MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

“More Light! More Light!” Morlot and the Seattle Symphony Tackle Beethoven’s Fifth

It would be interesting to know how many audience members comprising the very full house for this performance were hearing their first-ever live Beethoven Fifth. Even for aficionados, the encounter was unusual. Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony created a boldly original framework in which to present the Fifth Symphony, their account of which also marked the conclusion to a two-year cycle of the complete symphonies and piano concertos.

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Filed under: Bartók, Beethoven, review, Seattle Symphony

20 Years Ago Today

BB

I’m in a bit of shock realizing today marks the official debut of my professional career writing about music. Exactly 20 years ago, I published my first review as a freelance critic for the Washington Post (link below).

It wouldn’t have happened without the incredibly generous mentoring of Tim Page, who agreed to give a complete unknown this chance.

Tim remains one of my dearest friends. It all started with his encouragement.

Meanwhile, I hope I’ve made at least a modicum of progress in my writing since then.

Takács Quartet: Not for the Timid

 

Filed under: Bartók, chamber music, review, Washington Post

The Seattle Symphony’s Electrifying Eroica

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Ludovic Morlot

The title of my  review is actually only part of the story of last night’s  performance by the Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot. The program — which I recommend highly as one of the highlights of the season to date — will be repeated Saturday and Sunday. The Beethoven alone would be enough to justify my enthusiasm, but let me get to the other parts of the story first.

Also worth the price of admission is the chance to hear the mellifluously named French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet in Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto and the relatively rare Three Places in New England of Charles Ives.

I suspect some of the remarkably palpable energy the players manifested last night has to do with a sense of anticipation regarding the 2016 Grammy Awards coming up Monday: the SSO nabbed three nominations for the second volume of their ongoing Henri Dutilleux series on the in-house label (including for Best Orchestral Performance).

What was particularly striking in the Ives — deeply challenging pieces, despite the sudden appearance of fragments of folk Americana that momentarily give the illusion of familiar reference points — was the refinement of detail within the most opaque, thickly laden textures of this score. The boisterous energy Morlot summoned for the famous clashing marches of the second place (“Putnams’ Camp”) was all the more startling on account of that refinement — a trait that reminded me of how the conductor searches for the right detail, le ton juste, inside one of Dutilleux’s intricately wrought orchestral canvases.

It was fascinating to hear the Ives so soon after last week’s rendition of Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia. You couldn’t help comparing the method of intrusive quotations, unprepared and free-associative, and wonder at the American maverick angle that leavened Berio’s European avant-gardism. Both composers resort to a collage aesthetic that seeks to replicate the complexity and porousness of musical memory — free of irony and mind games.

Indeed, at times Morlot elicited a curious innocence and tenderness from Ives’s decidedly unsentimental memory-soundscapes. Those qualities also came to mind in the Bartók concerto. On the surface this piece can almost be read as a kind of regression or longing for simpler procedures, a revocation of the composer’s Modernist street cred.

But Bavouzet’s enchanting, subtle interpretation had a cleanness of focus that suggested a mature master taking stock and paring away the inessential. Bartók knew he was dying when he composed the Third Concerto, and in this score the musical past returns not by way of collage and quotation but as acts of allusive, loving homage (above all to Bach and Beethoven — and of course to the rich loam of folk culture that Bartók accessed in a way so unlike the Romantics).

This was especially effective in the profoundly stirring central movement (“Adagio religioso”), where the pianist gave exquisite weight and voicing to Bartók’s harmonies and crisp, wonder-evoking articulation to the birdsong. Bavouzet — who had an opportunity to study with the pianist who premiered this work, György Sándor — projected winning charm along with a clear sense of purpose in the outer movements.

He returned for a most unusual encore (playing, incidentally, the new Steinway recently purchased for the SSO): three of the Notations by a 19-year-old Pierre Boulez, composed right around the time Bartók was working on his final concerto. Bavouzet played with Zen-like presence, or like a curator displaying a set of particularly rich gems, holding them up to glisten and sparkle in the light. This week’s concerts are being dedicated to the memory of the late Boulez.

So on to the Third Symphony of Beethoven. Morlot chose this work for his very first subscription concert after stepping to the podium as the SSO’s music director in September 2011 (pairing it on that occasion, curiously enough, with Dutilleux and a Frank Zappa piece Boulez himself had conducted).

Certain aspects echoed what lingers in my memory from that performance: above all, the historically informed performance touches that conferred a certain athletic fleetness and sharper focus. These were even more apparent — and more paradoxically “radical” in brushing aside the dust from overfamiliar passages — without determining every contour of the conductor’s approach.

I’d say that’s evidence of an increased confidence and interpretive vision Morlot is bringing to this score. The hammer blow chords at the end of the first movement’s exposition, for example, were genuinely shocking, while the use of a solo string quartet to voice one of the variation passages in the introductory section of the finale underscored the idea that textural transformations are just as crucial to Beethoven’s thinking as the thematic/harmonic ones that usually command attention.

Above all, the sheer energy of collaborating with the SSO on moment-by-moment decisions in the score gave this performance the stamp of authenticity that really matters, resulting in an electrifying Eroica. Not all those decisions worked: some of the rhythmic articulations of the Funeral March were sloppy, and the volcanic whirlwind that should launch Beethoven’s extraordinary finale (is there anything about the Eroica that isn’t extraordinary?) sounded curiously listless. But Morlot and the SSO sustained an edge-of-your-seat intensity across the work’s epic span, liberating it from any trace of the routine.

And Morlot inspired much fine, indeed heroic, solo work from the players, including Mary Lynch’s achingly expressive oboe solos (a key leitmotif of the Eroica) in the Funeral March and Jeff Fair’s fearless, flawless spotlights in the famously fear-inducing trio of the Scherzo.

Really, what more can you ask of a symphony program?

–(c)2016 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Bartók, Beethoven, Ludovic Morlot, pianists, piano, Pierre Boulez, review, Seattle Symphony

In Presence of a Master

Current project:

Filed under: Bartók, violinists

Finding the Light, Facing the Darkness

It seems — at least as of now — that tonight’s opening of the Met’s double bill of Tchaikovsky and Bartók will proceed as planned, despite the blizzard arriving. It’s a new production directed by Mariusz Trelinski and starring Anna Netrebko as the blind Princess Iolanta for the Tchaikovsky one-act.

Toi toi toi!

My program essay:

Only two decades separate the composition of Iolanta and Bluebeard’s Castle. Yet during these years, the music of fin-de-siècle Romanticism sounded the last gasps of a philosophy that was rapidly being made obsolete by the efforts of a diverse generation of radical younger composers. That, at least, is the narrative we’re usually told. In fact the shift toward modernism was not nearly so clean-cut or abrupt.

You can find the whole piece here (pdf: starting on p. 3 of the insert, after p. 36)

Filed under: Bartók, essay, Metropolitan Opera, Tchaikovsky

Purcell Meets Bartók in LA

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Tonight brings the opening of Los Angeles Opera’s curious pairing of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas with Bluebeard’s Castle by Bartók.

The Australian-born, Berlin-based director Barrie Kosky (intendant at the Komische Oper Berlin) has brought his staging of the double bill for Oper Frankfurt to LA.

In a recent Opera News profile, Kosky explained the connections he’s come to see between these two one-act operas:

“Both pieces are about arrival and departure in different ways. Both operas have a couple and the complexities of love in different ways as the central element of the pieces. And the third thing is, both pieces have a degree of sadness and melancholia running through them.”

Here’s a very brief introduction to the evening by LA Opera’s CEO Christopher Koelsch:

Filed under: Bartók, directors, opera

A Homecoming and a Debut in Seattle

James Ehnes

James Ehnes

My latest Seattle Symphony review is now live on Bachtrack:

Not until the morning of the day before their concerts this week with the Seattle Symphony did conductor and soloist meet for the first time, yet the shared sympathy and depth of understanding they together brought to their interpretation of Béla Bartók’s Violin Concerto no. 2 made this the richly satisfying highlight of the Seattle Symphony’s program.

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Filed under: Bartók, James Ehnes, review, Seattle Symphony

Opening the Door into Bartók

Bartok

Hearing a super-charged performance of Béla Bartók’s Third String Quartet by the Ehnes Quartet on Sunday – a condensed cosmos of formal and tonal experimentation – reminded me of why this composer’s quartets are genuinely comparable to what Beethoven achieved with the medium.

By happy coincidence, my friend Philip Kennicott, one of the most brilliant critics writing today, had just been immersed in the entire Bartók cycle on the other coast, back in my old hometown. The performers were the Takács Quartet. (I’d heard their two-evening Bartók cycle in D.C. back in the ’90s.)

In his reflections on the experience, Kennicott makes a very important point about the much-misunderstood presence of “folk elements” in Bartók’s music: “The turn to folk music was not, for Bartók, nostalgic, but rather a way forward. What he found there wasn’t simplicity, but density, and in that density was a modernity as vital as anything hatched in the musical systems of Paris and Vienna.”

And on Bartók’s sense of an ending:

So the music is always anxious, always driving forward, which is both exhausting and exhilarating, and perhaps that’s why Bartók’s endings—ironically anticlimactic, humorously flippant, pompously emphatic—are so appealing. By the time Bartók ends something, no honest listener could claim to want to hear more. The idea, the gesture, the mood has been wrung out, used up, finished off. And then it’s on to the next thing, with renewed energy and relentlessness.

Kennicott then works George Steiner’s interpretation of the door metaphor in Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle into his discussion:

We open successive doors in Bluebeard’s castle because “they are there,” because each leads to the next by a logic of intensification which is that of the mind’s own awareness of being. To leave one door closed would be not only cowardice but a betrayal—radical, self-mutilating—of the inquisitive, probing, forward-tensed stance of our species.

This was Steiner’s best hope for hope, after the brutality of World War I, the obscenity of Hitler, ages of anti-Semitism, and the terrors of the post-war age, especially its predation on what was once called, without embarrassment, Culture. It is also a perfect description of the powerful, dutiful, heroic denial of self in Bartók’s string quartets, which also proceed by a logic of intensification, and which leave the listener grasping at “the mind’s awareness of being.”

Filed under: aesthetics, Bartók, chamber music, James Ehnes, music writers, string quartet

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