MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

The Unstoppable George Walker

Tomorrow is the 95th birthday of George Walker. This American musical treasure remains creatively productive and full of insight and deserves to be far better known.

I was incredibly fortunate to be able to spend some time interviewing him for the profile in Strings magazine’s July issue.

It’s currently available to subscribers, so I can post only a brief teaser:

When he published his memoirs in 2009, George Theophilus Walker chose the title Reminiscences of an American Composer and Pianist. It was at the keyboard that he first formed his musical identity, starting when he was five. Precocious musically and intellectually, Walker graduated from high school at 14 and in the yearbook announced his intention to become a concert pianist — which is precisely what he proceeded to do, in characteristic Walker fashion.

Filed under: American music, George Walker, Strings

Innovative Premiere by Music of Remembrance

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Mary Kouyoumdjian, composer. Photo credit: Dominica Eriksen

Last night’s Spring Concert presented by Music of Remembrance (MOR) featured the world premiere of an extraordinary collaboration: to open myself, to scream, a portrait piece inspired by the Holocaust survivor Ceija Stojka (1933-2013), with music by Mary Kouyoumdjian and visual design by Kevork Mourad.

The entire concert, titled Ceija, and presented at Benaroya’s Nordstrom Recital Hall,  was dedicated to the legacy of this Roma artist, writer, and musician who survived three concentration camps — though many members from her extended family did not.

Born to Catholic parents, Stojka traveled during summers with her Roma family across the Austrian countryside as a child — the family business involved horse trading — while they wintered in Vienna.

Only 12 by war’s end, Ceija Stojka took decades before she could even begin processing these traumatic memories through her painting and writing. (She was 55 when she began painting.) But she gained a following, also publishing a trio of autobiographies that broke ground in addressing the issue of the Nazi genocide of the Roma people — whose persecution hardly ended with the war. Vienna named a square inStojka’s honor following her death in 2013.

Kouyoumdjian is a young Brooklyn-based composer who has been commissioned by such distinguished ensembles as the Kronos Quartet.  In previous works she has addressed experiences of the Armenian genocide and the chaos of war, which directly affected her family.

This commission is very much in keeping with MOR’s commitment, in the words of founder and artistic director Mina Miller, to remind us of “the Holocaust’s urgent lessons for today, and of the need for vigilance and action in the face of threats to human rights everywhere.” MOR friends Marcus and Pat Meier, longstanding advocates for and collectors of Stojka’s art, had brought the artist’s story to Miller’s attention and sponsored the new commission.

Kouyoumdjian took her title from a speech Stojka gave in 2004 for the opening of a retrospective at Vienna’s Jewish Museum: “I reached for the pen because I had to open myself, to scream.”

Each of the four movements of to open myself, to scream is also titled after quotes from the artist. Kouyoumdjian says that she was drawn to Stojka’s “themes of longing for the past and coping with the aftermath of unimaginable trauma,” adding, “I hope to continue the conversation about how we sympathize with those who experience the unimaginable, and how we can pull from the past to move forward.”

That’s a tall order for any work, but Kouyoumdjian succeeds brilliantly in drawing us sympathetically into Stojka’s world. She makes us sense precisely these themes of longing and coping through art. What’s more, she does this without sentimental manipulation or a false glaze promising aesthetic redemption.

to open myself, to scream creates a bold, innovative soundspace using techniques of layering and multiple forms of dialogue among its unusual chamber configuration of clarinet, trumpet, violin, cello, and double bass (all played by Seattle Symphony musicians).

The most overt musical dialogue is between present and past. The players interact with an electronic soundtrack that samples and processes material they had previously recorded;  Kouyoumdjian also recorded vocal samples representing Stojka’s memories of her mother comforting her (she was in the camps with her daughter) — but these are filtered and distanced, so that the comfort offered always seems just beyond the horizon.

Overall, the effect is of a labyrinthine internal dialogue, a dialogue poised restlessly between contradictory impulses. The narrative framework implies a desire to revisit happy memories of childhood (evident particularly in folk-flavored idioms), which are accompanied and superseded by the trauma to which these are inevitably linked. Kouyoumdjian’s continually transforming soundscape conveys this harrowed consciousness, whose very sensitivity enhances the pain of memory.

Another significant dialogue is the one between music and visuals. The latter, working with the whole spectrum of Stojka’s paintings and ink sketches, were designed by Syrian-Armenian artist Kevork Mourad (a multi-media master who has collaborated with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project among many others).

Projected onto a large screen behind the players, the paintings are animated into a filmic accompaniment to the score (rather than the conventional order of the reverse). Mourad’s remarkable animations underscore the music’s sense of memories and images being unrelentingly processed. In turn they establish their own varieties of dialogue and interchange: between figuration and abstraction, saturated colors and somber black-and-white, recognizability and ambiguity.

Particular figures are seen moving into or receding from the foreground. At times the “action” creates an illusion of the paintings trying to breathe, which anticipates one of Kouyoumdjian’s most startling gestures, at the end of her score. In conjunction, music and visuals reinforce the feeling of a struggle between the past and “moving forward.” A kind of anxious pedal point grounds many of the musical gestures, even at their most frenzied, until the piece ultimately builds to an overwhelming, unresolved climax.

What’s especially innovative here is the sense of emotional pulse Kouyoumdjian establishes: never linear or straightforward but always in motion, acting and reacting. The last movement is titled after one of Stojka’s most unforgettable statements: “Auschwitz is only sleeping. If the world does not change now … then I cannot explain why I survived …”

MOR’s program also presented the world premiere of new choreography by Olivier Wevers, artistic director o Seattle’s Whim W’Him company. The music was from Osvaldo Golijov’s score to the 2000 film The Man Who Cried, which depicts the story of a Roma man and his lover, a young Jewish woman, in Nazi-occupied Paris.

Featuring dancers Liane Aung and Karl Watson, Wevers’ choreography emphasized the passionate urgency of the lovers’ bond, their individuality facing powerful destructive forces. The sextet of SSO musicians gave a poetically touching account of Golijov’s music, with its blend of klezmer and Roma-folk elements.

The program also included a number of works by composers who either fled or fell victim to the Nazis. SSO violinist Mikhail Shmidt and pianist Jessica Choe offered a bit of needed relief between the emotionally gripping premieres: a dazzling performance of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s 1949 Rhapsody on Moldavian themes, populist and wildly mercurial.

The first, relatively lighter half of the program included a nostalgic reverie of old Vienna in Karl Weigle’s Revelation for string quintet and Hans Gál’s Schubert-inflected Variations on a Viennese Melody, a youthful work from 1914.

Vocal music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who fled Europe to become a legendary Hollywood composer, filled out the rest of the program.  Catherine Cook‘s lush, resonant mezzo soprano was perfectly tailored to the arrangement (for piano quintet) of “Mariettas Lied” from Korngold’s 1920 opera Die tote Stadt.

While Hitler was in power, Korngold refused to write concert music or opera and turned to film music. One near-casualty of his career after fleeing the Nazis was a series of songs set to Shakespeare texts, some of which were lost when the family estate was confiscated; fortunately the composer was able to recreate them from memory in his new home in Los Angeles. With Mina Miller at the keyboard, Cook sang four of these, including Korngold’s folk-simple but piquant version of Desdemona’s “Willow Song.”

On May 24 MOR will perform Kouyoumdjian’s to open myself, to scream at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The rest of the program will include music by Hans Krása, Betty Olivero, and Lori Laitman.

(c) 2017 Thomas May. All rights reserved. 

 

 

 

Filed under: American music, commissions, Music of Remembrance, review

Lou Harrison’s 100th

May 14 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Lou Harrison. NPR’s Tom Huizenga has this lovely appreciation:

The composer’s motto was “Cherish, Conserve, Consider, Create.” He was a published poet, a painter and a calligrapher, and was openly gay back in the 1930s. […]

Harrison was fond of saying, “Enjoy hybrid music, because that’s all there is.”

“He knew that all music actually comes from other musics and combinations,” [biographer Brett] Campbell says. “There’s no such thing as a pure music.”

And from Brett Campbell himself, at Oregon Arts Watch:

Since Harrison’s death, his music is played somewhere every day, often in dance works, several choreographed by his great friend and colleague Mark Morris. It’s a colorful story, told in Eva Soltes’s film Lou Harrison: A World of Music, and in the new biography I co-authored with Bill Alves, Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick— and it all began here.

Harrison’s legacy extends into this century: his work with Asian musical forms and instruments and his exploration of new tuning systems opened a whole new world of possibilities to modern music, allowing composers to take resources from various cultures and use them to make new music.

 

 

Filed under: American music, anniversary, Lou Harrison

A Visit with Composer Jennifer Higdon

Higdon-ComposingMy story on Jennifer Higdon is now out in the current issue of Strings magazine:

Jennifer Higdon is not only stunningly prolific but one of the most-performed American composers at work today. Her style offers an appealing balance of the accessible and the imaginative, and it attracts top-flight soloists, orchestras, and chamber ensembles—like Trio Solisti, which just premiered the composer’s Second Piano Trio, Color Through. Higdon, who turns 55 in December, also contributes to musical life through her teaching and residencies at such institutions as the University of Missouri–Kansas City, where she is currently the Barr Institute Laureate…

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Filed under: American music, feature, Jennifer Higdon, Strings

David Del Tredici at 80

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Photo by Susan Johann

In honor of the unmatchable David Del Tredici as he celebrates his 80th birthday on March 16, here’s my new profile for Strings magazine:

The tradition of the composer-performer underlies some of the cornerstones of the repertoire. Think of Vivaldi the violinist. Mozart the keyboard phenomenon. Mahler the conductor—his instrument being the orchestra itself. But sometimes it’s actually the distance between composers and the instruments for which they write that adds a special flavor to the creative act.

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Filed under: American music, David del Tredici, Strings

A.J. Kernis’s Killer New Violin Concerto at Seattle Symphony

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photo by James Holt

In last night’s Seattle Symphony concert led by Ludovic Morlot,  James Ehnes introduced a brand-new violin concerto written for him by one of today’s finest composers, Aaron Jay Kernis. This was the U.S. premiere; last week Ehnes gave the world premiere in Toronto (a co-commissioner with SSO).

Talk about making a great first impression! Despite — or even because of — its terrorizing challenges for the soloist, this is a concerto built to last: it’s so good and makes such an obviously satisfying contribution that I’d bet at least some of the more interesting virtuosos at work today will be intrigued to take it on.

I sometimes wonder whether we’ve been going through something of a concerto overload in recent years: too many composers relying on the supposedly built-in attractions of a structure that can feature a star protagonist while also benefiting from the color and horsepower of an orchestra (even if the latter is used merely for “atmospheric” painting rather than in a richer, symphonic way).

One of the many things that impress me about this new piece is that Kernis has really thought through the concerto idea and created something substantial and fresh without relying on esoteric novelties — without trying to reinvent the wheel.

In fact, an attempt at abstract description of the piece might make it sound almost old-fashioned, but it’s not. Like Brahms writing for Joseph Joachim (though Kernis himself studied violin as a youngster), he resorts (distantly) to Baroque forms in the outer movements — an intensely felt and gripping Chaconne for the first and a “Toccatini” (his play on the toccata) for the finale — with a soulful “Ballad” doing service as the aria at the center. And the profusion of little cadenza-islands amid the orchestral archipelago also underscores the concerto’s conventional identification with virtuoso prowess.

But Kernis animates all of these conventional elements with a marvelously contemporary spirit. The first two movements have deep emotional resonance, while the finale is so infectiously zippy (and outrageously hard to play) it leaves you with a buzz — a musical martini, as the composer jokes.

He’s often described as “eclectic,” but I don’t think that does justice to the distinctive personality Kernis conveys in his Violin Concerto. True, there are hints of, well, Brahms (in the emotional severity and fatalism of the first movement), Berg, Bach, Stravinsky for sure (in the finale), Messiaen (the wondrous tangles of sound in the “Ballad,” which is also cured with jazz and blues flavors). But instead of a random mishmash, Kernis amalgamates these idioms into a rich, compelling harmonic language and flow of ideas.

One could appreciate Kernis’s score on the level of its orchestral ingenuity alone: such interesting sounds and blends, which paradoxically erase the model of individual “versus” the orchestra — at least over long stretches of the piece. Paradoxically because, on the most obvious level, this concerto it is a virtuoso showpiece in the old school sense.

But with James Ehnes as the soloist, the clichés often signaled by “virtuosity” — mere dazzle, effects without causes — have no bearing. It’s clear that Kernis tailored the piece to display this unmatchable violinist’s musical intelligence, taste, and beautiful sound production above all incredible technical feats he calls for (of which this piece is essentially a violinist’s compendium).

Whether Ehnes was attacking a fearsome passage of double-stop chords with his signature elegance or deftly sprinkling a torrent of precisely placed pizzicati,  it was like watching  a veteran climber scaling a particularly brutal mountain face sans ropes.

But for all the thrills and escapades, the overall impression he left of the concerto — which Kernis has dedicated to Ehnes — was of a rich, many-colored, joyful composition that has something compelling to say, and that resonates afterward.

Again, this is all part of the extraordinary balance Kernis has achieved in his Violin Concerto, overriding binaries of dark/light, intense/carefree, Apollonian/Dionysian, “serious”/enjoyable.

Morlot — a big part of this success in the less obvious task of precision-engineering and calibrating Kernis’s complex orchestral apparatus — was a deeply  sympathetic collaborator in this premiere.

He opened the program with a youthful curiosity by Debussy from a student cantata (the “Cortège et Air de danse” from L’enfant prodigue). The second half brought Beethoven’s Sixth.

Morlot’s account of the Pastoral from several seasons ago has stayed with me as some of his best Beethoven. It’s fascinating to hear him continuing to develop his ideas of this piece. Connections between the movements (even between symphonies) emerged effortlessly — above all in the limber, serenely flowing string lines of the second and last movements, which were reminiscent of his vision of the Ninth’s slow movement at the beginning of the year.

Despite some ensemble untidiness, there was especially delectable work from the winds (Eric Jacobs’ clarinet as beguiling as the voice of Orpheus). Michael Crusoe’s timpani pulsed with dramatic thunder and lighting in a storm movement that sounded like a sketch for The Flying Dutchman: further evidence of the silliness of that persistent cliche about the “placid” even-numbered versus “revolutionary” odd-numbered Beethoven symphonies. Next week brings a further chance for comparison, when Morlot and the SSO close out their two-year Beethoven cycle with the mighty Fifth.

(c) 2017 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: American music, Beethoven, commissions, James Ehnes, Ludovic Morlot, review, Seattle Symphony

Seattle Symphony Is Making Music Matter

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Kinan Azmeh, Ludovic Morlot, and Seattle Symphony; image (c) Brando Patoc

Some thoughts on recent Seattle Symphony programs, now on Vanguard Seattle:

Say goodbye to ivory towers.

So far this month, the Seattle Symphony Orchestra (SSO) and music director Ludovic Morlot have presented three widely varied programs. Two of these addressed red-hot current events that would have seemed surprising in the middle of a “normal” concert season not too long ago.

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Filed under: American music, Beethoven, Debussy, Ives, Ludovic Morlot, Prokofiev, review, Seattle Symphony, Vanguard Seattle

Charles Ives: Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day

Filed under: American music, Charles Ives, San Francisco Symphony

Remembering Lenny

In honor of Leonard Bernstein’s birthday — just two years away from the centenary now! — I’m reposting a link here to some thoughts from a few years ago.

Filed under: American music, anniversary, Bernstein

Tuning Up!

My preview of Seattle Symphony’s upcoming festival of American music, from Charles Ives to Julia Wolfe and John Luther Adams:

“There are as many sides to American music as there are to the American people,” Leonard Bernstein remarked in one of his popular Young People’s Concerts devoted to the topic “What Is American Music?”

“Maybe that’s the main quality of all — our many-sidedness. Think of all the races and personalities from all over the globe that make up our country. We’ve taken it all in,” he said.

Bernstein broadcast that message almost six decades ago in 1958. Since then the musical landscape has become vastly more diverse, many-sided and multi-layered. The old-fashioned image of the melting pot seems quaint compared to the dazzling, complex intersections and border crossings that make today’s musical scene so vibrant and self-aware.

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Filed under: American music, Ludovic Morlot, Rhapsody, Seattle Symphony

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