MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Jimmy López Bellido’s Ephemerae

Javier Perianes and the Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo led by Alexander Shelley recently gave the South American premiere of Jimmy López Bellido’s synesthesia-inspired piano concerto Ephemerae — available for the next few weeks from the stream captured above. The program also includes Jessie Montgomery’s Coincident Dances and Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony From the New World.

Perianes gave the world premiere of Ephemerae on 23 January 2022 at Royal Festival Hall with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Jonathan Berman (filling in at the very last minute for the originally scheduled conductor, Klaus Mäkelä). The brilliant and busy composer is also looking forward to unveiling his Symphony No. 3, which the Reno Philharmonic will premiere on  7 and 8 May 2022 under the baton of Laura Jackson. And for the Berkeley Symphony’s 50th anniversary, he has written Rise, which the orchestra and its chief conductor Joseph Young will premiere on 12 June 2022.

The composer writes: “Fragrances may be amongst the most fleeting and ethereal sensations most sentient beings experience in their daily lives. They come in a myriad of varieties, making them incredibly hard to verbalize and categorize. Although elusive, they are also capable of making lasting impressions, remaining in our memory long after they are gone. The perfume industry has found ways to harness their power by meticulously studying them and classifying them. Michael Edwards’ Fragrance Wheel is perhaps the most known successful attempt and has become an industry standard. Divided into three movements, Ephemerae journeys along the whole fragrance spectrum, from the high floral, fruity, and marine tones, all the way to the dark tones of dry and mossy woods…”

Filed under: Jimmy López, music news, piano

Beethoven Marathon with Yael Weiss

To mark the occasion, pianist Yael Weiss presents an all-day live marathon here, with guests from around the world, including conversations and performances of Beethoven and newly commissioned works written for the project 32 Bright Clouds: Beethoven Conversations Around the World.


Beethoven and the Global Aspiration for Peace:
Yael Weiss and the 32 Bright Clouds Project

World Premiere:
A conversation with composer Alfred Wong from Hong Kong
and the world premiere performance of his piece Passion
(connected to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 23 “Appassionata”).

The Moonlight Sonata and Social Justice:
A conversation with Indonesian composer Ananda Sukarlan
and performance of his piece No More Moonlight Over Jakarta
(connected to Beethoven’s Sonata No. 14 “Moonlight”).

Beethoven in Myanmar:
A conversation with composer Ne Myo Aung,
a performance of his new piece Moha
(connected to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 21 “Waldstein”)
and a discussion of the Burmese Sandaya piano style.

A Lullaby for Beethoven:
A conversation with Turkish composer Aslihan Keçebaşoğlu
and a performance of her piece Ninni
(connected to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 28 Op. 101).

African Rituals and Dedications:
A conversation with South African composer Bongani Ndodana-Breen
and a performance of his work
Isiko: An African Ritual for Ancestral Intercession
(connected to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 29 “Hammerklavier”)

Beethoven and a World Unheard:
A conversation with composer Sidney Boquiren from the Philippines
and a performance of his piece Unheard Voices
(connected to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 7 Op. 10 No. 3)

Painting Beethoven in Afghanistan:
A conversation with composer, calligrapher and painter
Milad Yousufi from Afghanistan
and a performance of his work Willow
(connected to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 8 “Pathetique”)

New from Guatemala:
A conversation with composer Xavier Beteta about his upcoming
new work for the 32 Bright Clouds project Noche Profunda
(connected to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 5 Op.10 no. 1)

Recordings of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas, and a Bagatelles project:
A conversation with music writer, composer and critic Jed Distler
and performances of his Bagatelles

World Premiere:

A conversation with composer Bosba about music in Cambodia
and a world premiere performance of her work
Sovannaphum: Kosal’s Lament
(connected to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 11 Op. 22)

After Beethoven, from Iran:
A conversation with Iranian composer Aida Shirazi
and a performance of her piece Aprés
(connected to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 26 “Les Adieux”)

New from Colombia:
A conversation with composer Carolina Noguera-Palau about her upcoming
new work for the 32 Bright Clouds project, De Adoración Y Espanto
(connected to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 31, Op. 110)

Demonstrating for Peace:
A conversation with Venezuelan composer Adina Izarra
and a performance of her piece Arietta for the 150
(connected to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 32 Op. 111)

Closing remarks and Beethoven’s final piano Sonata no. 32 in c minor, Op. 111

Filed under: Beethoven, commissions, piano

Recommended Release: Michael Vincent Waller’s Moments


Almost a year ago, the New York-based composer Michael Vincent Waller told me about a new album he had in the works. The topic came up when I interviewed him for Musical America, which featured Waller as January’s new artist of the month.

The album, titled Moments, came out just last month on the Unseen Worlds label and offers a wonderful entrée into Waller’s musical world. His third album to date, it comprises 18 miniatures, 13 of them for solo piano, the other 5 for vibraphone.

Waller continues his collaboration with R. Andrew Lee, whose sensitive performances at the keyboard were featured on his preceding album, Trajectories (along with the phenomenal cellist Seth Parker Woods). The percussionist William Winant, a well-known personality in avant-garde circles, plays the pieces for vibraphone.

“One thing I’m trying to explore as an artist is the organic, intuitive sense we have about experiences — the human subtext to what is happening in the music, in its colors, harmonies, and melodies,” the composer explained during our talk last year. In Moments, he has distilled a range of experiences with an open-hearted, intimate honesty that resonates long after the ebb and flow of his compositions’ physical sounds.

It’s not necessary to know any of the autobiographical stories or family relationships and loved ones Waller memorializes here to be moved by the emotions they elicit. On another level, Moments pays gentle tribute to musical figures who are part of a generally known cultural repertoire. “For Pauline,” for example, referring to the late Pauline Oliveros, was prompted by her death in November 2016. Its bell-like chords in alternating registers concentrate the attention on the taken-for-granted miracle that is harmony, effecting an experience of “new sound.”

Similarly, the sounds of the piano itself begin to reassemble into something not-quite-familiar. This lays the ground for the wonderful effect of the vibraphone’s first entrance well into the album (in a kind of mini-suite comprising four of the miniatures and titled “Love”).

In the spirit of Oliveros and the philosophy of what she called “deep listening,” Waller composes with a deceptive simplicity. His aesthetic relies on — and expands from — a generous patience familiar from practices of meditation and mindfulness. These “moments” radiate a fullness that belies their duration — most of the pieces are between just two and three minutes long.

La Monte Young was a formative influence who opened Waller up to new ways of perceiving the materials of a composition — indeed, the phenomenon of sonority itself. Erik Satie and Morton Feldman are some of the other musical spirits evoked by various Moments. The final piece, “Bounding,” even alludes to a mainstay of Western music history, the descending “lamento” chord progression that has taken countless forms, from flamenco to the opening of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha).

But none of these are derivative or reduced to cliches. Waller’s use of the most elemental materials and gestures combines reflective process with an unironic, unconditional sharing of self and soul that I find deeply moving.

Waller again turns to the photographer Phill Niblock — as he does on his previous two albums — for the striking cover image of Moments. An LP edition is also available, and the record includes insightful commentary by Tim Rutherford-Johnson and liner notes by “Blue” Gene Tyranny.

Filed under: Michael Vincent Waller, new music, piano, review

Simone Dinnerstein: Glass + Schubert


Sorry not to be in town to be able to attend Simone Dinnerstein’s program tonight at Miller Theatre. She talks about her thinking behind this pairing of Glass and Schubert in my essay for the program:

Affinities and Alliances: Simone Dinnerstein Performs Glass + Schubert

By happy coincidence, this month ends with a double birthday: January 31 is the day on which Philip Glass and Franz Schubert were born. And while, chronologically speaking, 140 years separate the two composers, the affinities between them are striking. Glass grew up surrounded by classical music in heavy rotation in his father’s record store in Baltimore and found himself drawn to Schubert in particular.
continue reading

Filed under: Philip Glass, piano, Schubert, Simone Dinnerstein

Meet the Flintstones

Remarkable work by Ilan Rechtman. I need to find out more about him.

Filed under: miscellaneous, piano

Sibelius at the Piano

“For one thing — and, given the era, it was no small achievement — Sibelius never wrote against the grain of the keyboard. At its best, his style partook of that spare, bleak, motivically stingy counterpoint that nobody south of the Baltic ever seems to write.” –Glenn Gould

Filed under: piano, Sibelius

Lucerne’s Piano Festival

The third and final installment of Lucerne Festival’s 2016 programming is the Piano Festival. It starts on Saturday (19 November), with Grigory Sokolov in a Mozart-Schumann recital.  And he’s playing one of the pianistic holy of holies, Schumann’s Op. 17.

Filed under: Lucerne Festival, piano, Schumann, Uncategorized

Five Not-So-Easy Pieces: Prokofiev at BAM

Marrinsky / Prokofiev at BAM

New York, NY – Feb. 24, 2016 — The Mariinsky Orchestra, lead by conductor Valery Gergiev, performs Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3: Daniil Trifonov soloist, at BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House. (credit: Robert Altman)

My review of Folk, Form, and Fire: The Prokofiev Piano Concertos — Prokofiev marathon with Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra —  has now been posted on Musical America (behind a paywall):

The Mariinsky Theater and its director Valery Gergiev launched their recent five-day residency at BAM February 24 with an ambitious orchestral program comprising the five piano concertos of Prokofiev. Trading the windswept rain … »Read

Filed under: piano, Prokofiev, review

The Seattle Symphony’s Electrifying Eroica


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

Still Fresh: Morlot and the Seattle Symphony Embark on a New Season

SSO: Opening Night Gala with Ludovic Morlot and Piano Competition winner Kevin Ahfat. Credit: Brandon Patoc Photography

SSO: Opening Night Gala with Ludovic Morlot and Piano Competition winner Kevin Ahfat. Credit: Brandon Patoc Photography

I imagine some people are doing a double take when they realize Ludovic Morlot has just started his fifth season helming the Seattle Symphony. Well, it is hard to believe we’re almost a decade into his tenure: his approach to me feels as fresh as ever. But with the added benefit of confidence accruing. (Here’s another double take: this is the orchestra’s 113th season.)

Saturday evening’s season opener certainly had several Morlot trademarks: a lovely pairing of American and French composers that showed off the health and vigor of the musicians, along with a like-minded peer in the guest artist for the second half.

The performances also overturned a couple of pesky clichés. One is the matter of non-native-born Americans supposedly having a hard time with getting across an authentic feel for the “American” sound — meaning in this context primarily the jazz-inflected rhythms of such popular 20th-century composers as Leonard Bernstein.

Morlot was perfectly at home in the Overture to Wonderful Town and inspired a deliciously stylish reading from the players, complementing Bernstein’s warm lyricism with brash joie de vivre. Instead of over-emphasizing them, Morlot let Lenny’s meter shifts propel the music with an elegantly giddy, light-as-air verve.

The artistic high point came with the orchestral suite Copland fashioned from his original chamber-orchestra score for Appalachian Spring. Here was a touching example of Morlot’s fresh perspective. My reaction was similar to what I felt when he gave us the same composer’s Lincoln Portrait for the concert opener in 2012.

Copland’s suite sounded as if it were being sung in a single tender breath. The performance featured another Morlot trademark: mindful, deftly balanced timbral blending and well-judged phrasing that allowed a particular gesture to reverberate with maximal impact (as right after the final tutti variant of the “Simple Gifts” tune). The result made this music sound so much richer and affecting than you might expect from an aging chestnut. Contributions from the winds were particularly lovely, including guest clarinetist Frank Kowalsky.*

Opening Night Gala

Opening Night Gala Credit: Brandon Patoc Photography

The piano dominated the rest of the program. I have mixed feelings about the prominence given to guest artists at a symphony orchestra’s opening concert: it often seems to decenter the musicians we should be celebrating and enjoying, making them secondary as the spotlight is turned over to a “star.” (And, yes, I get the necessity of this to stir up donor interest and create buzz.**)

But Jean-Yves Thibaudet was the perfect choice to fill the star role. Not only are he and Morlot natural artistic partners: he plays with the orchestra with genuine empathy and give-and-take. In addition to which, Thibaudet will be coming back several times this season in his role as artist in residence with the SSO.

So it was a treat to hear them join together for the fifth of Camille Saint-Saëns’s piano concertos, also known as “the Egyptian.” (Saint-Saëns wrote it while staying in Luxor and also alludes to music he heard in Egypt.) The second cliché that got overturned: the formula that composer X writes difficult music for the soloist whose “virtuosity is not an end in itself, but a vehicle for [fill in the blank with some “higher” purpose].”

Well, not so much in the Saint-Saëns. The virtuosity called for is often over the top, a vestige of the composer’s Lisztian side, and many stretches are exactly for the sake of virtuosity, period. But what fun when played by an artist of such refined taste and intelligence. Thibaudet truly dazzled and charmed, even eliciting a note of dreamy mystery in the Andante, with spirited collaboration from the orchestra.

The concerto was prefaced by the Danse Bacchanale from Saint-Saëns’s opera Samson et Dalila, extending the “Orientalist” theme (and pinpointing one source of Hollywood’s musical orientalism). Much of it is wonderfully trashy, sequence upon sequence, but Morlot had a way of making it sound better than it is.

The piano figured in the middle of the first half as well, when the young Canadian-born Kevin Ahfat took to the keyboard to play the final movement from Samuel Barber’s Piano Concerto. Ahfat had just been announced as the winner of the Seattle Symphony’s inaugural Piano Competition. Along with a $10,000 cash prize, the victory nets him a future performance with the SSO next season.

I had to miss the competition itself, so this was my first time hearing Mr. Ahfat, but he instantly made a powerful impression. I liked the choice of the too-seldom-heard Barber, and though this movement really exhibited only one side of his artistry — a very extroverted, showy side — his playing brimmed with personality and flair. If he can just grow out of the Juilliard mode of exhibitionistic technique-centrism…

To close the concert, Morlot pulled a shtick a la Itzhak Perlman, having Thibaudet come out (joined by Ahfat on another keyboard) for a pretend audition as they embarked on a humorously awkward account of “Les Pianistes” from Saint-Saëns’s Le carnaval des animaux, bringing the curtain down with the finale to the same suite.

*Although the “official” Seattle press has ignored this news, principal clarinetist Ben Lulich has been appointed “new acting principal clarinet” of the Cleveland Orchestra but will perform at some of the SSO’s concerts this season (where he’s technically on leave for the season).

**According to an SSO Tweet, $785,000 was raised for education and mentoring at the post-concert gala:

–(C)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

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

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