MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

All-Tchaikovsky Night, and a Tribute to the Late Bramwell Tovey

The New York Philharmonic with cellist Zlatomir Fung and Leonard Slatkin; photo (c) Jorge Gustavo Elias

The conductor for last night’s Bravo Vail concert with the New York Philharmonic was to have been the much-loved Bramwell Tovey, who passed away on July 12. Leonard Slatkin, who took his place on the podium, paid tribute with a deeply felt interpretation of “Nimrod” from Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” as the encore. Slatkin was completely in his element for this sold-out, all-Tchaikovsky concert — and not just for the blockbuster works (the “Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture” and Fifth Symphony) but the “Rococo Variations” they framed. You could feel him drawing on his vast experience with and love for this music to shape a dramatic arc that overwhelmed with its intensity in both R&J and the Fifth. But he was also brought out Tchaikovsky’s neoclassical finesse in the Variations, which showcased the refined, poetic musicianship of cello soloist Zlatomir Fung.

Filed under: Bravo! Vail Music Festival, conductors, Tchaikovsky

Roderick Cox Triumphs with the Seattle Symphony

Roderick Cox conducting the Seattle Symphony Orchestra; photo (c)James Holt

I left last night’s performance convinced that Roderick Cox is a major talent destined for something great. Winner of the 2018 Sir Georg Solti Conducting Award, Cox had caught my interest last year leading a Barber in San Francisco Opera’s return to live performance. Those were unusual circumstances dictated by social-distancing rules (with a parking lot as the auditorium, the music transmitted to our car radios), so it was splendid to get to experience this young conductor in the limelight, with a full orchestra, unhampered by any pandemic restrictions more cumbersome than a mask. [UPDATE: Check out the film Conducting Life, an intimate portrait of Roderick Cox and his path toward his vocation.]

Cox chose a challenging program that revealed an impressive gift for communicating his musical vision. The first half was given to William Levi Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony of 1934–a landmark of early 20th-century American symphonic writing has been shamefully, disgracefully neglected while so many tireless mediocrities continue to clutter the repertoire.

This performance had the quality of a double epiphany, confirming what an excellent piece of music we’ve allowed ourselves to be missing out on and at the same time shedding light on the journey Dawson’s symphony traces–outwardly, the harrowing passage from Africa to the New World, but also an implicitly personal journey. He clarified the originality of Dawson’s response to the challenge Dvořák had issued to cultivate an authentically American voice. For Dawson, that meant writing a symphony that, as the composer put it, “is unmistakably not the work of a white man.”

Negro Folk Symphony is a marvel of the imaginative, indeed, symphonic, transformation of simple, ready-made folk material–Dawson draws on three spirituals in particular–into a complex, multi-faceted structure. Cox led a dramatically compelling account that highlighted Dawson’s elaborate use of rhythmic mottos as a unifying device, while also lavishing attention on the orchestral details that give this score such resonance. His spacing of the implacably tragic minor chords ending the “Hope in the Night Section” was especially memorable. This was the SSO’s first performance of the Dawson, and part of the excitement came from the sense of the players sharing in these discoveries along the way, clearly inspired by Cox’s guidance.

Concertmaster Noah Geller gave a deeply felt and polished interpretation of the 1904 Violin Concerto in A minor by Alexander Glazunov–who, like Dawson, straddled a period of drastic change in musical values and pressures. Basking in his warmly expressive lower register in the opening passage, the violinist kept the audience at an attentive hush in Glazunov’s extended cadenza, counterbalancing the piece’s gentler lyricism with its giddy high spirits and vivaciously articulated virtuosity.

Cox proved fearless in Belá Bartók’s Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin, a piece that doesn’t tolerate weak-willed, insecure conducting. He drew an electrifying performance from the outset, never letting go of the ominous, hair-raising tension and danger that animate this early Bartók score. The music echoes, though in a very original way, impulses from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Strauss’s dancing Salome, also hinting at the spirit of film noir to come. Cox emphasized its brutal violence but also knew how to bring out the delicacy and spookily muted colors of Bartók’s orchestration, loosening the reins to give the platform to Benjamin Lulich for his arresting clarinet solos.

The glowing rapport between the players and Cox left me hoping to see much more of this conductor on the Benaroya stage. Thursday’s audience, though relatively sparse, was enthusiastic and grateful. What a pity it would be to miss this excellent program, which repeats Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm.

Review (c) 2022 Thomas May

Filed under: Bartók, conductors, review, Seattle Symphony

Musical America’s New Artist of the Month: Lee Mills

For this month’s column, I had the privilege of writing about this very talented young conductor:

When he was still in college, Lee Mills had a dream job of becoming a roller coaster designer. But the unexpected career path he ended up following has given the young conductor another way of providing some very memorable thrills—especially during the current season of turbulent twists and turns….

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Filed under: conductors, music news, Musical America, Seattle Symphony

Christian Baldini’s New CD

The talented young conductor Christian Baldini conducts the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra on this newly released album — a challenging and fascinating collection of music by Lutosławski, Ligeti, Varèse, and Baldini himself. I was delighted to review it for the November issue of Gramophone:

Having proved himself an engaging Mozartian with his previous release (a collection of arias and overtures with Elizabeth Watts and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra – Linn, 7/15), Christian Baldini here displays his expertise in modernist and contemporary fare…

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Filed under: CD review, conductors, Gramophone

Michael Morgan RIP (1957-2021)

It’s heartbreaking to learn of the death on Friday of Michael Morgan, a much-loved conductor and generous colleague who devoted three decades to his work with the Oakland Symphony. “Our entire organization is grieving a profound loss,” Jim Hasler, the Symphony’s Board Chair said. “Michael’s impact on our community and the national orchestra field cannot be overstated – and he has left us too soon.

Writes Joshua Kosman in his touching tribute: “Michael was an excellent conductor, but more than that, he was a superb music director. His overall ambition was less to perform the symphonies of Beethoven or Schubert well — though naturally that was also part of the plan — than to find ways for the Oakland Symphony to be a force for good, in both the artistic and the civic arena. That’s why his programming was so restless and innovative, so devoted to championing the work of the underrepresented and the little-known.”

“In the manner of an older generation of conductors who came to an area and stayed put, Mr. Morgan spent the last 30 years of his life mostly in the Bay Area and its environs,” according to Tim Page in his Washington Post obituary.

Here’s a sample of Michael Morgan’s artistry — a clip of him conducting the Stony Brook Symphony Orchestra in John Corigliano’s 1977 Clarinet Concerto:

Filed under: conductors, music news

Jonathon Heyward’s Tenure Begins

Jonathon Heyward begins his tenure with Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie: this gifted young conductor will go far!

Program: Igor Strawinsky — Symphonie für Blasinstrumente

Edward Elgar – Introduktion und Allegro für Streicher

Joseph Haydn – Sinfonie Nr. 100 G-Dur “Militär”

Filed under: conductors,

Beethoven in China

My colleague Rudolph Tang has created a film about the reception of Beethoven in the People’s Republic of China featuring an interview with conductor Liang Zhang, whose new Beethoven symphony cycle is the fourth recording of the complete symphonies to be made by musicians from Mainland China.

The documentary is available for free viewing until Friday here.

Filed under: Beethoven, classical music in Mainland China, conductors

Another Musical Exit with Brexit

The music world is still reeling from Simon Rattle’s recently announced curtailment of his tenure with the London Symphony Orchestra in favor of the Symphonieorcehster des Bayerischen Radiofunks. And now we learn that the young Lithuanian star conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla will step down from her post helming the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra at the end of the 2021-22 season. What hath Brexit wrought?

Gražinytė-Tyla stated: “I have decided to give up my position of Music Director of the CBSO at the end of the 2021-22 season and have happily accepted the orchestra’s invitation to become Principal Guest Conductor in the 2022-23 season. This is a deeply personal decision, reflecting my desire to step away from the organizational and administrative responsibilities of being a Music Director at this particular moment in my life and focusing more on my purely musical activities.”

Filed under: conductors, music news

Simon Rattle Will Go Back to Germany

In the middle of these turbulent days, there is some major classical music news: Sir Simon Rattle is stepping down from his post heading the London Symphony Orchestra and will return to Germany to lead the  Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, effective with the 2023-24 season. (See clip above for an example of his collaboration with the BRSO.)

The official statement released from the LSO gives this explanation from Rattle: “My reasons for accepting the role of Chief Conductor in Munich are entirely personal, enabling me to better manage the balance of my work and be close enough to home to be present for my children in a meaningful way. I love the London Symphony Orchestra. I remain committed to the LSO, and we have plans for major projects in the coming years. I am thrilled that we will be making music together far into the future.”

But as Joshua Barone notes in The New York Times, Rattle “has been a vocal critic of Brexit, which was voted on after he accepted the London Symphony post in 2015. And progress has been sluggish on the Center for Music, the much-desired new home for the orchestra that was conceived alongside Mr. Rattle’s appointment.”

Barone adds: “In Munich, Mr. Rattle won’t have to contend with those Brexit woes, but he will once again find himself involved in the building of a new concert hall, in the Werksviertel-Mitte area — a modern contrast to the neo-Classical Herkulessaal in the city center. “

Filed under: conductors, music news

Conductor’s Panel

_B0A5603 Roderick Cox

Here is a link to Conductor’s Perspective, a Facebook live conversation that took place today among these four American conductors: Roderick Cox, who hosted, Thomas Wilkins, Music Director of the Omaha Symphony and Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, Michael Morgan, Music Director of the Oakland Symphony, and Jonathon Heyward, the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie’s Chief Conductor Designate.

It’s an inspiring, cross-generational panel discussion that frankly covers the hurdles African-American musicians have faced — and continue to face — as well as the artistic passions that drive these outstandingly talented conductors.

Filed under: African-American musicians, conductors

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