MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

A Prismatic Program from the Danish String Quartet

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Currently touring the West Coast, the Danish String Quartet paid a visit recently. I now get what the fuss is about. Here’s my review for Strings:

The Danish String Quartet‘s contribution to the Beethoven 250 celebrations this season includes a tripartite North American tour. As part of the fall segment of this tour, which is currently underway, the Scandinavian foursome made a recent stop in Seattle. On offer was the first of the Beethoven-themed programs they are presenting under the project name PRISM. The performance launched this season’s International Chamber Music series at the Meany Center for the Performing Arts of the University of Washington.

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Filed under: Bach, Beethoven, chamber music, Danish String Quartet, review, Shostakovich, string quartet, Strings

Farewell to the Harry Partch Instrumentarium

It was only in 2014 that the fabulous collection of Harry Partch Instruments found a new home at the University of Washington’s School of Music. While being kept there, the collection has been brought out for numerous performances — including an event I got to cover last year under the collection’s caretaker, Charles Corey.

Seattle-based cellist Peter Tracey writes about the value of having these instruments available to anyone curious about them: “I learned from a friend who played in the Partch ensemble that it was open to just about anybody: all you had to do was ask. Soon after, I did, and that decision has shaped my life as a musician ever since.”

Tracey also tells the story of how Corey came to be given responsibility for overseeing the collection and how they ended up at UW in Seattle. Sadly, he reports that UW “has decided not to renew the Partch instruments’ residency here in Seattle, and the collection will likely be moving on to a new home in the coming year.”

I haven’t heard yet of any definite plans for the next stage on the journey of the Partch instruments. Later in the month, on November 19, 21, and 22, there will be three more chances to encounter them one more time in Seattle in a trio of programs at Meany Hall’s Studio Theater.

The performance on November 21 will present an all-Partch program consisting of Barstow, selections from Eleven Intrusions, San Francisco, Dark Brother, Castor & Pollux, The Potion Scene (from Romeo and Juliet), and And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma.

Filed under: Harry Partch, music news

Philip Glass’s Ahknaten at the Met

Ahknaten — in my opinion, one of Philip Glass’s greatest works — opened last night in Phelim McDermott’s excellent production at the Met. I was honored to have the opportunity to write the program note (starts on p. 40B of the attached Playbill).

On January 6, 1907, the entrance to a rock-cut tomb was uncovered in
the Valley of the Kings outside modern-day Luxor, Egypt. The mummy
safeguarded within may have been the preserved body of the pharaoh
Akhnaten (today more commonly spelled Akhenaten) …

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Filed under: Metropolitan Opera, Phelim McDermott, Philip Glass, program notes

An Interview with Beatrice Rana

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Beatrice Rana: photo (c) Nicolas Bets

Beatrice Rana was in town recently to perform with the Seattle Symphony. I was fortunate to have a chance to interview this remarkable young pianist — Silver Medalist at the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition — who has become known for her consistently soulful, honest performances and probing musical intelligence.

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Beatrice Rana has just released a new album of Ravel and Stravinsky. Excerpts here.

Filed under: pianists, profile

Crossing Thresholds with Kate Soper

The program on Sunday evening at Octave 9 kept dividing and subdividing: into unexpected new components, speech shadowed by its melody mirror, natural acoustics haloed with electronic auras, philosophical speculation married to folk-simple parable. This was an evening of musical mitosis that showcased the work of Kate Soper. An extraordinarily original composer, performer, writer, and theater artist, Soper is drawn to the enigma-rich threshold between speech and song — and what she describes as “the slippery continuums of expressivity, intelligibility, and sense, and the wonderfully treacherous landscape of the human voice.”

If that sounds awfully cerebral, in practice it was utterly engaging, fascinating, illuminated by shards of insight and beauty. Joined by Sam Pluta, a fellow composer and sound artist who contributed electronic textures and improvisations on the live sound from his laptop, Soper performed her ongoing project Dialogues. I couldn’t tell whether this incorporates, like a Russian Easter egg, her earlier pieces The Fragments of Parmenides and The Understanding of All Things (based on a Kafka text) — or whether these are meant to be regarded as a suite of sorts, somehow interconnected.

In any case, the performance started out in a lecture-presentation mode, as if Soper, in speaking voice, intended to deliver a lecture. But as the ideas began to soar, the presentation and their modes started shifting into new realms. Seattle Symphony’s new Octave 9 space was just right for the theatricalization, with Pluta’s electronic manipulation enhanced by visualizations that fluctuated across the curved screen behind the performers.

Soper’s method is to compile literary and philosophical texts, which she rearranges in collages that incorporate her own reflections. These she sets to music across a performative spectrum ranging from rhetorically emphatic narration to singing with extended vocal techniques, at times accompanying herself at the keyboard.

The Octave 9 performance underscored Soper’s special attraction to the classical world, with fragments from the pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides serving as the centerpiece, “filled in” with a haunting setting of the W.B. Yeats poem “For Anne Gregory” to enhance her reflections on the metaphysical speculations — tantalizingly incomplete — of Parmenides.

The interplay between rational, logical argument and immediately graspable flashes of (irrational?) beauty emerged as a subtext. The “Way of Appearance,” paradoxically, beckoned — dazzling with its “empirical noise” — as a possibly even more alluring path than the timeless, invariable “Way of Truth” posited by the extant fragments of Parmenides’ great poem On Nature (which itself, as Lucretius later did, uses the vehicle of art for the philosopher’s message).

This will be a good season to discover the world of this amazing artist. In Seattle, Seattle Modern Orchestra will present Kate Soper’s Ipsa Dixit on June 5 and 6. This is a chamber music theater piece for voice, flute, violin, and percussion that was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2017.

Soper also recently announced that her new opera, a treatment of the French medieval allegory-poem The Romance of the Rose, will be premiered April 2-5 on Montclair State University’s Peak Performances series.

Filed under: Kate Soper, new music, new opera, Octave 9

Music That Matters from MOR: Responding to Intolerance

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Mikhail Shmidt, Takumi Taguchi, Walter Gray, and Susan Gulkis Assad (quartet, l to r) with José Rubio as narrator in Ryuichi Sakamoto’s “Passage”; photo (c) Ben VanHouten

Music of Remembrance (MOR) opened its 22nd season yesterday afternoon at Nordstrom Recital Hall with a characteristically challenging program that included two world premieres.

MOR’s mission to remember the Holocaust through music is by no means limited to a focus on the past. Founded by artistic director and pianist Mina Miller, MOR has actually proved to be ahead of its time in grappling with issues of social justice and persecution.

Commissions in recent years have become, alarmingly, more and more topical. Confronting intolerance and its destructive consequences remains an urgent struggle in our troubled era, when anti-Semitism is on the rise, targeting of refugees and immigrants is condoned by those in power, and the tools of social media amplify the same hate- and fear-fueled ideologies that motivated the Nazis.

In 2017, MOR premiered Ryuichi Sakamoto‘s Snow Falls for violin, piano, and narrator, a work that addresses the horror of nuclear war — inspired by MOR’s Voices of Witness project that has confronted the experience of Japanese Americans during the Second World War. Sunday’s concert presented MOR’s second Sakamoto commission: Passage, scored for string quartet and narrator.

Though brief, this single-movement piece seems to cover a vast emotional landscape. It unfolds as an elliptical drama, a miniature epic recounting one person’s ordeal as he was forced to flee his native Egypt and find refuge in Germany.

The composer/actor/producer/peace activitist Sakamoto, who was not present but shared his thoughts via a pre-recorded video, explained that he had befriended a young Egyptian, Kareem Lofty, on Facebook and wanted to commemorate this man’s experiences during the Arab Spring and its aftermath. Lofty’s words formed the text read by narrator José Rubio to the accompaniment of a string quartet.

Comprising the quartet, Mikhail Shmidt, Takumi Taguchi, Susan Gulkis Assad, and Walter Gray gave a performance that was all the more moving for its understated anguish. Beginning as a duet for cello and viola, the quartet proceeded in a kind of suspended time. Harmonies that were plaintive in their simplicity — and reminiscent of the Heiliger Dankgesangand its ancient mode in Beethoven’s Op. 132 — started and stopped, as if pausing to catch a breath.

At first I wondered whether Rubio’s voice wasn’t sufficiently amplified. But I then realized that his soft-spoken delivery was perfectly suited to Sakamoto’s musical vision. It added a subtle tension, compelling even greater focus and concentration on the horrors witnessed by Lofty as well as on the ennui of daily life as a refugee.

The other new commission was Veritas (i.e., “Truth”), a mixed-media piece by Shinji Eshima, a composer and double bassist from the Bay Area. Veritas expands on an earlier piece, in which Shinji fashioned a duet for cello and double bass from J.S. Bach’s Second Suite in D minor for solo cello, with a visual dimension.

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Walter Gray and Jonathan Green in Shinji Eshima’s “Veritas”, with media design by Kate Duhamel of sculptures by Al Farrow; image (c) Ben VanHouten

Kate Duhamel‘s video displaying images from the American sculptor Al Farrow‘s Vandalized Doors series was projected as Walter Gray and Jonathan Green played the multi-movement Suite, famously characterized by Pablo Casals as “tragic.” (His tags for each of the other Suites (Nos. 1 and 3-6) were, respectively: “optimistic,” “heroic,” “grandiose,” “tempestuous,” and “bucolic.”) The musical idea seemed to be to embody, in another instrument, one of the (many) other voices implied by Bach’s illusionistic polyphony — to “liberate” and amplify it.

But it wasn’t until around the middle of the piece that Eshima’s additional double bass voice really opened up a new perspective on Bach’s score for me, when it seemed to start following an “alternative” path. The two musicians’ doubling of the flowing line of the final Gigue was a virtuosic tour de force.

The Farrow images, on the other hand, were mesmerizing, haunting, and disturbing all at once. Farrow used weapons and munitions — some more easily recognizable than others, like bullets and machine guns — to construct giant doors to a mosque, a church, and a synagogue. Some of the images included defacements of the sacred spaces, such as a spray-painted swastika — candid images of intolerance all too commonplace even today. Eshima was quoted in the program as viewing Farrow to be “the Picasso of our time,” noting: “He creates visual Truth out of guns and bullets without making any judgments. Experiencing his art allows one to discover one’s own Truth.”

A duet for violin and piano by the Dallas-based, Indian-Israeli composer Simon Sargon opened the program: the mystical musical prayer Before the Ark, with Mina Miller accompanying Takumi Taguchi from the keyboard. The violinist drew silky, muted tones from his instrument to frame the piece with a reverential aura.

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Mikhail Shmidt, violin; Laura DeLuca, clarinet; Walter Gray, cello; Jonathan Green, double bass; and Jessica Choe, piano; with Karen Early Evans and Erich Parce; photo (c) Ben VanHouten

Concluding the concert was the cycle Camp Songs by Paul Schoenfield — an earlier MOR commission from 2001 that was a finalist for the Music Pulitzer. Camp Songs has had an impressive afterlife since MOR premiered it in 2002.

Written for a chamber ensemble (Mikhail Shmidt, violin; Laura DeLuca, clarinet; Walter Gray, cello; Jonathan Green, double bass; and Jessica Choe, piano) and two singers, the cycle was here presented for the first time in a new staging conceived and directed by Erich Parce (who also directed memorable productions of MOR’s two commissions from Tom Cipullo, Afterlife and last spring’s The Parting). Parce himself performed the baritone role, joined by soprano Karen Early Evans.

Schoenfield built Camp Songs from music and poetry by the Polish journalist Aleksander Kulisiewicz (1918-1982), who was incarcerated for nearly six years in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin. Making music with fellow prisoners was his means of resistance — and at the same time served to record and document the unbelievable atrocities that were now part of everyday life. “In the camp, I tried to create verses that would serve as
direct poetical reportage. I used my memory as a living
archive. Friends came to me and dictated their songs,” Kulisiewicz later recalled. The Kulisiewicz Collection can now be found in the archives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Camp Songs comprises five of these texts, whose tone of bitter, hard-edged satire is evident from the opening depiction of a kapo, “Black Boehm,” who sings enthusiastically of his position as a crematorium worker. Parce’s stark staging amplified the grim litany of beatings, humiliations, and cruelty. The chamber ensemble’s impassioned playing ratcheted the irony to an almost unbearable level.

Review (c) 2019 Thomas May. All rights reserved

Filed under: commissions, Holocaust, Music of Remembrance

Mozart’s Sex and Mind Games at Juilliard

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Sara Jean Tosetti’s costume sketches for Ferrando, Dorabella, Fiordiligi, and Guglielmo

For the Juilliard Journal, I spoke to stage director David Paul and music director Nimrod David Pfeffer about their production of the final Mozart-Da Ponte collaboration, which Juilliard Opera performs later this month.

Così fan tutte is subtitled “The School for Lovers” — but this third and last of Mozart’s collaborations with his librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte also provides an excellent education for emerging opera artists. The two couples at the center of the narrative “are young people who are at a juncture of having to figure out who they are and what they want out of love and life,” according to David Paul, who will direct Juilliard Opera’s new production. “They have to make consequential decisions for the first time in their lives, which makes Così remarkably appropriate for what these students are living through.”

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Filed under: directors, Juilliard, Mozart

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