MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Joshua Bell Teams up with Cellist Steven Isserlis and Jeremy Denk


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


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


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


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 Daedalus Quartet Plays Huck Hodge and Beethoven

AAR Portrait

Huck Hodge, portrait by Mark Rabinowitz for the American Academy in Rome

Pairing Beethoven with a world premiere: that’s my kind of program, and it’s what the Daedalus Quartet unpacked for their recital Friday night at Meany Hall under the auspices of the University of Washington’s World Series (soon to be rebranded as “Meany Center for the Performing Arts”).

The Daedalus Quartet consists of Min-Young Kim and Matilda Kaul, violins; Jessica Thompson, viola; and Thomas Kraines, cello. This adventurous young ensemble, which has been quartet-in-residence at the University of Pennsylvania since 2006 while also maintaining a busy touring schedule, is a proud champion of an impressive range of contemporary music: George Perle, Ligeti, Carter, Kurtág, Joan Tower, and Fred Lerdahl are all part of the group’s rep.

On Friday Daedalus gave the world premiere of The Topography of Desire by Huck Hodge. Currently an associate professor on UW’s School of Music Faculty, the 39-year-old Hodge studied with Lerdahl and Tristan Murail and spent time in Stuttgart and as a fellow of the American Academy in Rome — all the while evidently developing a heady mix of philosophical, psychological and poetic interests that are embedded in his bold musical investigations.

His output includes compositions that draw on such material for inspiration as the pre-Socratic philosophers, the Gestalt theory of perceptual illusions, stellar parallax, seascapes at night, the poetry of Jorge Luis Borges.

The program note for his new piece observes that Hodge is also inspired by “uniquely northwestern American light patterns … ‘the way that a piercing slant of light, breaking through a dreary cloudscape, casts an intense, otherworldly chiaroscuro on the landscape,’ the ethereal yellowness of the light in bas-relief against the yawning darkness of the sky.”

Hodge himself took to the stage to introduce The Topography of Desire — a substantial work for string quartet cast in a single movement, which shared the program with two Beethoven quartets. The central question he sets out to explore in this music is nothing less than the insatiability of desire itself: the unbridgeable “gap between our needs and the way we come to represent them in the mind.”

While the composer’s printed note frames the issue of desire and non-fulfillment in terms familiar from French post-structuralist theory, Hodge’s comments onstage yielded a more-straightforward description of the two basic musical techniques he used to construct the piece. First is “detuning” of the inner voices (second violin and viola) vis-a-vis the “normal” tuning of the other instruments by  a fractional tone, so as to build in harmonic friction. Such dissonance becomes an audible symbol of the “gap” and the itch for unison harmony.

The second technique involves Hodge’s use of a “phantom theme” — the ever-present melodic source content that derives from the overtone series, appearing in spread-out or super-speeded-up incarnations such that we never hear it clearly spelt out. That strategy reminded me, conceptually, a bit of the “enigma theme” in Elgar’s famous Variations.

The result of these techniques of “deferring unity” is to generate what Hodge aptly calls a “poetics of the near miss.” Presented in this context, Topography initially brought to mind the way we often encounter a contemporary art installation, via explanatory placards that help guide the view and point the way toward interesting things to look for — and I mean that in a good way, because the concert music scene has much to learn, in my view, from the presentation of new visual art.

Of course the ineluctable difference is that, once the music starts, you can’t scurry back and forth between the wall text and “the piece.” (If you do dip back into the program notes, you’re already losing the music however long your distraction lasts.)  Hodge’s Topography was genuinely immersive, continually revealing surprises and new, unexpected corners as it unfolded.

The Daedalus Quartet played with the conviction and focus necessary to thread listeners through this musical labyrinth. The key idea of desire, for example, is emphatically not something to be “gotten” as soon as your ears have acclimated to the weird tuning. That’s simply a given, part of the foundation Hodge uses to then design an astonishingly varied edifice. Sometimes the fractional pitch differences (at times played with a sort of vibrato effect by the same instrument) sounded more conventionally “dissonant,” yet Hodge creates pockets — through shifting tempo, register, and counterpoint — in which the effect suddenly turns curiously peaceful and serene.

The composer referred to his experiences in Indonesia last summer studying Balinese gamelan music and the shimmering, vibrant quality of multiple tunings. Hodge manages to replicate this sensation with his scoring for four Western string instruments: Goethe’s famous metaphor of the Classical quartet as “a conversation among four reasonable people” is supplanted by a music alternately evoking confusion and prayer. At times it touches on the otherworldly spaces that Ligeti weaves with his micropolyphony.

Hodge’s intrepid ambition doesn’t stop at sharing a program with two Beethoven quartets (including what is arguably among the top five ultimate masterpieces in the genre, Op. 132). He also invites comparison with Richard Wagner, whom he mentioned in his remarks as the “grand master of the poetics of the near miss,” referring to the chromatic frustrations and delayed resolutions in Tristan und Isolde.

If you invoke Wagner/Tristan, you raise the issue of “the art of transition” — of mediating between strongly contrasting material through musically sensible and sensitive connections. Here I found myself less convinced by the structure of Topography — which is comparable in length to Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (if not longer — I was unintentionally without watch). But the score is too richly layered to possibly grasp in one hearing, and I hope to have the opportunity for future encounters.

Heading outside at intermission after Topography, I was struck by how fitting the last glints of setting sun appeared as a commentary on the music — to the point of speculating how Hodge’s new work might sound as a site-specific, environment-based experience in the manner of John Luther Adams….

The Daedalus Quartet opened the program with the Quartet in D major from Beethoven’s inaugural Op. 18 set (replacing the originally announced Quartet in F major). Though no. 3 in the Op. 18 sequence, the D major is actually the first Beethoven completed.

Some indecisive intonation and tentative phrasing gave the impression that they hadn’t quite settled on an interpretation. Thematically, in any case, the yearning two notes of the opening phrase suggested an interesting Classical starting point for the music of desire that would follow in Topography.

They brought a more identifiable point of view to the ineffable Quartet in A minor, Op. 132, which filled out the program’s second half. Overall, the Daedalus steer clear of obvious dramatics. Their style is ultra-refined, elegant, even understated. There’s no playing to the gallery. This approach enhanced the mysterious melancholy of the first movement, which almost hinted at a dark undercurrent of repression.

Daedalus underscored the “normalcy”of the movements framing Beethoven’s “holy song of thanksgiving.” Even the theatrics of the recitative were restrained — too demure for my taste — and they kept the anxious passion of the finale from rising to a proper boil. Here, their subtlety of approach felt excessive, just when the reins should be loosened.

The centerpiece of Op. 132, the beyond-the-battle Heiliger Dankgesang, got an intriguing  approach that was not without risk. They exaggerated the vibrato-less purity of the “Lydian” theme, which enhanced not only its archaic quality but the contrast with the “modern,” vibrato-colored Andante theme in this loose set of double variations.

Upon each variation of the opening section, they introduced more and more vibrato, converging on a richly resonant sonority in the final section. Initially the movement sounded too weightless, but the strategy proved to offer emotional satisfactions I wasn’t expecting.

–(c)2016 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Beethoven, chamber music, new music, review

The Miró Quartet’s “Transcendent” Project

miro1.jpgTo celebrate its 20th anniversary year, the Miró Quartet has been pursuing some characteristically innovative and ambitious projects. This week the group announced the winner of its Transcendence Education Project: the Fox Chapel Area High School Orchestra in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Entrants had been invited to submit a 30-second video on the topic of ‘musical transcendence’ with prizes including a free masterclass and other chances to interact with the Miró Quartet.

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Filed under: chamber music, Schubert, Strad

Ehnes Quartet Review


My review of the Ehnes Quartet and their Beethoven cycle from this summer’s Seattle Chamber Music Society Festival has been published in the current issue of String magazine. A link to it is here (pdf).

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

A Gorgeous Chamber Music Première in Seattle

Steven Stucky; photo (c) 2005 Hoebermann Studio

Steven Stucky; photo
(c) 2005 Hoebermann Studio

Along with its mix of well-known and unusual repertoire, the Seattle Chamber Music Society annually commissions a brand-new work for its Summer Festival. Monday evening’s programme unveiled the selection for 2015: Cantus by the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Steven Stucky, who has gained prominence primarily as an instrumental and choral composer. (His first opera – a brilliantly witty yet at the same time touching one-act buffa to Jeremy Denk’s libretto improbably “dramatising” Charles Rosen’s The Classical Style – will receive its full stage première next week at the Aspen Festival.)

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Filed under: American music, Brahms, chamber music, commissions, Mendelssohn, review, Seattle Chamber Music Society, Steven Stucky

An Unusual and Moving Evening at Seattle’s Summer Chamber Music Festival

Nicholas Phan

Nicholas Phan

New Bachtrack review:

The second week of the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s month-long Summer Festival concluded with a programme that – as the two earlier concerts that week had similarly done – expanded perceptions of the notion of chamber music itself by including works that cross over the instrumental divide and call for voice.

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

How Janáček Bucked the Trend

In a Janáček mood after hearing last night’s mesmerizing performance of Zápisník zmizelého (“The Diary of One Who Disappeared”) at the Summer Chamber Festival. This song cycle/minidrama of a hapless farm boy’s seduction by a mysterious Gypsy woman was performed with minimal but haunting staging. Great work by tenor Nicholas Phan, mezzo Sasha Cooke, and pianist Jeremy Denk, along with singers Rena Harms, Nerys Jones, and Rachelle Moss.

(Copy of the score here, with its killer tessitura for the tenor.)

Unfortunately I missed the prelude concert featuring Benjamin Beilman and Denk in Janáček’s Violin Sonata. (Beilman and cellist Efe Baltacıgil gave a marvelous rendition last week, along with pianist Anna Polonsky, of the rarely heard Shostakovich First Piano Trio.)

Here’s Ian Bostridge — who even made a documentary about Diary — on the real significance of Janáček’s legacy:

It’s telling, I think, that the voice came first. Janácek’s musical creativity needed an immersion in humanity, in emotion, in flesh and blood, to sustain it. In that sense, he was a world away from the mainstream of German modernism (Schoenberg, Webern et al) or the success story of international eclecticism, Stravinsky, for whom music was about music, not really an expressive art form at all. Stravinsky wrote few songs, and his one opera, ‘The Rake’s Progress’, brilliant and moving as it is, remains cumulatively cold and detached.

If Janácek’s music lives with an extraordinary power and urgency, it is because he bucked the trend of musical abstraction. He did so because he couldn’t avoid it, because it was in his temperament to confuse the personal and the aesthetic. This is something of an intellectual puzzle – how, after all, do we turn feelings into music? – and, at the same time, an artistic miracle.

Filed under: chamber music, Leoš Janáček

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