MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Stairway to Heaven: A Major Seattle Symphony Premiere

Pascal Dusapin; photo by Bénédicte Tondeur

Pascal Dusapin; photo by Bénédicte Tondeur

It says a lot for Maestro Ludovic Morlot’s growing clout in the international music world that he secured the U.S. premiere of Pascal Dusapin’s violin concerto for the Seattle Symphony. That event took place on last night’s concert. Quick tip: the program will be give two more times – today, Friday, at noon and Saturday at 8 pm – and it showcases some of the finest, most stimulating, and downright beautiful music-making Morlot and the orchestra have accomplished together. You’ll kick yourself if you miss it.

So what’s the big deal about Pascal Dusapin and his violin concerto? He’s arguably the most significant French composer of the first post-war, post-Boulez generation, and his omnivorous curiosity has encouraged a refreshingly unpredictable and fascinating range of projects – and a free-spirited avant-gardism (which was emphasized, to ironic effect, in a recent, oh-so-French contretemps involving aesthetics).

Reputations are one thing, too easily hyped, but Dusapin’s music is genuinely riveting, original without straining to be so, challenging in a way that rewards close listening. And his new violin concerto strikes me as a major work and new addition to the repertoire – and possibly a milestone in Dusapin’s career. Titled Aufgang (German for “ascent” as well as the more concrete “staircase”), it had its world premiere earlier this year by the West German Radio Symphony Orchestra of Cologne. This is the composer’s first concerto for the instrument and was written for Renaud Capuçon, though reviving sketches for a violin concerto Dusapin had previously begun but set aside.

Renaud Capuçon; photo by Darmigny

Renaud Capuçon; photo by Darmigny

Capuçon proved himself a passionately committed advocate for the work, which starts off red-hot with outrageously difficult demands – and soon reveals such virtuosity not as grandstanding but an integral component of Dusapin’s almost expressionistic intensity. Aufgang is built around a metaphor of the soloist as a visionary, a seeker who attempts to guide the (very large) orchestra toward enlightenment. Against a dramatically changing scenario of resistance, in which the violin becomes “trapped” and experiences a kind of panic, it eventually steers the others “to the heavens and the light” (Dusapin).

Conjuring luxuriant sounds from his Guarneri del Gesù from 1737 – which in a sense makes a “homecoming,” having been acquired from local collector David Fulton’s prize array of strings – Capuçon understands the powerful vocal impulse of Dusapin’s writing. He persuasively inhabits the role assigned to him, with its strategic exaggerations of register at both ends.

There’s plenty of drama, with a first movement that outlines the attempted ascent. The orchestra stirs to action, like water coming to a boil. The middle movement features an arresting passage for solo flute – beautifully played by Melanie Lançon – that hints at shakuhachi improvisation, while Dusapin’s interest in jazz emerges in the finale. A signature technical challenge of the piece has the violinist strain into the instrument’s absolute stratospheric upper limit: Capuçon made it suggest an otherworldy yearning.

There’s also much to attract the ear (and eye) in Dusapin’s clustering of colors and sonic illusionism. He occasionally plays a decoy game whereby the violin seems to be emitting pitches actually produced elsewhere, as by bowed crotales. Morlot’s thorough rehearsal paid off by balancing such countless expressive details against a bird’s-eye view of the whole concerto.

Aufgang is a dense score that invites multiple hearings to unpack its richness, but that doesn’t prevent it from engaging a listener encountering it for the first time – especially in a performance this compelling. It also makes me all the more eager to hear Morlot’s engagement at his other big gig – the opera company La Monnaie in Brussels – to premiere Dusapin’s new opera on Kleist’s Penthesilea, to be unveiled in 2015.

High school students attending SSO rehearsal for this week's program

High school students attending SSO rehearsal for this week’s program

Morlot opened the program with the SSO’s first-ever (how can that be?!) rendition of Tapiola, that enigmatic capstone to Sibelius’s career. He brings a very personalized touch to his Sibelius, by way of Debussy: accents and splashes of harmonic layering that somehow recall the seascapes of Debussy within Sibelius’s icy, elemental immensities.

The concert’s second half was given over to the Sixth Symphony of Beethoven – and this account by itself should command attention from anyone interested in where Morlot’s collaboration with the SSO is heading. I’ve had mixed reactions to their Beethoven together to date – an incisive, fresh Eroica back in the first season, and a disappointingly featureless Ninth last year – but felt completely rejuvenated after this marvelous take on the Pastoral.

Morlot and the players discovered a new specific gravity for this score, treating it essentially as chamber music, but without the sometimes-fussy attitude of the authentic performance movement. Instead, the entire symphony flowed onward as unselfconsciously as the brook Beethoven evokes in the second movement (which, come to think of it, resembled Morlot’s approach to the sublime Adagio of the Ninth last year, also in the same key of B-flat).

Tastes that prefer old-fashioned Beethoven playing may disagree, and purists will complain of some of the liberties taken, but Morlot’s emphasis on the Edenic rapture of the entire Pastoral – not just the brook scene – kept the audience spellbound, as did the deliciously characterful contributions by all of the woodwinds in particular. I’ve seldom heard the SSO strings as whole blend so transparently and effortlessly. The storm of the fourth movement for once seemed about more than “effects,” with fierce, electrifying tremolos.

In pointed contrast to the momentum governing the performance overall, Morlot decelerated the finale’s last minutes, as if to underline a reluctance to take leave of Beethoven’s blissful landscape, leaving it etched in memory.

(C) 2013 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

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.”

continue reading…

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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