MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

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

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

Kosky & Co. Recharge the Magic of Flute at LA Opera

MagicFlute-LA

Musical America has posted my review of the Barrie Kosky/Suzanne Andrade-directed Magic Flute (behind a paywall):

LOS ANGELES— Singspiel meets silent film in this genuinely innovative production of The Magic Flute directed by Barrie Kosky and Suzanne Andrade. Initially created in 2012 for the Komische Oper Berlin …

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Filed under: Los Angeles Opera, Mozart, review

Happy Birthday, Wolfgang!

Filed under: Mozart

Arresting Aristos Make for a Fine Figaro

Shenyang (Figaro) and Nuccia Focile (Susanna) (c) Jacob Lucas

Shenyang (Figaro) and Nuccia Focile (Susanna)
(c) Jacob Lucas

Aidan Lang, head of Seattle Opera, reveals his talents as a stage director in a fresh and engaging interpretation of Mozart’s comic masterpiece. 

The buzz around Seattle Opera’s new Figaro is that it offers audiences here their first chance to see company chief Aidan Lang in his guise as stage director. This production originated to much acclaim in 2010 at New Zealand Opera, which Lang helmed until 2013. The current season is his second since succeeding Speight Jenkins as general director at Seattle Opera.

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Filed under: Mozart, review, Seattle Opera

Mozart’s Serenata

Il re pastore is being featured at the Lucerne Easter Festival in 2016:

Filed under: Lucerne Festival, Mozart

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