MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Martin Fischer-Dieskau on the Art and Hard Work of a Misunderstood Profession

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Martin Fischer-Dieskau

I had a chance to speak with the conductor Martin Fischer-Dieskau, who takes a critical look at the hubris and mystification surrounding his profession:

For Martin Fischer-Dieskau, the two-year period since his last engagement in the USA feels like a remarkably long gap. The peripatetic maestro loves interacting with musicians and audiences around the world, so he’s excited by the prospect of returning to the New World to helm an all-Berlioz program at the Round Top Music Festival in Texas on 13 July.

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Filed under: Berlioz, conductors

Bernard Haitink Announces Retirement

Now it’s official: Bernard Haitink has announced that he will conduct his last concert on  September 2019 in Lucerne. His farewell: Bruckner’s Seventh (along with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with Murray Perahia as the soloist).

Filed under: conductors, Lucerne Festival, music news

Jonathon Heyward’s Outstanding Seattle Symphony Debut

By the end of last night’s concert with Jonathon Heyward guest conducting the Seattle Symphony, I couldn’t help thinking of John Lennon’s wry understatement after a famous rooftop performance: “I hope we passed the audition!”

Could this really have only been Jonathon Heyward’s first engagement leading the Seattle band? The chemistry between them produced such subtle and winning results that it defies belief they haven’t been regular collaborators for years.

Even more, Heyward demonstrated a level of confidence and musical intelligence that belied his youth. The 26-year-old, who comes from Charleston, South Carolina, studied cello before turning to conducting in his teens and is currently finishing up a three-year residency as assistant conductor of The Hallé in Manchester. He was recently named Chief Conductor of Germany’s Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie, where his tenure will begin in 2021. But word has already gotten out — no wonder this amazing talent is so highly sought after.

The program drew on multiple facets of Heyward’s strengths. He opened with a gripping introduction to the music of Hannah Kendall — another name you’ll want to remember, as she is deservedly gaining international recognition.** This marked the U.S. premiere of The Spark Catchers, a 10-minute piece that was first heard on a BBC Proms concert in 2017.

Born in London to first-generation immigrants from Guyana, Kendall has been making a name with some intriguing collaborative projects, such as her chamber opera The Knife of Dawn (2016), which pays homage to the real-life story of the Guyanese poet and political activist Martin Carter, received much acclaim.

Her sensitivity to poetic texts and dramatic flair are likewise evident in the purely orchestral The Spark Catchers, Kendall’s response to the poem of the same title by the British writer Lemn Sissay. The poem pays tribute to the women and adolescent girl workers who went on strike in 1888 to protest inhumane working conditions in a matchmaking factory in London’s East End.

Kendall’s score is wrought with great skill, making effective use of suspenseful pauses. Sections of menacingly coiled rhythms erupt with volatile energy, framing a central oasis that seems to float free, cheating time. Where many young composers are content to merely establish a vague atmosphere through evocative use of timbre, Kendall develops her ideas with rigor and imagination. Heyward intensified the score’s dramatic qualities and well-placed contrasts.

The young conductor took on a very different set of challenges with Haydn’s Symphony No. 98 in B-flat major — one of the set of 12 “London” symphonies, which Haydn introduced in 1792, near the end of the first of his two trips to the capital (just a few months after his friend Mozart’s death). Here, the orchestra shrank down to late classical size (I’m guessing Heyward positioned the strings according to the practice typically used with The Hallé, though I have not confirmed that.)

Heyward delighted the audience with his obvious sympathy for this composer’s humor but also for his impeccable logic. Ensemble passaged sparkled with wit and elan. Highlights were an especially affecting Adagio as well as the games of timing and syncopation in the brilliant finale.

The program’s second half shifted gears still again, with a downright thrilling, superbly shaped account of Gustav Holst’s The Planets. Here was still an entirely different conception of the orchestra — the players cramming the Benaroya stage to meet the gargantuan demands of Holst’s score. Yet across all of the evening’s varying styles, Heyward showed an instinctive feeling for how to clarify musical architecture, always keeping the big picture in view. He inspired the orchestra to create vivid, fully dimensional sound worlds for each of Holst’s portraits, gently acknowledging the full auditorium’s insistent applause between them.

At the same time, Heyward tirelessly shaped the sound, encouraging subtle refinements and using expressive gestures to blend and adjust the mix. He understood that Holst’s dazzling score isn’t just about the brassy climaxes — wonderfully prepared for here — but also homed in on its varieties of mystery and awe. The latter became genuinely unworldly in the final “Neptune” section, as the female voices of the Seattle Symphony Chorale seeped in unseen.

**On Monday night at 7.30pm, Hannah Kendall will be on hand with SSO musicians to present some of her chamber works at Octave 9.

–review (c) 2019 Thomas May

Filed under: conductors, Haydn, new music, review, Seattle Symphony

Barbara Hannigan’s New York Conducting Debut

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Here’s my story for the Julliard Journal on the phenomenal Barbara Hannigan:

Even as an internationally acclaimed soprano, Barbara Hannigan is unable to resist challenging herself to ever more-formidable accomplishments. In 2011 she made a bold leap to the podium, debuting as a conductor at the Châtelet in Paris with Stravinsky’s Renard.

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Filed under: Barbara Hannigan, conductors, Juilliard

John Adams on the Yin and Yang of His Musical Life

My story for the Juilliard Journal on John Adams as he returns to conduct the Juilliard Orchestra next week at Alice Tully Hall. Program details here.

“What does it take to move us from our customary place?” John Adams asked in his commencement speech to the Juilliard class of 2011. “That is what we want when we confront a work of art, whether it’s a completely new creation or an impassioned performance of a masterwork from the past.” The acclaimed composer returns to Juilliard December 10—this time to conduct the Juilliard Orchestra in a program that pairs the Brahms Fourth Symphony with two 21st-century pieces: Ciel d’hiver by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho and Adams’ own Doctor Atomic Symphony.

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Filed under: Brahms, conductors, John Adams

Esa-Pekka Salonen to San Francisco Symphony

The ever-adventurous Esa-Pekka Salonen will take over the reins from Michael Tilson Thomas to lead San Francisco Symphony after Michael Tilson Thomas steps down in 2020.

From Michael Cooper’s report in the New York Times about this decidedly inspired choice:

“He definitely is somebody who has that sense of the interesting mission that the West Coast has been on for a while, and he has certainly been a part of it,” Mr. Thomas said, adding: “I’ve always felt with the San Francisco Symphony, since I first began to work with them, that they are really up for looking at things in new ways.”

From the San Francisco Symphony press release:

“From the very first approach, the San Francisco Symphony leaders and musicians and I were buzzing with
possibilities,” said Esa-Pekka Salonen. “The ‘what-ifs’ of the orchestra world were suddenly on the table in a real
way. Here is a top symphony orchestra in the place in America where things start; where the ways things have always
been done are interrogated, and where problems are first identified and then solved. In San Francisco itself and in
the San Francisco Symphony, I see both the big ideas being thought and the actual work being done, and that, to me,
is irresistible.
I wasn’t looking for another Music Directorship. I am so proud of the work we did together at the Swedish Radio
Orchestra, at the LA Philharmonic, and at the Philharmonia Orchestra, and that those organizations where I’ve held
music director titles thrive without me gives me great joy. But there was a ‘no brainer’ aspect to this that I’ve been
fortunate to have experienced a few times before in my career, so I know it when I see it. The San Francisco
Symphony is an ensemble and an organization at the top of their game, renowned for their interpretations of
masterpieces and unafraid to treat new works the same way. They have had the powerhouse combination of
Michael’s exacting musicality and freedom of spirit for 25 years: a legacy I’m privileged to inherit.“

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Filed under: conductors, music news

Interview with Nodoka Okisawa, the First Woman To Take the Top Prize at the Tokyo International Music Competition for Conducting

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Nodoka Okisawa (c) Min-On Concert Association

Here is Part Two of my coverage of the 18th Tokyo International Music Competition for Conducting in 2018: a profile of first prize winner Nodoka Okisawa. (Part One is here.)

It took just a couple hours after her performance for the results to be announced: but the effect of Nodoka Okisawa’s victory at the 18th Tokyo International Music Competition for Conducting will continue to unfold for years to come.

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Filed under: conductors, music news, Nodoka Okisawa

Measure for Measure: 18th Tokyo International Music Competition for Conducting

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From left to right: Kanade Yokoyama, Nodoka Okisawa, and Masaru Kumakura
(c) Min-On Concert Association

Here’s Part One of my report on the 18th Tokyo International Music Competition for Conducting. (Part Two, an interview with first prize winner Nodoka Okisawa, is here.)

Competitions have become an essential rite of passage for professional classical musicians. Take a look at the artists’ biographies in a random program and lists of victories occupy a prominent position. The premise of powerful young talents finding the entrée to recognition through a public showdown has inspired art itself — think Wagner’s Die Meistersinger — and even ancient mythology (things could go very badly when daring to vie with the gods, as in the contest of the satyr Marsyas with Apollo).

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Part Two, a focus on the first prize winner Nodoka Okisawa, will be published shortly.

Filed under: conductors, music news

Ruth Reinhardt at Lucerne Festival

The talented young conductor Ruth Reinhardt, who returns to Seattle Symphony for a major concert next month (where she was a Conducting Fellow in 2015-16), led an impressive performance of Luigi Nono’s No hay caminos, hay que caminar … Andrej Tarkowskij this past Sunday — one of the highlights of this year’s Lucerne Festival Academy.

Reinhardt gave a brief introduction to this highly challenging piece, suggesting the possibility of perceiving in the highly structured, subtle transformations to which Nono subjects his material a “metaphor for the human journey, our pilgrimage through life.

The Nono work explores spatial music as well, with discrete groups of the players subdivided into seven and positioned throughout the hall. Before and after this concert (which also included Messiaen’s awe-inducing, terrifyingly loud Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum for winds and percussion, led by Sir Simon Rattle), the Orchestra of the Lucerne Festival Academy joined the London Symphony for Stockhausen’s Gruppen.

A fascinating juxtaposition: the devoutly Catholic Messiaen, the resolutely atheist Nono.

Filed under: conductors, Lucerne Festival, Lucerne Festival Academy

Gianandrea Noseda to Zurich Opera

What a coup for Zurich Opera: Gianandrea Noseda has accepted Andreas Homoki’s invitation to become chief conductor at Zurich Opera, following the travail at Teatro Regio in Turin, Italy, which led Noseda to resign his post there.

According to Michael Cooper for the New York Times: “Mr. Noseda thought it over, and decided that the chance to conduct Wagner’s epic Ring cycle for the first time, in a new production, was impossible to refuse.”

And so lured by the Ring, Noseda will start his post in 2021 as general music director in Zurich, succeeding Fabio Luisi (himself off to take the reins at the Dallas Symphony). The Ring will follow in the spring of 2022.

Cooper’s report is here.

Christian Wildhagen has published a very interesting interview for the NZZ (in German). The maestro explains at greater length what, in addition to the prospect of doing a Ring, is so attractive about the post (my translation):

The “Ring” remains the central challenge for every opera conductor and every major house — one of the greatest challenges ever. But overall I am also tempted by the opportunity to work with the musicians of the Philharmonia intensively on the so-called German repertoire. I already did a “Tristan” at my previous house, the Teatro Regio Torino, as well as “Salome” by Richard Strauss and, three years ago, a “Lohengrin” in St. Petersburg. The opportunity to expand on these explorations in Zurich, in the center of German-speaking Switzerland, makes the invitation particularly appealing to me. All the more so since the timing for this artistic development seems to coincide with my personal journey.

Filed under: conductors, music news, Zurich Opera

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