MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

John Adams’s Antony and Cleopatra at San Francisco Opera

Gabrielle Beteag as Iras, Amina Edris as Cleopatra, Taylor Raven as
Charmian, and Gerald Finley as Antony

I wrote about John Adams’s latest opera for Musical America:

Filed under: John Adams, review, San Francisco Opera

Moving Nonsense and Beauty from Theatre22

Cast of Nonsense and Beauty (c) Truman Buffet

I can’t recommend Theatre22’s current production highly enough. It marks the West Coast premiere of Scott C. Sickles’s Nonsense and Beauty, a dramatic portrayal of the decades-long love story between novelist E.M. Forster and Bob Buckingham.

Sickles is a welcome discovery for me. Nonsense and Beauty received its world premiere in March 2019 at the Repertory Theatre of Saint Louis. Structured as a mostly linear sequence of brief, cinematic scenes, the play traces the emotional and sexual connections between the lovers from their first encounter during an Oxbridge boat race party in 1930 until after Forster’s death in 1970. The dialogue is gratifyingly stylish and compelling; Sickles occasionally incorporates excerpts from Forster’s prose as well. (The eponymous quote, from , runs: He felt that nonsense and beauty have close connections,—closer connections than Art will allow,—and that both would remain when his own heaviness and his

Sickles is a welcome discovery for me. Nonsense and Beauty received its world premiere in March 2019 at the Repertory Theatre of Saint Louis. Structured as a mostly linear sequence of brief, cinematic scenes, the play traces the emotional and sexual connections between the lovers from their first encounter during an Oxbridge boat race party in 1930 until after Forster’s death in 1970. Aside from a few longueurs that could be clipped, the tempo flows smoothly and is engaging.

The dialogue is gratifyingly stylish, compelling, without pretension; Sickles occasionally incorporates excerpts from Forster’s prose as well. (The eponymous quote, from The Longest Journey, runs: “He felt that nonsense and beauty have close connections,—closer connections than Art will allow,—and that both would remain when his own heaviness and his own ugliness had perished.”)

Based on biographical events, Nonsense and Beauty poignantly, without self-congratulatory hindsight, reimagines the atmosphere of risk-taking, secret intimacy, fear, and life-affirming liberation that surrounded Forster (Eric Mulholland) and his much younger lover, a policeman at that (Russell Matthews). Sickles doesn’t limit himself to the couple’s relationship but also explores the confusion that unfolds when Bob decides to marry May, an independent-minded nurse who has cared for him — and who loves literature, especially Forster’s writing (Jennifer Ewing). What results is a far cry from the stereotypical love triangle but a moving portrayal of the complex web of entanglements and loyalties of an enduring love.

The love story expands to include the circle of Forster’s close friends, represented by the witty, outspoken, and courageously out fellow writer and editor J.R. Ackerley (Hisam Goueli). His mother Lily (Marty Mukhalian), with whom he still lives in the first years of his relationship, observes judgmentally but suppresses her own critique after a certain point.

Corey McDaniel, who is Theatre22’s founder and producing artistic director, does the company proud directing a first-rate cast who each bring an individual stamp to their characters. Thanks to the efficiently Minimalist design, the flash of color provided by a symbolically fraught rosebush is especially effective.

But the achievement is bittersweet, as it seems this is, unexpectedly, Theatre22’s farewell production. I fondly recall the company’s inaugural show from almost a decade ago (also directed by McDaniel). Theatre22 has been a much-needed part of Seattle’s theater ecosystem, so it’s painful to realize all that will vanish. All the more reason not to miss Nonsense and Beauty, which runs at the Seattle Public Theater through October 2.

Filed under: review, theater

Gabriella Smith: Treelogy

I was so taken with Seattle Symphony’s live performance of Tidalwave Kitchen this week that I searched out other upcoming projects by its wonderful young composer Gabriella Smith and discovered this. She’s one of three composers commissioned by the The Soraya/CSUN for its Treelogy project—including Steven Mackey and Billy Childs—to create work in response to California’s devastating wildfires.  The commission was inspired by the New York Times writer John Branch’s 2020 coverage (who just wrote about the disappearing San Francisco fog).

Here’s some info on Treelogy, which will be premiered on 23 February 2023 at the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts on the California State, Northridge campus in Los Angeles County:

Treelogy: A Musical Portrait of California’s Redwood, Sequoia, and Joshua Trees is a celebration and a call to action to save California’s beloved and iconic trees. Inspired by California’s epic wildfires chronicled by The New York Times journalist John Branch, The Soraya’s Executive and Artistic Director, Thor Steingraber, and artist in residence Etienne Gara, have created a musical response to the fires, and a tribute to these precious trees. Renowned composers Billy Childs, Steven Mackey, and Gabriella Smith—all with deep California roots of their own — have each composed original music for this three-part concert. Produced, commissioned, and presented by The Soraya, Treelogy will tour the state bringing scientists, educators, activists, and advocates will come together and bring its inspiring message to campuses across California. This unprecedented multi-disciplinary effort will emphasize the pride of our state and the memories of every family’s national park vacation. 

Filed under: music news, new music

Seattle Symphony Continues Its Reunion with Ludovic Morlot

Ludovic Morlot conducting the Seattle Symphony with soloist Jan Lisiecki in Grieg’s Piano Concerto; image (c) Brandon Patoc

Several times during Seattle Symphony’s concert last night, it felt like a time machine had whisked us back a few years to the Ludovic Morlot era. The orchestra reunited with its former music director last weekend on opening night and is continuing the collaboration for the first full concert of the season’s subscription series. And they’ve managed to reactivate something of the chemistry that made their first seasons together so exciting.

You could sense it in the joyful enthusiasm with which they brought to life the opening piece, Tidalwave Kitchen, by Gabriella Smith. For the second time in a row this month, Morlot and the SSO launched a concert with music by a young woman composer inspired by the West Coast’s natural beauty — last Saturday, it was the world premiere of PNW native Angelique Poteat’s  Breathe, Come Together, Embrace. So far as I know, Tidalwave Kitchen marked the first time the SSO has performed music by Smith, who hails from Berkeley and was mentored early on by John Adams. 

In a short introduction onstage, the talented young composer remarked that it was in this piece that she first had the reassurance of arriving at her own voice. Smith wrote it a decade ago, prompted during her student years on the East Coast by intense homesickness for the “beautiful and dramatic landscape of the Northern California coast” where she’d grown up. 

Smith elaborates in her composer’s note on the memories of that landscape that inspired her: “hikes shrouded in fog, tide pooling on the rocky beaches, and sitting by the Pacific listening to the hallucinatory sounds of the ocean, the keening gulls, pounding surf, sizzling of sand and sea foam, drifting in and out of fog and clarity, order and randomness, reality and imagination.” 

The resulting music paints no pretty postcard but is an immersive, sensory-rich orchestral fantasia, unpredictable yet persuasive in its wildly dramatic mood swings. Smith seems to want to embrace the world the way a Mahler born into the 21st century might have set out to do so, using post-Minimalist devices to power up and take flight. 

Fragments of a stable melody (or hymn?) want to coalesce at several points but remain shrouded by the almost-psychedelic haze of Smith’s timbral palette. A raucously festive outburst arrives at the climax, but its brash exuberance spills over into something vaguely ominously manic and then subsides. 

Over the summer, Morlot conducted the San Francisco Symphony in Tidalwave Kitchen, and he elicited palpable excitement from the SSO. It’s one thing to possess the keen musical imagination on display in this music, but Smith also shows a remarkable technical command of the resources of an orchestra, making the piece especially apt as a concert curtain raiser. I hope we get to hear more of her music in Benaroya Hall. 

Morlot will conduct his new orchestra (the Barcelona Symphony) in another piece by Smith later in October. Incidentally: this sought-after composer will be on the panel for the New York Times Events-sponsored seminar A New Climate exploring collective responses to climate change (October 12 in San Francisco).

Raucous, fiery energy likewise abounded in Jan Lisiecki’s account of the competitive folk dancing that drives the finale of Grieg’s Piano Concerto. Returning to the Benaroya stage following his inspired contribution to the opening night concert, Lisiecki approached the familiar concerto from an almost dizzying plenitude of perspectives. 

His variety of tonal colors was spellbinding: the thunderous chords of the massive first movement cadenza thrilled with power and accuracy, while the plaintive trains of the Adagio breathed the poetry of Lisiecki’s most personally inflected Chopin. It was especially nice to hear his rendition of Chopin’s posthumously published Nocturne in C minor as an encore, where he distilled that poetry to its most concentrated essence. I was also struck by the quality of his partnership with Morlot and the orchestra as he responded to the phrasings of individual players, such as the idyllic interlude flutist Jeffrey Barker shaped in the finale. 

The extreme pianissimos Lisiecki drew out of the Steinway foreshadowed the drama whipped up in the second half of the program. Morlot led the SSO in Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony back in 2014 (when it was similarly paired with new music — a piano concerto by Alexander Raskatov). Eight years on, to my ears there is no doubt that his understanding of this music has deepened and darkened. His command of the larger span of Tchaikovsky’s design has strengthened as well. 

The opening lamentation — expressively phrased by bassoonist Luke Fieweger, in one of several outstanding cameos from across the SSO’s ranks — set the terms of the drama as effectively as a memorable establishing shot by a seasoned director. Morlot outlined the long first movement’s disparate sections with a clarity that underscored the emotional polarities of Tchaikovsky’s enigmatic final symphony.

However, I found something lacking in the middle movements. The tricky meter of the second movement waltz came off sounding slack, even a bit sloppy, while the swaggering march in the third movement needed a tighter rein to wield its full irony. But Morlot inspired the most moving playing of the evening in the Requiem-like finale, building by subtraction so that the pitiless subsidence of Tchaikovsky’s conclusion overwhelmed with its negation.

The program will be repeated Friday and Saturday.

Review (c) 2022 by Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Ludovic Morlot, pianists, review, Seattle Symphony

A Restorative Opening Night at Seattle Symphony, with French Accents


Jan Lisiecki, Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony; image (c) Brandon Patoc

My review of this weekend’s opening night concert:

Mixing the familiar with some discoveries, the Seattle Symphony offered a pleasingly varied program to open its new season. The event also brought an element of reassurance by evoking welcome memories of a more stable era as former music director Ludovic Morlot reunited with the orchestra…


Filed under: commissions, pianists, review, Seattle Symphony

Seattle Symphony Opens Tonight

Music by Angelique Poteat

Seattle Symphony launches its 2022-23 season tonight with a world premiere by local composer Angelique Poteat, some scintillating Chopin, and a Francocentric smorgasbord of delights led by conductor emeritus Ludovic Morlot.

The lineup includes Saint-Saëns’s La muse et le poète for solo violin and cello and orchestra and the 2nd Suite from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, as well as Poteat’s Breathe, Come Together, Embrace and Chopin’s Andante spianato and Grand polonaise brillante, with Jan Lisiecki  as the piano soloist. Lisiecki returns later next week for the first subscription concert to play Grieg’s Piano Concerto. Also led by Morlot, the program (Thurs-Sat, 22-24 September) also includes a new piece by a young American composer — Gabriela Smith’s Tidalwave Kitchen — and Tchaikovsky’s devastating final symphony, the Pathétique.

The performances can also be accessed from home via streaming.

Filed under: music news, Seattle Symphony

Trailblazing Women

Julia Wolfe

Giancarlo Guerrero conducts the Nashville Symphony this week in a program devoted entirely to American women composers, including the world premiere of a major new choral-orchestral commission from Julia Wolfe titled Her Story. My program notes for the concert are available here (link on lower right).

Filed under: commissions, Julia Wolfe, music news, women composers

Dianne Reeves Names Next Rolex Mentor in Music

Last Friday, at a ceremony conducted at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative announced the artists who will take part in the 2023-24 cycle of the initiative. Dianne Reeves will become the next mentor in the music division. She has chosen the South Korean singer and composer Song Yi Jeon as her protégée. 

The other mentors will include Anne Lacaton (Architecture), Jia Zhang-Ke (Film), Bernardine Evaristo (Literature), and El Anatsui (Visual Arts), each of whom will also serve as mentor to an outstanding emerging artist. Their protégé[e]s are, respectively,  Lebanese-Armenian architect, designer and researcher Arine Aprahamian; Filipino filmmaker Rafael Manuel; Senegal-based Ghanaian author Ayesha Harruna Attah; and Capetown, South Africa-based visual artist Bronwyn Katz, whose practice embraces sculpture, installation, video, and performance. 

The five-time Grammy winner Dianne Reeves is considered the pre-eminent jazz vocalist in the world. She is recognized for her breathtaking virtuosity, improvisational prowess, and unique jazz and R&B stylings. Her most recent album, 2014’s Beautiful Life, received the Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Performance. She became the first Creative Chair for Jazz for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and, in 2018, was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts: the highest honor the U.S. bestows on jazz artists.

Song Yi Jeon is a modern jazz singer and composer from South Korea. She is especially known for her hypnotic voice, which has been likened to a malleable wordless instrument. Jeon studied classical composition at the University of Music and Fine Art in Graz, Austria, and jazz vocals at the Academy of Music in Basel, Switzerland, and Boston’s Berklee College of Music. At Berklee, she was the inaugural Quincy Jones CJ&E fellow and was also awarded the Billboard Endowed Award. Song Yi Jeon released her first album, Movement of Lives, in 2018.

Since 2002, the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative has been connecting extraordinary young artists with acclaimed mentors in different artistic disciplines. The mentors personally select the protégé(e)s with whom they wish to collaborate through an international search. 

The Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative was established “to aid in the transmission of artistic knowledge and craft from one generation to the next,” according to the renowned watch designer and manufacturer based in Geneva, and “exemplifies Rolex’s pursuit of excellence, symbolized by the word ‘perpetual’” — which is inscribed on every Rolex Oyster watch. 

The list of mentors who have taken part in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative to date includes the following: Sir David Adjaye, Margaret Atwood, (the late) John Baldessari, Tahar Ben Jelloun, (the late) Trisha Brown, (the late) Patrice Chéreau, Sir David Chipperfield, Mia Couto, Alfonso Cuarón, (the late) Sir Colin Davis, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Olafur Eliasson, Brian Eno, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, William Forsythe, Stephen Frears, Gilberto Gil, Philip Glass, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, (the late) Sir Peter Hall, David Hockney, Rebecca Horn, Zakir Hussain, Joan Jonas, Sir Anish Kapoor, William Kentridge, Jiří Kylián, Robert Lepage, Lin Hwai-min, Phyllida Lloyd, Spike Lee, Lin-Manuel Miranda, (the late) Toni Morrison, Walter Murch, Ohad Naharin, Mira Nair, Youssou N’Dour, (the late) Jessye Norman, Michael Ondaatje, Crystal Pite, Alexei Ratmansky, Kaija Saariaho, Martin Scorsese, Kazuyo Sejima, Peter Sellars, Álvaro Siza, Wole Soyinka, Julie Taymor, Saburo Teshigawara, Jennifer Tipton, Colm Tóibín, Kate Valk, Mario Vargas Llosa, Carrie Mae Weems, Robert Wilson, Zhang Yimou, Pinchas Zukerman, and Peter Zumthor.

Filed under: music news

San Francisco Opera: Streaming the First Century

Now that San Francisco Opera has officially launched it 100th-anniversary season — with John Adams’s new opera Antony and Cleopatra, which I’ll be covering soon — the company is also celebrating its remarkable history with a curated series of selected historical recordings. Called Streaming the First Century, this new online hub provides free access to selected historic recordings from the SFO’s past century, along with rare artist interviews, archival photographs, program articles, oral history excerpts, and newly captured conversations among past and present San Francisco Opera creative luminaries.

Streaming the First Century sessions are being released for each month from September through December. Each session includes two complete historic recordings, audio excerpts from four additional performances, and introductions to each preserved audio experience by contemporary scholars, artists, and SFO members to add historical context and insights. The selection have been drawn from performances unique to San Francisco Opera and are not available on commercial recordings.

The themes of the 2022–23 season have been used to guide the selections. Session 1: Slavic Sensibilities pays homage to Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, which returns to the stage later this month (25 September–14 October), by offering an in-depth exploration of the works of Czech and Russian composers through landmark San Francisco Opera performances.

The complete recordings for Session 1: Leoš Janáček’s Jenůfa, from a 1980 broadcast starring Swedish soprano Elisabeth Söderström and Sena Jurinac as the stepmother (San Francisco Opera’s first production of a Czech opera in the original language ); and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, from a 1981 broadcast starring Anja Silja as Katerina Ismailova.

Coming up on 10 October is Session 2: Parlez-vous français? — which will have a French focus, in tandem with the upcoming production of Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites.

Filed under: music history, music news, San Francisco Opera

BBC Proms 2022: Guest Report

Guest contributor Thomas Luce on the recently concluded BBC Proms season:

The British Broadcasting Corporation’s 72 Promenade Concerts, which started in mid-July, ended two days before the Last Night of the Proms originally scheduled for 10 September. This is because such hugely joyful and triumphant public events would be inconsistent with the National Mourning following Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s deeply and widely grieved death on 8 September. 

The 2022 edition of the Proms very successfully delivered the gigantic and demanding variety of classical, modern, and some populist music summarised in my post here on 3 May. All of the programmed orchestras turned up, including those from Australia, Ukraine, Berlin, Finland, Norway, Cologne, and Philadelphia. And, generally, there were huge audiences in London’s Royal Albert Hall, which in the Promenade season can accommodate nearly 6,000 people.

All this year’s Prom concerts remain available on BBC Sounds until 10 October. Of the concerts we attended or heard, I would especially recommend the huge and powerful choral and orchestral programmes — which, until the end of Covid pandemic-related public restrictions (though not, of course, of the pandemic), were not allowable in public. So, for the first time in a couple of years, there were huge choruses with full orchestras: on Verdi’s Requiem(14 July), Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony (24 August), 29 August (Bach’s B minor Mass), Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius (31 August), Beethoven’s Choral Symphony (2 September) performed by the ethnically diverse Chineke! Orchestra supplemented by English choral societies, and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis (7 September) in a phenomenal performance by the Monterverdi Choir and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. Also very worthwhile were the two evenings by the world-famous Berlin Philharmonic on 3 and 4 September, which included Mahler’s Seventg Symphony, Schnittke’s interesting Viola Concerto, and Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony, as well a the superb performance by Sir Andras Schiff on Sunday morning (4 September) of Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas.

In addition to its recently broadcast public concerts, BBC Sounds makes all of its musical programmes available for a month or so. These include regular daily or weekly programmes, such as each day’s 24-hour playlist. Each Saturday morning also presents interesting record reviews. And each week a different composer is featured in hour-long discussions each day, which are informative and educational. Recently featured composers have included Dieterich Buxtehude and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Another advantage of the performances available on BBC Sounds is that they are not interrupted by advertisements. The intervals usually contain musically illustrated and informative discussions of the programme and its performers. A good recent example was the interval discussion during the Prom of 5 September, which included works by the Franco-American Betsy Jolas and Mahler’s First Symphony, which provided fascinating information on the music as well as on professional performances of both composers.

The last of the dozen Proms that my wife and I went to was by the Philadelphia Orchestra on 8 September. We reached the hall a short time after the Queen’s death was announced. The orchestra was on the stage, but it was announced that because of her death the intended programme would not be performed and there would solely be the National Anthem and the Nimrod Variation from Elgar’s Enigma Variations: a sombre and subtly sad piece that beautifully reflects public grievance, just as Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings comparably does in America. It was very movingly played by the Philadelphia musicians, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Filed under: BBC Proms, review

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