MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Chasing Victory with Beethoven’s Fifth at Seattle Symphony

My Seattle Times preview of this week’s Seattle Symphony program:

Three shorts and a long.

It’s the musical equivalent of E =mc 2 : on the surface, a deceptively simple formula that yields previously unimaginable results — including many Ludwig van Beethoven himself couldn’t have possibly foreseen. In World War II, the Allies equated the Fifth Symphony’s famous motto with the dot-dot-dot-dash denoting “V” in Morse code. The BBC regularly included this “V for Victory” message of hope in broadcasts to Nazi-occupied Europe.

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Filed under: Beethoven, Ludovic Morlot, Seattle Symphony, Seattle Times

A.J. Kernis’s Killer New Violin Concerto at Seattle Symphony

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photo by James Holt

In last night’s Seattle Symphony concert led by Ludovic Morlot,  James Ehnes introduced a brand-new violin concerto written for him by one of today’s finest composers, Aaron Jay Kernis. This was the U.S. premiere; last week Ehnes gave the world premiere in Toronto (a co-commissioner with SSO).

Talk about making a great first impression! Despite — or even because of — its terrorizing challenges for the soloist, this is a concerto built to last: it’s so good and makes such an obviously satisfying contribution that I’d bet at least some of the more interesting virtuosos at work today will be intrigued to take it on.

I sometimes wonder whether we’ve been going through something of a concerto overload in recent years: too many composers relying on the supposedly built-in attractions of a structure that can feature a star protagonist while also benefiting from the color and horsepower of an orchestra (even if the latter is used merely for “atmospheric” painting rather than in a richer, symphonic way).

One of the many things that impress me about this new piece is that Kernis has really thought through the concerto idea and created something substantial and fresh without relying on esoteric novelties — without trying to reinvent the wheel.

In fact, an attempt at abstract description of the piece might make it sound almost old-fashioned, but it’s not. Like Brahms writing for Joseph Joachim (though Kernis himself studied violin as a youngster), he resorts (distantly) to Baroque forms in the outer movements — an intensely felt and gripping Chaconne for the first and a “Toccatini” (his play on the toccata) for the finale — with a soulful “Ballad” doing service as the aria at the center. And the profusion of little cadenza-islands amid the orchestral archipelago also underscores the concerto’s conventional identification with virtuoso prowess.

But Kernis animates all of these conventional elements with a marvelously contemporary spirit. The first two movements have deep emotional resonance, while the finale is so infectiously zippy (and outrageously hard to play) it leaves you with a buzz — a musical martini, as the composer jokes.

He’s often described as “eclectic,” but I don’t think that does justice to the distinctive personality Kernis conveys in his Violin Concerto. True, there are hints of, well, Brahms (in the emotional severity and fatalism of the first movement), Berg, Bach, Stravinsky for sure (in the finale), Messiaen (the wondrous tangles of sound in the “Ballad,” which is also cured with jazz and blues flavors). But instead of a random mishmash, Kernis amalgamates these idioms into a rich, compelling harmonic language and flow of ideas.

One could appreciate Kernis’s score on the level of its orchestral ingenuity alone: such interesting sounds and blends, which paradoxically erase the model of individual “versus” the orchestra — at least over long stretches of the piece. Paradoxically because, on the most obvious level, this concerto it is a virtuoso showpiece in the old school sense.

But with James Ehnes as the soloist, the clichés often signaled by “virtuosity” — mere dazzle, effects without causes — have no bearing. It’s clear that Kernis tailored the piece to display this unmatchable violinist’s musical intelligence, taste, and beautiful sound production above all incredible technical feats he calls for (of which this piece is essentially a violinist’s compendium).

Whether Ehnes was attacking a fearsome passage of double-stop chords with his signature elegance or deftly sprinkling a torrent of precisely placed pizzicati,  it was like watching  a veteran climber scaling a particularly brutal mountain face sans ropes.

But for all the thrills and escapades, the overall impression he left of the concerto — which Kernis has dedicated to Ehnes — was of a rich, many-colored, joyful composition that has something compelling to say, and that resonates afterward.

Again, this is all part of the extraordinary balance Kernis has achieved in his Violin Concerto, overriding binaries of dark/light, intense/carefree, Apollonian/Dionysian, “serious”/enjoyable.

Morlot — a big part of this success in the less obvious task of precision-engineering and calibrating Kernis’s complex orchestral apparatus — was a deeply  sympathetic collaborator in this premiere.

He opened the program with a youthful curiosity by Debussy from a student cantata (the “Cortège et Air de danse” from L’enfant prodigue). The second half brought Beethoven’s Sixth.

Morlot’s account of the Pastoral from several seasons ago has stayed with me as some of his best Beethoven. It’s fascinating to hear him continuing to develop his ideas of this piece. Connections between the movements (even between symphonies) emerged effortlessly — above all in the limber, serenely flowing string lines of the second and last movements, which were reminiscent of his vision of the Ninth’s slow movement at the beginning of the year.

Despite some ensemble untidiness, there was especially delectable work from the winds (Eric Jacobs’ clarinet as beguiling as the voice of Orpheus). Michael Crusoe’s timpani pulsed with dramatic thunder and lighting in a storm movement that sounded like a sketch for The Flying Dutchman: further evidence of the silliness of that persistent cliche about the “placid” even-numbered versus “revolutionary” odd-numbered Beethoven symphonies. Next week brings a further chance for comparison, when Morlot and the SSO close out their two-year Beethoven cycle with the mighty Fifth.

(c) 2017 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Seattle Symphony, James Ehnes, review, American music, commissions, Beethoven, Ludovic Morlot

Seattle Symphony Is Making Music Matter

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Kinan Azmeh, Ludovic Morlot, and Seattle Symphony; image (c) Brando Patoc

Some thoughts on recent Seattle Symphony programs, now on Vanguard Seattle:

Say goodbye to ivory towers.

So far this month, the Seattle Symphony Orchestra (SSO) and music director Ludovic Morlot have presented three widely varied programs. Two of these addressed red-hot current events that would have seemed surprising in the middle of a “normal” concert season not too long ago.

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Filed under: American music, Beethoven, Debussy, Ives, Ludovic Morlot, Prokofiev, review, Seattle Symphony, Vanguard Seattle

At Seattle Symphony, Cosmic Radiation from Beethoven and Messiaen

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The Seattle Symphony, with guest musicians and vocalists, perform works by Messiaen and Beethoven this weekend. (Brandon Patoc)

My Seattle Times review:

In their first program of the new year, Ludovic Morlot, the Seattle Symphony and guests offer an inspired pairing of Beethoven’s immortal Ninth and the spiritually attuned music of Olivier Messiaen.

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Filed under: Beethoven, Olivier Messiaen, review, Seattle Symphony, Seattle Times

Revolution No. 9

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It was premiered almost two centuries ago. And Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 still feels as urgently needed today as ever.

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Filed under: Beethoven, Ludovic Morlot, Seattle Symphony, Seattle Times

Happy Birthday, Ludwig!

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Portrait of Ludvig van Beethoven composing his Missa solemnis by Joseph Karl Stieler (1819) Beethoven Haus, Bonn, Germany/The Bridgeman Art Library International

Beethoven was my very first “classical music” love. And Beethoven remains inexhaustibly fascinating. I’m still digesting Jonathan Biss’s thoughtful performance of Op. 111 last weekend at Meany Center for the Performing Arts.

In honor of the composer’s (probable) birthday (we know at least that he was baptized on 17 December 1770), a few favorite quotes from the master:

“I must despise a world which does not feel that music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy, the wine which inspires one to a new generative process, and I am the Bacchus who presses out this glorious wine for humanity and makes it spiritually drunken.”

“My thoughts go out to you, my Immortal Beloved I can only live wholly with you or not at all-

“What you are, you are by accident of birth; what I am, I am by myself. There are and will be a thousand princes; there is only one Beethoven.”

“It seems I could wrest my ideas from nature herself with my own hands, as I go walking in the woods. They come to me in the silence of the night or in the early morning, stirred into being by moods which the poet would translate into words, but which I put into sounds — and these go through my head swinging and singing and storming until at last I have them before me as notes.”

“The true artist is not proud, he unfortunately sees that art has no limits; he feels darkly how far he is from the goal; and though he may be admired by others, he is sad not to have reached that point to which his better genius only appears as a distant, guiding sun. I would, perhaps, rather come to you and your people, than to many rich folk who display inward poverty.”

“Must it be? It must be.”

Filed under: Beethoven

Jonathan Biss Reflects on “Late Style”

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Jonathan Biss. (Benjamin Ealovega)

My Seattle Times interview with Jonathan Biss, who will perform in two events this coming weekend at UW:

At the advanced age of 36, Jonathan Biss finds himself fascinated by “late style” — the manner of expression an artist adopts as the end of life approaches.

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Filed under: Beethoven, Brahms, Kurtág, pianists, Seattle Times

A Pair of Striking Debuts at Seattle Symphony

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Polish soprano/composer Agata Zubel

Along with unveiling a world premiere by composer Agata Zubel, the Seattle Symphony continued its ongoing Beethoven cycle with a rhapsodic contribution by soloist Inon Barnatan at the keyboard.

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Filed under: Beethoven, new music, review, Seattle Symphony

(Prokofiev) x2 + Beethoven 1 + Beethoven 8 = SSO Triumph

 

 

With their first subscription concert  of the new season, the Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot have already scored a home run.

If you’re a fan of new music, you’ll regret missing this; ditto if you’re fan of the core classical repertoire. That in itself gives a good indication of just how remarkable this program is.

Last weekend I previewed Gabriel Prokofiev’s new work, an SSO commission.Having now heard the first full rehearsal as well as the live world premiere of this music, I’m genuinely thrilled by what Prokofiev has accomplished.

Titled When the City Rules, his new composition is a substantial, vividly imagined, and expertly constructed half-hour-long symphonic fantasia inspired by the phenomenon of the mega-city in contemporary life. It’s not program music in the old-fashioned sense of trying to “translate” a narrative into musical terms.

When I spoke to the composer recently, he said he relished the “magical” way in which music can generate images or feelings “without being super-exact”: how it can negotiate a space between pure abstraction and a medium like film, triggering multiple subjective “plots” according to each listener, since the musical images are so “open to interpretation.”

What he does in When the City Rules is to offer a broad suggestive framework for each of the four movements: an overview of the great, looming city and the life of its citizens (think London of today, where Gabriel Prokofiev resides). His “dramaturgy” juxtaposes the big picture with suggested “close-up” moments of characters or particular feelings.

So the first movement, opening with a beautifully sustained atmosphere of layered strings, evokes “the memories that cities hold” but also the modern city’s power; an “Andante Nostalgico” touches on the melancholy associated with cities and the desire to escape to something more pristine; considerable energy and excitement come to the fore in the third movement, which taps into the nervous, ceaselessly busy energy that not only keeps the city going but is a defining trait; and a “Rondo Brilliante” finale replete with echo effects to bring the work to a bracing climax and conclusion.

But it’s no simple affirmation: by then we’ve encountered a matrix of brooding, even oppressive sounds along with Prokofiev’s most animated writing. It’s tempting to work in a sci-fi level of interpretation, of a city becoming conscious of itself and its rulership over mere mortals.

Of course the four-movement pattern just outlined can suggest a more or less classically oriented symphony as well. The point is, there’s no doubt that When the City Rules is a milestone for Gabriel Prokofiev, whether you want to use that generic touchstone or prefer to approach it as a composition sui generis.

This is no mere patchwork of “impressions” or clever soundscape-vignettes, but an ambitiously conceived large-scale piece that works in real time (though I think it could perhaps benefit from a tad more tightening in a passage here or there).

Even though Gabriel Prokofiev first caught the music industry’s attention thanks to his talent for bridging the worlds of classical music and the electronica of the popular dance club scene — his Concerto for Turntables & Orchestra was featured at the 2011 Proms — When the City Rules is, notably, written entirely for acoustic orchestra, with no electronic “bells and whistles.”

And written with marvelous flair and fluency, using its rich palette in a way that makes the orchestra itself embody a vision of the city, both as ensemble and with its prominent roles for particular protagonists (flute, cello, and trumpet, most notably, and, to wonderful effect in the “nostalgic” slow movement, a solo saxophone).

When the City Rules moreover reveals a composer with a convincing sense of where his short, often rhythmic motifs can take us, of where the music needs to “go.” Anyone expecting a one-trick game — or a repeat of Prokofiev’s orchestral rethink of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s classic “Baby Got Back” (which brought another round of viral fame during his last collaboration with the SSO and Morlot, in 2014) — is in for a big surprise.

The masterfully built-up ostinato patterns that play such a key role in When the City Rules distantly recall a trait of his grandfather, Sergei Prokofiev, as does the tone of darkened, sardonic humor and even menace they sometimes conjure. There’s also a hint of 21st-century Sacre Stravinsky in the tracks of jagged rhythms that crunch and pop.

Prokofiev’s ongoing interest in electronic and dance club music remains present as an ongoing feature. “I think those styles work brilliantly in the concert hall,” he told me, citing the pervasive use of dance rhythms in the most familiar classical music. “They just happen to be dance rhythms that are 200 years old.” And from his work DJing, Prokofiev says he has learned techniques of “mixing and cutting something up —  the way dance music will be manipulated to rise up to climaxes.” These are a contemporary version, in one way, of what Beethoven does with his slicing and recombining of short, potent motifs by way of “development.”

When the City Rules  is an extraordinary achievement, but just as extraordinary is the fact that Morlot and the SSO, within a few days of first reading through the score together, have been able to deliver such a gripping and well-polished interpretation of this music for the premiere. Jeffrey Barker (flute), Efe Baltacıgil (cello), and David Gordon (trumpet) added particular flavor with their vividly characterized solo parts.

Any commission is by definition a risk: I’d like to think the generous patrons who underwrote this one (Norman Sandler and Dale Chihuly) realize what a winner they’ve picked.

 

And Gabriel Prokofiev’s piece was only one of the success stories of the program. Grandfather Sergei was also represented, with a performance of his compact but immensely varied and orchestrally eventful Symphonic Suite from his opera The Love for Three Oranges.

Prokofiev was a master composer for the stage, but he endured an absurd amount of bad luck in that arena. This Suite is an example of some of his best opera music being siphoned off into an arrangement for the concert hall. If Prokofiev’s wash of added percussion proved  overpowering in the most vehement ensemble moments, the precision and balance of the strings were especially admirable. The detailed preparation of the Suite as a whole, with its many virtuosic flourishes,  was nothing short of astounding, considering the amount of attention needed to prepare the brand-new score of the evening.

And then the Beethoven: since these reflections have already gone on at length, I’ll have to defer my more detailed impressions until later in the ongoing Beethoven cycle this season. To quickly sum up: it’s thrilling to observe how much more confident and focused Morlot is becoming in his approach to these icons of the classical rep.

This program in particular, framed by Beethoven’s First Symphony and his Eighth, even replicated something of that growth, with Morlot stepping even further out and taking greater risks in his account of the Eighth Symphony, which rounded this abundant evening of music off with a rousing conclusion.

The program repeats Saturday and Sunday.

(c)2016 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

 

Filed under: Beethoven, Ludovic Morlot, new music, review, Seattle Symphony

Igor Levit’s Big Win

There’s so much music news I’m still trying to catch up with: including the recent announcement of pianist Igor Levit’s big win. His mammoth account of three sets of variations — and it is a fantastic recording — was named 2016 Recording of the Year, the top prize from Gramophone.

My profile of Levit appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Listen Magazine:

It’s early February, over lunch before his Seattle debut later in the evening, and Igor Levit can’t stop talking about how thrilled he is to be touring the United States. It was only two years ago that the Russian-German pianist made his first U.S. appearance — choosing the unusually intimate venue of the Board of Officers Room at the Park Avenue Armory (seating for about 150) — just a few days before jumping in at the last minute for Hélène Grimaud in a City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra concert. (He did the same for Maurizio Pollini three months later.)

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Hugo Shirley interviewed Levit when Gramophone first reviewed the recording — Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, and Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated! (Sony Classical) — for the November 2015 issue.

When I meet Levit in Berlin he is quick to make clear that he sees these composers as a trinity of equal importance. He doesn’t feel for one moment any sense of special pleading in the inclusion of Rzewski, the radical, consonant-heavy American composer (the name is pronounced ‘jefski’) whose People United was composed in 1975 as a modern complement to Beethoven’s great set of 33 variations on Diabelli’s simple little waltz.

The fact that it has 36 variations, following the 33 and 30 ‘Veränderungen’ (the German word implies something more transformational than the somewhat flat English equivalent) of the Diabellis and the Goldbergs respectively, offers just one pleasing numerical development between these works, with Bach’s set providing a foundational lexicon of variation techniques that both Beethoven and Rzewski build upon.

Congratulations, Igor Levit!

Filed under: Bach, Beethoven, Frederic Rzewski, pianists, profile

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