MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Happy 80th Birthday, Meredith Monk!

To celebrate the art of Meredith Monk — who turns 80 today — Flotation Device is presenting a two-hour career retrospective from her experimental origins (w/Collin Walcott & Don Preston) through her recordings for ECM to the large-ensemble works she has written in recent years. Sunday 10pm to midnight PST, @KBCS 91.3fm https://kbcs.fm.

Filed under: Meredith Monk, music news

João Carlos Martins at Carnegie Hall

The incredible João Carlos Martins — a genuine cultural hero — celebrates the 60th anniversary of his debut at Carnegie Hall this evening at 7pm ET. He will lead NOVUS NY in a program combining Bach with music by the Brazilian composers Heitor Villa-Lobos and André Mehmari.

One of the great Bach interpreters at the keyboard, Martins shifted to conducting when it became no longer possible to continue his career as a concert pianist as a result of injuries and the condition of focal dystonia (which also affected the late Leon Fleisher). You can read in much greater detail here about the musician’s epic struggles and the love of music that has kept him going.

I had the honor of writing the program notes for his Carnegie Hall concert, which will present the following program:

J.S. Bach: Brandenburg Concertos 1 and 3
“Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” from the Cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben BWV 147
(arranged by Heitor Fujinami)

Heitor Villa-Lobos Prelúdio from Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4 W264 – 424

André Mehmari Portais Brasilerios No. 2 (Cirandas)




Filed under: Bach, music news, pianists

Lucerne Festival Forward

Lucerne Festival’s three-day fall edition devoted to contemporary music starts today. The opening program of Forward takes place at the Swiss Museum of Transport planetarium and is centered around the Swiss premiere of Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Enigma for string quartet, featuring with 360-degree video by Sigurður Guðjónsson.

Telescope meets microscope: let’s shake up the relationship between outside and inside, between macrocosm and microcosm! Under the massive planetarium dome at the Swiss Museum of Transport, you will zoom into the infinite expanses of the universe, accompanied by improvisations. Sigurður Guðjónsson’s immersive 360-degree video Enigma also makes visible what is normally hidden from the human eye: with the help of an electron microscope, Guðjónsson scans the surface of a carbon fragment – suggestive images reminiscent of Martian landscapes. In tandem with the sounds of Anna Thorvaldsdottir, which oscillate subtly between flow and fragmentation, they combine to form a hypnotizing Gesamtkunstwerk.

more on Lucerne Festival Forward

Filed under: Lucerne Festival, music news

Happy 80th Birthday, Daniel Barenboim!

Lucerne Debut: Daniel Barenboim conducts the English Chamber Orchestra, 1966 © Paul Weber / Lucerne Festival

As a tribute to the phenomenon known as Daniel Barenboim, here’s a collection of memories from his decades at Lucerne Festival.

On 25 August 1966 – the very same year as two other artists who have left a deep impression in recent decades, Bernard Haitink and Claudio Abbado – Daniel Barenboim appeared for the first time before the Festival audience in Lucerne. He was only 23 years old at the time, and yet he confidently played a double role: in piano concertos by Mozart (Jenamy) and Beethoven (Piano Concerto No. 2), he not only appeared as the soloist with the English Chamber Orchestra but also conducted from the keyboard, and he also took to the podium to conduct Bartók’s Divertimento for String Orchestra….

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Filed under: Daniel Barenboim, music news

Juilliard String Quartet’s Moving Late Beethoven at Meany Center

Juilliard String Quartet, The Juilliard School, Wednesday, May 4, 2022. Credit Photo: Erin Baiano

Soon after I wrote about the Juilliard String Quartet (JSQ) for Strings magazine on the occasion of its 75th-anniversary season last year, Roger Tapping’s illness worsened; the beloved violist, who had played with the ensemble since 2013, died in January 2022. One of the programs the JSQ had planned for the anniversary centered around Beethoven’s Op. 130 Quartet in B-flat major and had already been postponed from its originally intended performance during the 2020 homages to the composer. That program, titled “Cavatina,” was finally presented on November 15 at the University of Washington’s Meany Center for the Performing Arts.

Molly Carr, who had been mentored by Tapping, was welcomed into the ensemble in May as the late violist’s successor. They are currently in the midst of a West Coast tour for the first time in this new formation: Areta Zhulla and Ronald Copes, violins; Molly Carr, viola; and Astrid Schween, cello. With this personnel, the JSQ will bring the “Beethoven “Cavatina” program back home to New York at the end of the month at Alice Tully Hall — exactly a year after it had originally been scheduled.

The concept behind “Cavatina” involves an intriguing blend of an enigmatic and unfathomably profound repertoire monument — for some, the most excellent of Beethoven’s quartets — with music by a living composer who has a valuable perspective to offer on his predecessor.

The JSQ juxtaposed Beethoven’s massive work from 1825-26 with a pair of string quartets by the prominent German composer Jörg Widmann that they had commissioned as commentary pieces on Op. 130; they concluded the challenging program with a performance of the Op. 133 Grosse Fuge, which Beethoven initially intended to serve as the finale of Op. 130.

Ronald Copes offered a brief but eloquent introduction to the project that explained its newly acquired layer of significance as a memorial for their late colleague Roger Tapping. During its first decades starting in the mid-20th century, under founding member Robert Mann’s guidance, the JSQ had firmed up its reputation as an intellectually inclined, Modernist powerhouse, its Beethoven refracted through the lens of Bartók, for example. In some ways, this performance suggested a radical reset — and an attempt to recreate the sheer strangeness and enigma Beethoven’s late quartets must have posed to his contemporaries. The musicians emphasized the principle of contrast — so astoundingly different from High Classical contrast — that makes Beethoven sound perennially experimental.

This was especially evident in their pacing of the pauses and unison attacks in the long first movement and the eccentric humor they brought out in the dance movements. The fifth-movement Cavatina became the axis around which this gigantic quartet revolved, and it inspired the most directly emotional playing I’ve heard from the Juilliards. Copes memorably described the heartbreak in this music as “Beethoven trying to control the sadness.” Their account, unsentimental but not stoic, was exceptionally moving, the players breathing together as one organism. The return to earth in the later, more modest finale Beethoven designed for Op. 130 brought to mind the mechanism of release Bach inserts in the Goldberg Variations, near the very end of the journey, with the Quodlibet: a new acceptance of the reality of ordinary life, which of course can never be perceived in the same way after what has just been experienced.

The evening’s second half presented the two new Widmann quartets. I couldn’t determine where these were first premiered — apparently at some point earlier this season — but the commission had been a special passion project of Roger Tapping. The first, Widmann’s Quartet No. 8 (Beethoven Study III) is in three movements and explodes into life as a meditation on the energy and strangeness of Op. 130. What Widmann accomplishes isn’t a sterile deconstruction or postmodern round dance about a defined parameter but a provocative reimagining. As the JSQ attempted through their primary account of Op. 130, Widmann’s musical response seeks to recreate the utter weirdness of Beethoven’s late quartets when they were first introduced. Pleasures abounded in the JSQ’s performance, such as listening to Widmann’s rethink of the core principle of variation with a “permanent calling into question of assertions.” The final movement ended with the sound of an impossible lightness, like a balloon let go to drift upward into invisibility.

Widmann has actually composed five quartets he calls “Beethoven Studies” (his String Quartets Nos. 6-10), which are somehow tethered to Op. 130. The last of these (Cavatina — Beethoven Study V), also commissioned by the JSQ, concludes this cycle with a reflection on Beethoven’s Adagio movement — “one of the most emotional movements ever written by Beethoven,” as Widmann puts it, with a certain degree of understatement. In contrast to the structural intricacies and playful games of his Quartet No. 8, he lets loose in this single-movement work with “a free form of ardent singing and flowing,” in the composer’s words, “marking the conclusion of the cycle which grapple so vehemently and sensuously with the cosmos of Beethoven’s quartets.”

Beethoven was famously persuaded to publish the Grosse Fuge as a standalone piece, replacing it with a much shorter, dance-like, and definitively lighter-hearted finale — the revised finale we had heard on the first half of the program (which is the last piece of music the composer completed before his death in 1827, aside from various sketches). In their rendition of the Grosse Fuge that concluded the program, the JSQ lost some of the focus that had made Op. 130 so riveting. Perhaps this was in itself an interpretive choice, but to this listener the unrelenting, raw thrust of Beethoven’s writing gave way to unexpectedly smoother edges.

Filed under: chamber music, review, string quartet

Songs for the People from Seattle Pro Musica

Seattle Pro Musica continues its 50th-anniversary season with Songs for the People, the second of its New American Composers concerts. The program features composer Melissa https://melissadunphy.com/about.phpDunphy, an award-winning and acclaimed composer specializing in vocal, political, and theatrical music. 

SONGS FOR THE PEOPLE features five choral works by Melissa Dunphy, including the world premiere of her commissioned work, Songs for the People, set to poetry by the poet and anti-slavery activist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Her other works on the concert address issues of immigrant rights and women’s rights. Melissa will present a pre-concert talk at 7:00 pm.

Also on the program are works by Dale Warland, Pärt Uusberg, and Eric Tuan.

The concert takes place at Seattle First Baptist Church, at 7:30 pm, November 12.

Tickets available at seattlepromusica.org/songs-for-the-people

The performance will also be available by livestream in real time, and on demand following the performance. You just need to register in advance.

Program notes:

Filed under: music news, Seattle Pro Musica

Tan Dun’s Buddha Passion

Composer Tan Dun (Courtesy of Tan Dun)

I wrote in advance about this week’s visit to Seattle Symphony by Tan Dun. Thursday night he conducted the Seattle Symphony, Seattle Symphony Chorale, Northwest Boychoir, and guest soloists in a moving performance of his Buddha Passion.

Here are excerpts from my review of the US premiere of Buddha Passion, performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel in 2019:

LOS ANGELES—A signature of Tan Dun’s most successful compositions is his gift for mixing putatively disparate elements into powerfully original amalgams. To make that happen means being able to take serious risks—and the premise behind Buddha Passion is nothing if not bold. The audience’s euphoric reaction at Walt Disney Concert Hall, where the Los Angeles Philharmonic and a cast of guest performers under Gustavo Dudamel gave the United States premiere on February 8, confirmed the tangible impact of Tan’s wildly imaginative gamble here.

Buddha Passion uses the rough outlines of the Christian Passion oratorio as a vehicle to explore the life and teachings of the Buddha. Tan drew inspiration specifically from the Mogao Caves outside the northwestern Chinese city of Dunhuang. These encompass over a millennium’s worth of murals and sculpture relating to Buddhism as well as artifacts that even contain evidence about the music of this period. xx`

It’s fitting that Dunhuang was an ancient Silk Road outpost, since, on multiple levels, Buddha Passion stages a meeting place for diverse cultural phenomena: not only between the Passion format of the Christian West and Buddhism but between the Western orchestra/chorus and a Chinese-inflected soundscape, populist folk idioms and innovative “high art,” music, theater, and visual art. 

Tan’s Water Passion from 2000 responded directly to the Christian model, representing a millennial, global perspective on Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. In my view, Buddha Passion’s looser connection to the Passion idea—the composer also conceives of it as an opera—has resulted in a much more compelling work of art that transcends surface novelty and achieves a moving coherence on its own terms.

Over its two hours (including one intermission), Buddha Passion unfolds in six “acts,” each using a famous story associated with the Buddha himself or his teachings and sharing a core message of compassion, underscored by a recurrent chant motif. Tan distributes the voice of the Buddha among his various soloists and the chorus. In the first act, for example, the death of a bird leads Little Prince (sung by mezzo Huling Zhu) on his path to enlightenment. The stories share the clarity and directness of folk tales—such as the Deer of Nine Colors (soprano Sen Guo), a benevolent force who is killed by a man she has saved from drowning (tenor Kang Wang), or a contest of minds in the Zen tale of a woodcutter (bass-baritone Shenyang) whose wisdom awes the Master Monk. Yet from such simple elements and easily recognizable music gestures, Tan has constructed a monumental and richly complex work.

His instrumental resources blend the Western orchestra with an expanded percussion section including Tan’s hallmark “organic” sound sources from water and wood. In one scene, the fantan pipa virtuosa and dancer Chen Yining enchanted by setting the scene for a magnificent palace. 

Tan crafted his own libretto from original sources (a few bits in Sanskrit, the majority in Mandarin), and the LA Master Chorale as well as LA Children’s Chorus were also called on to incorporate Chinese techniques, including extensive glissandi.

Paradise seems never to be as conducive as the stumbling blocks to get there when it comes to inspiring art, and at moments I worried that Tan’s mellifluous, long-limbed melodies would become too syrupy. But context is everything here, and I found the sincerity of these gestures to be enhanced by the enormous variety of stimuli—not only musical—with which Buddha Passion teems, so that these moments served an emotional purpose similar to the directness of the narratives. 

The most powerful foil to potential sentimentality came in the indelible fifth act (“Heart Sutra”), which recounts the tragic meeting between a minstrel monk and Nina, a woman from the West who dies in his arms. With contributions by two indigenous artists taking center stage here—the Mongolian throat singer and Batubagen, also playing erhu, and the singer-actress Tan Weiwei—the intensity of this section made it stand apart as an opera-within-the-passion. Yet it was also brilliantly integrated into the narrative flow Tan had established. 

This passage also underscored the success of another facet of the composer’s fusion in this work: the ability to weave ancient, folk-based music and traditions into his unique language. Elsewhere in Buddha Passion we heard dense harmonic clusters radiating an Ivesian aura while, punctuating the finales of both parts (acts three and six), vibrant, tumultuous dithyrambs of rhythmic energy. This Buddha, when awakened, is not one to go gently into that good night. 

Filed under: review, Seattle Symphony, Tan Dun

Rediscovering Joseph Bologne

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, posing with his fencing rapier, painted by Mather Brown, in 1787. (Public domain)

Here’s my Seattle Times story for Seattle Baroque Orchestra’s upcoming concert devoted entirely to music by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges:

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, defies easy categorization.

For Seattle-based violinist, professor and filmmaker Quinton Morris, Bologne (1745-1799) combined “the entertainment appeal of Michael Jackson and the athleticism of Michael Jordan.” Morris’ award-winning film and performance project “Breakthrough,” which he has taken on tour around the world, presents Bologne’s many-layered story through a contemporary lens.

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Filed under: music news, Seattle Times

An Electrified Concerto Zaps Violin Tradition With Cosmic Fantasy

Pekka Kuusisto was the soloist in Enrico Chapela’s ‘Antiphaser,’ a concerto for electric violin and orchestra, with the Seattle Symphony under Andrew Litton. (Photos by Brandon Patoc)

My review of Enrico Chapela’s new violin concerto, Antiphaser, which Pekka Kuusisto premiered on Thursday with the Seattle Symphony under guest conductor Andrew Litton:

It’s been nearly a year since Thomas Dausgaard’s abrupt departure as the Seattle Symphony’s music director, but the projects initiated under his tenure and delayed by the pandemic continue to make their way to the Benaroya Hall stage. The latest of these is Antiphaser, a concerto for electric violin and orchestra by the Mexican composer Enrico Chapela. Trading his 1709 “Scotta” Stradivari for an electronically amplified instrument, Pekka Kuusisto joined the orchestra to perform the world premiere under the baton of Andrew Litton on Nov. 3….

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Filed under: commissions, review, Seattle Symphony, violinists

El último sueño de Frida y Diego at San Diego Opera

Guadalupe Paz as Frida Kahlo and Alfredo Daza as Diego Rivera; photo credit: Karli Cadel

My review of the world premiere of Gabriela Lena Frank’s new opera about Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, which sets a libretto by Nilo Cruz, is available here at Musical America (no paywall through the weekend):

SAN DIEGO  — At the center of El último sueño de Frida y Diego (The Last Dream of Frida and Diego), Frida Kahlo decides to cross over from the underworld and return to the realm of the living. It’s a conceit that cries out for operatic treatment, and composer Gabriela Lena Frank and librettist Nilo Cruz oblige with an inspired fusion of music and poetry. 

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Filed under: American opera, review, San Diego Opera

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