MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

New from Mason Bates: Auditorium

A day in the life of Mason Bates: after this morning’s Santa Fe Opera season announcement, with a foretaste of The (R)Evolution of Steve Jobs, the San Francisco Symphony tonight unveils his latest orchestral piece, Auditorium. Here’s my introduction:

The relationship between Mason Bates and the San Francisco Symphony has played a pivotal role in the emergence of one of the most frequently performed American composers at work today. It began in 2009 with the first SFS commission of an orchestral work by Bates, The B-Sides: Five Pieces for Orchestra and Electronica (dedicated to Michael Tilson Thomas), and has continued through this most recent collaboration, which receives its world premiere on this program.

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Filed under: commissions, Mason Bates, new music, program notes, San Francisco Symphony

Beneath Lighted Coffers

Andy Akiho; photo by Aestheticize Media

Andy Akiho; photo by Aestheticize Media

The National Symphony Orchestra’s program this weekend, conducted by Manuel López-Gómez, is titled Rhythms of the Americas. It will include the world premiere of a new Concerto for Steelpan by the composer and percussionist Andy Akiho, who was recently named winner of the The Lili Boulanger Memorial Fund.

Here’s a taste of what to expect from Andy’s new concerto. Inspired by the Pantheon in Rome, he has given the piece an evocative title: Beneath Lighted Coffers:

When the National Symphony undertook its first international concert tour under Music Director Christoph Eschenbach’s leadership in June 2012-playing at venues across the Americas-the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago was among its destinations. The NSO performed a concert in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Republic’s independence from the United Kingdom, and the following day Music Director Christoph Eschenbach was presented with a steelpan by the Prime Minister in gratitude. A tuned percussion instrument made of sheet metal that was invented in Trinidad and Tobago in the 20th century, the steelpan is a fitting symbol for the Republic’s independence from colonial domination. At that occasion Maestro Eschenbach announced that the NSO would commission a concerto for this marvelously versatile instrument.

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Filed under: National Symphony, new music, percussion, program notes

The Contemporary Sublime

2015-05-16-music-of-whitacre-part

My program essay for the LA Master Chorale’s final program of the season have now been posted:

That frisson moment: it might be the dimming of the lights preceding the curtain’s ascent, the split second of blankness before a film’s establishing shot,   the conscious focus on the upbeat of silence that ushers in a musical performance. Few contemporary composers have mastered the secret of this moment – the   limitless mystery it contains – as effectively as Arvo Pärt. “Silence is like fertile soil,” Pärt has said, “which, as it were, awaits our   creative act, our seed.”

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Filed under: program notes,

Whitman’s Lilacs and Hindemith’s American Requiem

Paul Hindemith

Paul Hindemith

This week’s National Symphony program features Paul Hindemith’s beautiful When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d: A Requiem for those we love in a program conducted by Christoph Eschenbach. This was one of the favorite works of Robert Shaw, who commissioned Hindemith’s remarkable setting of Walt Whitman’s eulogy for Lincoln. Here’s the essay I wrote for the NSO program (which opens with Joshua Bell in the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto — hence the lede):

A descendant of one of Mendelssohn’s cousins, Arnold Mendelssohn, turned out to be the first composition teacher of another precociously gifted musician, Paul Hindemith (1895-1963), who was born in Hanau (near Goethe’s city of Frankfurt). Hindemith came of age during a period of violent, revolutionary change in the early 20th century – the years that gave birth to modernism in its many forms. In the 1920s, Hindemith caused one scandal after another with his stage works and was considered a rebellious upstart who flirted with the avant-garde.

Like Shostakovich vis-à-vis Stalin, Hindemith managed to incur the personal displeasure of Hitler. The latter’s unyielding loathing of Hindemith was set in stone after seeing a scene from the satirical 1929 opera Neues vom Tage (“News of the Day”) featuring a “nude” soprano (actually, in a flesh-colored stocking) as she sings in the bathtub. Though he wasn’t Jewish, Hindemith gained a place of honor among the “degenerates” singled out by leading Nazis, who regarded him as “spiritually non-Aryan” and banned his music. The situation was actually more convoluted, however, with some pro-Hindemith voices among the hierarchy.

Hindemith may have hoped to influence cultural policy by finding a way to remain in Germany – in hindsight, his failure to express vociferous dissent from within the Third Reich has been criticized – but the situation grew intolerable and Hindemith, together with his wife (who was partially Jewish), emigrated first to Switzerland and then to the United States, where he influenced a new generation during his 13-year tenure teaching at Yale. When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d ranks as the most significant creative legacy of this American period – Hindemith and his wife became U.S. citizens in 1946, the year of its premiere, although they returned to Europe in 1953 – and was acclaimed “a work of genius” by the legendary critic Paul Hume, writing of a performance at the National Cathedral in 1960.

Portrait of Walt Whitman by Thomas Eakins, dated 1887-88

Portrait of Walt Whitman by Thomas Eakins, dated 1887-88

“It is probable,” the great conductor Robert Shaw once declared, “that no foreign-born composer has made such a direct and healthy contribution to American music as Paul Hindemith.” Shaw was in fact the prime mover behind When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d, which he commissioned for what was then known as his Collegiate Chorale in the winter of 1945. Shaw led the world premiere in New York on May 14, 1946 (featuring a young George London as the male soloist), and he championed the work for the rest of his career; according to Michael Steinberg, Shaw treasured Hindemith’s dedication of the score to him “as perhaps the most significant honor of his professional life.”

The immediate occasion that prompted Lilacs was the sudden death in office of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in April 1945 – 80 years after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln had plunged the nation into a period of prolonged mourning and soul-searching, the artistic fruit of which was one of Walt Whitman’s (1819-1892) most extraordinary poems. Hindemith had actually begun to cultivate a fascination with Whitman’s poetry long before: as far back as 1919 he had composed three “hymns from Whitman” (for baritone and piano, in German), including a setting of “Sing on, there in the swamp” (the fifth vocal section in Lilacs).

In his book New World Symphonies, Jack Sullivan reports that “Shaw initially took this single song to Hindemith, who had reworked it in 1943, with the proposal that it be used as a memorial to Roosevelt. Hindemith’s admiration for both President and poet was so great, however, that he responded, ‘No, we should do the whole thing.’ A two-minute song became an hour-long New World Requiem, an American epic set to European forms, including a sinfonia, a chorale, marches with trios, double fugues, arias, choruses, motets, fanfares, and much else.”

To undertake “the whole thing” entailed setting a text of 208 lines comprising more than 2200 words, arranged by the poet in 20 sections. In one of his commentaries, Robert Shaw refers to the “technical virtuosity” of setting such a lengthy text meaningfully within a musical span lasting about an hour (without, that is, resorting to “dry recitative”). He contrasts the first 20 minutes of Bach’s B minor Mass, which sets just three words, with the roughly 900 words Hindemith sets in the first 20 minutes of his work: “And these are words not lightly tossed into the composition heap. They are Walt Whitman words, burdened with emotional ponderosity and ponderability.”

By 1865, Whitman had already gathered a collection of poems inspired by his experiences nursing the wounded and dying in Washington, D.C., which he titled Drum-Taps (an excerpt from which can be seen engraved at the Q St. entrance to the DuPont Circle Metro station). Within weeks of Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theater on Good Friday in 1865, Whitman had completed a new addition to this, When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d (a “dooryard” refers to a yard adjacent to the door of a house). That poem was published in the Sequel to Drum-Taps by the D.C.-based Gibson Brothers.

Whitman weaves a complex network of imagery together to fashion the deeply moving reflections of his Lincoln elegy. He mines the evocative power of three dominant symbols, which recur but with ever-changing connotations throughout the poem: lilacs, the “Western star” (i.e., Venus), and the “gray-brown” wood thrush. The specific occasion of Lincoln’s death (the President is never referred to by name) and the spectacle of “the silent sea of faces” grieving as the coffin passes give way to further meditations on the cycle of mourning and the artist’s task. Whitman builds to a larger vision of loss and life’s journey, drawing on images from nature and American civilization alike. The poem reaches a climax with its epiphany of the “death carol” and compassion for the war dead, ending with an affirmation of “retrievements out of the night” and the work of memory.

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d moreover incorporates much musical imagery (above all, references to “song”). Not surprisingly, it has appealed to a remarkable variety of composers, including Roger Sessions, George Crumb, George Walker (whose Lilacs won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996 and whose recent composition will be featured later this season in an NSO premiere), and, most recently, Jennifer Higdon. For his setting, Hindemith translates Whitman’s poetic elegy into a kind of combined oratorio-requiem, with the subtitle A Requiem “For Those We Love.”

Matthew Brady's photograph of Whitman

Matthew Brady’s photograph of Whitman

Hindemith always maintained a deep and also practical respect for musical tradition, despite his earlier reputation as a shocker (which by this time, in any case, had long since been overwritten by his image as an éminence grise). His emphasis on pragmatism might be seen as one manifestation of a general cultural rejection of Romanticism – including the cult of art for art’s sake and the idealized notion that musical inspiration should not be sullied by the contingencies of everyday reality. And Hindemith was also hearkening back to a pre-Romantic ethic of music as a craft to be plied. He had an affinity for Baroque counterpoint and other technical tricks of the trade, all of which are in evidence in the score of Lilacs (including his profound admiration of J.S. Bach).

Implicit in his division into arias, duets, choruses, arioso, and the like are references to Bach’s Passions. Aficionados of the St. Matthew Passion will recognize echoes in his use of particular instrumental timbres, meters, and even emotional pacing. And another, later model is also evident: Brahms’s A German Requiem, with its male and female soloists and symphonic use of orchestra. The Kurt Weill expert Kim Kowalke has pointed out that Hindemith originally considered using An American Requiem as his subtitle, thus drawing attention to the parallels with Brahms in a way that “seems to mirror the composer’s ambivalence about his own national identity at this crucial point in his career.”

Yet a further layer is encoded by the phrase Hindemith did choose: A Requiem “For Those We Love.” Kowalke’s research led to the discovery that the instrumental hymn that occurs in section 8 (a quotation of an Episcopal hymn in which that phrase occurs) was known to the composer to be based on a Jewish liturgical melody, thus conferring what musicologist Richard Taruskin describes as “a specifically post-Holocaust resonance.” Together, writes Philip Coleman-Hull, the music and the poetry of Hindemith’s Requiem “intertwine in a reciprocal relationship, so that the ‘Americanness’ of Whitman’s poetry infuses Hindemith’s musical response, and the music, in turn, illuminates Whitman’s text.”

That illumination of the pre-existing text indeed involves a good number of European imports – including the massive double fugue (i.e., fugue based on two different themes) in which section 7 culminates. Robert Shaw, in conjunction with his mentor, Julius Herford, incisively parsed the 11 sections into which Hindemith divides his Lilacs into a larger architectural scheme of four movements as follows. The purely instrumental Prelude establishes the fundamental key of C-sharp minor – first in the bass, against which the pregnant motif A-C-F-E is heard (each of whose notes defines key tonality governing the larger structures to follow). The first movement extends through section 3, ending with the choral march and a canon between solo baritone and orchestra.

Sections 4-7 comprise the second movement in Shaw’s analysis, in which Whitman’s poem depicts “the stage of receiving knowledge, the first understanding.” Hindemith’s tonal scheme shifts to A minor and culminates in the E minor/major double fugue. There is a darkening in the C minor beginning the third movement (sections 8-9) as the poet “moves from the state of receiving knowledge, with its shock and its ecstasy of tribute, to the state of possessing knowledge.” Following the duet between mezzo, who is closely associated with the bird’s voice, and the baritone, the Death Carol (in F minor) ends with a passacaglia at “Approach, strong deliveress.”

There follows “the panorama of death” in the fourth movement (sections 10-11), with the baritone evoking a terrifying vision of war. Hindemith’s counterpoint channels something of the restless, sardonic energy of a march Weimar era-style, while an off-stage bugle quotes Taps. The baritone also initiates the finale of Lilacs (section 11), where Whitman and Hindemith join hands to stage a sense of reconciliation, gathering together the poem’s principal symbols in the final chorus. In his one emendation to the poem, Hindemith has the soloists intone the opening line once again in a subdued monotone. The reiteration of the fundamental C-sharp minor underscores the convergence of journey and cycle.

The quietness of the ending makes perfect emotional sense for Shaw, who sums up Hindemith’s Lilacs as “a hymn for those he loved. It has nothing to do with proclamations of national mourning, the public beating of breasts, but with quiet private grief and a lonely broken heart.”

(c) 2014 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: American literature, poetry, program notes, requiem

A Radically New Cello Concerto

Here’s the more-complete version of my Los Angeles Philharmonic essay on Michel van der Aa’s remarkable cello concerto, Up-close, which gets its West Coast premiere in the Green Umbrella series next week:

Regular followers of the Los Angeles Philharmonic will have encountered the work of Michel van der Aa before, but Up-close has intensified his profile, particularly in North America, thanks to the acclaim it earned last year, when it received the mega-prestigious Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition. Written in 2010 on a commission from the European Concert Hall Association and the Dutch Performing Arts Fund for the Amsterdam Sinfonietta and the Argentine cellist Sol Gabetta – who premiered it in Stockholm in March 2011 – Up-close represents nothing less than a thorough reimagining of the concerto genre to mirror the way our high-tech, wired era shapes and compartmentalizes perceptions of reality.

Like Louis Andriessen, an important mentor with whom he has collaborated on such works as the multimedia opera Writing to Vermeer (1999), van der Aa has evolved a music theater aesthetic that resists classification in its intriguing combination of live performers and film visuals. The younger composer (born in 1970) studied recording engineering as well as composition in his native Holland and later enrolled in classes at the New York Film Academy. Many a composer combines multiple talents within the realm of music, but van der Aa brings a synthesis of composer, stage director, and filmmaker to several of his endeavors, including Up-close.

Van der Aa has also created works showcasing each of those talents separately. He emphasizes that his use of film visuals and extra-musical components has to be “a necessity,” not an adornment “which is there merely to be hip or entertaining. I try to be strict with myself, to use film in a way that extends and enhances my musical vocabulary. The film contributes something I can’t communicate with the music alone.” In Up-close, Van der Aa points out, he conceived the music “in parallel with my work on the script for the film and the small staging. These feed into each other. I like that flexibility. Sometimes the music gives me visual ideas, and sometimes it’s the other way around.” He considers Up-close to be a work of music theater, the cello concerto embedded within as a part interdependent on the whole.

Michel van der Aa (photo: Marco Borggreve)

Michel van der Aa (photo: Marco Borggreve)

Along with the familiar three-movement concerto format which he uses as a formal design for Up-close, van der Aa explains that the relative significance of its constituent layers likewise structures our sense of unfolding events. Their interrelations also pose unique challenges of synchronization. There are three such layers: the conventional one of the solo cellist and the all-string ensemble, the “mirror reality” of the film that is projected simultaneously, and the prerecorded sounds (encompassing electronic samples and the film’s soundtrack).

There is a fourth layer, which is less extensive, pertaining to the instructions for the soloist to take part in the mise-en-scène (as at the end of the first movement, when the cellist gets up and moves a lamp on the stage). “It provides a way of exaggerating the inherent theatricality of instrumentalists,” according to the composer. The soloist is required not only to perform with traditional musical virtuosity but also to act. The gulf separating the illusionistic reality of the film and that of the live performance becomes one of a cascading series of metaphors for what van der Aa has described as “a dream about communicating” which in the end fails.

But all of these layers don’t function with equal intensity throughout. The process of creating Up-close involved determining at each point “which of these layers are in the foreground, and which are in the background.” In the opening minutes of the work, the soloist remains in the spotlight, introducing crucial thematic material that will appear in new lights in conjunction with the other layers. The connections between the three movements make the shifting perspectives of van der Aa’s concept especially evident. For example, a lengthy segment of about five minutes bridging the first two movements brings the film to the center of attention as the main bearer of the “narrative,” with a thinned-out sonic background from the prerecorded music and the live ensemble remaining silent until metal chimes link up their world to the enigmatic “code machine” in the film. (Van der Aa collaborated with a friend who works as props master at the opera to build this visual, imagining “a cross between a music box and a Morse machine.”)

For the frenetic final movement, the code machine “ignites the ensemble” back into action, as the strings pulsate with a nervous energy at times reminiscent of Bernard Herman. Van der Aa likens the musical patterns of their “timbral counterpoint” to “little wood fires spreading through the ensemble,” while the woman in the film becomes increasingly anxious.

Writing the piece originally for Sol Gabetta, the composer imagined the elderly protagonist in the film as a kind of “alter ego.” The Dutch actress Vakil Eelman was chosen, he explains, because he wanted “an archetypal elderly figure: someone who carries youth in herself as well as wisdom and experience. I really like that ambiguity in her.” Johannes Moser is the first male cellist to perform as Up-close’s soloist, which, says van der Aa, “will generate different questions, but not necessarily less interesting ones, about the relationship between these two people – the actress in the film and the soloist on the stage. I think it’s important to let the audience take the last steps itself to decide what the piece is about.”

And my commentary on the other works on the program is here:

Pierre Boulez, Éclat
Elliott Carter, Triple Duo

(c) 2014 Thomas May — All rights reserved.

Filed under: composers, new music, orchestras, program notes

A Tragedian Turned Comic Master

Ambrogio Maestri as Falstaff

Ambrogio Maestri as Falstaff


The Met’s new production of Falstaff, opening tonight, replaces the long-standing Zeffirelli production with a staging directed by Robert Carsten – and it brings James Levine back to the pit for what he has declared to be his favorite Verdi opera.

I was fortunate to have another opportunity to write about this crowning glory of Verdi’s career. Here’s my essay for the Met’s program:

“The great dream has come true,” wrote Arrigo Boito, the librettist of Verdi’s Otello and Falstaff, shortly before the former opera was unveiled in 1887. Otello‘s premiere was an internationally feted success, bringing to fruition a proposal that had started eight years earlier when it was tentatively broached over the course of a dinner conversation.

Boito refers to Verdi’s dream of creating a new opera based on his beloved Shakespeare, but he might just as well have marveled at the feat of luring the aging composer out of his self-proclaimed retirement from the opera stage. Otello didn’t just represent a late-career comeback: it marked the summit of Verdi’s achievement as the greatest of Italy’s operatic tragedians.

Verdi had become so identified with the tragic genre that Otello must have seemed the perfect culmination of his life’s work. Yet Boito was determined, as he put it in a letter to a friend, “to make that bronze colossus resound one more time.” Verdi, for his part, had long harbored a desire to prove that the scope of his art extended beyond the dramas of gloomy passion with which he had built his reputation.

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Filed under: Metropolitan Opera, program notes, Verdi

The Misinformation Age

Dame Edna Jeunehomme
Dame Edna or “Miss Jeunehomme”?

We all know about the paradox of the New Media Age: information everywhere, our memories now downloaded onto our phones, instant access to any fact, but…is this overflow of info making us less critical? Just which of those “facts” are actually true?

Nowadays it’s not just the ocean of information that’s the problem: it’s how much bad information is out there, from dangerously misguided “medical” advice to half-baked assertions and those incorrect/half-correct little memettes on which music writers rely far too much — and in the process keep in circulation.

This is where the new media ironically end up working against the diffusion of knowledge. The problem is that certain factoids that sprouted up somewhere eons ago, in a seriously outdated book or note, might have represented the best knowledge back then (or sometimes just a brazen guess), but these end up getting repeated thanks to the laziness of program annotators. Especially once they’ve become enshrined in Wikipedia, there’s an echo chamber effect. Ultimately it’s harder than before for the actual facts to emerge from the clutter.

I recently ran across an example of this while researching a relatively early Mozart piano concerto: the Piano Concerto in E-flat major, K. 271, dating from the composer’s years in Salzburg, in January 1777 (when he just turned 21). It’s still known by the nickname “Jeunehomme” (even though Mozart referred to the French woman for whom he wrote it as “die jenomy”) because the real story somehow fell through the cracks. A French biographer later decided that Mozart — that erratic, fun-and-games speller — was actually writing shorthand for “Jeunehomme,” or perhaps just trying to write the French name down impressionistically.

And that started the little meme about a “mysterious Mlle. Jeunehomme” and her allegedly unexplained trip through Salzburg in 1777. (For some reason, this woman, assumed to have been unmarried according to the scenario, remained half anonymous even while she was performing in the musical capital of the time). Surely she must have been a keyboard whiz to have impressed young Wolferl enough to inspire him to dash off a concerto that, by general consensus, marks an incredible advance in scope, self-confidence, and originality. (The whole thing is actually longer than all those piano concerto masterpieces from the final Vienna decade.)

That’s why the question of which pianist Mozart had in mind for K. 271 — perhaps he just wrote it for himself after all? — isn’t a trivial, pedantic one: this is a genuinely watershed composition. The routine story outlined above was all fine and well until about a decade ago, when the Austrian musicologist Michael Lorenz, in an amazing feat of detective work, discovered that there was a very real musician behind this: Louise-Victoire Jenamy (1749–1812), eldest child of Jean-Georges Noverre, a major figure in the history of French ballet and a very good friend of the Mozarts.

Noverre
French choreographer and dancer Jean-Georges Noverre, father of the pianist Louise-Victoire Jenamy

Yet to this day it’s still easy to find this outdated explanation repeated over and over. Mozart’s pianist continues to appear in recent program notes as the “elusive Mlle. Jeunehomme” or the faceless “fine pianist” we know only as “Mlle. Jeunehomme.”

Maybe I’m making far too much of what seems to be a minuscule point that doesn’t really merit this attention. It’s not exactly the equivalent of Hitler invading Poland, true enough. But it honestly seems to me there’s more at stake here than an obscure academic footnote. What bothers me is that this is a symptom of the bad info out there that just keeps replicating. When the latest research is so easily accessible via a google search, there’s less excuse than ever not to question received ideas. Ignoring the latest discoveries seems to only underscore the reputation of classical music as mummified, out of touch with the present day.

And there really is an interesting story lurking behind Lorenz’s research. You’d think that a scenario involving a woman pianist who apparently had some kind of solo career in the 1770s would inspire more curiosity. Sure, there were plenty of women students at the time, and Mozart wrote piano sonatas and the like for them, but this is a major standout piece in his own career. I wonder whether any more evidence about Louise-Victoire Jenamy née Noverre will turn up. Seems a ripe topic for a speculative novel….

Meanwhile, enjoy one of today’s great pianists in K. 271:

Filed under: canards, program notes

A Fiery, Flaming Symphony

Sergei_Prokofiev_02
(Prokofiev c. 1918.)

My new essay on Sergei Prokofiev’s fantastic and way-underplayed Third Symphony is now up on San Francisco Symphony‘s web site for the program Michael Tilson Thomas is conducting next week. Thank you, MTT, for championing this work!

Music depicting the ravings of demonic possession, eroticized spiritualism (or spiritualized eroticism), medieval witchcraft and sorcery, and a convent of nuns whipped into mass hysteria—no, it’s not the score to a Stephen King film but a work that has a decent claim to being Sergei Prokofiev’s operatic masterpiece: The Fiery Angel (Ognenniy angel in Russian). A labor of love—and great frustration—The Fiery Angel also served as the source for his Third Symphony (even including much of its orchestration). Prokofiev wrote that he considered the latter “to be one of my best compositions.”

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Filed under: composers, opera, program notes, symphonies

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