MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Reactions to LA Master Chorale’s Lasso

img_5830The opening weekend of the new Los Angeles Master Chorale season was devoted to Orlando di Lasso’s late masterpiece Lagrime di San Pietro. I’m still working through the extraordinary effect the performance had on me — and I know I’m far from alone.

Overall, I was left with an experience I associate with late Beethoven and Parsifal. It was genuinely that special. I’m fascinated by the line of development in Peter Sellars’s work from his stagings of the Bach Passions through John Adams’s The Gospel According to the Other Mary (also with the Master Chorale) and Kaija Saariaho’s La Passion de Simone. And of course his work on Stravinsky. James F. Ingalls’s lighting design added a rich layer, yet another strand of counterpoint.

The rehearsals — a record total of 26 to bring this to the stage — were reportedly grueling: a combination of boot camp and spiritual retreat. And the incredible technical challenge of committing so much of this music along with the choreography and gestures was taken for granted. Not that this was an “effortless” performance — far from it, the strain and exhaustion entailed in bringing this music and its message to life added to the powerful impact.

Mark Swed’s review I found especially incisive:

Normally, we turn to death-invoking music for its transformative powers. The final great works of Beethoven (the late string quartets), Mozart (the unfinished Requiem) or Mahler (the Ninth Symphony’s probe of dying embers) help us transcend despair.  Di Lasso’s “Lagrime,” however, is by a deeply depressed composer in the days before meds, someone who only wants his misery to end. It did in 1594, three weeks after finishing the score.

[…]

“Lagrime” is a major accomplishment for the Master Chorale, which sang and acted brilliantly. It is also a major accomplishment for music history. The company hopes to keep this production alive, touring it, and if the music business chooses to honor the just, that will be a saint’s compensation.

Remarking on the austerity and challenge of Lagrime that make it an improbable choice for a season-opener, Richard S. Ginell gave this assessment: “[T]he Master Chorale sounded glorious — rich, accurate, seemingly unaffected by all of the physical contortions Sellars put them through, even when singing face-down on the stage muffled their voices.”

Filed under: early music, Grant Gershon, Los Angeles Master Chorale, Peter Sellars

Stile Antico’s Homage to Shakespeare

I happily recall the British early music vocal ensemble Stile Antico’s first visit to Seattle over four years ago. On 9 April they return, under the auspices of the Early Music Guild, for a program titled The Touches of Sweet Harmony:  The Musical World of William Shakespeare.

The ensemble describes their program as follows:

“To mark of the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, Stile Antico performs a mouthwatering program of Elizabethan and Jacobean music. In addition to settings of words from Shakespeare’s plays, we encounter music written for the great events of his life or which explore some of the themes of his work. Completing this fascinating picture are Shakespeare-texted works by Huw Watkins and Nico Muhly, written especially for Stile Antico.”

Filed under: early music, Shakespeare

Musicall Humors

Filed under: early music

Jordi Savall’s Weekend in Seattle

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Here’s my Seattle Times preview of Jordi Savall’s upcoming weekend in Seattle (at the end of February):

Call it folk, world or early music: Jordi Savall is the master artist who makes whatever project he takes up seem to illuminate entire eras.

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Filed under: early music, Jordi Savall, preview, Seattle Times

Pacific MusicWorks Retunes The Magic Flute

Cyndia Sieden and Mary Feminear

Cyndia Sieden and Mary Feminear

My review of Pacifc MusicWorks’ Magic Flute production has now been posted on the Musical America site. (The complete review is behind MA’s paywall.) This was a delightfully fresh take on the Mozart classic, matching historically informed performance values with a provocatively revisionist staging (including a newly commissioned translation/adaptaton of Schikaneder’s libretto):

SEATTLE — A couple years after the conductor, lutenist, and recent Grammy laureate Stephen Stubbs resettled in his native Seattle in 2006 — following three decades based in Europe (mostly in Germany) — he established Pacific MusicWorks, a production company focused primarily on presenting Baroque opera and oratorio in innovative collaborations. PMW’s latest project, which closed on Sunday, offered a fresh perspective on The Magic Flute by combining period instruments with a provocatively anti-traditional staging directed by Dan Wallace Miller and a newly commissioned translation and adaptation of the libretto by the playwright Karen Hartman.

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Filed under: directors, early music, Mozart, opera, review, Stephen Stubbs

Where the Weeping Willows Wave

Wonderful program over the weekend from Pacific MusicWorks: “An American Tune,” which was aimed at recapturing the sound of vernacular American music — through songs and instrumental pieces — from the nineteenth century.

The program was beautifully curated and beautifully, at times movingly, executed. For this occasion Stephen Stubbs exchanged his lute for a couple guitars. The recent Grammy Award-winner and artistic director of PMW conceived the program for a chamber-size group of colleagues. Stubbs was joined by Tom Berghan on banjo (Berghan was a lute duet partner from Stubbs’ early days in Seattle), mandolinist John Reischman of the Jaybirds, violinists Tekla Cunningham and Brandon Vance, and soprano Catherine (Cassie) Webster.

As a model, Stubbs decided to apply the ideas and practical skills of the “historically informed performance practice” movement, to which he’s devoted his career, to the wealth of musical traditions that were hybridized and became popular in America of the nineteenth century: the American of the expanding frontier, of the Civil War, of the parlor and the fairground.

Stubbs remarks that the skills of the early music movement evolved “to cope with filling in the blanks where notational records were incomplete and the aural traditions broken or hopelessly confused” — ergo, he realized, these skills “were the very ones that had a chance of penetrating the original spirit and sound of the vast panorama of ‘lost’ American music.”

And vast it is. For this program, instead of looking to European institutional models like the orchestra or other fixed ensembles — which many “classical” American music programs attempt to do — the idea was to focus on the following areas: the popular song model established by Stephen Foster, a gathering of songs associated with the Lincoln years, music of the frontier from the era of westward expansion, and American folk song in the specific form of the murder ballad subgenre. These sets were interspersed with instrumental numbers exemplifying the American folk fiddling tradition characteristic of Appalachia.

Stubbs et al. performed to a capacity audience in the Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya (while the second program of the Sibelius Festival, acoustically secure and sealed off, was at the same time booming under Thomas Dausgaard’s baton in the big hall below). In place of the sentimental tinge of nostalgia that a familiar tune like “My Old Kentucky Home” usually evokes, it was intriguing to hear this in the context of lesser-known vocals and instrumentals. Webster’s soulful phrasing and timbre made it easy to fill out a throughline connecting singing styles of the era and popular idioms today. The quintet of plucked and bowed strings added a wealth of colors and expressive nuances.

Notoriously, Foster also wrote for black-face minstrel shows, represented here by the songs “Nelly Bly” and “Angelina Baker.” “This … unsettling phenomenon,” notes Stubbs “…was too pervasive to ignore. To take only the positive side into account, it was a vehicle for the influence of African music, dance, and instruments (particularly the banjo) to put down widespread and permanent roots in our musical culture.”

Richard Millburn’s “Listen to the Mockingbird,” we learned, was held in high regard by Lincoln. It’s a wistful song of a beloved who has died young: the mockingbird sings over her grave, is “still singing where the weeping willows wave.” The synergy between the ensemble and Webster reached fever pitch in the lengthy cowboy song “The Buffalo Skinners.” They also gave a haunting account of the murder ballad “Two Sisters/The Wind and the Rain” (a tune which left its mark on Bob Dylan’s “Percy’s Song”).

In preparing the four-part setting for violins and guitar of the Mormon hymn “Come, Come, Ye Saints,” “with the banjo taking an ornamental approach to the melody,” Stubbs writes that they experienced an “aha moment”:

The connection to the early seventeenth century sound of the English “broken consort” was immediate and unmistakable. In the earlier context, plucked and bowed strings provide the harmonic framework while the solo lute decorates the melody — this is the earliest form of specifically orchestrated music in the European tradition, and here it is again in a hymn from Utah!

(c)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: American music, early music, review, Stephen Stubbs

Ebola Relief Concert

Ebola-relief

Every bit counts when it comes to trying to alleviate the suffering caused by crises like the current Ebola outbreak. Seattle’s Early Music Guild is presenting a special fundraiser on November 24 at Town Hall aimed at helping victims of the Ebola crisis.

Those who attend are invited to make a free-will donation in support of the great work done by Doctors without Borders and the Hope Project for Ebola relief in West Africa.

The crises caused by various plagues in human history have inspired artistic responses — art that does the work of mourning and remembering the victims and offering consolation to the bereaved. The special Early Music Guild concert will focus on the musical response of Medieval European composers such as Machaut, Landini, and Dufay to the devastating bubonic plague of the late Middle Ages. These will be juxtaposed with readings and songs from West Africa.

The concert will suggest parallels between Europeans’ reactions to plague in the 13th and 14th centuries and the ongoing tragedy in West Africa. This Ebola Relief program will feature performers including Eunice Yonly, Erin Calata, Erika Chang, and Marian Seibert, voices; August Denhard, lute; Shulamit Kleinerman, vielle; Bill McJohn, harp; and Peggy Monroe, percussion.

The evening will include also commentary from individuals dedicated to the fight to halt Ebola: Pastor George Everett of Transcontinental Ministries in Kent, Washington, will offer a personal reflection on the tragedy and how his Liberian community of faith is addressing it; Michael Nash, Executive Director of The Hope Project (based in Leavenworth, WA), will describe his organization’s work to build schools and protect communities from Ebola. And the audience will have an opportunity to participate in the music-making as Eunice Yonly lead a group performance of the anthem Africa Will be Saved.

The program will take place at 7:30 p.m. on November 24, 2014, at Town Hall Seattle. additional information, please call Early Music Guild at (206) 325-7066 or email emg@earlymusicguild.org.

Filed under: early music, social commitments

A Glimpse of the Full Monte(verdi)

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Claudio Monteverdi was nearly an exact contemporary of Shakespeare, but his lifespan stretched almost thirty years beyond the playwright’s death—so long that he led the sea change from the High Renaissance into a dramatically new musical era. Even in his final decades, Monteverdi remained a revolutionary composer who forever changed expectations about what music is capable of expressing.

This Friday at Nordstom Recital Hall, Pacific MusicWorks opens their new season with an opportunity to experience just what makes Monteverdi such a musical icon—not the long-dead pioneer of the music history textbooks, but an unbelievably imaginative poet of sounds who can still stir your soul to its core.

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Filed under: early music, Monteverdi, Pacific MusicWorks

Seattle Mayor’s Arts Awards 2014: Stephen Stubbs

Stephen Stubbs

Stephen Stubbs

My profile of Stephen Stubbs, one of this year’s recipients of the Mayor’s Arts Awards in Seattle, is now live on City Arts:

When he was coming of age in his native Seattle in the 1960s, Stephen Stubbs experienced a sea change in popular music that glorified the image of the troubadour. Countless musicians picked up a guitar, accompanying themselves to songs intended to be authentic, from the heart.

Stubbs was among them—only the instrument he was plucking was a lute. At Nathan Hale High School, Stubbs had belonged to a madrigal choir, which stoked his curiosity about Renaissance music.

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Filed under: culture news, early music, profile

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