MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Melody, Metamorphosis, and Memory: Music for Oboe and Friends

For this evening’s recital at the Boulez Saal by Cristina Gómez Godoy, principal oboist of the Staatskapelle Berlin, has chosen a fascinating program of Saint-Saëns, Britten, Skalkottas, Carter, Kalliwoda, and Loeffler. Michail Lifits accompanies from the keyboard, and violist Joost Keizer joins the lineup. My program essay is here (starting p. 13).

Filed under: concert programming, oboe, Pierre Boulez Saal, program notes

Rites of Ecstasy: Thomas Dausgaard Pairs Knockout Scores by Scriabin and Stravinsky

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Thomas Dausgaard conducts the Seattle Symphony; photo (c) Carlin Ma

My review of the most recent program performed by Seattle Symphony under Thomas Dausgaard:

As Thomas Dausgaard continues along in his inaugural season as Seattle Symphony’s Music Director, it’s gratifying to see his intense rapport with the musicians expanding to different areas of the repertoire…

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Filed under: Alexander Scriabin, review, Seattle Symphony, Stravinsky, Thomas Dausgaard

La storia di Orfeo: Reframing an Operatic Myth

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Amanda Forsythe and Philippe Jaroussky with Boston Early Music Chamber Ensemble and co-directors Stephen Stubbs and Paul O’Dette

In contemporary times, the connotations of myth have been degraded to suggest something like “fake news.” Still, the truths they contain make the stories passed down as myths an inexhaustible source for inspiration and enlightenment. It seems inevitable that opera, from the start, needed to fall in love with the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in particular and has needed to return to it again and again — much as the legendary hero longs to be reunited with his beloved and bring back their vanished happiness.

But these reiterated operatic Orfeos are no mere repetitions. The brilliant concept underlying Philippe Jaroussky and colleagues’ La storia di Orfeo is to juxtapose parts of three different versions of the story spanning the 17th century and thus to create a new composite.

Jaroussky introduced the project a few years ago, recording it on the Warner label with Diego Fasolis and I Barocchisti. This fall, the countertenor has taken it up again (in somewhat modified form) for a North American tour. He is joined by soprano Amanda Forsythe as Eurydice and the Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Festival, led by co-directors Stephen Stubbs and Paul O’Dette*.

Their performance in Seattle last night — hosted by Seattle Symphony at Benaroya Hall — benefited from the highest level of musical values while at the same time overwhelming the audience with its emotional force. If you have a chance to catch the show’s remaining stops in Boston and the Morgan in New York, this really is one not pass it up.

Jaroussky explains that La storia di Orfeo “was conceived as a kind of opera in miniature or as a cantata” for compact forces. I found the narrative arrangement to have an immediacy and an arc that indeed seemed operatic in effect, even with the minimal (and tastefully done) semi-staging used here.

Chronologically listed, the three source Orfeos were Monteverdi’s landmark court opera from 1607 in Mantua and two later treatments by Luigi Rossi (1597-1653) and Antonio Sartorio (1630-1680) that premiered in 1647 in Paris and in 1672 in Venice, respectively.

The dramaturgical result was not a collage but followed the story’s familiar trajectory, though with different points of emphasis than we would experience from any single one of these three operas on their own. As Jaroussky notes, “Sartorio and Rossi depict the happiness of the young lovers and the scene in which Eurydice is bitten by the snake; Monteverdi, on the other hand, concentrates more on Orpheus’s search for Eurydice in the Underworld.”

An excellent essay in the program (by Jean-François Lattarico, from the album’s liner notes) elaborated on the myth’s musical-theatrical evolution in the 17th century, pointing out that the integral role of Renaissance humanism, Neo-Platonism, and poetry. It also explained the introduction of comic elements and even convoluted subplots post-Monteverdi, as well as the movement toward closed forms.

Yet for all the variety of its pastoral and dance-propelled moments, this Storia di Orfeo projected a profoundly melancholy, tragic demeanor that was further enhanced by the streamlined focus on the lovers — the opposite of the archetypal Romantic journey, building on Beethoven, from darkness to light.

Monteverdi’s “Possente spirto,” the centerpiece of his opera (Lattarico remarks that it borrows Dante’s “metrical structure” and encompasses the “three aspects of music — worldly, human, and instrumental”), also served as a fulcrum here. But there were also counterpart solos by Sartorio and Rossi following Orfeo’s second loss of Eurydice — respectively, “Chiuso, ahimè, di Cocito” and the devastating “Lasciate Averno” — that turned the program’s second half into a vast musical stele of mourning.

Jaroussky sang with heart-rending eloquence and enormous musical intelligence. His delicately weighted countertenor added a sense of vulnerability not often found in tenor Orfeos, but he fully brought out the role’s passion and despair. In one of the many paradoxes that surround this myth and its musical transformations, his intricate embellishments conveyed overpowering emotional honesty rather than florid artifice — as if these words, in this context, could be expressed only in this way.

It was illuminating to experience the iconic moments from Monteverdi’s opera in the context of the more extensive role allotted Eurydice through interpolated pieces from the other two operas, such as the exquisite “Mio ben, teco il tormento” from Rossi’s opera for Paris. Amanda Forsythe gave an equally memorable portrayal. One of the most searingly effective moments was her sudden appearance, after her death from the snakebite, as the “shade of Eurydice,” beckoning to Orpheus to brave the journey into the Underworld. Forsythe, whose voice in previous scenes conveyed the ideal “sweetness” referred to so often in the poetic texts (never cloying), brought out the grief-stricken intensity of Sartorio’s music — visibly moving her beloved and foreshadowing his own great task of moving the dark spirits of Hades.

Forsythe and Jaroussky were additionally given a number of duets, the purity of their vocal production merging into a fascinating hybrid. It’s not surprising that they have collaborated for some years now. (They’ve recorded Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice and, for Boston Early Music Festival, Agostino Steffani’s Niobe, regina di Tebe, among other works.) So it was a very smart idea to draw out their chemistry by interpolating, at the moment of the couple’s re-encounter in Hades, a scene from Steffani’s Orlando generoso in which Angelica and Ruggiero share their feelings of the absence of their respective lovers.

Along with the cast of just two singers, the ensemble for this tour involves a total of ten instrumentalists. The choral numbers that are part of the recording are dispensed with, but in their stead Stubbs and O’Dette have woven into the dramaturgy a fascinating range of contemporary instrumental interludes from across the 17th century. These serve as implicit commentaries to enhance the mood and setting.

An excerpt from a publication of Venetian sonatas “in stile moderno” by Monteverdi’s contemporary Dario Castello, for example, proved to be wonderfully evocative after Orpheus’s vibrant “Vi ricorda, o boschi ombrosi” from the Monteverdi opera. An extraordinarily dramatic sonata by Johann Rosenmüller (who fled the sex police in Leipzig and found refuge in Venice) served as a postlude to “Possente spirto.”

The ensemble played with style and dramatic presence — at times, the various strings emerged in the spotlight as extensions of Orpheus the musician, stretching the range of his lyre. On Baroque harp, Maxine Eilander’s silvery accompaniments added textural differentiation to the bowed strings so that I never felt a lack of color despite the absence of winds.

Not wishing to leave the enraptured audience in unassuaged gloom, Jaroussky, Forsythe, and the band provided a lieto fine after all by way of an encore: the final duet from Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea (“Pur ti miro”), which no one wanted to end.

Complete Program:
La storia di Orfeo: Monteverdi • Sartorio • Rossi

Antonio Sartorio: Sinfonia to L’Orfeo
Sartorio: Cara e amabile catena
Claudio Monteverdi: Rosa del Ciel – Io non dirò
Luigi Rossi: Mio ben, teco il tormento
Rossi: Che dolcezza è la certezza
Rossi: Sinfonia from L’Orfeo
Monteverdi: Vi ricorda, o boschi ombrosi
Dario Castello: Sonata 15 from Sonate concertate…in stile moderno, Libro II
Rossi: M’ami tu?
Rossi: A l’imperio d’amore
Sartorio: Ahimè, Numi, son morta – Misero, oh Dio
Rossi: Lagrime, dove sete?
Biagio Marini: Passacalio from Sonate per ogni sorte di stromento musicale
Sartorio: È morta Euridice
Sartorio: Orfeo tu dormi? – Se desti pietà – Ferma, Euridice
Monteverdi: Sinfonia
Monteverdi: Possente spirto
Johann Rosenmüller: Sonata Settima à 4 in D minor from Sonatae a 2, 3, 4 e 5
Agostino Steffani: Se t’eclisse – Vive stele from Orlando
Sartorio: Numic he veggio
Sartorio: Chiuso, ahimè, di Cocito…Rendetemi Euridice
Rossi: Lasciate Averno

Boston Early Music Festival Musicians:
Paul O’Dette, chitarrone; Stephen Stubbs, chitarrone & Baroque guitar; Robert Mealy & Julie Andrijeski, violin; Sarah Darling, viola; David Morris, violoncello & lirone; Doug Balliett, double bass; Michael Sponseller, harpsichord; Maxine Eilander, Baroque harp

(c)2019 Thomas May — All rights reserved.

Filed under: early music, Monteverdi, review, Stephen Stubbs

Recommended Release: Michael Vincent Waller’s Moments

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Almost a year ago, the New York-based composer Michael Vincent Waller told me about a new album he had in the works. The topic came up when I interviewed him for Musical America, which featured Waller as January’s new artist of the month.

The album, titled Moments, came out just last month on the Unseen Worlds label and offers a wonderful entrée into Waller’s musical world. His third album to date, it comprises 18 miniatures, 13 of them for solo piano, the other 5 for vibraphone.

Waller continues his collaboration with R. Andrew Lee, whose sensitive performances at the keyboard were featured on his preceding album, Trajectories (along with the phenomenal cellist Seth Parker Woods). The percussionist William Winant, a well-known personality in avant-garde circles, plays the pieces for vibraphone.

“One thing I’m trying to explore as an artist is the organic, intuitive sense we have about experiences — the human subtext to what is happening in the music, in its colors, harmonies, and melodies,” the composer explained during our talk last year. In Moments, he has distilled a range of experiences with an open-hearted, intimate honesty that resonates long after the ebb and flow of his compositions’ physical sounds.

It’s not necessary to know any of the autobiographical stories or family relationships and loved ones Waller memorializes here to be moved by the emotions they elicit. On another level, Moments pays gentle tribute to musical figures who are part of a generally known cultural repertoire. “For Pauline,” for example, referring to the late Pauline Oliveros, was prompted by her death in November 2016. Its bell-like chords in alternating registers concentrate the attention on the taken-for-granted miracle that is harmony, effecting an experience of “new sound.”

Similarly, the sounds of the piano itself begin to reassemble into something not-quite-familiar. This lays the ground for the wonderful effect of the vibraphone’s first entrance well into the album (in a kind of mini-suite comprising four of the miniatures and titled “Love”).

In the spirit of Oliveros and the philosophy of what she called “deep listening,” Waller composes with a deceptive simplicity. His aesthetic relies on — and expands from — a generous patience familiar from practices of meditation and mindfulness. These “moments” radiate a fullness that belies their duration — most of the pieces are between just two and three minutes long.

La Monte Young was a formative influence who opened Waller up to new ways of perceiving the materials of a composition — indeed, the phenomenon of sonority itself. Erik Satie and Morton Feldman are some of the other musical spirits evoked by various Moments. The final piece, “Bounding,” even alludes to a mainstay of Western music history, the descending “lamento” chord progression that has taken countless forms, from flamenco to the opening of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha).

But none of these are derivative or reduced to cliches. Waller’s use of the most elemental materials and gestures combines reflective process with an unironic, unconditional sharing of self and soul that I find deeply moving.

Waller again turns to the photographer Phill Niblock — as he does on his previous two albums — for the striking cover image of Moments. An LP edition is also available, and the record includes insightful commentary by Tim Rutherford-Johnson and liner notes by “Blue” Gene Tyranny.

Filed under: Michael Vincent Waller, new music, piano, review

Teodor Currentzis in North American Debut

Teodor Currentzis will make his North American debut with musicAeterna this week at The Shed in New York. On the program is Verdi’s Requiem, together with an experimental film by the late Jonas Merkas. I was asked to write a profile of Currentzis for Early Music America magazine.

Filed under: conductors, Early Music America, profile, Teodor Curentzis

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

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