MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Pēteris Vasks in Seattle: Light and Faith

Many thanks to flutist extraordinaire Paul Taub for making this memorable portrait concert of Pēteris Vasks happen, together with the Baltic Arts Northwest Council and the Nordic Museum. Despite the ongoing Seattle snowmageddon, with a fresh onslaught starting mid-afternoon, the matinee event proceeded as planned.

The 72-year-old Latvian composer was in attendance and warmly thanked Taub and his fellow musicians for their heartfelt renditions of his music. Joining Taub were the Skyros Quartet (Sarah Pizzichemi, Rachel Pearson, Justin Kurys, and Willie Braun), the chamber vocal Mägi Ensemble, and Travis Gore on double bass.

Beginning with Taub’s enchanting account of Ainavar ar putniem (Landscape with Birds) from 1980, the program offered an excellent sampling of pieces solo and chamber, vocal and instrumental. Travis Gore played the solo Bass Trip (2003), and the Mägi Ensemble gave the U.S. premiere of the version for women’s voices of Plainscapes (which exists in versions for 8-voice choir plus violin and cello as well as piano trio); they were accompanied by Pizzichemi on violin and Braun on cello. The Mägis also sang a set of folk songs — including the cycle Dzimtene (Motherland) — that display Vasks’s intriguing treatment of archaic material and technique.

I especially loved the solo Sonata (1992) for flute/alto flute and how Taub sensitively conveyed Vasks’s musical “borrowings” from nature, from bird calls and animal sounds. Similar devices grace the String Quartet No. 2 (1984), titled Vasaras dziedājumi (“Summer Tunes”). The Skyros wove its alluring atmospheres, suggesting the connections between the composer’s well-known reverence for nature and his spirituality in this pantheistic soundscape, touched too by genuine melancholy.

From an interview with Vasks quoted in the program notes by Guntis Šmidchens: “Right now it seems to me that there is so little time left, I have to write about light and faith. All the dramas and complications, let’s leave those aside … Music must knock you out of the everyday. But the main thing is that this doesn’t lead to collapse, that after the shock there should be spiritual purification… There’s a feeling that our life is too lukewarm. Lacking ideals, lacking faith. If you have no faith, how can you live?”

Filed under: chamber music, new music, Pēteris Vasks

Joan Tower at 80

My profile of Joan Tower, who recently turned 80, is in the September issue of Strings magazine (starts p. 27).

Filed under: chamber music, Joan Tower, profile, string quartet, Strings

Shostakovich: Cello Sonata No. 1

Haunted by this work now, which was positioned in the middle of last night’s Summer Festival of the Seattle Chamber Music Society — in an enthralling performance by Seattle Symphony principal cellist Efe Baltacıgil and pianist Adam Neiman.

The program also included Beethoven’s “Spring” Sonata (Augustin Hadelich and Alessio Bax) and a winning account of Schumann’s E-flat major Piano Quintet (Andrew Wan, Benjamin Beilman, Jonathan Vinocour, Astrid Schween, George Li).

Filed under: chamber music, Seattle Chamber Music Society, Shostakovich

Cellist Jan Vogler and His Trio Venture into “New Worlds” with Bill Murray

Mira-WangBill-Murray-Jan-Vogler-New-Worlds-Tour-Photo-by-WP-Photography-Taken-at-Napa-Valley-Festival-August-2017My latest for Strings magazine (October issue):

Chamber music is all about knowing how to forge close partnerships. For the world-renowned cellist Jan Vogler, that instinct includes connecting to artists beyond the classical-music sphere. But he didn’t expect a serendipitous encounter with Bill Murray to lead to one of the most innovative projects he has ever undertaken.

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Filed under: cello, chamber music, programming, Strings

At Play and In Flight: Some Recent Summer Festival Concerts with Seattle Chamber Music Society

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composer-vocalist Lisa Bielawa; photo by Daniel Clark

The Seattle Chamber Music Society’s 2017 Summer Festival has now reached its midway point, with a delicious program last night devoted to French music (in honor of Bastille Day). The Taiwanese-American violinist Paul Huang in particular stood out (in the free prelude concert) with an account of César Franck’s Violin Sonata that was simultaneously passionate and also lucidly constructed. Paige Roberts Molloy matched Huang’s intensity with her strong keyboard personality.

Molloy played a big role in the main course itself, teaming with Max Levinson for a pair of four-hands piano delights: Debussy’s early Petite Suite and Bizet’s Jeux d’enfants (source of the orchestral Petite Suite we heard not long ago from the Seattle Symphony and Morlot).

The duo teased out the textural richness of the four-hands writing and also enjoyed teasing the audience with the ample humor of music-as-mimicry (especially in Bizet’s sonic imaginings of children at play). A similar angle, but magnified to a small ensemble of ten players, enlivened the concluding work, Saint-Saëns’ Carnaval des Animaux. Each of the composer’s clever vignettes was neatly etched and characterized, from the two-note joke of “Le coucou au fond des bois” (Anthony McGill as luxury casting on clarinet) to lightly shaded mystery in “Aquarium.”

Together with the less-often-heard piano suites, the hyper-familiar Saint-Saëns acquired a fresh coat of childlike wonder — or the wonder resulting from grown artists reimagining and trying to recapture something of that wonder. In that context, it also provoked some interesting questions about this particular subfield of “program music.” In contrast, say, to a grandiose R. Strauss tone poem, is it the miniaturism here — in terms of instrumentation as well as size — that makes these pieces tend to be more “about” a textural gesture?

Those works in turn made for an unusual context in which to revisit the String Quartet in F major by another great poet of childhood, Maurice Ravel. Huang, playing first violin, was joined by violinist Tessa Lark, Cynthia Phelps on viola, and Ronald Thomas on cello. They gave an engaging performance that paid special attention to Ravel’s fascinating rhythmic language, with remarkably vivid ensemble playing for the second and fourth movements.  They also succeeded in balancing structural clarity with a drive and boldness that, from less-experienced musicians, might have risked murkiness.

Fictional Migrations

This Summer Festival week began with the excitement of a world premiere. The program on Monday (10 July) unveiled this year’s commission by the SCMS Commissioning Club: Fictional Migrations by Lisa Bielawa. An important and original voice among today’s composers, she is also a performer and has toured as a vocalist with the Philip Glass Ensemble.

The prolific Bielawa, born in San Francisco in 1968, has recently been earning widespread attention in the contemporary-music scene for her ambitious, trail-blazing, highly collaborative Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch’s AccuserIt’s a “made-for-TV-and-online opera” in a dozen episodes focusing on a gifted teenage girl who becomes obsessed with female visionaries across history.

Somehow among her many other projects, Bielawa found time to write the 12-minute Fictional Migrations. The fact that the piece is scored for flute, French horn, and piano is your first clue to its unusual character. Bielawa pointed out that she was initially intrigued — if not intimidated — by the challenge inherent in working with such an apparently “absurd” sonic combination.

Her approach is to avoid futile attempts at “homogenizing” these three instruments into something tamer but rather to accentuate, even exaggerate, their distinctive characters. In her introductory note, Bielawa points out that she also wanted to develop some “reveries” prompted by another composer she deeply admires, Olivier Messiaen. The latter was a household staple when she was growing up, since both of her musician parents were fans of the French master. Fictional Migrations is dedicated to the memory of Messiaen (in observance of the 25th anniversary of his death).

The most obvious Messiaenic influence is Bielawa’s allusion to birds and birdsong, a signature inspiration for Messiaen’s musical language. She writes that she had in mind the story of  Alcyone from ancient Greek mythology “who, thinking her lover Ceyx is dead, throws herself into the sea, only to find herself transformed into a bird, flying towards him (also now in bird form).”

Bielawa also notes an impetus from “speculative fiction and the new surge of minority and feminist writers who are embracing this form — a cousin of science fiction that poses the question ‘What if?’ in relation to current cultural narratives.”

Fictional Migrations is not a piece of straight-ahead program music. Bielawa has instead constructed a “fictional” encounter among these very different sonorities. There’s not even an obvious throughline correspondence between the instruments and characters of the Alcyone story. Rather, Bielawa translates the pattern of Ovidian metamorphosis into instrumental terms: the flute and horn in particular at times play “themselves” but more often than not seem to be attempting to transcend their identities, to become something else — and to negate the gendered stereotypes of how they should sound. Bielawa shows that process at the very beginning, with an aleatoric section for piccolo at its most aggressive and shrill.

What’s more, the writing is hyper-virtuosic and highly individual for each instrument, so they are not encouraged to fuse into pleasant but bland “harmony.” The players were all first-rate. Lorna McGhee’s piccolo/flute conveyed an astonishing array of moods and affects, brilliantly articulated, while hornist Jeffrey Fair never lost his golden tone amid the dangerously difficult registral transitions. Bielawa had collaborated with pianist Andrew Armstrong, but a last-minute “cooking accident” sidelined him; in his stead, Jeewon Park accomplished the heroic feat of mastering the keyboard part, which is replete with thunderous, heavy waves and intricately nuanced figurations.

Bielawa has created an immersive, provocative soundscape, filled with “made-up birds,” she writes, that “exist in a world where prisoners fly out of captivity effortlessly, and we all magically transcend death and suffering.”

Framing the premiere were two pieces that also deviate from the chamber music “norm” in their scoring. The opener was Mozart’s K. 423 Duo for Violin and Viola in G major, with violinist Augustin Hadelich’s silky, exquisite phrasing itself was worth the price of admission; his partner was Michael Klotz, playing his viola with patrician refinement.

And a blockbuster to conclude: Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet, with its double bass instead of a second violin to give an ampler sound. The players — Andrew Wan (violin), Richard O’Neill (viola), Ronald Thomas (cello), Joseph Kaufman (bass), and George Li (piano) — collaborated with in-the-moment flashes of color and expression that are what you hope for in live chamber music.

Review (c) 2017 Thomas May — All rights reserved

Filed under: chamber music, new music, review, Seattle Chamber Music Society

Seattle Chamber Music Society’s 2017 Summer Festival

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Jame Ehnes, left, Ani Aznavoorian and Andrs Daz in performance from a previous Seattle Chamber Music Festival Summer Festival. (Paul Joseph Brown)

I spoke with James Ehnes for the Seattle Times about the upcoming Summer Festival:

Seattle Chamber Music Society’s 2017 Summer Festival to feature musical postcards from across Europe, an American composer’s world premiere and a community performance of Bach before the closing open-air concert at Volunteer Park.

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Filed under: chamber music, commissions, James Ehnes, Seattle Chamber Music Society

Joshua Bell Teams up with Cellist Steven Isserlis and Jeremy Denk

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Image by Shervin Lainez

My story on the making of For the Love of Brahms, the marvelous new release from Joshua Bell, Steven Isserlis, and Jeremy Denk, is now live on Strings:

“Humanity . . . must in the long run regain its health through the true and great works Brahms produces,” wrote Clara Schumann in her diary in January 1889. To which cellist Steven Isserlis adds “Brahms—we need you!” to complete a Tweet he shared just a few days after wrapping up a recording project in May with violinist Joshua Bell and pianist Jeremy Denk.

The release, For the Love of Brahms, contains the Double Concerto, Op. 102, and the First Piano Trio, along with the slow movement of Robert Schumann’s Violin Concerto, and is being released in September by Sony.

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Filed under: Brahms, chamber music

The Emerson String Quartet Celebrates 40 Years

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My cover story on the Emersons is now out in STRINGS magazine:

The Emerson Quartet has been a dominant fixture in the chamber-music scene for so long now that it takes a considerable leap of imagination to picture what it was like for the ensemble 40 years ago, at the beginning of their adventure. The world was a vastly different place, of course, when they embarked on that debut season in 1976—though the sense of one crisis overlapping the next remains eerily familiar. The Watergate scandal still painfully recent, the nation faced its first election since Richard Nixon’s resignation, while the Fall of Saigon the previous year had just brought the bitter conflict in Vietnam to its traumatic end….

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Filed under: chamber music, Emerson String Quartet, feature, string quartet

Seattle Chamber Music Society’s 35th Summer Festival

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Cynthia Phelps is a regular participant in the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Summer Festival.

Tonight the 2016 edition of the Seattle Chamber Music Society Summer Festival begins, with James Ehnes and his colleagues fresh from a Beethoven quartet marathon in Seoul. My preview has been posted on the Seattle Times website:

“Chamber music is about being able to trust your colleagues,” says violist Cynthia Phelps. That’s what enables the risk-taking that’s essential for this intimate musical medium, she explains. “And the chance to live and work together during the Summer Festival is a wonderful model for building that trust.”

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Filed under: chamber music, James Ehnes, Seattle Chamber Music Society

20 Years Ago Today

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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

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