MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Chopin from Garrick Ohlsson: A Holiday Gift

The Houston-based chamber music and jazz presenter DACAMERA is offering a holiday gift of Chopin performed by one of the leading interpreters of his music, the Grammy Award-winning Garrick Ohlsson. Listen to his Chopin recital, which opened DAMERA’s season, as a free stream for two weeks, available here with registration.

The program includes:

Barcarolle in F-sharp Major, Op. 60

Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23

Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 58

Encore: Waltz in C-sharp Minor, Op. 64, No. 2

Filed under: Chopin, pianists

Nadia Shpachenko’s Invasion: Music and Art for Ukraine

As a gesture of solidarity and to support humanitarian aid to Ukraine, the Grammy-winning, Ukrainian-American pianist Nadia Shpachenko has released the album Invasion: Music and Art for Ukraine. The title work, composed for for piano, alto saxophone, horn, trombone, timpani, snare drum, and mandolin, represents the response to the war of her longtime collaborator and Pulitzer Prize winner Lewis Spratlan.

Invasion was composed for Shpachenko at the beginning of the invasion (the period 24 February–13 March 2022). The rest of the album features world premiere recordings of other works by Spratlan for solo piano. “These pieces reflect on the human experience, often finding solace and inspiration in nature and music of the past,” notes the press release from Reference Recordings. “Wonderer, a major piece that closes the album, connects in its character to the current experience of many Ukrainian people, especially those displaced by the war. The hero, searching through the unknown, overcoming pain, and reminiscing about things past, triumphs at the end.”

100% of the proceeds go to benefit Ukrainian people affected by war.

Filed under: music news, pianists, recommended listening

João Carlos Martins at Carnegie Hall

The incredible João Carlos Martins — a genuine cultural hero — celebrates the 60th anniversary of his debut at Carnegie Hall this evening at 7pm ET. He will lead NOVUS NY in a program combining Bach with music by the Brazilian composers Heitor Villa-Lobos and André Mehmari.

One of the great Bach interpreters at the keyboard, Martins shifted to conducting when it became no longer possible to continue his career as a concert pianist as a result of injuries and the condition of focal dystonia (which also affected the late Leon Fleisher). You can read in much greater detail here about the musician’s epic struggles and the love of music that has kept him going.

I had the honor of writing the program notes for his Carnegie Hall concert, which will present the following program:

J.S. Bach: Brandenburg Concertos 1 and 3
“Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” from the Cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben BWV 147
(arranged by Heitor Fujinami)

Heitor Villa-Lobos Prelúdio from Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4 W264 – 424

André Mehmari Portais Brasilerios No. 2 (Cirandas)




Filed under: Bach, music news, pianists

Seattle Symphony Continues Its Reunion with Ludovic Morlot

Ludovic Morlot conducting the Seattle Symphony with soloist Jan Lisiecki in Grieg’s Piano Concerto; image (c) Brandon Patoc

Several times during Seattle Symphony’s concert last night, it felt like a time machine had whisked us back a few years to the Ludovic Morlot era. The orchestra reunited with its former music director last weekend on opening night and is continuing the collaboration for the first full concert of the season’s subscription series. And they’ve managed to reactivate something of the chemistry that made their first seasons together so exciting.

You could sense it in the joyful enthusiasm with which they brought to life the opening piece, Tidalwave Kitchen, by Gabriella Smith. For the second time in a row this month, Morlot and the SSO launched a concert with music by a young woman composer inspired by the West Coast’s natural beauty — last Saturday, it was the world premiere of PNW native Angelique Poteat’s  Breathe, Come Together, Embrace. So far as I know, Tidalwave Kitchen marked the first time the SSO has performed music by Smith, who hails from Berkeley and was mentored early on by John Adams. 

In a short introduction onstage, the talented young composer remarked that it was in this piece that she first had the reassurance of arriving at her own voice. Smith wrote it a decade ago, prompted during her student years on the East Coast by intense homesickness for the “beautiful and dramatic landscape of the Northern California coast” where she’d grown up. 

Smith elaborates in her composer’s note on the memories of that landscape that inspired her: “hikes shrouded in fog, tide pooling on the rocky beaches, and sitting by the Pacific listening to the hallucinatory sounds of the ocean, the keening gulls, pounding surf, sizzling of sand and sea foam, drifting in and out of fog and clarity, order and randomness, reality and imagination.” 

The resulting music paints no pretty postcard but is an immersive, sensory-rich orchestral fantasia, unpredictable yet persuasive in its wildly dramatic mood swings. Smith seems to want to embrace the world the way a Mahler born into the 21st century might have set out to do so, using post-Minimalist devices to power up and take flight. 

Fragments of a stable melody (or hymn?) want to coalesce at several points but remain shrouded by the almost-psychedelic haze of Smith’s timbral palette. A raucously festive outburst arrives at the climax, but its brash exuberance spills over into something vaguely ominously manic and then subsides. 

Over the summer, Morlot conducted the San Francisco Symphony in Tidalwave Kitchen, and he elicited palpable excitement from the SSO. It’s one thing to possess the keen musical imagination on display in this music, but Smith also shows a remarkable technical command of the resources of an orchestra, making the piece especially apt as a concert curtain raiser. I hope we get to hear more of her music in Benaroya Hall. 

Morlot will conduct his new orchestra (the Barcelona Symphony) in another piece by Smith later in October. Incidentally: this sought-after composer will be on the panel for the New York Times Events-sponsored seminar A New Climate exploring collective responses to climate change (October 12 in San Francisco).

Raucous, fiery energy likewise abounded in Jan Lisiecki’s account of the competitive folk dancing that drives the finale of Grieg’s Piano Concerto. Returning to the Benaroya stage following his inspired contribution to the opening night concert, Lisiecki approached the familiar concerto from an almost dizzying plenitude of perspectives. 

His variety of tonal colors was spellbinding: the thunderous chords of the massive first movement cadenza thrilled with power and accuracy, while the plaintive trains of the Adagio breathed the poetry of Lisiecki’s most personally inflected Chopin. It was especially nice to hear his rendition of Chopin’s posthumously published Nocturne in C minor as an encore, where he distilled that poetry to its most concentrated essence. I was also struck by the quality of his partnership with Morlot and the orchestra as he responded to the phrasings of individual players, such as the idyllic interlude flutist Jeffrey Barker shaped in the finale. 

The extreme pianissimos Lisiecki drew out of the Steinway foreshadowed the drama whipped up in the second half of the program. Morlot led the SSO in Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony back in 2014 (when it was similarly paired with new music — a piano concerto by Alexander Raskatov). Eight years on, to my ears there is no doubt that his understanding of this music has deepened and darkened. His command of the larger span of Tchaikovsky’s design has strengthened as well. 

The opening lamentation — expressively phrased by bassoonist Luke Fieweger, in one of several outstanding cameos from across the SSO’s ranks — set the terms of the drama as effectively as a memorable establishing shot by a seasoned director. Morlot outlined the long first movement’s disparate sections with a clarity that underscored the emotional polarities of Tchaikovsky’s enigmatic final symphony.

However, I found something lacking in the middle movements. The tricky meter of the second movement waltz came off sounding slack, even a bit sloppy, while the swaggering march in the third movement needed a tighter rein to wield its full irony. But Morlot inspired the most moving playing of the evening in the Requiem-like finale, building by subtraction so that the pitiless subsidence of Tchaikovsky’s conclusion overwhelmed with its negation.

The program will be repeated Friday and Saturday.

Review (c) 2022 by Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Ludovic Morlot, pianists, review, Seattle Symphony

A Restorative Opening Night at Seattle Symphony, with French Accents

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Jan Lisiecki, Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony; image (c) Brandon Patoc

My review of this weekend’s opening night concert:

Mixing the familiar with some discoveries, the Seattle Symphony offered a pleasingly varied program to open its new season. The event also brought an element of reassurance by evoking welcome memories of a more stable era as former music director Ludovic Morlot reunited with the orchestra…

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Filed under: commissions, pianists, review, Seattle Symphony

RIP Lars Vogt (1970-2022)

Deeply saddened to learn that Lars Vogt has died. The wonderful, deeply humane pianist and conductor had been battling cancer over the past few years — a situation he movingly described in this 2021 interview: “In the last several years, I often had the feeling that time was passing insanely fast. It was so easy to imagine a ‘whoosh,’ and suddenly I’m 80, and the day is done. It’s something that I think a lot of us experience, an accelerando where time keeps flying by more quickly. Before the illness, I was often depressed, even if it was just for a day or two. I’d stay in bed and think: ‘Oh God, I’m so old.’ Funnily, because of the illness that’s completely disappeared. I’m rarely so defeated. More often I’m utterly happy.”

In his most recently released recording, which came out in March, Vogt combined his personalities as pianist and conductor to give sensitive accounts, together with his Orchestre chambre de Paris, of the Mendelssohn piano concertos. Here the artist shares his insights on Mendelssohn, whose music he likens to “fresh, clean water — completely refreshing in every way”:

Filed under: Mendelssohn, music news, pianists

RIP Radu Lupu (1945-2022)

A tragic day. There’s nothing to say, to add, to the music. RIP, Maestro.

Filed under: music news, pianists

RIP Nelson Freire (1944-2021)

Filed under: music news, Nelson Freire, pianists

From Easter Island, a Pianist Emerges

Here’s my latest story for The New York Times. Deeply grateful to Mahani Teave for sharing her story, as well as to David Fulton, John Forsen, Gayle Podrabsky, and Elizabeth Dworkin for their generous insights.

“From her home, halfway up the highest hill on Rapa Nui, Mahani Teave was describing the power of nature there to overwhelm….”

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Filed under: New York Times, pianists

Yuja Wang in Conversation with Michael Haefliger

New from Lucerne Festival:

Filed under: Lucerne Festival, pianists

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