MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

An Evening of John Luther Adams

The sudden cold blast, climate change, a pandemic that seems never-ending, World War III angst — I’d rather take a night off and focus instead on the transportive music of John Luther Adams. Erin Jorgensen has curated a program of small-ensemble works that is being presented at 8pm on Thursday, 24 February, at the Chapel Performance Space in Seattle.

JLA of course has an important relationship with this city: Seattle Symphony commissioned his Pulitzer Prize-winning (and Taylor Swift-approved) Become Ocean as well as its companion work Become Desert.

Thursday’s program, which includes lighting designed by Charles Smith, will consist of:

The Farthest Place | violin, vibes, piano, marimba, double bass

The Wind in High Places | string quartet

Among Red Mountains | piano

The Light That Fills the World | violin, vibes, keyboard, marimba, double bass

Seattle Symphony members Mikhail Shmidt (violin), Andy Liang (violin), and Joseph Kaufman (double bass) are among the musicians, who also include Rose Bellini (cello), Storm Benjamin (vibraphone), Rebekah Ko (marimba), Jesse Myers (piano), and Erin Wight (viola). Mask and vaccination required for entry; tickets $15-$30.

PS In case you missed it, JLA’s memoir Silences So Deep came out in the height of the pandemic.

Filed under: John Luther Adams, music news, Uncategorized

Lowell Liebermann’s Frankenstein

My latest CD review for Gramophone is of the recording by the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra of Lowell Liebermann’s lengthy ballet score Frankenstein:

Within just five years of its publication in 1818, Mary Shelley’s classic horror novel inspired a stage play that became a hit – the first of a seemingly endless stream of adaptations for other media that has flowed ever since. While the most popular of these are associated with the screen (going back to a 1910 short silent film from Edison Studios), Frankenstein has additionally spawned operas, musicals and this full-length ballet, premiered by the Royal Ballet in 2016….


Filed under: ballet, CD review, Gramophone

Happy Birthday, John Adams!

A spirited toast to the matchless John Coolidge Adams, who celebrates his 75th birthday today. This is an especially busy year for the composer: San Francisco Opera will launch its centenary season in September with the world premiere of Adams’s latest opera, Antony and Cleopatra.

Filed under: John Adams, music news

Ruth Reinhardt and Asher Fisch Lead the Seattle Symphony

Ruth Reinhardt conducting Seattle Symphony in Bernstein’s Candide Overture during her tenure as an SOO Conducting Fellow (2017)

Last week’s subscription concerts launched Seattle Symphony’s Sibelius Symphony cycle, which had been anticipated as a highlight of Thomas Dausgaard’s return since the pandemic. In the wake of the now-ex-music director’s sudden departure announced last month, a handful of replacement conductors has been enlisted to take over Dausgaard’s commitments for the rest of the season.

First up this month was Ruth Reinhardt, a remarkable conductor of the young generation. She had the formidable task of taking on the first program of the Sibelius cycle, in which the Finnish composer’s symphonies are being combined with newly commissioned compositions. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Ellen Reid responded to Sibelius’s First Symphony with a work titled TODAY AND TODAY AND TODAY AND TODAY AND TODAY AND TODAY AND TODAY AND TODAY AND TODAY AND TODAY. Lasting about a quarter-hour, it showed Reid as a composer who not only creates intriguing soundscapes but is able to illuminate them with psychologically resonant significance.

The Macbethian title (even more despairing than “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”) refers to the patterns of repetition and monotony endured during the pandemic. But her music stages various escapes — lyrical fantasias, utopian dreaming, even a down-to-earth party — from the stasis and repetition that threaten to drain each day of the joie de vivre. Reid uses the resources of the orchestra with great imagination and variety.

Moreover, as became clear in Reinhardt’s sweeping, panoramic vision of the Sibelius, Reid seems to have found a pandemic-era equivalent for the vision conveyed by Sibelius’s extraordinary debut symphony, which builds to a seeming lyrical breakthrough or even oasis, only to find it illusive. That connection certainly seemed apparent in Reinhardt’s overview of both works. Between them, we were treated to an exquisitely phrased, completely beguiling interpretation by Garrick Ohlsson of the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, followed by thunderous, bell-like chords in his encore, the C-sharp minor Prelude.

What a gift to have Asher Fisch back in town after a long absence. The program he conducted on Thursday evening paired George Walker and Gustav Mahler, and the pairing works beautifully. Fisch infused Lyric for Strings with genuine warmth and underscored the fascinating entanglement of folk and modernist elements in the much later Folksongs for Orchestra, which dates from 1990. It continues to defy belief that this great American composer remains such a rarity in our concert life. How long is it going to take to change that?

Fisch was in his element with Das Lied von der Erde, and the Mahler-starved audience — the pandemic has been especially unkind to the composers who require enlarged orchestras — drank it up with rapt attention. I especially admired his flexible rhythms and feeling for Mahler’s Jugendstil ornamentation, but he also kept the emotional destination of the cycle clearly in view, illuminating the way to, and the journey within, the vast final song. Problems of balance left tenor Russell Thomas largely drowned out for stretches of the opening “Trinklied,” but his passionate delivery conveyed the flashes of bitter epiphany Mahler expresses.

Mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor brought a rich, dark timbre to her three songs, carefully building the sense of inevitable leave-taking in “Der Abschied.” The expanded woodwind section was a special highlight, with eloquent contributions from flutist Demarre McGill and oboist Mary Lynch in particular. Fisch’s unpretentious, unfussy clarity allowed each detail to fall into place with memorable impact.

The program will be repeated on Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 4pm. It would be a shame to miss it.

Filed under: George Walker, Mahler, review, Seattle Symphony

George Crumb: An Appreciation

George Crumb’s final work: Kronos — Kryptos

Reflecting on George Crumb for Musical America:

The American composer George Crumb, whose innovative, theatrically charged soundscapes explored a new kind of musical poetry, has died after a long and far-reaching career. He was 92. 

Filed under: American music, George Crumb, music news, Musical America

George Walker at Seattle Symphony

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.
George Walker; image by Frank Schramm

Thinking of the brilliant composer George Walker today, who passed away almost four years ago at the age of 96. Tonight’s Seattle Symphony program pairs music by Walker with Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. Walker will be represented by his Lyric for Strings and Folksongs for Orchestra.

On the podium, in another welcome return, is Asher Fisch, who has been absent far too long. He was principal guest conductor of Seattle Opera from 2007 to 2013.

Here’s the story I wrote about George Walker for the New York Times before the pandemic. Many thanks to Frank Schramm, whose marvelous photos were indispensable to this piece.

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….


Filed under: George Walker, Mahler, Seattle Symphony

Seattle Opera Announces Its New Season

Seattle Opera today announced the program for its 2022-23 season. Of special note are the world premiere of A Thousand Splendid Suns, an opera by composer Sheila Silver and librettist Stephen Kisakos based on Khaled Hosseini’s novel and the return of Wagner (for the first time since 2016) with Tristan und Isolde staged by Argentinian director Marcelo Lombardero, with conductor Jordan de Souza. Mary Elizabeth Williams will sing Isolde to Stefan Vinke’s Tristan, and Amber Wagner makes her Seattle Opera debut as Brangäne.

The rest of the season will include a concert version of Saint-Saëns’s Samson and Delilah conducted by Ludovic Morlot and starring soprano J’Nai Bridges, as well as full productions of Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love (the Stephen Lawless staging) and Verdi’s La traviata directed by Francesca Zambello.

“Next season is a reminder of all that live opera can be,” says General Director Christina Scheppelmann. “After an extended period of restrictions, we are thrilled to offer an expansive vision of the operatic universe that encompasses a remarkable breadth of stories and operatic styles. Music is a window to the world, and we cannot wait to show that in full force once again.”

Overview of the 2022-23 season

Filed under: music news, Seattle Opera

RIP George Crumb (1929-2022)

Sad news via Bridge Records of the passing of George Crumb, who reportedly passed away today, 6 February 2022, at his home in Media, Pennsylvania.  The Pulitzer Prize-winning composer was 92 years old. My appreciation for Musical America is here.

Filed under: American music, music news

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