MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

John Corigliano at 80

JCJohn Corigliano turns 80 this Friday. Here’s my profile of the composer for Strings magazine:

Released in 1999, François Girard’s film The Red Violin crystallized an image of the instrument for many who don’t usually listen to classical music…

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Filed under: John Corigliano, profile, Strings

Stefan Jackiw Portrait


Stefan Jackiw. Photo by Sophie Zhai

My profile of the violinist Stefan Jackiw is on the cover of Strings magazine’s February 2018 issue — and available online:

A sense of modesty may seem incompatible with the drive required to remain successful in the highly competitive realm of classical performance. Yet violinist Stefan Jackiw has made it central to his artistic credo..

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Filed under: profile, Strings, violinists

John Adams, with Strings Attached


John Adams. Photo by Margaretta Mitchell

My new John Adams profile for Strings is now available online:

In the contemporary music world, writing opera tends to generate the sexiest headlines and, at least temporarily, to garner more widespread attention….

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Filed under: John Adams, profile, Strings

Conrad Tao: Leaving the Comfort Zone

My new profile of pianist and composer Conrad Tao for Steinway  is now online:

HIS NAME HASN’T changed, but mentally splicing the twenty-three-year-old Conrad Tao with the child prodigy who first came before the general public more than a decade ago is likely to make you do a double take.

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Filed under: Conrad Tao, pianists, profile

Reena Esmail: Musical America‘s New Artist of the Month

reena-esmail-amber2The remarkable young composer Reena Esmail is Musical America‘s New Artist of the Month for August 2017:

At Chorus America’s annual conference this past June in Los Angeles, a general session devoted to the topic “The Medicine of Music” featured a singalong demonstration of a new interactive choral work titled Take What You Need. It wasn’t only the members of Street Symphony and the Urban Voices Project, a community choir of singers from LA’s Skid Row neighborhood, who appeared transformed as they sang this music by Reena Esmail. The large audience of choral professionals from around America joined in, visibly moved by this confirmation of musical meaning.
“It was such a powerful moment, because I’ve always wanted my music connect people to one another,” Esmail told me in a recent interview.
As Composer-in-Residence with Street Symphony (cofounded by LA Philharmonic violinist Vijay Gupta as a project to bring music to the homeless population), Esmail created the anthemic Take What You Need last year as a vehicle for the disenfranchised from the Skid Row community to join with professional musicians and tell their deeply moving personal stories. Following the model of the Kronos Quartet’s Fifty for the Future Initiative—in which Esmail herself has participated—Street Symphony recently made the piece available for free use to community organizations (on the website, who are encouraged to adapt it to accommodate specific performers and contexts.
“It started as a piece for string quartet and four singers but now there arrangements for everything from piano and one singer to orchestra and double choir. Even down to the very practical compositional choices, this piece is designed to value the needs of musicians and community alike, and to allow a warmth and mutual understanding to develop between them,” says Esmail.
A consistent focus of the work by this 34-year-old composer has been on mediating between cultural contexts that are normally kept separate. In 2016 she produced her most ambitious score to date, the oratorio This Love Between Us, on a co-commission from Juilliard 415 and Yale’s Schola Cantorum. Setting statements from the canonical texts of seven major religious traditions of India, This Love underscores “how each of these faith traditions approaches the topics of unity, of brotherhood, of being kind to one another” and blends Indian and Western classical styles in unique ways for each section. Writing it during the 2016 U.S. presidential election period added a layer of urgency and purpose, adds the composer.
Another major achievement of the past year has been the world premiere of her Clarinet Concerto, which Esmail wrote for the Albany Symphony and soloist Shankar Tucker. “In most situations, I am the conduit between Western and Indian music, but occasionally I get to work with a musician who has that dual training and can cross over like I do.” Esmail also enjoys an ongoing relationship with the Albany Symphony—next year will unveil another new commission, for Hindustani vocalist and orchestra, as part of their American Music Festival—which means, she says, that “I know the musicians, so I feel comfortable inviting them to try new ways of playing, and to join with me as I explore the spaces between these two musical worlds.”
Esmail refers to her unique manner of collaboration, which sets aside the abstract and instead is tailored to the character and knowledge of the performers she works with: “Western notation alone does not convey everything I want to share with my musicians. So I often make a recording of myself singing key melodic phrases as part of the ‘score.’ Indian music is essentially taught by call and response, and I want the Western performers to have a chance to interact with my work in that same way.”
The result is a 21st-century conception of what it means to “compose” music: “Our world is now connected to the point that the score doesn’t have to be limited to what can be written on paper. I want musicians to remain grounded in their own technique, but then to explore how that technique can enable them to move into new spaces.”
It’s a process that came in handy when Esmail was asked to collaborate with David Harrington of Kronos and violinist Kala Ramnath to shape Amrit (one of the works included in Kronos’ Fifty for the Future open library of a new repertoire for our time). “I was literally sitting between these two musical luminaries, translating between them in real time. It felt like I was translating between the leaders of two great nations, trying to convey their thoughts to one another in a way that felt direct but respectful, that acknowledged and honored the values of both of their musical traditions.”
Esmail spent most of her early life navigating between siloed cultural identities. She grew up in Los Angeles, her father a Muslim from Pakistan and her mother a Catholic raised in Kenya. “Because of my Indian diaspora background, I often felt that my choice to be a Western musician separated me from my cultural heritage. That is why so much of my work now exists between the traditions of Western and Indian classical music. I am often the musical Other in both directions: as the representative of Indian music among Western musicians or vice versa.”
But Esmail has turned this into a creative advantage—both for herself and for the performers she works with: “When you take a step outside of a single system of music, it allows you think a little more broadly, and to use your perspective to draw together groups of people who wouldn’t otherwise interact with each other.”
Although her parents are not musical, they encouraged Esmail to pursue her obvious passion. Initially she fashioned herself after singer-songwriters and Broadway composers before gravitating to classical piano, which remained her focus through high school, until she was accepted as a composition major at Juilliard. “One of my teachers at the LA County High School for the Arts saw that I was wired like a composer, even though I’d barely written any formal music at that point.”
After Juilliard, Esmail went on to Yale’s graduate program in composition. Her thesis was on collaborative practices between Hindustani and Western music, which she continues to foster through Shastra, an organization she cofounded with Payton MacDonald to encourage this cross-cultural work among musicians. Esmail speaks of her most significant mentors in terms of family: “Susan Botti is my composer-mom. She immediately understood who I was in a way no one else had up to that point. And Aaron Jay Kernis is my composer-dad. He knows how to ask exactly the right questions, and has often believed in my ideas before I did.”
A Fulbright to India proved revelatory. She studied Hindustani vocal music with sitarist Gaurav Mazumdar (whose appearance this month on the BBC Proms spotlights the connections between Philip Glass and Ravi Shankar) but also traveled far and wide across the country, interacting with professional musicians and local street musicians alike.
“I grew up bilingual, in an Indian family. But studying Indian music in India, in the only place in the world where I am not a minority, allowed me to engage deeply on so many levels. It gave me an irreplaceable sense of identity and belonging. I strive to recreate that feeling in the music I write.”
One upcoming project that especially excites Esmail is a piano trio she is writing for cellist Joshua Roman and his new music series at Seattle’s Town Hall. “While I divide my time equally between orchestral, choral, and chamber music, I think my voice as a composer feels most like a chamber music voice. I’m so drawn to this exchange and dialogue that happens in small ensembles, to this kind of intimate interaction between people.”

See profile at Musical America

Filed under: Musical America, new music, profile

Profile of Cellist Seth Parker Woods


Seth Parker Woods; photo by Michael Yu

My profile of the cellist Seth Parker Woods is the cover story for the August issue of Strings magazine:

“Question authority” isn’t just a political slogan. This quintessentially Socratic imperative is also characteristic of visionary artists who are drawn to challenge cultural assumptions that put a damper on the power of the art they practice. For Texas-born cellist Seth Parker Woods, pushing boundaries and definitions comes naturally—both for his own creative development and for his overall sense of mission.

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Filed under: American music, cello, profile, Strings

Celebrating American Composer George Walker

07aGood timing: here’s my Strings magazine profile of George Walker, who turned 95 years young last week (now available online).

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Filed under: American music, George Walker, profile

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

Shimmering Color and Incandescence


Here’s the link to the complete piece.

My profile of violinist Augustin Hadelich and his Grammy Award-winning interpretation of Henri Dutilleux with the Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot will appear in the August 2016 issue of Strings magazine. A brief sample:

Augustin Hadelich just missed being in Los Angeles to receive his first-ever Grammy Award. He had even traveled to LA for a chamber concert the day before the ceremony but was already en route to his next engagement — with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in Poole on England’s coast — when congratulations for winning the Grammy Award for Best Classical Instrumental Solo starting pouring in via social media.



Filed under: Henri Dutilleux, profile, violinists

Screen Test


The new issue of LISTEN Magazine contains my profile of composer and film music veteran JAC Redford, who just orchestrated Thomas Newman’s music for the upcoming James Bond film (Spectre):

THE WHOLE PICTURE is what counts; and the composer must see it not as a composer but as a man of the theater,” wrote Leonard Bernstein, reflecting on composing the score for On the Waterfront.

Bernstein’s adventure into film scoring — marred by creative scrapes with the film’s director Elia Kazan — was unpleasant for him, and marked the conductor–composer’s first and last time writing film music (not counting already existing scores that were adapted for film) — anomaly in an otherwise naturally collaborative career. But for many composers, there’s something perpetually alluring about the medium of film.

Like a particular scent, the simplest chord progression or snatch of soaring melody from a beloved score can instantly trigger a flood of memories—both personal and cultural.

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Filed under: composers, film music, James Bond, profile

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