MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Clara Schumann, Music’s Unsung Renaissance Woman

The 200th anniversary of Clara Schumann’s birth is quickly approaching. Here’s a story on her legacy I wrote for The New York Times:

Schumann is among the most celebrated names in the classical music canon — for most people conjuring the poetic and intense work of Robert Schumann, the Romantic master.

But when the Schumann in question is his wife, Clara, the name should remind us most of the frustrating lack of recognition still accorded female composers.

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Filed under: chamber music, Clara Schumann, New York Times, pianists

Guest Review: An Unusual but Successful Meistersinger in London

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Fulham Opera, Die Meistersinger
image: Matthew Coughlan

Guest review by Tom Luce of Die Meistersinger at the London-based Fulham Opera:

Wagner’s epic comedy is one of the longest and largest pieces in the operatic repertoire. Sixteen solo roles, the semi-chorus of apprentices, and big chorus and orchestra requirements combine with its up to five hours’ duration to make Die Meistersinger one of the most daunting artistic and financial challenges opera managements can face.

Outside Germany and Austria, where some houses do it every year, it is difficult to find performances. I have been lucky this year to see it twice, in Berlin and then London.

In April, the Berlin Staatsoper staged Die Meistersinger with a distinguished and experienced cast, the world-class Berliner Staatskappelle in the pit, and Daniel Barenboim, one of our epoch’s most outstanding musicians, on the podium. It was every bit as powerful and inspiring as one would expect. Andrea Moses’ production presented Nuremberg as a center of global capitalism, with its Mastersingers as major corporate figures. Not everyone appreciated this approach, but the director did interestingly convey the crowd’s response to Hans Sachs’s concluding monologue as a commitment to art rather than nationalism.

The forces involved in the London performance around a month ago could not have been more different. The Fulham Opera is a small fairly new undertaking of the type often characterized as “fringe.” It presented this most challenging of operas without cuts but with a chorus totaling only 23 (including the apprentices). There were 19 musicians in the pit: 9 winds, 9 strings, and a lutenist for Beckmesser. They played Jonathan Finney’s reduced version of the score.

One might think that an ensemble on so small a scale would guarantee failure to deliver Wagner’s expansive epic. But the actual event undermined such prejudgments.

There were indeed some elements not wholly successful — the overture sounded thin and unbalanced, and the brawl at the end of the second act did not fully come off. But other big moments were successful. The third-act prelude was warmly and beautifully delivered, and the great “Wach Auf” Chorus came across powerfully. Throughout, the staging, acting, singing, and playing gave a real sense of the lyrical flow and the interactions between characters that are essential to the piece.

The limited scenery concentrated more on furniture than on the Nuremberg setting but did provide plenty of scope for the comic interactions between the apprentices and their leader David and the Mastersingers in Paul Higgins’ effective and enjoyable staging. All the soloists sang and acted convincingly and were matched by skillful and committed playing in the pit under the fluent and sympathetic musical direction of Ben Woodward.

Rather, I must confess, to my own surprise, l left the Fulham Opera performance with the wonders of Wagner’s great masterpiece resonating not all that much less than I had left the Berlin performance.

The success of this daring enterprise shows that there are a large number of very gifted singing actors in the operatic profession without — at least for the present — the celebrity status expected by big opera company audiences. It also shows that elaborate scenery is not necessary for an effective staging.

This prompts an interesting question. Die Meistersinger has been performed by London’s two big established companies twice in the last decade. Seattle Opera’s last performance was in 1989. Do the glitzy expectations of big companies’ audiences and supporters inhibit their managements from considering less infrequent and more affordable presentations of this astounding and essential masterpiece?
–Tom Luce

Filed under: Wagner

Now Listening: Brooklyn Rider’s The Butterfly

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The Butterfly adds another chapter to Brooklyn Rider’s innovative collaborations with such figures as with Béla Fleck, Gabriel Kahane, Kayhan Kalhor, and, most recently, Jonathan Redman — in the process, reimagining the potential of the string quartet as a medium.

On The Butterfly, the Irish fiddle master Martin Hayes joins with Brooklyn Rider to explore what the string quartet lineup can bring to Irish traditional music. They began their collaboration in 2009 and recorded these tracks in 2016.

Colin Jacobsen, composer and violinist with Brooklyn Rider, observes that Hayes “represented to us something essential about music that we sometimes felt was missing within the classical training we were receiving back in school. To me, it is the infinitely varied inflections, and the depth of expression within what could seem like a deceptively simple tune, which make Martin a master storyteller with his instrument.”

Martin became fascinated by the prospect of their collaboration. “Through the help of a number of brilliant arrangers who are fluent with
both string quartet writing and Irish traditional music, such as Ljova, Dana Lyn and Kyle Sanna,” observes Jacobsen, “we found a framing for the tunes that feels true to some essential thing about both traditions.”

Jacobsen contributed his own arrangements of “O’Neill’s March” and “The Butterfly.” “I thought [“O’Neill’s March”] could sound beautiful through the layering and textural options available to a string quartet,” he explains, while for “The Butterfly” he wanted “to take the tune further out in the direction of contemporary classical string writing … to try to take this butterfly to a place it might never have flown before.”

The release also includes the premiere recording of “Maghera Mountain,” which Hayes wrote in his teens, alongside familiar material often regarded as “throwaway tunes … that are on longer taken very seriously,” according to Hayes. “In reality, these are simple, profound and very beautiful melodies.”

“Many of the major developments in Irish music have historically come through musical interaction with musicians from outside the tradition bringing with them new ideas and fresh energy,” says Hayes. “To collaborate, it’s important not to compromise on what is fundamental and core, but it is also equally important to be flexible. One must surrender the desire to control the outcome and allow people you work with to make their choices with freedom.”

Filed under: Brooklyn Rider, Irish Music, new release

Chailly Conducts Mahler 6 in Lucerne

A powerful program coming up tonight with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra:

Filed under: Lucerne Festival, Mahler

A Bold New Season for Karina Canellakis

Karina_Canellakis_Conducts_BeethovenMy profile of Karina Canellakis for the Juilliard Journal has just been posted. Maestra Canellakis returns to her alma mater next month to conduct the Juilliard Orchestra in a program of Missy Mazzoli, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Richard Strauss.

In early summer, the first of several record-breaking heat waves scorched Western Europe just as Karina Canellakis was settling into her new home in Amsterdam…

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Filed under: conductors, Juilliard

Lucerne’s 2019 Summer Festival Opening: Livestreamed

You don’t have to be in Lucerne to listen to the Opening Concert of the 2019 Summer Festival tomorrow (16 August). The program will be live-streamed KKL Concert Hall by arte here at 18:50 Swiss time. SRF 1 will also broadcast the concert with a time delay (22.25 Swiss time) and on arte concert (18.50 Swiss time).

Riccardo Chailly will lead the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in an all-Rachmaninoff program: the Third Piano Concerto (with Denis Matsuev as the soloist); Vocalise, Op. 34, No. 14 (orchestral version); and the Third Symphony.

 

Filed under: Lucerne Festival, Rachmaninoff

An Enescu Discovery

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My latest piece for STRINGS magazine is on the very belated US premiere of an early string trio by George Enescu:

Fellow musicians — especially string players — have resorted to some striking superlatives to characterize George Enescu (1881–1955). Pablo Casals, a frequent chamber partner, once remarked that since Mozart, there had been no greater musical phenomenon, while Enescu’s student Yehudi Menuhin believed the Op. 25 Third Sonata (“dans le caractère populaire roumain”) represented “the greatest achievement of musical notation” he had ever known…

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Filed under: chamber music, George Enescu, Seattle Chamber Music Society, Strings

Timelessly Timely: A Dark and Damning Rigoletto at Seattle Opera

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Madison Leonard (Gilda) and Lester Lynch (Rigoletto); (c) Sunny Martini

Seattle Opera has just launched its new season under incoming General Director Christina Scheppelmann with a new Rigoletto production. Here’s my review:

Recounting one of the bleakest, cruelest narratives in the core repertoire, Rigoletto depicts a noirish world of sexual predation, misogyny, despotism, revenge, murder, and… horrifically bad luck. Should all this be approached as timeless tragedy, timely social commentary – or merely as a guilty pleasure akin to consuming a thriller?

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Filed under: directors, review, Seattle Opera, Verdi

John Luther Adams and JACK Break New Ground at Tippet Rise

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John Luther Adams (center) with the JACk Quartet: John Pickford Richards, Austin Wulliman, Christopher Otto, and Jay Campbell (left to right)
Credit: Zackary Patten 

Last weekend, at Tippet Rise Art Center, I got to experience the brilliant JACK Quartet give the world premiere of Lines Made by Walking, the latest string quartet (No. 5) by John Luther Adams (plus a foretaste of his next quartet, whose premiere is already on the horizon in spring 2020).

Thanks to his close working relationship with the JACKs, JLA has become fascinated with the medium, though he waited until age 58 to take it up. He’s now finishing his Sixth and Seventh String Quartets. My review for Musical America:

FISHTAIL, MT — The vast, roiling orchestral soundscape of the Prize-winning Become Ocean has served many listeners as an entrée into the world of John Luther Adams. But he is just as much at home within the intimate dimensions of chamber music…

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Filed under: commissions, John Luther Adams, string quartet, Tippet Rise

Xylem: A Place of Refuge

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Some shots of the new architectural installation and gathering place at Tippet Rise Art Center: Xylem,  by the internationally acclaimed architect Diébédo Francis Kéré.

A delightfully imaginative and welcoming  pavilion designed to invite moments of meditation, pop-up musical performance, and community exchange, Xylem is composed of sustainably harvested pine logs (longe pole and ponderosa).

From the artist’s website:

The logs of the canopy are assembled in circular bundles bore by a modular hexagonal structure in weathering steel, lying on top of seven steel columns. The upper surface of the canopy is carved sinuously in order to create a rounded topography that blends in the surrounding hills. At the same time massive and light, the roof is inspired by the “toguna”, the traditional most sacred space in every Dogon village, a wooden and straw shelter designed in order to protect from the sun but at the same time to allow the ventilation of the shaded space underneath.

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Filed under: architecture, art

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