MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Where Ancient Peaks Embrace Old Friends, Music Adds Its Wonder

Donald Runnicles conducted the Grand Teton Music Festival Orchestra in Britten’s ‘Four Sea Interludes,’ Elgar’s ‘Enigma Variations,’ and Carl Vine’s ‘Five Hallucinations’ for trombone and orchestra. (Photo by J. Gustavo Elias)

My report on the 60th-anniversary Grand Teton Music Festival currently under way:

JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. — Even when obscured by smoke drifting in from distant wildfires, the Grand Tetons’ towering peaks command awe. The tallest cluster, which dominates the promotional posters for this summer’s Grand Teton Music Festival, has been dubbed “the Cathedral Group.”

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Filed under: festivals, Grand Teton Music Festival, review

A “Guest” Visit from Donald Runnicles at Grand Teton Music Festival

Image (c) J. Gustavo Elias: Sir Donald Runnicles with the Grand Teton Music Festival Orchestra

Gemma New was originally scheduled to make her Grand Teton Music Festival debut conducting this week’s full orchestral program. But when she had to cancel at the last minute, GTMF’s music director Sir Donald Runnicles stepped in to save the day, adding two more concerts to those for which he is already responsible during this 60th-anniversary season.

My full report is forthcoming elsewhere, but in the meantime, even though the remaining performance tonight at 8pm is sold out, you might have luck by getting on the Festival’s waitlist (see here for ticket info and contacts).

The warm bond Runnicles enjoys with the Festival musicians was gloriously evident, moving to behold and experience. He led the orchestra in an account of the Four Sea Interludes from Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes — with such a fierce intensity that the entire opera seemed distilled into this purely instrumental music of transition and commentary.

Also on the menu was another Runnicles specialty, Edward Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36 (aka the Enigma Variations). No matter how often he has conducted this repertoire staple, how often the musicians have delivered it as part of their respective subscription seasons back with their home orchestras, there was no sign of jaded habit, no room for “been-there-done-that” mediocrity.

The loving attention to every detail in Elgar’s score clearly pulled the Walk Festival Hall audience breathlessly in, reaffirming confidence — sorely needed confidence after the long deprivation — in music’s power to transform. (Incidentally, you can get another potent dose of Runnicles’s affinity for Elgar in an account of the Symphony No. 1 with the Berliner Philharmoniker from 2011, available in the Digital Concert Hall.)

The Britten and Elgar framed the evening’s contemporary work, Five Hallucinations for Trombone and Orchestra by the Australian composer Carl Vine. The work was commissioned for GTMF Orchestra’s principal trombonist (and fellow Australian) Michael Mulcahy and premiered in Chicago in 2016. It makes a solid addition to a rare repertoire, taking for its inspiration case studies described by Oliver Sacks.

Vine describes his starting point: “Hallucinations are fascinating phenomena – instantaneous random inventions of our brains overlaid on the sensation of common reality and indistinguishable from it…. Sufferers of brain damage or a range of neurological disorders regularly hallucinate. Others without mental illness but under great stress or fatigue can also hallucinate, as of course can those who use psychotropic drugs. It is this bridge between the real world and some of the surprising ways in which our brains interpret the mundane reality around us that I find endlessly fascinating.”

Filed under: Donald Runnicles, Grand Teton Music Festival, Uncategorized

Hitting the Sweet Spot: Third Coast Percussion at Grand Teton Music Festival

Photo (c) Jorge Gustavo de Araujo Elias Third Coast Percussion: David Skidmore, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and Sean Connors

Week 4 of the Grand Teton Music Festival continued with an enthusiastically received performance by Chicago-based Third Coast Percussion making their Festival debut. Presented without intermission, the concert unfolded with unflagging energy as each member of the quartet — David Skidmore, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and Sean Connors — took turns introducing the selections.

The entire program consisted of living composers — indeed, composers with whom Third Coast has collaborated. Their style of music making overall synthesizes a kind of surgical precision with frenetic spontaneity — and that intriguing blend is mirrored by their exciting visual performance, a virtuoso choreography that is functional and at the same time abstractly alluring.

These are artists who make music by hitting things, their bodies acting, reacting, incorporating the sounds they produce. At times the performance resembled a wild physics experiment trying to calibrate new sources of energy. Expressivity as energy, in different shapes and contours, certainly characterized their renditions of Clarice Assad’s The Hero, one of the 12 “archetypes” from their most recent album of the same name. Likewise for the extensive, four-movement Percussion Quartet by Danny Elfman, which contained some of the unexpected-but-just-right harmonic progressions familiar from his signature film scores.

Metamorphoses, the name of one of Third Coast’s ongoing projects, is also the title of some of Philip Glass’s best-known pieces (from his 1989 Solo Piano album). The ensemble’s arrangement of Metamorphosis 1 for percussion quartet, created in consultation with Glass, reminded me of the composer’s Baroque affinities with its chaconne-like eternal recurrence. Especially intriguing in this transcription — despite an obbligato solo for melodica that seemed to dissipate some of the piece’s haunting solemnity — were the carefully prepared shifts in dynamic shading.

A good part of the aesthetic interest in this concert involved connecting the vast armamentarium of instruments — tuned and untuned, made of metal or wood, acoustic or digitally manipulated — with the specific sounds produced. Devonté Hynes’s Fields, which originated as a commission from Hubbard Street Dance and choreographer Emma Portner, made a striking, joyful impression; the album garnered several nominations in the 2021 Grammy Awards. Also known as Blood Orange, Hynes (a British multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter, and record producer as well as composer) made his “classical” debut with this Third Coast Percussion collaboration.

The program ended with a long, suite-like offering of pieces by Jlin (Jerrilynn Patton), an electronic musician and producer from Gary, Indiana. These came from a seven-movement project titled Perspective — debuting here ahead of the postponed Carnegie Hall premiere — and showcased a feverishly inventive imagination. Jlin’s music juxtaposes a universe of samples and sound colors worthy of Stravinsky, exploding with complex rhythmic counterpoint and exuberant variety. In her own words, Jlin’s compositions are “clean, precise, and unpredictable.”

–(c)2021 Thomas May – All rights reserved

Filed under: Grand Teton Music Festival, Third Coast Percussion

A Homecoming for the Grand Teton Music Festival

Photo (c) Jorge Gustavo de Araujo Elias. Pictured: Elisabeth Remy Johnson, harp; Mercedes Smith, flute; Zach Boeding, oboe; Marci Gurnow, clarinet; Madeline Sharp, viola

It’s only my first time in these parts, but already I can understand the deep, magnetic sense of connection that draws people back here again and again. Upon passing through the elk antler arch at Jackson Hole Airport (the only U.S. airport located within a national park, incidentally), I soon began to feel the charm of a place that hasn’t been flattened out by plastic predictability. Even with lingering smoke from the latest Western fires imposing a thin pall, the capacity for this landscape to inspire awe was undimmed.

With its marriage of valley and dramatic, looming scarps, it’s obvious how the Jackson Hole area beckoned as an ideal spot to make music. The Grand Teton Music Festival opened on 2 July, following the all-too-familiar hiatus, and is now into Week 4 of a seven-week season — which also marks the Festival’s 60th anniversary.

Last night I began with the first of the week’s offerings, a chamber music evening at Walk Hall, GTMF’s home performance space. It was decently attended, taking into account the reduced-capacity seating plan and a sudden shift in mask policy. (Just last night, in the wake of the new CDC announcement, the official recommendation switched to suggesting that vaccinated and unvaccinated people both wear masks indoors.)

Part of a series curated — and engagingly introduced by — Adelle Eslinger Runnicles, the concert presented a flavorful sampling of periods and instrumental formations, starting with a transcription by Phil Brink for low brass of J.S. Bach’s D minor Chaconne from the Partita No. 2 for solo violin (Michael Mulcahy, trombone; Jared Rodin, trombone; Craig Mulcahy, trombone; Jay Evans, trombone; JáTtik Clark, tuba). The Baroque fondness for transcription aside, Bach’s masterpiece sounded of a different era — not Romantic exactly, but funereal, ritualistic, the opening to new vistas in the later variations remarkably fluid and gentle.

Unmistakably Romantic phrasing beguiled in Saint-Saëns’s Fantaisie for Violin and Harp, Op. 124, featuring
Eunice Keem on violin and Elisabeth Remy Johnson on harp. Exquisitely balanced and fully engaged in playing off each other, the duo cast a spell throughout this late-period piece’s range of moods.

Johnson also performed in Kimberly Osberg’s Just Another Climb,* joined by colleagues Mercedes Smith on flute, Zach Boeding on oboe, Marci Gurnow on clarinet, and Madeline Sharp on viola. If the Saint-Saëns suggested a leisured dreamscape, Just Another Climb packed the punch of an involving musical short story, its impact belying the brevity of the piece’s duration (about four minutes) — and making this a real highlight of the evening.

The young, Portland, Oregon-based Osberg, who was present in the audience, was inspired by the feat of the first “manless” ascent of the Grand Teton made in 1939 by Margaret Bedell, Anne Sharples, Margaret Smith Craighead, and Mary Whittemore — upon which achievement Craighead remarked: ” Craighead wrote: “This may have been of importance to the record of events, but to us it was just another climb.”

This first performance before a live audience emphasized Osberg’s colorfully individualistic writing for each component of the ensemble. The result was an assuredly paced musical storytelling that found freshness in a diatonic idiom, using evocative gestures to hint at but not dictate a plausible narrative. I’m eager to learn more about this composer and hear what she can accomplish with a longer form.

The program’s brass theme sets the stage for the main new work on this week’s orchestral concert,  Five Hallucinations for Trombone and Orchestra by Carl Vines. It returned in John Stevens’s Triangles for horn (Josh Phillips), trombone (Jay Evans), and tuba (JáTtik Clark), a piece from 1978 that (not always convincingly) juggles with jazz vernacular.

Concluding the program was a rendition of Beethoven’s C minor String Trio from the Op. 9 set by violinist Louise Morrison, violist Chiara Kingsley Dieguez, and cellist Thomas Carpenter that reveled in the tension between the first movement’s ominous energies and the halcyon release of the Adagio. The long time away from live performance could be sensed in some issues of balance and phrasing, but the richness of this score — Beethoven declared these trios among his finest compositions of the period — came through, most notably in the spidery enigma of the concluding measures.

–(c) 2021 Thomas May All rights reserved

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Filed under: Grand Teton Music Festival, music news

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