MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Saariaho’s Innocence

After a yearlong delay caused by the pandemic, the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence has unveiled Innocence, its latest opera commission from Kaaija Sariaho. Despite its tragic story involving a school shooting, the experience — even at a distance, via the stream currently available on arte.tv, is overwhelmingly affirmative: of the power of art to transform impossible pain and senselessness.

Innocence, set in contemporary Helsinki, features a libretto by the Finnish novelist Sofi Oksanen, with multilingual contributions by Aleksi Barrière. The text incorporates English, Czech, Romanian, French, Swedish, German, Spanish, and Greek in addition to Finnish, its setting in an international school suggesting an allegory for Europe’s attempt to achieve a multicultural society.

From the Aix summary: “It is a typical wedding for a cosmopolitan city, in present-day Finland. The fiancé is Finnish, the bride Romanian, and the mother-in-law French. But suddenly, during the wedding banquet, the Czech waitress feels ill… Ten years earlier, these characters were struck by a tragic event. Ghosts revive their memories of the trauma, which occurred in a school; there is a guilty haze, a lost innocence.”

The Australian director Simon Stone staged Innocence, with Susanna Mälkki conducting the London Symphony Orchestra and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir; the cast features Magdalena Kožená, Sandrine Piau, Tuomas Pursio, Lilian Farahani, Markus Nykänen, Jukka Rasilainen, Lucy Shelton, among others.

Zachary Wolfe, in his eloquent review, describes Saariaho’s score: “Porous and agile; simmering beneath and around the voices; and only occasionally, briefly exploding, this is music as a vehicle for exploring and intensifying drama. It is complex, yet confident enough to exist not merely for its own sake.”

Writing for Bachtrack, Romain Daroles observes: “The score is served with a masterly hand by Susanna Mälkki and the London Symphony Orchestra who, from the opening of the opera, creates a music box that the implacable and impeccable rigor of execution quickly transforms into a Pandora’s box, revealing one by one the secrets, the defects, and the evils of individuals, of humanity.”

Declares Reinhard Brembeck in the Süddeutsche Zeitung: “She continues what Claude Debussy initiated. She meets the unadorned reality and its brutality with a slight detachment, she wraps the action with a veil of sadness, love and clairvoyance. This enables the audience to accept this confidently unobtrusive avant-garde music without resistance. Kaija Saariaho is the greatest master of opera today.”

Innocence was co-commissioned by a consortium of companies that will bring the work to Helsinki, Amsterdam, London, New York, and San Francisco.

View the score here.

Filed under: Aix-en-Provence, new opera, Saariaho

Joseph C. Phillips Jr.’s The Grey Land

Recently released on New Amsterdam Records and performed by his ensemble Numinous, The Grey Land is a “mono-opera” by Joseph C. Phillips Jr. to a libretto by the composer. It tells the story of, in his words, “a Black mother trying to survive the reality in this land that doesn’t fully see her continued hope: that the great American experiment will one day become a belonging place where anyone can dream of ‘stillness and stars’ free from fear and want; a place where the beautiful promise of happiness, liberty, and life may yet manifest true to finally include her family too.”

Phillips, who started work on The Grey Land in 2011, incorporates texts from Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Isaac Butler, Frederick Douglas, and Mothers of the Movement (founded to fight police and gun violence in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s murder and the acquittal of George Zimmermann).

The birth of his first child in 2014 inspired him to focus on the opera, as Phillips recalls: “I was already deep into researching and thinking about what the opera was going to be when the events of Ferguson, Missouri, happened in that beautiful summer of nesting in upstate New York. My conflicting emotions—joy of anticipation married to the anxiety about the world our future child would inhabit—moved me to want to more directly address the systemic issues long plaguing the U.S., particularly for Black and Brown people.”

Phillips uses the term “mixed music” to characterize his style: “Mixed music is an organic fusing of various elements from many different influences forming compositions that are personal, different, and new.”

TRACKLIST:
1. The People Get Tired of Dying
2. Ferguson: Summer of 2014
3. Tender Sorrow
4. One Side Losing Slowly
5. We Wear the Mask
6. Don’t
7. Agnus Bey
8. Legion of Boom
9. I Should Have Been Mother****ing Black Mamba
10. Injustice
11. Liberty Bell
12. The Sunken Place
13. Streets of Sighs

CREDITS:
THE GREY LAND
by Joseph C Phillips Jr

Soprano (Mother) – Rebecca L Hargrove
Narrator (Son) – Kenneth Browning

Numinous:
Katie Cox – Flute, Piccolo
Sammy Lesnick – Bb Clarinet, Eb Clarinet
Chris Bacas – Alto Saxophone
Sara Schoenbeck – Bassoon
Alicia Rau – Trumpet, Flügelhorn
Lis Rubard – Horn
JC Sanford – Trombone
Amanda Monaco – Electric and Acoustic Guitars
Mike Baggetta – Electric and Acoustic Guitars
Sebastian Noelle – Electric and Acoustic Guitars
Magdalena Abrego – Electric and Acoustic Guitars
Deanna Witkowski – Yamaha Electric Piano
Andrea Lodge – Rhodes Electric Piano
Kate Sloat – Harp
Aubrey Johnson – Voice
Tammy Scheffer – Voice, Bells
Sara Serpa – Voice
Bogna Kicińska – Voice, Bells
Emilie Weibel – Voice, Bells
Amy Cervini – Voice, Bells
Ana Milosavljevic – Violin, Viper/Electric Violin solo (“…Black Mamba”)
Josh Henderson – Violin
Frederika Krier – Violin
Libby Weitnauer – Violin
Hannah Levinson – Viola
Brian Lindgren – Viola
Matt Aronoff – Electric Bass
Mariel Roberts – Cello Solo (“Tender Sorrow”)
Joseph C Phillips Jr – Composer/Conductor/Bells/Co-Producer
Oded Lev-Ari – Bells/Co-Producer
Michael Hammond – Electronics/Drum Programming (“…Black Mamba”)
Joseph C Phillips Jr – Electronics/Audio Collage (“One Side Losing Slowly” & “The Sunken Place”)


Filed under: African-American musicians, new opera, new release

Brett Dean’s Hamlet

Glyndebourne is now streaming on its YouTube channel Hamlet, the opera by composer Brett Dean and librettist Matthew Jocelyn, who uses only words from Shakespeare’s original text.

Commenting on the score, Erica Jeal writes: “Dean’s music is many-layered, full of long, clear vocal lines propelled by repeated rhythmic figures in the orchestra, and has moments of delicate beauty – string harmonics tiptoe around Barbara Hannigan’s Ophelia as we first see her mad – and the chorus whispers almost as much as it sings.”

Richard Bratby compares Jocelyn’s approach to the Shakespeare original with what Boito did for Verdi. Richard Morrison gave a powerful rave in The Times, with quite the lede: “Forget Cumberbatch. Forget even Gielgud. I haven’t seen a more physically vivid, emotionally affecting or psychologically astute portrayal of the Prince of Denmark than Allan Clayton gives in this sensational production.”

Here is Brett Dean’s commentary:

There is no definitive version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. There were at least three versions printed within his lifetime or shortly thereafter, and endless variations, including the most commonly used 1st Folio, and an incalculable number of conflated versions.

Our Hamlet relies heavily on Shakespeare’s verse, if not necessarily on the standard chronology of scenes. The opera concentrates primarily on the domestic drama, exploring the depths of Hamlet’s quest for both understanding and revenge, from the death of his father through to his own demise.

This quest is relayed through the fragmentary nature of his relationships with those in his inner circle. It is this very fragmentation – as well as the lack of a definitive text upon which to base the opera – that allows us to explore the most effective and poetically resonant assemblage of story-lines.

Allan Clayton and Barbara Hannigan as Hamlet and Ophelia lead the vast, which includes Rod Gilfrey (Claudius), Sarah Connolly (Gertrude), Kim Begley (Polonius), David Butt Philip (Laertes), and John Tomlinson as the Ghost/Gravedigger. Vladimir Jurosky conducts. Catch it before it goes offline on Sunday 23 August.

Filed under: Glyndebourne Opera, new opera, Shakespeare

Sneak Peeks of Kate Soper’s Opera Romance of the Rose

The extraordinary composer, performer, and writer Kate Soper has completed an opera titled Romance of the Rose, which was to have had its world premiere in April at Montclair State University’s Peak Performances.

Romance of the Rose is named after a medieval French poem. As Soper explains, the opera and poem “start off pretty much the same way: a narrator warns us not to underestimate the significance of dreams.” See her latest discussion of the work here, which includes two sneak peeks of the music.

The clip above, meanwhile, is the first part of her five-part web series SYRINX, which is “about a woman who wakes up one day with an unusual affliction.”

Filed under: Kate Soper, new opera

Semmelweis

Now available for streaming is Semmelweis, a work of music theater composed by Raymond J. Lustig on a libretto by Matthew Doherty about the Hungarian doctor Ignác Semmelweis, who pioneered the antiseptic response to infection during a Viennese epidemic in 1846.

I haven’t had a chance to view the piece yet and am unfamiliar with the composer, but it’s obviously a timely topic. The performance here is the 2018 world premiere co-produced by Budapest Operetta Theatre and the Bartók Plusz Opera Festival.

Lustig remarks: “There has never been a more urgent moment in history to reflect on the mystery of insight, the tension between truth and hubris, our deadly myopic inertia, and the clear truth that we as a society need our full human participation, our fresh perspectives and brave new ideas, literally to survive. My hope is that, by giving vocal expression to the Semmelweis story … we may all be inspired by his refusal to remain silent on a truth that was not merely inconvenient, but intolerable.”

Filed under: music news, new opera

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

BMF-Du Yun-Angel's Bone

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

Othello in the Seraglio by Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol

Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol’s Othello in the Seraglio is now streamable on Amazon Prime in the US and the UK.

Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol, a distinguished professor at the New England Conservatory as well as an active musician with the Boston-based ensemble Dünya, has created what he terms a “coffeehouse opera” in which he reimagines Shakespeare’s tragic hero as a former African slave, a powerful but aging Ottoman Eunuch.

He explains: “In addition to a storyteller narrating in English, all characters sing in either Italian or Turkish in the musical idioms of 17th-century Italy and Turkey, accompanied by an on-stage ensemble of early European and Middle Eastern instruments with an unusual combination of percussion instruments.”

Othello in the Seraglio is performed by Dünya (which Sanlıkol also helms) and, since its premiere in Boson in February 2015, has already tallied an impressive record of 20 performances.

The critic Susan Miron compares the result to “opera pasticcio, a Baroque form in which composers like Handel and Vivaldi created substantial theatrical works from both existing and original music.” She explains that the audience is “meant to imagine being in a coffeehouse in Istanbul (then Constantinople) in the 17th century, where an all-male cosmopolitan audience smoked and sipped coffee, ‘a newly fashionable stimulant imported from Yemen.'”

Of his score, Sanlıkol remarks:

There are three distinct layers of music, which may stand alone, interact or merge; borrowed period music (European and Turkish); new music incorporating melodic and harmonic features of the borrowed material; and certain musical instruments and timbres—not period-specific—that highlight dramatic moments. I hoped to achieve a coherent musical statement by balancing these layers within the architecture of the opera. Duets between a Turk and a European even combine music of East and West: the Turkish makam (mode) is used for the Turk, and the European’s music is scored against it following the modal polyphonic practices of early European music.

Here’s an interview with the composer for WBUR Radio from 2015.

More information here.

Filed under: new opera, Shakespeare, Turkish music

Yuval Sharon’s Radiant New Interpretation of Meredith Monk’s Avant-Garde Classic

Atlas-MathewImaging

Meredith Monk’s “Atlas” at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, staged by Yuval Sharon; photo credit (c) Mathew Imaging

Yuval Sharon bid adieu this past week to his three-year residency with the Los Angeles Philharmonic by boldly staging a work that changed his life: Meredith Monk’s opera Atlas, which before this had existed in just one production: the original, commissioned by Houston Grand Opera under David Gockley and staged there in 1991.

My review has been posted on Musical America (apologies for the paywall):

LOS ANGELES — A generation has already passed since Meredith Monk first charted an unprecedented operatic world in Atlas. Yet her ambitious stage work, which premiered at Houston Grand Opera in 1991, retains an aura of singularity — not just in its radiant music and almost entirely wordless libretto, but in the process through which Atlas was shaped as well. Monk cast aside convention altogether, building her opera from performance practices she had pioneered. 

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Filed under: Los Angeles Philharmonic, Meredith Monk, new opera, review, Yuval Sharon

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

Radnóti-Miklós-1930

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

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