MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Portrait of the Artist as a Young-at-Heart Man

Randolph Hokanson, 2013; photo by Thomas May

Randolph Hokanson, 2013; photo by Thomas May

The pianist, composer, and sage Randolph Hokanson is a font of wisdom and a remarkable human being — with much to teach us as he approaches the age of 99 this June. Here’s my new profile of the artist for Crosscut:

“I’ve seen it all!” announces Randolph Hokanson before losing himself in a mischievous gale of laughter. With someone else, you might be tempted to indulge that as hyperbole. With Hokanson, who was born in 1915 in Bellingham, it’s tempting to take it literally.

This gifted pianist and teacher has witnessed almost a century of not just ceaseless but accelerating change: epochal shifts in technology, in education, in how music and the arts are valued.

Yet underneath the maelstrom, the things that really matter have managed somehow to endure.

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Filed under: composers, piano

Protected: Stairway to Heaven: A Major Seattle Symphony Premiere

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Filed under: Beethoven, composers, new music, review, Seattle Symphony

Tales of King

Patricia Racette as Dolores Claiborne; photo by Scott Wall

Dolores Claiborne the new opera by composer Tobias Picker and librettist-poet J.D. McClatchy, opens in just a week at San Francisco Opera. I recently interviewed Picker and McClatchy about their collaboration for my latest SF Opera feature:

The story really matters. That premise may seem self-evident, but there’s a long-standing cliché, at least as far as opera is concerned, that the story is what you have to put up with to get to the music—never mind that Verdi and Puccini obsessed over their choice of subject matter and tormented their librettists whenever it was time to consider a new project for the stage. One of the happy side effects triggered by the American Renaissance in opera that’s been unfolding for the past two to three decades has been to puncture the silly notion that the story is, at best, incidental to the experience.

“For me,” asserts Tobias Picker, “opera is about telling stories in music.”

Read the whole thing here

Filed under: composers, literature, new music, opera

A Fiery, Flaming Symphony

(Prokofiev c. 1918.)

My new essay on Sergei Prokofiev’s fantastic and way-underplayed Third Symphony is now up on San Francisco Symphony‘s web site for the program Michael Tilson Thomas is conducting next week. Thank you, MTT, for championing this work!

Music depicting the ravings of demonic possession, eroticized spiritualism (or spiritualized eroticism), medieval witchcraft and sorcery, and a convent of nuns whipped into mass hysteria—no, it’s not the score to a Stephen King film but a work that has a decent claim to being Sergei Prokofiev’s operatic masterpiece: The Fiery Angel (Ognenniy angel in Russian). A labor of love—and great frustration—The Fiery Angel also served as the source for his Third Symphony (even including much of its orchestration). Prokofiev wrote that he considered the latter “to be one of my best compositions.”

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Filed under: composers, opera, program notes, symphonies

Remembering Lenny

Lenny in 1971, when he was rehearsing his new work Mass to open the Kennedy Center

So today Leonard Bernstein would have turned 95 [97]. If he were Elliott Carter, he’d still have about nine [seven] years left to share his genius with us — and Lord knows the world could desperately use it. I can still feel a pang when I pass by the Dakota on Central Park West; strangely, that Sunday afternoon in October when he died there doesn’t seem so far off.

I got to meet him just once, near the end of his life, when he was touring with the Vienna Philharmonic, conducting a program of Mahler Five paired with the Mozart Clarinet Concerto. I waited patiently afterward to get him to sign the book I happened to have on me — the first volume of Ernst Bloch’s Das Prinzip Hoffnung, which immediately prompted him to set aside his bottomless glass of Ballantine’s scotch and exclaim incredulously, “That’s my favorite book! Do you realize Bloch is the perfect book to go with Mahler?! Unbelievable!” And then he took another deep drag on his endless chain of L&M cigarettes.

Whenever I used to hear about folks who first fell in love with music thanks to the inspiration they found in Leonard Bernstein’s famous Young People’s Concerts, their accounts simultaneously intrigued me and left me feeling a touch jealous. The heyday of the series was before my time, so I never ended up seeing any of them until years later, when they became available on DVD. I can’t help but imagine how much these would have changed my life, too, if I’d had the opportunity to discover them when I was growing up.

Actually, I do have another gift from Lenny for which I remain eternally grateful. I can vividly recall chancing upon some PBS re-broadcast of his legendary Norton Lectures, first delivered at Harvard in the early 1970s and drawing on Noam Chomsky’s linguistic theory of transformational grammar, just around the time music was starting to become a force in my life.

Instantly I was hooked. To judge by what I can still remember from that first viewing — even taking into account the “creative reconstruction” that’s inherent to the process of memory — this encounter was remarkably formative. It didn’t just serve as my first crash course in music history and theory, in how to listen beyond the surface and look for structures and connections, but it even imparted a whole philosophy about music and its capacity to mean, to be at least as significant as everything else I cherished — maybe even more.

“I also believe, along with Keats, that the poetry of earth is never dead,” I remember Lenny declaring in his credo, “as long as spring succeeds winter, and man is there to perceive it.” The way he imparted these observations, as if they were a confidence shared with his prized students, was a perfect example of yet another gift of this impossibly gifted, complicated, multi-layered man — Bernstein as the great teacher and rabbi. He ended with this summing-up:

I believe that our deepest affective responses to these languages are innate ones that do not preclude additional responses that are conditioned or learned. And that all particular languages bear on one another, and combine into always new idioms perceptible to human beings, and that ultimately these idioms can all merge into a speech universal enough to be accessible to all mankind. And that the expressive distinctions among these idioms depend ultimately on the dignity and passion of the individual creative voice.

And finally, I believe that all these things are true, and that Ives’ “Unanswered Question” has an answer. I’m no longer quite sure what the question is, but I do know the answer, and the answer is, “Yes.”

Lenny the polymath: here he conducts and plays solo in one of the most exquisite scores I know, Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G.

Filed under: American music, Bernstein, composers

Satie’s Importance


Reading an early collection of essays by the brilliant critic and musicologist Wilfrid Mellers (there’s another centennial coming up – next year), I came across this astute reflection on Erik Satie and his significance (from the essay “Erik satie and the ‘Problem’ of Contemporary Music,” published in 1942):

At a time when the dominant characteristic of the artist’s sensibility is isolation, he accepted the spiritual aridity to which ‘cette terre si terrestre et si terreuse’ obliged him, even though he knew that acceptance meant in the end a kind of death; that he steadfastly refused to falsify or distort his responses to the slightest degree in an age in which the temptations to emotional insincerity are perhaps greater than ever before. For this reason I believe that no contemporary music has more to tell us about the position and predicament of the composer in the modern world than that of this slight and apparently unimportant composer.

Filed under: composers, music writers

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