MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Gluck’s Revolution: Orphée in Seattle

sheehanphoto: tenor Aaron Sheehan, who sings the role of Orphée (credit: Kevin Day)

Here’s my story for The Seattle Times on the new production of Gluck’s French version of his epochal Orpheus opera, which Stephen Stubbs and Pacific MusicWorks are performing this weekend.

In May of 1774, 15 years before the French Revolution, the 18-year-old Marie Antoinette ascended the throne as queen of France. Less than a month before that, German composer Christoph Willibald Gluck, her former music teacher — and the son of a gamekeeper — made his debut in Paris with his opera “Iphigénie en Aulide.”

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Filed under: directors, Gluck, Pacific MusicWorks, Seattle Times, Stephen Stubbs

A Glimpse of the Full Monte(verdi)


Claudio Monteverdi was nearly an exact contemporary of Shakespeare, but his lifespan stretched almost thirty years beyond the playwright’s death—so long that he led the sea change from the High Renaissance into a dramatically new musical era. Even in his final decades, Monteverdi remained a revolutionary composer who forever changed expectations about what music is capable of expressing.

This Friday at Nordstom Recital Hall, Pacific MusicWorks opens their new season with an opportunity to experience just what makes Monteverdi such a musical icon—not the long-dead pioneer of the music history textbooks, but an unbelievably imaginative poet of sounds who can still stir your soul to its core.

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Filed under: early music, Monteverdi, Pacific MusicWorks

Where’er You Walk: Handel’s Semele in Seattle

Director James Darrah rehearsing Semele

Director James Darrah rehearsing Semele, with Haeran Hong as the title heroine; photo by Steve Korn

Music lovers in the Seattle area will not want to miss this weekend’s performances of Semele, a joint effort by Pacific MusicWorks and the University of Washington School of Music.

I was lucky to be able to attend one of the rehearsals, where I found myself spellbound by the flow of ideas and inspired rapport between director James Darrah and the cast — all this without a stage or costumes and only harpsichord accompaniment. Semele is a late Handel work (1743) that never fit comfortably into the era’s expectations for either opera or oratorio, but Darrah and company are treating it as the liveliest brand of music theater, full of humor, wit, enchantment, and (literally and figuratively) epiphany.

It’s easy enough to imagine the musical and theatrical potential Handel saw in this material, retooling a libretto more than 30 years old — it includes the work of Alexander Pope — which itself retells the classical myth of Semele and Zeus/Jupiter. The human Semele has a fateful love affair with none other than the king of the gods, triggering the jealousy of his wife. Juno’s plan to avenge herself results in the destruction of Semele as a mortal woman but leads to the birth of Dionysus/Bacchus — a boon for humanity.

Handel knew how to carve into the meat of the mythic matter with this story of human aspirations for the impossible, of divine vulnerability to human emotion, of the power of irrepressible desire. A century later, Wagner noted the archetypal aspects of the tale and its similarities to Elsa’s ill-fated questioning of Lohengrin in another human-meets-transcendent encounter. (Another variant is found in Apuleius’s marvelously elaborate narrative of Cupid and Psyche.)

Seattle has tended to be a Handel-deprived zone for far too long, but Stephen Stubbs — the visionary artistic director of Pacific MusicWorks — is changing the playing field with his musically and theatrically stimulating advocacy of early and baroque composers. An internationally acclaimed musical director and lutenist, Stubbs marries the energies of his early music expertise with an appreciation of cutting-edge stage direction and interdisciplinary artistic creativity.

And his choice of the Los Angeles-based director and visual artist James Darrah bodes well. (Darrah has worked with the likes of Peter Sellars and John Adams, and among his upcoming projects is a collaboration with Michael Tilson Thomas next month for the San Francisco Symphony’s semi-staged production of Peter Grimes.)

During the rehearsal I saw, Darrah was coaching the appealing cast of young artists singing the chorus into how to develop into a major character in their own right rather than a passive, fly-on-the-wall musical presence. The chorus became a visible and dynamic extension of the power play among Semele, Juno, and Jupiter. And far from purveying an arbitrary “concept,” Darrah showed with his sensitivity to the subtexts of Handel’s melody and counterpoint that he commands an intimate understanding of the score and of the way Handel constructs his narrative arc.

It should be fascinating to compare the final results of performance with what will happen on the Seattle Opera stage next February-March, when the director Tomer Zvulun returns for a mainstage production of Semele. Meanwhile, Stubbs is spearheading experiments in smaller-scale productions involving partnerships between different organizations and even with companies across the Northwest — all of which promises to enliven the ecology of Seattle’s art scene, for early music and contemporary composers alike.

If you go: Pacific MusicWorks and the University of Washington School of Music present Handel’s Semele Friday and Saturday, May 16 and 17, at 7:30 pm and Sunday, May 18, at 2:00 pm at UW’s Meany Hall. (Sunday’s matinee performance is presented by the student cover cast.) Tickets at 206.543.4880 or 1.800.859.5342 or here.
(c) 2014 Thomas May All rights reserved.

Filed under: directors, Handel, opera, Pacific MusicWorks

The Bach Passions Project in Seattle

Passions Project

Over the weekend, Stephen Stubbs and his Pacific MusicWorks company concluded their ambitious Passions Project with performances of the St. John Passion. The project included partnering with the Seattle Symphony for the St. Matthew Passion the previous weekend. Here’s my review for Bachtrack:

Adducing Simon Schama’s comparison of Rubens’s Descent from the Cross with the same subject as painted by Rembrandt, the conductor and Bach authority John Eliot Gardiner has observed that the differences drawn by the art historian – chiefly, between an emphasis on “action and reaction” in the former and “contemplation and witness” in the latter – might broadly be applied to Bach’s two great Passions as well: St John and St Matthew, respectively. Audiences in Seattle have been provided an opportunity to compare and contrast these unfathomably rich works on the basis of live performances of both, presented over consecutive weekends.

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Filed under: Bach, Pacific MusicWorks, review, Seattle Symphony

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