MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

A.J. Kernis’s Killer New Violin Concerto at Seattle Symphony

1617_Concerts_Kernis_Press-004

photo by James Holt

In last night’s Seattle Symphony concert led by Ludovic Morlot,  James Ehnes introduced a brand-new violin concerto written for him by one of today’s finest composers, Aaron Jay Kernis. This was the U.S. premiere; last week Ehnes gave the world premiere in Toronto (a co-commissioner with SSO).

Talk about making a great first impression! Despite — or even because of — its terrorizing challenges for the soloist, this is a concerto built to last: it’s so good and makes such an obviously satisfying contribution that I’d bet at least some of the more interesting virtuosos at work today will be intrigued to take it on.

I sometimes wonder whether we’ve been going through something of a concerto overload in recent years: too many composers relying on the supposedly built-in attractions of a structure that can feature a star protagonist while also benefiting from the color and horsepower of an orchestra (even if the latter is used merely for “atmospheric” painting rather than in a richer, symphonic way).

One of the many things that impress me about this new piece is that Kernis has really thought through the concerto idea and created something substantial and fresh without relying on esoteric novelties — without trying to reinvent the wheel.

In fact, an attempt at abstract description of the piece might make it sound almost old-fashioned, but it’s not. Like Brahms writing for Joseph Joachim (though Kernis himself studied violin as a youngster), he resorts (distantly) to Baroque forms in the outer movements — an intensely felt and gripping Chaconne for the first and a “Toccatini” (his play on the toccata) for the finale — with a soulful “Ballad” doing service as the aria at the center. And the profusion of little cadenza-islands amid the orchestral archipelago also underscores the concerto’s conventional identification with virtuoso prowess.

But Kernis animates all of these conventional elements with a marvelously contemporary spirit. The first two movements have deep emotional resonance, while the finale is so infectiously zippy (and outrageously hard to play) it leaves you with a buzz — a musical martini, as the composer jokes.

He’s often described as “eclectic,” but I don’t think that does justice to the distinctive personality Kernis conveys in his Violin Concerto. True, there are hints of, well, Brahms (in the emotional severity and fatalism of the first movement), Berg, Bach, Stravinsky for sure (in the finale), Messiaen (the wondrous tangles of sound in the “Ballad,” which is also cured with jazz and blues flavors). But instead of a random mishmash, Kernis amalgamates these idioms into a rich, compelling harmonic language and flow of ideas.

One could appreciate Kernis’s score on the level of its orchestral ingenuity alone: such interesting sounds and blends, which paradoxically erase the model of individual “versus” the orchestra — at least over long stretches of the piece. Paradoxically because, on the most obvious level, this concerto it is a virtuoso showpiece in the old school sense.

But with James Ehnes as the soloist, the clichés often signaled by “virtuosity” — mere dazzle, effects without causes — have no bearing. It’s clear that Kernis tailored the piece to display this unmatchable violinist’s musical intelligence, taste, and beautiful sound production above all incredible technical feats he calls for (of which this piece is essentially a violinist’s compendium).

Whether Ehnes was attacking a fearsome passage of double-stop chords with his signature elegance or deftly sprinkling a torrent of precisely placed pizzicati,  it was like watching  a veteran climber scaling a particularly brutal mountain face sans ropes.

But for all the thrills and escapades, the overall impression he left of the concerto — which Kernis has dedicated to Ehnes — was of a rich, many-colored, joyful composition that has something compelling to say, and that resonates afterward.

Again, this is all part of the extraordinary balance Kernis has achieved in his Violin Concerto, overriding binaries of dark/light, intense/carefree, Apollonian/Dionysian, “serious”/enjoyable.

Morlot — a big part of this success in the less obvious task of precision-engineering and calibrating Kernis’s complex orchestral apparatus — was a deeply  sympathetic collaborator in this premiere.

He opened the program with a youthful curiosity by Debussy from a student cantata (the “Cortège et Air de danse” from L’enfant prodigue). The second half brought Beethoven’s Sixth.

Morlot’s account of the Pastoral from several seasons ago has stayed with me as some of his best Beethoven. It’s fascinating to hear him continuing to develop his ideas of this piece. Connections between the movements (even between symphonies) emerged effortlessly — above all in the limber, serenely flowing string lines of the second and last movements, which were reminiscent of his vision of the Ninth’s slow movement at the beginning of the year.

Despite some ensemble untidiness, there was especially delectable work from the winds (Eric Jacobs’ clarinet as beguiling as the voice of Orpheus). Michael Crusoe’s timpani pulsed with dramatic thunder and lighting in a storm movement that sounded like a sketch for The Flying Dutchman: further evidence of the silliness of that persistent cliche about the “placid” even-numbered versus “revolutionary” odd-numbered Beethoven symphonies. Next week brings a further chance for comparison, when Morlot and the SSO close out their two-year Beethoven cycle with the mighty Fifth.

(c) 2017 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Seattle Symphony, James Ehnes, review, American music, commissions, Beethoven, Ludovic Morlot

Seattle Symphony Unveils a New, Custom Concerto

ajkernisMy latest for The Seattle Times: a preview of Aaron Jay Kernis’s new Violin Concerto for James Ehnes and the Seattle Symphony:

How is the current political environment affecting the work of American artists?

This week’s Seattle Symphony concerts offer one very recent example. The orchestra will give the U.S. premiere of Aaron Jay Kernis’ Violin Concerto, conducted by music director Ludovic Morlot and featuring James Ehnes as the soloist.

continue reading

Filed under: commissions, James Ehnes, Seattle Symphony, Seattle Times

Gabriel Prokofiev, Agata Zubel: A New Season of Commissions at Seattle Symphony

gprokofievMy latest piece for the Seattle Times (in the Sunday edition) has now been posted online:

What drives a composer to write music — especially for a group as complex as a symphony orchestra?

The Romantic era has conditioned us to look for the answer in lofty concepts like “self-expression” and “genius.” But that represents only one variable in an intricate equation.

continue reading

Filed under: commissions, Ludovic Morlot, new music, Seattle Symphony

Olga Neuwirth’s New Percussion Concerto for Lucerne Festival

Last weekend at Lucerne Festival brought the world premiere of Olga Neuwirth’s latest major orchestral work: a percussion concerto titled Trurliade – Zone Zero (which references one of the Austrian composer’s sources of inspiration, the sci fi master Stanisław Lem). The soloist was Victor Hanna, and Matthias Pintscher conducted the Orchestra of the Lucerne Festival Academy.

Trurliade was the eighth in the ongoing Roche Commissions series, which picks from the leading composers at work today to commission a new orchestral work every two years, which is then premiered at Lucerne Festival. Neuwirth has also been serving as this year’s composer-in-residence at the Festival, which is focusing on the theme of women in music.

Neuwirth is a genuinely fascinating, one-of-a-kind composer who has created especially striking works of music theater (including collaborations with fellow Austrian and Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek, an operatic treatment of David Lynch’s Lost Highway, and a “musicstallation” in homage to Herman Melville, among others).

In her Neue Zürcher Zeitung review, Michelle Ziegler writes:

Trotz der plastischen Anlage geht Neuwirth mit den Bezügen und Zitaten in ihrer «Trurliade – Zone Zero» ungemein feinsinnig um. Sie lässt die Zahnräder der Orchestermaschinerie zwar wie geschmiert laufen, verliert sich aber nie in einem vorhersehbaren Trott. Sie fügt Geräusche nicht zur Show ein, sondern findet im Klang der Schrottobjekte einen poetischen Zauber. Damit hat die Komponistinfür ihre zweite Residenz beim Lucerne Festival ein wunderbar persönliches, zugleich tiefsinniges und erfrischendes Werk geschaffen.

The composer has written an intriguing program note introducing her new concerto:

This is why the title of the piece refers to Stanisław Lem’s Trurl’s Machine. With his warning against unfreedom, Lem in turn alludes to George Orwell’s novel 1984. In Lem’s story the machine designed by Trurl insists on its mindless and inflexible assertion: “Two plus two is seven.” In Orwell’s book the apparatus of power demands obedience through re-education, propaganda lies, and surveillance by illogically claiming that “two plus two is five” – until the individual complies with the stipulations of the regime and gives up thinking. The regime “teaches” renegades and dissidents to love Big Brother by using cruel methods of torture. The protagonist, already demoralized and worn down mentally and physically through continual re-education measures, nevertheless does not give up the fight and becomes dangerous to the Party when he dares to express (mathematical) facts: “Freedom is the freedom to say two plus two is four.” And he does so even though, according to Orwell, the loudspeakers keep demanding over and over again that everyone accept whatever Big Brother defines as true, including that two and two is five. This phrase represents the obedience required by an ideology in contrast to rational facts and truth.

 

 

Filed under: commissions, Lucerne Festival, Olga Neuwirth

New from Mason Bates: Auditorium

A day in the life of Mason Bates: after this morning’s Santa Fe Opera season announcement, with a foretaste of The (R)Evolution of Steve Jobs, the San Francisco Symphony tonight unveils his latest orchestral piece, Auditorium. Here’s my introduction:

The relationship between Mason Bates and the San Francisco Symphony has played a pivotal role in the emergence of one of the most frequently performed American composers at work today. It began in 2009 with the first SFS commission of an orchestral work by Bates, The B-Sides: Five Pieces for Orchestra and Electronica (dedicated to Michael Tilson Thomas), and has continued through this most recent collaboration, which receives its world premiere on this program.

continue reading

Filed under: commissions, Mason Bates, new music, program notes, San Francisco Symphony

Opera Without Words

tp

Under Christoph Eschenbach, the National Symphony recently premiered Tobias Picker’s Opera Without Words — his first major orchestral composition in years. The perceptive critic Hilary Stroh gave a sensitive review for Bachtrack.

Here’s the program essay I wrote for the NSO world premiere:

Tobias Picker, described as “displaying a distinctively soulful style that is one of the glories of the current musical scene” by BBC Music Magazine and “a genuine creator with a fertile unforced vein of invention” by The New Yorker, has drawn performances and commissions by the world’s leading musicians, orchestras, and opera houses.

continue reading

 

Filed under: American music, commissions, new music, Tobias Picker, Uncategorized

Made in LA

2015-11-15-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.

continue reading

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

Paul Taub Presents New Works for Flute + Ensemble

The intrepid flutist Paul Taub — a terrific force for new music in Seattle — is planning to present a program of five new commissions of works for chamber music and flute. The event is planned for 20 November at Seattle’s Chapel Performance Space.

The composers in the lineup are Tom Baker, Andy Clausen, David Dossett, Jessika Kenney, and Angelique Poteat. They’ve been asked to write pieces for an ensemble of flute (Taub) as well as clarinet (Laura DeLuca), cello (Walter Gray), contrabass (Joe Kaufman), piano (Cristina Valdes), and percussion (Matthew Kocmieroski).

Given Paul’s credentials as a passionate and effective new music advocate — he’s also a member of the adventurous Seattle Chamber Players — this program should be well worth attending.

Here’s some more from the press release on the criteria for this project:

Composers Tom Baker, Andy Clausen, David Dossett, Jessika Kenney and, Angelique Poteat have been chosen to participate in this project because of the high artistic quality of their work, the diversity of their styles, the varied stages of their career trajectories, and above all, because their music truly speaks to the public.

The variety of musical styles is a key element of the project. Baker and Kenney are well-established “mid-career” composers, with impressive resumes and works that have been played internationally. Poteat, in her late 20s, is emerging as a significant voice in the Seattle and national music world, with recent pieces commissioned by the Seattle Symphony. Emerging composers Dossett and Clausen (whose band The Westerlies has taken the jazz world by storm), are recent college graduates (Cornish College of the Arts and the Juilliard Jazz Program). The composers’ musical styles are varied and contrasting, with influences as diverse as jazz, electronics, Persian modes, classical music and improvisation.

Filed under: commissions, music news

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.)

continue reading

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

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

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

RSS Arts & Culture Stories from NPR