MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Demarre McGill Dazzles in Dalbavie Flute Concerto

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Demarre McGill, Ludovic Morlot, and Marc-André Dalbavie with Seattle Symphony

Seattle Symphony audiences are familiar with Demarre McGill’s magical flute artistry from countless solo moments he’s performed as the ensemble’s principal flute. But this week’s program puts him center stage for the Flute Concerto by Marc-André Dalbavie — and it was an unforgettable highlight of Thursday’s performance.

The French composer wrote his Flute Concerto in 2006 for the Berlin Philharmonic’s principal flutist, the Franco-Swiss Emmanuel Pahud, so you can readily imagine the caliber of playing required. Even at 17 minutes, relatively brief for a concerto, the piece keeps the soloist frenetically active for long stretches.

McGill negotiated its challenges with pure grace and eloquence, engaging in Dalbavie’s unusual dialectic with the orchestra. Rather than a sweet-tuned concerto of airy charms, the flute seems to be simultaneously urging on and trying to tame the orchestra’s ebullient spirits. McGill projected a complex protagonist, Orphic in the central slower section, sprightly as Puck girdling the earth in the rapidfire passages.

Ludovic Morlot led a vivid, gorgeously textured performance that was the theme of the entire generous program, mostly a French affair. He began with another of his specialities, Maurice Ravel’s Suite from Ma mère l’Oye. This time, I detected a radiant, but never forced, tone of elegiac wonder in Sleeping Beauty’s Pavane and the concluding scene of the Enchanted Garden. There was ebullience in the latter as well, underscoring a kinship with the parallel concluding moment in The Firebird. The SSO’s playing was at its most refined, full of silken caresses and subtly articulated rhythms.

The first half ended with the world premiere of Tropes de : Bussy, an ambitious symphonic work the SSO commissioned from Joël-François Durand, Associate Director of the UW School of Music. The title alone requires considerable unpacking and points to the layered associations and post-modern play of Durand’s score. Explains the French-born composer, who developed his concept of the piece while orchestrating some of the piano Préludes of Debussy: “As I kept re-working my arrangements, I gradually started to modify the original music, as if adding more and more interpretive filters with each attempt… Tropes de : Bussy is at first glance a pun on the French composer’s last name, but it also reflects the distance I took from the original texts, revealing and at the same time hiding most of the actual music.”

Durand chose five of the Book I Préludes (Les sons et les parfums, La danse de Puck, Le vent dans la plaine, Des pas sur la neige, and Minstrels. There was much to admire in the imaginative soundscapes he conjured from a large orchestra. If the piece seemed to overstay its welcome, stretching the game of hide-and-seek with the familiar Debussyan harmonies and ideas on at great length, it offered numerous enchanting moments (particularly the “slow” movement after Des pas sur la neige. With its deconstruction of rhythmic structures, the finale after Minstrels recalled something of Ravel’s strategy (though not his sound world) in La valse.

To conclude, Morlot led the one non-French work on this wonderful program. His account of Mozart’s later G minor Symphony, K. 550, glistened with the textural alertness that had been his focus in the French pieces. Taking the Andante at a brisk “walking” tempo worked especially well, and Morlot set off sparks by leaning into the cross-rhythms of the Minuet. The relentless drive of the outer movements gained freshness from being juxtaposed with the Dalbavie.

Review (c) 2019 Thomas May

Filed under: commissions, Ludovic Morlot, Maurice Ravel, Mozart, new music, review, Seattle Symphony

Der Kindheit Verzauberung

Tonight was the final performance of Berlin Staatsoper’s new Zauberflöte production, directed by Yuval Sharon. Very happy to have been able to catch this — report forthcoming for Musical America.

Filed under: Berlin Staatsoper, directors, Mozart, Musical America, Yuval Sharon

Wolfgang von Mozart?

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The intrepid Mozart scholar Michael Lorenz published an article in 2009 examining documentation from the composer’s later years in which his name is given as “von Mozart.”

Lorenz believes this evidence suggests “that he either was addressed with a predicate of nobility or even claimed his status as nobleman himself.”
He concludes: “Of course there is no absolute proof that Mozart’s nobility was universally acknowledged by his Viennese contemporaries. But the above documents make it very likely that at some time Mozart actually passed himself off as a nobleman.”

Another issue connected with these documents involves Mozart’s worsening financial condition in the late 1780s and how this has been interpreted. According to Lorenz:

It seems that Mozart’s main reason for moving to the outskirts of Vienna was not to reduce his costs, but to take advantage of the better living conditions in more spacious environs … The circumstances of his choice of lodgings show him as a man of the world, who in spite of being faced with a major decline in income is unable to reduce the living standards to which he has become accustomed.

Filed under: Mozart, musicology

Protected: Così fan tutte at the Met

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Filed under: Metropolitan Opera, Mozart

Don Giovanni as Comedy


In his staging of Don Giovanni for Komische Oper Berlin (dating from 2014), Herbert Fritsch wants us to forget all about the mythology of the “demonic” that has been larded onto Mozart’s second collaboration with Da Ponte.

Put aside the heavy-weather, “D minor” brooding that E.T.A. Hoffmann emphasized, thus turning Mozart into a proto-Romantic. Forget about the Faustian echoes, the existential “aesthetic sphere” of Søren Kirkegaard, etc. etc.

Fritsch and his team zero in on Don Giovanni as above all a dramma giocoso, indeed an opera buffa, its roots in the commedia dell’arte made conspicuous. Veering far from the dangerous immoralist we tend to encounter, Günter Papendell portrays the Don as a hilarious combination of clown, matador, and vaudeville showman. Wearing a Joker-smeared smile throughout and detachable blond rug, he plays stadium-rock air guitar to accompany his mandolin serenade and disappears into Hell with his index finger pointing up, followed by a black-out. No choral epilogue, no moral to the story (sung in Sabrina Zwach’s very clever German translation).

By that point, the wonderful KOB orchestra — led by Ivo Hentschel with high energy that didn’t stint on flecks of lovely color — had the entire auditorium resounding with Mozart’s terrifying D minor. Yet it felt exhilaratingly fresh and theatrical, not the same old inevitable pattern.

Whatever criticisms one may have of Fritsch’s choices, he doesn’t “deny” or “contradict” the music — in fact, gestures showed great sensitivity to every detail of Mozart’s score — but is determined to wipe away the clichés. An interesting choice that initially baffled me but then seemed to work: the Overture is displaced until after the opening scene, breaking out like a commentary on what has just happened.

I thoroughly enjoyed this cast, especially Evan Hughes’s lanky, cheeky, self-pitying Leporello, the dynamic between Alma Sadé and Samuli Taskinen as Zerlina and Masetto, the dramatic force of Vera-Lotte Böcker’s splendid Donna Anna, and Karolina Gumos’s absurdly conflicted Elvira. (In a neat visual pun, she’s trapped in a twisting ruffle that turns her violently yellow dress into a giant question mark — “wtf???”)

The cartoonish shtick and artifice were indeed greatly enhanced by Victoria Behr’s colorful costumes and Fritsch’s own simple set of black-and-white lace design hangings in continual motion. The chorus of townspeople inched and lurched about the stage like zombies.

The aesthetic perspective here occasionally reminded me of those moments in Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous stagings where things are pushed to such a comic extreme that there’s room for unexpected reactions to emerge: especially in Don Ottavio’s two arias, rendered with heart-stopping lyricism by Adrian Stooper. The emotional dissonance is theatrically gripping, and Fritsch shows an unwavering conviction that opera is a form of theater.

Filed under: directors, Komische Oper Berlin, Mozart

Making Mozart’s Garden Grow

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Conductor Joseph Colaneri and director Mary Birnbaum during a rehearsal for Mozart’s ‘Finta’

My story on Juilliard’s upcoming production of La finta giardiniera:

It may be hard to imagine that there was a time when pre-Baroque figures were generally treated as an obscure footnote to the alleged master narrative of Western music history. But when it comes to the lifework of individual composers, a similarly myopic attitude is still sometimes found…

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Filed under: Juilliard, Mozart

Ravishing Ravel from Seattle Symphony

Ravel Opera

Michèle Losier as the Boy, with Delphine Haidan as the Dragonfly and Alexandre Sylvestre as the Tree; image (c) Brandon Patoc

I was able to catch the final performance (Saturday night) of this week’s Seattle Symphony program led by Ludovic Morlot: a fascinating semi-staged presentation of Maurice Ravel’s one-act opera L’enfant et les sortilèges, combined with a Mozart piano concerto and a bit of orchestral Bizet as appetizer.

The program would have sated most appetites perfectly with the second half alone, the Ravel, so it was a special added delight to have Mozart’s K. 271 Piano Concerto on the bill (the so-called — inaccurately — “Jeunehomme” Concerto).*

“Mozart is absolute beauty, perfect purity,” Ravel believed — in so doing, of course, describing his own aesthetic of perfectionism.  I’m always reminded of the Mozart-Ravel connection whenever I hear Jean-Yves Thibaudet perform the latter’s Concerto in G (as he has done more than once with Morlot).

I can’t say that was the case with the soloist in K. 271, Jan Lisiecki. The 22-year-old Canadian pianist, acclaimed especially for his Chopin, arrived on the scene as a prodigy and already commands an impressive resume of partnering with world-class conductors and ensembles. His performance of the Mozart exhibited some very sensitive playing, but to this taste, overall, left little of a lasting impression.

Well-executed passagework and spirited moments abounded, but I missed a strong point of view about what it can all add up to, as well as the — well, Ravel-like — iridescence that Mozart can evoke with even the simplest of phrases. 

But there was nothing lackluster in the account from Morlot and the SSO. Again and again, I marveled at being reminded of just what an astonishingly original score this pre-Vienna concerto is, composed at such an early stage — particularly the epic flair of the first movement and the window-framed dance interlude plopped right into the middle of a bustling finale.

The unusual choice of the minor key for the slow movement was underscored by the stirring pathos of this reading. Here Mozart is already transforming the keyboard concerto into substitute opera, which made the choice of K. 271 all the more appropriate for the Ravel.

Morlot  intoned the theme of childhood at the start with George Bizet’s Petite Suite from 1871  — a sequence of five numbers the composer orchestrated from a set of 12 miniatures originally written for piano duet (known as Jeux d’enfants and later choreographed by Balanchine). The SSO played with considerable polish, zest, and charm.

Ravel Opera

image (c) Brando Patoc

The semi-staged performance of L’enfant et les sortilèges in the second half of the program has to be accounted one of the season’s highlights. Ravel felt a deep kinship with children and with what he called “the poetry of childhood,” consciously tapping into his own memories of the fantasies of childhood for inspiration.

In fact, I’d say this sensitivity, when combined with his watchmaker-like precision and perfectionism, is among Ravel’s most fascinating aspects. 

Like the Bizet suite, his beloved Ma mère l’Oye (Tales of Mother Goose) actually began as a composition for piano duet (intended for the children of a couple that had befriended Ravel). 

L’enfant et les sortilèges — usually translated “The Child and the Spells” — is the second of the two operas Ravel managed to complete, each consisting of only one act. The first, the rarer L’heure espagnole, premiered in 1911; L’enfant, more prolonged in gestation, was conceived during the First World War and composed several years after. The initial idea was for a ballet, which eventually became a “fantaisie lyrique” in two parts — a fantasy opera, which was premiered in 1925 in Monte Carlo (with the young Balanchine providing choreography).

Both Ravel and his librettist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette — the eminent French novelist known simply as Colette — were both deeply affected by their involvement in the war effort and by the loss of loved ones. This sensibility even seeps into the texture of L’enfant, on the surface such a disarmingly innocent and playful evocation of a child’s unbridled imagination.

The story recounts the “education” of a temperamental young boy (a trousers role, sung by mezzo). After being scolded by his mother, he experiences the aftermath of his temper tantrum: the objects of his rage come to life and confront the boy with the results of his behavior.

Morlot and the SSO enlisted a fantastic creative team for their first-ever presentation of an opera together on the Benaroya stage: director and production designer Anne Patterson, projection designer Adam Larsen, and costume designer Zane Philstrom.

Patterson, whose bio points out that she has synesthesia, conjured an appealingly surreal visual environment — sort of a cross between Lewis Carroll and Sendak in feeling, though with entirely original iconography. Her team conveyed the sense of wonder in Ravel’s music, thankfully steering free of unwanted cuteness or sentimentality, which have no place in this score.

The singers positioned mostly far downstage (though at times elsewhere in the hall), sometimes even occupying a corner of Morlot’s podium. Even within that confined space, with the cast acting in front of both the orchestra and several layers of dangling ribbons that formed a permeable, dreamlike screen, the story was engaging.

Ravel Opera

image (c) Brandon Patoc

Larsen’s beautifully changing light scheme and his projections of the animated objects as transient emanations offered a spellbinding counterpoint to Ravel’s exquisite score.

Philstrom’s large white head sculptures, worn by the objects that come to life, served as emblems to distinguish the very large cast of characters triggered by the boy’s theatrical imagination.

Morlot gathered a distinguished cast that would be just as home with this material in a full-scale opera house production. Especially outstanding were Michèle Losier as the Child, after her initial rampage passing through an enormous spectrum of emotions within the opera’s compact duration, and soprano Rachele Gilmore in the delirious coloratura roles of the Hearth Fire, the storybook Princess, and the Nightingale.

With her rich mezzo, Delphine Haidan morphed from the stern Mother to a broken china teacup (was some of the libretto’s “pidgin”  — offensive to today’s sensibilities — expurgated?) and, finally, a plaintive captured dragonfly.

Colette’s large cast calls for an armchair, a grandfather clock, a shepherd and shepherdess from the wallpaper pattern the feisty boy has ripped up, assorted animals and garden creatures, even the numbers from a math lesson come to life in a kind of Pythagorean nightmare … and much more.

Portraying multiple roles, the rest of the cast was uniformly strong, including sopranos Rachele Gilmore and Soraya Mafi, mezzo Allyson McHardy,  Jean-Paul Fouchecourt (a star of French Baroque opera, hilarious in his turns as the torn math book and the tree frog), baritone Alexandre Duhamel, and bass-baritone Alexandre Sylvestre.

On top of all this, the Seattle Symphony Chorale and Northwest Boychoir (both prepared by Joseph Crnko) were part of the cast as well, at times contributing a subtle wall of sound (with the Chorale positioned upstage behind the orchestra).

It was quite an ambitious array of forces for such a short work, yet not a moment felt superfluous. Morlot had his players basking in Ravel’s delectable score — one of those miracles of remarkably far-ranging stylistic references that transcends being merely “eclectic.”

There were far too many moments of superb musicianship to recount them all in detail — such as Demarre McGill’s (in a welcome guest return) flute solos to the storybook Princess’s lament of what could-have-been (Rachele Gilmore).

Best of all was the loveliness of the garden scene that takes over in the second part. This luminous and stirring music transports L’enfant onto an altogether different plane of magic and perception — childlike innocence as recaptured by the knowing adult’s memory.  And it was utterly stunning on Saturday night.

A downside to this adventure: just a little over a month since Morlot announced his plans to leave the SSO in 2019, the sense of joint accomplishment feels bittersweet, as it must with the knowledge that the clock is ticking away.

____________________________________________________________________________________________* I do wish the music biz would acknowledge the important work of scholars and get rid of the annoying faux-name “Jeunehomme” — and, along with it, the false history that is continually reiterated in program notes.

I’m referring here to the research of musicologist Michael Lorenz, who has brought to light the fascinating figure of this very specific female pianist –Victoire Jenamy (1749-1812) — for whom Mozart wrote this concerto.

The perpetuation of the musty old nonsense about poor “Mademoiselle Jeunehomme” being lost to history is the sort of thing that makes “classical music” appear so sadly out of step with the living, breathing reality. We still have plenty to learn about Mozart — all that is to be known has not been already revealed!

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

Filed under: Ludovic Morlot, Maurice Ravel, Mozart, review, Seattle Symphony

Playing Dangerously

I finally had my first live experience of Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Teodor Currentzis, who brought his Perm-based musicAeterna to Lucerne’s Easter Festival last night for the first of two programs: early Mozart and Beethoven Eroica.

It very well might have been a new music evening: that’s how unexpected and full of discoveries the performance was. Currentzis has become something of a cult figure, and it’s easy to see why. A friend compared him visually to Hoffmann’s Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler, with his spindly legs and tall, lanky figure. I wish I could have seen the expressions he was flashing, mirrored, I suspect, by his restlessly gesturing hands.

Currentzis seems to decide on the spur of the moment to fixate on a particular player or section, and then to stare them down, whip them up to further excitement, coax out a sudden swell or tamp it down to near inaudibility. No one knows when or where he’ll pounce: it’s all part of the electricity.

Mozart’s G minor Symphony K. 183 was full of shocks and epiphanies: the sort of thing we tend to privilege to the really big works like Eroica, but which are strewn about far and wide, and so unrecognized in so many other sources. I especially welcomed how Currentzis balances his spontaneous, red-hot, in-the-moment aura with carefully thought-through decisions (the articulation of the second theme reprise-time around, when it emanates a menacing despair;  tempo differentiation of the Minuet and the Trio).

Patricia Kopatchinskaja is a revelation, nothing less. The playing in her bare feet, the poses she strikes, the comic interplay with Currentzis: the things people like to focus on are just a part of her entire, fascinatingly refreshing outlook, and it’s rooted in brilliant insights about the source of invention, say, in the Mozart D major Violin Concerto (K. 218) she played.

Actually, Kopatchinskaja didn’t just  show up and “play” it, fulfill her contract, job done. It was such an unusual ratio of performance energy and creative expenditure to the Concerto’s part on the program.

It felt like an epic, and the audience seemed to learn far more than it had bargained for about what makes a concerto work, about how a soloist can interact with an ensemble of independent-minded players. Mozart’s folk song ploy in the finale became the key to Kopatchinskaja’s improvisational approach overall — the cadenzas she contributed wouldn’t have been out of place in Ligeti — and a bridge to her encores of Bartók and Enescu.

In their period-instrument Eroica, musicAeterna’s dangerous playing kept me on the edge of my seat throughout. I’ve never experienced in live performances of Beethoven’s Third such a powerful presence from the timpanist.  The impact of the drums in the Funeral March was at devastating as in Mahler’s Sixth finale.

A couple of wind players almost lost the reins in the finale when one clarinetist got so worked up he knocked a stand over– at first it looked like there might be a domino effect, just before a big solo for the oboe (so much a protagonist in this symphony!). Aside from an emanation of angst-waves — like watching a tightrope walker regaining balance — the music pushed ahead, and was the more intense for it.

 

Filed under: Beethoven, Lucerne Festival, Mozart, review

Mozart’s Ambitious Declaration of Independence

In honor of Mozart’s birthday, here’s my essay on The Abduction from the Seraglio. His breakthrough opera hit after Mozart made the bold move to become a freelance artist in Vienna, it’s being presented (starting this weekend) by Los Angeles Opera in a lively production directed by James Robinson. From my program essay for LA Opera:

With The Abduction from the Seraglio, Mozart scored the biggest stage success he would enjoy during his lifetime. It premiered in Vienna on July 16, 1782, and, by the fourth performance—according to Mozart himself—the show was “creating such a sensation that they don’t want to see or hear anything else, and the theater is packed full each time.”

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Filed under: Los Angeles Opera, Mozart

Abducted by Mozart

Enjoying a fresh look at Die Entführung aus dem Serail as I research for an LA Opera essay. In January the company presents James Robinson’s staging of the Mozart Singspiel, which the director describes as “one of the most unabashedly romantic pieces that Mozart ever wrote” along with being “a wonderfully funny piece.”

From Mozart’s letters when he was working on Abduction in 1781, the year he broke with  his Salzburg boss and decided to settle in Vienna:

An opera is sure of success when the plot is well worked out, the words written solely for the music and not shoved in here and there to suit some miserable rhyme … The best thing of all is when a good composer, who understands the stage and is talented enough to make sound suggestions, meets an able poet, that true phoenix; in that case, no fears need be entertained as to the applause – even of the ignorant.

 

Filed under: Los Angeles Opera, Mozart

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