MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Philip Glass at 80

The tyrants, war-mongers, and profiteers come and go, as predictable as they are destructive: and they make life hell for all around them.

But it’s possible to feel hope when we consider the immense power that comes from creative personalities who use their gifts to radiate what’s best in humanity. All the more reason to take stock of how our artists and performers so generously enhance our lives with their creative contributions.

A very happy 80th birthday indeed to the marvelous, magnanimous Philip Glass. He has changed the way we listen to music, opening up new vistas of perception and beauty.

A handy list of upcoming events to mark Glass at 80 is here on the composer’s website.

From my recent essay for  Los Angeles Opera on their moving production of Akhnaten directed by Phelim McDermott:

Numbers, chanted in hypnotic patterns, set the stage for Philip Glass’s first opera, Einstein on the Beach, and the very idea of numbers underlies the revolution depicted in his third, Akhnaten: the monotheistic revolution instigated by the opera’s pharaoh-protagonist, who fatefully attempts to replace ancient Egypt’s traditional polytheistic order with the one god Aten.

continue reading

Filed under: new music, Philip Glass

Christopher Cerrone’s Liminal Highway

The remarkable composer Christopher Cerrone has posted excerpts from Liminal Highway, his recent work for flute and electronics premiered by Tim Munro (formerly of eighth blackbird fame).

I had the privilege of writing the notes for this and the other works Tim programmed on his New York solo debut concert last fall at Miller Theatre. From my piece on Liminal Highway:

The issue of resonance and how it relates to the process of memory is a central preoccupation in much of Cerrone’s music. As the winner of the 2015 Samuel Barber Rome Prize, he spent his year in the Eternal City exploring the intersections between music, architecture, and acoustics, building an installation in a stairwell in the American Academy…

continue reading

Filed under: electronic music, flute, new music

Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin: A Sea Apart

1380x591_saariahoOn Friday, 1 December 2016, the Metropolitan Opera will premiere its new production of Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin. It will mark the first time since 1903 that the company will have presented an opera by a woman composer.

Here’s my essay for the Met’s Season book on this stunning creation by Kaija Saariaho:

Since its world premiere at the Salzburg Festival in 2000, L’Amour de Loin has earned a place among the most acclaimed stage works of the 21st century. The opera won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for Musical Composition in 2003 and has been performed in Paris, London, Santa Fe, Helsinki, Aspen, Darmstadt, and elsewhere. Yet it took years before Kaija Saariaho became convinced that opera could be a viable medium for what she wanted to express as a composer.

continue reading

Filed under: essay, Metropolitan Opera, new music, Uncategorized

Learning To Listen: Fallujah Brings the Iraq War to the Opera Stage

fallujah

(c) Sarah Shatz/New York City Opera

The tag “CNN opera” was always a misleading way to refer to operas grappling with current events, but it’s downright insulting when it comes to a work like Fallujah, the chamber opera by the Canadian composer Tobin Stokes and the Iraqi-American librettist Heather Raffo that just received its East Coast première in a co-production by New York City Opera and Long Beach Opera.

continue reading

 

Filed under: new music, New York City Opera, review

Jaap van Zweden Takes the New York Philharmonic for a Test Drive

jvz_hans_van_der_woerd_3-263x200

Last week Jaap van Zweden conducted the New York Philharmonic in their first concert together since he was named Alan Gilbert’s successor as music director (starting in the 2018-19 season).

The program was a rich one: the Prelude to Wagner’s Lohengrin, Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, and the New York premiere of a brand-new viola concerto, Unearth, Release, by the highly talented young LA-based composer Julia Adolphe.

My review for Musical America has now been posted (behind the usual paywall):

NEW YORK—Four-and-a-half years after making his New York Philharmonic debut, Jaap van Zweden ascended the podium on Thursday for his first concert with the orchestra since being appointed …

continue reading

Filed under: Musical America, new music, New York Philharmonic, review, Tchaikovsky, Wagner

Listening to Julia Adolphe

Tonight brings the New York Philharmonic’s world premiere of Julia Adolphe’s Viola Concerto for Cynthia Phelps, titled Unearth, Release — along with a bit of Wagner and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, with Jaap van Zweden conducting.

Filed under: new music, New York Philharmonic, Uncategorized

Tim Munro’s Recounting

34zkzv29-1000-667

It’s been hard to fight the despair of the last few days. But we have to move on and focus on our shared humanity. The work of artists is more essential than ever. If you’re in New York, tonight flutist Tim Munro (formerly of eighth blackbird) makes his solo concert debut there in a fascinating program at the Miller Theatre. Here’s my introduction from the program book:

Thresholds and Transitions: Tim Munro’s New York Solo Debut

If there’s one thing you might safely expect from a Tim Munro concert, it’s not merely that it will contain the unexpected, but that the unexpected will hold centerstage. Munro (b. 1978) has pointedly not organized a menu of greatest hits replete with virtuoso pablum for his New York solo debut. Casting aside the standard showcases of silver-toned sweetness, he presents a program entirely of living composers (including two world premieres) who aid and abet Munro’s fascination with the theatrical and performative dimensions of his instrument.

If the avant-garde became known for its preoccupation with “extended-playing” techniques, Munro updates the experimental impulse for the 21st century with a bold vision of what it means to play the flute.

continue reading

Filed under: new music

A Pair of Striking Debuts at Seattle Symphony

5488ee56-9d35-11e6-aac3-ec08c086559c-780x520

Polish soprano/composer Agata Zubel

Along with unveiling a world premiere by composer Agata Zubel, the Seattle Symphony continued its ongoing Beethoven cycle with a rhapsodic contribution by soloist Inon Barnatan at the keyboard.

continue reading

Filed under: Beethoven, new music, review, Seattle Symphony

(Prokofiev) x2 + Beethoven 1 + Beethoven 8 = SSO Triumph

 

 

With their first subscription concert  of the new season, the Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot have already scored a home run.

If you’re a fan of new music, you’ll regret missing this; ditto if you’re fan of the core classical repertoire. That in itself gives a good indication of just how remarkable this program is.

Last weekend I previewed Gabriel Prokofiev’s new work, an SSO commission.Having now heard the first full rehearsal as well as the live world premiere of this music, I’m genuinely thrilled by what Prokofiev has accomplished.

Titled When the City Rules, his new composition is a substantial, vividly imagined, and expertly constructed half-hour-long symphonic fantasia inspired by the phenomenon of the mega-city in contemporary life. It’s not program music in the old-fashioned sense of trying to “translate” a narrative into musical terms.

When I spoke to the composer recently, he said he relished the “magical” way in which music can generate images or feelings “without being super-exact”: how it can negotiate a space between pure abstraction and a medium like film, triggering multiple subjective “plots” according to each listener, since the musical images are so “open to interpretation.”

What he does in When the City Rules is to offer a broad suggestive framework for each of the four movements: an overview of the great, looming city and the life of its citizens (think London of today, where Gabriel Prokofiev resides). His “dramaturgy” juxtaposes the big picture with suggested “close-up” moments of characters or particular feelings.

So the first movement, opening with a beautifully sustained atmosphere of layered strings, evokes “the memories that cities hold” but also the modern city’s power; an “Andante Nostalgico” touches on the melancholy associated with cities and the desire to escape to something more pristine; considerable energy and excitement come to the fore in the third movement, which taps into the nervous, ceaselessly busy energy that not only keeps the city going but is a defining trait; and a “Rondo Brilliante” finale replete with echo effects to bring the work to a bracing climax and conclusion.

But it’s no simple affirmation: by then we’ve encountered a matrix of brooding, even oppressive sounds along with Prokofiev’s most animated writing. It’s tempting to work in a sci-fi level of interpretation, of a city becoming conscious of itself and its rulership over mere mortals.

Of course the four-movement pattern just outlined can suggest a more or less classically oriented symphony as well. The point is, there’s no doubt that When the City Rules is a milestone for Gabriel Prokofiev, whether you want to use that generic touchstone or prefer to approach it as a composition sui generis.

This is no mere patchwork of “impressions” or clever soundscape-vignettes, but an ambitiously conceived large-scale piece that works in real time (though I think it could perhaps benefit from a tad more tightening in a passage here or there).

Even though Gabriel Prokofiev first caught the music industry’s attention thanks to his talent for bridging the worlds of classical music and the electronica of the popular dance club scene — his Concerto for Turntables & Orchestra was featured at the 2011 Proms — When the City Rules is, notably, written entirely for acoustic orchestra, with no electronic “bells and whistles.”

And written with marvelous flair and fluency, using its rich palette in a way that makes the orchestra itself embody a vision of the city, both as ensemble and with its prominent roles for particular protagonists (flute, cello, and trumpet, most notably, and, to wonderful effect in the “nostalgic” slow movement, a solo saxophone).

When the City Rules moreover reveals a composer with a convincing sense of where his short, often rhythmic motifs can take us, of where the music needs to “go.” Anyone expecting a one-trick game — or a repeat of Prokofiev’s orchestral rethink of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s classic “Baby Got Back” (which brought another round of viral fame during his last collaboration with the SSO and Morlot, in 2014) — is in for a big surprise.

The masterfully built-up ostinato patterns that play such a key role in When the City Rules distantly recall a trait of his grandfather, Sergei Prokofiev, as does the tone of darkened, sardonic humor and even menace they sometimes conjure. There’s also a hint of 21st-century Sacre Stravinsky in the tracks of jagged rhythms that crunch and pop.

Prokofiev’s ongoing interest in electronic and dance club music remains present as an ongoing feature. “I think those styles work brilliantly in the concert hall,” he told me, citing the pervasive use of dance rhythms in the most familiar classical music. “They just happen to be dance rhythms that are 200 years old.” And from his work DJing, Prokofiev says he has learned techniques of “mixing and cutting something up —  the way dance music will be manipulated to rise up to climaxes.” These are a contemporary version, in one way, of what Beethoven does with his slicing and recombining of short, potent motifs by way of “development.”

When the City Rules  is an extraordinary achievement, but just as extraordinary is the fact that Morlot and the SSO, within a few days of first reading through the score together, have been able to deliver such a gripping and well-polished interpretation of this music for the premiere. Jeffrey Barker (flute), Efe Baltacıgil (cello), and David Gordon (trumpet) added particular flavor with their vividly characterized solo parts.

Any commission is by definition a risk: I’d like to think the generous patrons who underwrote this one (Norman Sandler and Dale Chihuly) realize what a winner they’ve picked.

 

And Gabriel Prokofiev’s piece was only one of the success stories of the program. Grandfather Sergei was also represented, with a performance of his compact but immensely varied and orchestrally eventful Symphonic Suite from his opera The Love for Three Oranges.

Prokofiev was a master composer for the stage, but he endured an absurd amount of bad luck in that arena. This Suite is an example of some of his best opera music being siphoned off into an arrangement for the concert hall. If Prokofiev’s wash of added percussion proved  overpowering in the most vehement ensemble moments, the precision and balance of the strings were especially admirable. The detailed preparation of the Suite as a whole, with its many virtuosic flourishes,  was nothing short of astounding, considering the amount of attention needed to prepare the brand-new score of the evening.

And then the Beethoven: since these reflections have already gone on at length, I’ll have to defer my more detailed impressions until later in the ongoing Beethoven cycle this season. To quickly sum up: it’s thrilling to observe how much more confident and focused Morlot is becoming in his approach to these icons of the classical rep.

This program in particular, framed by Beethoven’s First Symphony and his Eighth, even replicated something of that growth, with Morlot stepping even further out and taking greater risks in his account of the Eighth Symphony, which rounded this abundant evening of music off with a rousing conclusion.

The program repeats Saturday and Sunday.

(c)2016 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

 

Filed under: Beethoven, Ludovic Morlot, new music, review, Seattle Symphony

Gabriel Prokofiev, Agata Zubel: A New Season of Commissions at Seattle Symphony

gprokofievMy latest piece for the Seattle Times (in the Sunday edition) has now been posted online:

What drives a composer to write music — especially for a group as complex as a symphony orchestra?

The Romantic era has conditioned us to look for the answer in lofty concepts like “self-expression” and “genius.” But that represents only one variable in an intricate equation.

continue reading

Filed under: commissions, Ludovic Morlot, new music, Seattle Symphony

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

RSS Arts & Culture Stories from NPR