MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

George Walker’s Sinfonia No. 4

In the spring of 2019, the Seattle Symphony gave the posthumous world premiere of George Walker’s Sinfonia No. 5 (more background in my New York Times story here). Simon Rattle was hoping to give the UK premiere with the Chineke! Orchestra at the BBC Proms, but the pandemic scuttled that plan.

So he scheduled Walker’s concise Sinfonia No. 4 (“Strands”) on the London Symphony Orchestra’s program for this week. The concert will be repeated and streamed online by Marquee TV on 19 September at 1.30pm ET and then available on demand. Also on the program (notes here): Darius Milhaud’s La création du monde and Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.

Filed under: George Walker, music news

Bohemia, Bombay, Bloomington: The Musical Exile of Walter Kaufmann

How many voices were silenced by the Nazis — how much music was lost or marginalized as a result of the Holocaust and World War Two? Today at 5 p.m. PST/8 p.m. EST, an online discussion of Czech/American composer Walter Kaufmann (1907–1984) will take place in connection with the Royal Conservatory of Music’s ARC Ensemble first-ever recording devoted to Kaufmann’s chamber music.

The conversation will explore the issue of lost repertoire in the 20th century and efforts to reclaim it. Speakers include the conductor James Conlon; Robert Elias, Director of the Ziering-Conlon Initiative for Recovered Voices at the Colburn School; and Simon Wynberg, Artistic Director of the Royal Conservatory of Music’s ARC Ensemble.

There will also be live performances by the ARC Ensemble and students of the Colburn School. The event will be hosted on the Colburn School’s YouTube and Facebook accounts. Watch it here. Following the discussion, attendees can participate in a live Q&A session via YouTube’s chat feature.

Filed under: music news

Heartbeat Opera’s Secret Sauce

This week (14-20 September), the ever-innovative company Heartbeat Opera is celebrating its seventh anniversary with seven virtual soirées hosted by seven special guests, including the likes of Julia Bullock, Anthony Roth Costanzo, and Derrell Acon. Tickets available here.

Each soirée is 75-90 minutes long and features three videos from various past productions, following which leaders from Heartbeat engage in a discussion moderated by the special guest. Each soirée also includes a live preview performance of The Extinctionist — the company’s first newly commissioned opera, scheduled for this coming spring — and an intimate talkback for audience members to ask questions in a breakout room.

More on the Secret Sauce:

Filed under: Heartbeat Opera, music news

Double Entendre

Martha Argerich and her friend violinist Renaud Capuçon are finding an accommodation to coronavirus spacing restrictions that is very generous: by playing the same program twice, back-to-back, as in tonight’s recital at Victoria Hall in Geneva.

The complete program: Beethoven/Sonata No. 8 in G major, Op. 30, no 3 and the Franck Violin Sonata.

I’d love to hear how their takes on César Franck’s great sonata compare between the 6.30 and 9pm concerts. This is one of the possible contenders Proust had in mind as his model for the Sonata for Piano and Violin by composer Vinteuil (no first name) in À la recherche du temps perdu — see “La Sonate pour piano et violon” de Vinteuil: Réflexion sur un intitulé inhabituel” by Jean-David Jumeau-Lafond in the Bulletin Marcel Proust:

Excerpt from Swann’s Way:

So Swann was not mistaken in believing that the phrase of the sonata did, really, exist. Human as it was from this point of view, it belonged, none the less, to an order of supernatural creatures whom we have never seen, but whom, in spite of that, we recognize and acclaim with rapture when some explorer of the unseen contrives to coax one forth, to bring it down from that divine world to which he has access to shine for a brief moment in the firmament of ours. This was what Vinteuil had done for the little phrase. Swann felt that the composer had been content (with the musical instruments at his disposal) to draw aside its veil, to make it visible, following and respecting its outlines with a hand so loving, so prudent, so delicate and so sure, that the sound altered at every moment, blunting itself to indicate a shadow, springing back into life when it must follow the curve of some more bold projection. And one proof that Swann was not mistaken when he believed in the real existence of this phrase, was that anyone with an ear at all delicate for music would at once have detected the imposture had Vinteuil, endowed with less power to see and to render its forms, sought to dissemble (by adding a line, here and there, of his own invention) the dimness of his vision or the feebleness of his hand.

The phrase had disappeared. Swann knew that it would come again at the end of the last movement, after a long passage which Mme. Verdurin’s pianist always ‘skipped.’ There were in this passage some admirable ideas which Swann had not distinguished on first hearing the sonata, and which he now perceived, as if they had, in the cloakroom of his memory, divested themselves of their uniform disguise of novelty. Swann listened to all the scattered themes which entered into the composition of the phrase, as its premises enter into the inevitable conclusion of a syllogism; he was assisting at the mystery of its birth. “Audacity,” he exclaimed to himself, “as inspired, perhaps, as a Lavoisier’s or an Ampere’s, the audacity of a Vinteuil making experiment, discovering the secret laws that govern an unknown force, driving across a region unexplored towards the one possible goal the invisible team in which he has placed his trust and which he never may discern!” How charming the dialogue which Swann now heard between piano and violin, at the beginning of the last passage. The suppression of human speech, so far from letting fancy reign there uncontrolled (as one might have thought), had eliminated it altogether. Never was spoken language of such inflexible necessity, never had it known questions so pertinent, such obvious replies. At first the piano complained alone, like a bird deserted by its mate; the violin heard and answered it, as from a neighbouring tree. It was as at the first beginning of the world, as if there were not yet but these twain upon the earth, or rather in this world closed against all the rest, so fashioned by the logic of its creator that in it there should never be any but themselves; the world of this sonata….

Filed under: COVID-19 Era, Martha Argerich, music news, Renaud Capuçon

A New Era at Wiener Staatsoper

From the Wiener Zeitung:

“For director Bogdan Roščić’s inaugural season at the Vienna State Opera [he just took over the reins from Dominique Meyer in July], the audience is being greeted by a photorealistic still life that critiques colonialism — even before the curtain is raised. On Monday, ahead of the season’s first premiere, the new safety curtain was presented. It is the work of US artist Carrie Mae Weems.

For her model, she turned to R&B icon Mary J. Blige. Titled ‘Queen B (Mary J. Blige),’ the figure looks at herself in a mirror amid a Baroque-style setting — clad in a blend of contemporary clothing and set pieces alluding to the trappings of erstwhile symbols of power from the West. Here, a visual indictment of the Eurocentric gaze goes hand in hand with a celebration of Black beauty and prosperity. ‘What actually interests me is the idea of representation itself,’ says Weems …”

Filed under: music news

400th Anniversary of Isabella Leonarda

Today marks the 400th anniversary of the birth of the extraordinary Isabella Leonarda, a versatile and prolific composer whose long life unfolded against a backdrop of dramatic transformation in the history of music.

She left behind a vast output of compositions, a musical treasure that defied the strictures of the patriarchy. Working within the confines of the Ursuline convent where she spent her life, Leonarda also became the first woman to publish instrumental sonatas.

PacificMusicWorks celebrates this fiercely creative woman with a concert hosted by Henry Lebedinsky and featuring special guest countertenor Reginald L. Mobley. Linked above, the concert will remain available through September.

Filed under: Isabella Leonarda, music news

Music for Beirut: A Relief Effort Campaign

In solidarity with those suffering from last month’s catastrophic explosion in Beirut, the New York-based violinist and composer Layale Chaker has created a pop-up store on her website as a relief campaign. She is donating proceeds from the sale of Inner Rhyme, her debut album with her ensemble Sarafand from now until 15 September.

100% of the sales will go to these efforts, which will be divided 50%-50% between Children’s Cancer Center in Lebanon and Beit el Baraka, which provides “housing, nutrition, medical support, sustainable agricultural initiatives, and different community engagement activities to respond to the multi-dimensional challenges faced by deprived communities.”

Of Inner Rhyme Chaker remarks: “I always thought of [the album] as a true labor of love. It is now time for it to pay it forward. I look forward to this direct interaction, to folding your packages and sending out my music in the world to find you, and to transmitting the outcome back to Lebanon. If so you choose, you will be updated with your donation every step of the way.”

Filed under: music news

Les Arts Florissants: Dans les Jardins de William Christie

Dans les Jardins de William Christie is the name of the annual festival presented by Les Arts Florissants in Thiré, France.

Running 22-29 August, this year’s edition featured a production of Handel’s L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato to open and included early J.S. Bach cantatas as well as sacred and profane music by Gesualdo. It ends today with a “pasticcio” titled Tell me the truth about love and featuring Lea Desandre and Jakub Józef Orliński.

William Christie, founder and artistic director of Les Arts Florissants, presents their summer festival on the grounds of a late-16th-century manor house that he has restored in the village of Thiré in Vendée. Because this special edition needed to accommodate health regulations, the evening concerts have been given in the Colonnades, in the northern part of the garden, against an enchantingly illuminated backdrop.

The garden setting has also been used in lieu of the usual candlelight concerts in the church, while a series of short “Meditation” concerts that had been recorded earlier in the summer — as well as contributions from students of Juilliard’s Historical Performance program — appear online.

Les Arts Florissants’ YouTube channel gathers highlights of the summer streaming series, which are also available on LAF’s website.

Filed under: Les Arts Florissants, music festivals, music news

iSing Silicon Valley

An impressive debut album from iSing Silicon Valley: titled Here I Stand (and released by Innova Recordings), this collection celebrates “the power of girls to change the world as they raise their voices in remembrance, in strength, and in the pure, shared delight of coming together to sing.”

The ISing ensemble, founded in 2013 and consisting of more than 300 singers from grades 1 through 12 in Silicon Valley, has collaborated with the likes of Meredith Monk as well as Voces8 and Cappella SF.

Here I Stand highlights iSing’s commitment to presenting newly commissioned works and premieres. iSing Artistic Directors Jennah Delp-Somers and Shane Troll conduct, with accompanists Anny Cheng and Anna Khaydarova and guest artists Emily Botel (violin), Ron Ho (violin), Lesley Robertson (viola), Warren Wu (cello), Kent Reed (percussion), and Meredith Clark (harp).


1. Only in Sleep, Ēriks Ešenvalds

2. Ave Generosa, Ola Gjeilo, Ave Generosa

3. In Your Light, Daniel Elder (arr. iSing commission, 2019)*

4. 365, Daniel Elder (arr. iSing commission, 2019)*

5. Never Shall I Forget (Nos. 1-3), Adam Schoenberg (iSing commission, 2019)*

6. Like a Singing Bird, Bob Chilcott

7. Birds’ Lullaby, Sarah Quartel

8. Salut Printemps, Claude Debussy

9. Here I Stand, Karen Linford (iSing commission, 2016)*

10. Sing, PinkZebra (iSing commission, 2018)*

11. Grow Little Tree, Andrea Ramsey

* World premiere recording

Filed under: choral music, music news

Summer Enchantment: A Soirée in Soral

Soral Soirée-1

As we in the USA continue to languish with no serious leadership from the federal government, no rational plan to combat the coronavirus pandemic and allow for a safe return to social activity, other countries are getting their feet back on the ground, however tentatively. Performances are slowly returning in Europe, an encouraging sign that we can still only admire from afar.

Recently my good friend Thaddeus Burns presented an open-air concert to a small group of guests at his home in Soral, just outside Geneva. The wonderful conductor John Fiore, who is based in Geneva and frequently appears at such venues as the Semperoper in Dresden and the Deutsche Oper Berlin, led a group of colleagues who call themselves ensemble d-cadences — comprising members of the l’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. The lineup included the pianist Todd Camburn, a renowned lieder accompanist and vocal coach, and the elegant young soprano Clémence Tilquin.

Fiore put together a tasteful program of Mozart, Ravel, and Dukas (for which I contributed some comments — see below). A group of guests sat outdoors as the ensemble played on the patio. I’ve also embedded a few short excerpts into the program listing to share a little taste of this enchanting early evening of music and camaraderie.

Further to the east in Switzerland, Lucerne Festival had just opened its “Short Festival” — the replacement of its usual month-long festival, this time for ten days and in accordance with the country’s safety regulations. “Life is live” as Lucerne put it — and so is music as we most want to experience it.

Grand Concert de Déconfinement et Soutien
John Fiore conductor
Todd Camburn piano
Clémence Tilquin soprano

Wolfgang Amadé Mozart  (1756-91)
Overture to Der Schauspieldirektor (1786)

Second and Third movements from the Piano Concerto in C major, K. 467 (1785)
Todd Camburn

“Come Scoglio” from Così fan tutte, K. 588 (1789-90)         
Clémence Tilquin

“Ch’io mi scordi di te? – Non temer, amato bene,” K. 505 (1786)     
Clémence Tilquin and Todd Camburn

Encore: “Dove sono” from Le nozze di Figaro, K. 492

All Mozart arrangements for small orchestra by John Fiore          


Maurice Ravel  (1875-1937)
Ma mère l’Oye (1910)

Arranged for chamber orchestra by Iain Farrington

Paul Dukas     (1865-1935)
L’âprenti sorcier (1897)
Arranged for chamber orchestra by Iain Farrington

image1 (2)

left to right: Todd Camburn, John Fiore, Clémence Tilquin

Opera and Concerto: Mozart Finds Independence in Vienna

On the morning of 16 March 1781, Wolfgang Amadé Mozart arrived in Vienna for what was officially intended as a three-month stay. He had traveled to the capital at the request of Prince-Archbishop Hieronymus Colloredo, the ruler of Salzburg (as well as his employer), whose sizable entourage—including three musicians—he joined and with whom he was expected to return when the sojourn drew to a close.

Yet the 25-year-old Mozart was abuzz with plans of his own. Already on the evening of his arrival, despite having been on the road during the previous night, he performed for a gathering of prominent aristocrats. Wolfgang confided to his father that he found Vienna a “magnificent place—and for my métier the best place in the world.”

His ambitions precipitated a dramatic rupture with Colloredo, whose demeaning treatment brought the composer’s long-simmering resentment to a boil. Mozart was dismissed from the staff of the powerful man he derisively called “the arch-booby” and stayed in Vienna for the remaining decade of his all-too-short life.

One factor that made the Habsburg capital so attractive was the prospect that here Mozart could devote himself increasingly to opera. The confidence that enabled him to make this decisive leap into a freelance career had been bolstered by his recent experience in Munich with Idomeneo, a major creative breakthrough. Its unprecedented perspective on the moribund opera seria (“serious opera”) tradition already marked a kind of declaration of independence for the composer.

Within months of determining to stay in Vienna, Mozart was immersed in his comic opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail. It premiered in the summer of 1782 and scored a great success, eventually becoming his most popular work for the stage during his own lifetime. Abduction belongs to the genre of German Singspiel, a hybrid of music and spoken text that Emperor Joseph II had attempted to foster, though the style of Italian comic opera (opera buffa)—presided over by Antonio Salieri—won pride of place at the imperial court.

Der Schauspieldirektor (“The Impresario”) is Mozart’s only other contribution to the Singspiel genre before The Magic Flute from his final year. The composer described it as “a comedy with music,” and the part for which he was responsible—an overture, a pair of arias, a trio, and a sparkling quartet-finale—has long since been enjoyed for its own sake, detached from the brief comic play about jealous, rivaling prima donnas who audition for a struggling company.

Emperor Joseph asked Mozart to write the piece as part of the entertainment accompanying a private state visit at his palace in Schönbrunn. There it was first presented to the guests in a kind of competition with another one-act comic opera in Italian by Salieri (Prima la musica e poi le parole). Gottlieb Stephanie, who happened to be an actual impresario and had furnished the composer with the libretto for Abduction, penned the text.

Mozart dashed this music off in just two weeks early in 1786 while still working on Le nozze di Figaro, his brilliant reinvention of the opera buffa genre (to be premiered in the spring). The satirical framework of Der Schauspieldirektor is undeniably lightweight, but the score benefits from the inimitable panache and superb craft that Mozart had been perfecting in his recent Viennese compositions—above all, in the soon-to-be-unveiled Figaro. The effervescent Overture by itself comprises a virtual comedy-within-the-comedy, using mirthful contrasts to set the stage for the ensuing story of vainglorious artists who in the end find harmony.

Along with allowing him to pursue his passion for opera, Vienna represented what Mozart hailed as “the land of the clavier.” The keyboard became his alter ego. It kept him in the public eye through performances that—in addition to income from private lessons—provided a significant source of income once he chose the risky path of the freelance artist. Mozart developed the piano concerto into a remarkable synthesis combining artistic and popular appeal.

The Viennese piano concertos might also be seen as forming a bridge between Mozart’s advanced instrumental composition and his operas—a kind of laboratory where he experimented with ideas that animate his music for the stage. In his hands, the piano concerto became nothing less than a signature genre: Mozart used it to introduce his latest musical thoughts while simultaneously showcasing his personality as a performer. At the same time, he took pride in the commercial appeal of this music.

Mozart presented the K. 467 Concerto in C major in March 1785. The handbill advertising the concert drew attention to a special enhancement mechanism: “an especial large forte piano pedale will be used by him for improvising.” The Mozart expert Neal Zaslaw describes this as a custom-built, “legless fortepiano which lay on the floor underneath his regular piano… [and] was played by means of a pedalboard with the feet, as an organ is played … to reinforce the low notes.”

Mozart conceived the C major Concerto as a work of impressive architectural scope, with a symphonic richness of detail. The slow movement is all the more effective as a contrast to the bright, festive atmosphere of the movements surrounding it (we hear the finale following this Andante). Veiled strings and poignant harmonies intensify the aura of intimacy. Here, especially, we can imagine the soloist as the protagonist of a voiceless opera, entrusted with an aria that unspools at extravagant length.

Mozart’s biographer Maynard Solomon writes of “an entire movement of unrelieved, time-stopping beauty, blending chromatic pathos and measured tranquility … for something just short of eternity.” Mozart brings us back to earth with a scintillating finale built around a smile-inducing theme. The genial interplay between orchestra and piano reenacts the spell Mozart knew how to cast as a celebrity pianist in Vienna.

By 1790, when Così fan tutte was premiered, changes in the taste of the fickle Viennese public as well as a devastating economic fallout resulted in hard times for Mozart. The demand for new piano concertos had all but disappeared. The genesis of Così, his third and final collaboration with the librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, remains mostly obscure. As court librettist until his abrupt dismissal in 1791, Da Ponte had collaborated with Salieri, who even had dibs on his libretto for Così but abandoned it after composing two trios.

Two years had passed since Mozart’s most recent commission for the stage, and he returned with a vengeance. Set in Naples, Così fan tutte stands apart even within the great Da Ponte trilogy of operas—arguably, it represents his most sophisticated achievement in music theater. This erotic comedy revolves around the wager two male friends take up to prove the existence of faithful love. They put this to the test by disguising themselves and attempting to seduce each other’s fiancées—a project that, to their mutual chagrin, proves all too successful. The opera’s sextet of characters interlock and recombine with the provocative, rueful geometry of a play by Tom Stoppard.

The more serious and steadfast of the two women, Fiordiligi is given a pair of character-defining arias (like the Contessa in Figaro). In the first of these, Come scoglio (“Like a rock”), she articulates her determination to remain faithful through Mozart’s intensely virtuosic vocal line, which calls for dramatic leaps over a treacherously wide range. So dramatic, indeed, that they parody the stock poses of serious opera. (Mozart was doubtless also indulging in some fun at the expense of Salieri’s mistress Adriana Ferrarese, who created the role of Fiordiligi.)

In March 1786, a month after the premiere of Der Schauspieldirektor, Mozart composed another aria on the topic of unwavering love, which was interpolated into a private revival in Vienna of Idomeneo. He reworked this material at the end of the year to fashion a stand-alone scena, the recitative and aria Ch’io mi scordi di te? – Non temer, amato bene (“Will I forget you? … Fear not, beloved”). The occasion was an upcoming farewell concert by the English soprano Nancy Storace. She had recently created the role of Susanna at the premiere in May of Le nozze di Figaro and was now leaving Vienna behind. Whether Storace and Mozart themselves became lovers is purely speculative, but the composer took pains to inscribe his personality into this spacious concert aria by creating a prominent part for solo piano, which offers an animated accompaniment to the beautifully ornamented vocal line.      

“The Poetry of Childhood”: Music by Ravel and Dukas

“Mozart is absolute beauty, perfect purity,” Maurice Ravel once remarked about his favorite composer. He was proclaiming an essential aspect of his own credo: the quest for a perfectly crafted beauty, cherished for its own sake, lies at the heart of the French composer’s aesthetic. Ravel attributed a kind of pleasure principle to his idol: “What Mozart created for the enjoyment of the ear is perfect.” (Beethoven, in contrast, he cited as a misstep in the direction of subjectivity—the example of a composer who “overacts, dramatizes, and glorifies himself, thereby failing to achieve his goal.”)

Ravel associated such perfectionism with the innocence of childhood fantasy. As an adult, he felt a strong kinship with children and consciously tapped into fantasies of childhood as a source of musical poetry. Ma mère l’Oye (“Tales of Mother Goose”) in fact originated as a project intended specifically for children. The music alludes to classic fairy-tales as recounted Charles Perrault in his anthology of 1697 and by two other French authors. “It was my intention to awaken the poetry of childhood in these pieces,” the composer remarked, “and this naturally led me to simplify my style and to thin out my writing.”

Ravel befriended Ida and Cipa Godebski, a Polish couple whose salons attracted a striking array of Parisian artists. He also became close to their two children and between 1908 and 1910 wrote a sequence of five pieces for piano four-hands for them as a private gift—though it was not the Godebski children but two young girls who have the Paris premiere in 1910.

Ma mère l’Oye is best known in its later (1911) orchestral incarnation, which Ravel also expanded into a ballet. But the arrangement of the original for chamber orchestra by Iain Farrington that we hear suggests the prismatic nuance of the orchestrated version and at the same time conveys the forthright intimacy of the piano writing that was its starting point.

The solemn processional of the opening pavane of Sleeping Beauty ushers us, along with the stricken princess, into a dreamlike state. We sense the ambivalence of Ravel’s summoning of childhood: a past recaptured, nostalgically, by the knowing adult’s memory. Tom Thumb (Petit Poucet) tells of a poor woodcutter’s son who tries to plan a way out of the woods by dropping breadcrumbs, only to discover that birds have eaten them.

In Laideronnette, the Empress of the Pagodas, a princess has been made the ugliest woman in the world by a witch’s spell but finds herself transported into a magical kingdom where her miniature subjects, robed in gems, serenade her with an orchestra whose instruments are made of the shells of walnuts and almonds.
Ravel traces the unlikely duet of Beauty and the Beast as a Satie-like waltz that leads to another transformation—and a love that blossoms. Prince Charming himself arrives to awaken Sleeping Beauty in the final number, and the forest becomes an enchanted garden—the apotheosis of imaginative fantasy.

Although not written specifically for children, L’apprenti sorcier (“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”) has become identified de facto with one of the best-loved classics for young ears thanks to the legacy of Walt Disney’s 1940 film Fantasia and its spinoffs. The cartoon animation of Paul Dukas’s symphonic poem from 1897 even served as the original prototype for the Fantasia idea. Its popularity has eclipsed the rest of the slender catalogue of works that the highly self-critical Dukas allowed to be published.

The source material for this “symphonic scherzo” was itself a version of an archetypal tale of magic power gone awry that similarly finds expression, say, in the legend of the golem. Dukas was inspired by the narrative Goethe etches with point and humor in his ballad Der Zauberlehrling, published in 1797. The zombie-like broom that keeps on fetching water because the young apprentice has not learned the spell to make it stop—it only redoubles its efforts after he splits it with an axe—has countless contemporary counterparts, as anyone frustrated by an errant “Alexa” or Roomba can attest.

The success of Dukas’s scherzo is closely allied to his orchestral wizardry, which even inspired a young Stravinsky. Still, Iain Farrington’s arrangement manages to channel the score’s wit and thrilling energy—at times echoing the frenzy of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. After an “establishing shot” that conjures the sorcerer’s milieu with eerie harmonies, Dukas develops his engaging musical narrative from a simple but obstinate, rhythmically captivating motif.
Notes on the Program by Thomas May (c)2020

Filed under: music news

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

RSS Arts & Culture Stories from NPR