MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Taking Chances


John Cage’s Living Room Music at Friday night’s [untitled] (presented by Seattle Symphony).

Filed under: concert programming, photography, Seattle Symphony

Impressing Their Peers: All Eyes and Ears on Seattle


New review on Bachtrack:

Talk about keeping the pressure on: Only last month the Seattle Symphony and music director Ludovic Morlot journeyed to Carnegie Hall for an unusually high-stakes concert and attracted a good deal of press coverage — not least because one of the works featured had just won the Pulitzer Prize in music (John Luther Adams’s Become Ocean, a Seattle Symphony commission). Thursday night’s all-French program meanwhile attracted special scrutiny from movers and shakers throughout the American orchestral scene.

This time the ensemble was playing on its home turf at Benaroya Hall, where it welcomed a sizable number of guests in town for the annual conference of the League of American Orchestras. Under the slogan “Critical Questions/Countless Solutions”, some 1,000 participants representing the breadth of America’s orchestral life had flocked to Seattle. Their mission: to brainstorm ways to engage audiences more meaningfully. Ideas ranged from more innovative concert formats and digital initiatives to suggestions for making orchestras “the heartbeats of our cities”, as Morlot put it.

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Thomas May

Filed under: concert programming, review, Seattle Symphony

Shostakovich Meets John Adams at Seattle Symphony

Estonian conductor Olari Elts

Estonian conductor Olari Elts

I realize it’s hard to believe, but this weekend in Seattle actually includes some worthwhile activities not related to (or even conflicting with) monitoring the Super Bowl. To wit: the latest music-making by the Seattle Symphony, either in the condensed “untuxed” version this evening or on Saturday 1 February in the complete program designed by guest conductor Olari Elts.

And a damn fine program this is, featuring a combo that might at first seem a bit unusual but that actually makes a lot of sense: Dmitri Shostakovich and John Adams. I’ve grown tired of the hyperbole that compares the pressure to conform to serialism in the West during the postwar decades to the Soviet Union’s cultural watchdogs — it’s insulting, to say the least, to equate whatever American composers who chose not to adhere to the predominant fashion had to face with the year-to-year dread about their very survival that was the experience of Shostakovich and his peers.

Still, there are some valid parallels: composers on other side of the Iron Curtain had to deal with implicit or explicit guidelines as to what was considered the “proper” music to be writing — guidelines that were diametrically directed, as it happened, toward populism in the East and “elitism” in the West. Both Shostakovich and John Adams in his early breakthrough years discovered ways to navigate the fault lines between these putatively incompatible realms, exploring new imaginative possibilities that could balance complexity with accessibility, experimental vigor with a recognizable and rooted vernacular.

Olari Elts, a native of Tallinn, Estonia, as well as this week’s guest soloist, the Moscow-educated Alexander Melnikov, were both teenagers during the waning years of the Soviet Union. So, while still relatively young, they bring a perspective that hasn’t yet forgotten how a composer like Shostakovich could manipulate expectations to write music whose meanings are more ambivalent than what seems on the surface to be the case.

Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov

Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov

And bravo to both for selecting the lesser-known Second Piano Concerto, a later work Shostakovich wrote for his son Maxim to premiere at his graduation from the Moscow Conservatory. Melnikov, in what I believe marks his Seattle debut, revealed why he’s regarded as a leading Shostakovich specialist — his recording of the complete Preludes and Fugues has been heaped with awards — and used his impressive technical precision to make eminent musical sense.

The Second Piano Concerto is a most unusual Shostakovich score — almost neoclassical in sensibility, but without the sense of parody that often goes along with that (especially in Prokofiev), and certainly lacking the ironic air you’d expect from Shostakovich himself. At the same time, it’s not entirely innocent or naive. That hard-to-define zone in between is what emerged from Melnikov’s performance.

He managed to articulate the straitjacketed, percussive metrics of the first movement’s big solo as a joyful romp, discovering a sense of freedom amid its strictly regimented confines. Especially memorable was his dialogue with the SSO strings in the Andante, paced here like a Chopin nocturne. Wistful without giving in to sentimentality, this builds into some of the tenderest moments to be found in Shostakovich — as if he were conjuring in music a hoped-for but knowingly unrealistic future for his son.

Returning after his SSO debut two years ago, Elts maintains a serious podium demeanor but conjures a sensuous and scintillating palette from the players, as his take on Adams’s The Chairman Dances at the top of the program revealed. (Was Daniel Licht listening closely to the woozy middle section when he wrote the theme music for Dexter?) A bit foursquare in his overall approach to the score’s intricate cross-rhythms, Elts was more spontaneous with the beguiling sound picture of this Nixon in China-vintage music.

He similarly showcased Adams’s masterful orchestral thinking in The Black Gondola a late-period, experimental piano score by Franz Liszt which Adams orchestrated in 1989: so many shades of dark, drawing the listener into a black hole of melancholy.

With The Black Gondola as its prelude, Elts apparently also wanted to signal that there’s a good deal more to the Symphony No. 9 by Shostakovich than its allegedly “cheerful” character. He then led a riveting account eager to plunge into the enigmas posed by this compact score, not smooth them over — or explain them away as defensive irony.

A kind of “revocation” of Beethoven’s affirmative Ninth (if not in the spirit of Thomas Mann’s protagonist composer in Doktor Faustus), Shostakovich’s No. 9 caps his epic “wartime symphonies” with a tightly condensed, often lightly textured work that makes for a fascinating contrast with the completely different “lightness” of the Second Piano Concerto.

The performance features some first-rate solo playing by bassoonist Seth Krimsky and flutist Christie Reside as well as Ko-ichiro Yamamoto on trombone and David Gordon on trumpet. Elts brings out the inner logic that connects Shostakovich’s elliptical thinking, above all in the almost cinematic dissolves of the last three movements. It’s rare to find yourself so pleased by being teased and puzzled.

(c) 2014 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: concert programming, review, Seattle Symphony

The Triumph of Mason Bates

Mason Bates; image by Ryan Schude

Mason Bates; image by Ryan Schude

I’ve been following and writing about the career of the Bay Area composer Mason Bates with great interest for years. It’s good to see him in the spotlight with San Francisco Symphony’s acclaimed recent venture, “Beethoven & Bates.” My essays for the two orchestral composition by Bates that were included in the festival (which continues in the fall) are here:

The B-Sides

Liquid Interface

San Jose Mercury News critic Richard Scheinin has a fine profile:

Classical composers often reflect the vernacular music of their times — Mahler’s Bohemian dances, Gershwin’s jazz — and Bates, as much as any composer of the new generation, reflects his….By…finding a place in orchestral music for the technology and rhythmic textures of the club scene — Bates is cajoling “the beast,” as he calls the orchestra, to “dance in a new style. … I’m fascinated by what an orchestra can do on a dramatic level, on a sonic level; there don’t seem to be any limits. And the more I’ve gotten involved with electronic music, the more I’ve come to appreciate the orchestra as the great synth that it is — the original synthesizer.”

Here’s a sampling of reviews of the Bates pieces featured on this recent two-program festival conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, a long-standing champion of the composer:

–Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle:

[The decision to devote two weeks’ worth of concerts to performing and recording music of Bates] seemed positively inspired after Wednesday night’s exhilarating revival of the composer’s 2009 opus “The B-Sides”… This is new music as you always hoped it would be – exciting, beautiful, surprising and full of a vivid sense of discovery.
[My] my favorite movement of “The B-Sides” is “Aerosol Melody,” a musical vacation postcard from Hawaii that practically redefines rhythmic laziness. The piece has a melody and some swooping glissandos produced by the orchestral instruments and Bates’ laptop in combination – but those elements struggle constantly, and hilariously, against a backsliding rhythmic beat that keeps threatening to sink the movement into sleepy torpor. The collapse at the end of the movement is a brilliant comic stroke.

–John Marcher, A Beast in a Jungle:

Kudos to Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony: while others are constantly wringing their hands over the so-called “crisis” in classical music, and others want the function of an orchestra to be little more than a performing museum, MTT and the orchestra are taking risks and taking their audience into the future.

What struck me about “Liquid Interface,” with its forays into jazz melodies that travel from New York down to New Orleans, its use of instrumentation to mimic raindrops and other updates of “water music,” its pounding full drum kit, crashing cymbals, and electronic beats, its nods to Bernstein and Hot Butter, its cries of gulls and herons, is the complete confidence with which Bates creates the mix. That’s the DJ in him at work, but the results are those of a composer’s mind.

–Niels Swinkels, San Francisco Classical Voice:

Bates’ soundscapes are extremely vivid and cinematic, in places idiomatically reminiscent of TV movie soundtracks from the ’70s, about gumshoe detectives or space ships, but never in a cliche way. The five movements of The B-Sides propel forward, toward a big final outburst. Altogether this is very appealing new music.

–Harvey Steiman. Seen and Heard International

There might be no better evidence of that than hearing his music a second time and realizing it’s even better than you thought. That was my experience…with the composer’s “The B-Sides”…Bates is no self-conscious classical composer slumming with pop music, or for that matter a pop musician dallying with classical forms. He seems at home in both worlds. The resulting music melds them, well, harmoniously.

Filed under: American music, concert programming, new music

Nights at the Opera

Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre presented by the New York Philharmonic in 2010; (c) Chris Lee 2010

Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre presented by the New York Philharmonic in 2010; (c) Chris Lee 2010

My new feature for Symphony magazine’s Fall 2013 issue is available online now:

Total immersion: that was the radical brand of opera Richard Wagner hoped to inaugurate at Bayreuth. To enhance its effect, he famously made the “invisible orchestra” an integral part of his design. Yet the overall ideal of intensified theatrical illusion remained frustratingly out of reach, hampered by the limitations of the stage technology of the time. Cosima Wagner reported her husband’s sardonic joke in the aftermath of his deep disappointment over the first complete Ring: “Now that I’ve created the invisible orchestra, I’d like to invent the invisible stage!”

The concert hall has meanwhile long provided an appealing milieu in which to experience opera with another kind of immediacy—one that focuses on the musical dimension of this most collaborative of the arts and, far from disguising the orchestra, features it as the central character. And recent innovations that involve this format for presenting opera are even helping, in some cases, to redefine the orchestra’s institutional identity and sense of mission. A new era of co-productions involving artists from other disciplines, the choice of thematically meaningful repertory, marketing centered around concerts that include a visual and theatrical element as a special “event” of the season: all these are different facets of how opera in the concert hall has evolved in recent seasons.

The links between some of America’s most venerable orchestral institutions and opera are deeply rooted, whether in concert presentations (Frederick Stock’s legendary Tristan with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1935 and Dimitri Mitropoulos’s programming of complete operas with the New York Philharmonic in the 1950s) or in full productions actually in the opera house, such as the U.S. premiere of Wozzeck in 1931, which featured the Philadelphia Orchestra under Stokowski.

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Filed under: concert programming, opera, orchestras

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