MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Patricia Kopatchinskaja Comes to Town


Violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja returns to Seattle next week for concerts on Jan. 29-30 and Feb. 1. (Marco Borggreve)

My story about the matchless Patricia Kopatchinskaja, who comes to Seattle for a recital and concerts with the Seattle Symphony and Thomas Dausgaard:

Her Seattle Symphony debut drew blood. In April 2016, when Patricia Kopatchinskaja reached the final movement of Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto, her violin’s shoulder rest came loose. The screw that should have held it in place dug into her neck, breaking the skin. But the music wasn’t over yet.


Filed under: Kurtág, Patricia Kopatchinskaja, preview, Shostakovich, violinists

The Agony and the Ecstasy: Byron Schenkman & Friends

byronMy preview of the final Byron Schenkman & Friends concert of the season has now been posted by The Seattle Times:

When great artists are struggling, that pain sometimes comes through in their work — but not always. Take Beethoven and Schubert, who produced some of their loftiest music during periods of intense suffering.

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Filed under: Beethoven, preview, Schubert, Seattle Times

Mystery Mass: Seattle Pro Musica celebrates Bach’s enigmatic masterpiece in B minor


Here’s my Seattle Times story on Karen Thomas and Seattle Pro Musica’s preparation for the Bach Mass in B minor, their concluding program of the season (this weekend):

Many classical-music fans consider Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B minor as the ultimate peak of Western choral music — but the composer never heard it performed in its entirety.

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Filed under: Bach, choral music, preview, Seattle Times

Jeremy Denk’s “iPhone Shuffle about Syncopation”


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

Jordi Savall’s Weekend in Seattle


Here’s my Seattle Times preview of Jordi Savall’s upcoming weekend in Seattle (at the end of February):

Call it folk, world or early music: Jordi Savall is the master artist who makes whatever project he takes up seem to illuminate entire eras.

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Filed under: early music, Jordi Savall, preview, Seattle Times

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

Collapsing Borders and Boundaries


Kid Koala - Nufonia Must Fall - Noorderzon_Festival_2014_@_Groningen_NL_ Jørn-Mulder-93

My preview of two upcoming events at Stanford Live has now been psoted:

The coming weeks feature two unusual programs in Stanford Live’s ongoing performance season—each featuring a uniquely unclassifiable collaboration with chamber musicians. Singer-songwriter and composer Gabriel Kahane joins with the innovative string quartet Brooklyn Rider to bridge the gap between folk-pop songs and instrumental music. And in Nufonia Must Fall, DJ extraordinaire Kid Koala transforms his graphic novel into a one-of-a-kind music theater/film hybrid with the help of the Afiara Quartet, director-designer K. K. Barrett, a team of puppeteers—and a timeless tale of robots in love.

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Filed under: new music, preview, Schubert

Rekindle your spirits with Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Winter Festival


My preview of this month’s Winter Festival by the Seattle Chamber Music Society for the Seattle Times is now online.

Filed under: James Ehnes, preview, Seattle Chamber Music Society

À la Recherche de l’Espace Perdu: Leo Saul Berk at the Frye

Wind Jangle, 2015 Aluminum, fishing line, weights; courtesy of Leo Saul Berk

Leo Saul Berk: Wind Jangle, 2015
Aluminum, fishing line, weights; courtesy of Leo Saul Berk

There’s a house west of architecture-rich Chicago, in Aurora, that was scorned by other residents when it was built back around the middle of the last century: the so-called Ford House, designed for Albert and Ruth Van Sickle Ford by the maverick architect, painter, and composer Bruce Goff. With its dramatic geometrical accents and manipulation of light and space, along with its use of recycled World War II materials like Quonset huts, Ford House is a testament to the idiosyncratic, visionary imagination of the Kansas-born Goff.

Ford House also happens to be the dwelling in which the Seattle-based artist Leo Saul Berk spent part of his childhood. Structure and Ornament, Berk’s first major solo museum show, distills his memories of the wondrously unconventional environment in which he grew up. The resulting works, now on view at the Frye Museum, take the form of sculpture, video, and photography, along with two site-specific installations.

Leo Saul Berk: Clinkers, 2012. Duratrans, sculptural light box. 76 x 64 5/8 x 3 3/4 in. Frye Art Museum, 2013.002.

Leo Saul Berk: Clinkers, 2012. Duratrans, sculptural light box. 76 x 64 5/8 x 3 3/4 in. Frye Art Museum, 2013.002.

Some of Berk’s pieces involve fanciful recreations of particular details from Ford House: “recreations” in the sense of attempts to recapture the visual poetry, say, of the setting sun as perceived through the semitransparent glass cullet windows positioned in Goff’s walls of coal masonry, which cause it to cast a green glow. (Berk’s backlit true-to-scale photograph is titled Clinkers.)

Other pieces are more tangentially related riffs on the impressions the house made on Berk growing up — impressions he’s been contemplating again over the last few years. This reengagement with Ford House led Berk to strike up a friendship with its current owner, the architectural historian Sidney K. Robinson. “Going back” to it both physically and in emotional terms has intensified Berk’s curiosity about the enduring impact his former home left on his artistic development.

My favorite among the loosely related fantasies is a video piece inspired by Berk’s visit to re-explore these roots. He was initially grossed out by a film of calcium deposits lining the bathtub, but when he filled it with water and then pulled the plug, a dancing cosmos of starlike detritus emerged, spotlit by the skylight directly overhead, before vanishing down the drain’s black hole.

Less effective is a sculpture in which Berk uses modern technology to try to “update” Goff’s vision, creating a miniature model of the central dome that had been the architect’s original plan. (The original specs proved too complex to execute.)

One piece, Berk’s homage to Goff’s organizing concept of a birdcage dome, gives the exhibit its title: the plywood-and-acrylic Structure and Ornament is both spikily abstract and mesmerizingly quirky — and in fact remarkably fragile, says Berk, for all its defiant severity.

Leo Saul Berk: Structure and Ornament (installation view), 2014. Plywood and Acrylic. 120 x 213 x 59 in. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Mark Woods

Leo Saul Berk: Structure and Ornament (installation view), 2014. Plywood and Acrylic. 120 x 213 x 59 in. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Mark Woods

And the concept of structure and ornament — construed by some modernists as at odds or even incompatible — feeds into larger concerns, according to Frye director Jo-Anne Birnie Dansker.

Berk’s responses to Ford House, she writes, “propose a modernity that honors visionary, utopian dreams of the past in which light, color, structure, material, ornament, poetry, and music could ignite a spiritual force that would unify the arts in harmony with nature and transform individuals and the social and cultural life of a nation.”

Structure and Ornament continues at the Frye Museum until 6 September, along with a series of exhibits on Andy Warhol and ideas of portraiture. Admission is free.

(c) 2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: architecture, art exhibition, Frye Museum, preview

The Bang on a Can Marathon Comes to Seattle

Bang on a Can All-Stars

Bang on a Can All-Stars: image (c) Peter Serling

Here’s a performance/happening you’re not going to be able to file away into one of the familiar musical categories. Is it classical (because, you know, strings and other traditional instruments, complicated scores being interpreted)? Experimental, maybe avant-garde? “Crossover” (whatever that‘s supposed to mean nowadays)? Let’s just call it a one-of-a-kind event: the first-ever Seattle edition of the annual Bang on a Can marathon. It takes over the Moore Theatre this Sunday, February 15, for six hours of blissful music-making.

You know how the phrase “classical music concert” used to imply a mostly predictable format? That’s no longer a safe assumption, thanks to the innovative thinking of orchestras like the Seattle Symphony and music director, Ludovic Morlot — thinking that involves not just the content of a concert but the venue where it’s performed.

By the same token, there once was a time when the prospect of a “new music” (aka “modern music”) program signaled a ritualistic exercise in high-toned concentration. Back in 1987, a trio of like-minded young composers — Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon, and David Lang — put together a 12-hour marathon of adventurous music in a SoHo art gallery (when NYC’s SoHo was still SoHo). That one-off event was intended to attract curious ears to the energy and excitement and variety of music being composed in our time outside the commercial formulas of the pop industry — and outside the confines of the concert hall.

The inaugural marathon turned out to be the birth of a performing arts organization that’s now a major international force in the realm of contemporary classical music (another unsatisfactory term for a whole world of music that can’t be readily defined). More than a quarter century on, Bang on a Can remains “dedicated to the support of experimental music, wherever we would find it.” It commissions and records new works, develops programs to foster a new generation of audiences and musicians, and presents numerous events, including the annual Bang on a Can Marathon.

The appeal of the marathon format, according to co-founder and composer (and Dan Savage look-alike) Michael Gordon, is that it encourages people to “let down their guard. The event is aimed at people who are interested in broad listening, who come to listen with open hears. Many people know what they like and might come to the Marathon to hear that type of music. The next thing on the line-up will be completely different, something they would have never come across otherwise. Everything moves quickly and the sets are pretty short. So they start listening to things that they wouldn’t normally encounter. That’s basically the whole point: to broaden your listening and to have a good time with it.”

The venue is important for that context. Seattle’s Bang on a Can Marathon is being co-presented by Seattle Theatre Group and On The Boards at the Moore Theatre. Gordon refers to Bang on a Can’s MO of performing in “neutral spaces, audience-friendly spaces” that shed any of those lingering fears (however unjustified) of the concert hall as a place where only the musically initiated can feel comfortable. He points out that museums and public spaces like the Winter Garden in New York have served this purpose well.

Gordon also has praise for the Seattle Symphony’s recent initiatives under Ludovic Morlot: “They’re doing a lot of progressive work — not only reaching out into other communities but also by doing a lot of interesting commissioning. Orchestras have to change their attitudes. The SSO is on the forefront of finding a way to be relevant today.”

Bang on a Can’s Marathon will mix in work from adventurous Seattle-based or -associated composers and musicians with pieces by each of the organization’s co-founders. The whole event will be framed by new-music “classics” that have had a profound — and not always acknowledged — impact on the music world at large: Brian Eno’s ambient masterpiece, Music for Airports, and Music for 18 Musicians, one of Minimalist Steve Reich’s signature works.

“The Marathon is all about finding people who are pushing the boundaries of their kind of music and letting that be the thread that goes through each of the acts,” says Jherek Bischoff, who was asked to curate the Seattle festival. “Pushing boundaries is one thread.” Another is serendipity: “Someone might come for the hip-hop segment [featuring Shabazz Palaces] and then they’ll happen to hear some modern classical right next to it.”

Bischoff, who comes from a family of musicians, was raised on a sailboat and on Bainbridge Island. He began his career as a multi-instrumentalist: “I started with the saxophone, moved on to tuba and then to bass — and then things stated getting crazy with way too many instruments…” Not surprisingly, Bischoff channels his talents into myriad musical activities, from performing and composing to producing — and, now, curating.

“People I wanted to include sprang to mind right away,” Bischoff explains. “For me, it’s exciting to give them the opportunity to play at the Moore. One of those people is Morgan Henderson. He’s the perfect example of what Bang on a Can is doing, which is to take someone who totally goes under the radar and put them in the spotlight. Morgan is one of the most talented musicians I know. He plays bass in the hardcore band The Blood Brothers but then he also plays flute in the Fleet Foxes band — the exact opposite type of music and instrument.”

Jherek Bischoff

Jherek Bischoff

Another figure Bischoff was eager to add to the line-up is Seattle pianist Gust Burns. “He’s one of the most insanely technically proficient pianists I’ve heard, and at the same time he’s also a wonderful improviser. When you see him perform, you can’t believe that there’s just one person making all that sound with the piano.”

Bischoff, who moved to Los Angeles a few months ago, will also bring along his own recent efforts as a composer: “It’s ambient orchestral music that was inspired by my time out at the cistern in Fort Worden State Park [in Port Townsend], where I did a residency. The cistern is a two-million-gallon water tank underground that has a 45-second reverb. I improvised there for days and recorded the whole thing and ended up turning some of those improvisations into full-blown orchestral pieces.” The results will be performed by the Scrape Ensemble (strings) with Bischoff on bass and “a bunch of reverb piped in to give you a bit of a sense of that alternate space.”

Along with those mentioned above and the Bang on a Can All-Stars, other artists on the roster include the duo Jesssika Kenney & Eyvind Kang, Jim Knapp, Greg Campbell, and California-based red fish blue fish.

But isn’t four hours of musical discovery a bit overwhelming? Bischoff points out that it’s perfectly fine for the audience to weave in and out and take breaks — much as became the custom during performances of a mammoth work like Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach. “You can step out to get a drink. The Bang on a Can marathon I attended in New York took place in a big atrium and there was even a food court where you could go to eat and watch as the music played on.”

If you go: The Bang on a Can Marathon’s Seattle edition is being co-presented by Seattle Theatre Group and On The Boards at the Moore Theatre, Sunday, February 15, from 4 to 10 p.m. Tickets here.

(C)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: new music, preview, programming innovation

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