MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Alan Gilbert Reflects on Juilliard

Nearly a year after bringing to a close his eight-year tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert reflects on another farewell—he’s stepping down as director of conducting and orchestral studies at Juilliard this spring. As announced in March, David Robertson will succeed him in the fall.

continue reading

Filed under: conductors, Juilliard, New York Philharmonic

Musical America‘s New Artist of the Month: Pablo Rus Broseta

Here’s my profile of the highly talented conductor Pablo Rus Broseta for Musical America. He’s the featured new Artist of the Month for October 2016. Congratulations, Pablo!

It’s a couple days before the season officially begins with an ambitious program, and Seattle Symphony Associate Conductor Pablo Rus Broseta is monitoring the sound balance from the hall during the first full rehearsal. A lot is at stake. Following the glitz and good will of the SSO’s gala opening a few days ago, this concert represents a sort of manifesto of the orchestra’s programming philosophy under Music Director Ludovic Morlot.

continue reading

Filed under: conductors, Musical America, Seattle Symphony

A Summer of Changes in Lucerne

This coming weekend brings the close of the Summer Festival in Lucerne. Along with the usual Stendhal Syndrome-inducing concentration of great artists and great art, the 2016 edition introduced two major changes — if not exactly paradigm shifts — to Lucerne Festival’s organization and overall character: the inauguration of Riccardo Chailly as new Music Director of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, succeeding the late Claudio Abbado, and, in the wake of Pierre Boulez’s death, the first Lucerne Festival Academy under new leadership, with Wolgang Rihm as Artistic Director and Matthias Pintscher as Principal Conductor.

Michael Cooper reports in The New York Times on how the Lucerne Festival is “reinventing itself”:

But behind the scenes, the Lucerne Festival, an increasingly important part of the classical music ecosystem, was being forced to reinvent itself. Within the past couple of years, the festival has lost not one, but both of its guiding artistic lights: Mr. Abbado died in 2014 at 80, and Mr. Boulez this year at 90. Their losses pose a challenge at a moment when Europe’s leading summer festivals hotly compete for artists, audiences and prestige.

Cooper also wrote about the 2016 Lucerne Festival theme of women in music, interviewing four of the eleven female conductors who appeared on the podium there this summer: Barbara Hannigan, Marin Alsop, Susanne Mälkki, and Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla.

And here’s a European perspective from one of the German-speaking world’s major music critics, Christian Wildhagen (who wrote his dissertation on Mahler 8, the work with which Chailly and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra opened the festival last month):

Niemand sei «in der Gewalt seelenvollster, rauschendster, visionärster Musik dem Himmel näher getragen worden» als Mahler, schwärmte Ernst Bloch in seinem Buch «Geist der Utopie». Eine Aufführung der 8.Sinfonie wäre indes nicht komplett, wenn auf diesem Weg nicht auch ein paar Unzulänglichkeiten Ereignis würden.


Filed under: conductors, Lucerne Festival, music news

End of the Runnicles Era

The conductor Donald Runnicles concluded his tenure with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra on the last day of the 2016 Edinburgh International Festival with a performance of Schoenberg’s epic Gurre-Lieder at Usher Hall.

The gargantuan forces needed bring to mind the festival atmosphere Mahler’s Eighth Symphony also evokes. Here’s a sampling of the reviews:

And so this concert summed up the kind of playing that he and this orchestra have developed together – a rich glow at the heart of the strings and a capacity to turn on a dime and power up almighty sounds.

–Kate Molleson in The Guardian

Runnicles is particularly well known for his interpretations of the core Austro-German Romantic repertoire, so Gurrelieder plays to his strengths. Under his baton Schoenberg’s ripe score yields up its influences. There is Wagner in the love music, of course, but also Bruckner in the solemnity of the Wood-Dove, Beethoven in the nature-painting and, of course, Mahler in the scale and structure. That scale could be pretty overpowering at times, and not just in the final, overwhelming greeting to the sun that ends the work. The sweep and surge of the love music was intoxicating, as was the wall of brass and percussion that accompanied the chorus’ romping as the hellish riders. What was most striking, however, was the way Runnicles repeatedly brought out the delicacy of the orchestration.

–Simon Thompson for Seen and Heard International

[Schoenberg’s] mega-cantata Gurrelieder, was the vehicle chosen to whisk us off on such a glorious journey, driven by the massively-inflated forces of the BBC Scottish Synphony Orchestra, a male-dominated Edinburgh Festival Chorus, five soloists and speaker, all under the towering leadership of maestro Donald Runnicles, and formulated by a musical language gathering up the scraps of Wagner, colouring them with whole-tone harmonic treats from Debussy, sweeping up Mahler in its tracks before opening the gates to teasers of the world-changing Schoenberg-to-come.

–Ken Walton in The Scotsman

This concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Friday 16 September at 7.30pm.

Filed under: conductors, Runnicles, Schoenberg

What Use Is Religion? Bayreuth’s New Parsifal

“…where Religion becomes artificial, it is reserved for Art to save the spirit of religion by recognizing the figurative value of the mythic symbols which the former would have us believe in their literal sense, and revealing their deep and hidden truth through an ideal presentation.” –Richard Wagner (Kunst und Religion)

The 2016 edition of the Bayreuth Festival began today with a new production of Parsifal, staged by Uwe Eric Laufenberg (Intendant of the Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden) and conducted by Hartmut Haenchen (following the controversial withdrawal of Andris Nelsons).

Laufenberg on the relevance of Wagner’s final stage work for an era beset by religious fundamentalism:

This piece basically focuses on the religion of Christianity. On one hand, the grail knights in “Parsifal” inhabit a realm of charity, empathy and sympathy, and they come to the aid of the needy. Then there’s the other side: a crucified God, blood rituals and military symbolism.

I believe that Wagner wanted to bring out the factors of benevolence and mystery in this work. Not to openly criticize religion, but to enable one to experience it. That’s interesting in our own times of widespread religious fundamentalism – but also in times of a Pope Francis, who has been de-emphasizing the institutional side of the Catholic Church and stressing the factors of mercy, grace and benevolence.

It’s always been pertinent to ask: What are religions doing, and are they allowing themselves to be abused for ideological purposes? What do they really stand for?

Laufenberg on setting Parsifal in the Middle East:

Wenn es um ein Stück ginge, das in Syrien oder Saudi-Arabien spielt, würde ich mich keineswegs um eine Auseinandersetzung mit dem Islam drücken. Wagner hat den „Parsifal“ in den Pyrenäen verortet, wir bringen ihn in den Nahen Osten, Richtung Syrien, Irak oder vielleicht Jerusalem, wo die monotheistischen Religionen einen Wahnsinnskampf gegeneinander führen. Im „Parsifal geht es aber um die Frage: Was ist uns die Religion wirklich wert? Wo berührt uns die Religion eigentlich noch? Was bedeutet das Mysterium des gekreuzigten Gottes?“

Hartmut Haenchen on conducting Parsifal:

BR-KLASSIK: Sie haben in einem Gespräch in Bezug auf “Parsifal” gesagt: Man muss erzählen und nicht zelebrieren. Was heißt es konkret?

Hartmut Haenchen: Wagner hat das Werk ja auch nicht “Oper” genannt – aus gutem Grund. Die Handlung des Stückes ist vor allem im ersten Akt beschränkt. Es wird erst Mal 45 Minuten lang erzählt. Und wenn ich das zelebriere, dass die Texte auseinander fallen, dass man die Textzusammenhänge nicht mehr verstehen kann, weil man Tempi wählt, die Textverständlichkeit unmöglich machen – dann wird es zelebriert, aber nicht erzählt. Und ich lege großen Wert drauf – und da stützte ich mich natürlich auf die Quellen – dass die Geschichte erzählt werden muss. “Der Fluss der Sprache bestimmt das Tempo”, – das hat Wagner selbst gesagt. Und dem muss man sich grundsätzlich unterordnen.

From a 1906 lecture by Rudolf Steiner:

Wolfram von Eschenbach wrote an epic on “Parsifal.” It was inartistic, but it sufficed for his time; for there were in those days men who had a measure of clairvoyance and could accordingly understand Wolfram. In the Nineteenth Century it was not possible to make clear to man the deep meaning of that great process of initiation in a drama. There is, however, a medium through which man’s understanding can be reached, even without words, without concepts or ideas. This medium is music. Wagner’s music holds within it all the truths that are contained in the Parsifal story.

 Complete cast list from Bayreuther Festspiele

Complete libretto (German/English)

More background on Parsifal

Filed under: Bayreuth Festival, conductors, directors, Wagner

Grammy-Winning Augustin Hadelich with the Seattle Symphony and Jesús López-Cobos


Last night’s Seattle Symphony concert featured two guest artists of genuine distinction: Jesús López-Cobos, Conductor Emeritus of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and former music director of Madrid’s Teatro Real, and the violinist Augustin Hadelich.

The latter is especially familiar to Seattle audiences as a longtime regular at the Seattle Chamber Music Festival. This time he returned with a fresh crowning of laurels from last month’s Grammy Awards: he won Best Classical Instrumental Soloist for his recording of L’Arbre des Songes, a violin concerto by Henri Dutilleux. (So fresh, in fact, that, as Hadelich later mentioned, he still hasn’t received the gold-plated trophy he accepted in absentia.)

Hadelich recorded the Dutilleux with the Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot on their new in-house label, and the SSO and audience welcomed him back with obvious warmth, cheering before he’d played a note. (A couple days before, Hadelich had recorded a shorter Dutilleux piece for violin and orchestra — Sur le même accord — which is due for future release on the SSO label.)

But from the moment he did start playing — the vehicle was Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto — Hadelich cast an absolutely irresistible spell. I kept trying to dissect his secret. There’s no shortage of flawlessly virtuosic young violinists, and being able to showcase your technique on the Kiesewetter Strad from 1723  doesn’t hurt.

Still, what made his performance unique was its authenticity. I mean that not in the sense of HIP, of period instrument ideology, but quite simply as a matter of musical and emotional honesty. Too often technique and sincerity (“playing from the heart”) are set up as opposite poles; operating from a stance of modesty, Hadelich grounds his technique — and it’s jaw-dropping fabulous, above all his masterful intonation and dynamics — with  sheer love of the musical message.

In the process Hadelich succeeded in dusting away the clichés, phony sentimentality, and sense of routine that frequently accompany the Tchaik. He kept his distance from the lapel-grabbing emotional sensationalism performers know guarantees excitement, but by the same token there was nothing cool or unduly “objective” here.

Overall Hadelich seemed to have in mind Tchaikovsky’s abiding affection for Mozart — always a tempering influence on his own tendencies toward excess. The violinist shaped the first movement’s main theme with a tasteful classicism. When deep pathos emerged, in the minor-key Canzonetta, it resonated powerfully.

Hadelich’s interactions with the players underscored his intense engagement in this music as a present-tense affair. I’d forgotten how beguiling Tchaikovsky’s woodwind lines are here. The clarinet — featuring the expressive work of guest player Gabriel Campos-Zamora — becomes virtually a second protagonist.

Throughout,  López-Cobos was interpretively in sync with Hadelich, encouraging clarity of shape and timbre from the players. He set a leisurely pace in the first movement but was able almost imperceptibly to quicken and then moderate it again, in accord with Hadelich’s phrasing choices. The finale was thrillingly breakneck, a rousing conclusion to a work in which Tchaikovsky seems to regain purpose and joie de vivre.

Hadelich returned for an encore: the Andante from J.S. Bach’s Second Solo Sonata in A minor. It was the epitome of this artist’s gift for fusing marvelous technique with incandescent expression: an early-21st-century version of what used to be called “the sublime.”

There was likewise a great deal to admire in Jesús López-Cobos’ work from the podium in this all-Russian program. It seemed to be connected by a “travel” theme (remember that Tchaikovsky wrote his Violin Concerto soon after his disastrous attempt at marriage while he was sojourning in Western Europe). As an opener, the Spanish conductor led a charming account of Glinka’s Summer Night in Madrid, rhythmically vivid and awash in cheerful colors.

It turned out to be a pretty accurate trailer for the characteristics he brought to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade in the second half. Particularly in the wake of John Adams’s new masterpiece, Scheherazade.2, last week — I admit to approaching another encounter with Rimsky’s crafty Sultana with some skepticism. It bored me the last time I heard the SSO play this score (three years ago).

This time, I couldn’t get enough of it. López-Cobos coaxed a uniformly high-quality performance from the SSO. Magisterial and majestic, he crafted a beautifully proportionate interpretation of Rimsky’s score, giving just the right amount of time and emphasis to its components.

So rewarding were the musical allurements that he tempted the audience to forget about the half-hearted Arabian Nights program, for which the composer in any case expressed ambivalence. The narrative that mattered was how one texture and melodic idea gave way to the next. Threading this story together was the impressively phrased, gorgeous playing from Elisa Barston, the evening’s concertmaster.

–(c) 2016 Thomas May. All rights reserved.




Filed under: conductors, review, Seattle Symphony, Tchaikovsky, violinists

A Bright Mahlerian Cosmos from Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic


gustavo003-950My review of this weekend’s Mahler 3  by Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic is now posted on Bachtrack:

No work is more emblematic of Mahler‘s symphonic philosophy than the Third. Or at least that version of his philosophy filtered by Sibelius, who recollected Mahler’s words decades after their meeting in 1907, long after his colleague’s death: ‘The symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything’.

But it was another Mahlerian statement that Gustavo Dudamel’s interpretation with the Los Angeles Philharmonic brought to mind – a statement reported by his confidante Natalie Bauer-Lechner referring specifically to the Third Symphony when it was still a work in progress: ‘To me, “symphony” means constructing a world with all the technical means at one’s disposal’.

continue reading

Filed under: conductors, Gustavo Dudamel, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Mahler, review

RIP Heinz Fricke

Fricke_63169Heinz Fricke (1927-2015), who died on 7 December, was a remarkable musician who lived a remarkable life that brought him, after years behind the Iron Curtain in East Berlin, to the capital city of the capitalist superpower.

I was incredibly fortunate to get to know him during his early years at Washington National Opera. In fact Mr. Fricke became the first conductor I met and observed close up. Here’s one of my earliest pieces for the Washington Post, a profile of Heinz Fricke from 1997:


Well into its first season with the world-renowned tenor as artistic director, the Washington Opera has been abuzz with talk of its ambitious vision for the future. That includes next season’s expansion to eight productions and the selection of a world-famous architectural firm to convert the historic downtown Woodward & Lothrop building into the opera’s new Valhalla.

continue reading

Filed under: conductors, music news

A Noble Attempt: Thomas Dausgaard Leads the Seattle Symphony in Mahler’s Tenth

Thomas Dausgaard
© Ulla-Carin Eckblom

Can we really claim that there is a Mahler Ten? Opinions remain sharply divided among the most fervent Mahlerians. Some refuse to consider the proposition of performing even the first movement of the composer’s final, unfinished symphony – let alone any of the various attempts to construct a performable whole using the extensive sketches Mahler left behind at his death in 1911.

continue reading

Filed under: conductors, Mahler, review, Seattle Symphony

Elder Wagner


Bliss: Sir Mark Elder, who just conducted the opening of San Francisco Opera’s Meistersinger.

Filed under: conductors, San Francisco Opera, Wagner

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

RSS Arts & Culture Stories from NPR