MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Bruckner and Golijov: LA Master Chorale’s Opening Weekend


The Los Angeles Master Chorale opens its new season with a pairing of Bruckner and Osvaldo Golijov. Here’s my essay for the program:

It may seem hard to believe that the Los Angeles Master Chorale
is performing the two works on this program for the very
first time in its 55-year history. Though vastly different in
outlook and in the very sounds they demand from the chorus,
Anton Bruckner’s Mass No. 3 in F Minor and Oceana by Osvaldo
Golijov, might have been tailor-made for the
Master Chorale’s signature aesthetic…

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Filed under: Anton Bruckner, choral music, Los Angeles Master Chorale, Osvaldo Golijov

Breaths of Fresh Air: The Seattle Symphony Premieres Olga Neuwirth

Last night’s concert was the first chance I’ve had to experience Thomas Dausgaard in action with the Seattle Symphony since his inaugural season as music director began. Even with just a fraction of the players onstage for the entire first half (and a modest-sized orchestra for the second), this was music-making on a very high level. There was no fall-back on routine — which might easily have been the case, in view of the presence of two ultra-familiar works anchoring the program: the fourth of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and Mozart’s final Symphony, the so-called (though not by the composer) “Jupiter.”

What gave the programming an edge was the inclusion, side-by-side with the Bach, of a new work by the Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth titled Aello – ballet mécanomorphe. Dausgaard led its world premiere in Stockholm last year, with flutist Claire Chase as the soloist and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra (which he helmed until starting his SSO tenure this fall). Neuwirth was one of six contemporary composers commissioned by Dausgaard and the SCO to write new response works that somehow react to the Brandenburg Concertos. (For the record, the others include Uri Caine, Brett Dean, Anders Hillborg, Steven Mackey, and Mark Anthony Turnage — the whole project was presented at the 2018 BBC Proms [see video above].)

The Seattle Symphony had the honor of giving Aello‘s U.S. premiere — and, it is to be hoped, will continue pursuing the music of this boldly imaginative, singular, uncompromising composer. Neuwirth is at last gaining long-overdue recognition. She was a key presence at the recent Musikfest Berlin
(where I had a chance to hear Susanne Mälkki conduct the young Karajan Akademie musicians in Aello, with Berlin Philharmonic principal Emmanuel Pahud as the soloist).

Neuwirth’s commission was to write a companion piece to be paired with the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G major (BWV 1049), using essentially the same chamber ensemble. Except she replaces Bach’s soloist trio of violin and two flutes (or flute-like instruments) with a solo flute as protagonist. Her counterparts are a pair of trumpets (one piccolo) that play with various mutes — taking on the role of the Bach flutes. (The doubleness of the latter come back as well in the flute soloist’s alternation between her “normal” instrument and a bass flute for the final movement.)

As “continuo,” Neuwirth substitutes a multiple-personality “harpsichord” comprising a synthesizer and a percussionist (Michael Werner) who plays a mechanical typewriter (the score specifies an “Oilivetti Lettera 22” model, which is amplified), a triangle made to resound with an automatic milk foamer, and a water-filled glass pitched to a high E. And even the string ensemble is “de-natured” by the complex multiple tuning system Neuwirth establishes for the whole ensemble (including the solists), with four layers of different pitchings.

Claire Chase, the score’s dedicatee, is a widely acclaimed musical adventurer who has built her solo career around expanding the potential for her instrument. Neuwirth avails herself not only of Chase’s extraordinary musicianship but of her stage charisma as well. The flutist’s performance last night cast a spell with her commanding gusts and mysterious whisperings, egging on the motley trumpet sounds and breaking free from the ensemble’s attempts at hegemony.

As she nimbly — indeed, balletically — turned and twisted, Chase’s compelling stage presence seemed to conjure an oracle, at times blissful, at others demonic in its aura. Aello actually refers to an ancient Greek harpy, but Neuwirth subverts the sexist image by making her mythical being into “someone sent by the gods to restore peace, if necessary with force, and to exact punishment for crimes.”

Similarly, the “macho” personae of Baroque trumpets is tamed and, as it were, Dada-fied through the mutes and the resultant kaleidoscope of colors (Neuwirth herself studied trumpet). The legacy of Dada — its absurdist play with machines and “stuff,” with the mechanical aspects of modernity — is another important influence on Neuwirth’s aesthetic.

There were some muffled gasps and giggles from the audience, reacting to the absurdist humor of the piece — yet Aello is by no means a simple “parody” of the Bach companion (neither in the usual sense of the word nor even the Baroque sense).

Neuwirth follows Bach’s three-movement design and quotes snippets of his motifs and melodies, but these appear more as vanishing recollections of a musical world that no longer makes sense. Along with the playfulness, there are moments of mesmerizing mystery — above all in the slow middle movement, which approaches the ethereal — and even of terror. Neuwirth’s sense of pacing is superb — no wonder she has a flair for the stage and for film scoring. She dramatizes a remarkable attempted coup by the ensemble in the final moments that is thwarted, once again, by the flute-goddess’s knowing breath.

Dausgaard led a (mostly) standing ensemble in the Fourth Brandenburg itself to start the program and set the stage for Aello. Claire Chase joined principal flutist Demarre McGill and concertmaster Noah Geller to form the solo group. All of them listened intently to their fellow musicians and responded with in-the-moment honesty. Dazzlingly stylish and refined, Geller gave the insanely difficult violin cadenzas the elan of breakout jazz solos. I especially relished the mingled “mega-flute” colorations McGill and Chase created as their lines bobbed and wove together.

The Mozart sounded … BIG in comparison to the chamber delicacy of the first half (Baroque and Dadaish alike). I would have preferred a slightly less beefed-up string section. Dausgaard mostly succeeded in keeping balances beautifully weighted, but Mozart’s wind writing was at moments a tad lacking in presence because of the wall of string sound.

Still, the Danish maestro enjoys an inspiring rapport with the SSO, and everyone was on high alert to deliver. He even pulled a few Arthur Nikisch moments, in which he conducted using nothing but his eyebrows. Dausgaard approached the “Jupiter” as a proto-Beethovenian epic, exploiting explosive accents (with dynamic contributions from James Benoit on timpani) and delineating a sense of musical travel, above all in the outer movements.

He obviously possesses a fantastic ear, and the ability to coax microsecond readjustments, so that rich, unexpected colors emerged — most wondrously, in the veiled murkiness he elicited from the slow movement’s harmonic clouds. Mozart’s pauses became a powerful theatrical device through which he drew intriguing connections between the first two movements, the one Apollonian in majesty, its cantabile counterpart an Orphic reverie.

Mozart famously performs his own retoolings of Bach (and Handel) in many of his late period works: the “Jupiter” finale is glorious exemplary. Dausgaard kept the architecture cleanly in view without dampening the visceral excitement.

The program will be repeated on Saturday 12 October at 8pm. And Claire Chase performs in recital tonight at 7.30pm at Octave 9.

Review (c)2019 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Olga Neuwirth, review, Seattle Symphony, Thomas Dausgaard

New Takács Lineup

Congratulations to Richard O’Neill, who was just announced as the newest member of the marvelous Takács Quartet. When Geri Walther retires from the group at the end of May 2020, O’Neill will become the new violist.

Richard O’Neill has contributed invaluably to the success of the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s festivals and is always a joy to hear. I have a special affection for the Takács as well, as I was assigned one of their concerts for the very first professional review I wrote.

Filed under: chamber music, music news

RIP Giya Kancheli (1935-2019)

Another terrible loss for music, for art, for humanity.
An appreciation from Giya Kancheli‘s label ECM:

Georgian composer Giya Kancheli has died in Tblisi, aged 84. A highly original musical thinker, Kancheli often attributed his artistic independence to his early listening. It was a love of jazz, firstly, that brought him to the composition classes of the Tblisi Conservatoire with dreams of writing for big band after the manner of Duke Ellington and Stan Kenton. A performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring turned his world upside down, as he put it, as did exposure to the music of Bartók and Webern. “If everything had happened in logical sequence”, Kancheli once said, “my scale of values would have been different, and I would, correspondingly, have written different music.” Coming late to the full scope of contemporary composition, hard to hear in the Soviet Union of the 1950s, he looked to Shostakovich’s work for guidance: “His symphonies were almost my only models of contemporary art under the conditions of my information isolation.” Lasting friendships were gradually formed with other composers of his generation, composers with whom he felt a spiritual affinity, including Alfred Schnittke, Arvo Pärt and Valentin Silvestrov. Kancheli’s music however is its own universe, often distinguished by extreme dynamic contrasts, from a whisper to a thunderous roar. At all volume levels a yearning, deeply melancholic quality resonates in its timbres.

In 1991 Kancheli moved to the West, first to Berlin and later to Antwerp, always remaining resolutely Georgian in spirit. Kancheli’s moving song cycle Exil, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski and released on ECM New Series in 1995 – with settings of verses of Paul Celan and Hans Sahl – was interpreted by some critics as an autobiographical work, a view Kancheli strove to dispel: “Nobody expelled me from anywhere. If I had left in Soviet times, when you couldn’t go back, it would have been an entirely different matter.” He travelled frequently to his homeland, where he was a revered figure, widely known for his writing for film and theatre as well as for his orchestral works.

Giya Kancheli’s music was first heard on ECM New Series in 1992 with Vom Winde beweint, performed by his long-term supporters violist Kim Kashkashian and Dennis Russell Davies, who was also the conductor on Trauerfarbenes Land, Caris Mere (including clarinettist Eduard Brunner), Abii ne viderem and Diplipito.
Mstislav Rostropovich who appeared together with conductor Jansug Kakhidze on Magnum Ignotum, said: ‘I love this composer for his independence. Olivier Messiaen revealed for me the limitlessness and endlessness of time, and the same is true for Kancheli.’
Gidon Kremer is one of the most loyal interpreters of Giya Kancheli’s music, first appearing on Lament, which was recorded in the composer’s homeland Georgia with the Tblisi Symphony Orchestra. On Chiaroscuro, Kancheli’s most recent ECM release, Kremer played together with Patricia Kopatchinskaja. Further musicians and friends who served Giya Kancheli’s wide musical oeuvre with their artistry are Thomas Demenga, Oleg Maisenberg, the Hilliard Ensemble, Dino Saluzzi and Jan Garbarek.

The music will be listened to for many years to come.

Filed under: Giya Kancheli, music news

Morten Lauridsen’s Homecoming

Here’s a profile of the composer Morten Lauridsen I wrote for this weekend’s Seattle Sings Festival. The choral festival pays homage to Lauridsen on its Friday evening program:

As a musical ecosystem, the Pacific Northwest is acclaimed for the range and diversity of the choral ensembles that flourish here. Not nearly as well known is the fact that one of the most significant and popular living choral composers, Morten Lauridsen, makes his home in the region as well — and has transformed his love of its natural beauty into compositions that are sung around the world…

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Filed under: choral music, Morten Lauridsen, profile

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