MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Made in LA


Tonight the Los Angeles Master Chorale performs a program celebrating the hotbed of creativity this amazing and diverse city inspires. Here’s my essay for the program:

A couple of months ago, Angelenos were treated to a concert by a chamber ensemble known as The Golden Bridge (whose singers include some members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale). Led by Suzi Digby, Lady Eatwell OBE, and true to its name, the ensemble links two golden ages of choral music: Tudor England and the remarkable choral creativity now flourishing in California — particularly in the Los Angeles region.

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Filed under: choral music, commissions, Los Angeles Opera, new music

A Golden-Mouthed Choral Tradition


The Los Angeles Master Chorale’s new season will start in another week with a concert titled “The Russian Evolution.”

Here’s my introduction to the program:

In few areas has the tension between longstanding tradition and cataclysmic revolution played a more dramatic role than in the history of cultural expression in Russia.

Along with the First World War that framed it, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 marks a radical dividing line – as abrupt as traveling across multiple time zones in a single flight.

The transformation of the Russian Empire into the Soviet Union had a particularly devastating impact on the tradition of sacred choral music, not long after a fresh impetus from composers like Grechaninov and Rachmaninoff – a movement known as the New Russian Choral School – had begun revitalizing that tradition.

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Filed under: choral music, Gubaidulina

“May It Return to the Heart!”


This week brings the San Francisco Symphony’s performances with Michael Tilson Thomas of the Missa Solemnis of Beethoven — a work that certainly belongs to my top-ten list of all time.

Following a trial run in Los Angeles in January, it’s being given as a “multimedia staged event”, complete with scenic, lighting, and video design; James Darrah is the director.

Of the earlier run in January, Mark Swed had this to say about MTT’s relationship with the Beethoven score:

In the grandest sense, this “Missa Solemnis,” with all its attendant baggage, is a kind of mission statement for MTT. He sets out to unpack a complicated artistic and musical construct, to reveal its workings and to treat it as a large-scale act of discovery.

The Missa Solemnis held intense personal significance for its composer as well: “Von Herzen — Möge es wieder — Zu Herzen gehn!” (“From the heart –- may it return to the heart!” wrote Beethoven on the copy of the score he presented to its dedicatee, his pupil and friend Archduke Rudolf.

For its public “premiere” in Vienna, three of the Missa‘s movements were given as part of the grand concert of 7 May 1824 that also unveiled the Ninth Symphony. (The secular context brought objections to performing the entire Missa.)

Next week MTT and the SFS continue their Beethoven Festival with a recreation of an earlier “marathon concert”: the one on a cold December night in 1808, when Beethoven premiered his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, and Fourth Piano Concerto in a program that also included a concert aria, three movements from his other Mass setting (the Mass in C major), a piano fantasy, and the Choral Fantasy, that fascinating precursor to the Ninth.

Filed under: Beethoven, choral music, directors, San Francisco Symphony

Saluting Terry Knowles and the LA Master Chorale

The goddess: Terry Knowles

The goddess: Terry Knowles

This weekend brings the final program of the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s current season — and with it the conclusion of Terry Knowles’ tenure as President & CEO of the LAMC. A bittersweet weekend indeed.

There are executives of organizations, and there are genuine arts leaders — and Terry has carved out a niche all her own in the latter category during her 15 years leading the LAMC. Along with overseeing the transition to the Chorale’s new home in Disney Hall, Terry spearheaded an incredible period of growth — artistic and budgetary — in the LAMC’s history, expanding audiences and educational outreach and increasing the organization’s operating budget by more than 80% (!), to $5.4 million: all this in the face of the Great Recession.

Terry not only refused the direction of “dumbing down” that has been fruitlessly followed by so many other performing arts organizations but ramped up the Master Chorale’s commitment to daring, innovative, thoughtful programming and important commissions. She oversaw the appointment of music director Grant Gershon — a brilliant choice — and their shared vision has earned international preeminence for the LAMC.

Here’s just a partial list of the astonishing caliber and range of living composers whose works the LAMC has premiered or championed during her tenure: John Adams, Steve Reich, Gabriela Lena Frank, Philip Glass, Steve Lang, Chinary Ung, Esa-Pekka Salonen, James Newton, Morten Lauridsen, Shawn Kirchner (currently serving as resident composer), and Nico Muhly — whose works formed the basis for A Good Understanding, the LAMC’s first CD marking a new partnership with Decca.

Listen to what some of the leading figures in music today have to say about Terry’s legacy:

Next month Chorus America will recognize Terry Knowles with its 2015 Distinguished Service Award. During Chorus America’s annual conference in Boston, Grant Gershon will also receive the Louis Botto Award for Innovative Action and Entrepreneurial Zeal.

It would be hard to overstate the impact Terry has had through her tireless dedication, wise leadership, and inspiring love of the art.

Filed under: arts leaders, choral music, commissions, Los Angeles Master Chorale, new music

Sounds of Water, Rituals of Rebirth: Tan Dun’s Water Passion


My essay on Tan Dun’s Water Passion, which is being performed next weekend by Grant Gershon and the LA Master Chorale, is now live:

In 2013 the peripatetic Tan Dun traveled to the Thomaskirche in Leipzig to conduct his Water Passion in the very space in which J.S. Bach had introduced the St. Matthew Passion nearly three centuries ago (most likely in 1727). The gesture underlined the kind of cross-cultural counterpoint that lies at the heart of the Chinese composer’s oratorio.

The full title reads Water Passion after St. Matthew, yet Tan also models his work on his reading of Bach’s monumental precedent. It might even be titled Water Passion after St. Matthew after Bach — the second “after” being taken in its double sense of “according to” and “postdating” (for a contemporary world).

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Filed under: choral music, essay, Los Angeles Master Chorale, new music

Songs of Ascent


Last night’s LA Master Chorale program presented the world premieres of two pieces: Nackkum Paik’s Succession and the latest from composer-in-residence Shawn Kirchner. Here’s the essay I wrote for the program:

Images related to rising up have inspired wonder and awe ever since humans acquired consciousness. Such images are ubiquitous in the natural world around us — whether in the mountains that loom majestically over a landscape or the reliable motions of the firmament. Is it any surprise that themes of ascension are so integral to religions all around the world? “When the Buddha sat under the bo tree,” observes Joseph Campbell, “he faced east — the direction of the rising sun.”

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Filed under: choral music, essay, new music

What Is It About Messiah?


My recent essay on the unusual (if most popular) of Handel’s oratorios:

Handel’s masterpiece has long been at the heart of the repertory, but it marked an unusual departure for the composer

If you could do the time warp and choose a few of the legendary premieres in music history to be teleported back to, what would make your list? Likely contenders might be Beethoven’s Ninth, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, perhaps Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique and Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, and — surely Messiah?

This list forms the basis for Thomas Forrest Kelly’s lecture series, published as First Nights, which teems with fascinating factoids to help us reimagine what the scenes of said premieres may have been like. Following the public rehearsal of Messiah on April 9, 1742, the official world premiere occurred on April 13, 1742, at the Great Music Hall in Dublin, having been postponed a day to allow for “several persons of distinction” to be able to attend; the “ladies who honour this performance with their presence” were requested to attend “without hoops” so as to make room for others. All told, the Great Music Hall would have accommodated about 700 (hoopless) people — though of course a seat would be reserved for our prospective time-traveler.

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(c)2014 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: choral music, essay, Handel, oratorio, sacred music

“Most Strange Effects”: Sacred Choral Music from the Renaissance


From a recent essay I wrote for the Los Angeles Master Chorale:

There’s a touch of irony in the concept of the Renaissance as a specific historical period. An inspired reawakening of respect for an age long past — classical antiquity — is considered one key aspect of the Renaissance attitude, yet that attitude itself was singled out via a backward glance. Not until the nineteenth century did historians construct what we’ve come to think of as The Renaissance, as a period clearly marked off from the “Middle Ages.”

And it’s taken even longer for the vast store of musical treasures created during the Renaissance to be recovered from the oblivion of intervening centuries — a recovery we can credit to the revolution of “early music” awareness.

So what period are we talking about? For convenience, but recognizing the arbitrariness of the dates, let’s say the standard 1400-1600, give or take. Just as with quite a few of the composers from this era, there’s no clear-cut date that unambiguously marks the “birth” of the Renaissance: proto-Renaissance traits pop up at various points throughout the preceding centuries.

Still, overall, a major shift in thinking about the art of music, its purpose, and its creators did start manifesting itself around the fifteenth century, paving the way for composers like Josquin des Prez and the others we hear on this evening’s program.

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Filed under: choral music, essay, Renaissance music

Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light

The Los Angeles Master Chorale launches their season this Sunday evening with a performance of Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light accompanying the silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc. Here’s my essay for the program:

Transparent Yet Unknowable: The Fascination of Joan of Arc

“The fashion in which we think changes like the fashion of our clothes,” writes George Bernard Shaw in the lengthy preface to Saint Joan, the play considered by some to be his masterpiece. Shaw adds that “it is difficult, if not impossible, for most people to think otherwise than in the fashion of their own period.”

Figures like Joan of Arc hold an enduring fascination because of this tension between their seeming closeness and their distance — a distance that isn’t measured just by history but by their difference from ordinary patterns of social expectation. And artists in particular have been keen on bridging the gap and portraying a Joan who tells us something about the human condition as we ourselves experience it, here and now. They intensify our desire to identify with her across the centuries.

Composer Richard Einhorn describes his deep admiration for the film by Carl Theodore Dreyer, The Passion of Joan of Arc, which inspired him to write Voices of Light. The film, says Einhorn, is a work of art that makes Joan uncannily present to contemporary audiences: “Watching this film, we forget we’re watching a silent film, we forget the technique and we get caught up entirely in the intensely human, passionate, tragic, yet deeply inspiring story of Joan. She truly was one of a kind.” Ultimately, he views Joan as “a woman who was both extremely transparent and utterly unknowable.”

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Filed under: choral music, composers, essay, film

LA Master Chorale: Today, Tomorrow, and Beyond


I’ve always admired the vision behind the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Tomorrow they conclude their landmark 50th-anniversary season. In characteristic fashion, Grant Gershon and the Master Chorale have chosen to celebrate by filling the entire program with contemporary music: new pieces by David Lang, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Gabriela Lena Frank, Francisco Núñez, and their own resident composer, Shawn Kirchner. They commissioned all five selections, most of which are world premieres.

Here is my note for Esa-Pekka Salonen’s setting of the final lines from Dante’s Divine Comedy, one of the works receiving its world premiere:

Tonight brings the birth of the latest composition from Salonen. “I wasn’t a chorister growing up in Finland,” he says, “but was an instrumentalist from early on. I came to choral music later.” Iri da iri is Salonen’s second work for a cappella chorus, following a setting of the poetry of the contemporary Finnish writer Ann Jäderlund (Two Songs from Kalender Röd from 2000). He approached the commission to write Iri da iri as a special occasion that “is very personal for me – more so than usual.”

Salonen has enjoyed a long-term friendship with Grant Gershon, having been impressed by his gifts early on in his tenure with the LA Phil in the 1990s, when he first became aware of Gershon. “I realized then that he is extraordinarily talented,” remarks Salonen, adding that he found it deeply touching to be commissioned to write a piece directly by the singers of the Master Chorale.

It’s been argued that the apocalyptic torments of hell are more inspiring for an artist than visions of paradise – the meme that “happiness writes white” – and that bias probably explains why Dante’s Paradiso has tended to get short shrift in comparison with his Inferno and Purgatorio.

Yet Salonen found the very last section of this third and concluding part of Dante’s epochal Divine Comedy fascinating both in its poetic structure and in its representation of a singular vision that transcends any particular religion, taking on a universal perspective instead.

“It goes beyond the religious,” explains Salonen. “After the poet has met the top management of heaven and comes to the innermost circle of the cosmos, at that point the expression somehow changes. The word ‘god’ isn’t even mentioned anymore, and it goes beyond the personal. At the end Dante has to admit that the only thing he knows is that love is what makes all of this – the planets and stars, the whole cosmos – work.”

Salonen was also attracted by Dante’s command of meter and the interlocking rhyming structure of his three-line stanzas (terza rima). “It works very well in music because it allows you to build chain-like forms” instead of proceeding in a “simple linear way.” He points out that because Dante’s images are so “mystical and complex” he decided not to try to illustrate the text musically (the age-old device of “madrigalism”).

Salonen wanted the words being sung to be understandable and therefore for the most part follows the natural rhythms as they would be spoken in Italian. At the same time, “there are a couple sections where the text dissolves into atoms,” evoking for him images of “planets and nebulae” and suggesting a sense of “cosmic movement.”

The result is that Salonen’s musical setting of Iri da iri involves “a kind of dualism between using the language as a tool for communication and using it in some cases as material. Sometimes the music moves rather rhythmically and in a more songlike, linear way but there are more densely contrapuntal moments when it follows the laws of the cosmos, as it were, rather than the laws of the language.”

He offers still another metaphoric image for the musical process Dante’s visionary language inspired: “It’s like milk being poured into a jar full of water, when you then see how the whiteness of the milk blends with the transparency of the water. On some level it’s very simple if you look at it from a distance; but if you look at it close up, you see the incredible complexity of the individual molecules and the unpredictable way the two liquids fuse.”

(c)2014 Thomas May – All rights reserved.

read the rest of the program essay here

Filed under: American music, choral music, commissions, new music

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