MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

A Prismatic Program from the Danish String Quartet

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Currently touring the West Coast, the Danish String Quartet paid a visit recently. I now get what the fuss is about. Here’s my review for Strings:

The Danish String Quartet‘s contribution to the Beethoven 250 celebrations this season includes a tripartite North American tour. As part of the fall segment of this tour, which is currently underway, the Scandinavian foursome made a recent stop in Seattle. On offer was the first of the Beethoven-themed programs they are presenting under the project name PRISM. The performance launched this season’s International Chamber Music series at the Meany Center for the Performing Arts of the University of Washington.

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Filed under: Bach, Beethoven, chamber music, Danish String Quartet, review, Shostakovich, string quartet, Strings

Bach by Candlelight

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Dmitri Sitkovetsky, Ayana Tsuji (winner of the 2016 first prize), Matt Haimovitz, and Kim Kashkashian at Maison symphonique (Concours musical international de Montréal)

Filed under: Bach, photography

St. Matthew Passion: Free Access at Digital Concert Hall

The Berlin Philharmonic is making its 2013 video of J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in the Peter Sellars staging available for free until Monday.

The St. John Passion is similarly available until Monday.

From the Berlin Philharmonic’s program guide for St. Matthew Passion:

“Not all musicians believe in God, but they all believe in Johann Sebastian Bach,” said Mauricio Kagel, who grappled intensely with the life of the cantor at St. Thomas’s Church, plagued by bureaucratic city fathers and unmotivated Latin pupils, when he composed his own Passion. The term “Passion” is inextricably linked with the name “Bach”, first and foremost due to his St. Matthew Passion, already a work of superlatives in terms of its external dimensions.

That’s because the oratorio of the suffering and death of Christ, which in Bach’s lifetime eclipsed anything conceivable in the field of music, consists of no fewer than 68 individual movements (formerly counted as 78), which include, among others, the monumental opening chorus, the chorale setting “O Mensch, bewein dein Sünden groß” and the epic final chorus.

Already in the first version of the work from 1727 an extensive double choir setting of choir and orchestra is also required: the impressive stereophonic effects have lost none of their fascinating impact. (Bach himself demonstrably dared at a 1736 performance to separate the ensembles completely, enabling the real-spatial differentiation of the dialogue between the two vocal-instrumental ensembles.)

Starting off a week of festivities to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the opening of Hans Scharoun’s Philharmonie, Sir Simon Rattle conducts Bach’s greatest passion music, together with the Rundfunkchor Berlin, boys from the Berlin Staats- und Domchor and a top-class ensemble of soloists. It is a work you can become addicted to, a work in which you can always discover something new even if you have listened to it repeatedly. This concert is also a feast for the eyes: as in April 2010, the St. Matthew Passion is performed in Peter Sellars’ unforgettable staging.

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Filed under: Bach, Berlin Philharmonic, Peter Sellars

John Harbison Comes to Seattle

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If you’re in Seattle over the next few days, don’t miss the chance to experience John Harbison in person, who will perform at the keyboard with his wife, violinist Mary Harbison at Octave 9 tonight. AND Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony give the West Coast premiere on Thursday and Saturday of Harbison’s new work for organ and orchestra What Do We Make of Bach?. The program also includes a Stokowski Bach transcription and the last of Shostakovich’s 15 symphonies.

For more background on John Harbison, here’s my profile for a recent edition of Strings magazine:

Filed under: American music, Bach, John Harbison, Seattle Symphony

Poetry and Politics: Sir András Schiff Does Double Duty with Seattle Symphony

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Sir András Schiff © Nadia F. Romanini

Sir András Schiff began a remarkable weekend of music with his appearance as guest conductor of the Seattle Symphony. My review:

For a long time, Seattle audiences have made clear their admiration for the artistry of Sir András Schiff whenever he comes into town for solo recitals – including one occasion 17 years ago, when his Bösendorfer had an unfortunate encounter with black ice while being transported across the continent and a replacement had to be found at the last minute.

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Filed under: András Schiff, Bach, Bartók, Beethoven, review, Seattle Symphony

Turning the Page: Happy New Year 2019

Here’s one way to start the New Year: with this remarkable interpretation of Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier by Samuil Feinberg. The opening Prelude and Fugue in C major in particular sounds like a fresh start, yet already shadowed by experience.

Filed under: Bach, miscellaneous

Reena Esmail’s This Love Between Us

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Tonight the Los Angeles Master Chorale gives the West Coast premiere of Reena Esmail’s moving This Love Between Us: Prayers for Unity.

Here’s my program essay for tonight’s concert, which pairs her oratorio with Bach’s Magnificat.

I also had the privilege of writing this profile of Reena Esmail for Musical America.

Filed under: American music, Bach, choral music, Los Angeles Master Chorale, new music, Reena Esmail

A Weekend at Tippet Rise

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Jeffrey Kahane playing the “Goldberg” Variations. Credit: photo is by Emily Rund, courtesy of Tippet Rise Art Center

My report for Musical America on my recent trip to the Tippet Rise Art Center for a weekend of chamber music, sculpture, and nature has now been posted. PDF version here: Tippet Rise-pdf-07.30.18_MusicalAmerica

FISHTAIL, Montana–Lots of music festivals beckon with the prospect of a temporary retreat from the mundane. Tippet Rise Art Center takes this to a remarkable extreme, thanks to its geography. Located on a 10,260-acre working ranch in rural south-central Montana, Tippet Rise requires nothing less than a pilgrimage just to take in one of the musical weekends of this year’s summer festival season, spread over eight weeks between July and September.

Filed under: Bach, John Luther Adams, Musical America, pianists, review, travel

Strange Loops and Golden Braids

Last night’s performance of The Musical Offering is a contender for the highlight of the four performances I attended during this summer’s festival presented by the Seattle Chamber Music Society.

Today, by coincidence, as the thema regium occupies my mind, marks the 278th anniversary of the death of J.S. Bach. The performers — violinists James Ehnes and Amy Schwartz Moretti, violist Richard O’Neill, and cellist Edward Arron (the newly reformulated James Ehnes Quartet); violinists Yura Lee and Erin Keefe; violist Che-Yen Chen; cellists Julie Albers and Ronald Thomas; flutist Christie Reside; and harpsichordist Byron Schenkman — sustained a very special atmosphere throughout.

It differed in fascinating ways from the usual SCMS mood, Bach’s intellectual virtuosity holding the capacity audience spellbound, but with the tragic undertone that is also part of this music ever-present. Such a rare pleasure.

A few observations from Douglas Hofstadter’s 1970s classic, Gödel, Escher, Bach:

“The Musical Offering” is a fugue of fugues, a Tangled Hierarchy like those of Escher and Gödel, an intellectual construction which reminds me, in ways I cannot express, of the beautiful many-voiced fugue of the human mind. And that is why in my book the three strands of Gödel, Escher, and Bach are woven into an Eternal Golden Braid.

In [the Canon per Tonos], Bach has given us our first example of the notion of Strange Loops. The “Strange Loop” phenomenon occurs whenever, by moving upwards (or downwards) through the levels of some hierarchical system, we unexpectedly find ourselves right back where we started. (Here, the system is that of musical keys.) … Implicit in the concept of Strange Loops is the concept of infinity, since what else is a loop but a way of representing an endless process in a finite way?

To give an idea of how extraordinary a six-part fugue is, in the entire Well-Tempered Clavier by Bach, containing forty-eight Preludes and Fugues, only two have as many as five parts, and nowhere is there a six-part fugue! One could probably liken the task of improvising a six-part fugue to the playing of sixty simultaneous blindfold games of chess, and winning them all. To improvise an eight-part fugue is really beyond human capability.

“Quaerendo invenietis” is my advice to the reader.

Meanwhile, the Boston Public Library has digitized and put online dozens of Escher’s prints here.

Filed under: Bach, Seattle Chamber Music Society

Bach Motets

 

This evening the Los Angeles Master Chorale performs the six Bach Motets, as  Associate Conductor Jenny Wong makes her solo conducting debut at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

 

Filed under: Bach, Los Angeles Master Chorale

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