MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Fiery and Apocalyptic, with a Melancholy Interlude: This Week’s Seattle Symphony

Alina

Alina Ibragimova

Thursday night’s concert offered the first chance I’ve had to hear Ludovic Morlot in action so far this season with Seattle Symphony, and my reward was a thrilling, full-bodied program. The first half included a fiery account of Bartók’s 1927 Miraculous Mandarin Suite (about two-thirds of the score from his earlier ballet, responsible for one of the scandal-premieres of European modernism).
Morlot focused on the score’s lurid colors and unsettling, suspenseful atmospheres, abetted by characterful wind solos (the “decoy music” on clarinet, for one) and superb string ensemble. (The choice of Noah Geller as new concertmaster has clearly been paying dividends.) Some conductors emphasize the influence of Stravinsky’s Rite, but Morlot seemed more interested in the surreal aspects of Bartók’s score, especially in how the ironic, decadent waltz of seduction emerges.
A wonderful match of soloist and concerto followed, with the 33-year-old Russian-British violinist Alina Ibragimova proving herself to be a deeply sensitive, account of the Op. 129 Concerto in C-sharp minor, the second of Shostakovich’s violin concertos.
The violinist is called on to maintain a virtually continual presence in this score, and Ibragimova held me spellbound, mining the varied facets of melancholy and sorrowing desperation embedded in this late-period work. Her tone was rich but unforced, and above all achingly expressive.
Morlot effectively stage-managed the prominent duologues of the soloist with the winds, though coordination went somewhat awry in the finale. Still, it was a moving, substantial performance — far more welcome than a flashy and breezy rep staple would have been, since Seattle Symphony has dedicated this week’s performances to victims of hate crimes: “to the lives lost and all those affected by recent hate crimes brought on by racism and bigotry, particularly those who died in the recent tragic shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and while grocery shopping in Jeffersontown, Kentucky.”
Filling the second half was Brahms’s mighty, promise-fulfilling First Symphony, which premiered just a few months after the first complete Ring cycle, in 1876. (I’ve always found that coincidence especially fascinating.) Morlot seemed to pick up on some of the fiery, driven energy from the opening Bartók, conjuring a passionately dramatic vision of the First.
This came at the cost of some clarity, I found, in the first movement above all, whose overarching architecture was occasionally obscured. The Adagio radiated emotional complexity and a touching sense of Brahmsian harmonic color; it only needed, again, a more transparent elucidation of the composer’s dramaturgy of light and shade. I wanted more time for the music to breathe.
Morlot was more convincing with the rest of the work: the third movement served as a brief shot of optimism, an interlude that tees off the apocalypse and triumph of this finale-centered score. Here, Morlot paced events with confidence and focus, acting as a kind of film director to ensure that each episode carried weight.

The program is repeated on Saturday 3 November at 8pm.

Filed under: Bartók, Brahms, review, Seattle Symphony, Shostakovich, Uncategorized

Music for a New Year

Also for New Year’s:
https://www.swr.de/swr2/programm/sendungen/konzerte/31/-/id=659392/did=20775768/nid=659392/1rypgzr/index.html
Joseph Haydn:
“Die Schöpfung”, Oratorium Hob. XXI:2
(Zeitversetzte Übertragung aus dem Konzerthaus Freiburg)

Filed under: Bartók, miscellaneous

Patricia Kopatchinskaja in Lucerne

More musical revelations at Lucerne Festival: thrilling Bartók Violin Concerto No. 2 featuring Patricia Kopatchinskaja in an unimprovable program of Bartók and Haydn by Mahler Chamber Orchestra led by the impeccable François-Xaver Roth.
The Haydn (Symphonies 22 and 96) was sleek and proto-Modernist in Roth’s interpretation, overflowing in invention and brought to life by the exquisitely fine-tuned playing of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

The Bartók Second — nicely complemented by the Dance Suite — spurred all Kopatchinskaja has to give: from her feistiest, most earth-rooted playing to star-drunk lyricism.

And then there was a post-concert treat in the “Interval,” from Kopatchinskaja plus her parents (dad Viktor on cimbalom and mom Emilia playing violin), with Venezuelan double-bassist Johane Gonzales: incisive Kúrtag and wonderful folk music arrangements.

Last night brought out still another side of Kopatchinskaja’s all-embracing artistry, in a Late Night concert with the Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra led by Matthias Pintscher.

It’s clear that the Moldovan soloist regards Ligeti’s Violin Concerto as one of the ultimate masterpieces of the repertoire. Hearing her play it, you feel this is the only music in the world that matters, a world within world of where the concept of  virtuosity itself is reimagined from the ground up.

Kopatchinskaja is the perfect violinist to advocate Ligeti’s wildly imaginative ideas, but also the formal ingenuity and, yes, melodic grace of this score. She also brought out the best from the incredibly gifted young Academy musicians. I can’t wait to hear the full ensemble shine in Monday’s all-Cerha concert.

The program also included fascinating performances of composer-in-residence Michel van der Aa’s Hysteresis for clarinet, ensemble, and tape, with Martin Adámek  as the soloist and Ligeti’s Piano Concerto, with pianist Dimitri Vassilakis.

Filed under: Bartók, Haydn, Ligeti, Lucerne Festival, violinists

“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

Ludo_559x660

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

DnA

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

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