MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Ruth Reinhardt and Asher Fisch Lead the Seattle Symphony

Ruth Reinhardt conducting Seattle Symphony in Bernstein’s Candide Overture during her tenure as an SOO Conducting Fellow (2017)

Last week’s subscription concerts launched Seattle Symphony’s Sibelius Symphony cycle, which had been anticipated as a highlight of Thomas Dausgaard’s return since the pandemic. In the wake of the now-ex-music director’s sudden departure announced last month, a handful of replacement conductors has been enlisted to take over Dausgaard’s commitments for the rest of the season.

First up this month was Ruth Reinhardt, a remarkable conductor of the young generation. She had the formidable task of taking on the first program of the Sibelius cycle, in which the Finnish composer’s symphonies are being combined with newly commissioned compositions. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Ellen Reid responded to Sibelius’s First Symphony with a work titled TODAY AND TODAY AND TODAY AND TODAY AND TODAY AND TODAY AND TODAY AND TODAY AND TODAY AND TODAY. Lasting about a quarter-hour, it showed Reid as a composer who not only creates intriguing soundscapes but is able to illuminate them with psychologically resonant significance.

The Macbethian title (even more despairing than “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”) refers to the patterns of repetition and monotony endured during the pandemic. But her music stages various escapes — lyrical fantasias, utopian dreaming, even a down-to-earth party — from the stasis and repetition that threaten to drain each day of the joie de vivre. Reid uses the resources of the orchestra with great imagination and variety.

Moreover, as became clear in Reinhardt’s sweeping, panoramic vision of the Sibelius, Reid seems to have found a pandemic-era equivalent for the vision conveyed by Sibelius’s extraordinary debut symphony, which builds to a seeming lyrical breakthrough or even oasis, only to find it illusive. That connection certainly seemed apparent in Reinhardt’s overview of both works. Between them, we were treated to an exquisitely phrased, completely beguiling interpretation by Garrick Ohlsson of the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, followed by thunderous, bell-like chords in his encore, the C-sharp minor Prelude.

What a gift to have Asher Fisch back in town after a long absence. The program he conducted on Thursday evening paired George Walker and Gustav Mahler, and the pairing works beautifully. Fisch infused Lyric for Strings with genuine warmth and underscored the fascinating entanglement of folk and modernist elements in the much later Folksongs for Orchestra, which dates from 1990. It continues to defy belief that this great American composer remains such a rarity in our concert life. How long is it going to take to change that?

Fisch was in his element with Das Lied von der Erde, and the Mahler-starved audience — the pandemic has been especially unkind to the composers who require enlarged orchestras — drank it up with rapt attention. I especially admired his flexible rhythms and feeling for Mahler’s Jugendstil ornamentation, but he also kept the emotional destination of the cycle clearly in view, illuminating the way to, and the journey within, the vast final song. Problems of balance left tenor Russell Thomas largely drowned out for stretches of the opening “Trinklied,” but his passionate delivery conveyed the flashes of bitter epiphany Mahler expresses.

Mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor brought a rich, dark timbre to her three songs, carefully building the sense of inevitable leave-taking in “Der Abschied.” The expanded woodwind section was a special highlight, with eloquent contributions from flutist Demarre McGill and oboist Mary Lynch in particular. Fisch’s unpretentious, unfussy clarity allowed each detail to fall into place with memorable impact.

The program will be repeated on Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 4pm. It would be a shame to miss it.

Filed under: George Walker, Mahler, review, Seattle Symphony

George Walker at Seattle Symphony

The composer George Walker died last summer at 96. He was a close friend of the artist Frank Schramm, who documented his final years in photographs.
George Walker; image by Frank Schramm

Thinking of the brilliant composer George Walker today, who passed away almost four years ago at the age of 96. Tonight’s Seattle Symphony program pairs music by Walker with Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. Walker will be represented by his Lyric for Strings and Folksongs for Orchestra.

On the podium, in another welcome return, is Asher Fisch, who has been absent far too long. He was principal guest conductor of Seattle Opera from 2007 to 2013.

Here’s the story I wrote about George Walker for the New York Times before the pandemic. Many thanks to Frank Schramm, whose marvelous photos were indispensable to this piece.

SEATTLE — Last fall, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery began to display, among its recent acquisitions, a photograph of the composer George Walker. It shows him close up, his right index finger and thumb bearing down on a pencil with the precision of a surgeon, at work on the manuscript score of his Sinfonia No. 5….

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Filed under: George Walker, Mahler, Seattle Symphony

Chailly Conducts Mahler 6 in Lucerne

A powerful program coming up tonight with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra:

Filed under: Lucerne Festival, Mahler

Happy Easter

Filed under: Claudio Abbado, holiday, Mahler

A Reich Premiere and Mahler Recharged at the Los Angeles Philharmonic

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It’s been a bracing week of the non-routine in Los Angeles: Philip Glass’s Satyagraha at LA Opera and, from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, John Cage’s Europeras 1 & 2 (with Yuval Sharon’s The Industry) and Susanna Mälkki’s first program of the season. Here’s my review of the Mälkki concert for Musical America:


LOS ANGELES–This past weekend’s program by the Los Angeles Philharmonic was both a newsworthy event and a rousing artistic triumph. Newsworthy because it offered the world premiere of the first composition Steve Reich has written for a full orchestra in more than three decades. And with Susanna Mälkki on the podium, the entire concert on Friday night (November 2) made the concept of a modern symphony orchestra itself feel vitally relevant. Juxtaposed against the pleasures of Reich’s exquisitely crafted piece, a familiar Mahler symphony–the Fifth–was transformed into a revelatory experience.

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Filed under: Los Angeles Philharmonic, Mahler, review, Steve Reich

Daniele Gatti Replacements at Lucerne Summer Festival

The replacement conductors for the two programs that the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra had originally scheduled at the 2018 Summer Festival in Lucerne with their former, now-ousted music director Daniele Gatti have been announced.

Manfred Honeck takes the reins for the 5 September concert; the very interesting lineup of Wagner, Berg, and Bruckner’s Third Symphony remains unchanged.

And on the evening after that, Bernard Haitink will replace Mahler’s Seventh (which was to have been paired with Webern with the Ninth Symphony. Given the reception of his Mahler Ninth last year in London, this should be one for the ages:

Other conductors extract more pathos (or self-pity, depending on one’s view of Mahler and the conductor involved) from the final Adagio, but few usher it towards its faltering close with more care and gentle humanity than Haitink did here. If the Ninth is the work through which Mahler confronted his mortality and came to terms with it, then in this performance it was expressed unswervingly.

Filed under: Lucerne Festival, Mahler, music news

Happy Birthday, Esa-Pekka Salonen!

Today the Maestro turns 60 years young.

Great conductor, great composer:

Filed under: anniversary, conductors, Mahler

Ending an Era with Mahler 6

Simon Rattle’s final concert with the Berlin Philharmonic: how fitting for our tragic time: streaming live from the Digital Concert Hall.

Filed under: Berlin Philharmonic, Mahler, Simon Rattle

In Search of Mahlerian Music Drama at LA Phil

I covered a very unusual approach to Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde for Musical America. This remarkably original staging by Yuval Sharon and the Chile-based Teatrocinema Company was performed this past weekend by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel, with soloists Russell Thomas and Tamara Mumford.
[review behind paywall]

Filed under: Los Angeles Philharmonic, Mahler, Musical America, review, Yuval Sharon

Thrilling Berlioz and Mahler with Guest Conductor Giancarlo Guerrero and Seattle Symphony

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Giancarlo Guerrero conducting the Seattle Symphony; photo (c)Carlin Ma

It’s one thing to fulfill an emergency engagement, subbing at the last minute for to conduct an orchestra that’s essentially new to you.

But when the program is as challenging as the one Ludovic Morlot had planned to launch Seattle Symphony’s main concert series, the stakes are significantly intensified.

Giancarlo Guerrero pulled it all off to extraordinary effect on Thursday evening, the first of three concerts pairing Berlioz and Mahler. Guerrero has made himself an invaluable musical force as music director of the Nashville Symphony, where he actively promotes a vigorous commitment to new music and American composers. He’s also pursued creative links with that city’s rich music scene beyond the classical realm. [Full disclosure: I serve as the Nashville Symphony’s program annotator.]

Technically, this wasn’t the Costa Rica-born maestro’s first rendez-vous with the SSO. I can’t find any online record of it–and would love to know what the program was–though he did conduct them once before: apparently in 2004. But the membership has changed significantly since (seven members joining/rejoining the ranks as of this season), and this was no program of routine, tried-and-true orchestral fare. [Update: It was an all-Gershwin program in what was then called the “light classics series”: An American in Paris, the Concerto in F, Catfish Row, and Rhapsody in Blue — h/t Jeff Eldridge.]

(I wrote separately about Morlot’s thinking behind the program. A leg injury has sidelined the maestro, causing him to miss the season’s opening events.)

The concert began with a Berlioz rarity: La Mort de Cléopâtre, one of the four cantatas he wrote in his bid to win the Prix de Rome. (Despite its beauties, this one, from 1829, didn’t succeed with the jurors.) It’s not only a fascinating piece, but Guerrero shaped it with commendable conviction, coaxing some splendid nuances from the SSO.

And the soloist, Dutch mezzo Christianne Stotijn, credibly inhabited her character as the desperate Cleopatra facing the ultimate humiliation from her latest Roman conqueror, Octavian: sexual indifference and the prospect of trading her throne for a future of enslavement.

The writing is at times downright awkward, with long stretches of recitative, and it took a few minutes to begin making its proper impact. But Stotijn used the music’s fascinatingly unpredictable blend of anxiety, pride, shame, and sorrow to shape Cleopatra’s awareness of being trapped–and, ultimately, her restored sense of power by choosing her quietus to make.

Stylistically, it’s all very mixed: Berlioz’s love of Mozart and Gluck sits side by side with wildly original harmonies and orchestral effects, especially in the passage Berlioz devises to depict the aura of Cleopatra’s Pharaonic forebears.

Significantly, Berlioz doesn’t supply a transcendent Liebestod in which Cleopatra envisions her forthcoming liberation through death. (Then again, he was limited to a text pre-selected for him to set by the jury.) Instead, the cantata concludes in suspense and sepulchral darkness. Guerrero elicited especially impressionable moments here, allowing full resonance for Berlioz’s notably understated conclusion–all the more effective after the torrent of passions expressed earlier.

And that was just the first half of this remarkable concert. Guerrero has cultivated his gifts as a Mahler interpreter over the past decade with the Nashville Symphony, but this was my first opportunity to hear his Mahler live. The impact of his Mahler Second was electric and lasting.

Overall, Guerrero exuded an air of inspired confidence, of knowing just what he needed to get from the orchestra and singers without being overly controlling. His podium manner is quite interesting to watch: like a film director right on top of where the camera’s eye should be, he zoomed in and out, cutting across to dramatically contrasting shots and perspectives.

Guerrero turned orchestral knobs and signaled “more” for the many shattering climaxes that punctuate this symphony lasting the length of a feature film. In the Andante immediately following the vast, funereal opening movement, the scene changed so drastically it was as if we had landed for the moment in an entirely different narrative, as the conductor nearly held still, using minimal, graceful gestures to get maximal bloom. For a few moments, I was hoping Guerrero would observe the five-minute pause Mahler asks for in the wake of the devastating first movement (which he apparently has done in Nashville). Perhaps some intangible factor from the audience made him decide to limit the break to a more conventional length.

The scherzo’s restless flow (in which Mahler recycled his setting of the Wunderhorn tune “St. Anthony Preaching to the Fish”) churned evocatively, with Guerrero wiggling to direct the flow just so. He also underscored the bittersweet klezmer snap of the commenting woodwinds (featuring Ben Lulich’s wondrously phrased clarinet).

Stotijn sang a moving “Urlicht” over radiant brass and a serene bank of beautifully balanced string harmonies. That movement convinced me how multilayered Guerrero’s vision of Mahler is: he had no hesitation to go full throttle in the outer movements (and in the “panic” outburst of the Scherzo, where the intertextuality of Mahler’s symphonies–here anticipating the Third–is so strikingly manifest). But he also showed faith in Mahler’s gentlest orchestrations, savoring its most delicate intimations with genuine sensuousness.

If there’s a musical equivalent to the scope of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment fresco in the Sistine, the last movement of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony has to be a major candidate. A few moments seemed to lose a sense of the bigger picture–and this score, for all its miracles, is not without flaws–but I especially valued the suspense Guerrero built up in this scenario of Mahlerian apocalypse.

The Seattle Symphony Chorale didn’t quite achieve the sotto voce effect that makes the choral entrance such a unique, impossible moment, but they ensured that the catharsis Mahler writes into this score happened nonetheless, singing with soul-shattering, heaven-storming power, reinforced by Joseph Adam on the organ. Soprano Malin Christensson joined Stotijn, contributing thrilling colors that soared atop the mass of choral voices.

The SSO, dramatically expanded with guest players and crowding the concert stage, gifted the audience with some of the finest Mahler I’ve heard this orchestra achieve.

Review (c)2017 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

 

Filed under: Berlioz, Mahler, review, Seattle Symphony

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