortunately silent) pictures of President Trump delivering the State of the Union address and a headline announcing “Renegotiation du Brexit.” Some of the time there was a ping-pong game.

Of course both Trojans and Carthaginians were refugees from brutal conflicts. Yet so narrowly enclosing Berlioz’s profound and complex vision of their sufferings and heroism could not fail to undermine it. It is hard to see how Iopas’s beautiful song to the fertility of the land or the wonderful quintet “Tout conspire a vaincre mes remords …” — in which Dido shifts from loyalty to the memory of her murdered spouse to love of Aeneas — could possibly be enhanced by such distracting goings-on.

There were also cuts. None of the ballet music in the Carthage acts was performed. We did get the “Combat de Ceste” in the first Troy act but, weirdly for such exuberant music, it accompanied not a celebratory dance by the Trojan wrestling squad but the whole Trojan community in a protracted stance of frozen grief for their dead war heroes.

Leaving out the ballet episodes is not without precedent; to my recollection they were all omitted from the 2006 Wernicke staging. Though superb music, they can admittedly present a staging problem ––for example, the three ballets of sailors, builders, and farmers illustrating Dido’s pride in the achievements of the young Carthaginian state can sometimes rather improbably suggest that she had contracted out the development of its infrastructure to a ballet company. Skillful staging can overcome such risks, as was shown by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser in 1987 for the Lyons Berlioz Festival, which in this and other respects demonstrated how imaginative innovation can refresh and enhance without undermining the composer’s vision.

Still more serious was the omission of the Shakespearian scene in which two Trojan soldiers in the final act moan about being forced to leave their obliging Carthaginian lovers for a tiresome expedition to Italy which they will probably fail to survive. The amateur actors in the care-home would have had fun impersonating them, and, along with the ballet episodes, they illustrate Berlioz’s greater interest in and empathy for the Trojan and Carthaginian communities than can be found in Virgil, who concentrates more on gods and heroes.

Unlike on opening night, when Dmitiri Tcherniakov’s presence during the bows apparently elicited some loud hostility, the performance of 6 February was greeted with great and unadulterated acclaim by its audience. This was deservedly directed at the performers, who collectively gave a very fine account of the opera. In their hugely challenging roles, Ekaterina Semenchuk rose to great heights in Dido’s final scenes and Brandon Jovanovich convincingly delivered the rather brutal vision of Aeneas the staging seemed to demand. There was much excellent quality and scarcely any weakness in the rest of the large cast.

The chorus were rightly greeted with enormous enthusiasm, along with their chorus masters Jose Luis Basso and Alessandro di Stefano. No opera has a more important role for chorus. Their singing was throughout at a level very rarely encountered, as was their acting, for which presumably Tcherniakov and those working with him should be given credit — whatever view is taken of his overall staging concept.

Equal enthusiasm deservedly greeted the splendid orchestra and Philippe Jordan for their thrilling musical rendition of Berlioz’s still-astonishing score.

This is the ninth production of the opera I have been privileged to see. It was a mixed evening, but I am glad not to have missed it.
–Tom Luce

Filed under: Berlioz, reviews

New Concertos by Caroline Shaw and Kinan Azmeh at Seattle Symphony

Caroline Shaw

Caroline Shaw, Jonathan Biss, and Ludovic Morlot with Seattle Symphony; photo (c) Brandon Patoc

My coverage of recent world premieres by Caroline Shaw and Kinan Azmeh has now been posted at Musical America.

SEATTLE—As Ludovic Morlot’s final season at the helm of the Seattle Symphony gets closer to the final stretch, his legacy of nurturing new music is coming into sharper relief. The SSO’s last two programs in particular—otherwise so strikingly different in character and mood—each unveiled commissions that took the form of brand-new concertos of genuine distinction: Watermark, Caroline Shaw’s score for pianist Jonathan Biss; and a moving work composed by and for the brilliant clarinetist Kinan Azmeh.

Silk Road Ensemble

Kinan Azmeh with Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot premiering his new Clarinet Concerto; photo (c) Brandon Patoc

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Filed under: Caroline Shaw, Kinan Azmeh, Ludovic Morlot, new music, Seattle Symphony, Silk Road Project

Kernis and SSO to the Grammys

This Sunday we’ll find out whether Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony’s recording of the Violin Concerto by A.J. Kernis with James Ehnes as the soloist wins either (or both) of its two Grammy nominations: for Best Contemporary Classical Composition and Best Classical Instrumental solo. Hard to believe two years have passed since that wonderful premiere. Here’s the review I wrote back then:

In last night’s Seattle Symphony concert led by Ludovic Morlot, James Ehnes introduced a brand-new violin concerto written for him by one of today’s finest composers, Aaron Jay Kernis. This was the U.S. premiere; last week Ehnes gave the world premiere in Toronto (a co-commissioner with SSO).

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Filed under: Aaron Jay Kernis, James Ehnes, Ludovic Morlot, Seattle Symphony

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