My latest feature for STRINGS magazine is now online:
Composer Steve Reich’s Three Generations series will illustrate the sea change in compositional language ventured by Reich and his peers and carried forward by younger generations
February 7, 2017 • 8:48 am Comments Off on Generations Ahead: Steve Reich
August 15, 2015 • 3:12 am Comments Off on A Sense of “Humor” at the Lucerne Festival
So another Lucerne Festival has begun: this summer featuring programming tied together by the theme of “humor” in all its varieties: not just “buffa” humor, that is, but the weird and unpredictable twists of the so-called humors that were once believed to influence human behavior.
And neatly timed with the opening concert comes the announcement that Riccardo Chailly will take on the position of the late Claudio Abbado as music director of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra.
To be responsible for this great artistic project
initiated by Claudio Abbado is not only a privilege but also something that touches me emotionally. Ever since I was 18, when he appointed me to be his assistant at La Scala, Abbado was my model and then my point of reference and lifelong friend, with deep affection up to the very end.
I have collaborated with Michael Haefliger for many years in a spirit of full artistic understanding. I believe that working with him offers a real opportunity to maintain and develop the musical profile of the Orchestra and of the Festival, both in Switzerland and worldwide, as they deserve.”
Congratulations to Maestro Chailly — and to the Lucerne Festival for this terrific win!
June 3, 2015 • 9:44 am Comments Off on A New East-West Polyphony
The Summer 2015 edition of SYMPHONY (the quarterly magazine published by the League of American Orchestras) was timed to be available for the League’s annual conference (which just took place in Cleveland). The contents have now been published online as well.
This issue of SYMPHONY contains my feature on composers who are drawing on their Arabic, Turkish, and Iranian roots to enrich America’s orchestral life.
Along with the much-in-demand Mohammed Fairouz — who has even been featured on MSNB’s Morning Joe (click here: http://www.msnbc.com/morning-joe/watch/composer-and-journalist-team-up-for-opera-447080003746) — I discuss the contributions of such composers and/or performers as Fawzi Haimor, Mariam Adam, Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol, Kinan Azmeh, Kareem Roustom, Karim Al-Zand, Malek Jandali, and Reza Vali.
There are many more: this is only the start of a conversation about an exciting phenomenon. You can read my story here (in pdf format):
The entire Summer 2015 issue of SYMPHONY is available here.
April 2, 2015 • 5:56 pm Comments Off on Orpheus Ascending: Mohammed Fairouz’s New CD
Mohammed Fairouz’s Follow, Poet is among the most inspiring CDs I’ve encountered in quite a while. For one thing, it documents two recent works by a composer who brings to the new-music scene not just a fresh voice but a powerful intellect and — most significantly — an unclouded vision of art’s potential for our jaded age. A vision that is ambitious without being naive.
Fairouz, still just south of 30, has already channeled his imagination into an astonishing gamut of genres, from intimate chamber works to concertos and major-scale symphonies (four to date!), choral pieces, and opera and other theater works. And with Follow, Poet, he is the youngest composer in the history of Deutsche Grammophon to have an entire album devoted to his works.
Such ample gifts could easily run aground with compromised or even downright hackwork production just to fulfill the commissions that seem to be piling up from all sides. (Alas, not an uncommon phenomenon.) But start listening to the song cycle Audenesque, one of the gems featured on Follow, Poet, and you find yourself in the hands of an artist who crafts the musical equivalent of a page-turner: the first song sets the stage for W.H. Auden’s masterful elegy In Memory of W.B. Yeats with a gripping blend of musical images, a mix of restless churning and numb melancholy.
In place of mere accompaniment or wallpaper “illustration” of Auden’s own images, Fairouz builds a sound world that vividly engages with the elegy’s aesthetic agenda, which is organized into three stages as three separate but interlinked songs. First is the despairing indifference of the “real world” in response to the artist’s death, followed by a reflection on the actual difference poetry can make. The elegy culminates in the moving breakthrough of renewal in the third song, with its promise of “the healing fountain.”
Fairouz’s music beautifully amplifies the oracular-in-the-ordinary tone characteristic of Auden. An additional layer enriches the cycle by bridging Auden’s elegy with the present era as Fairouz appends a fourth song, his setting of the late Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s Audensque.
Auden paid homage to Yeats as the exemplary poet, and Heaney’s poem feelingly, and with humor, eulogizes fellow poet Joseph Brodsky (who died in 1996 — on the same date on which Yeats had died). The music forges still another link in this chain of connection, becoming the composer’s elegy for Heaney (the poet had befriended Fairouz near the end of his life).
In a short booklet essay, the conductor/musicologist Leon Botstein provides an eloquent appraisal of Fairouz’s musical pedigree and approach. You can hear the sensibility he shares with Samuel Barber (the unforced lyricism, with its elegiac undertow), Kurt Weill (the accessibility that nevertheless forces you to listen actively, without the crutch of easy sentiment), and Gustav Mahler (the narrative punch, along with the pointed details of Fairouz’s chamber orchestration); an arresting harmonic pattern at the climax of the Auden poem meanwhile casts its Philip Glass-like spell. Yet the perspective Fairouz brings to his influences is strongly individual, never sounding eclectic.
The other musical work is Sadat, a chamber ballet being released here ahead of its stage premiere (to be given in late May 2015 by the Mimesis Ensemble at Carnegie Hall). Cast in five brief but representative scenes, Sadat distills a portrait of the slain Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat.
Like Audenesque, the wordless ballet score manifests the theatrical and narrative instincts that figure so prominently in Fairouz’s compositions. Whether the scene is of public mourning or an intimate encounter between the young army officer and his fiancée, a minimum of musical gestures is needed to establish the atmosphere.
Sadat‘s chamber orchestration centers around a characterful array of tuned and untuned percussion (including highly colorful writing for xylophone). Fairouz’s use of these instruments alludes more directly to the Middle Eastern sound world that contributes important elements to the Arab-American composer’s palette — he even calls for the sound of a shofar — though similar gestures are subtly present in his scoring of Audenesque as well.
The performances are sympathetic, alluring, dramatically crisp. Evan Rogister leads the Ensemble LPR, a group of 14 musicians associated with New York’s admired “alternative” performance venue, Le Poisson Rouge. With its warmth, variety of colors, and flexibility, Kate Lindsey’s mezzo is ideally suited to Fairouz’s vocal writing. His lines trace their own musical sense while remaining alert to the sounds and rhythmic life of the words.
Follow, Poet is also the inaugural release in an innovative series — Return to Language — that Elizabeth Sobol, the president of Universal Music Classics, has launched to explore the synergy between music and words.
To that end, the album includes separate tracks of the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon reciting the poems set to music by Fairouz, along with a couple of brief excerpts from speeches by President John F. Kennedy extolling the power of poetry.
“I believe in cultivating a respect and love for depth of language and reflection and expression, even in the age of Twitter and YouTube, when some of that seems in danger of being eroded,” says Sobol. “And it has always been the interrelatedness of literature and music that has touched me most deeply in art — the exponential power of storytelling when you join words and music.”
It’s a highly laudable effort that deserves to have a widespread audience — and the choice of music by Mohammed Fairouz to kick it off shows that UMC is on the right track.
–(c)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.
March 28, 2015 • 9:22 am 1
With the strings leaning in to one of the most powerfully orchestrated C major chords of the 20th century, the Seattle Symphony’s ambitious Luminous Landscapes Sibelius Festival has reached its conclusion. (There’s also a curious Nachtisch to this week’s final program: after the orchestra players cleared the stage on Thursday, we were treated to a mini-recital of nine Sibelius lieder, with soprano/pianists Maria Männistö and Christina Siemens alternating roles.)
For fellow music lovers (and Sibelius completists) who’d been present for all three programs this past month, there was an added sense of satisfying closure that was maybe, just maybe, a bit reminiscent of being with a Ring audience at Seattle Opera as the final chord of Götterdämmerung fades out.
On Sunday you can listen to the entire marathon via the KING FM Seattle Symphony Channel, KING FM 98.1’s new collaborative project with the SSO. On March 29 the marathon starts at 12:01 a.m. with a looping 24-hour stream of the seven symphonies, the Violin Concerto (with soloist Pekka Kuusisto), and Finlandia — all with Thomas Dausgaard conducting, recorded live from the past month’s performances.
My previous coverage of the Sibelius Festival:
And a glance at San Francisco Symphony’s recent “Creation” program, which included the composer’s fascinating, brief tone poem Luonnotar.
We’re still early in this 150th anniversary year honoring Sibelius. The birthday itself falls in December — which somehow seems just right for a composer so associated with Northern landscapes. Many orchestras have therefore planned Sibelius-related programs for the coming season as well. But the Seattle Symphony is the only U.S. orchestra to have performed an entire Sibelius symphony cycle back-to-back to mark the anniversary. It’s been a genuinely laudable artistic milestone for the ensemble.
March 5, 2015 • 5:36 pm Comments Off on Hercules vs. Vampires: Opera Goes to the Movies
Los Angeles Opera truly has become a company interested in innovation. Next month brings Hercules vs. Vampires, an opera-meets-cult film mashup between Mario Bava’s 1961 film (Hercules in the Haunted World) and LA-based composer Patrick Morganelli.
Here’s my interview with Mr. Morganelli:
A century ago, the budding film industry borrowed pretty heavily from opera—which makes a lot of sense, considering how the larger-than-life gestures of operatic acting suited the new medium of silent film so effectively.
And film has been repaying the favor in recent years: Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, Kevin Puts’ Silent Night, Howard Shore’s The Fly, André Previn’s Brief Encounter, even a new opera by Giorgio Battistelli inspired by the controversial Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth, set to premiere in May at La Scala.
February 28, 2015 • 5:44 am 1
March is going to bring a lot of Sibelius to my ears, as the Seattle Symphony marks his 150th anniversary with an ambitious Sibelius Festival to include not just all seven symphonies (conducted by principal guest conductor Thomas Dausgaard) but the Violin Concerto and Finlandia.
According to the SSO, this three-week festival will be “the most extensive festival of Sibelius’s music this year in the U.S.” Even Seattle’s Nordic Heritage Museum is joining in for the Finnish focus with an exhibit titled Finland: Designed Environments. The exhibit will examine:
the explosion of creativity in Finnish design over the last 15 years. Examples of furnishings, fashion, and craft, as well as architecture and urbanism, illustrate how nearly every aspect of Finnish life incorporates thoughtful design thinking—from city streets and summer homes to fashion and food—and is marked by sensitivity to form and material. The exhibition is the first significant U.S. museum presentation since the 1990s to examine contemporary Finnish design.
Meanwhile, next week reunites Thomas Adès (as composer and conductor) with the San Francisco Symphony for a program on creation themes: along with his new video-accompanied piece In Seven Days, Adès will conduct Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question, Darius Milhaud’s La Création du monde, and the remarkable tone poem-with-soprano Luonnotar. (My contribution to the program book is here.)
February 7, 2015 • 5:11 pm Comments Off on Going Organic
The other night it was lovely being reminded of how Hurricane Mama, Disney Concert Hall’s fabulous organ, holds court even when that gorgeous monster’s not being played. So I wanted to share this article on the resurgence of the organ in the concert hall, which included a focus on Paul Jacobs and Cameron Carpenter. I published this piece back in the spring of 2012 in Symphony magazine:
Going Organic: The King of Instruments Makes a Comeback in the Concert Hall
Blame it on Stravinsky. Explaining why he opted against using the organ in his Symphony of Psalms, the composer complained that “the monster never breathes.” His notorious putdown may have only mirrored a larger bias fashionable in the heyday of modernism. Still, as a revered musical icon, Stravinsky condemned the organ in a way that reverberated through much of the latter half of the 20th century. A similar attitude can still be encountered among those who write off the instrument as the concern of a specialist, even fringe constituency. Yet several recent trends indicate that the organ is earning a rediscovered sense of respect—and creating remarkable musical pleasure—in concert halls across North America.
In February, for example, California’s Pacific Symphony and music director Carl St.Clair gave the world premiere in Orange County’s Segerstrom Hall of Michael Daugherty’s organ concerto, The Gospel According to Sister Aimee, which dramatizes the life and career of “the first important religious celebrity of the new mass media era,” as the composer describes it. The piece represents one among an extraordinary range of fresh commissions intended to take advantage of the renaissance of pipe organs that have sprouted up in newly built or renovated concert halls during the past twenty years.
“The organ is like an orchestra in itself, so in effect a concerto is like writing for two orchestras,” says Daugherty, homing in on the special appeal of writing for organ and orchestra. “Yes, this is the king of instruments, but it can produce delicate sounds, too. It’s like the field of percussion, where you have a range from the powerful and loud to the very soft and subtle. You can get hundreds of different timbres from a great organ.” He adds that in the past few years, concerts of original music presented by his students at the University of Michigan have increasingly demonstrated an interest in the organ.
continue reading [Note: please navigate to p. 30 of the linked online magazine]
(c)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.