MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

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

focusfest_banner

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

Seattle Chamber Music Society’s 2018 Commission

07092018_James-Newton-Howard_131803-1560x1660

Composer James Newton Howard (Eric Charbonneau / Invision / AP)

For The Seattle Times: my look at the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s commission for the 2018 Summer Festival: a new piece by veteran film composer James Newton Howard:

It would be hard to underestimate how pervasively film composers shape the general public’s image of what classical music “sounds like.” …

continue

Filed under: commissions, Seattle Chamber Music Society

Ellen Reid: Excavating American Dreams

Here’s the piece I wrote for the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s world premiere of reams of the new word by the team of composer Ellen Reid, librettist Sarah LaBrie, and researcher Sayd Randle.

“In classical and concert music right now, a lot of people are trying to think of how to reflect the world we feel we are living in and the world we want to be living in,” says composer and sound artist Ellen Reid…

more

Filed under: American music, commissions, Los Angeles Master Chorale, new music

Seattle Chamber Music Society’s 2017 Summer Festival

7b608786-551e-11e7-bfa1-ee867c885496-1536x1097

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

Only Connect: The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs

My preview feature on the highly anticipated new opera by Mason Bates is in this month’s issue of London-based Opera Now (available only via subscription).

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs will have its world premiere production at Santa Fe Opera starting 23 July. Co-commissioning companies that will stage the opera in future seasons are San Francisco and Seattle Opera.

Filed under: American opera, commissions, Mason Bates

Innovative Premiere by Music of Remembrance

img1975-copy

Mary Kouyoumdjian, composer. Photo credit: Dominica Eriksen

Last night’s Spring Concert presented by Music of Remembrance (MOR) featured the world premiere of an extraordinary collaboration: to open myself, to scream, a portrait piece inspired by the Holocaust survivor Ceija Stojka (1933-2013), with music by Mary Kouyoumdjian and visual design by Kevork Mourad.

The entire concert, titled Ceija, and presented at Benaroya’s Nordstrom Recital Hall,  was dedicated to the legacy of this Roma artist, writer, and musician who survived three concentration camps — though many members from her extended family did not.

Born to Catholic parents, Stojka traveled during summers with her Roma family across the Austrian countryside as a child — the family business involved horse trading — while they wintered in Vienna.

Only 12 by war’s end, Ceija Stojka took decades before she could even begin processing these traumatic memories through her painting and writing. (She was 55 when she began painting.) But she gained a following, also publishing a trio of autobiographies that broke ground in addressing the issue of the Nazi genocide of the Roma people — whose persecution hardly ended with the war. Vienna named a square inStojka’s honor following her death in 2013.

Kouyoumdjian is a young Brooklyn-based composer who has been commissioned by such distinguished ensembles as the Kronos Quartet.  In previous works she has addressed experiences of the Armenian genocide and the chaos of war, which directly affected her family.

This commission is very much in keeping with MOR’s commitment, in the words of founder and artistic director Mina Miller, to remind us of “the Holocaust’s urgent lessons for today, and of the need for vigilance and action in the face of threats to human rights everywhere.” MOR friends Marcus and Pat Meier, longstanding advocates for and collectors of Stojka’s art, had brought the artist’s story to Miller’s attention and sponsored the new commission.

Kouyoumdjian took her title from a speech Stojka gave in 2004 for the opening of a retrospective at Vienna’s Jewish Museum: “I reached for the pen because I had to open myself, to scream.”

Each of the four movements of to open myself, to scream is also titled after quotes from the artist. Kouyoumdjian says that she was drawn to Stojka’s “themes of longing for the past and coping with the aftermath of unimaginable trauma,” adding, “I hope to continue the conversation about how we sympathize with those who experience the unimaginable, and how we can pull from the past to move forward.”

That’s a tall order for any work, but Kouyoumdjian succeeds brilliantly in drawing us sympathetically into Stojka’s world. She makes us sense precisely these themes of longing and coping through art. What’s more, she does this without sentimental manipulation or a false glaze promising aesthetic redemption.

to open myself, to scream creates a bold, innovative soundspace using techniques of layering and multiple forms of dialogue among its unusual chamber configuration of clarinet, trumpet, violin, cello, and double bass (all played by Seattle Symphony musicians).

The most overt musical dialogue is between present and past. The players interact with an electronic soundtrack that samples and processes material they had previously recorded;  Kouyoumdjian also recorded vocal samples representing Stojka’s memories of her mother comforting her (she was in the camps with her daughter) — but these are filtered and distanced, so that the comfort offered always seems just beyond the horizon.

Overall, the effect is of a labyrinthine internal dialogue, a dialogue poised restlessly between contradictory impulses. The narrative framework implies a desire to revisit happy memories of childhood (evident particularly in folk-flavored idioms), which are accompanied and superseded by the trauma to which these are inevitably linked. Kouyoumdjian’s continually transforming soundscape conveys this harrowed consciousness, whose very sensitivity enhances the pain of memory.

Another significant dialogue is the one between music and visuals. The latter, working with the whole spectrum of Stojka’s paintings and ink sketches, were designed by Syrian-Armenian artist Kevork Mourad (a multi-media master who has collaborated with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project among many others).

Projected onto a large screen behind the players, the paintings are animated into a filmic accompaniment to the score (rather than the conventional order of the reverse). Mourad’s remarkable animations underscore the music’s sense of memories and images being unrelentingly processed. In turn they establish their own varieties of dialogue and interchange: between figuration and abstraction, saturated colors and somber black-and-white, recognizability and ambiguity.

Particular figures are seen moving into or receding from the foreground. At times the “action” creates an illusion of the paintings trying to breathe, which anticipates one of Kouyoumdjian’s most startling gestures, at the end of her score. In conjunction, music and visuals reinforce the feeling of a struggle between the past and “moving forward.” A kind of anxious pedal point grounds many of the musical gestures, even at their most frenzied, until the piece ultimately builds to an overwhelming, unresolved climax.

What’s especially innovative here is the sense of emotional pulse Kouyoumdjian establishes: never linear or straightforward but always in motion, acting and reacting. The last movement is titled after one of Stojka’s most unforgettable statements: “Auschwitz is only sleeping. If the world does not change now … then I cannot explain why I survived …”

MOR’s program also presented the world premiere of new choreography by Olivier Wevers, artistic director o Seattle’s Whim W’Him company. The music was from Osvaldo Golijov’s score to the 2000 film The Man Who Cried, which depicts the story of a Roma man and his lover, a young Jewish woman, in Nazi-occupied Paris.

Featuring dancers Liane Aung and Karl Watson, Wevers’ choreography emphasized the passionate urgency of the lovers’ bond, their individuality facing powerful destructive forces. The sextet of SSO musicians gave a poetically touching account of Golijov’s music, with its blend of klezmer and Roma-folk elements.

The program also included a number of works by composers who either fled or fell victim to the Nazis. SSO violinist Mikhail Shmidt and pianist Jessica Choe offered a bit of needed relief between the emotionally gripping premieres: a dazzling performance of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s 1949 Rhapsody on Moldavian themes, populist and wildly mercurial.

The first, relatively lighter half of the program included a nostalgic reverie of old Vienna in Karl Weigle’s Revelation for string quintet and Hans Gál’s Schubert-inflected Variations on a Viennese Melody, a youthful work from 1914.

Vocal music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who fled Europe to become a legendary Hollywood composer, filled out the rest of the program.  Catherine Cook‘s lush, resonant mezzo soprano was perfectly tailored to the arrangement (for piano quintet) of “Mariettas Lied” from Korngold’s 1920 opera Die tote Stadt.

While Hitler was in power, Korngold refused to write concert music or opera and turned to film music. One near-casualty of his career after fleeing the Nazis was a series of songs set to Shakespeare texts, some of which were lost when the family estate was confiscated; fortunately the composer was able to recreate them from memory in his new home in Los Angeles. With Mina Miller at the keyboard, Cook sang four of these, including Korngold’s folk-simple but piquant version of Desdemona’s “Willow Song.”

On May 24 MOR will perform Kouyoumdjian’s to open myself, to scream at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The rest of the program will include music by Hans Krása, Betty Olivero, and Lori Laitman.

(c) 2017 Thomas May. All rights reserved. 

 

 

 

Filed under: American music, commissions, Music of Remembrance, review

Music of Remembrance’s Latest Program Is Also Music of Our Time

artwork-ceija-stojka-courtesy-marcus-meier_0

Stojka, Ceija. “Hiding”. Courtesy of Pat and Marcus Meier

My story for The Seattle Times on Music of Remembrance’s latest commission (details on the concert here):

Mary Kouyoumdjian’s to open myself, to scream, inspired by Roma artist and Holocaust survivor Ceija Stojka, is at the center of MOR’s May 21 program. “Our mission is to speak out for oppressed people,” says MOR founder Mina Miller.

continue reading

Filed under: commissions, Music of Remembrance, new music, Seattle Times

Timeless Machiavelli, Timely Opera: A World Premiere from Mohammed Fairouz

Prince3

photo © Marco Borggreve

My review of the new opera by Mohammed Fairouz has now been posted on Seattle Vanguard:

There’s been a huge push in recent years for those involved in the performing arts to seem as “relevant” and “relatable” as possible. Nowhere more so than in the areas mistakenly perceived as “elitist” — above all opera and orchestral music.

But writing persuasively — with no special pleading needed — about issues and dilemmas that have a contemporary urgency seems to come naturally to Mohammed Fairouz, the acclaimed Emirati-American composer whose latest work, The New Prince, just received its world premiere in an impressive production directed by Lotte de Beer at Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam. Regarded as among the most forward-looking opera companies in the world, DNO commissioned The New Prince as part of its Opera Forward Festival initiative, which promotes new artists and fresh approaches to the art form.

continue reading

Fairouz, now 31, based his first opera, Sumeida’s Song (2011), on Egyptian writer Tawfiq al-Hakim’s play about the fatal conflict between unthinking tradition and enlightened progress. Zabur, a combination oratorio and war requiem (just out on the Naxos label), embodies his powerfully moving response to the situation in Syria that seeks hope amid its harrowing musical depiction of crimes  against humanity. Next year Pittsburgh Opera will present the opera Fairouz is currently completing: Bhutto, which focuses on the former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto (assassinated in 2007), the first woman to lead Muslim majority nation. The composer, who is also active as a commentator on foreign affairs, cowrote the libretto with the journalist and novelist Mohammed Hanif.

Meet the New Prince

The New Prince is characteristic of Fairouz both in the scope of its ambition and in being so effortlessly of our time. Set to David Ignatius’ clever libretto, The New Prince imagines Niccolò Machiavelli doing the time warp across the centuries as he faces the challenge of updating the work for which his name has become notorious — and profoundly misunderstood: Il Principe (The Prince).

The premise is that the Renaissance philosopher, writer, and diplomat has been reawakened in 2032 — 500 years after The Prince had been (posthumously) published — and must substantially revise his text to appeal to a changed marketplace. His lover and Muse, the goddess Fortuna, tells him he needs to account for world historical events in the intervening centuries. And he needs a “new prince” — a protege whom he can advise about how to wield power: Wu Virtu, the president of Amerasiopia, the troubled fusion nation of the near-future.

Prince2

photo © Marco Borggreve

This basic scenario borrows the structure Jacques Offenbach used in his Tales of Hoffmann, in which a sequence of self-contained episodes we see unfolding is unified by the presence of the writer and his muse. In a framing prologue and epilogue, we see the distressed Machiavelli  try to come to terms with his lot; by the end, as in Hoffmann, he is compelled to find solace by retreating into his inner creative world.

In The New Prince, the quickly moving episodes present famous figures from history caught up in various sorts of errors that will threaten their control of power — cautionary tales Machiavelli uses to illustrate his point, though the self-absorbed Wu Virtu only half-listens and has no interest in letting the lessons sink in.

We see examples of “why princes should beware of revolutions” in the figures of Savonarola (the fiery Florentine preacher from Machiavelli’s own time), Hitler, Chairman Mao, and the revolution-counterrevolution of contemporary Egypt. Next comes the lesson on “why princes should suppress (or hide) their human urges,” starting with the first U.S. sex scandal (a cheating Alexander Hamilton) and repeated in the Clinton-Lewinsky melodrama.

The last lesson addresses “why princes must avoid a ‘collision of civilizations.’” In the aftermath of 9-11, the figures of Osama bin Laden and Dick Cheney are seen to be alter egos in their rigid appeal to abstract “higher laws” at the expense of real human beings.

Prince1

photo © Marco Borggreve

David Ignatius is a veteran writer best known as a foreign policy expert (he’s an esteemed Washington Post columnist and editor) and also as the author of such bestselling espionage novels as the first-rate Body of Lies. But this is his debut venture as an opera librettist. Using the Hoffmann model as a guide was an inspired idea. Ignatius also seems to have had the tone of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in mind — his tight verse radiates a sardonic humor throughout, even in the most disturbing sections.

At times I was even reminded of a Brechtian Lehrstück in the “parable”-like line-up of events — though, of course, the lessons intended here are never learned. Thus the lack of character “development” — save for the negative enlightenment experienced by the hero — is inherent in the narrative fabric. Most of the characters are meant to be quick sketches, not fully fleshed out psychological portraits a la naturalism.

Ignatius adds a fascinating twist to the Tales of Hoffmann model. Machiavelli himself is assigned a “ghost-writer” in the form of that eminently modern Machiavellian (in the popular sense), Henry Kissinger — whom the Italian prizes as ideally suited to serve as his “scribe and jester.”

And in place of the evil personified by Dapertutto — Hoffmann’s arch-nemesis in Offenbach’s opera — The New Prince suggests persistently recurrent human foibles as the roadblock to effective rule. Despite believing he has “figured out, at last, the trick that makes the grand game work,” Machiavelli continues to wonder at the resistance of would-be “princes” throughout history to his wisdom: “Does anyone listen? Can any power bend the chain of princely error?”

Prince6

photo © Marco Borggreve

Strong Production Values

Fairouz has composed a delightfully fluid score that unites his gift for writing for the voice with his bold symphonic imagination. The orchestra isn’t particularly large — it had to be accommodated by the pit of the Stadsschouwburg Theatre, an alternate venue used by Dutch National Opera for some of its projects — but Fairouz paints a remarkable variety of soundscapes with economy.

The opening prologue in particular sets up the world of the opera with terrifying immediacy as we see Machiavelli undergoing strappado torture at the hand of the Medicis. The intermissionless New Prince ranges wildly across stylistic references (as it does across centuries) — curt Weill-like marches, Baroque gestures, touches of Broadway and cabaret, and simple but soul-searing melodies — but amid this cornucopia of musical imagery there erupts, always surprisingly, a sudden, live-wire interjection by the orchestra.

It seems to tap right into the violence that forms a perennial bedrock of human history — and that, for all his calculation, Machiavelli is never able to subdue or suppress. Fairouz also uses a recurring harmonic sequence as a metaphoric binding device. It’s reminiscent of Philip Glass, but Fairouz makes the gesture his own by recontextualizing it into his riotously eventful score.

With his large, expressive baritone and vivid stage presence, Joshua Hopkins excelled in creating the role of Machiavelli. Fairouz reserves most of the opera’s vocal highlights for him — especially the chastened beauty of the epilogue, after so much frantic activity, in which Machiavelli resigns himself and prepares to “enter the courts of the ancients.”

There’s also some terrific material for Fortuna (strikingly characterized by Karin Strobos), but I longed for more-extended treatments of several major characters. Simon Lim’s Wu Virtu was imposing, but the character ends up feeling too much like a blank slate to make his turning against Machiavelli at the end effective.

Prince5

photo © Marco Borggreve

The New Prince calls for a large cast of 13, and filling the roles was a mix of trained opera singers, actors involved in musical theater, and young artists from DNO’s training program. Thus Kissinger was played, with roguish style, by the Broadway performer Marc Kudisch. (It’s interesting to compare his characterization with that in John Adams’s Nixon in China from 1987, which as far as I know is the first — and only other — work to have brought the diplomat to the opera stage. In Nixon he has more of a comic relief function.)

In keeping with the opera’s core idea of the recurring patterns of human nature and history — a lesson that, we sense, makes Machiavelli suffer profound disillusionment in his 500+-year-old reincarnation — several cast members played multiple roles. Barbara Walsh, doubling as Eliza Hamilton and Hillary Clinton, exuded vulnerability, while Paulo Szot was true luxury casting for a combined Alexander Hamilton, Bill Clinton, and Dick Cheney. As a supremely cocky Cheney, Szot was especially memorable in his duet with the marvelous actor George Abud’s chillingly assured bin Laden.

DNO puled out all the stops in terms of production values. Lotte de Beer proved why she’s such a prized director, shaping a brand-new, heavily ensemble-oriented show into a thoroughly engaging theatrical experience.

Her urgent pacing, along with the choreography by Zack Winokur, was perfectly attuned to Fairouz’s busy score, abetted by Alex Brok’s almost hallucinogenic lighting design (with its occasional parodies of Broadway kitsch) and the time-traveling set and costume design by Clement & Sanôu.

Conductor Steven Sloane showed affinity for Fairouz’s highly theatrical score while also eliciting a symphonic attention to detail from the Residentie Orkest.

As a counterpart to the Cheney-bin Laden scene, Fairouz and Ignatius include an appearance by the late diplomat Prince Saud al-Faisal. It’s a bit too “straight” to fit in with the tone of the rest of the opera, but the message — that there can never be a “clash of civilizations between us … it is a contradiction in terms” — introduces a hopeful counterpoint to Machiavelli’s dictum that “if we must choose between being feared and loved, we should choose to be feared.”

Perhaps the new Machiavelli, in light of his latest experiences, will reevaluate that advice and discover a more reliable method to enlighten the ideal prince.

(c)2017 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: American opera, commissions, Mohammed Fairouz, review

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

RSS Arts & Culture Stories from NPR