MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

The Magic Lute: Aaron Grad’s New Concerto for Electronic Theorbo

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Aaron Grad

My story for the Seattle Times on Aaron Grad’s Strange Seasons, which will receive its world premiere this weekend:

Stories of falling head over heels for an instrument are not unusual. What is unusual is love at first sight — or sound — when that instrument is the theorbo….

 

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Filed under: new music, Seattle Times

Reena Esmail: Musical America’s New Artist of the Month

reena-esmail-amber2I had the privilege of writing this profile of the remarkable young composer Reena Esmail, Musical America‘s New Artist of the Month:

At Chorus America’s annual conference this past June in Los Angeles, a general session devoted to the topic “The Medicine of Music” featured a singalong demonstration of a new interactive choral work titled Take What You Need.

It wasn’t only the members of Street Symphony and the Urban Voices Project, a community choir of singers from LA’s Skid Row neighborhood, who appeared transformed as they sang this music by Reena Esmail. The large audience of choral professionals from around America joined in, visibly moved by this confirmation of musical meaning.

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Filed under: Musical America, new music, profile

At Play and In Flight: Some Recent Summer Festival Concerts with Seattle Chamber Music Society

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composer-vocalist Lisa Bielawa; photo by Daniel Clark

The Seattle Chamber Music Society’s 2017 Summer Festival has now reached its midway point, with a delicious program last night devoted to French music (in honor of Bastille Day). The Taiwanese-American violinist Paul Huang in particular stood out (in the free prelude concert) with an account of César Franck’s Violin Sonata that was simultaneously passionate and also lucidly constructed. Paige Roberts Molloy matched Huang’s intensity with her strong keyboard personality.

Molloy played a big role in the main course itself, teaming with Max Levinson for a pair of four-hands piano delights: Debussy’s early Petite Suite and Bizet’s Jeux d’enfants (source of the orchestral Petite Suite we heard not long ago from the Seattle Symphony and Morlot).

The duo teased out the textural richness of the four-hands writing and also enjoyed teasing the audience with the ample humor of music-as-mimicry (especially in Bizet’s sonic imaginings of children at play). A similar angle, but magnified to a small ensemble of ten players, enlivened the concluding work, Saint-Saëns’ Carnaval des Animaux. Each of the composer’s clever vignettes was neatly etched and characterized, from the two-note joke of “Le coucou au fond des bois” (Anthony McGill as luxury casting on clarinet) to lightly shaded mystery in “Aquarium.”

Together with the less-often-heard piano suites, the hyper-familiar Saint-Saëns acquired a fresh coat of childlike wonder — or the wonder resulting from grown artists reimagining and trying to recapture something of that wonder. In that context, it also provoked some interesting questions about this particular subfield of “program music.” In contrast, say, to a grandiose R. Strauss tone poem, is it the miniaturism here — in terms of instrumentation as well as size — that makes these pieces tend to be more “about” a textural gesture?

Those works in turn made for an unusual context in which to revisit the String Quartet in F major by another great poet of childhood, Maurice Ravel. Huang, playing first violin, was joined by violinist Tessa Lark, Cynthia Phelps on viola, and Ronald Thomas on cello. They gave an engaging performance that paid special attention to Ravel’s fascinating rhythmic language, with remarkably vivid ensemble playing for the second and fourth movements.  They also succeeded in balancing structural clarity with a drive and boldness that, from less-experienced musicians, might have risked murkiness.

Fictional Migrations

This Summer Festival week began with the excitement of a world premiere. The program on Monday (10 July) unveiled this year’s commission by the SCMS Commissioning Club: Fictional Migrations by Lisa Bielawa. An important and original voice among today’s composers, she is also a performer and has toured as a vocalist with the Philip Glass Ensemble.

The prolific Bielawa, born in San Francisco in 1968, has recently been earning widespread attention in the contemporary-music scene for her ambitious, trail-blazing, highly collaborative Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch’s AccuserIt’s a “made-for-TV-and-online opera” in a dozen episodes focusing on a gifted teenage girl who becomes obsessed with female visionaries across history.

Somehow among her many other projects, Bielawa found time to write the 12-minute Fictional Migrations. The fact that the piece is scored for flute, French horn, and piano is your first clue to its unusual character. Bielawa pointed out that she was initially intrigued — if not intimidated — by the challenge inherent in working with such an apparently “absurd” sonic combination.

Her approach is to avoid futile attempts at “homogenizing” these three instruments into something tamer but rather to accentuate, even exaggerate, their distinctive characters. In her introductory note, Bielawa points out that she also wanted to develop some “reveries” prompted by another composer she deeply admires, Olivier Messiaen. The latter was a household staple when she was growing up, since both of her musician parents were fans of the French master. Fictional Migrations is dedicated to the memory of Messiaen (in observance of the 25th anniversary of his death).

The most obvious Messiaenic influence is Bielawa’s allusion to birds and birdsong, a signature inspiration for Messiaen’s musical language. She writes that she had in mind the story of  Alcyone from ancient Greek mythology “who, thinking her lover Ceyx is dead, throws herself into the sea, only to find herself transformed into a bird, flying towards him (also now in bird form).”

Bielawa also notes an impetus from “speculative fiction and the new surge of minority and feminist writers who are embracing this form — a cousin of science fiction that poses the question ‘What if?’ in relation to current cultural narratives.”

Fictional Migrations is not a piece of straight-ahead program music. Bielawa has instead constructed a “fictional” encounter among these very different sonorities. There’s not even an obvious throughline correspondence between the instruments and characters of the Alcyone story. Rather, Bielawa translates the pattern of Ovidian metamorphosis into instrumental terms: the flute and horn in particular at times play “themselves” but more often than not seem to be attempting to transcend their identities, to become something else — and to negate the gendered stereotypes of how they should sound. Bielawa shows that process at the very beginning, with an aleatoric section for piccolo at its most aggressive and shrill.

What’s more, the writing is hyper-virtuosic and highly individual for each instrument, so they are not encouraged to fuse into pleasant but bland “harmony.” The players were all first-rate. Lorna McGhee’s piccolo/flute conveyed an astonishing array of moods and affects, brilliantly articulated, while hornist Jeffrey Fair never lost his golden tone amid the dangerously difficult registral transitions. Bielawa had collaborated with pianist Andrew Armstrong, but a last-minute “cooking accident” sidelined him; in his stead, Jeewon Park accomplished the heroic feat of mastering the keyboard part, which is replete with thunderous, heavy waves and intricately nuanced figurations.

Bielawa has created an immersive, provocative soundscape, filled with “made-up birds,” she writes, that “exist in a world where prisoners fly out of captivity effortlessly, and we all magically transcend death and suffering.”

Framing the premiere were two pieces that also deviate from the chamber music “norm” in their scoring. The opener was Mozart’s K. 423 Duo for Violin and Viola in G major, with violinist Augustin Hadelich’s silky, exquisite phrasing itself was worth the price of admission; his partner was Michael Klotz, playing his viola with patrician refinement.

And a blockbuster to conclude: Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet, with its double bass instead of a second violin to give an ampler sound. The players — Andrew Wan (violin), Richard O’Neill (viola), Ronald Thomas (cello), Joseph Kaufman (bass), and George Li (piano) — collaborated with in-the-moment flashes of color and expression that are what you hope for in live chamber music.

Review (c) 2017 Thomas May — All rights reserved

Filed under: chamber music, new music, review, Seattle Chamber Music Society

A Mind-Expanding Evening with Seattle Symphony

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Carl Nielsen (1865-1931); photo from 1908

Last night was the first of two programs being led this month by Thomas Dausgaard, Seattle Symphony’s principal guest conductor. If you want to experience how Carl Nielsen’s symphonic music can deliver some of the most lofty moments in the concert hall, Dausgaard is the one to be your guide.

The symphonic music of Nielsen, the conductor’s fellow Dane, still awaits the level of recognition by the public at large that would be anywhere near commensurate with its quality. Dausgaard’s commanding interpretation last night made it clear that he regards this music on a par with the symphonies of Nielsen’s symphonist contemporaries, Sibelius and Mahler (whose Tenth Symphony Dausgaard has recorded with the SSO).

Last season Dausgaard led the SSO in Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony (“The Inextinguishable”). Unfortunately I had to miss that performance though I later heard lots of good buzz about it. One result is that it was decided at the last minute while planning the current season to make room for the Third Symphony from 1910-11.

I can see why. This is one of those remarkable collaborations between conductor and orchestra that simply works, for whatever reasons of chemistry and collective inspiration. It’s similar to how music director Ludovic Morlot has managed to turn the SSO into one of today’s premier exponents of Dutilleux.

Even without a history of being steeped in this music — of  performing it over a long period (on the part of the players, that is) — the Nielsen sounded vital and necessary. The Third abounds in interpretive enigmas. Take, for instance, the title, Sinfonia espansiva, even though it’s not a particularly epic work. There’s also the issue of Nielsen’s scoring, which adds a solo soprano and baritone to the soundscape, but only for a portion of one movement (and without words — they’re just used as a timbral addition, though in context it seems they are symbolic, too).

Nielsen resorts to a conventional four-movement plan, but his originality permeates the Third. The powerful unison chords on A that launch the piece make for one of the most striking starts of any symphony — the Eroica‘s industrial revolution factories turned into something cosmic. (The opening of John Adams’s Harmonielehre also comes to mind.)

Nielsen goes on to stage the fundamental symphonic idea of conflict in an extraordinary way. It’s as if the two main impulses of the work — the primal urgency of the opening and an elated, out-of-doors exuberance of being lost in nature (one possible signification of the expansiveness intended) — are unfolding on separate tracks, within and across its movements.

Yet, in Dausgaard’s reading, they made sense as complementary, ultimately striving towards a synthesis. This is music the conductor has obviously internalized. Dausgaard conducted without score or stand to impede his interactions with the SSO, and from those opening shocks, he seemed to command an overview of the entire trajectory of the piece, through all its details.

Here was another sense of expansion: simple seeds that can sprout into something majestic. But Nielsen’s originality is to suggest that through ellipsis … He doesn’t need a gigantic movement, in which we see every frame, to get the point across.

The Andante pastorale was especially beguiling, almost implying a creation-of-the-world scenario that was far more than bucolic daytripping. The entrance of the male and female human voices (John Taylor Ward and Estelí Gomez, literally singing from on high in the organ loft) became the Nielsenesque equivalent of the evolution Mahler scopes out in his massive Third, but telescoped into a frame that seemed almost casual. The Rheingoldish E-flat major of the Andante‘s gentle ending was a moment to savor — such beautiful work from Jeffrey Baker on flute and Jeff Fair leading the dulcet horns.

Dausgaard elicited many other examples of superb solo work but also shaped the score’s contrapuntal richness in full dimension, allowing for light and shade and clarifying lines in the mid- and background as well.  The almost manic dynamism of Nielsen’s climaxes emerged in doses of controlled ecstasy. Sinfonia espansiva turned out to be an epic in compact form.

Patrons were invited to stay on after Thursday’s concert to continue exploring Nielsen: a special dessert (Thursday only) offered the String Quartet No. 4 in F major, performed with fervor by violinist Stephen Bryant and violist Timothy Hale (both SSO players) and UW music students Erin Kelly (violin) and  Chris Young (cello).

The concert’s first half featured a U.S. premiere: Snow, the second number in a pair of compositions by Helen Grime inspired by the artist Joan Eardley (1921-63). (The first is Catterline in Winter.) Dausgaard, who also serves as chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, joined with the BBC to commission these as part of a series called Scottish Inspirations. Snow was premiered at the 2016 Proms.

Helen Grime, who was born in 1981 and grew up in Scotland, spoke in an interview with the SSO’s Andrew Stiefel of what attracted her to Eardley’s paintings: “There’s a real bleakness that I think Eardley brings across beautifully in her paintings. You immediately get a strong feeling of the landscape, of the place, and of being there.”

(c) DACS/Anne Morrison; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Snow, Joan Eardley, c. 1958

Lasting about 9 minutes, Snow is an accomplished mini-tone poem of considerable imagination. “I wasn’t trying to re-create [the Eardley paintings] as musical pictures,” Grime remarks. “I wanted it to be like you were imagining the same scene in different ways.”

Grime showed herself to be a highly skilled orchestrator, but instead of using her large orchestral apparatus merely to create an atmospheric haze, Snow conveys a distinct impression of “moving on” to a different place by the end — what we’ve heard, the sounds that have happened, matter.

Also on the first half was a welcome return visit by Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto for Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. Kuusisto made quite an impression with the Sibelius Concerto when Dausgaard invited him as part of his three-part Sibelius cycle in spring 2015.

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a moment of interaction between violin soloist Pekka Kuusisto and Thomas Dausgaard; photo (c) Brandon Patoc

From that memory, I expected Kuusisto to take a notably original approach to such a familiar score, and he did not disappoint.  He played up the contrast between where Mendelssohn famously starts out (with the soloist joining in almost at once) and where he takes us by the end. In this, Dausgaard was completely on the same page. It was fascinating to witness the active interactions and gestures between the two. The first movement had an added note of defiance to its pathos, while in the sparkling finale Kuusisto became a trickster, teasing and inciting the orchestra.

As with the Nielsen, here was an enigma: there’s something self-effacing about Kuusisto, yet he radiates a strong personality. He was at his finest in the middle Andante, phrased with the direct, unaffected emotions of the most serene folk song. And in an encore, Kuusisto showed another side of traditional folk music-making, with a slyly humorous performance of an example from his native Finland.

If you go: the program repeats Friday and Saturday (June 9 and 10); next week Dausgaard leads the SSO in an all-Strauss program (Four Last Songs and An Alpine Symphony), on June 15 and 17. Tickets at the links provided or call  206.215.4747.

(c) 2017 Thomas May. All rights reserved. 

Filed under: new music, review, Seattle Symphony

Spoleto Festival USA: Relishing the Challenge

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Adrian Angelico (Marquise de Merteuil) and  Christian Miedl (Valmont); photo by Leigh Webber Photography

Part Two of my report on the 2017 edition of Spoleto Festival USA is now live on Musical America (subscription required):

CHARLESTON, SC—Last year marked the 40th anniversary of Spoleto Festival USA, but this year’s edition underscores what I regard as one of the festival’s most admirable traits: a refusal to rest on laurels. Spoleto took a notable dare in programming Luca Francesconi’s profoundly unsettling Quartett among this summer’s opera offerings.

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Filed under: Musical America, new music, review, Spoleto Festival USA

Music of Remembrance’s Latest Program Is Also Music of Our Time

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Stojka, Ceija. “Hiding”. Courtesy of Pat and Marcus Meier

My story for The Seattle Times on Music of Remembrance’s latest commission (details on the concert here):

Mary Kouyoumdjian’s to open myself, to scream, inspired by Roma artist and Holocaust survivor Ceija Stojka, is at the center of MOR’s May 21 program. “Our mission is to speak out for oppressed people,” says MOR founder Mina Miller.

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Filed under: commissions, Music of Remembrance, new music, Seattle Times

Seattle Symphony’s [untitled] 3: Wow!

Friday night brought the season finale of Seattle Symphony’s innovative — and always fun — late night [untitled] series. As usual, the affair offered a program of adventurous and far-ranging chamber music, here linked by the personalities of two powerfully individual artists who feel familiar yet who remain mysteriously unfathomable.

“I am deeply superficial,” goes one of the bon mots — or Warholian koans —  in Andy Warhol Sez, a collection of seven brief pieces for bassoon and piano by American composer Paul Moravec. Each is prefaced by the bassoonist reciting a quotation from Warhol, followed by bassoon-keyboard duets that either further ironize or contradict the statement — or perhaps have nothing to do with it at all.

Moravec wrote AW Sez for David Sogg, a bassoonist with the Pittsburgh Symphony, in Warhol’s native city, but it seemed tailor-made for SSO principal Seth Krimsky. His drily sardonic recitations gave way to spirited playing that conjured multiple personalities.

Cristina Valdés, who supplied theatrically appealing counterpoint from the keyboard, returned for the second work, Tinkling or killing time in an airport lounge (and being arrested) by Yannis Kyriakides, a composer now based in the Netherlands.  The inspiration here was a scene from the documentary Thelonius Monk: Straight, No Chaser, in which the jazz legend was found wandering around Logan Airport and taken by the police to the state hospital and released after a week of observation.

Elena Dubinets, SSO’s Vice President of Artistic Planning, explained that Kyriakides created a virtual mini-piano concerto, giving a demanding and prominent role to the pianist, who frames the piece, which is based on Monk’s song Trinkle Tinkle.  Valdés conveyed the hypnotic fascination of the writing flawlessly,  which certainly mirrors the composer’s description of the airport scene: “Monk [was] seen spinning around like a whirling dervish in an airport space.”] SSO Associate Conductor Pablo Rus Broseta, leading the chamber ensemble, allowed space for the most eccentric gestures to register without sacrificing rhythmic precision.

The rest of the program was filled out by a winning and generous “sample” of a larger work: Andy: A Popera, courtesy of the Philadelphia-based collective The Bearded Ladies Cabaret. This is not a “bio-opera” but a fanciful, whimsical, at times unexpectedly incisive music theater hybrid that loosely riffs on images of an artist who was all about riffing on images.

The score itself is characteristically unclassifiable, a seamless mingling of contributions by company member Heath Allen and Dan Visconti, to a libretto and direction by the insanely talented John Jarboe (Bearded Ladies’ artistic director).

Gender is merely one category that becomes dizzyingly fluid in this show, which resurrects the artist’s mother, Julia Warhol (Malgorzata Kasprzycka) and presents the Birth of a Legend as Andrei (Mary Tuomanen) emerges from a sealed cardboard box, wielding a little camera and pinpointing members of the audience at random for their (diluted) 15 seconds of fame.

As Candy Darling, Warhol’s meta-tragic Superstar, Scott McPheeters commanded attention across the multi-level set, dying a Dido-ish death and glorying in Rebecca Kanach’s flowing, billowing costumes.

The five-member chorus was first rate, backed by a mostly rock/pop-style band that also featured SSO violinist Mikhail Shmidt on viola. The confluence of pop and classical trained voices never jarred but sounded utterly convincing — a tool to ratchet up emotions just when needed.

The whole experience was so lively and enjoyable, it seemed to end too quickly. “An artist is somebody who produces things that people don’t need to have,” according to Andy Warhol. But, as he knew, who can also make people have the need.

(c)2017 Thomas May – All rights reserved

Filed under: Andy Warhol, new music, review, Seattle Symphony

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.

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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…

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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.

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

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