MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Kavakos and Wang on Tour

 

kavakos-wangOn Friday Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang come to Seattle as part of their current tour. My interview with the Greek violinist for The Seattle Times:

Forget about art for art’s sake.

The virtuoso violinist Leonidas Kavakos staunchly believes that artistic creativity is vital for a fully human life — and even for our survival.

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Filed under: pianists, Seattle Times, violinists

Jonathan Biss Reflects on “Late Style”

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Jonathan Biss. (Benjamin Ealovega)

My Seattle Times interview with Jonathan Biss, who will perform in two events this coming weekend at UW:

At the advanced age of 36, Jonathan Biss finds himself fascinated by “late style” — the manner of expression an artist adopts as the end of life approaches.

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Filed under: Beethoven, Brahms, Kurtág, pianists, Seattle Times

Igor Levit’s Big Win

There’s so much music news I’m still trying to catch up with: including the recent announcement of pianist Igor Levit’s big win. His mammoth account of three sets of variations — and it is a fantastic recording — was named 2016 Recording of the Year, the top prize from Gramophone.

My profile of Levit appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Listen Magazine:

It’s early February, over lunch before his Seattle debut later in the evening, and Igor Levit can’t stop talking about how thrilled he is to be touring the United States. It was only two years ago that the Russian-German pianist made his first U.S. appearance — choosing the unusually intimate venue of the Board of Officers Room at the Park Avenue Armory (seating for about 150) — just a few days before jumping in at the last minute for Hélène Grimaud in a City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra concert. (He did the same for Maurizio Pollini three months later.)

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Hugo Shirley interviewed Levit when Gramophone first reviewed the recording — Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, and Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated! (Sony Classical) — for the November 2015 issue.

When I meet Levit in Berlin he is quick to make clear that he sees these composers as a trinity of equal importance. He doesn’t feel for one moment any sense of special pleading in the inclusion of Rzewski, the radical, consonant-heavy American composer (the name is pronounced ‘jefski’) whose People United was composed in 1975 as a modern complement to Beethoven’s great set of 33 variations on Diabelli’s simple little waltz.

The fact that it has 36 variations, following the 33 and 30 ‘Veränderungen’ (the German word implies something more transformational than the somewhat flat English equivalent) of the Diabellis and the Goldbergs respectively, offers just one pleasing numerical development between these works, with Bach’s set providing a foundational lexicon of variation techniques that both Beethoven and Rzewski build upon.

Congratulations, Igor Levit!

Filed under: Bach, Beethoven, Frederic Rzewski, pianists, profile

Martha Argerich

I finally had my first chance to see the fabled Martha Argerich live at last night’s Lucerne Festival concert — the second of two concerts at the Summer Festival by Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.

Even in such a decided non-masterpiece as Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1, she’s the real thing, one of the most magnetic musical personalities I’ve encountered.

As a generous encore, she and Barenboim sat together at the keyboard to play a Schubert’s piano duo: the Rondo in A major, D 951.

Filed under: Daniel Barenboim, Martha Argerich, pianists

Happy 101st, Randolph Hokanson!

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Randolph Hokanson with pianist Judith Cohen – a day before he turned 100 (photo by Thomas May)

This is a belated birthday salute, as Mr. Randolph Hokanson’s actual birthday happened on 22 June. He’s now into his second century. Today I’ll be attending a recital by Mr. Hokanson. In honor of the occasion, here’s a profile I wrote a couple of years ago about this remarkable pianist (also at work as a composer these days):

“I’ve seen it all!” announces Randolph Hokanson before losing himself in a mischievous gale of laughter. With someone else, you might be tempted to indulge that as hyperbole. With Hokanson, who was born in 1915 in Bellingham, it’s tempting to take it literally.
This gifted pianist and teacher has witnessed almost a century of not just ceaseless but accelerating change: epochal shifts in technology, in education, in how music and the arts are valued.

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Filed under: anniversary, pianists

Jeremy Denk’s “iPhone Shuffle about Syncopation”

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UPDATE: This morning (16 March) I was informed that Mr. Denk — not uncharacteristically — has announced a last-minute change of program. The first half remains the same; the second half (originally Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert/Wanderer Fantasy) will be replaced by the Goldberg Variations.

Here’s my latest story for the Seattle Times:

He’s got rhythm — “fascinatin’ rhythm,” as Ira Gershwin might say.

Toes will inevitably tap when pianist — and New Yorker contributor — Jeremy Denk returns to Seattle to perform at Meany Hall on Friday evening, March 18. For his recital, which concludes the President’s Piano Series at the University of Washington this season, Denk has programmed a dim sum of pieces to illustrate the way composers across the centuries have played with the beat.

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Filed under: pianists, preview, Seattle Times, Uncategorized

The Seattle Symphony’s Electrifying Eroica

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Ludovic Morlot

The title of my  review is actually only part of the story of last night’s  performance by the Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot. The program — which I recommend highly as one of the highlights of the season to date — will be repeated Saturday and Sunday. The Beethoven alone would be enough to justify my enthusiasm, but let me get to the other parts of the story first.

Also worth the price of admission is the chance to hear the mellifluously named French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet in Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto and the relatively rare Three Places in New England of Charles Ives.

I suspect some of the remarkably palpable energy the players manifested last night has to do with a sense of anticipation regarding the 2016 Grammy Awards coming up Monday: the SSO nabbed three nominations for the second volume of their ongoing Henri Dutilleux series on the in-house label (including for Best Orchestral Performance).

What was particularly striking in the Ives — deeply challenging pieces, despite the sudden appearance of fragments of folk Americana that momentarily give the illusion of familiar reference points — was the refinement of detail within the most opaque, thickly laden textures of this score. The boisterous energy Morlot summoned for the famous clashing marches of the second place (“Putnams’ Camp”) was all the more startling on account of that refinement — a trait that reminded me of how the conductor searches for the right detail, le ton juste, inside one of Dutilleux’s intricately wrought orchestral canvases.

It was fascinating to hear the Ives so soon after last week’s rendition of Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia. You couldn’t help comparing the method of intrusive quotations, unprepared and free-associative, and wonder at the American maverick angle that leavened Berio’s European avant-gardism. Both composers resort to a collage aesthetic that seeks to replicate the complexity and porousness of musical memory — free of irony and mind games.

Indeed, at times Morlot elicited a curious innocence and tenderness from Ives’s decidedly unsentimental memory-soundscapes. Those qualities also came to mind in the Bartók concerto. On the surface this piece can almost be read as a kind of regression or longing for simpler procedures, a revocation of the composer’s Modernist street cred.

But Bavouzet’s enchanting, subtle interpretation had a cleanness of focus that suggested a mature master taking stock and paring away the inessential. Bartók knew he was dying when he composed the Third Concerto, and in this score the musical past returns not by way of collage and quotation but as acts of allusive, loving homage (above all to Bach and Beethoven — and of course to the rich loam of folk culture that Bartók accessed in a way so unlike the Romantics).

This was especially effective in the profoundly stirring central movement (“Adagio religioso”), where the pianist gave exquisite weight and voicing to Bartók’s harmonies and crisp, wonder-evoking articulation to the birdsong. Bavouzet — who had an opportunity to study with the pianist who premiered this work, György Sándor — projected winning charm along with a clear sense of purpose in the outer movements.

He returned for a most unusual encore (playing, incidentally, the new Steinway recently purchased for the SSO): three of the Notations by a 19-year-old Pierre Boulez, composed right around the time Bartók was working on his final concerto. Bavouzet played with Zen-like presence, or like a curator displaying a set of particularly rich gems, holding them up to glisten and sparkle in the light. This week’s concerts are being dedicated to the memory of the late Boulez.

So on to the Third Symphony of Beethoven. Morlot chose this work for his very first subscription concert after stepping to the podium as the SSO’s music director in September 2011 (pairing it on that occasion, curiously enough, with Dutilleux and a Frank Zappa piece Boulez himself had conducted).

Certain aspects echoed what lingers in my memory from that performance: above all, the historically informed performance touches that conferred a certain athletic fleetness and sharper focus. These were even more apparent — and more paradoxically “radical” in brushing aside the dust from overfamiliar passages — without determining every contour of the conductor’s approach.

I’d say that’s evidence of an increased confidence and interpretive vision Morlot is bringing to this score. The hammer blow chords at the end of the first movement’s exposition, for example, were genuinely shocking, while the use of a solo string quartet to voice one of the variation passages in the introductory section of the finale underscored the idea that textural transformations are just as crucial to Beethoven’s thinking as the thematic/harmonic ones that usually command attention.

Above all, the sheer energy of collaborating with the SSO on moment-by-moment decisions in the score gave this performance the stamp of authenticity that really matters, resulting in an electrifying Eroica. Not all those decisions worked: some of the rhythmic articulations of the Funeral March were sloppy, and the volcanic whirlwind that should launch Beethoven’s extraordinary finale (is there anything about the Eroica that isn’t extraordinary?) sounded curiously listless. But Morlot and the SSO sustained an edge-of-your-seat intensity across the work’s epic span, liberating it from any trace of the routine.

And Morlot inspired much fine, indeed heroic, solo work from the players, including Mary Lynch’s achingly expressive oboe solos (a key leitmotif of the Eroica) in the Funeral March and Jeff Fair’s fearless, flawless spotlights in the famously fear-inducing trio of the Scherzo.

Really, what more can you ask of a symphony program?

–(c)2016 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Bartók, Beethoven, Ludovic Morlot, pianists, piano, Pierre Boulez, review, Seattle Symphony

Igor Levit To Make Seattle Debut

Igor Levit

My Seattle Times piece on Igor Levit has now been posted:

Unclassifiable pianist Igor Levit finds meaning in composers from Bach to Prokofiev

It’s common practice in the classical-music world — and an often annoying one — to introduce young soloists by reeling off a litany of their competition prizes, strung together like a list of battles won.

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Filed under: pianists, preview, Seattle Times

Liszt on the Brain

Filed under: Franz Liszt, pianists

Thibaudet’s Ravel

A model of Ravel interpretation:

Filed under: pianists

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