MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

The League of American Orchestras in Seattle


Seattle really is the place to be when it comes to envisioning the future of the American orchestra. The future, as in: not another whine-fest of grumpy old men (or ill-informed hipster “observers”) bewailing “the death of classical music,” but the future as a challenge to rethink the “binaries” that shackle the art, that limit how we conceive the culture of performance.

That’s the message enticingly floated by flutist extraordinaire, new music advocate, innovative entrepreneur, and MacArthur genius Claire Chase, who gave the keynote speech for this year’s edition of the League of American Orchestras Conference: “Critical Questions, Countless Solutions.”

The 2014 Conference has just gotten under way, and the choice of Seattle is especially fortuitous. The Seattle Symphony under Ludovic Morlot is gaining wider recognition as an engine for smart orchestral innovation. Their major commission of music by John Luther Adams won this year’s Pulitzer Prize in Music. And the Symphony did something more than hit a home run with its Carnegie Hall performance last month, which inspired Alex Ross to write (and League President and CEO Jesse Rosen to quote during his presentation yesterday at Benaroya Hall): “When conductor, players, and administrators are of one mind, an orchestra can become a singularly vital beast.”

The opening session got a nice launch with a brief concert by the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra under Stephen Rodgers Radcliffe: Joshua Roman contributed the solo cello part to Aaron Jay Kernis’s Dreamsongs for Cello and Orchestra, which was followed by a Wagnerian excerpt (Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey). Deborah Rutter, incoming new President of the Kennedy Center (and a major force in making this concert hall a reality back in the 1990s), gave a heartfelt and quite moving tribute speech to Wayne S. Brown. Brown then appeared onstage to accept the League’s prestigious Golden Baton Award.

Ending the afternoon was a duo session by Joshua Roman and Gabriel Prokofiev (performing the latter’s Cello Multitracks, which mixes live acoustic playing with “electronica” to effect a cello nonet). Claire Chase introduced herself with a superb performance of a piece she says changed her life: Edgard Varèse’s Density 21.5.

Note the prominence of non-orchestral music here. It might seem odd for the opening session of an orchestral conference, but the point seemed to be that the standard model of full-scale orchestral performances can benefit from a flexible context of solo and chamber playing, a dialogue with other forms of music-making.

Chase waxed on about her hero Varèse’s pronouncement that “music, which should pulsate with life, needs new means of expression.” There were a lot of heady suggestions drawing on her experiences spearheading the contemporary music ensemble ICE, but this was primarily a mood setter. Some will say it’s just another variant of the standard pep talk self-congratulation. One friend and colleague points out that you can’t just leap-frog past ingrained traditions of performance, not to mention the nitty-gritty of musicians’ contracts that are in place, to will new models into being.

At the other extreme, the promise of “countless solutions” can, after all, lead nowhere: if there are too many options, how is any to have a lasting, meaningful impact? But what I heard in Chase’s remarks was a provocative invitation to do more than daydream about a promising future. Let’s see what concrete suggestions emerge from the next few days of sessions, brainstorming, and conversation.

–Thomas May

Filed under: American music, music news, new music, orchestras

Forever Young


My latest article for Listen magazine has now been published.

This was an especially inspiring assignment. After another season of doom and gloom about the future of music, discovering how motivated these young musicians are — how determined to make the most of their gifts — gave me a real boost:

The inspiring players of Carnegie Hall’s National Youth Orchestra debunk the myth of the ‘death’ of classical music.

It’s a ploy that always generates controversy: announce the death of “classical music” (however you define it), furnish your obituary with a sauce of ominous statistics and watch your site traffic explode. Another death knell hit the blogosphere and Twitterverse this January, courtesy of a Slate article titled “Requiem: Classical Music in America Is Dead,” which came illustrated with a gray-haired conductor stationed in front of a tombstone. Predictably, the piece triggered a raft of
indignant but thoughtful counterarguments in response.

What tends to become the focus of such discussions tends to be the problem of aging audiences and how to attract a new fan base, as well as how to reinvigorate the repertoire and make it meaningful for twenty-first century listeners. But a third — neglected — element is just as vitally important: the perspective of the musicians who bring it all to life in real time. What’s being done to ensure that this side of “the holy triangle of composer, performer, and listener” (to borrow Benjamin Britten’s phrase) is aligned with whatever reforms are undertaken regarding the other two?

On the American scene, one of the most inspiring recent initiatives to cultivate young talent begins its second year this summer. The National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America (NYO) was launched by Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute last year, when the ensemble’s young members gathered from around the country at the beginning of July to prepare for a series of concerts that culminated in a tour to Russia and the London Proms. The same structure — a period of rehearsal and intensive preparation leading up to a high-adrenaline period of performances on the road — is being used this year.

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Filed under: American music, orchestras, youth

A Radically New Cello Concerto

Here’s the more-complete version of my Los Angeles Philharmonic essay on Michel van der Aa’s remarkable cello concerto, Up-close, which gets its West Coast premiere in the Green Umbrella series next week:

Regular followers of the Los Angeles Philharmonic will have encountered the work of Michel van der Aa before, but Up-close has intensified his profile, particularly in North America, thanks to the acclaim it earned last year, when it received the mega-prestigious Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition. Written in 2010 on a commission from the European Concert Hall Association and the Dutch Performing Arts Fund for the Amsterdam Sinfonietta and the Argentine cellist Sol Gabetta – who premiered it in Stockholm in March 2011 – Up-close represents nothing less than a thorough reimagining of the concerto genre to mirror the way our high-tech, wired era shapes and compartmentalizes perceptions of reality.

Like Louis Andriessen, an important mentor with whom he has collaborated on such works as the multimedia opera Writing to Vermeer (1999), van der Aa has evolved a music theater aesthetic that resists classification in its intriguing combination of live performers and film visuals. The younger composer (born in 1970) studied recording engineering as well as composition in his native Holland and later enrolled in classes at the New York Film Academy. Many a composer combines multiple talents within the realm of music, but van der Aa brings a synthesis of composer, stage director, and filmmaker to several of his endeavors, including Up-close.

Van der Aa has also created works showcasing each of those talents separately. He emphasizes that his use of film visuals and extra-musical components has to be “a necessity,” not an adornment “which is there merely to be hip or entertaining. I try to be strict with myself, to use film in a way that extends and enhances my musical vocabulary. The film contributes something I can’t communicate with the music alone.” In Up-close, Van der Aa points out, he conceived the music “in parallel with my work on the script for the film and the small staging. These feed into each other. I like that flexibility. Sometimes the music gives me visual ideas, and sometimes it’s the other way around.” He considers Up-close to be a work of music theater, the cello concerto embedded within as a part interdependent on the whole.

Michel van der Aa (photo: Marco Borggreve)

Michel van der Aa (photo: Marco Borggreve)

Along with the familiar three-movement concerto format which he uses as a formal design for Up-close, van der Aa explains that the relative significance of its constituent layers likewise structures our sense of unfolding events. Their interrelations also pose unique challenges of synchronization. There are three such layers: the conventional one of the solo cellist and the all-string ensemble, the “mirror reality” of the film that is projected simultaneously, and the prerecorded sounds (encompassing electronic samples and the film’s soundtrack).

There is a fourth layer, which is less extensive, pertaining to the instructions for the soloist to take part in the mise-en-scène (as at the end of the first movement, when the cellist gets up and moves a lamp on the stage). “It provides a way of exaggerating the inherent theatricality of instrumentalists,” according to the composer. The soloist is required not only to perform with traditional musical virtuosity but also to act. The gulf separating the illusionistic reality of the film and that of the live performance becomes one of a cascading series of metaphors for what van der Aa has described as “a dream about communicating” which in the end fails.

But all of these layers don’t function with equal intensity throughout. The process of creating Up-close involved determining at each point “which of these layers are in the foreground, and which are in the background.” In the opening minutes of the work, the soloist remains in the spotlight, introducing crucial thematic material that will appear in new lights in conjunction with the other layers. The connections between the three movements make the shifting perspectives of van der Aa’s concept especially evident. For example, a lengthy segment of about five minutes bridging the first two movements brings the film to the center of attention as the main bearer of the “narrative,” with a thinned-out sonic background from the prerecorded music and the live ensemble remaining silent until metal chimes link up their world to the enigmatic “code machine” in the film. (Van der Aa collaborated with a friend who works as props master at the opera to build this visual, imagining “a cross between a music box and a Morse machine.”)

For the frenetic final movement, the code machine “ignites the ensemble” back into action, as the strings pulsate with a nervous energy at times reminiscent of Bernard Herman. Van der Aa likens the musical patterns of their “timbral counterpoint” to “little wood fires spreading through the ensemble,” while the woman in the film becomes increasingly anxious.

Writing the piece originally for Sol Gabetta, the composer imagined the elderly protagonist in the film as a kind of “alter ego.” The Dutch actress Vakil Eelman was chosen, he explains, because he wanted “an archetypal elderly figure: someone who carries youth in herself as well as wisdom and experience. I really like that ambiguity in her.” Johannes Moser is the first male cellist to perform as Up-close’s soloist, which, says van der Aa, “will generate different questions, but not necessarily less interesting ones, about the relationship between these two people – the actress in the film and the soloist on the stage. I think it’s important to let the audience take the last steps itself to decide what the piece is about.”

And my commentary on the other works on the program is here:

Pierre Boulez, Éclat
Elliott Carter, Triple Duo

(c) 2014 Thomas May — All rights reserved.

Filed under: composers, new music, orchestras, program notes

Nights at the Opera

Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre presented by the New York Philharmonic in 2010; (c) Chris Lee 2010

Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre presented by the New York Philharmonic in 2010; (c) Chris Lee 2010

My new feature for Symphony magazine’s Fall 2013 issue is available online now:

Total immersion: that was the radical brand of opera Richard Wagner hoped to inaugurate at Bayreuth. To enhance its effect, he famously made the “invisible orchestra” an integral part of his design. Yet the overall ideal of intensified theatrical illusion remained frustratingly out of reach, hampered by the limitations of the stage technology of the time. Cosima Wagner reported her husband’s sardonic joke in the aftermath of his deep disappointment over the first complete Ring: “Now that I’ve created the invisible orchestra, I’d like to invent the invisible stage!”

The concert hall has meanwhile long provided an appealing milieu in which to experience opera with another kind of immediacy—one that focuses on the musical dimension of this most collaborative of the arts and, far from disguising the orchestra, features it as the central character. And recent innovations that involve this format for presenting opera are even helping, in some cases, to redefine the orchestra’s institutional identity and sense of mission. A new era of co-productions involving artists from other disciplines, the choice of thematically meaningful repertory, marketing centered around concerts that include a visual and theatrical element as a special “event” of the season: all these are different facets of how opera in the concert hall has evolved in recent seasons.

The links between some of America’s most venerable orchestral institutions and opera are deeply rooted, whether in concert presentations (Frederick Stock’s legendary Tristan with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1935 and Dimitri Mitropoulos’s programming of complete operas with the New York Philharmonic in the 1950s) or in full productions actually in the opera house, such as the U.S. premiere of Wozzeck in 1931, which featured the Philadelphia Orchestra under Stokowski.

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Filed under: concert programming, opera, orchestras


Roger Reynolds, 2005

Roger Reynolds, 2005

Despite the recent government shutdown, this month’s world premiere of george WASHINGTON by the National Symphony went ahead as scheduled. Here’s the essay I wrote for the program:

“I believe all things will come out right at last, but…the people must feel before they will see.” These words of George Washington (1732-1799), observes Roger Reynolds, might serve as the epigraph for his new composition. They occur in the final section of the libretto for george WASHINGTON, which Reynolds carefully selected and assembled from the diaries and letters of the iconic figure. In comparison with Washington’s relatively “wooden” speeches, which represent a “publicly constructed persona” intended to shield his imposing image, these more intimate sources proved to be a wellspring: “I was staggered by his wisdom, his sensitivity, even his ability to be poetic and to make emotively potent statements.”

The priority of experience as the gateway toward true understanding, Reynolds adds, is an idea that recurs in Washington’s writings, but it also expresses the composer’s own goal for the work. He envisioned george WASHINGTON as a multimedia amalgam of orchestral music, narration, visual projections, and computer-processed “surround” sound. All of this elaborate technical apparatus, in the end, is meant to provide an immersive experience that can “provoke the imagination and arouse in the audience some sense of their own relationship to Washington as a human being. It’s not about giving a history lesson but about trying to enter into Washington’s world.”

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Filed under: commissions, music news, new music, orchestras

Are American Orchestras Undermining Their Mission?

In a substantial and thought-provoking article in The New Republic, Philip Kennicott grapples with the issue of American distrust of “cultural authority” and how it affects the identity crisis suffered by today’s orchestras.

“The problems are financial and cultural, and the two are intertwined,” he observes. This year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, Kennicott compares the self-questioning undergone by American orchestras to a “protracted and painful Vatican II,” while the failure of the traditional subscription model has put orchestras in the same sinking boat as newspapers in the Internet era. As a last-ditch survival effort, orchestras have been forced to create a new paradigm based on audience segmentation, performing not just classical concerts but presenting a smorgasbord of watered-down “special events.”

But the most paradoxical and distressing result is the utterly generic quality of what most American orchestras now offer. By parsing audience taste to smaller fractions, the concert schedule in Oklahoma looks more and more like the concert schedule in Maine. At the League conference, the mantra was all “local, local, local”—that orchestras will survive only by catering in nuanced ways to their local constituents (not to audiences or listeners or music lovers, who are all passé). But a tendency toward groupthink across the field has led to the repetition of the same solutions, few of them successful or in any way particularly local.

Read the whole thing here.

(Above: American premiere of Mahler’s Eighth in 1916, with Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra)

Filed under: American music, orchestras,

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