MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

New Music from Bryce Dessner

Getting commissioned to write a percussion piece to be paired with your mentor David Lang’s the so-called laws of nature is a pretty impressive vote of confidence. And the result was Bryce Dessner‘s enchanting Music for Woods and Strings  (2013), commissioned by Carnegie Hall.

This piece has just been released on Sō Percussion’s new album. Dessner, also known as the guitarist for The National, describes the “chord stick” process he devised for the work: “Using sticks or violin bows, the players can sound either of two harmonies, or play individual strings, melodies, and drone tremolos.” This “hybrid dulcimer” sound, which he likens to “chord hockets,” shows the inspiration of American folk song tradition in its warmly layered rhythmic counterpoint.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic will premiere Dessner’s latest piece, Quilting, as part of the Next on Grand Festival of contemporary American composers, which has just gotten under way (with John Adams to lead a program on Tuesday.

A couple years ago, Dessner compiled a list of his own favorite contemporary works for BoingBoing, including both Adams’s Shaker Loops and John Luther Adams’s For Lou Harrison. I approve the man’s taste.

Filed under: American music, Bryce Dessner, David Lang, John Adams, John Luther Adams, Los Angeles Philharmonic, new music

Music for Easter Weekend

Kings_college_cambridge_ceiling

For this Easter weekend, you can stream the Good Friday performance of Scottish composer James MacMillan’s St. Luke Passion from King’s College, Cambridge (the compose conducts).

In a recent interview with Boosey & Hawkes, MacMillan speaks about the work:

I’ve always enjoyed a fruitful fascination with the Passion story, and there are deep reasons through history why artists and composers have been attracted to it, right up to our own times. The story is compelling and the images are powerful, prompting a variety of responses. Each time I return to it I try and find different perspectives. Some works are purely instrumental reflections following Haydn’s example, such as my Fourteen Little Pictures for piano trio, or the Triduum of orchestral works written in the mid-90s. Others follow more familiar formats with choir, such as the Seven Last Words from the Cross or the St John Passion.

As to why he chose the narrative found in Luke’s gospel:

My setting of the St John Passion took a particular approach, examining the human drama, and was almost operatic in impact. So returning after a five-year interval I wanted to take an alternative direction. St John stands apart from the other three so-called synoptic Gospel writers who share structure and common material and, of those three, St Luke has a special appeal for me. As well as relating Christ’s life and teachings, Luke is concerned with the idea of the Kingdom of God which points forward to the same author’s Acts of the Apostles. This started me thinking about a more spiritual, inward, and pared-back approach to create a focused work about an hour long.

Meanwhile, here is the incomparable Jordi Savall conducting Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (featuring Le Concert des Nations at the Palau de la Música Catalana, Barcelona).

Not to be missed, even if not specifically Holy Week-related: Bach’s Mass in B minor from Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s recent tour with the English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir (which included a stop at the Lucerne Easter Festival; this performance is from the Paris Philharmonie.

For good measure, here’s Johann’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s cantata on the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus, Wq240:

The culmination of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”), a composition tailor-made for Leonard Bernstein:

Finally, from John Adams’s The Gospel According to the Other Mary (Act 2, scene 5 (“Burial/Spring – Mary Awakens on the Third Morning”):

Filed under: Bach, Easter, John Adams, new music, spirituality

Another Birthday Salute: John Adams at 68

john-adams

A toast to John Adams, who needs no introduction. Today, as Mr. Adams turns 68, he continues to astonish with his inexhaustible creative drive.

Just last month the St. Lawrence String Quartet unveiled his Second Quartet at Stanford University. At the Grammies the St. Louis Symphony and David Robertson’s recording of City Noir and the Saxophone Concerto nabbed the award for Best Orchestral Performance. And next month brings the world premiere of Scheherazade.2, a “dramatic symphony for violin and orchestra.”

This very weekend, Opera Omaha is presenting a new production of his 2006 opera A Flowering Tree directed by James Darrah and conducted by Christopher Rountree.

Composed by John Adams, “A Flowering Tree” made its debut in 2006 and is still relatively unfamiliar to opera lovers. It has its roots in a 2,000-year-old Tamil Indian folk tale and is decidedly dark…
Although this all might seem narratively challenging to communicate in just a little over two hours, James Darrah delivered a mesmerizing production.

–Kim Carpenter, Omaha.com

The works Mr. Adams has given us since my anthology was published nearly a decade ago show this American master working at a sustained peak of creative power. Here’s to many more years to come!

Filed under: American music, anniversary, John Adams

St. Lawrence String Quartet at 25

Tonight the SLSQ gives the world premiere of John Adams’s Second String Quartet at Stanford.

Here’s a clip of the SLSQ playing the second movement from Adams’s First Quartet:

MEMETERIA by Thomas May

SLSQ

One of my favorite string quartets is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a typical overdrive of crative activity. Here’s my recent portrait of the St. Lawrence for Stanford Arts:

“It’s a great time both to be playing in a string quartet and to be writing string quartets,” remarks Geoff Nuttall, first violinist and cofounder of the St. Lawrence String Quartet (SLSQ). He’s thrilled about how both pursuits—those of the recreative performing artist and of the composer who creates from scratch—will be fused in three distinctive ways during the course of the SLSQ’s upcoming season at Bing Concert Hall.

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Filed under: chamber music, commissions, John Adams, string quartet

Guest Review: World Premiere Staging of The Gospel According to the Other Mary

Mary

I’m deeply grateful to Tom Luce to be able to publish his insightful review of the world premiere of the opera staging of John Adams’s The Gospel According to the Other Mary. Directed by Peter Sellars, the production just opened this past weekend at English National Opera.

Review by Tom Luce:
The Gospel According to the Other Mary
World Premiere Staging of John Adams’s and Peter Sellars’s Masterpiece

On Friday 21 November, English National Opera unveiled its new production of the Adams/Sellars “alternative” version of the crucifixion of Christ. The two-act work, described by its creators as a “Passion Oratorio”, was premiered in a concert performance at Disney Concert Hall by the Los Angeles Philharmonic in May 2012 under Gustavo Dudamel’s baton. The following year came the first semi-staged concert performance, also featuring the LA Philharmonic under Dudamel. That version later toured to New York and Europe (including a stop at London’s Barbican). Dudamel’s interpretation was released on a recording by Deutsche Grammophon earlier this year, so the music has been accessible to the public at large since then.

Directed by Sellars himself, ENO’s production was the work’s first full staging. Along with its two creators, it deservedly received a prolonged ovation from a rapt and obviously much moved audience.

The performance was uniformly excellent, with cast and chorus admirably meeting the challenging mixture of singing, movement, and acting Sellars demands of and inspires from his performers. All the principal singers — Patricia Bardon as Mary Magdalene, Meredith Arwady as Martha, and Russell Thomas the Lazarus — were committed and effective, as were dancers Banks, Stephanie Berge, Ingrid Mackinnon, and Parinay Mehra, who variously shadowed them and contributed other parts to the narrative.

The musical side at ENO was in the hands of Joana Carneiro. Of Portuguese origin, she is better known in the U.S. than in Britain, having for some years been music director of the Berkeley Symphony. Her technical mastery and impassioned commitment to this highly complex score were remarkable. The ENO orchestra played magnificently.

Those familiar with Sellars’ “ritualisations” of the two Bach Passions with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra would find nothing to surprise them in his staging. One hallmark is his use of dance, mime, and body movement to externalise and heighten emotion. “Put your body where your belief is”, he says in the ENO’s introductory video. Another is the subtle intermingling of narrative and representation. The main thrust is narrative, but to heighten impact at critical points in the drama, the narrators act out the events — just as the Evangelist in the Berlin Bach Passions both expounds the story and at times impersonates characters — e.g., Peter in denial, or Christ at his death. This subtle shifting of roles keeps crude dramatisation at bay but facilitates a wide variety of dramatic tone and effects. I have not seen anything comparable in other directors’ work; it is one of Sellars’s most skilful and original attributes.

The stage design by George Tsypin, subtly lit by James Ingalls, is spare but eloquent: sand and barbed wire represent a Middle East riven by conflict and oppression, simultaneously biblical and contemporary.

The work juxtaposes and fuses ancient and modern in presenting Mary and Martha as running a hostel for homeless, impoverished, and marginalised people, with Jesus as a mixture of family friend, honoured guest, and spiritual patron. He is also a miracle worker in the raising of their dead brother Lazarus, sacrificial victim of the elites whose power he challenges, and a source of hope for the future of the world.

The literary sources are the Bible — especially St John’s Gospel — supplemented and re-interpreted through modern American cultural figures: poet and author Louise Erdrich, who is partially of native American descent; Dorothy Day of the radical Catholic Worker movement; Rosario Castellanos, the Mexican writer, activist, and diplomat; and the black poet June Jordan (who wrote the libretto for an earlier Adams/Sellars collaboration, I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky).

In the ENO video Sellars also says: “The moment you feminize Christianity and you go into feminine spirituality, you go into a very different space and it operates very differently”. It is of the essence in Sellars’s dramatic work that he sees the cultural myths we have inherited through women’s eyes. This is as much an emotional and dramatic as a political standpoint.

The main originality of his St Matthew Passion ritualisation lies in its inspiration and liberation in the listener and viewer of wider and wilder feelings going well beyond the conventional liturgical responses or the “authentic” musical response to a deeper human involvement in the passion of Christ and its human and political significance. In doing so he responds to the injunction in the very first line of the work: “Come, ye daughters, help me lament”. (The discreet presence in the audience of Mark Padmore, the Evangelist in the Berlin Passions, at Friday’s Gospel premiere served to underline the connection between the Bach and Adams ventures.)

John Adams’s music reaches new levels of emotional profundity, dramatic responsiveness, and absence of mannerism, going even beyond his achievement in The Death of Klinghoffer. There is an extraordinary richness and flexibility of harmony and melody and a fascinating orchestral sound, to which a cimbalom gives an exotic edge without ever sounding kitschy. Amongst many fine moments, the most deeply moving for me is the aria with which the first act ends, sung by Lazarus after the Passover evening: “Tell me, how is this night different? … This is the night we eat the bread of affliction so that evil may turn into good”. Within an orchestral palette evoking a kind of Nachtmusik, Adams here creates a deep and movingly optimistic reflection on the events of the opera. Over many years I have heard nothing finer from a contemporary composer.

With this production English National Opera cements its standing as the world’s most committed John Adams house, having previously mounted Nixon in China and Doctor Atomic and having originated the Klinghoffer production admired recently at the Met.

The work itself will surely take a high place in the canon of works from the last century or so in which great composers address themes of human injustice and inequality. It will be alongside Tippett’s A Child Of Our Time (1944) and his The Knot Garden (1970), an opera featuring a female revolutionary fighter and a mixed-race/same-gender couple, which sadly seems to have slipped out of the repertoire in recent years); Hans Werner Henze’s dramatic cantata The Raft of Medusa; and above all Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. Its full unveiling at last week’s premiere was an event of real significance.

Tom Luce lives in London and Seattle. He has followed musical events for over 50 years. He wrote music reviews for Seattle’s Crosscut.com.

Filed under: American opera, Bach, culture news, directors, John Adams, new music, opera

John Adams at ENO: The Other Mary

Mary

The full opera staging of John Adams’s The Gospel According to the Other Mary premieres tonight at English National Opera in London, in a production directed by the brilliant Peter Sellars (recently named Musical America’s Artist of the Year).

Here’s a clip with Peter Sellars and John Adams discussing the work:

http://www.eno.org/gospel

Filed under: American music, American opera, John Adams, opera

The Death of Klinghoffer

NFBB_klinghoffer_feature4

Tonight John Adams’s opera The Death of Klinghoffer opens at the Met. Here’s the full program as a pdf, including my program note.

And here’s another introductory essay I wrote for the Met.

Filed under: American opera, John Adams, Metropolitan Opera

St. Lawrence String Quartet at 25

SLSQ

One of my favorite string quartets is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a typical overdrive of crative activity. Here’s my recent portrait of the St. Lawrence for Stanford Arts:

“It’s a great time both to be playing in a string quartet and to be writing string quartets,” remarks Geoff Nuttall, first violinist and cofounder of the St. Lawrence String Quartet (SLSQ). He’s thrilled about how both pursuits—those of the recreative performing artist and of the composer who creates from scratch—will be fused in three distinctive ways during the course of the SLSQ’s upcoming season at Bing Concert Hall.

continue reading

Filed under: chamber music, commissions, John Adams, string quartet

The Death of Klinghoffer at the Met

ENO-Klinghoffer

Here’s my recent essay for the Metropolitan Opera’s Season Book on the most controversial opera of the season:

Behind the Headlines
In the world of opera, it’s common for a new work to take some time to establish its place in the repertoire. Just think of Così fan tutte, written in 1790 but largely ignored until the mid-20th century, or Les Troyens, which didn’t reach the United States until more than a century after its composition. A generation has passed since the 1991 premiere of John Adams’s second opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, but for the most part the work is still known solely by its controversial reputation. Apart from that original production, only two other full stagings have been seen in the U.S., and both of these took place within the past three years (at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in 2011 and Long Beach Opera in spring 2014).

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Filed under: American opera, John Adams, Metropolitan Opera

Mahler Composing

In this excerpt from John Adams’s review of Jens Malte Fischer’s Mahler biography, it’s intriguing to see what one great composer zeroes in on when describing the creative process of another:

When [Mahler] composed he did it in a white heat, sketching the outlines of his large symphonic forms in a hasty shorthand scrawl, going as fast as his quicksilver mental powers allowed him, usually during all-too-brief summer “vacations” in picturesque alpine settings. A symphony might be composed in the course of one or two of these summer retreats.

But the painstakingly detailed writing out and preparation of performance materials would occupy him for another two or more years before the work would be publicly performed. He was in every sense what we’d now call a control freak. He insisted on conducting all first performances, often treating early rehearsals as a further composing phase, trying out this and that effect on often hapless and confused orchestra members.

His printed scores are full of admonitions to the performers. Musical ideas are marked with emphatic underlinings, accents, and notational and verbal reminders that seem to shout at or plead with the performer to do exactly as the composer wanted. Mahler, long used to dealing with careless or indifferent musicians, appears to have had little faith in the ability of future generations to get his music right.

What would Mahler have thought about his interpreters today? Which ones would have pleased him most — or displeased him least?

Filed under: creativity, John Adams, Mahler

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