MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Bayreuth’s Free-Willing Tannhäuser

Here are the most perceptive reviews I’ve encountered so far of the controversial new Bayreuth “Venus-goes-to-Burger-King” Tannhäuser that recently opened the 2019 season.

In [Tobias] Kratzer’s rollicking production — intelligent and surprisingly wrenching, though not quite fully formed — the Venusberg is not the libretto’s mythical pleasure realm so much as a lifestyle of young, brash artistry.

Some confusion aside, Mr. Kratzer’s reading of the opera is both novel and clever. … The idea is that our interpretations of Wagner are ever-evolving; that’s why directors are hired for several years, to tweak their productions with each revival.

Joshua Barone in The New York Times

Kratzer and his team simply refused to let themselves by intimidated by tradition, by the overwhelming aura of this historic theater, and by the ever-virulent orthodoxy of the Wagner cult. They instead choose to tell the narrative-romantic saga of the inner human conflict between love and lust, between conformity and rebellion, using sassy, fresh images. And for all their irony, they avoid the trap of playing with it in a way that degrades the work. The opera’s lofty pathos has always provoked parody, but Kratzer does it better: he does it brilliantly.

Christian Wildhagen in Neue Zürcher Zeitung (in German)

The real trick [of Kratzer’s staging] is that the jokes are not all at the expense of the work. Kratzer doesn’t aim to mock Wagner but to humanize his mythically enraptured figures … Most of all, he shows two forms of art clashing with each other. On the one hand, the world of canonical masterpieces … on the other, the sensual, spontaneous world of performance and counterculture. Wagner himself contained both: the anarchic revolutionary who became a classic during his life. Kratzer doesn’t glorify either side in the process. Venus’s subversive gang is shown to be not only violent but also venal and selfish.

Bernhard Neuhoff for BR-Klassik (in German)

A shared observation: despite the excellent cast and stimulating (while problematic) staging (especially in the third act), Valery Gergiev was less than satisfactory in the pit.

And here’s an interview with director Tobias Kratzer from Deutsche Welle:

DW: How do you tell the story of Tannhäuser in 2019?

Tobias Kratzer: For me, the biographical context behind the creation of Wagner’s Tannhäuser is important. If you take that into account, the opera appears more up-to-date and contemporary. Wagner developed his play during a phase in which he didn’t really know where his life was going; whether he’d go down in history as a revolutionary and anarchist, or as a composer. That was a really interesting insight for me.

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Filed under: Bayreuth Festival, music news, Wagner

Gramophone 2019: A Letter from Seattle

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Here’s a little contribution from me to this month’s Gramophone magazine:

Across the United States, the pressure is on to redefine longstanding classical music institutions that otherwise face potential extinction….

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Filed under: Gramophone, music news, Seattle Opera, Seattle Symphony

Artistry and Humanity at the 2019 Concours Musical International de Montréal: Violin Edition

My report on the 2019 Concours Musical International de Montréal:

The 2019 edition of the Concours musical international de Montréal (CMIM), devoted this year to the violin, started off with added pressure – for the organisers, that is. Because of the convergence of several of the most high-profile violin tournaments elsewhere this spring – from Auckland to Augsburg, from Sendai to Brussels – the recently completed CMIM also had to compete with the competitions.

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Filed under: competitions, music news, violinists

Bernard Haitink Announces Retirement

Now it’s official: Bernard Haitink has announced that he will conduct his last concert on  September 2019 in Lucerne. His farewell: Bruckner’s Seventh (along with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with Murray Perahia as the soloist).

Filed under: conductors, Lucerne Festival, music news

Ludovic Morlot Named Seattle Symphony Conductor Emeritus

This announcement just in from Seattle Symphony:

Seattle Symphony Board Chair René Ancinas and President & CEO Krishna Thiagarajan announced today that Ludovic Morlot, the Seattle Symphony’s Harriet Overton Stimson Music Director, has been named to a new position, the Judith Fong Conductor Emeritus, in recognition of his exceptional role in the transformation of the Seattle Symphony over the past eight years. Morlot steps down as Music Director at the end of the current season, becoming Conductor Emeritus this fall. He will be succeeded by Music Director Designate Thomas Dausgaard, who has served as the Seattle Symphony’s Principal Guest Conductor since 2014.

The lifetime title of Conductor Emeritus is being bestowed on Morlot in recognition of his past accomplishments and his future relationship with the orchestra. Morlot will return for regular guest conducting engagements and will have the opportunity to continue working with the orchestra on future recordings, tours and residencies when the Music Director is not available. As Conductor Emeritus, Morlot will continue his fruitful relationship with the Seattle Symphony, which has resulted in an expanded orchestra, nearly 60 commissions and premieres, 19 recordings on the Seattle Symphony Media label, five Grammy Awards, and Gramophone’s Orchestra of the Year Award.

Filed under: Ludovic Morlot, music news, Seattle Symphony

1st Prize Winner in Montréal: Hao Zhou

Hao Zhou

Hao Zhou for the first time playing the brand-new violin and bow handmade by the Maker’s Forum — gifted to him as first prize winner

Heartiest congratulations to U.S. violinist Hao Zhou, who won first prize at the 2019 Concours musical international de Montréal, as well as the Radio-Canada People’s Prize. And to second prize winner Johanna Pichlmair, who played the Brahms concerto, and Fumika Mohri, who took third prize for her account of the Sibelius concerto.

Mr. Zhou’s prize includes $30,000 from the City of Montreal, the Joseph-Rouleau career development grant of $50,000 from the Azrieli Foundation, a violin and bow handmade by the Maker’s Forum (valued at $20,000), an artist residency at Canada’s Banff Centre for the Arts, and a concert engagement at the New Generation Festival.

The distinguished jury was presided over by Zarin Mehta and included Pierre Amoyal (France), Kim Kashkashian U.S.), Boris Kuschnir (Austria), Cho-Liang Lin (U.S.), Mihaela Martin (Romania), Barry Shiffman (Canada), Dmitry Sitkovetsky (UK/U.S.), and Pavel Vernikov (Israel/Switzerland).

Here is Hao Zhou in his prize-winning performance last night of the First Violin Concerto by Dmitri Shostakovich (with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal conducted by Alexander Shelley):

Here is Johanna Pichlmair’s soulful Brahms Concerto:

And the remarkable Fumika Mohri plays the Sibelius here:

Filed under: competitions, music news, violinists

Innovations — and Results — at the California Symphony

Based in the Bay Area suburb Walnut Creek, the California Symphony has been getting some amazing results from its outreach programs in recent years, according to the story Shaking Up the Symphony by Laura Fraser in the April issue of Southwest: The Magazine. Since being “on the brink of financial collapse” in 2014, writes Fraser, “ticket sales have increased by 70 percent, concerts are frequently added to keep up with the demand, and the number of donors has nearly quadrupled” — all since Aubrey Bergauer began her tenure as executive director.

Fraser interviewed music director Donato Calabra as well, who said: “People think that to bring in younger audiences you need ‘The Symphony Meets the Beatles,’ but a Beethoven symphony is amazing to anyone. You don’t have to ‘symphonize’ pop music. We needed to change the experience, not the repertoire.”

Jeremy Reynolds of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette follows up on the story in this article. Even though the California Symphony’s budget and audience are a fraction of PSO’s, he explores possible lessons that may be drawn for much larger organizations from California’s success.

Filed under: music news

Esa-Pekka Salonen to San Francisco Symphony

The ever-adventurous Esa-Pekka Salonen will take over the reins from Michael Tilson Thomas to lead San Francisco Symphony after Michael Tilson Thomas steps down in 2020.

From Michael Cooper’s report in the New York Times about this decidedly inspired choice:

“He definitely is somebody who has that sense of the interesting mission that the West Coast has been on for a while, and he has certainly been a part of it,” Mr. Thomas said, adding: “I’ve always felt with the San Francisco Symphony, since I first began to work with them, that they are really up for looking at things in new ways.”

From the San Francisco Symphony press release:

“From the very first approach, the San Francisco Symphony leaders and musicians and I were buzzing with
possibilities,” said Esa-Pekka Salonen. “The ‘what-ifs’ of the orchestra world were suddenly on the table in a real
way. Here is a top symphony orchestra in the place in America where things start; where the ways things have always
been done are interrogated, and where problems are first identified and then solved. In San Francisco itself and in
the San Francisco Symphony, I see both the big ideas being thought and the actual work being done, and that, to me,
is irresistible.
I wasn’t looking for another Music Directorship. I am so proud of the work we did together at the Swedish Radio
Orchestra, at the LA Philharmonic, and at the Philharmonia Orchestra, and that those organizations where I’ve held
music director titles thrive without me gives me great joy. But there was a ‘no brainer’ aspect to this that I’ve been
fortunate to have experienced a few times before in my career, so I know it when I see it. The San Francisco
Symphony is an ensemble and an organization at the top of their game, renowned for their interpretations of
masterpieces and unafraid to treat new works the same way. They have had the powerhouse combination of
Michael’s exacting musicality and freedom of spirit for 25 years: a legacy I’m privileged to inherit.“

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Filed under: conductors, music news

Interview with Nodoka Okisawa, the First Woman To Take the Top Prize at the Tokyo International Music Competition for Conducting

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Nodoka Okisawa (c) Min-On Concert Association

Here is Part Two of my coverage of the 18th Tokyo International Music Competition for Conducting in 2018: a profile of first prize winner Nodoka Okisawa. (Part One is here.)

It took just a couple hours after her performance for the results to be announced: but the effect of Nodoka Okisawa’s victory at the 18th Tokyo International Music Competition for Conducting will continue to unfold for years to come.

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Filed under: conductors, music news, Nodoka Okisawa

Measure for Measure: 18th Tokyo International Music Competition for Conducting

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From left to right: Kanade Yokoyama, Nodoka Okisawa, and Masaru Kumakura
(c) Min-On Concert Association

Here’s Part One of my report on the 18th Tokyo International Music Competition for Conducting. (Part Two, an interview with first prize winner Nodoka Okisawa, is here.)

Competitions have become an essential rite of passage for professional classical musicians. Take a look at the artists’ biographies in a random program and lists of victories occupy a prominent position. The premise of powerful young talents finding the entrée to recognition through a public showdown has inspired art itself — think Wagner’s Die Meistersinger — and even ancient mythology (things could go very badly when daring to vie with the gods, as in the contest of the satyr Marsyas with Apollo).

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Part Two, a focus on the first prize winner Nodoka Okisawa, will be published shortly.

Filed under: conductors, music news

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