MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

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

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

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