MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Late-Night Liszt

I’d never heard Till Fellner live before but am now a convert. He played this as an encore after his rainwater-clear account of Mozart’s K. 503 C major Concerto on the first half of the finale concert of the 2019 Easter Festival in Lucerne on Palm Sunday.

Filed under: Franz Liszt, Lucerne Festival, Mozart, pianists

Finding a Way Back to the Garden: Caroline Shaw’s Music for String Quartet

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Caroline Shaw image (c)Kait Moreno

The May-June issue of STRINGS magazine has just come out, with my cover story on Caroline Shaw and her music for string quartet.

to the issue

Filed under: Caroline Shaw, profile, string quartet, Strings

Happy Easter

Filed under: Claudio Abbado, holiday, Mahler

Demarre McGill Dazzles in Dalbavie Flute Concerto

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Demarre McGill, Ludovic Morlot, and Marc-André Dalbavie with Seattle Symphony

Seattle Symphony audiences are familiar with Demarre McGill’s magical flute artistry from countless solo moments he’s performed as the ensemble’s principal flute. But this week’s program puts him center stage for the Flute Concerto by Marc-André Dalbavie — and it was an unforgettable highlight of Thursday’s performance.

The French composer wrote his Flute Concerto in 2006 for the Berlin Philharmonic’s principal flutist, the Franco-Swiss Emmanuel Pahud, so you can readily imagine the caliber of playing required. Even at 17 minutes, relatively brief for a concerto, the piece keeps the soloist frenetically active for long stretches.

McGill negotiated its challenges with pure grace and eloquence, engaging in Dalbavie’s unusual dialectic with the orchestra. Rather than a sweet-tuned concerto of airy charms, the flute seems to be simultaneously urging on and trying to tame the orchestra’s ebullient spirits. McGill projected a complex protagonist, Orphic in the central slower section, sprightly as Puck girdling the earth in the rapidfire passages.

Ludovic Morlot led a vivid, gorgeously textured performance that was the theme of the entire generous program, mostly a French affair. He began with another of his specialities, Maurice Ravel’s Suite from Ma mère l’Oye. This time, I detected a radiant, but never forced, tone of elegiac wonder in Sleeping Beauty’s Pavane and the concluding scene of the Enchanted Garden. There was ebullience in the latter as well, underscoring a kinship with the parallel concluding moment in The Firebird. The SSO’s playing was at its most refined, full of silken caresses and subtly articulated rhythms.

The first half ended with the world premiere of Tropes de : Bussy, an ambitious symphonic work the SSO commissioned from Joël-François Durand, Associate Director of the UW School of Music. The title alone requires considerable unpacking and points to the layered associations and post-modern play of Durand’s score. Explains the French-born composer, who developed his concept of the piece while orchestrating some of the piano Préludes of Debussy: “As I kept re-working my arrangements, I gradually started to modify the original music, as if adding more and more interpretive filters with each attempt… Tropes de : Bussy is at first glance a pun on the French composer’s last name, but it also reflects the distance I took from the original texts, revealing and at the same time hiding most of the actual music.”

Durand chose five of the Book I Préludes (Les sons et les parfums, La danse de Puck, Le vent dans la plaine, Des pas sur la neige, and Minstrels. There was much to admire in the imaginative soundscapes he conjured from a large orchestra. If the piece seemed to overstay its welcome, stretching the game of hide-and-seek with the familiar Debussyan harmonies and ideas on at great length, it offered numerous enchanting moments (particularly the “slow” movement after Des pas sur la neige. With its deconstruction of rhythmic structures, the finale after Minstrels recalled something of Ravel’s strategy (though not his sound world) in La valse.

To conclude, Morlot led the one non-French work on this wonderful program. His account of Mozart’s later G minor Symphony, K. 550, glistened with the textural alertness that had been his focus in the French pieces. Taking the Andante at a brisk “walking” tempo worked especially well, and Morlot set off sparks by leaning into the cross-rhythms of the Minuet. The relentless drive of the outer movements gained freshness from being juxtaposed with the Dalbavie.

Review (c) 2019 Thomas May

Filed under: commissions, Ludovic Morlot, Maurice Ravel, Mozart, new music, review, Seattle Symphony

St. Matthew Passion: Free Access at Digital Concert Hall

The Berlin Philharmonic is making its 2013 video of J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in the Peter Sellars staging available for free until Monday.

The St. John Passion is similarly available until Monday.

From the Berlin Philharmonic’s program guide for St. Matthew Passion:

“Not all musicians believe in God, but they all believe in Johann Sebastian Bach,” said Mauricio Kagel, who grappled intensely with the life of the cantor at St. Thomas’s Church, plagued by bureaucratic city fathers and unmotivated Latin pupils, when he composed his own Passion. The term “Passion” is inextricably linked with the name “Bach”, first and foremost due to his St. Matthew Passion, already a work of superlatives in terms of its external dimensions.

That’s because the oratorio of the suffering and death of Christ, which in Bach’s lifetime eclipsed anything conceivable in the field of music, consists of no fewer than 68 individual movements (formerly counted as 78), which include, among others, the monumental opening chorus, the chorale setting “O Mensch, bewein dein Sünden groß” and the epic final chorus.

Already in the first version of the work from 1727 an extensive double choir setting of choir and orchestra is also required: the impressive stereophonic effects have lost none of their fascinating impact. (Bach himself demonstrably dared at a 1736 performance to separate the ensembles completely, enabling the real-spatial differentiation of the dialogue between the two vocal-instrumental ensembles.)

Starting off a week of festivities to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the opening of Hans Scharoun’s Philharmonie, Sir Simon Rattle conducts Bach’s greatest passion music, together with the Rundfunkchor Berlin, boys from the Berlin Staats- und Domchor and a top-class ensemble of soloists. It is a work you can become addicted to, a work in which you can always discover something new even if you have listened to it repeatedly. This concert is also a feast for the eyes: as in April 2010, the St. Matthew Passion is performed in Peter Sellars’ unforgettable staging.

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Filed under: Bach, Berlin Philharmonic, Peter Sellars

Deutsche Oper Offers Two Back-to-Back Rarities: Der Zwerg and Rienzi

Mick Morris Mehnert and David Butt Philip-Monika Ritterhaus

Mick Morris Mehnert and David Butt Philip as the title character in Alexander Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg (c)Monika Ritterhaus

For Musical America, I reviewed two productions of rarities appearing this month at Deutsche Oper: Alexander Zemlinsky’s moving and powerful Der Zwerg and Rienzi, Richard Wagner’s early appropriation of French grand opera.

BERLIN — Deutsche Oper presented a pair of rarely seen operas in rotation over the past few weeks: Alexander Zemlinsky’s unfairly neglected Der Zwerg (“The Dwarf”) and Richard Wagner’s grandiose early breakthrough, Rienzi — a work understandably overshadowed by what came after it.

Zemlinsky tends to show up as little more than a footnote in discussions of Schoenberg (his student) and Mahler (his sexual rival) — both of whose work he championed. But this compelling production of his one-act opera (which premiered in 1922) left no doubt that Zemlinsky is long overdue for a proper and sustained revival…

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Filed under: Alexander Zemlinksy, Deutsche Oper, Donald Runnicles, Musical America, review, Wagner

A Report on Maerzmusik 2019, Berlin’s New Music Festival

Olga Neuwirth, Peter Rundel, and Kunsthausorchester Berlin

Olga Neuwirth, Peter Rundel, and Kunsthausorchester Berlin

Here’s a report on the recent edition of Maerzmusik, Berlin’s new music festival, which I wrote for Musical America.

BERLIN — In this festival-loving capital, MaerzMusik: Festival for Issues about Time has become a magnet for new music enthusiasts. The ten-day series of events (held from March 22-31 this year) is presented under the aegis of the Berliner Festspiele, the umbrella organization that also runs the annual Theatertreffen and Musikfest Berlin, among several other festivals.

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Filed under: Berliner Festspiele, Maerzmusik, Musical America, new music

A Composer’s Final Work Contains ‘Visions’ of an American Master

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The composer George Walker died last summer at 96. He was a close friend of the artist Frank Schramm, who documented his final years in photographs. Photo (c) Frank Schramm

My New York Times article on the late George Walker is now online and will be in the Sunday Arts section.

SEATTLE — Last fall, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery began to display, among its recent acquisitions, a photograph of the composer George Walker. It shows him close up, his right index finger and thumb bearing down on a pencil with the precision of a surgeon, at work on the manuscript score of his Sinfonia No. 5.

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Filed under: American music, George Walker, new music, New York Times

Turangalîla at Juilliard

Here’s my Juilliard Journal story for the upcoming performance of Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie with David Robertson:

Turangalîla is the work of my life,” Olivier Messiaen wrote in a letter to a young Leonard Bernstein, who was preparing to conduct the world premiere near the end of 1949. Messiaen thanked him in advance for agreeing to take on this formidable challenge, “since I know (having seen you in The Rite of Spring) that you will do it in a way that is marvelous and brilliant.”

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Filed under: Juilliard, Olivier Messiaen

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