MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Timelessly Timely: A Dark and Damning Rigoletto at Seattle Opera

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Madison Leonard (Gilda) and Lester Lynch (Rigoletto); (c) Sunny Martini

Seattle Opera has just launched its new season under incoming General Director Christina Scheppelmann with a new Rigoletto production. Here’s my review:

Recounting one of the bleakest, cruelest narratives in the core repertoire, Rigoletto depicts a noirish world of sexual predation, misogyny, despotism, revenge, murder, and… horrifically bad luck. Should all this be approached as timeless tragedy, timely social commentary – or merely as a guilty pleasure akin to consuming a thriller?

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Filed under: directors, review, Seattle Opera, Verdi

Brahms Times 2: Hamelin Displays Mettle And Might

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Marc-André Hamelin performed both Brahms piano concertos at the Bellingham Festival. (Photo: Catherine Fowler)

I spent a lovely day in Bellingham on Sunday. Here’s my review of Marc-André Hamelin’s program of the two Brahms piano concertos at the Bellingham Festival of Music for Classical Voice North America.

BELLINGHAM, Wash. – Rhapsodizing about his summer getaway in the lakeside resort of Pörtschach, Brahms observed that “the melodies fly so thick you must watch out not to step on one.” It’s easy to imagine the composer armed with a melody-catching butterfly net and setting out for a stroll through the idyllic campus in coastal Washington, where the Bellingham Festival of Music takes place over three weeks each July.

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Filed under: Brahms, festivals, pianists, review

Intriguing Voyage Out Anchored by 19th-Century Delights in Seattle

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Sebastian Currier

My review of Monday evening’s Summer Chamber Festival concert, which presented the world premiere of Sebastian Currier’s piano quintet Voyage Out, along with music by Fanny Mendelssohn* and Antonín Dvořák:

Under the smart and tastefully reliable artistic direction of the distinguished violinist James Ehnes, the Seattle Chamber Music Society has basically hewed to a longstanding programming formula: an overlooked work by a familiar composer, a piece featuring instrumentation unusual for the chamber format, and a blockbuster or two, typically from the 19th century…

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*This observation was cut from my review, but since the event has still left me seething, I want to include it:
As if patriarchal strictures hadn’t suppressed Fanny Mendelssohn’s voice sufficiently during her own lifetime, contemporary technology continued the insult to this wonderfully gifted composer in the form of entitled, inexcusable rudeness: in both the first and second movements, the same audience member had to silence a cell phone’s intrusions (not before the beastly device rang out a full cycle of Westminster chimes as the Adagio was supposed to have ebbed into silence).

Filed under: Antonín Dvořák, commissions, Fanny Mendelssohn, James Ehnes, review, Seattle Chamber Music Society

Review of San Francisco Opera Season Closers

Orlando-Sasha Cooke as Orlando and Christian Van Horn as Zoroastro in Handel's Orlando.

Sasha Cooke as Orlando and Christian Van Horn as Zoroastro in Handel’s “Orlando.” Photo (c) Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

In addition to the wondrous Rusalka that was — by consensus, it seems — the highlight of the 2019 summer season — I wrote for Musical America about the company’s productions of Carmen and Orlando here

Overall, I found the Carmen deeply disappointing on account of misguided direction — direction that also worked against the cast. Orlando, on the other hand, was engaging and beautifully produced. Despite some miscasting, it offered an insightful interpretation of one of Handel’s richest scores.

SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco Opera made a bold move when it last presented Carmen only three years ago, at the end of the David Gockley era. It marked the first-ever North American platform for the highly controversial Catalan director Calixto Bieito, and — in spite of some flaws (the revival was actually directed by a longtime Bieito associate) — offered genuinely fresh perspectives.

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Filed under: directors, Georges Bizet, Handel, Musical America, review, San Francisco Opera

More Than a Pretty “Song to the Moon”: Rusalka as a Dark Parable

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Rachel Willis-Sørensen (Rusalka) and Kristinn Sigmundsson (Vodník the Water Goblin); photo (c) Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

David McVicar and San Francisco Opera have been a winning combination in recent seasons. Here’s another to add to the list along with Meistersinger and Les Troyens: the company’s staging of Rusalka in June. My review for Musical America (with another on Carmen and Orlando to follow):

SAN FRANCISCO — After he returned from his sojourn in the New World, Dvořák ceased writing symphonies and turned for inspiration to Czech legend and folklore: first, in a brilliant quartet of symphonic poems — still too infrequently programmed — and then in a pair of operas.

It’s not surprising that Rusalka, the second of these, has found its place in the international repertoire as the most popular of Dvořák’s ten stage works. Along with offering a poetic variant on a universally resonant archetype (the folktale of the mermaid), Rusalka fuses Dvořák’s disparate musical influences into a versatile musical language ideally primed for narrative effectiveness.

That said, Rusalka, which premiered in 1901, suffers from some basic dramaturgical weaknesses as well as stretches of second-rate musical inspiration. But the production presented by San Francisco Opera — only the second time Rusalka has been staged by the company — swept these shortcomings aside to reveal a richly layered and fully engaging work…

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Filed under: Antonín Dvořák, directors, review, San Francisco Opera

Ludovic Morlot Takes Leave of the Seattle Symphony (For Now)

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Ludovic Morlot at his farewell Seattle Symphony concert; photo (c) Brandon Patoc

A look at Ludovic Morlot’s Seattle Symphony legacy:

SEATTLE — With the elegiac strains of the Mondscheinmusik interlude from Richard Strauss’s Capriccio as an encore, Ludovic Morlot brought his final program as music director of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra to an end over the weekend. Stepping back to let the spotlight fall on principal horn Jeffrey Fair during his incandescent solo was a characteristically generous touch. It reminded me of the moment at the end of his opening night concert in 2011, when Morlot descended the podium to join the violin section during Boléro — music making as a shared undertaking among equals.

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Filed under: Ludovic Morlot, review, Seattle Symphony

Anthony Davis’s New Opera The Central Park Five

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Cedric Berry as Yusef Salaam, Orson Van Gay as Raymond Santana, Derrell Acon as Antron McCray, Bernard Holcomb as Kevin Richardson, and Nathan Granner as Khorey Wise image (c) Keith Ian Polakoff

I was privileged to have the opportunity to review the remarkable Anthony Davis’s new opera on an urgently relevant subject. The Central Park Five opened this past weekend at Long Beach Opera and will again be presented this Saturday and Sunday.

SAN PEDRO — “Now, I am awake,” the protagonists of The Central Park Five sing collectively in the Prologue. Projected headline images telescope the timeline: these are the five men of color who were accused in 1989, while still only teenagers, of the vicious beating and rape of a white woman who had gone out for a jog in Central Park…

 

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Filed under: American opera, Anthony Davis, Long Beach Opera, Musical America, review

Yuval Sharon’s Radiant New Interpretation of Meredith Monk’s Avant-Garde Classic

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Meredith Monk’s “Atlas” at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, staged by Yuval Sharon; photo credit (c) Mathew Imaging

Yuval Sharon bid adieu this past week to his three-year residency with the Los Angeles Philharmonic by boldly staging a work that changed his life: Meredith Monk’s opera Atlas, which before this had existed in just one production: the original, commissioned by Houston Grand Opera under David Gockley and staged there in 1991.

My review has been posted on Musical America (apologies for the paywall):

LOS ANGELES — A generation has already passed since Meredith Monk first charted an unprecedented operatic world in Atlas. Yet her ambitious stage work, which premiered at Houston Grand Opera in 1991, retains an aura of singularity — not just in its radiant music and almost entirely wordless libretto, but in the process through which Atlas was shaped as well. Monk cast aside convention altogether, building her opera from performance practices she had pioneered. 

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Filed under: Los Angeles Philharmonic, Meredith Monk, new opera, review, Yuval Sharon

Jonathon Heyward’s Outstanding Seattle Symphony Debut

By the end of last night’s concert with Jonathon Heyward guest conducting the Seattle Symphony, I couldn’t help thinking of John Lennon’s wry understatement after a famous rooftop performance: “I hope we passed the audition!”

Could this really have only been Jonathon Heyward’s first engagement leading the Seattle band? The chemistry between them produced such subtle and winning results that it defies belief they haven’t been regular collaborators for years.

Even more, Heyward demonstrated a level of confidence and musical intelligence that belied his youth. The 26-year-old, who comes from Charleston, South Carolina, studied cello before turning to conducting in his teens and is currently finishing up a three-year residency as assistant conductor of The Hallé in Manchester. He was recently named Chief Conductor of Germany’s Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie, where his tenure will begin in 2021. But word has already gotten out — no wonder this amazing talent is so highly sought after.

The program drew on multiple facets of Heyward’s strengths. He opened with a gripping introduction to the music of Hannah Kendall — another name you’ll want to remember, as she is deservedly gaining international recognition.** This marked the U.S. premiere of The Spark Catchers, a 10-minute piece that was first heard on a BBC Proms concert in 2017.

Born in London to first-generation immigrants from Guyana, Kendall has been making a name with some intriguing collaborative projects, such as her chamber opera The Knife of Dawn (2016), which pays homage to the real-life story of the Guyanese poet and political activist Martin Carter, received much acclaim.

Her sensitivity to poetic texts and dramatic flair are likewise evident in the purely orchestral The Spark Catchers, Kendall’s response to the poem of the same title by the British writer Lemn Sissay. The poem pays tribute to the women and adolescent girl workers who went on strike in 1888 to protest inhumane working conditions in a matchmaking factory in London’s East End.

Kendall’s score is wrought with great skill, making effective use of suspenseful pauses. Sections of menacingly coiled rhythms erupt with volatile energy, framing a central oasis that seems to float free, cheating time. Where many young composers are content to merely establish a vague atmosphere through evocative use of timbre, Kendall develops her ideas with rigor and imagination. Heyward intensified the score’s dramatic qualities and well-placed contrasts.

The young conductor took on a very different set of challenges with Haydn’s Symphony No. 98 in B-flat major — one of the set of 12 “London” symphonies, which Haydn introduced in 1792, near the end of the first of his two trips to the capital (just a few months after his friend Mozart’s death). Here, the orchestra shrank down to late classical size (I’m guessing Heyward positioned the strings according to the practice typically used with The Hallé, though I have not confirmed that.)

Heyward delighted the audience with his obvious sympathy for this composer’s humor but also for his impeccable logic. Ensemble passaged sparkled with wit and elan. Highlights were an especially affecting Adagio as well as the games of timing and syncopation in the brilliant finale.

The program’s second half shifted gears still again, with a downright thrilling, superbly shaped account of Gustav Holst’s The Planets. Here was still an entirely different conception of the orchestra — the players cramming the Benaroya stage to meet the gargantuan demands of Holst’s score. Yet across all of the evening’s varying styles, Heyward showed an instinctive feeling for how to clarify musical architecture, always keeping the big picture in view. He inspired the orchestra to create vivid, fully dimensional sound worlds for each of Holst’s portraits, gently acknowledging the full auditorium’s insistent applause between them.

At the same time, Heyward tirelessly shaped the sound, encouraging subtle refinements and using expressive gestures to blend and adjust the mix. He understood that Holst’s dazzling score isn’t just about the brassy climaxes — wonderfully prepared for here — but also homed in on its varieties of mystery and awe. The latter became genuinely unworldly in the final “Neptune” section, as the female voices of the Seattle Symphony Chorale seeped in unseen.

**On Monday night at 7.30pm, Hannah Kendall will be on hand with SSO musicians to present some of her chamber works at Octave 9.

–review (c) 2019 Thomas May

Filed under: conductors, Haydn, new music, review, Seattle Symphony

Bruch Plus Strauss: Curious Pairing, Inspired Playing in Semyon Bychkov’s Latest NYPO Engagement

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Semyon Bychkov © Umberto Nicoletti

For his recent pair of programs guest conducting the New York Philharmonic over the past two weeks, Semyon Bychkov has made a point of combining familiar repertoire with new discoveries. At the end of April, it was a Brahms symphony with the American premiere of Thomas Larcher’s Symphony no. 2 (Kenotaph), a response to the tragedy of refugees who have drowned in the Mediterranean. The Russian returned to the podium for a second program that placed Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben side-by-side with a piece that might as well have been a premiere: the last time the NY Phil performed the Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (Op.88a) by Max Bruch was in 1917.

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Filed under: Max Bruch, New York Philharmonic, review, Strauss

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