MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

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.

continue reading

Filed under: cello, chamber music, programming, Strings

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


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


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.

continue reading

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

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.

continue reading

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….

continue reading

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.”

continue reading

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

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

RSS Arts & Culture Stories from NPR