MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

A Double Bill of Boulanger and Beethoven Rings in the New Year in Seattle

David Danzmayr and the Seattle Symphony; photo (c) Jorge Gustavo Elias

I closed out 2022 with a review of the Seattle Symphony performing Boulanger and Beethoven:

The tradition of attending performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony around New Year’s in Japan — where it is known simply as daiku — has a counterpart in Seattle. That the score’s epic journey spans such a spectrum of human experience yet culminates in a message of overwhelming affirmation makes the Ninth ideally suited for the Janus duty of casting a retrospective glance over the highs and lows of the year drawing to a close while ringing in the one just beginning with hope-filled anticipation….

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Filed under: Beethoven, review, Seattle Symphony

Celebrating San Francisco Opera’s Centenary at SFO

Company’s first production of The Ring of the Nibelung (1935)

SFO Museum at San Francisco International Airport have unveiled a new exhibition in connection with San Francisco Opera’s centennial titled San Francisco Opera: A Centennial Celebration. The curated installation in the Harvey Milk Terminal 1 (located post-security in Departures Level 2) showcases the Company’s first century and the art of operatic stagecraft.

The exhibition, on view through 13 August 13, 2023, captures San Francisco Opera’s rich history through a selection of costumes, stage props, set models, video and archival photographs from the collections of San Francisco Opera, the Museum of Performance + Design and the Metropolitan Opera Archives.

Costumes worn by operatic superstars who have graced San Francisco Opera’s stage during the past century are the focus of the presentation.

SFO Museum’s Curator of Exhibits Daniel Calderon said: “SFO Museum is delighted to feature the history of San Francisco Opera during the Company’s Centennial Season. San Francisco Opera is such an important cultural and artistic institution, and their story is both local and international. With their support, along with loans from the Museum of Performance + Design and the Metropolitan Opera Archives, SFO Museum has assembled a vibrant exhibition of costumes, photographs and artifacts that span almost a century of opera history. We know the exhibition will spur the interest of our traveling public and hope it will make new opera fans in the coming months.”

San Francisco Opera’s Director of Archives Barbara Rominski said: “Working with Daniel Calderon and the entire SFO Museum team has been rewarding on so many fronts, not least for the opportunity to share our archival collections with the airport’s enormous daily audience. Whether travelers have only a few seconds to spend with the exhibits or a long layover to really dive in, these remarkable garments and artifacts have a way of inspiring wonder at the creative possibility of this lively art form.”

Highlights include:

  • The cape and hat worn by famed Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette during San Francisco Opera’s inaugural 1923 season.
  • Legendary Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad’s Brünnhilde costume from Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre in the 1935 Company premiere of the composer’s four-opera cycle, The Ring of the Nibelung.
  • The military outfit worn by French soprano Lily Pons in Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment during the 1940s.
  • A dress from Massenet’s Manon worn by soprano and inaugural recipient of the Company’s Opera Medal, Dorothy Kirsten.
  • American soprano Leontyne Price’s costume from the 1981 production of Verdi’s Aida. An iconic interpreter of the title role, Price sang her first Aida with San Francisco Opera in 1957.
  • Additional costumes from productions of ToscaUn Ballo in MascheraTannhäuser and Rigoletto reflect the work of designers Thierry Bosquet, John Conklin, Paul Brown and Constance Hoffman.

For more information and to view the Exhibition Image Gallery, visit sfomuseum.org/exhibitions/san-francisco-opera-centennial.

Filed under: music news, San Francisco Opera

Byron Schenkman & Friends: Beethoven, Carlos Simon, and more

Byron Schenkman & Friends continue their 10th-anniversary season with a program on Thursday, 29 December (at 7pm at Benaroya Hall), juxtaposing the piano trio format with lieder. Beethoven’s Archduke Trio, a pinnacle of the piano trio from 1810-11, will be heard alongside 2021 Sphinx Medal of Excellence winner Carlos Simon‘s luminous be still and know, a composition from 2015 inspired by an interview with Oprah Winfrey. Filling out the program are songs by Beethoven, Mozart, and Schubert featuring vocalist Martin Bakari, winner of the 2018 George London Competition.  

The complete program is as follows:

Carlos Simon (b. 1986): 

be still and know for piano trio

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791): 

Abendempfindung (“Evening Thoughts”) (K. 523)
Zufriedenheit (“Contentment”) (K. 473)

Franz Schubert (1979-1828):

Du bist die Ruh (“You are Repose”) (D. 776)

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): 

Adelaide, op. 46

Ludwig van Beethoven:
Trio in B-flat, op. 97  

Allegro moderato
Scherzo
Andante cantabile, ma però con moto
Allegro moderato

Filed under: Byron Schenkman, chamber music

Angela Merkel on Wagner’s Ring

Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been channeling her passion for Richard Wagner into a podcast discussion on SWR2 in a three-episode series as part of Sprechen wir über Mord!? Merkel’s podcasts explore criminal contexts and motives in the Ring cycle. The podcasts are in German.


Episode 1: Greed

Angela Merkel: “The ring is so universally applicable to humanity that from family life to political life, you can always find things that just keep happening to us humans.”

Episode 2: Revenge

Angela Merkel: “”If you’re so affected by revenge or retribution that you can’t get that out of your head, then you should stop doing politics.”

Episode 3: Vanity

Angela Merkel: “To claim that anyone is completely free of vanity, well, I wouldn’t say that for me either. Vanity is something that is quite inherent in people, but it also has to be restrained.”

Filed under: music news, Ring cycle, Wagner

Erin Jorgensen & Friends: The Saddest of All Keys

UPDATE: Due to freezing rain and icy streets, The Saddest of All Keys with Richard Lefebvre & Rachel Kessler will be postponed to 14 January 2023.

Marimbist Erin Jorgensen joins forces with poet/Renaissance woman Rachel Kessler and ubiquitous front man Richard Lefebvre for a one-night-only-anti-holiday-holiday show. Expect dreamy visions, tales of kicking drugs, musings on seasonal depression and spiders, JS Bach, and amplified and acoustic marimba – all in the key of D Minor, of course.

Two shows on Friday 23 December at 6 and 9pm at Odd Sea | 1539 NW Leary Way. The venue is a new performance space made from a former auto-body shop in Ballard. Run time is approximately 50 minutes. Tickets here.

Filed under: music news

Chopin from Garrick Ohlsson: A Holiday Gift

The Houston-based chamber music and jazz presenter DACAMERA is offering a holiday gift of Chopin performed by one of the leading interpreters of his music, the Grammy Award-winning Garrick Ohlsson. Listen to his Chopin recital, which opened DAMERA’s season, as a free stream for two weeks, available here with registration.

The program includes:

Barcarolle in F-sharp Major, Op. 60

Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23

Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 58

Encore: Waltz in C-sharp Minor, Op. 64, No. 2

Filed under: Chopin, pianists

Behold the Star with Seattle Pro Musica

Seattle Pro Musica presents its holiday program on 17 December at 3pm at First Baptist Church in Seattle. Titled Behold the Star, the program offers holiday favorites as well as the world premiere of Shruthi Rajasekar‘s newly commissioned I am my own, set to texts by the three Brontë sisters (Emily, Charlotte, and Anne). Winter and holiday-themed works by Herbert Howells, Francis Poulenc, and Guillaume Dufay share the program.

Behold the Star is the third in Seattle Pro Musica’s New American Composer Series. The five-concert series celebrates Seattle Pro Musica’s 50th Anniversary,with commissions and Seattle residencies by five BIPOC composers from across the country.

This performance will also be available by livestream in real time and on demand following the performance (simply register in advance here).

Tickets available at seattlepromusica.org/behold-the-star

Filed under: holiday, music news, Seattle Pro Musica

Donald Byrd’s The Harlem Nutcracker

This is a holiday treat I’m especially looking forward to: the upcoming “teaser” for choreographer extraordinaire Donald Byrd‘s The Harlem Nutcracker at Spectrum Dance Theater.

Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s Nutcracker Suite is the musical inspiration for this work-in-progress. “The original story centers around an African-American family in Harlem on Christmas Eve,” according to Spectrum’s description. “It highlights the unique warmth and centrality of the grandmother in African-American culture, the resilience of Black American families and Harlem as a center of the African Diaspora.”

This year’s performance is being billed as a “teaser” to the complete production, tentatively scheduled to premiere in a little over a year. It includes the whole show except for the final 20 minutes — which will be unveiled as a surprise at the full premiere.

Dates: DEC 8-11 + 15-18, 2022 at On the Boards, 100 W Roy Street, Seattle, WA 98119. Tickets here.

Filed under: Duke Ellington, holiday, music news, Spectrum Dance

Senses of an Ending: The Emerson String Quartet Takes Its Final Bow in Seattle

The Emerson String Quartet; photo (c) Jürgen Frank

There’s actually still nearly a year to go before the Emerson String Quartet (ESQ) plays its final final concert, which is currently planned for the end of October 2023 at Alice Tully Hall in Manhattan. On top of that, they are also preparing a feature-length documentary of their farewell tour, written and directed by Tristan Cook and produced by Birgit Gernbōck. So this splendid, storied American ensemble still has some way to go before reaching the end of the line….

Still, the Emersons’ concert on 1 December at the Meany Center for the Performing Arts had a distinctly valedictory accent. One of the stops on their official farewell tour, their appearance at the University of Washington venue had already been postponed from the spring and marked the 27th (or possibly even 28th) visit since the ESQ’s debut there in 1988. The ensemble attracts a loyal following, and an impressive percentage of the audience indicated that they had attended that inaugural performance.

As for the musicians, violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer have remained part of the ESQ since they founded it in 1976, and violist Lawrence Dutton joined in 1977. The only other change in personnel has been the arrival of Paul Watkins in 2013 following the departure of longtime cellist David Finckel. (Reunions with Finckel and the other two former members, cellist Eric Wilson and violist Guillermo Figueroa, are also on the agenda during the farewell tour.)

The ESQ have been offering their renowned Shostakovich interpretations as part of the farewell tour — their final London concert a few weeks ago featured the bleak implications of the Russian composer’s last three quartets — but they chose a blend of American and classic European fare for their Meany Center program. Each selection suggested an individual variant on the idea of leave-taking. George Walker expressed his grief over the passing of his grandmother in his 1946 Lyric for Strings, which originated as the slow movement of his String Quartet No. 1. Walker’s structural idea of having the single voices enter one after the other served as a beautiful metaphor for the individuality of the quartet members joining together in song and converging in a collective eloquence.

The ESQ here set the tone for the entire program, which at times seemed uncharacteristically understated, even subdued — as if to keep the audience pricking up its ears to fill in the spaces for what seemed left unsaid. This ploy took particularly delightful form in the fifth of Haydn’s Op. 33 set, the Quartet in G major that since the 19th century has been known by the English nickname “How Do You Do.” The “farewell” here was especially sly and sophisticated. Haydn cleverly plays with the idea of musical endings, which is to say, cadences, by starting off the whole work with a cadential gesture that befits a closing phrase — but that he catchily turns into the connective idea, leading us ever onward. The ESQ didn’t overemphasize Haydn’s little jokes of time and timing — the pizzicato ending that throws an enigmatic question mark on the otherwise plaintive slow movement, or the stop-and-start high-jinx of the scherzo, for example. The focus seemed to be on letting the music have its say, with minimal “interference.”

This translated into a decidedly austere, anti-sentimental take on Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings — like Walker’s, music by a young man, originally positioned as part of a string quartet, which seems wise far beyond its composer’s years. The Adagio (which is said to have been inspired by the third of Virgil’s Georgics) has of course been turned into a default song of farewell, an idealized elegy enlisted to provide a kind of shared catharsis in times of devastating tragedy. Despite some wavering intonation (here and elsewhere in the program), the Emersons homed in, without exaggeration, on the simplicity of the line, Setzer’s first violin soaring with courageous honesty and Dutton’s viola adding a slight, pleading edge. I was especially struck by how an early music sensibility emerged here in place of the usual, throbbing Romanticism.

Schubert was just a couple years older than the Barber of the Adagio for Strings when he wrote his great Quartet in G major in 1826. But rather than launch his career, the Austrian’s final string quartet (unpublished while he was still alive) seems to combine an expansive sense of symphonic writing with his most ambitious ideas of the quartet genre. (It was just around this time that Beethoven was working on his final quartet, in the very same city.)

There was less dramatic digging-in to the muscular aspect of Schubert’s sound world than I expected, and more nuance and room left for inference. Drucker took the lead here (as he had in the Haydn), while Watkins offered some especially flavorful phrasing. The ensemble’s rhythmic flexibility served the Schubert well, and the harmonic revelations of this remarkable quartet were presented as if being discovered for the first time, to mesmerizing effect. The finality of the final cadence to the dance of the fourth movement — which felt as it might otherwise have kept driving ahead, a frenzied vision of eternal return — came as a shock.

As a gentle encore, the Emersons turned to Dvořák’s quartet arrangement of one of the numbers from the collection known as Cypresses (“I Wander Often Past Yonder House”) — the string quartet distilled into pure song.

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

Filed under: Emerson String Quartet, George Walker, Haydn, review, Schubert

Musical America’s New Artist of the Month: Nina Shekhar

Nina Shekhar; image (c) Shervin Lainez

I wrote about the fantastically talented composer Nina Shekhar for this month’s Musical America column:

Questions involving identity have fascinated Nina Shekhar since she can remember. Coming of age as a first-generation Indian American has meant learning to navigate different cultural expectations not only in her personal life but also in her priorities as an artist. “A lot of my work is identity driven,” the composer explained in a recent conversation via Zoom. “Music was always a way of understanding my relationship to myself and to my environment.”

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Nina Shekhar: rockabye-bye (2020), commissioned by Lyris Quartet and the HEAR NOW Music Festival

Filed under: composers, Musical America

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