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

A Report on Maerzmusik 2019, Berlin’s New Music Festival

Olga Neuwirth, Peter Rundel, and Kunsthausorchester Berlin

Olga Neuwirth, Peter Rundel, and Kunsthausorchester Berlin

Here’s a report on the recent edition of Maerzmusik, Berlin’s new music festival, which I wrote for Musical America.

BERLIN — In this festival-loving capital, MaerzMusik: Festival for Issues about Time has become a magnet for new music enthusiasts. The ten-day series of events (held from March 22-31 this year) is presented under the aegis of the Berliner Festspiele, the umbrella organization that also runs the annual Theatertreffen and Musikfest Berlin, among several other festivals.

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Filed under: Berliner Festspiele, Maerzmusik, Musical America, new music

A Composer’s Final Work Contains ‘Visions’ of an American Master

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The composer George Walker died last summer at 96. He was a close friend of the artist Frank Schramm, who documented his final years in photographs. Photo (c) Frank Schramm

My New York Times article on the late George Walker is now online and will be in the Sunday Arts section.

SEATTLE — Last fall, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery began to display, among its recent acquisitions, a photograph of the composer George Walker. It shows him close up, his right index finger and thumb bearing down on a pencil with the precision of a surgeon, at work on the manuscript score of his Sinfonia No. 5.

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Filed under: American music, George Walker, new music, New York Times

Clocks Without Hands at Maerzmusik


Looking forward to this concert tonight: orchestral works by Ashley Fure, Justė Janulytė, and Olga Neuwirth. Program book here.
https://www.ricordi.com/de-DE/News/2015/06/Neuwirth-Masaot.aspx

Filed under: Maerzmusik, MärzMusik, new music, Olga Neuwirth

Kinan Azmeh’s Ambitious, Wondrous New Double Album: Uneven Sky

When he has time to recharge is a well-kept secret, but soon after introducing his impressive Clarinet Concerto at Seattle Symphony in February, the Syrian clarinetist and composer Kinan Azmeh released Uneven Sky, an ambitious and far-ranging double album he recorded with the Berlin-based Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester — a city where Azmeh is especially loved, making frequent appearances with his various musical partners at the Pierre Boulez Saal in the center of the city. Manuel Nawri is the conductor.

What a cornucopia this is. The first CD is filled with three of Azmeh’s own compositions. He also plays the solo clarinet parts here, kicking off with a signature piece, Suite for Improvisor and Orchestra from 2008. It’s a signature piece not only because of the mesmerizing personality and virtuosity this artist radiates with his instrument, but also because it exemplifies the centrality of improvisational creativity in Azmeh’s philosophy. In his own words, he “tries to blur the lines between the composed and improvised,” which comes from “my belief that the best written music is the one that sounds spontaneous and improvised, and the best improvisation is the one that sounds structured and composed.”

He continues with the sublime Ibn Arabi Suite, inspired by the great medieval Arab Muslim mystic, philosopher, and poet who traveled widely and reached the end of his life in Azmeh’s native city of Damascus. It was commissioned and premiered by the Osnabrück Symphony in 2013. He partners here with fellow Syrian Dima Orsho, a soprano who, like Azmeh, completed her musical education in the U.S. Azmeh explains that the Suite was “inspired by a school of thought in which free thinking is sacred as much as the religious beliefs. [It] reflects a journey from the rather minimalist opening Prelude through the reflective middle movement Recitation and ending with what can only be described as an obsessive ritualistic dance in the concluding Postlude.”

The third composition, The Fence, the Rooftop and the Distant Sea, is a duo Azmeh wrote for himself and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, which they introduced at the Hamburg Elbphilharmonie in 2017. In the composer’s words: “A fence, a rooftop, and the distant sea were all present facing my desk while I finished the piece in Beirut in December 2016. These elements were a reminder of how near my hometown of Damascus was, yet how far it seemed after being away for five years. The piece is about the random memories of individuals, more precisely about two characters searching for memories from home…”

On the second CD, Azmeh appears as the soloist in three concertos written specifically for him, each by a different Syrian composer whom he admires. First comes Adrift on the Wine-Dark Sea by Kareem Roustom (born 1971), who, like Azmeh, resettled in the U.S. Roustom provides this commentary: “”The clarinet plays the role of Odysseus/refugee and the orchestra the role of the sea and all the hurdles that stand in the way of home/refuge … [concluding with what] could be a peaceful place of refuge or … an afterlife. It is up to the listener to decide the fate of Odysseus/refugee.”

Zaid Jabri (born 1975), who was mentored by Krzysztof Penderecki and is now based in Norway, wrote his Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra on the request of Azmeh, who decided to introduce a new work with the Syrian National Orchestra on the occasion of the opening of the new opera house in Damascus in happier times in 2004. The score was considered “too contemporary,” however, such that only a part of it was played at the opening. This recording offers the entire, nearly half-hour work unadulterated.

Closing the second CD is the work from an earlier generation of Syrian composers: Suite for Clarinet and Orchestra (“Paroles”) by Dia Succari (1938-2010). Succari moved on to Paris, studying with Messiaen and himself remaining mostly active in France. Explains Ara Guzelimian of the Juilliard School: “[Succari] devoted himself to a deep study of the maqam, the system of melodic modes which is the basis of composition and improvisation in traditional Arabic music. Messiaen himself noted in a letter that Succari’s music is based on ‘rhythms and modes of Arab character’ while never falling into the trap of imitating folkloric music. That subtle balance is at the heart of Succari’s atmospheric Paroles (2005/06) for clarinet and orchestra, which filters its Arabic references through an unmistakably French orchestral sonority and sensibility, much as Debussy and Ravel evoked Iberia in an earlier generation.”

Filed under: clarinet, Kinan Azmeh, new music

Seattle Symphony’s Octave 9

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Derek Bermel, left, and Seth Parker Woods perform in Octave 9, Seattle Symphony’s new performance venue. Parker Woods is curating… (James Holt / Seattle Symphony)

My Seattle Times story on the newly launched Octave 9 space and the upcoming 24-hour contemporary music marathon:

Octave 9, the name of Seattle Symphony’s new performance venue, hints at the sense of potential yet to be tapped: The modern concert grand piano is limited to a standard range below eight octaves. Designed for artists who want to reach for that metaphorical extra octave and beyond, the space has been outfitted with cutting-edge digital acoustic and visual technology.

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Filed under: new music, programming, Seattle Symphony

World Premiere of Dreamers

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If you can’t make the world premiere of Dreamers this weekend by composer Jimmy López and playwright Nilo Cruz, don’t miss the live stream of Sunday afternoon’s concert (3pm West Coast time). Esa-Pekka Salonen is the conductor.

For more background, here’s my preview of a work that could not be more timely.

Filed under: Cal Performances, Jimmy López, new music

Derek Bermel at Octave 9

This afternoon, in Seattle Symphony’s new Octave 9 space, Derek Bermel and friends present Brooklyn to Ballard. The program, featuring cellist Seth Parker Woods, pianist Ethan Iverson, and Seattle Symphony musicians, will focus on the permutations of jazz and its inspiration on a wide range of composers. Bermel additionally collaborates with Seattle-based visual artist Barbara Earl Thomas.

Filed under: American music, new music, Seattle Symphony

Pēteris Vasks in Seattle: Light and Faith

Many thanks to flutist extraordinaire Paul Taub for making this memorable portrait concert of Pēteris Vasks happen, together with the Baltic Arts Northwest Council and the Nordic Museum. Despite the ongoing Seattle snowmageddon, with a fresh onslaught starting mid-afternoon, the matinee event proceeded as planned.

The 72-year-old Latvian composer was in attendance and warmly thanked Taub and his fellow musicians for their heartfelt renditions of his music. Joining Taub were the Skyros Quartet (Sarah Pizzichemi, Rachel Pearson, Justin Kurys, and Willie Braun), the chamber vocal Mägi Ensemble, and Travis Gore on double bass.

Beginning with Taub’s enchanting account of Ainavar ar putniem (Landscape with Birds) from 1980, the program offered an excellent sampling of pieces solo and chamber, vocal and instrumental. Travis Gore played the solo Bass Trip (2003), and the Mägi Ensemble gave the U.S. premiere of the version for women’s voices of Plainscapes (which exists in versions for 8-voice choir plus violin and cello as well as piano trio); they were accompanied by Pizzichemi on violin and Braun on cello. The Mägis also sang a set of folk songs — including the cycle Dzimtene (Motherland) — that display Vasks’s intriguing treatment of archaic material and technique.

I especially loved the solo Sonata (1992) for flute/alto flute and how Taub sensitively conveyed Vasks’s musical “borrowings” from nature, from bird calls and animal sounds. Similar devices grace the String Quartet No. 2 (1984), titled Vasaras dziedājumi (“Summer Tunes”). The Skyros wove its alluring atmospheres, suggesting the connections between the composer’s well-known reverence for nature and his spirituality in this pantheistic soundscape, touched too by genuine melancholy.

From an interview with Vasks quoted in the program notes by Guntis Šmidchens: “Right now it seems to me that there is so little time left, I have to write about light and faith. All the dramas and complications, let’s leave those aside … Music must knock you out of the everyday. But the main thing is that this doesn’t lead to collapse, that after the shock there should be spiritual purification… There’s a feeling that our life is too lukewarm. Lacking ideals, lacking faith. If you have no faith, how can you live?”

Filed under: chamber music, new music, Pēteris Vasks

New Concertos by Caroline Shaw and Kinan Azmeh at Seattle Symphony

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Caroline Shaw, Jonathan Biss, and Ludovic Morlot with Seattle Symphony; photo (c) Brandon Patoc

My coverage of recent world premieres by Caroline Shaw and Kinan Azmeh has now been posted at Musical America.

SEATTLE—As Ludovic Morlot’s final season at the helm of the Seattle Symphony gets closer to the final stretch, his legacy of nurturing new music is coming into sharper relief. The SSO’s last two programs in particular—otherwise so strikingly different in character and mood—each unveiled commissions that took the form of brand-new concertos of genuine distinction: Watermark, Caroline Shaw’s score for pianist Jonathan Biss; and a moving work composed by and for the brilliant clarinetist Kinan Azmeh.

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Kinan Azmeh with Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot premiering his new Clarinet Concerto; photo (c) Brandon Patoc

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Filed under: Caroline Shaw, Kinan Azmeh, Ludovic Morlot, new music, Seattle Symphony, Silk Road Project

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