MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Fidelio at San Francisco Opera

A scene from Act One: image (c) Corey Weaver

There was a lot of excitement in the air at the opening of San Francisco Opera’s new production of Fidelio, which had been delayed for a year for obvious reasons. Here’s my review for Musical America:

Filed under: Beethoven, Musical America, review, San Francisco Opera

Beethoven in China

My colleague Rudolph Tang has created a film about the reception of Beethoven in the People’s Republic of China featuring an interview with conductor Liang Zhang, whose new Beethoven symphony cycle is the fourth recording of the complete symphonies to be made by musicians from Mainland China.

The documentary is available for free viewing until Friday here.

Filed under: Beethoven, classical music in Mainland China, conductors

Beethoven Marathon with Yael Weiss

To mark the occasion, pianist Yael Weiss presents an all-day live marathon here, with guests from around the world, including conversations and performances of Beethoven and newly commissioned works written for the project 32 Bright Clouds: Beethoven Conversations Around the World.

PROGRAM

9am
Beethoven and the Global Aspiration for Peace:
Yael Weiss and the 32 Bright Clouds Project

10am
World Premiere:
A conversation with composer Alfred Wong from Hong Kong
and the world premiere performance of his piece Passion
(connected to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 23 “Appassionata”).

10:30am
The Moonlight Sonata and Social Justice:
A conversation with Indonesian composer Ananda Sukarlan
and performance of his piece No More Moonlight Over Jakarta
(connected to Beethoven’s Sonata No. 14 “Moonlight”).

11am
Beethoven in Myanmar:
A conversation with composer Ne Myo Aung,
a performance of his new piece Moha
(connected to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 21 “Waldstein”)
and a discussion of the Burmese Sandaya piano style.

12pm
A Lullaby for Beethoven:
A conversation with Turkish composer Aslihan Keçebaşoğlu
and a performance of her piece Ninni
(connected to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 28 Op. 101).

1pm
African Rituals and Dedications:
A conversation with South African composer Bongani Ndodana-Breen
and a performance of his work
Isiko: An African Ritual for Ancestral Intercession
(connected to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 29 “Hammerklavier”)

2pm
Beethoven and a World Unheard:
A conversation with composer Sidney Boquiren from the Philippines
and a performance of his piece Unheard Voices
(connected to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 7 Op. 10 No. 3)

3pm
Painting Beethoven in Afghanistan:
A conversation with composer, calligrapher and painter
Milad Yousufi from Afghanistan
and a performance of his work Willow
(connected to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 8 “Pathetique”)

3:30pm
New from Guatemala:
A conversation with composer Xavier Beteta about his upcoming
new work for the 32 Bright Clouds project Noche Profunda
(connected to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 5 Op.10 no. 1)

4pm
Recordings of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas, and a Bagatelles project:
A conversation with music writer, composer and critic Jed Distler
and performances of his Bagatelles

5pm
World Premiere:

A conversation with composer Bosba about music in Cambodia
and a world premiere performance of her work
Sovannaphum: Kosal’s Lament
(connected to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 11 Op. 22)

6pm
After Beethoven, from Iran:
A conversation with Iranian composer Aida Shirazi
and a performance of her piece Aprés
(connected to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 26 “Les Adieux”)

7pm
New from Colombia:
A conversation with composer Carolina Noguera-Palau about her upcoming
new work for the 32 Bright Clouds project, De Adoración Y Espanto
(connected to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 31, Op. 110)

7:30pm
Demonstrating for Peace:
A conversation with Venezuelan composer Adina Izarra
and a performance of her piece Arietta for the 150
(connected to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 32 Op. 111)

8pm
Closing remarks and Beethoven’s final piano Sonata no. 32 in c minor, Op. 111

Filed under: Beethoven, commissions, piano

This Is Beethoven

The film “ordinary grief / the people to come” from zoe | juniper will premiere at the This Is Beethoven festival. (Juniper Shuey)

My Seattle Times story on This Is Beethoven, Seattle’s citywide digital festival that will take place from 16 to 19 December.

Milestone anniversaries are supposed to be predictable events.

And since no figure in the classical music firmament looms as large as Ludwig van Beethoven, the classical music world was counting on the composer’s 250th birthday this year as a major selling point. But coronavirus started wreaking its havoc, and countless Beethoven-related events had to be scuttled — or adapted on the fly to constraints no one could have predicted….

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Filed under: Beethoven, Seattle Times

A Virtual Festival of Chamber Music


[clip from the earlier incarnation of the James Ehnes Quartet, which launches Seattle’s Virtual Summer Festival this week]

The Seattle Chamber Music Society launches its Virtual Summer Festival this evening. This isn’t just a visit to the archives but a 12-concert series of all brand-new live performances that will be taped before being released to the public as streams.

The concerts will be made available on a Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule at 7pm PST. These will be “on-demand”: in other words, you won’t have to view them at the specific streaming time but can access all concerts for which you have purchased a pass through 10 August 2020 — as many times as you like.

This is an experiment and a risk. How many will pay for internet performances, as opposed to free streams? Each concert costs $15, or you can purchase a pass to all 12 programs for $125. For the first time, SCMS’s Chamber Festival is thus available to anyone anywhere with internet access, and performances cannot be “sold out.”

I wrote about the planning that went into this approach for the Seattle Times.

Artistic Director James Ehnes and his quartet will perform part two of their complete Beethoven quartet cycle in the three concerts on offer this week. This continues and concludes the journey they began in January — under normal circumstances — at the shorter Winter Festival.

Meanwhile, Ehnes put his quarantine time to use at his home in Florida by recording the solo partitas and sonatas of J.S. Bach and the corresponding Ysaÿe sonatas. He will be releasing these in a series, starting here.

Filed under: Beethoven, chamber music, COVID-19 Era, festivals, James Ehnes, Seattle Chamber Music Society

Das Beethoven-Jahr: Es Geht Los

And so it begins. Bonn opens the anniversary year with a collage by Paul Griffiths.

And here’s a slew of Beethoven-related stories from Deutschlandfunk — including such matters as the transformation of the “Ode to Joy” into Europe’s hymn and Liszt’s piano transcriptions of the symphonies.

Filed under: anniversary, Beethoven, music news

A Double Dose of Beethoven from Jonathan Biss

“Beethoven addresses and consoles the spirit in a way that no other creative artist has managed. He is simultaneously superhuman and intensely, painfully human,” Jonathan Biss observes in his e-book Beethoven’s Shadow. So it’s not surprising that the pianist has devoted so much energy to the sonatas in particular.

Well in time for the upcoming deluge of Beethovenmania in 2020, Biss recorded the complete cycle gradually over the past decade, releasing the ninth and final volume just last month. He has extended his engagement with this music via his insightful online course Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas (free on Coursera).

Biss has also commissioned a project of works by contemporary composers responding to each of the five piano concertos–with memorable results for the Third C minor Concerto, as I reported when he joined the Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot last February to play that work and Caroline Shaw’s Watermark.

The 39-year-old Biss’s current season is devoted almost entirely to music by Beethoven. Along with complete sonata cycles in Berkeley, London, and Oklahoma, he played two back-to-back recitals at the University of Washington’s Meany Center this week. The second evening had initially been scheduled for early November, but Biss had to cancel that when he fell ill; he agreed to play that program while he was in Seattle for the December recital.

Biss has divided his complete sonata cycle into seven programs that mingle examples from different points in Beethoven’s career. Wednesday night’s recital at Meany Hall (the fifth of the seven programs in his Berkeley cycle) started with the ultra-compact Op. 79 in G major. This artist’s remarkable musical intelligence was at once apparent, the most rapidfire extension of a phrase registering as a crucial moment of developing variation. From the other direction, when Beethoven is grandiose and expansive, as in the fascinatingly ambitious but neglected early Op. 22 in B-flat major, Biss clarified through a kind of elegant understatement.

This intelligence animated his shaping of the smallest parts and implied their relation to the whole. It also illuminated connections between movements and even between sonatas. There was considerable originality in his “Moonlight” (Op. 14, no. 2), with a welcome but subtle link suggested between the rhapsodic rippling of the first movement and the quasi-improvisatory interpolation near the end of the raging finale — the paradox of Beethoven’s carefully calculated passions. His ever-so-slight rubato in the “Moonlight”‘s first movement found an echo in the phrasing of the slow passage that opens the F-sharp major Op. 78 (another unjustly neglected gem, and one of Beethoven’s own favorites).

Biss’s Beethoven obsession to some degree shows his pedigree from Leon Fleisher (and, ultimately, Artur Schnabel), but he brings to the composer a distinctive sensibility. Along with the thoughtfulness and the sense that something more than music and structure are at stake, Biss homes in on a cantabile quality not always associated with Beethoven — or so it seemed to me from these interpretations, even in the somewhat faster-than-usual lanes he chose for some of his tempos.

It was above all this singing-ness that made Biss’s account of the Op. 109 Sonata in E major, with which the recital culminated, its highpoint. Biss seems especially at home with the idiom of the late sonatas, and he concentrated his finest qualities into this interpretation. Unexpected choices — the shocking violence with which he launched into the second movement, for example — were never ham-handed or indulgent.

Biss emphasized the extremity of contrast among the variations of the last movement, dramatizing the payoff of the ecstasies only adumbrated in the opening movement. He captured the knowing innocence in the return of the main theme with an effect reminiscent of the parallel moment in the Goldberg Variations, when Bach simply restates the Aria at the conclusion of his journey.

Since the bonus performance on Thursday evening — program two of his seven-part division — took place at Meany’s 238-seat Studio Theatre, it was in many ways a very different kind of experience than on the preceding night. At times it felt almost like being in a salon, a privileged guest allowed to listen in on the star performer — though, to be sure, Biss managed to create the illusion of intimacy in the much vaster hall upstairs as well. On the negative side, the dry acoustics were not as flattering.

Technically, Biss also ran into a number of difficulties in the the first half that momentarily seemed to throw him off course. At his best, his technique is of the sort that avoids calling attention to itself, merely a tool to probe for the meanings he wants to convey, but his thoughts here at times outran his fingers.

It was all still riveting. Biss was a marvelous advocate for the exuberance of Beethoven’s sense of invention and sheer possibility in Op. 7, an early epic. He paced the constituent melodic parts of the Largo with genuine mastery, playing with subtle pauses the way a painter uses blank spaces. The Adagio molto of the C minor Sonata (first of the Op. 10 set) became a study in musical brushstrokes as Biss carefully shaped its intricate tracery. But his tempo choice for the final prestissimo turned out to be too driven, an uncharacteristic miscalculation.

These two early works were counterbalanced by two of the best-known sonatas. I found Biss’s take on the “Tempest” (second of the Op. 31 set) deeply satisfying in the way he channeled the dark energy of the first movement but allowed for maximal, elegiac expansion of the famous “voice from the tomb” passage in the first movement. The clipped urgency of his finale set the stage for the parallel concluding work of the program. Indeed, Biss made clear the rhymes that exist between the “Tempest” and the “Appassionata”: the mysteriously subdued winding-down of their first movements, with their tensions left to be worked out, and the relentless perpetual motion of their finales.

The middle movement of the “Appassionata” was treated less as an interlude between two hurricanes than a substantial set of variations that foreshadow something of the late style. For Biss, facing the challenges embodied in Beethoven’s piano sonatas involves more than undertaking a musical or artistic achievement. His desire to convey the depth of Beethoven’s own experience, charted in these notes, brought to mind a therapist onto whom the patient’s issues are projected, with a countertransference back onto the audience.

Review (c) 2019 Thomas May. All rights reserved

Filed under: Beethoven, pianists, review

The Miró Quartet at 25

The November-December 2019 issue of Strings magazine is now available. I wrote a profile of the marvelous Miró Quartet and their Archive Project, which celebrates the ensemble’s quarter-century milestone.

When the Miró Quartet started out in October 1995, a prediction that it would be thriving a quarter century on must have sounded wildly optimistic. “Because we were such different personalities in terms of musical approach and demeanor, we had a lot of fights and disagreements in the first couple of years,” recalls cellist Joshua Gindele…

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Filed under: Beethoven, profile, string quartet, Strings

A Prismatic Program from the Danish String Quartet

Danish-Quartet-759x500

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

Divining Harmony: West-Eastern Diwan Orchestra at 20

Tonight and tomorrow, at Berlin’s Philharmonie, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra celebrates the 20th anniversary of its founding by Daniel Barenboim and the late Edward Said — with a program including guest soloists and longterm artistic collaborators Anne-Sophie Mutter and Yo-Yo Ma.

I was honored to be asked to write the notes for the Beethoven-Bruckner program.

Tune in at 8pm CET time for a livestream on Arte or on fidelio. The performance will also be available to view on arte between 23 and 30 October here (VPN might be needed, not sure).

Filed under: Anton Bruckner, Beethoven, Daniel Barenboim, West-Eastern Diwan Orchestra

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