MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Abel Selaocoe Brings His Spirited Musicianship to Seattle

Abel Selaocoe and the Seattle Symphony; photo (c) Carlin Ma

What a memorable concert this was — my latest Seattle Symphony review:

“I feel very welcome here,” said Abel Selaocoe just before making his debut with the Seattle Symphony. Not only did he seem completely at home: in remarks introducing Four Spirits, his new work for cello, voice and orchestra, the young cellist-composer invited the audience to enter into his musical world, indicating that he would cue them when to sing along at the appropriate moment. “I’ll see you on the other side,” he winked, just before taking up his position to launch the piece.


Filed under: Berlioz, cello, new music, review, Seattle Symphony

Martin Fischer-Dieskau on the Art and Hard Work of a Misunderstood Profession


Martin Fischer-Dieskau

I had a chance to speak with the conductor Martin Fischer-Dieskau, who takes a critical look at the hubris and mystification surrounding his profession:

For Martin Fischer-Dieskau, the two-year period since his last engagement in the USA feels like a remarkably long gap. The peripatetic maestro loves interacting with musicians and audiences around the world, so he’s excited by the prospect of returning to the New World to helm an all-Berlioz program at the Round Top Music Festival in Texas on 13 July.


Filed under: Berlioz, conductors

Guest Review: Les Troyens in Paris

Tom Luce contributes the following report on the much-discussed Paris Opera production of Berlioz’s operatic masterpiece as staged by Dmitri Tcherniakov:

The new production at the Opéra Bastille of Berlioz’s great Virgil-inspired account of the Trojan War and Aeneas’s dalliance with Dido the Carthaginian Queen is the fourth the city has seen in the last 30 years. The 1990 production, which was staged by Pierre Luigi Pizi, celebrated the opening of the new Bastille opera house. A fine production by Yannis Kokkos under John Eliot Gardner’s musical direction was given at the Théâtre du Châtelet in 2003. Herbert Warnicke’s Salzburg version was repeated at the Paris Opera in 2006, with Sylvain Cambreling conducting.

The Russian Dmitri Tcherniakov staged this new production, with the company’s music director Philippe Jordan on the podium, which marks the 350th anniversary of the Paris Opera, the 30th of its home at the Bastille, and the 150th of the composer’s death.

The staging has excited controversy and the singing and playing admiration. Tcherniakov gives the work contemporary settings. The first part — the conquest of Troy by the Greeks after the Trojans thought they had won — takes place in a modern, badly war-damaged environment suggesting recent Balkan or Middle Eastern conflicts. This was generally effective and provided a convincing setting for a stunning vocal and dramatic performance by Stéphanie d’Oustrac as the unbelieved prophetess of doom Cassandra (graduating from the part of Ascanius, which she had sung in the John Eliot Gardner performances). Stéphane Degout as her lover Chorebus contributed another outstanding performance amongst a generally fine cast matched by formidable singing and acting from the chorus.

Some features of Tcherniakov’s interpretation were more questionable. King Priam of Troy and his family are shown on a separate corner of the stage in a protected regal environment and introduced one by one in a dumbshow before the real opera begins. A video suggests that Cassandra’s contrarian attitude stems not from a power of prophecy but rebellion against her father the King because he sexually abused her as a child. Aeneas is portrayed as being secretly in league with the attacking Greeks. These notions might be intriguing if found in a fantasising modern playwright’s revisionist interpretation of the Trojan legend, but they have no basis in or consistency with either Virgil’s or Berlioz’s versions. Overall, however, they were not important or obtrusive enough to undermine the power and vividness of Tcherniakov’s presentation of the first two acts of the opera and the conviction with which the performers conveyed it.

Sadly, the same cannot be said of his directorial intrusions into the three Carthage acts. These are not set as Berlioz specified — in Dido’s Royal Park, then a forest, and, finally, the Trojans’ camp near the port from which they leave for Rome — but occur throughout in the communal meeting hall of a “Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Traumatised War Victims.” The cast initially does not take the parts attributed to them by Berlioz but are all either residents or care staff who, in supposedly therapeutic amateur dramatics, act out the roles of Dido, Aeneas, of Carthaginians and Trojans, etc.

All of the scenes are accompanied by normal features of a modern-care clinic — stretching classes and a television set constantly showing up-to-date news programmes which, in the 6 February performance I saw included (fortunately silent) pictures of President Trump delivering the State of the Union address and a headline announcing “Renegotiation du Brexit.” Some of the time there was a ping-pong game.

Of course both Trojans and Carthaginians were refugees from brutal conflicts. Yet so narrowly enclosing Berlioz’s profound and complex vision of their sufferings and heroism could not fail to undermine it. It is hard to see how Iopas’s beautiful song to the fertility of the land or the wonderful quintet “Tout conspire a vaincre mes remords …” — in which Dido shifts from loyalty to the memory of her murdered spouse to love of Aeneas — could possibly be enhanced by such distracting goings-on.

There were also cuts. None of the ballet music in the Carthage acts was performed. We did get the “Combat de Ceste” in the first Troy act but, weirdly for such exuberant music, it accompanied not a celebratory dance by the Trojan wrestling squad but the whole Trojan community in a protracted stance of frozen grief for their dead war heroes.

Leaving out the ballet episodes is not without precedent; to my recollection they were all omitted from the 2006 Wernicke staging. Though superb music, they can admittedly present a staging problem ––for example, the three ballets of sailors, builders, and farmers illustrating Dido’s pride in the achievements of the young Carthaginian state can sometimes rather improbably suggest that she had contracted out the development of its infrastructure to a ballet company. Skillful staging can overcome such risks, as was shown by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser in 1987 for the Lyons Berlioz Festival, which in this and other respects demonstrated how imaginative innovation can refresh and enhance without undermining the composer’s vision.

Still more serious was the omission of the Shakespearian scene in which two Trojan soldiers in the final act moan about being forced to leave their obliging Carthaginian lovers for a tiresome expedition to Italy which they will probably fail to survive. The amateur actors in the care-home would have had fun impersonating them, and, along with the ballet episodes, they illustrate Berlioz’s greater interest in and empathy for the Trojan and Carthaginian communities than can be found in Virgil, who concentrates more on gods and heroes.

Unlike on opening night, when Dmitiri Tcherniakov’s presence during the bows apparently elicited some loud hostility, the performance of 6 February was greeted with great and unadulterated acclaim by its audience. This was deservedly directed at the performers, who collectively gave a very fine account of the opera. In their hugely challenging roles, Ekaterina Semenchuk rose to great heights in Dido’s final scenes and Brandon Jovanovich convincingly delivered the rather brutal vision of Aeneas the staging seemed to demand. There was much excellent quality and scarcely any weakness in the rest of the large cast.

The chorus were rightly greeted with enormous enthusiasm, along with their chorus masters Jose Luis Basso and Alessandro di Stefano. No opera has a more important role for chorus. Their singing was throughout at a level very rarely encountered, as was their acting, for which presumably Tcherniakov and those working with him should be given credit — whatever view is taken of his overall staging concept.

Equal enthusiasm deservedly greeted the splendid orchestra and Philippe Jordan for their thrilling musical rendition of Berlioz’s still-astonishing score.

This is the ninth production of the opera I have been privileged to see. It was a mixed evening, but I am glad not to have missed it.
–Tom Luce

Filed under: Berlioz, reviews

Strange Beauty: The Berlioz Requiem in Seattle


(c) Brandon Patoc

My review of the Berlioz Requiem performed by Ludovic Morlot and Seattle Symphony:

Even for a composer as naturally original as Hector Berlioz, the Grande messe des morts stands apart for its wild uniqueness…

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Filed under: Berlioz, review, Seattle Symphony

Berlioz Festival Coming Up at Seattle Symphony

Hector BerliozMy story on Ludovic Morlot, Seattle Symphony, and Berlioz immersion in the Seattle Times:

Ludovic Morlot’s connection to Hector Berlioz goes deep. When he was 12, his parents moved to a house just a few miles from La Côte-Saint-André, the composer’s native village in the southeastern corner of France.

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

Protected: Thrilling Berlioz and Mahler with Guest Conductor Giancarlo Guerrero and Seattle Symphony

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Filed under: Berlioz, Mahler, review, Seattle Symphony

A Primer in the Romantic Spirit from Seattle Symphony

khachatryan-12Sergey Khachatryan. Image courtesy of Seattle Symphony.

My review of this weekend’s Seattle Symphony program with Ludovic Morlot and violinist Sergey Khachatryan is now live on Vanguard Seattle:

The Seattle Symphony Orchestra (SSO)’s sixth season with Music Director Ludovic Morlot has so far included a pair of electrifying programs that paired world premiere commissions by composers of today with Beethoven classics—the latter part of an ongoing two-year cycle of the composer’s complete symphonies and piano concertos.

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Filed under: Berlioz, Ludovic Morlot, review, Seattle Symphony, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Vanguard Seattle

Another Layer to Berlioz

image ©Bernd Uhlig

image ©Bernd Uhlig

Hector Berlioz’s treatment of the beloved Shakespeare tragedy in Roméo et Juliette, his “dramatic symphony” premiered in 1839, stands apart for its radical approach to narrative and musical story-telling.

It transforms the (still very recent, still-being-digested) Beethovenian legacy of the choral Ninth Symphony into something even less conventional in how it negotiates the relation between words and instruments, text and “programmatic” music.

Not the least unusual choice is the oblique way of recounting the famous story using not Shakespeare’s words but instead a libretto by Emile Deschamps that actually eliminates the figures of Romeo and Juliet themselves. They’re only spoken of in the text, whereas their big scenes are depicted by the orchestra alone.

So I was especially intrigued to see what Berlin-based choreographer (and aptonym!) Sasha Waltz does with one of my favorite scores. Her choreographed version of Roméo et Juliette premiered at Paris Opera in 2007 but was introduced only this year to the Deutsche Oper’s rep.

I caught a recent performance, with the title roles danced by Joel Suárez Gómez and Lorena Justribó Manion, respectively, and with Moritz Gnann conducting. The vocal soloists were Ronnita Miller, Thomas Blondelle, and Marko Mimica. (Miller and Mimica sounding especially splendid, with the latter’s Frère Laurent taking part in the action, while the other two were merely staged as vocal “presences.”) Overall, the orchestra played decently, if not spectacularly, despite occasional rawness from the winds.

The evening suggested some new ways of thinking about Berlioz, even if not all of Waltz’s specific choices were effective. (It also made for a wonderful supplement to the complete performance by the Seattle Symphony led by Ludovic Morlot which I reviewed this past February.)

By adding back in the stuff Berlioz leaves out, or allows only as third-person narration — most notably, Romeo and Juliet — a staged and danced version seems to court the danger of “pushing” Berlioz’s music into the background, making it mere accompaniment to the narrative that unfolds with great visual allure. (The problematic bias of ballet music as “secondary” has much in common with the bias against film scores — another story.)

And there were stretches of distinctly uninteresting choreography: most painfully in the ball scene in which the two lovers meet, which featured dull, arbitrary-seeming moves.

But rather than distract from or eclipse Berlioz’s music, the gestural vocabulary Waltz develops often amplified aspects of the score for me. I enjoyed her staging of the Queen Mab dream, with its blend of the quirky and sublime. Most memorably, we can observe Juliet’s perspective, and one of Waltz’s most significant additions is to suggest the story of Juliet’s promise of liberation from the person she’s been moulded into by her family and situation.

This comes to the fore in the most sublime music of the symphony, the lengthy Scène d’amour. To actually see the process of mutual discovery of Romeo and Juliet “happening” to this music gave me another layer to think about that intensified the inwardness of Berlioz’s music.

By the same token, the tone poem-like instrumental music in Part III (Roméo au tombeau des Capulets, etc.) now had its visual analogue. It moved me even more than productions of the Shakespeare source have done in the same scene — whereas I suspect that wouldn’t have been the case had this been a full-on operatic treatment, with text and singing to bring home each new phase of the story line.

An especially daring and effective choice: the music falls silent when Romeo learns of Juliet’s supposed death and Gómez desperately tries to scale the steeply pitched wing of the moveable, abstract set (designed by Waltz, Pia Maier Schriever, and Thomas Schenk).

Something about this “in-betweenness” — of Berlioz’s carefully scored gestural music matched with the pantomime and choreography — also managed to evade the literalness of mere recounting that was key to the composer’s motivation in opting for purely instrumental music for the loftiest and most tragic moments.

(c) 2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Berlioz, choreography

Berlioz’s The Trojans: “A Virgilian Opera on the Shakespearean Plan”

My essay on San Francisco Opera’s upcoming new production of Berlioz’s Les Troyens is now available online:

“For the last three years I have been tormented by the idea of a vast opera,” wrote Hector Berlioz at the end of the first edition of his Memoirs, in 1854. This oblique reference to the still-to-be-written The Trojans suggests that the composer, then just 50 years old, intuited the difficulties awaiting him. “I am resisting the temptation, and trust I shall continue to resist it to the end.”


It wasn’t birth pangs per se he feared. Within an astonishing two years (1856–58), Berlioz composed both the text and the music for The Trojans, working with intense focus as he sustained a high pitch of inspiration. What he feared was the agony of getting his work produced— a struggle that, sadly, turned out to be even more bitterly disappointing than he foresaw. Fortunately, the impulse to create The Trojans proved strong enough to override his early anxieties. However improbably ambitious an undertaking, Berlioz’s magnum opus at the same time represents the inevitable culmination of his life and thought as an artist.

If the stakes seemed impossibly high for Berlioz, the same could be said of his source material. Virgil himself allegedly complained to the Emperor Augustus that he must have been “mad” to have undertaken the Aeneid. According to tradition, the dying poet (he lived from 70–19 BCE) indicated that he wanted the manuscript to be burned, for it lacked his finishing touches. Not only was Virgil competing directly with the Homeric epics venerated as the foundation of literature (to his contemporary Romans, Homer was a quasi-divine poet, already several centuries older than Shakespeare is in relation to ourselves): with the Aeneid he attempted nothing less than to rewrite the national narrative. By depicting the sufferings and victories of the Trojans, Virgil’s epic aimed to make sense of a period of cataclysmic social and political transformation.

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Filed under: Berlioz, essay, San Francisco Opera, Virgil

In a Berlioz Mood

Great way to start the week – one of my favorite takes on opera’s “storm” meme:

Filed under: Berlioz

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