MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Music That Matters from MOR: Responding to Intolerance

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Mikhail Shmidt, Takumi Taguchi, Walter Gray, and Susan Gulkis Assad (quartet, l to r) with José Rubio as narrator in Ryuichi Sakamoto’s “Passage”; photo (c) Ben VanHouten

Music of Remembrance (MOR) opened its 22nd season yesterday afternoon at Nordstrom Recital Hall with a characteristically challenging program that included two world premieres.

MOR’s mission to remember the Holocaust through music is by no means limited to a focus on the past. Founded by artistic director and pianist Mina Miller, MOR has actually proved to be ahead of its time in grappling with issues of social justice and persecution.

Commissions in recent years have become, alarmingly, more and more topical. Confronting intolerance and its destructive consequences remains an urgent struggle in our troubled era, when anti-Semitism is on the rise, targeting of refugees and immigrants is condoned by those in power, and the tools of social media amplify the same hate- and fear-fueled ideologies that motivated the Nazis.

In 2017, MOR premiered Ryuichi Sakamoto‘s Snow Falls for violin, piano, and narrator, a work that addresses the horror of nuclear war — inspired by MOR’s Voices of Witness project that has confronted the experience of Japanese Americans during the Second World War. Sunday’s concert presented MOR’s second Sakamoto commission: Passage, scored for string quartet and narrator.

Though brief, this single-movement piece seems to cover a vast emotional landscape. It unfolds as an elliptical drama, a miniature epic recounting one person’s ordeal as he was forced to flee his native Egypt and find refuge in Germany.

The composer/actor/producer/peace activitist Sakamoto, who was not present but shared his thoughts via a pre-recorded video, explained that he had befriended a young Egyptian, Kareem Lofty, on Facebook and wanted to commemorate this man’s experiences during the Arab Spring and its aftermath. Lofty’s words formed the text read by narrator José Rubio to the accompaniment of a string quartet.

Comprising the quartet, Mikhail Shmidt, Takumi Taguchi, Susan Gulkis Assad, and Walter Gray gave a performance that was all the more moving for its understated anguish. Beginning as a duet for cello and viola, the quartet proceeded in a kind of suspended time. Harmonies that were plaintive in their simplicity — and reminiscent of the Heiliger Dankgesangand its ancient mode in Beethoven’s Op. 132 — started and stopped, as if pausing to catch a breath.

At first I wondered whether Rubio’s voice wasn’t sufficiently amplified. But I then realized that his soft-spoken delivery was perfectly suited to Sakamoto’s musical vision. It added a subtle tension, compelling even greater focus and concentration on the horrors witnessed by Lofty as well as on the ennui of daily life as a refugee.

The other new commission was Veritas (i.e., “Truth”), a mixed-media piece by Shinji Eshima, a composer and double bassist from the Bay Area. Veritas expands on an earlier piece, in which Shinji fashioned a duet for cello and double bass from J.S. Bach’s Second Suite in D minor for solo cello, with a visual dimension.

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Walter Gray and Jonathan Green in Shinji Eshima’s “Veritas”, with media design by Kate Duhamel of sculptures by Al Farrow; image (c) Ben VanHouten

Kate Duhamel‘s video displaying images from the American sculptor Al Farrow‘s Vandalized Doors series was projected as Walter Gray and Jonathan Green played the multi-movement Suite, famously characterized by Pablo Casals as “tragic.” (His tags for each of the other Suites (Nos. 1 and 3-6) were, respectively: “optimistic,” “heroic,” “grandiose,” “tempestuous,” and “bucolic.”) The musical idea seemed to be to embody, in another instrument, one of the (many) other voices implied by Bach’s illusionistic polyphony — to “liberate” and amplify it.

But it wasn’t until around the middle of the piece that Eshima’s additional double bass voice really opened up a new perspective on Bach’s score for me, when it seemed to start following an “alternative” path. The two musicians’ doubling of the flowing line of the final Gigue was a virtuosic tour de force.

The Farrow images, on the other hand, were mesmerizing, haunting, and disturbing all at once. Farrow used weapons and munitions — some more easily recognizable than others, like bullets and machine guns — to construct giant doors to a mosque, a church, and a synagogue. Some of the images included defacements of the sacred spaces, such as a spray-painted swastika — candid images of intolerance all too commonplace even today. Eshima was quoted in the program as viewing Farrow to be “the Picasso of our time,” noting: “He creates visual Truth out of guns and bullets without making any judgments. Experiencing his art allows one to discover one’s own Truth.”

A duet for violin and piano by the Dallas-based, Indian-Israeli composer Simon Sargon opened the program: the mystical musical prayer Before the Ark, with Mina Miller accompanying Takumi Taguchi from the keyboard. The violinist drew silky, muted tones from his instrument to frame the piece with a reverential aura.

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Mikhail Shmidt, violin; Laura DeLuca, clarinet; Walter Gray, cello; Jonathan Green, double bass; and Jessica Choe, piano; with Karen Early Evans and Erich Parce; photo (c) Ben VanHouten

Concluding the concert was the cycle Camp Songs by Paul Schoenfield — an earlier MOR commission from 2001 that was a finalist for the Music Pulitzer. Camp Songs has had an impressive afterlife since MOR premiered it in 2002.

Written for a chamber ensemble (Mikhail Shmidt, violin; Laura DeLuca, clarinet; Walter Gray, cello; Jonathan Green, double bass; and Jessica Choe, piano) and two singers, the cycle was here presented for the first time in a new staging conceived and directed by Erich Parce (who also directed memorable productions of MOR’s two commissions from Tom Cipullo, Afterlife and last spring’s The Parting). Parce himself performed the baritone role, joined by soprano Karen Early Evans.

Schoenfield built Camp Songs from music and poetry by the Polish journalist Aleksander Kulisiewicz (1918-1982), who was incarcerated for nearly six years in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin. Making music with fellow prisoners was his means of resistance — and at the same time served to record and document the unbelievable atrocities that were now part of everyday life. “In the camp, I tried to create verses that would serve as
direct poetical reportage. I used my memory as a living
archive. Friends came to me and dictated their songs,” Kulisiewicz later recalled. The Kulisiewicz Collection can now be found in the archives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Camp Songs comprises five of these texts, whose tone of bitter, hard-edged satire is evident from the opening depiction of a kapo, “Black Boehm,” who sings enthusiastically of his position as a crematorium worker. Parce’s stark staging amplified the grim litany of beatings, humiliations, and cruelty. The chamber ensemble’s impassioned playing ratcheted the irony to an almost unbearable level.

Review (c) 2019 Thomas May. All rights reserved

Filed under: commissions, Holocaust, Music of Remembrance

John Luther Adams and JACK Break New Ground at Tippet Rise

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John Luther Adams (center) with the JACk Quartet: John Pickford Richards, Austin Wulliman, Christopher Otto, and Jay Campbell (left to right)
Credit: Zackary Patten 

Last weekend, at Tippet Rise Art Center, I got to experience the brilliant JACK Quartet give the world premiere of Lines Made by Walking, the latest string quartet (No. 5) by John Luther Adams (plus a foretaste of his next quartet, whose premiere is already on the horizon in spring 2020).

Thanks to his close working relationship with the JACKs, JLA has become fascinated with the medium, though he waited until age 58 to take it up. He’s now finishing his Sixth and Seventh String Quartets. My review for Musical America:

FISHTAIL, MT — The vast, roiling orchestral soundscape of the Prize-winning Become Ocean has served many listeners as an entrée into the world of John Luther Adams. But he is just as much at home within the intimate dimensions of chamber music…

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Filed under: commissions, John Luther Adams, string quartet, Tippet Rise

Intriguing Voyage Out Anchored by 19th-Century Delights in Seattle

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Sebastian Currier

My review of Monday evening’s Summer Chamber Festival concert, which presented the world premiere of Sebastian Currier’s piano quintet Voyage Out, along with music by Fanny Mendelssohn* and Antonín Dvořák:

Under the smart and tastefully reliable artistic direction of the distinguished violinist James Ehnes, the Seattle Chamber Music Society has basically hewed to a longstanding programming formula: an overlooked work by a familiar composer, a piece featuring instrumentation unusual for the chamber format, and a blockbuster or two, typically from the 19th century…

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*This observation was cut from my review, but since the event has still left me seething, I want to include it:
As if patriarchal strictures hadn’t suppressed Fanny Mendelssohn’s voice sufficiently during her own lifetime, contemporary technology continued the insult to this wonderfully gifted composer in the form of entitled, inexcusable rudeness: in both the first and second movements, the same audience member had to silence a cell phone’s intrusions (not before the beastly device rang out a full cycle of Westminster chimes as the Adagio was supposed to have ebbed into silence).

Filed under: Antonín Dvořák, commissions, Fanny Mendelssohn, James Ehnes, review, Seattle Chamber Music Society

New Piano Quintet by Sebastian Currier in Seattle

Looking forward to this evening’s world premiere of Voyage Out: Quintet for Piano and Strings by Sebastian Currier — this summer’s Seattle Chamber Music Society commission. Currier will introduce the piece in a talk at 7pm. Also on the 8pm program are Fanny Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in E-flat major and Dvořák’s Op. 87 Piano Quartet.

Above is a fascinating interview with Currier conducted by Frank Oteri in 2012, in which the composer discusses his aesthetic.

Filed under: commissions, Seattle Chamber Music Society

Singing a New Song: The Power of Commission Consortiums

As part of its five-city tour to South Africa with Classical Movements, the Minnesota Orchestra performed the world premiere of Harmonia Ubuntu, commissioned by Classical Movement’s Eric Daniel Helms Program. © Travis Anderson.

Here’s an article I wrote for the spring issue of  The Voice, published by Chorus America. The organization’s annual conference takes place next week in Philadelphia.

When major music institutions announce a season, increasing scrutiny is being paid to the commitment shown to new work. There is more widespread recognition that merely trotting out the familiar repertoire no longer suffices to sustain the art—and that fear of the new should be the exception, not the default setting….

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Filed under: choral music, commissions

The Parting: New Opera by Tom Cipullo and David Mason at MOR

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Miklós Radnóti

Here’s a Seattle Times preview of the upcoming world premiere of the new opera The Parting by Tom Cipullo and David Mason this Sunday.

The Parting is set during the final evening the poet Miklós Radnóti spends with his wife Fanni Gyarmati before he is sent into forced labor during the Holocaust. It’s the second commission from this team by Music of Rembrance, following their remarkable opera After Life four years ago.

When Mina Miller founded Seattle-based Music of Remembrance in 1998, she could hardly have foreseen that its mission would become even more distressingly relevant over two decades later…

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Filed under: commissions, Holocaust, Music of Remembrance, new music, new opera

Demarre McGill Dazzles in Dalbavie Flute Concerto

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Demarre McGill, Ludovic Morlot, and Marc-André Dalbavie with Seattle Symphony

Seattle Symphony audiences are familiar with Demarre McGill’s magical flute artistry from countless solo moments he’s performed as the ensemble’s principal flute. But this week’s program puts him center stage for the Flute Concerto by Marc-André Dalbavie — and it was an unforgettable highlight of Thursday’s performance.

The French composer wrote his Flute Concerto in 2006 for the Berlin Philharmonic’s principal flutist, the Franco-Swiss Emmanuel Pahud, so you can readily imagine the caliber of playing required. Even at 17 minutes, relatively brief for a concerto, the piece keeps the soloist frenetically active for long stretches.

McGill negotiated its challenges with pure grace and eloquence, engaging in Dalbavie’s unusual dialectic with the orchestra. Rather than a sweet-tuned concerto of airy charms, the flute seems to be simultaneously urging on and trying to tame the orchestra’s ebullient spirits. McGill projected a complex protagonist, Orphic in the central slower section, sprightly as Puck girdling the earth in the rapidfire passages.

Ludovic Morlot led a vivid, gorgeously textured performance that was the theme of the entire generous program, mostly a French affair. He began with another of his specialities, Maurice Ravel’s Suite from Ma mère l’Oye. This time, I detected a radiant, but never forced, tone of elegiac wonder in Sleeping Beauty’s Pavane and the concluding scene of the Enchanted Garden. There was ebullience in the latter as well, underscoring a kinship with the parallel concluding moment in The Firebird. The SSO’s playing was at its most refined, full of silken caresses and subtly articulated rhythms.

The first half ended with the world premiere of Tropes de : Bussy, an ambitious symphonic work the SSO commissioned from Joël-François Durand, Associate Director of the UW School of Music. The title alone requires considerable unpacking and points to the layered associations and post-modern play of Durand’s score. Explains the French-born composer, who developed his concept of the piece while orchestrating some of the piano Préludes of Debussy: “As I kept re-working my arrangements, I gradually started to modify the original music, as if adding more and more interpretive filters with each attempt… Tropes de : Bussy is at first glance a pun on the French composer’s last name, but it also reflects the distance I took from the original texts, revealing and at the same time hiding most of the actual music.”

Durand chose five of the Book I Préludes (Les sons et les parfums, La danse de Puck, Le vent dans la plaine, Des pas sur la neige, and Minstrels. There was much to admire in the imaginative soundscapes he conjured from a large orchestra. If the piece seemed to overstay its welcome, stretching the game of hide-and-seek with the familiar Debussyan harmonies and ideas on at great length, it offered numerous enchanting moments (particularly the “slow” movement after Des pas sur la neige. With its deconstruction of rhythmic structures, the finale after Minstrels recalled something of Ravel’s strategy (though not his sound world) in La valse.

To conclude, Morlot led the one non-French work on this wonderful program. His account of Mozart’s later G minor Symphony, K. 550, glistened with the textural alertness that had been his focus in the French pieces. Taking the Andante at a brisk “walking” tempo worked especially well, and Morlot set off sparks by leaning into the cross-rhythms of the Minuet. The relentless drive of the outer movements gained freshness from being juxtaposed with the Dalbavie.

Review (c) 2019 Thomas May

Filed under: commissions, Ludovic Morlot, Maurice Ravel, Mozart, new music, review, Seattle Symphony

Caroline Shaw’s New Piano Concerto Premieres in Seattle

Very excited–especially after getting a foretaste in rehearsal–to hear the world premiere tonight of super-talented Caroline Shaw’s Watermark, her piano concerto for Jonathan Biss.

Check out the video above for the composer in a master class on her own music. And here’s an interview from yesterday with KING-FM’s Dave Beck on Watermark.

Filed under: Caroline Shaw, commissions, pianists, Seattle Symphony

Berkeley Symphony To Premiere Hannah Kendall’s Disillusioned Dreamer

Berkeley Symphony’s upcoming concert on Thursday 31 Jan. includes the world premiere of Hannah Kendall’s Disillusioned Dreamer, inspired by a passage from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Read my program notes for an introduction to this remarkable young composer’s new work.

Filed under: Berkeley Symphony, commissions, Hannah Kendall

On the Air! Juilliard’s Focus Festival Salutes Radio Commissions

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For this year’s Focus Festival at Juilliard, titled On the Air! A Salute to 75 Years of International Radio Commissioning, Joel Sachs has curated six programs sampling this wealth of compositions from an international array of stations.

The opening concert is on 25 January at Juilliard’s Peter Jay Sharp Theater, when Sachs will lead the New Juilliard Ensemble. All six Focus events are free of charge.

Sachs explains what inspired the 2019 Festival:

I unexpectedly realized the role of radio in October 2017, while writing a program note about Argentinean-German composer Mauricio Kagel for a New Juilliard Ensemble concert. Because Kagel settled in Cologne, I began thinking about the extraordinary post-World War II new music scene that flourished there, where he and many other compositional giants, German and foreign, had settled.

Being reasonably acquainted with that Rhineland city and its institutions, I immediately recalled the German letters WDR (Westdeutscher Rundfunk, West German Broadcasting), the radio-TV public broadcast based there. An enormous operation, WDR generally considered the most important broadcaster in German, with five radio transmissions, television, internet broadcasts, and a group of external studios in various cities around Germany’s industrial heartland. Having had a professional relationship with WDR 3, I realized that it has had a vital role as one of the most prominent of European radio stations with its decades-old commissioning program.

Dots began to connect. I had performed or recorded at the BBC, Radio France, Swiss stations in Zurich and Basel, Austrian radio in Salzburg, but what had never struck me was that they all were busily commissioning composers, not just creating background music for radio dramas, but also music intended for live performance in concerts, and not just those composers who produced ‘comfortable’ music. Suddenly I had a topic for Focus 2019: “On the Air! A Salute to 75 Years of International Radio Commissions.”

more on the 2019 Focus Festival at Juilliard: 25 Jan-1 Feb

Filed under: commissions, Juilliard

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