MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Swept Away by Morlot’s La mer

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This week’s Seattle Symphony program culminates in one of music director Ludovic Morlot’s specialities: La mer, the finale to a program initially designed around orchestral color.

It opens with Escales (“Ports of Call”) by Debussy’s younger compatriot Jacques Ibert. This tripart travelogue from the early 1920s unabashedly exploits clichéd Orientalist and Spanish tropes, but the composer’s treatment of the orchestra is fresh, and Morlot found enough appealing nuances here to make it an enjoyable outing — and to pique interest in hearing more of this now-neglected composer’s considerable output.

The program had originally been slated to include a real rarity — Scriabin’s Piano Concerto, an early work that isn’t exactly in most pianist’s ready-to-go rep. Daniil Trifonov withdrew because of illness at the last minute, so it wouldn’t have been reasonable to expect Inon Barnatan to play the Scriabin when he agreed to save the day.

Scriabin’s synesthesia was meant to be a linking thread here — and perhaps something about Debussy’s Russian influences? — but the substitute turned out to be quite satisfying anyway: Mozart’s K. 488 Piano Concerto, which dates from just before the Figaro premiere.

I was impressed by Barnatan’s SSO debut two years ago (in Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto). Once again, there was much to admire in his ultra-refined approach to the Mozart, which I heard on Thursday night — all the more striking, given that the concerto’s seemingly straightforward textures were surrounded by the complex hues and ravaging color fields of the rest of the program.

But I was puzzled by the shift from Classical poise to Romantic exaggeration of gesture in the minor-key slow movement, which contains some of Mozart’s most heart-rending music. Barnatan is such a naturally expressive interpreter that I think he would have been more effective without adding italics. Still, there were moments of that elevated beauty squeezed from the most commonplace phrase that set Mozart apart. The finale had all the joie de vivre of the Figaro that was waiting in the wings.

Morlot combined Respighi’s Pines of Rome with Debussy (Nocturnes) early in his tenure, and this time he took up the Italian’s Fountains. It’s hard to avoid the charge of musical padding here in Respighi’s opulent, neo-Richard Straussian scoring, but Morlot shaped the vignettes into miniature dramas that held interest. The SSO’s playing was at a high level, with especially fine ensemble from the strings.

It all seemed to set the stage perfectly for Debussy’s quasi-symphony La mer — including the times-of-day conceit of Respighi’s homage to Rome, moving from the sun’s fading at the Villa Medici to Debussy’s oceanic dawn.

But it soon became clear that Morlot wasn’t interested in “painting” with tone colors or the kind of pictorialism of Ibert — in other words, that he wasn’t treating La mer as another piece of program music that proves how clever Debussy was at conjuring mental images of aspects of the sea through his orchestration. In fact, and especially in contrast to the Ibert, it became obvious how much Debussy manages to do without resorting to standard musical tropes to suggest water.

Instead, the “colors” here seemed closer to the way we find them used in a Mahler symphony: expressions of an internal cosmos, building into a wordless drama of struggle and affirmation.

In his latest take on the piece, Morlot often went in surprising directions. Most remarkable of all was the intensity of the drama in the third panel, which exuded an almost terrifying ferocity I’d not heard in live performances of La mer.

The synergy with the SSO was exciting. Mary Lynch’s rendition of the ambiguous oboe phrase crowned an evening of stellar playing by the woodwinds. Morlot has internalized Debussy’s score to such a degree that he occasionally created the illusion of writing it on the spot. A moving tribute to Debussy’s continuing relevance.
–Review (c)2018 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Debussy, Ludovic Morlot, review, Seattle Symphony

The Esoterics: Concert Review

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Photo by Bruce Weber

Review of The Esoterics for the Seattle Times:

The Esoterics Sing Radically Secular Rewrites of Texts from the Christian Mass

The Esoterics have a reputation for giving voice to new ideas. But this past weekend’s program explored a concept that was unusual even for them.

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Filed under: choral music, review, Seattle Times

In Search of Mahlerian Music Drama at LA Phil

I covered a very unusual approach to Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde for Musical America. This remarkably original staging by Yuval Sharon and the Chile-based Teatrocinema Company was performed this past weekend by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel, with soloists Russell Thomas and Tamara Mumford.
[review behind paywall]

Filed under: Los Angeles Philharmonic, Mahler, Musical America, review, Yuval Sharon

Becoming the Light

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Composer John Luther Adams with conductor Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. Seattle Symphony presents the world premiere “Become Desert” March 29 and 31. (Brandon Patoc )

And what a night: Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot have given the world premiere of Become Desert by the incomparable John Luther Adams.

My review for The Seattle Times here, where I was only able to offer a few hints of how extraordinarily original, enthralling, and transformative this music is.

Filed under: Beethoven, John Luther Adams, review, Seattle Symphony

Cav/Pag at Grand Théâtre de Genève

I realize it’s only the inertia of tradition that keeps Cavalleria rusticana and I Pagliacci glued together as a double-bill; otherwise they seem silly side by side, a forced pairing that makes no sense. Is it precisely this juxtaposition that makes Cav so difficult to direct? Or is it just the temptation to read too much into it, not accepting the naiveté and directness that are the essence of Mascagni’s opera?

I was thinking about this after seeing the current edition of the pair at Geneva Opera (in its pop-up temporary performance space at the Opéra des Nations). Each opera was divvied out to a separate director: Emma Dante for Cav, Serena Sinigaglia for Pag.

This Cav fell dramatically flat, while the Pag was thoroughly gripping and delivered its expected punch, plus some — the contrast in effectiveness all the more striking.

Cav had the burden of an overcooked dramaturgical conception, juxtaposing a re-enacted Passion scenario with the simple melodrama of jealous lovers and revenge, all set on a darkly-lit stage. A recurrent tableau ensemble showed Jesus on his way to the Crucifixion, hammering home an intended parallelism with Giovanni Verga’s narrative and its atmosphere of Gothic gloom, without the countervailing joy of the Easter celebrations in which it unfolds.

This dampened the built-in effect of the musical contrasts, despite the excellent work of the chorus prepared by Alan Woodbridge. The casting was weak, above all for the Turiddu (sung by Marcello Giordani, who sounded alarmingly strained at the top of his range).

I’d seen and admired Emma Dante’s Macbeth at Edinburgh International Festival last year, so the miscalculations here were surprising. New to me on the other hand was Serena Sinigaglia, who understood how to pace the interactions in Paglicacci for maximal impact. There was just one misstep, in my opinion: a prolonged meta-theater indulgence during the Prologue, with Stage Director and Co. frantically getting the set of forlorn wheat fields in place, which surrounded a simple wooden stage.

It wasn’t that cliché, but the power and intensity of the performers who brought home the ironic point that art and life literally bleed into each other. Maybe verismo isn’t the “slice of life” naturalism it’s so often claimed to be so much as an aesthetic given to its own kind of stylized artifice that tries to make sense of recurring human patterns. Certainly the presence of the crowd here felt more palpably pressuring, willing participants in this society of codes, than in Dante’s Cav.

Diego Torre delivered a genuinely terrifying Canio, and Roman Burdenko (had just sung a thrilling Alfio) gave Tonio an almost Jago-like infusion of malevolence. Nino Machaidze’s combined beauty and grit for a memorable portrayal of Nedda.

Conducting the house Orchestre de la Suisse Romande with dramatic flair as well as melting lyricism was Alexander Joel throughout the evening. He was especially attentive to the range of colorings in Leoncavallo’s more complex score.

Filed under: Geneva Opera, review

A Rousing Reunion for Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic

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Esa-Pekka Salonen © Benjamin Suomela

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s return to Walt Disney Concert Hall highlighted his gifts as composer and conductor alike and underscored how an orchestra can sound genuinely 21st century.

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Filed under: Beethoven, Los Angeles Philharmonic, review, Salonen

Thomas Dausgaard and Seattle Symphony in an All-Brahms Concert

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Thomas Dausgaard conducts the Seattle Symphony in a Brahms program at Benaroya Hall. (Brandon Patoc)

My review of last night’s program for The Seattle Times:

For a glimpse of the music of the future in Seattle, head down to Benaroya Hall this weekend to experience Thomas Dausgaard in action….

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Filed under: Brahms, review, Seattle Symphony, Seattle Times, Thomas Dausgaard

Strange Beauty: The Berlioz Requiem in Seattle

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(c) Brandon Patoc

My review of the Berlioz Requiem performed by Ludovic Morlot and Seattle Symphony:

Even for a composer as naturally original as Hector Berlioz, the Grande messe des morts stands apart for its wild uniqueness…

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Filed under: Berlioz, review, Seattle Symphony

Contemplating End Times with the Emerson Quartet

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Emerson String Quartet Photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco

My review of the Emerson Quartet’s performance for the White Light Festival at Lincoln Center for Musical America (paywall):

NEW YORK—“Conclusions are the weak point of most authors,” George Eliot famously declared, “but some of the fault lies in the very nature of a conclusion, which is at best a negation.” That may hold true for fiction, but composers glory in the powerful statements they can make when a piece approaches the double bar line. And, in the case of certain composers, music written when their own lives are nearing the end possesses a special mystique.

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Filed under: Beethoven, Emerson String Quartet, Musical America, review, Shostakovich

Gidon Kremer with Seattle Symphony

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Gidon Kremer; © Paolo Pellegrin

My review of Gidon Kremer’s visit with Seattle Symphony:

It’s entirely characteristic of Gidon Kremer to choose a discovery piece rather than a surefire crowd-pleaser for what was a rare appearance in Seattle…

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Filed under: Gidon Kremer, Ludovic Morlot, Mendelssohn, review, Schumann, Seattle Symphony

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