MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Senses of an Ending: The Emerson String Quartet Takes Its Final Bow in Seattle

The Emerson String Quartet; photo (c) Jürgen Frank

There’s actually still nearly a year to go before the Emerson String Quartet (ESQ) plays its final final concert, which is currently planned for the end of October 2023 at Alice Tully Hall in Manhattan. On top of that, they are also preparing a feature-length documentary of their farewell tour, written and directed by Tristan Cook and produced by Birgit Gernbōck. So this splendid, storied American ensemble still has some way to go before reaching the end of the line….

Still, the Emersons’ concert on 1 December at the Meany Center for the Performing Arts had a distinctly valedictory accent. One of the stops on their official farewell tour, their appearance at the University of Washington venue had already been postponed from the spring and marked the 27th (or possibly even 28th) visit since the ESQ’s debut there in 1988. The ensemble attracts a loyal following, and an impressive percentage of the audience indicated that they had attended that inaugural performance.

As for the musicians, violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer have remained part of the ESQ since they founded it in 1976, and violist Lawrence Dutton joined in 1977. The only other change in personnel has been the arrival of Paul Watkins in 2013 following the departure of longtime cellist David Finckel. (Reunions with Finckel and the other two former members, cellist Eric Wilson and violist Guillermo Figueroa, are also on the agenda during the farewell tour.)

The ESQ have been offering their renowned Shostakovich interpretations as part of the farewell tour — their final London concert a few weeks ago featured the bleak implications of the Russian composer’s last three quartets — but they chose a blend of American and classic European fare for their Meany Center program. Each selection suggested an individual variant on the idea of leave-taking. George Walker expressed his grief over the passing of his grandmother in his 1946 Lyric for Strings, which originated as the slow movement of his String Quartet No. 1. Walker’s structural idea of having the single voices enter one after the other served as a beautiful metaphor for the individuality of the quartet members joining together in song and converging in a collective eloquence.

The ESQ here set the tone for the entire program, which at times seemed uncharacteristically understated, even subdued — as if to keep the audience pricking up its ears to fill in the spaces for what seemed left unsaid. This ploy took particularly delightful form in the fifth of Haydn’s Op. 33 set, the Quartet in G major that since the 19th century has been known by the English nickname “How Do You Do.” The “farewell” here was especially sly and sophisticated. Haydn cleverly plays with the idea of musical endings, which is to say, cadences, by starting off the whole work with a cadential gesture that befits a closing phrase — but that he catchily turns into the connective idea, leading us ever onward. The ESQ didn’t overemphasize Haydn’s little jokes of time and timing — the pizzicato ending that throws an enigmatic question mark on the otherwise plaintive slow movement, or the stop-and-start high-jinx of the scherzo, for example. The focus seemed to be on letting the music have its say, with minimal “interference.”

This translated into a decidedly austere, anti-sentimental take on Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings — like Walker’s, music by a young man, originally positioned as part of a string quartet, which seems wise far beyond its composer’s years. The Adagio (which is said to have been inspired by the third of Virgil’s Georgics) has of course been turned into a default song of farewell, an idealized elegy enlisted to provide a kind of shared catharsis in times of devastating tragedy. Despite some wavering intonation (here and elsewhere in the program), the Emersons homed in, without exaggeration, on the simplicity of the line, Setzer’s first violin soaring with courageous honesty and Dutton’s viola adding a slight, pleading edge. I was especially struck by how an early music sensibility emerged here in place of the usual, throbbing Romanticism.

Schubert was just a couple years older than the Barber of the Adagio for Strings when he wrote his great Quartet in G major in 1826. But rather than launch his career, the Austrian’s final string quartet (unpublished while he was still alive) seems to combine an expansive sense of symphonic writing with his most ambitious ideas of the quartet genre. (It was just around this time that Beethoven was working on his final quartet, in the very same city.)

There was less dramatic digging-in to the muscular aspect of Schubert’s sound world than I expected, and more nuance and room left for inference. Drucker took the lead here (as he had in the Haydn), while Watkins offered some especially flavorful phrasing. The ensemble’s rhythmic flexibility served the Schubert well, and the harmonic revelations of this remarkable quartet were presented as if being discovered for the first time, to mesmerizing effect. The finality of the final cadence to the dance of the fourth movement — which felt as it might otherwise have kept driving ahead, a frenzied vision of eternal return — came as a shock.

As a gentle encore, the Emersons turned to Dvořák’s quartet arrangement of one of the numbers from the collection known as Cypresses (“I Wander Often Past Yonder House”) — the string quartet distilled into pure song.

Review (c) 2022 Thomas May — All rights reserved.

Filed under: review, Schubert, Haydn, Emerson String Quartet, George Walker

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

Patricia Kopatchinskaja in Lucerne

More musical revelations at Lucerne Festival: thrilling Bartók Violin Concerto No. 2 featuring Patricia Kopatchinskaja in an unimprovable program of Bartók and Haydn by Mahler Chamber Orchestra led by the impeccable François-Xaver Roth.
The Haydn (Symphonies 22 and 96) was sleek and proto-Modernist in Roth’s interpretation, overflowing in invention and brought to life by the exquisitely fine-tuned playing of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

The Bartók Second — nicely complemented by the Dance Suite — spurred all Kopatchinskaja has to give: from her feistiest, most earth-rooted playing to star-drunk lyricism.

And then there was a post-concert treat in the “Interval,” from Kopatchinskaja plus her parents (dad Viktor on cimbalom and mom Emilia playing violin), with Venezuelan double-bassist Johane Gonzales: incisive Kúrtag and wonderful folk music arrangements.

Last night brought out still another side of Kopatchinskaja’s all-embracing artistry, in a Late Night concert with the Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra led by Matthias Pintscher.

It’s clear that the Moldovan soloist regards Ligeti’s Violin Concerto as one of the ultimate masterpieces of the repertoire. Hearing her play it, you feel this is the only music in the world that matters, a world within world of where the concept of  virtuosity itself is reimagined from the ground up.

Kopatchinskaja is the perfect violinist to advocate Ligeti’s wildly imaginative ideas, but also the formal ingenuity and, yes, melodic grace of this score. She also brought out the best from the incredibly gifted young Academy musicians. I can’t wait to hear the full ensemble shine in Monday’s all-Cerha concert.

The program also included fascinating performances of composer-in-residence Michel van der Aa’s Hysteresis for clarinet, ensemble, and tape, with Martin Adámek  as the soloist and Ligeti’s Piano Concerto, with pianist Dimitri Vassilakis.

Filed under: Bartók, Haydn, Ligeti, Lucerne Festival, violinists

Pablo Rus Broseta’s Big Night with Seattle Symphony

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Last night’s concert with Pablo Rus Broseta and soloist Yo-Yo Ma was a delightful confirmation that experiencing an orchestra in live performance can provide a high like no other. It doesn’t need to be a Mahlerian epic or a program of revolutionary breakthroughs — those offer up unique experiences of their own — but it does require the unwavering commitment of the musicians.

This was a modest-sized Seattle Symphony, as some of the players are now on duty in the pit for Seattle Opera’s about-to-open production of Hansel and Gretel. And the program of Bartók, early Mozart, and Haydn offered a straightforward menu. But nothing sounded rote, and the evident pleasure taken by the musicians proved to be infectious for the sold-out hall.

Drawing the large crowd, of course, was Yo-Yo Ma’s presence on the evening’s second half, but SSO Associate Conductor Pablo Rus Broseta led achieved some captivating results of his own from the podium. In the rapid succession of Romanian Folk Dances, — featuring excellent clarinet and flute solos — he elicited a touch of melancholy to spice Bartók’s vivid rhythms.

A pair of youthful Mozart symphonies followed: K. 201 in A major and a true rarity, K. 196 in D major (both from the end of the composer’s teenage years, in the mid-1770s). Rus Broseta approached these scores as if Mozart had just turned them in to fulfill an SSO commission. And it was possible to hear evidence of the young conductor’s experience with new music in the mindful focus on texture and balance.

If the opening movement of the A major symphony could have benefited from more-incisive attacks, Rus Broseta showed his sensitivity to Mozart’s spellbinding way of phrasing melody as well as to his expert comic timing. In his hands the spirited finale of K. 201  was made to sound exhilaratingly fresh, almost proto-Beethovenian. The strings played with superb ensemble.

And then Yo-Yo Ma emerged onstage with his glistening cello to give his first Seattle performance (as far as I’m aware) since last year’s memorable accounts of three of Bach’s Cello Suites and other fare at the University of Washington.

Haydn’s long-hidden-away C major Cello Concerto dates from when Mozart was still a young child (though already embarking on his first tour of Europe). Ma’s performance was a study in how to make a phrase and its subsequent repetitions rivet the attention.

While it’s hard not to thrill at the cellist’s technical mastery of intonation, articulation, rapid-fire scales — you name it —  Ma’s musical imagination is what really calls the shots, making whatever he plays so compelling. The finale in particular, with its sudden shifts in mood, became downright suspenseful.  From the podium Rus Broseta’s confident partnership ensured a lucid orchestral balance.

Ma offered a pair of encores: an elastic Prelude from the G major Cello Suite and Mark O’Connor’s poignant Appalachia Waltz (both in response to vociferous requests shouted from the audience). But with every bow he made his admiration of the orchestra and conductor clear, insisting that they share in the acclaim.

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

Filed under: Haydn, Mozart, review, Seattle Symphony

Happy Haydn Day

Here’s a symphony I’m delighting in at the moment:

Filed under: Haydn

Happy Earth Day

Since I’ve been on a Haydn kick, my thoughts turn musically to the two great oratorios from the end of his career: The Creation and The Seasons.

Filed under: Haydn

Happy April Fools’ Day

And, for good measure:

Filed under: fun, Haydn

Haydn Turns 283

In honor of Haydn, one of the greatest of the greats, who “may” have been born on this date in 1732, give or take a few days. For its 2015 Summer Festival, which focuses on the theme of “humor” (in the widest possible sense), the Lucerne Festival will open with a program pairing Haydn and Mahler (Bernard Haitink will conduct the Lucerne Festival Orchestra): specifically, Mahler 4 and Haydn’s Symphony in C, (“Il distratto,” aka “Der Zerstreute”), which originated as incidental music for the stage. I’m going to be listening closely to a lot of Haydn in the near future as I prepare program essays for the Festival.

Filed under: anniversary, Haydn, Lucerne Festival

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