MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Recommended Release: Michael Vincent Waller’s Moments

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Almost a year ago, the New York-based composer Michael Vincent Waller told me about a new album he had in the works. The topic came up when I interviewed him for Musical America, which featured Waller as January’s new artist of the month.

The album, titled Moments, came out just last month on the Unseen Worlds label and offers a wonderful entrée into Waller’s musical world. His third album to date, it comprises 18 miniatures, 13 of them for solo piano, the other 5 for vibraphone.

Waller continues his collaboration with R. Andrew Lee, whose sensitive performances at the keyboard were featured on his preceding album, Trajectories (along with the phenomenal cellist Seth Parker Woods). The percussionist William Winant, a well-known personality in avant-garde circles, plays the pieces for vibraphone.

“One thing I’m trying to explore as an artist is the organic, intuitive sense we have about experiences — the human subtext to what is happening in the music, in its colors, harmonies, and melodies,” the composer explained during our talk last year. In Moments, he has distilled a range of experiences with an open-hearted, intimate honesty that resonates long after the ebb and flow of his compositions’ physical sounds.

It’s not necessary to know any of the autobiographical stories or family relationships and loved ones Waller memorializes here to be moved by the emotions they elicit. On another level, Moments pays gentle tribute to musical figures who are part of a generally known cultural repertoire. “For Pauline,” for example, referring to the late Pauline Oliveros, was prompted by her death in November 2016. Its bell-like chords in alternating registers concentrate the attention on the taken-for-granted miracle that is harmony, effecting an experience of “new sound.”

Similarly, the sounds of the piano itself begin to reassemble into something not-quite-familiar. This lays the ground for the wonderful effect of the vibraphone’s first entrance well into the album (in a kind of mini-suite comprising four of the miniatures and titled “Love”).

In the spirit of Oliveros and the philosophy of what she called “deep listening,” Waller composes with a deceptive simplicity. His aesthetic relies on — and expands from — a generous patience familiar from practices of meditation and mindfulness. These “moments” radiate a fullness that belies their duration — most of the pieces are between just two and three minutes long.

La Monte Young was a formative influence who opened Waller up to new ways of perceiving the materials of a composition — indeed, the phenomenon of sonority itself. Erik Satie and Morton Feldman are some of the other musical spirits evoked by various Moments. The final piece, “Bounding,” even alludes to a mainstay of Western music history, the descending “lamento” chord progression that has taken countless forms, from flamenco to the opening of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha).

But none of these are derivative or reduced to cliches. Waller’s use of the most elemental materials and gestures combines reflective process with an unironic, unconditional sharing of self and soul that I find deeply moving.

Waller again turns to the photographer Phill Niblock — as he does on his previous two albums — for the striking cover image of Moments. An LP edition is also available, and the record includes insightful commentary by Tim Rutherford-Johnson and liner notes by “Blue” Gene Tyranny.

Filed under: Michael Vincent Waller, new music, piano, review

Crossing Thresholds with Kate Soper

The program on Sunday evening at Octave 9 kept dividing and subdividing: into unexpected new components, speech shadowed by its melody mirror, natural acoustics haloed with electronic auras, philosophical speculation married to folk-simple parable. This was an evening of musical mitosis that showcased the work of Kate Soper. An extraordinarily original composer, performer, writer, and theater artist, Soper is drawn to the enigma-rich threshold between speech and song — and what she describes as “the slippery continuums of expressivity, intelligibility, and sense, and the wonderfully treacherous landscape of the human voice.”

If that sounds awfully cerebral, in practice it was utterly engaging, fascinating, illuminated by shards of insight and beauty. Joined by Sam Pluta, a fellow composer and sound artist who contributed electronic textures and improvisations on the live sound from his laptop, Soper performed her ongoing project Dialogues. I couldn’t tell whether this incorporates, like a Russian Easter egg, her earlier pieces The Fragments of Parmenides and The Understanding of All Things (based on a Kafka text) — or whether these are meant to be regarded as a suite of sorts, somehow interconnected.

In any case, the performance started out in a lecture-presentation mode, as if Soper, in speaking voice, intended to deliver a lecture. But as the ideas began to soar, the presentation and their modes started shifting into new realms. Seattle Symphony’s new Octave 9 space was just right for the theatricalization, with Pluta’s electronic manipulation enhanced by visualizations that fluctuated across the curved screen behind the performers.

Soper’s method is to compile literary and philosophical texts, which she rearranges in collages that incorporate her own reflections. These she sets to music across a performative spectrum ranging from rhetorically emphatic narration to singing with extended vocal techniques, at times accompanying herself at the keyboard.

The Octave 9 performance underscored Soper’s special attraction to the classical world, with fragments from the pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides serving as the centerpiece, “filled in” with a haunting setting of the W.B. Yeats poem “For Anne Gregory” to enhance her reflections on the metaphysical speculations — tantalizingly incomplete — of Parmenides.

The interplay between rational, logical argument and immediately graspable flashes of (irrational?) beauty emerged as a subtext. The “Way of Appearance,” paradoxically, beckoned — dazzling with its “empirical noise” — as a possibly even more alluring path than the timeless, invariable “Way of Truth” posited by the extant fragments of Parmenides’ great poem On Nature (which itself, as Lucretius later did, uses the vehicle of art for the philosopher’s message).

This will be a good season to discover the world of this amazing artist. In Seattle, Seattle Modern Orchestra will present Kate Soper’s Ipsa Dixit on June 5 and 6. This is a chamber music theater piece for voice, flute, violin, and percussion that was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2017.

Soper also recently announced that her new opera, a treatment of the French medieval allegory-poem The Romance of the Rose, will be premiered April 2-5 on Montclair State University’s Peak Performances series.

Filed under: Kate Soper, new music, new opera, Octave 9

Beijing Music Festival: A Report

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Du Yun’s “Angel’s Bone,” in its premiere production in the People’s Republic of China (photo credit: Beijing Music Festival)


Earlier this month, I visited the 22nd annual Beijing Music Festival. Here’s my report for Classical Voice North America, with a focus on BMF’s emphasis on new music under the dynamic leadership of Shuang Zou (now in her second year as the festival’s artistic director):

“Golden Week” is the name for the national holiday period held in the People’s Republic of China at the beginning of October. This year, it also signaled an earlier-than-usual start to the annual Beijing Music Festival (BMF) — the country’s largest and most extensive festival devoted to classical music…

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Filed under: Beijing Music Festival, Classical Voice North America, festivals, Long Yu, new music, new opera, Shuang Zou

Jonathon Heyward’s Outstanding Seattle Symphony Debut

By the end of last night’s concert with Jonathon Heyward guest conducting the Seattle Symphony, I couldn’t help thinking of John Lennon’s wry understatement after a famous rooftop performance: “I hope we passed the audition!”

Could this really have only been Jonathon Heyward’s first engagement leading the Seattle band? The chemistry between them produced such subtle and winning results that it defies belief they haven’t been regular collaborators for years.

Even more, Heyward demonstrated a level of confidence and musical intelligence that belied his youth. The 26-year-old, who comes from Charleston, South Carolina, studied cello before turning to conducting in his teens and is currently finishing up a three-year residency as assistant conductor of The Hallé in Manchester. He was recently named Chief Conductor of Germany’s Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie, where his tenure will begin in 2021. But word has already gotten out — no wonder this amazing talent is so highly sought after.

The program drew on multiple facets of Heyward’s strengths. He opened with a gripping introduction to the music of Hannah Kendall — another name you’ll want to remember, as she is deservedly gaining international recognition.** This marked the U.S. premiere of The Spark Catchers, a 10-minute piece that was first heard on a BBC Proms concert in 2017.

Born in London to first-generation immigrants from Guyana, Kendall has been making a name with some intriguing collaborative projects, such as her chamber opera The Knife of Dawn (2016), which pays homage to the real-life story of the Guyanese poet and political activist Martin Carter, received much acclaim.

Her sensitivity to poetic texts and dramatic flair are likewise evident in the purely orchestral The Spark Catchers, Kendall’s response to the poem of the same title by the British writer Lemn Sissay. The poem pays tribute to the women and adolescent girl workers who went on strike in 1888 to protest inhumane working conditions in a matchmaking factory in London’s East End.

Kendall’s score is wrought with great skill, making effective use of suspenseful pauses. Sections of menacingly coiled rhythms erupt with volatile energy, framing a central oasis that seems to float free, cheating time. Where many young composers are content to merely establish a vague atmosphere through evocative use of timbre, Kendall develops her ideas with rigor and imagination. Heyward intensified the score’s dramatic qualities and well-placed contrasts.

The young conductor took on a very different set of challenges with Haydn’s Symphony No. 98 in B-flat major — one of the set of 12 “London” symphonies, which Haydn introduced in 1792, near the end of the first of his two trips to the capital (just a few months after his friend Mozart’s death). Here, the orchestra shrank down to late classical size (I’m guessing Heyward positioned the strings according to the practice typically used with The Hallé, though I have not confirmed that.)

Heyward delighted the audience with his obvious sympathy for this composer’s humor but also for his impeccable logic. Ensemble passaged sparkled with wit and elan. Highlights were an especially affecting Adagio as well as the games of timing and syncopation in the brilliant finale.

The program’s second half shifted gears still again, with a downright thrilling, superbly shaped account of Gustav Holst’s The Planets. Here was still an entirely different conception of the orchestra — the players cramming the Benaroya stage to meet the gargantuan demands of Holst’s score. Yet across all of the evening’s varying styles, Heyward showed an instinctive feeling for how to clarify musical architecture, always keeping the big picture in view. He inspired the orchestra to create vivid, fully dimensional sound worlds for each of Holst’s portraits, gently acknowledging the full auditorium’s insistent applause between them.

At the same time, Heyward tirelessly shaped the sound, encouraging subtle refinements and using expressive gestures to blend and adjust the mix. He understood that Holst’s dazzling score isn’t just about the brassy climaxes — wonderfully prepared for here — but also homed in on its varieties of mystery and awe. The latter became genuinely unworldly in the final “Neptune” section, as the female voices of the Seattle Symphony Chorale seeped in unseen.

**On Monday night at 7.30pm, Hannah Kendall will be on hand with SSO musicians to present some of her chamber works at Octave 9.

–review (c) 2019 Thomas May

Filed under: conductors, Haydn, new music, review, Seattle Symphony

Heinz Holliger at 80

“My entire relationship with music is such that I always try to reach its limits.”

The extraordinary Swiss oboist, composer, conductor, teacher, and all-around musical personality Heinz Holliger turns 80 today — his creativity undimmed.

Later in the week, ECM is releasing Zwiegespräche, an intriguing gathering of “dialogues”: works for oboe by Holliger and György Kurtág, who share a strikingly similar aesthetic. Both studied under Sándor Veress and, notes Roman Brotbeck in his liner notes, “both use the entire history of music as a frame of reference, both love miniatures, both speicalize in homage to friends and colleagues and cultivate a living ‘Davidsbund’ with living and departed soulmates.”

Holliger plays oboe, English horn, and piano on the album and is joined by fellow oboist Marie-Lise Schüpbach, bass clarinetist Ernesto Molinari, soprano Sarah Wegener, and Philippe Jaccottet reciting seven of his poems for another remarkable dialogue here: Holliger responds to the poems with various formal strategies in Lecture pour hautbois et cors anglais (2015-16).

Last year at Zurich Opera I was mesmerized by Holliger’s latest stage work, Lunea. In this opera to a libretto by Klaus Händl, Holliger returns to one of the figures who has haunted him throughout his creative life: the Romantic poet and polymath Nikolaus Lenau, who was institutionalized in his final years. Holliger’s exquisitely refined musical sensibility and aesthetic of fragmentation, indirection, and dislocation work to tremendously powerful effect here in depicting the search for love and longing for eternity.

Holliger has been a formative presence for decades at the Lucerne Festival. Here’s an insightful interview (in German) with Christian Wildhagen.

And here a radio interview with Dorothea Bossert for SWR.

Filed under: anniversary, Heinz Holliger, new music

The Parting: New Opera by Tom Cipullo and David Mason at MOR

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Miklós Radnóti

Here’s a Seattle Times preview of the upcoming world premiere of the new opera The Parting by Tom Cipullo and David Mason this Sunday.

The Parting is set during the final evening the poet Miklós Radnóti spends with his wife Fanni Gyarmati before he is sent into forced labor during the Holocaust. It’s the second commission from this team by Music of Rembrance, following their remarkable opera After Life four years ago.

When Mina Miller founded Seattle-based Music of Remembrance in 1998, she could hardly have foreseen that its mission would become even more distressingly relevant over two decades later…

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Filed under: commissions, Holocaust, Music of Remembrance, new music, new opera

Tod Machover on City Symphonies

Filed under: new music, Tod Machover

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

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