MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Mendelssohn Spring Festival in Lucerne

Lucerne Festival launches its new year tonight with the first offering in a three-day spring celebration featuring the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. Replacing the ailing Riccardo Chailly tonight is Iván Fischer. He leads the orchestra in the continuing Mendelssohn cycle, pairing the First Symphony with music by Schubert and Chopin’s F minor Concerto (Rafał Blechacz the soloist). Listen to Susanne Stähr’s excellent introduction to Mendelssohn’s First (in German) here.


Filed under: Lucerne Festival, Mendelssohn

RIP Lars Vogt (1970-2022)

Deeply saddened to learn that Lars Vogt has died. The wonderful, deeply humane pianist and conductor had been battling cancer over the past few years — a situation he movingly described in this 2021 interview: “In the last several years, I often had the feeling that time was passing insanely fast. It was so easy to imagine a ‘whoosh,’ and suddenly I’m 80, and the day is done. It’s something that I think a lot of us experience, an accelerando where time keeps flying by more quickly. Before the illness, I was often depressed, even if it was just for a day or two. I’d stay in bed and think: ‘Oh God, I’m so old.’ Funnily, because of the illness that’s completely disappeared. I’m rarely so defeated. More often I’m utterly happy.”

In his most recently released recording, which came out in March, Vogt combined his personalities as pianist and conductor to give sensitive accounts, together with his Orchestre chambre de Paris, of the Mendelssohn piano concertos. Here the artist shares his insights on Mendelssohn, whose music he likens to “fresh, clean water — completely refreshing in every way”:

Filed under: Mendelssohn, music news, pianists

Mendelssohn Festival in Lucerne

Tonight in Lucerne, the festival year will be launched with a three-day Mendelssohn Festival — which is also the first in a new spring residency for the Lucerne Festival Orchestra and Riccardo Chailly that will complement their customary Summer Festival performances.

This mini-Spring Festival will explore Mendelssohn in conjunction with his leading contemporaries, including, for the opening tonight, with his chief antagonist, Richard Wagner.

Anne-Sophie Mutter and friends will also join with musicians from the Lucerne Festival Orchestra for a special benefit concert for Ukraine on Saturday, performing chamber music by Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Shostakovich.

more on the Mendelssohn Festival

Filed under: Lucerne Festival, Mendelssohn, music news

For Halloween: Mendelssohn’s Die erste Walpurgisnacht

Here’s some music from “the other Halloween” that doesn’t get so much rotation (even though Walpurgisnacht is actually celebrated on 30 April). Mendelssohn set the Goethe poem Die erste Walpurgisnacht as a cantata, the first version of which premiered in early 1833, the year after Goethe’s death.

Mendelssohn described it as “a grand cantata with full orchestra. … [W]hen the watchmen make a ruckus with their prongs and pitchforks and owls, there is also the witches’ spookiness, and [you] know that I have a particular fondness for that … ”

Mendelssohn’s complete cantata consists of:

  • Ouvertüre: Das schlechte Wetter – Der Übergang zum Frühling (Overture: Bad weather – Transition to Spring)
  1. “Es lacht der Mai” (May is in full bloom): tenor & chorus of Druids & people.
  2. “Könnt ihr so verwegen handeln?” (Could you be so rash, so daring?): alto, old woman, & chorus of wives of the people.
  3. “Wer Opfer heut zu bringen scheut” (Whoever fears to sacrifice): baritone, priest, & chorus of Druids.
  4. “Verteilt euch, wackre Männer, hier” (Divide your forces, valiant men): chorus of Druid watchmen.
  5. “Diese dummen Pfaffenchristen” (Christians and their priests are witless): bass, watchman, & chorus of watchmen.
  6. “Kommt mit Zacken und mit Gabeln” (Come with prongs and pitchforks): chorus of Druids and people.
  7. “So weit gebracht, dass wir bei Nacht” (It’s come so far that now by night): baritone, priest, & chorus of Druids and people.
  8. “Hilf, ach hilf mir, Kriegsgeselle” (Help, oh help me, comrade): tenor & chorus of Christian watchmen.
  9. “Die Flamme reinigt sich vom Rauch” (The flame cleanses itself of smoke): baritone, priest, & chorus of Druids and people

Goethe’s poem is as follows:

Die erste Walpurgisnacht

Ein Druide
Es lacht der Mai!
Der Wald ist frei
Von Eis und Reifgehänge.
Der Schnee ist fort;
Am grünen Ort
Erschallen Lustgesänge.
Ein reiner Schnee
Liegt auf der Höh';
Doch eilen wir nach oben,
Begehn den alten heil'gen Brauch,
Allvater dort zu loben.
Die Flamme lodre durch den Rauch!
So wird das Herz erhoben.
Die Druiden
Die Flamme lodre durch den Rauch!
Begeht den alten heil'gen Brauch,
Allvater dort zu loben!
Hinauf! Hinauf nach oben!
Einer aus dem Volke
Könnt ihr so verwegen handeln?
Wollt ihr denn zum Tode wandeln?
Kennet ihr nicht die Gesetze
Unsrer harten Überwinder?
Rings gestellt sind ihre Netze
Auf die Heiden, auf die Sünder.
Ach, sie schlachten auf dem Walle
Unsre Weiber, unsre Kinder,
Und wir alle
Nahen uns gewissem Falle.
Chor der Weiber
Auf des Lagers hohem Walle
Schlachten sie schon unsre Kinder.
Ach, die strengen Überwinder!
Und wir alle
Nahen uns gewissem Falle.
Ein Druide 
Wer Opfer heut
Zu bringen scheut,
Verdient erst seine Bande.
Der Wald ist frei!
Das Holz herbei,
Und schichtet es zum Brande!
Doch bleiben wir
Im Buschrevier
Am Tage noch im Stillen,
Und Männer stellen wir zur Hut
Um eurer Sorge willen.
Dann aber lasst mit frischem Mut
Uns unsre Pflicht erfüllen!
Chor der Wächter 
Verteilt euch, wackre Männer, hier
Durch dieses ganze Waldrevier
Und wachet hier im stillen,
Wenn sie die Pflicht erfüllen!
Ein Wächter 
Diese dumpfen Pfaffenchristen,
Lasst uns keck sie überlisten!
Mit dem Teufel, den sie fabeln,
Wollen wir sie selbst erschrecken.
Kommt! Mit Zacken und mit Gabeln,
Und mit Glut und Klapperstöcken
Lärmen wir bei nächt'ger Weile
Durch die engen Felsenstrecken.
Kauz und Eule
Heul' in unser Rundgeheule!

Chor der Wächter
Kommt mit Zacken und mit Gabeln
Wie der Teufel, den sie fabeln,
Und mit wilden Klapperstöcken
Durch die leeren Felsenstrecken!
Kauz und Eule
Heul in unser Rundgeheule!

Ein Druide 
So weit gebracht,
Dass wir bei Nacht
Allvater heimlich singen!
Doch ist es Tag,
Sobald man mag
Ein reines Herz dir bringen.
Du kannst zwar heut
Und manche Zeit
Dem Feinde viel erlauben.
Die Flamme reinigt sich vom Rauch:
So reinig' unsern Glauben!
Und raubt man uns den alten Brauch;
Dein Licht, wer will es rauben!
Ein christlicher Wächter 
Hilf, ach hilf mir, Kriegsgeselle!
Ach, es kommt die ganze Hölle!
Sieh, wie die verhexten Leiber
Durch und durch von Flamme glühen!
Menschenwölf' und Drachenweiber,
Die im Flug vorüberziehen!
Welch entsetzliches Getöse!
Lasst uns, lasst uns alle fliehen!
Oben flammt und saust der Böse,
Aus dem Boden
Dampfet rings ein Höllenbroden.
Chor der christlichen Wächter 
Schreckliche verhexte Leiber,
Menschenwölf' und Drachenweiber!
Welch entsetzliches Getöse!
Sieh, da flammt, da zieht der Böse!
Aus dem Boden
Dampfet rings ein Höllenbroden!
Chor der Druiden 
Die Flamme reinigt sich vom Rauch:
So reinig' unsern Glauben!
Und raubt man uns den alten Brauch;
Dein Licht, wer kann es rauben!

Filed under: Goethe, Mendelssohn

Exceptional Schumann from Beatrice Rana

Such a satisfying experience to hear Robert Schumann’s much-played Piano Concerto with Beatrice Rana as the soloist. It felt like a genuine rediscovery. The clip above is from the 2018 BBC Proms — and if you’re in Seattle this weekend, you have a chance to get the live experience, with Peter Oundjian conducting.
Thursday night’s performance was spellbinding from start to finish — the opening volley of chords precise and powerful, without any need for overstatement or attention-grabbing. Rana conveyed the secrets of Schumann’s work with poetry, sensitivity, honesty, and keen musical intelligence. The reduced size of the orchestral strings allowed for intimacy and transparent, chamber music-like dialogue, with the Seattle Symphony winds (especially Mary Lynch on oboe) providing eloquent exchanges.
The program also included a rich, full-bodied account of what was actually the last symphony by Schumann’s friend, Felix Mendelssohn, though we know it as the Third (“Scottish”). Oundjian built up the details of the slow introduction so carefully that everything else seemed to be spun out from its melancholy atmosphere.
A wonderful complement to the Schumann opened the program: Anna Clyne’s Within Her Arms, a single-movement piece for string orchestra from 2009. Clyne wrote it in memory of her recently deceased mother. She found inspiration in the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist: “Earth will keep you tight within her arms dear one — / so that tomorrow you will be transformed into flowers — … Flowers that speak to me in silence,/the message of love and understanding has indeed come.”

This music with its understanding of loss and consolation really hit home for me: a loving elegy that never succumbs to the maudlin. A long-sustained bass line symbolizes the grounding of which the monk speaks, before a final, breath-taking release. Clyne taps into a neo-Renaissance sensibility, transforming the simple, descending ladder of notes of the core motif from a standard lamento into searing beauty.

Filed under: Anna Clyne, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Seattle Symphony

Happy Midsummer Eve

Filed under: holiday, Mendelssohn, Shakespeare

Gidon Kremer with Seattle Symphony


Gidon Kremer; © Paolo Pellegrin

My review of Gidon Kremer’s visit with Seattle Symphony:

It’s entirely characteristic of Gidon Kremer to choose a discovery piece rather than a surefire crowd-pleaser for what was a rare appearance in Seattle…

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Filed under: Gidon Kremer, Ludovic Morlot, Mendelssohn, review, Schumann, Seattle Symphony

Bach & the Mendelssohns: A Consideration by Byron Schenkman & Friends


I was fortunate to be able to catch the season-opening program of Byron Schenkman & Friends — already in their 4th season! — at the end of an unusually packed weekend.

What a pleasurable way to regain focus: here was an intelligently programmed and charmingly presented concert that mixed masterworks with some fascinating novelties.

Most of all, it was filled with terrific music-making by colleagues whose enjoyment and passion drew the audience in. There’s always a feeling at a Byron Schenkman & Friends performance that it’s not merely about “presenting” a pre-packaged menu: it’s about sharing that experience as intimately as possible, drawing on the energy and involvement of the listeners — basically, in other words, the chamber music ideal.

Schenkman built his program around the ties that bind J.S. Bach and the Mendelssohn family — not only Felix, whose advocacy of the Thomas Cantor through his landmark revival of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829 is a famous  landmark of Bach reception, but older sister Fanny as well.

Schenkman pointed out that Fanny helped to prepare that performance of the St. Matthew Passion, and her reverence for Bach informed her own musical composition. While still in her cradle, he remarked, Fanny was lovingly described in a letter as wiggling what her prescient mother sensed were destined to be “Bach-fugue-playing fingers.”

The first half of the program was framed with tasteful accounts of Bach works as they may have been revived at a salon gathering chez Mendelssohn (say, while the siblings were growing up, or later, at Felix’s beautiful home in Leipzig).

With Schenkman at the keyboard (the Steinway typically used by Seattle Chamber Music Society for programs in Nordstrom Recital Hall, where the concert was held), Seattle Symphony principal violist Susan Gulkis Assadi played an arrangement for her instrument of the G major Sonata BWV 1027 that was redolent with color and expressivity.

Later came a version of the Concerto in F minor (BWV 1056) for piano and string quartet (with Gulkis Assadi joined by violinists Ingrid Matthews and Liza Zurlinden and cellist Geoffrey Dean), its haunting middle-movement melody — familiar from recycling elsewhere in Bach’s work — an especially effective foil to the restless turbulence surrounding it.

Schenkman eloquently introduced the work of Fanny Mendelssohn, describing her social position as a woman in an assimilated Jewish family in Biedermeier-era Germany — and the constraints to pursuing a composing career this entailed.

And the sense of palpable loss came through most unmistakably in the two selections of her work that were programmed: a Fantasy in G minor for cello and piano, with its genuinely memorable melodic pathos (Schenkman here joined by Dean), and one of her wordless Songs for the Piano, “Il Saltarello romano” (Op. 6, no. 4), one of the few pieces she managed to publish in her name.

But several pieces, according to Schenkman, she was able to publish only under her brother’s name. He referred to Felix’s well-known friendship with Queen Victoria, who once asked him to play her favorite number from his Songs without Words — whereupon he reportedly confessed that it was actually not his, but the work of his sister.


Mendelssohn’s study in Leipzig

The second half of the program offered a particularly rousing account of a late-period masterpiece by Felix Mendelssohn — and one of the highlights of the 19th-century literature — the C minor Piano Trio, Op. 66. It’s the last chamber piece the composer managed to have published with his approval (in 1846) before his untimely death in 1847– less than a half-year after the devastating loss of his beloved Fanny.

Zurlinden, Dean, and Schenkman together homed in on the Romantic passions and extremes of this marvelous score — the opening shared something of the atmospheric suspense of the much earlier Hebrides Overture — allowing the consoling second theme to expand and blossom at leisure.

I also admired the refinement of tonal balances between the strings and Schenkman’s piano textures. The Bach connection came through with noble effect in the finale, with the emergence of the quasi-chorale — beautifully shaped by the players — against an agitated backdrop (an idea Brahms would later take up in his Third Piano Quartet).

Next up — Music for the Sun King — is a program devoted to one of Schenkman’s special loves: the French Baroque.

(c)2016 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Byron Schenkman, Mendelssohn, review

Mendelssohn’s Study

IMG_4348From the Mendelssohn House on Goldschmidstrasse in Leipzig.

From his final summer, when he made his last trip to Switzerland, Mendelssohn’s watercolor of Luzern:



Filed under: Mendelssohn, musical travels, photography

A Gorgeous Chamber Music Première in Seattle

Steven Stucky; photo (c) 2005 Hoebermann Studio

Steven Stucky; photo
(c) 2005 Hoebermann Studio

Along with its mix of well-known and unusual repertoire, the Seattle Chamber Music Society annually commissions a brand-new work for its Summer Festival. Monday evening’s programme unveiled the selection for 2015: Cantus by the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Steven Stucky, who has gained prominence primarily as an instrumental and choral composer. (His first opera – a brilliantly witty yet at the same time touching one-act buffa to Jeremy Denk’s libretto improbably “dramatising” Charles Rosen’s The Classical Style – will receive its full stage première next week at the Aspen Festival.)

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Filed under: American music, Brahms, chamber music, commissions, Mendelssohn, review, Seattle Chamber Music Society, Steven Stucky

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