MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Dinner at Eight Fails to Sate the Appetite

My Musical America review of the new opera Dinner at Eight by composer William Bolcom and librettist Mark Campbell is now live (behind the MA paywall).

ST. PAUL, MN–Minnesota Opera has long had in place a vigorous program to promote the creation of contemporary works. Dinner at Eight is the latest of these and brings the tally of new operas that the company has produced to 45. For this project …

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Filed under: American opera, Minnesota Opera, Musical America, review, William Bolcom

A.J. Kernis’s Killer New Violin Concerto at Seattle Symphony

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photo by James Holt

In last night’s Seattle Symphony concert led by Ludovic Morlot,  James Ehnes introduced a brand-new violin concerto written for him by one of today’s finest composers, Aaron Jay Kernis. This was the U.S. premiere; last week Ehnes gave the world premiere in Toronto (a co-commissioner with SSO).

Talk about making a great first impression! Despite — or even because of — its terrorizing challenges for the soloist, this is a concerto built to last: it’s so good and makes such an obviously satisfying contribution that I’d bet at least some of the more interesting virtuosos at work today will be intrigued to take it on.

I sometimes wonder whether we’ve been going through something of a concerto overload in recent years: too many composers relying on the supposedly built-in attractions of a structure that can feature a star protagonist while also benefiting from the color and horsepower of an orchestra (even if the latter is used merely for “atmospheric” painting rather than in a richer, symphonic way).

One of the many things that impress me about this new piece is that Kernis has really thought through the concerto idea and created something substantial and fresh without relying on esoteric novelties — without trying to reinvent the wheel.

In fact, an attempt at abstract description of the piece might make it sound almost old-fashioned, but it’s not. Like Brahms writing for Joseph Joachim (though Kernis himself studied violin as a youngster), he resorts (distantly) to Baroque forms in the outer movements — an intensely felt and gripping Chaconne for the first and a “Toccatini” (his play on the toccata) for the finale — with a soulful “Ballad” doing service as the aria at the center. And the profusion of little cadenza-islands amid the orchestral archipelago also underscores the concerto’s conventional identification with virtuoso prowess.

But Kernis animates all of these conventional elements with a marvelously contemporary spirit. The first two movements have deep emotional resonance, while the finale is so infectiously zippy (and outrageously hard to play) it leaves you with a buzz — a musical martini, as the composer jokes.

He’s often described as “eclectic,” but I don’t think that does justice to the distinctive personality Kernis conveys in his Violin Concerto. True, there are hints of, well, Brahms (in the emotional severity and fatalism of the first movement), Berg, Bach, Stravinsky for sure (in the finale), Messiaen (the wondrous tangles of sound in the “Ballad,” which is also cured with jazz and blues flavors). But instead of a random mishmash, Kernis amalgamates these idioms into a rich, compelling harmonic language and flow of ideas.

One could appreciate Kernis’s score on the level of its orchestral ingenuity alone: such interesting sounds and blends, which paradoxically erase the model of individual “versus” the orchestra — at least over long stretches of the piece. Paradoxically because, on the most obvious level, this concerto it is a virtuoso showpiece in the old school sense.

But with James Ehnes as the soloist, the clichés often signaled by “virtuosity” — mere dazzle, effects without causes — have no bearing. It’s clear that Kernis tailored the piece to display this unmatchable violinist’s musical intelligence, taste, and beautiful sound production above all incredible technical feats he calls for (of which this piece is essentially a violinist’s compendium).

Whether Ehnes was attacking a fearsome passage of double-stop chords with his signature elegance or deftly sprinkling a torrent of precisely placed pizzicati,  it was like watching  a veteran climber scaling a particularly brutal mountain face sans ropes.

But for all the thrills and escapades, the overall impression he left of the concerto — which Kernis has dedicated to Ehnes — was of a rich, many-colored, joyful composition that has something compelling to say, and that resonates afterward.

Again, this is all part of the extraordinary balance Kernis has achieved in his Violin Concerto, overriding binaries of dark/light, intense/carefree, Apollonian/Dionysian, “serious”/enjoyable.

Morlot — a big part of this success in the less obvious task of precision-engineering and calibrating Kernis’s complex orchestral apparatus — was a deeply  sympathetic collaborator in this premiere.

He opened the program with a youthful curiosity by Debussy from a student cantata (the “Cortège et Air de danse” from L’enfant prodigue). The second half brought Beethoven’s Sixth.

Morlot’s account of the Pastoral from several seasons ago has stayed with me as some of his best Beethoven. It’s fascinating to hear him continuing to develop his ideas of this piece. Connections between the movements (even between symphonies) emerged effortlessly — above all in the limber, serenely flowing string lines of the second and last movements, which were reminiscent of his vision of the Ninth’s slow movement at the beginning of the year.

Despite some ensemble untidiness, there was especially delectable work from the winds (Eric Jacobs’ clarinet as beguiling as the voice of Orpheus). Michael Crusoe’s timpani pulsed with dramatic thunder and lighting in a storm movement that sounded like a sketch for The Flying Dutchman: further evidence of the silliness of that persistent cliche about the “placid” even-numbered versus “revolutionary” odd-numbered Beethoven symphonies. Next week brings a further chance for comparison, when Morlot and the SSO close out their two-year Beethoven cycle with the mighty Fifth.

(c) 2017 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Seattle Symphony, James Ehnes, review, American music, commissions, Beethoven, Ludovic Morlot

Ignacio Prego’s Revelatory Goldbergs

 

A new review for Vanguard Seattle:

An opportunity to hear the Goldberg Variations in live performance on harpsichord is rare enough. But the latest offering from Byron Schenkman & Friends was special in several ways. For one thing, it marked the first time that Byron Schenkman has presented a program in his chamber music series without himself being one of the performers. The Spanish harpsichordist Ignacio Prego had the show to himself for about 80 uninterrupted minutes.

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Filed under: Bach, review, Vanguard Seattle

Performing Art in the Trump Era: An Example from Seattle Pro Musica

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Photo by Shaya Bendix Lyon (courtesy of Seattle Pro Musica)

Here’s my review of Seattle Pro Musica’s recent concert for Vanguard Seattle:

Since 1987, she has presided over one of the finest choral collectives in the competitive, choral-rich Northwest: Seattle Pro Musica. Her musical sensibility is ideally matched to the transportive a cappella soundscapes in which her singers excel.

On top of that, Karen P. Thomas has an enviable knack for creating programs that cohere while offering enough variety to surfeit a hungry, curious musical appetite. (That’s an art in itself, one too often taken for granted in our era of casual iPod curation.)

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Filed under: choral music, review, Vanguard Seattle

Review: A Searing Katya Kabanova on the Seattle Opera stage

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Melody Moore sings the title role in “Katya Kabanova” on opening night at Seattle Opera. (Jacob F. Lucas)

My Seattle Times review of the new Katya Kabanova* production at Seattle Opera:

Nearly a century after it premiered, Leoš Janáček’s “Katya Kabanova” has made it to the Seattle Opera stage for the first time. The Czech composer’s portrayal of a sensitive young woman desperately in need of an escape route from her repressive surroundings contains all the ingredients for a searing music drama.

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*following the company’s English rendition of the title, sans diacriticals

Filed under: Leoš Janáček, review, Seattle Opera

Seattle Symphony Is Making Music Matter

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Kinan Azmeh, Ludovic Morlot, and Seattle Symphony; image (c) Brando Patoc

Some thoughts on recent Seattle Symphony programs, now on Vanguard Seattle:

Say goodbye to ivory towers.

So far this month, the Seattle Symphony Orchestra (SSO) and music director Ludovic Morlot have presented three widely varied programs. Two of these addressed red-hot current events that would have seemed surprising in the middle of a “normal” concert season not too long ago.

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Filed under: American music, Beethoven, Debussy, Ives, Ludovic Morlot, Prokofiev, review, Seattle Symphony, Vanguard Seattle

Music for Troubled Times: Seattle Symphony’s Shostakovich Concerto Festival

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Violinist Aleksey Semenenko, with Pablo Rus Broseta conducting the Seattle Symphony; photo (c)Brandon Patoc

My review of Seattle Symphony’s remarkable, two-part Shostakovich Concerto Festival is now available on STRINGS:

The Seattle Symphony just offered a rare chance to hear all six of Dmitri Shostakovich’s solo instrumental concertos back-to-back in a two-day marathon (January 19–20) featuring three young virtuosos, all led by the ensemble’s associate conductor, Pablo Rus Broseta.

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Filed under: review, Seattle Symphony, Shostakovich

At Seattle Symphony, Cosmic Radiation from Beethoven and Messiaen

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The Seattle Symphony, with guest musicians and vocalists, perform works by Messiaen and Beethoven this weekend. (Brandon Patoc)

My Seattle Times review:

In their first program of the new year, Ludovic Morlot, the Seattle Symphony and guests offer an inspired pairing of Beethoven’s immortal Ninth and the spiritually attuned music of Olivier Messiaen.

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Filed under: Beethoven, Olivier Messiaen, review, Seattle Symphony, Seattle Times

Elgar’s Dream a Transformative Experience at Seattle Symphony

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Edward Gardner © Benjamin Ealovega

At this late date, it’s surprising how relatively little-known The Dream of Gerontiusremains among American audiences. Edward Elgar’s masterpiece – even if not the composer’s own favourite among his great oratorio trilogy – contains all the goods to move a concert audience to its core. ..

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Filed under: choral music, Edward Elgar, review, Seattle Symphony

Learning To Listen: Fallujah Brings the Iraq War to the Opera Stage

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(c) Sarah Shatz/New York City Opera

The tag “CNN opera” was always a misleading way to refer to operas grappling with current events, but it’s downright insulting when it comes to a work like Fallujah, the chamber opera by the Canadian composer Tobin Stokes and the Iraqi-American librettist Heather Raffo that just received its East Coast première in a co-production by New York City Opera and Long Beach Opera.

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Filed under: new music, New York City Opera, review

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