MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Seth Parker Woods and Seattle Symphony Premiere Tyshawn Sorey’s For Roscoe Mitchell

Cellist Seth Parker Woods and the Seattle Symphony with David Robertson conducting; image (c) James Holt

I reviewed the world premiere of Tyshawn Sorey’s extraordinary new Seattle Symphony commission for Musical America. Here’s a longer version of the opening paragraphs (including some details that had to be cut for length):

Like an artfully spliced film sequence, the highlight of Seattle Symphony’s concert on November 19 seemed to bridge the painful months separating us from the pre-COVID-19 era. Tyshawn Sorey’s For Roscoe Mitchell for cello and orchestra transmitted all the excitement that comes with a “normal” world premiere of an important composition.

The account featuring Seth Parker Woods as the soloist and guest conductor David Robertson on the podium cast such a powerful and lasting spell that I occasionally forgot this was an online stream. Performing live in real time from the Benaroya concert hall, the musicians felt more present than is usually the case in the virtual medium.

The initial round of shutdowns in the spring had cheated us of hearing the piece as originally intended: in the context of a Beethoven festival juxtaposing several new commissions with a complete symphony cycle, which had been planned as last season’s culmination. Sorey’s new work is his first SSO commission and the final project envisioned by former vice president of artistic planning Elena Dubinets before her lamented departure from the organization. 

In September, SSO began a new online season, using its own streaming service, Seattle Symphony Live, as a platform to disseminate live performances from its home concert hall (sans audience). For Roscoe Mitchell barely escaped a second postponement. This concert was the last event allowed to proceed before new statewide mandates for Washington caused all remaining 2020 concerts to be canceled.  

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Filed under: commissions, Seattle Symphony, Seth Parker Woods, Tyshawn Sorey

Cantata for a More Hopeful Tomorrow

On Saturday evening at 7:30pm ET, the Washington Chorus presents the world premiere of Cantata for a More Hopeful Tomorrow, an innovative and timely work by Portland-based composer Damien Geter and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Bob Berg.

Commissioned by the Washington Chorus in response to stories of hope and the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 has had on the Black community, Cantata for a More Hopeful Tomorrow involves both a new score and a new film that was created as a collaboration between Geter and Berg.

The premiere will be streamed live on the Vimeo platform via TicketSpice and will thereafter be available via Vimeo+ on demand and other streaming services.

According to the ensemble’s website, this film-cantata “tells the story of one individual’s journey as he grapples with recovery from COVID-19: a journey from despair and hurt to redemption and hope” and features a score “influenced by Bach, modern music, and traditional spirituals.” Soprano Aundi Marie Moore will join the Washington Chorus as soloist, with Eugene Rogers conducting.

I wrote about Damien Geter in my cover story on “secular requiems” for the Summer 2020 issue of Chorus America’s Voice Magazine.

Filed under: African-American musicians, choral music, commissions, COVID-19 Era

Whispers of an Italian-Jewish Past Fill a Composer’s Music

Here’s a link to my latest story for the New York Times, which is about the extraordinary composer Yotam Haber. He is the recipient of the 2020 Azrieli Commission for Jewish Music — one of three biannual Azrieli Music Prizes. Haber’s new piece, Estro Poetico-armonico III, will receive its world premiere on 22 October at 8pm ET via free livestream on medici.tv and the Azrieli Facebook page.

Filed under: commissions, new music, New York Times

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

The Los Angeles Master Chorale commissioned Jeff Beal to write a new, chorus-based score for the F.W. Murnau film Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. Grant Gershon leads the LAMC in the world premiere tomorrow evening. Here’s my essay on the background of this extraordinary film and Beal’s musical response:

On May 16, 1929, the first Academy Awards ceremony took place,
paying tribute to films presented in 1927 and 1928. One of the
big winners was Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, which garnered
three awards. Along with distinctions for Best Actress (Janet
Gaynor) and Best Cinematography (Charles Rosher and Karl
Struss), Sunrise was named Best Unique and Artistic Picture.

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Filed under: commissions, film music, Los Angeles Master Chorale, program notes

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

JLA and JACK at Tippet Rise-1

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

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