MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Lowell Liebermann’s Frankenstein

My latest CD review for Gramophone is of the recording by the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra of Lowell Liebermann’s lengthy ballet score Frankenstein:

Within just five years of its publication in 1818, Mary Shelley’s classic horror novel inspired a stage play that became a hit – the first of a seemingly endless stream of adaptations for other media that has flowed ever since. While the most popular of these are associated with the screen (going back to a 1910 short silent film from Edison Studios), Frankenstein has additionally spawned operas, musicals and this full-length ballet, premiered by the Royal Ballet in 2016….


Filed under: ballet, CD review, Gramophone

Rameau to the Rescue

Today brings the premiere of a new production of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s 1735 “ballet héroïque” Les Indes galantes, being streamed live from Bayerische Staatsoper (staged by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and conducted by Ivor Bolton).

A little background from Deborah Kauffman:

Les Indes galantes (1735) belongs to a different operatic genre, the opéra-ballet, which featured independent—but loosely connected—plots separated into several entrées. As the genre’s name suggests, dance played an important part in the opéra-ballet, and Les Indes galantes is no exception; each entrée closes with a divertissement, a collection of dance movements and dance songs that tie into the plot of the entrée.

Here’s an interview in the Süddeutsche Zeitung with the Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui:

Es handelt sich um vier verschiedene Nationalitäten in vier Akten. Wie bringt man die in einer schlüssigen Handlung zusammen?

Indem wir, und daran arbeiten wir sehr hart, schauen, was sie alle verbindet, wie jede, jeder von ihnen Teil eines größeren Ganzen werden könnte. Jede einzelne Figur könnte genauso gut eine andere sein, was in unserer Annäherung an das Stück tatsächlich passiert: Phani und Fatime werden zum Beispiel von derselben Sängerin gesungen. Alle Charaktere könnten letztlich zu einer einzigen Person verschmelzen. Ich entwickle ein Narrativ, wonach ihre Geschichte eine Doppelung erfährt. Diese Methode, die handelnden Personen zu betrachten, macht aus dem Werk ein in sich geschlossenes Ganzes und bewahrt es davor, in vier Teile zu zerfallen.

See Bayerische Staatsoper blog post (also in German).





Filed under: ballet, Bayerische Staatsoper, Rameau

Dancing Mahler’s Seventh

The idioms of dance — and their metaphorical significance — are a substantial component of Mahler’s vocabulary. Curiously, though, Mahler was known to be indifferent to the traditional art of ballet. (In fact one of the scandals stirred up during his tenure as director of the Vienna Hofoper involved a disagreement with the official ballet master over the casting of a dancer in a production of Auber’s La Muette de Portici.)

But an evening of choreography to the elusive Seventh Symphony? That’s what Martin Schläpfer designed in 2013 for the company he directs, the Düsseldorf-based Ballett am Rhein. Titled Seven, with Wen-Pin Chien conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the production is playing as part of the Edinburgh International Festival this month.

Some reactions:

The switches of mood, the interruptions to themes, the unexpected instrumentalisation in Mahler all find visual echoes: you never know whether dancers will be in pointe shoes, soft shoes or jackboots, or which members of a group or a trio are going to go off with one another, or whether a romantic relationship is about to turn sour or a violent relationship sweet.

–Hanna Weibye, The Artsdesk

Martin Schläpfer, in his choreography for “Seven,” is clearly of the heroes-and-shipwreck school. His epic staging of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony is structured as a journey, in which dancers, shod in boots, ballet shoes or with naked feet, move through a picaresque variety of situations, the choreography’s imagery vividly shaped by the colours and rhythms of the score….But the work’s strengths are undercut by its failure to engage with the score’s deep musical structure. Schläpfer choreographs in blunt emphatic bursts that illuminate the surface of the score but not its architecture.

–Judith Mackrell, The Guardian

There isn’t an explicit narrative to Schläpfer’s vision, but themes of human relationships seem to hold centre stage. We see couples and small groups coming together to react to one another for a time, but mostly it ends in hostility or outright rejection. Partners are swapped and traded with casual indifference and, particularly in the outer movements, Schläpfer explores the impact on those rejected, most often women….Importantly, however, Schläpfer’s choreography is inherently musical. He has thought deeply about Mahler’s score and presented a sequence of movement that seems an extension of the action in the pit…

–Simon Thompson, Seen and Heard International

Filed under: ballet, Edinburgh International Festival, Mahler

Ballets Russes: “When Art Danced with Music”


Time to get in the mood for this weekend’s final subscription concerts of the Seattle Symphony’s season — and Ludovic Morlot has planned one hell of a program, with all three of Stravinsky’s blockbuster pre-WW I ballets.

I’m recalling the National Gallery of Art’s thought-provoking exhibition Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909–1929: When Art Danced with Music last fall. The show gave a dazzling overall impression of the many different areas of creativity that the wizard Serge Diaghilev somehow managed to draw together (not without a massive amount of drama): composers, writers, painters, sculptors, costume and set designers, lighting artists, researchers, propagandists, and naturally musicians and dancers.

Diaghilev’s brain itself must have been a Gesamtkunstwerk. This was the way to out-Wagner Wagner, and Stravinsky certainly intended to do that.

The exhibition also probed into future connections, the way these artists set currents in motion that would give birth to Cubism, Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism.

The always-brilliant Philip Kennicott points out that “the legend of the Ballets Russes was always a bit better — and better tended — than the reality of what the troupe and its lead artists left behind.” He offers this handy summary of what the lasting impact of the Ballet Russes as a crucible of experiment:

In less than two decades’ time, one sees the invention of something so familiar we take it for granted, the free mixing of commercial entertainment and more traditional forms of art, the valorization of branding and fashion within the intellectual realms of culture, and the troubling, persistent and essential fracturing of art into style and substance.

And it’s important to realize how much of Diaghilev’s legend became linked to the power of celebrity:

Much of what is on display falls into the category of holy relics: Costumes worn by dancers who are legendary names; programs and photographs and publicity posters from tours of the company that are still spoken of in reverential terms by those who remember or knew someone who was there. Theater, including ballet, invites hero worship, and there are many objects in this exhibition that appeal to our celebrity pleasure receptors more than our artistic ones.


[T]hat’s the difference between performance and the plastic arts. The allure of the former is all about the moment, the luck of being present, the willful illusion that magic is happening. Diaghilev sold that dream, perhaps more effectively than any impresario before or since.

Filed under: art exhibition, ballet, Seattle Symphony, Stravinsky

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