MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Fidelio at San Francisco Opera

A scene from Act One: image (c) Corey Weaver

There was a lot of excitement in the air at the opening of San Francisco Opera’s new production of Fidelio, which had been delayed for a year for obvious reasons. Here’s my review for Musical America:

Filed under: Beethoven, Musical America, review, San Francisco Opera

BBC Proms 2021

The recently concluded BBC Proms concerts are available online. Here’s a guest review of the 2021 edition of the Proms by Tom Luce:

BBC PROMENADE CONCERTS 2021: REVIVAL OF PUBLIC MUSIC-MAKING DURING THE PANDEMIC

Last year, in compliance with pandemic restrictions, the BBC had to limit both the number and accessibility of its annual Promenade Concert Festival concerts. There were fine and interesting concerts as usual in London’s huge Albert Hall. They were all broadcast but had no public audiences present.

This year, with great skill and imagination, the BBC has achieved a full program which complies with pandemic public health precautions. The Albert Hall stage was enlarged so that orchestral members could social distance from each other and the audience, and the public were admitted after showing proof of double vaccination or negative Covid tests. So nearly a year and a half after the near closure of public music-making, it has been revived.

The 46 concert programs had great diversity in content and performers. The classical composers and their modern successors were fully represented, but there was also a lot of non-European music and popular and folk-based items. How many festival programs have included not only Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, along with the usual Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Stravinsky, etc., but also music by Florence Price and Gity Razaz, n accordionist playing a Piazzolla tango, an evening devoted to a jazz saxophonist and composer, and another to the Golden Age of Broadway?

International travel restrictions meant that nearly all performing groups were based in the UK. As well as the BBC’s own and other regular British orchestras, a fine concert was provided by the Chineke! orchestra, and a chamber group consisting largely of members of the Kanneh-Mason family (cellist Sheku having memorably played Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations with the Seattle Symphony three years ago), which delivered a charming performance of Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals.

All of the concerts remain internationally available on BBC Sounds until mid-October. It’s hard to pick those most worthwhile to hear out of such a fine collection. My own preferences include a wonderful St. Matthew Passion performance by the Baroque-style Arcangelo group under their founder and director Johnathan Cohen, who with excellent soloists delivered both the dramatic crowd interventions and the intimate and reflective arias and recitatives with equal effectiveness (9 September); a magnificently played and conducted Tristan und Isolde from the Glyndebourne Festival (3 September); John Eliot Gardiner’s Monteverdi team in a Bach cantata and a stunningly energetic performance of Handel’s Dixit Dominus (1 September); Simon Rattle and the London Symphony in a Stravinsky program (22 August); a fine delivery of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony by an orchestra of pandemic-impoverished freelance musicians specially brought together by the BBC (8 September); the Chineke! Orhcestra’s fine evening with rarely performed but very welcome  music by Florence Price, Samuel Taylor Coleridge Taylor, and Felo Sowande, as well as a Vivaldi concerto (24 August); and a superb rendering of Mozart’s last three symphonies by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (1 August).

In accordance with British tradition, the first and last nights were national events. I have elsewhere described the first night’s programming as very suitable to pandemic circumstances. A remarkable feature of the last night was a  beautiful choral arrangement of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Arranging the words from the Agnus Dei (“Grant them rest……….Grant us peace”) to this celebrated expression of grief was a wonderful addition to a public concert  occurring on 9/11, 20 years after the tragic events in the USA — a commemoration subtly conveyed by Hall ushers gently lifting the Stars and Stripes as it was sung.

All of the concerts I observed were attended by thousands in the Albert Hall, who responded very strongly, and these performances were no doubt heard by millions via radio. To experience such a public revival of real concerts and the profound effect of music on society has reminded me of two historic observations on music’s importance:

-Plato’s comment: “Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe and wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm to sadness and gaiety to life and to everything”.

-”Musica: Laetitia comes medecina dolorum” (“Music: pleasure’s companion: grief’s remedy”), the inscription on the virginal in Vermeer’s painting The Music Lesson.

Filed under: BBC Proms, review

Music on the Strait: Opening Weekend, Part 2 (at Concerts in the Barn)

The Barn entrance; photo credit J. Gustavo Elias

For the first time since it began in 2018, Music on the Strait (MOTS) is partnering this summer with Concerts in the Barn to present a third performance for each of the festival’s two weekends. Scheduled for Sundays in Quilcene (about an hour southeast of Port Angeles), these concerts repeat one of the Friday/Saturday programs and are available to the public on a free/pay-what-you-can basis (prior registration required).

Determined to have the full experience of MOTS both at its Port Angeles venue (Peninsula College’s Maier Hall) and at the Barn, my partner and I caught the Takács Quartet on Sunday afternoon in its repeat of Friday’s opening program. Connected with the Concerts in the Barn series is a moving story of its own involving reconciliation with the descendants of the Japanese American family who had owned the land before they were forced into internment camps in the Second World War. Alan Iglitzin, the legendary violist who founded the Port Townsend-based Olympic Music Festival and cofounded the Philadelphia Quartet, established the series in 1984 in an abandoned dairy barn at Trillium Woods Farm near Quilcene (venue pictured above and just below).

With the Takács, MOTS’s co-founder, the Grammy Award-winning violist Richard O’Neill, was able to present what he has been up to most recently as the newest member of that revered ensemble. He offered some prefatory comments recalling his epiphany in this very space, as a youngster spellbound in the audience on July 3, 1993, when he heard a performance of the Death and the Maiden Quartet and realized he wanted to spend his life making music like this. O’Neill gave a touching tribute to Iglitzin (who remains active as he heads into his 90s), pointing out how his efforts have left a lasting imprint.

Inside the Barn; photo credit J. Gustavo Elias

We found a comfortable spot atop a hay bale for the first half and tried out the loft in back for the second; the acoustics were consistently warm, natural, direct. As far as could be ascertained, this was the first time the Takács Quartet was performing in an actual barn (though O’Neill and violinist Harumi Rhodes had individually appeared in the same space before). The relaxed setting, with audience reclining on the grass outside and listening via speakers, was inversely proportional to the intensity of involvement in the music-making (for the Takács and audience alike).

The program presented three hefty staples of the repertoire, in the process tracing a branch of the Viennese Classical tradition and an early modern offshoot. Melancholy and subdued serenity took the lead at the start of Haydn’s F minor Quartet from the genre-defining Op. 20 set of 1772.

Edward Dusinberre’s exquisite descants in the slow movement had the flexibility of first-rate jazz, blooming across the basic lilt of the siciliana, while ensemble ebb-and-pull at a breakneck pace imbued the double-fugue finale with thrilling emotion. From this kind of realization, it became understandable how Beethoven would later mine such potential from what must have seemed, to contemporaries, the hopelessly antiquated constraints of string counterpoint.

Gears were immediately shifted for Ravel’s sole essay in the genre, the early Quartet in F major from 1903, both modeled on and knowingly independent of Debussy’s contribution from a decade before. O’Neill’s rich, demonstrative viola personality — amply on display as Ravel’s writing ventures ever further into timbral experiment — was but one strand of a winningly characterful account. At one moment of mysterious tremoli, a dulcet breeze wafted through the open barn doors and across the space, a perfectly timed accompaniment.

Time and again, as in András Fejér’s superbly articulated solo work in the cello-centered variation of the second movement of the Schubert, the Takács demonstrated their winning secret of accommodating strikingly individual voices while maintaining coherence and unity of purpose as an ensemble. This is, in large part, the result of the sort of close listening that allowed such an impressive display of dynamic range and control in the Assez vif, as well as such infinite tenderness amid the tempo changes of Ravel’s slow movement.

An intriguingly balletic quality enriched the final movement. Dance of a far more dreadful vividness was the driving force in the last two movements of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden from 1824, to which the concert’s second half was devoted.

Takács Quartet (Edward Dusinberre, Harumi Rhodes, Richard O’Neill, and András Fejér) ; photo credit J. Gustavo Elias

But the Takács set the stage with a surprising take on the opening movement: here, they almost downplayed the obvious drama and emphasized melodic consolation instead, clinging to Schubert’s Siren-like phrases as if to a life raft. As the afternoon sun stole through a crack in the wood above the players, a gleam briefly lit up the body of Fejér’s cello during the variation movement from which Schubert’s Quartet got its nickname; later, the whispered violin-and-viola reprise of the theme was as chilling as a prolonged death rattle.

The final tarantella kept looping back in terrifyingly relentless repetitions, a nightmare Groundhog Day with no escape in the Takács’ feverish, sweat-soaked rendition.

There is one more weekend to experience the 2021 Music on the Strait Festival; both programs feature Jeremy Denk, James Garlick, Ani Aznavoorian, and Richard O’Neill. Friday’s concert (20 August) is titled A Belated Beethoven Celebration; on Saturday (21 August), the Barn-Burning Brahms finale presents music by Jessie Montgomery, Paul Hindemith, and Johannes Brahms, which will be repeated Sunday (22 August) at 2pm as part of the Concerts in the Barn series in Quilcene.

–Review (c) 2021 Thomas May — All rights reserved

Filed under: chamber music, Music on the Strait, review

Music on the Strait: Opening Weekend, Part 1

James Garlick and Richard O’Neill; image credit: J. Gustavo Elias

In 2018, local sons James Garlick and Richard O’Neill together founded Music on the Strait (MOTS) in partnership with the Port Angeles Symphony, as a summer chamber festival in Port Angeles. The aim is to make chamber music performed by artists of international caliber accessible to residents of the Olympic Peninsula. This marvel-filled region on the “other side” of Puget Sound — paradise for nature lovers — is surprisingly close to Seattle but vastly distant in ethos and even climate. Though only 80-something miles away, Port Angeles requires a substantial day trip from the Emerald City (via either a ferry ride or a longer detour by land).

The prolonged, silent fermata caused by the pandemic intruded after just two years of building up momentum (though Music on the Strait was able to produce two live-stream programs over the past year). Even so, MOTS pulled off an inspired and inspiring opening weekend with a return to live performance at Maier Hall on the main campus of Peninsula College located in Port Angeles. It’s a small, warm, intimate space ideal for chamber music and seemed to be pulsating with anticipation as the audience gathered on Saturday night for the second program of this opening weekend (the first I was able to catch). MOTS required vaccination cards as well as masks, and patrons effortlessly complied.

Garlick is a violinist who hails from Port Angeles itself but is currently based in Minneapolis, while the violist O’Neill, a native of nearby Sequim, has long been a regular presence at the Seattle Chamber Music Society festivals. Earlier this year, O’Neill joined the storied Takács Quartet and won his first Grammy Award for Best Classical Instrumental solo (for his recording of Christopher Theofanides’s Viola Concerto).

image credit: J. Gustavo Elias

The two MOTS cofounders and artistic directors started off the program with a duo for their respective instruments by the Norwegian composer, conductor, and violinist Johan Halvorsen — or rather, Halvorsen’s late-Romantic elaboration on the Sarabande from Handel’s D minor Harpsichord Suite. The harmonic sequence is mighty reminiscent of the ear-wiggy La Folia craze that took Europe by storm centuries ago — hence the nickname “Handel’s Folia” — but Halvorsen’s treatment engraves the music with a tremendously “non-HIP” solemnity that requires its own historically informed practice, so distant has this Victorian era aesthetic become. It was intriguing to hear (and see) Garlick and O’Neill exchange and fuse their notably different playing styles and gestural languages.

Jeremy Denk; image credit: J. Gustavo Elias

Jeremy Denk has close ties to MOTS — he was a featured artist in the inaugural season — and he is cast in a central role in the 2021 edition as well. Though his mask made him appear slightly surreal in the heat of the moment (especially given his fondness for turning from the Steinway to glance at the audience or, later, his fellow musicians), the pianist’s gregarious, stimulating, and entertaining artistic personality was fully on display. Denk prefaced his account of J.S. Bach’s G major Partita No. 5, BWV 829, by describing it as the work of a “wicked, smiling, rambunctious rapscallion” who delighted in confounding the church elders with wild modulations and far-roaming fantasies. And that was just how he played the Partita, emphasizing every moment of wit and invention with a willful, winning eccentricity. It seemed very much of our time, of a desperate need to accentuate how music matters, even at its most playful. Amid all the frolicking, the Sarabande had a directness that was deeply touching.

Denk approached the final Gigue as if it were a study for late Beethoven (admittedly, easier to do with Bach-on-piano). Similarly, he found in Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins’s The Battle of Manassas a provocatively avant-garde take on program music and a fascination for sound collage and cluster chords decades ahead of Charles Ives. The piece also calls for spoken (shouted) “tags” from the pianist, with Denk briefly pulling down his mask to announce such events as the approach of the Southern Army in this extraordinary evocation of the 1861 victory of Confederate forces in the First Battle of Bull Run — a musical equivalent of the once-popular panorama paintings that were 19th-century precursors to film.

The Battle of Manassas was part of a set that included Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s transcription of They Will Not Lend Me a Child (Op. 59, no. 4), played with spacious grandeur and an affectionately meditative account of Scott Joplin’s 1907 Heliotrope Bouquet (cowritten with Louis Chauvin), culminating in one of the North American Ballads by the late Frederic Rzewski. Denk chose Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, inspired by a folk song connected to the labor struggle of textile workers at a South Carolina plant in the 1930s. Rzewski’s grinding, machine-like ostinati suggested a provocative counterpart to the “Blind Tom” Wiggins piece — in both cases, Denk thundered relentlessly from the lower depths, using the keyboard to transport us inside the action. But the victory in Rzewski’s mini-epic is intensely rewarding: the emergence of song, of humanity, that hoists itself above brutal, indifferent implacability.

Takács Quartet (Edward Dusinberre, Harumi Rhodes, Richard O’Neill, and András Fejér); image credit: J. Gustavo Elias

Denk joined with the Takács Quartet — another clear win for this edition of MOTS — in a deep dive into Robert Schumann’s Piano Quintet, Op. 44 (which the Takács has recorded with Marc-André Hamelin). They reveled in the enormous diversity of this pathbreaking score’s emotional terrain, at times stretching the flexibility of its language to a near-breaking point. The opening movement, with its outsize exuberance, plummeted into gloom in the funeral march that ensues and which they rendered with a powerfully effective slow burn — seemingly encapsulating the composer’s polar extremes. It’s become a challenge not to read a subtext of our recent collective suffering into these familiar musical journeys — in this case, the nervous pauses and pent-up tensions of the march seemed especially telling. The Scherzo, effusive and ebullient, helped light the way back toward a hope that took root in the finale’s polyphonic splendor, brightening into plausible joy.

–(c)2021 Thomas May — All rights reserved

Filed under: chamber music, Music on the Strait, review

Where Ancient Peaks Embrace Old Friends, Music Adds Its Wonder

Donald Runnicles conducted the Grand Teton Music Festival Orchestra in Britten’s ‘Four Sea Interludes,’ Elgar’s ‘Enigma Variations,’ and Carl Vine’s ‘Five Hallucinations’ for trombone and orchestra. (Photo by J. Gustavo Elias)

My report on the 60th-anniversary Grand Teton Music Festival currently under way:

JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. — Even when obscured by smoke drifting in from distant wildfires, the Grand Tetons’ towering peaks command awe. The tallest cluster, which dominates the promotional posters for this summer’s Grand Teton Music Festival, has been dubbed “the Cathedral Group.”

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Filed under: festivals, Grand Teton Music Festival, review

Seattle Opera’s Elixir of Love Beams with the Joy of Singing

Seattle Opera films its production of “The Elixir of Love” on the McCaw Hall stage. (Philip Newton)
  Seattle Opera films its production of “The Elixir of Love” on the McCaw Hall stage. (Philip Newton)

My review of Seattle Opera’s new Elixir of Love.

While the world pins its hope on a coronavirus vaccine, another elixir is getting top billing at Seattle Opera…

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Filed under: review, Seattle Opera

Plagues and Passions: Lamentation Back before Bach at the Ravenna Festival

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My first official review in quite some time — albeit of a live stream:

Quite by accident, early music groups and chamber ensembles have turned out to have a natural advantage during the current pandemic. Their compact size can more easily accommodate distancing requirements as presenters gingerly proceed to reintroduce public performances. Even more, Il Suonar Parlante pointedly homed in on the theme of plague itself for their choice of programme at the Ravenna Festival…

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Filed under: early music, music festivals, Ravenna Festival, review

Intensity and compassion: Patricia Kopatchinskaja’s stunning return to Seattle

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Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Thomas Dausgaard and the Seattle Symphony
© Carlin Ma

When Patricia Kopatchinskaja is on the bill, you’re guaranteed to encounter the unexpected, no matter how well-known the music …

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Filed under: Patricia Kopatchinskaja, review, Seattle Symphony, Thomas Dausgaard

Eugene Onegin at Seattle Opera

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Marjukka Tepponen (Tatyana) and John Moore (Onegin); (c) Sunny Martini

Just what is Onegin’s problem? The alienation embodied by Pushkin’s anti-hero obviously struck a powerful chord for Tchaikovsky – he wrote an immense symphony, after all, based on Byron’s version of the character type (Manfred) – yet it’s not until Tatyana’s name-day party at the beginning of the second act in Seattle Opera’s new production that we start to get a concrete sense of his identity…

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Filed under: directors, review, Seattle Opera, Tchaikovsky

A Double Dose of Beethoven from Jonathan Biss

“Beethoven addresses and consoles the spirit in a way that no other creative artist has managed. He is simultaneously superhuman and intensely, painfully human,” Jonathan Biss observes in his e-book Beethoven’s Shadow. So it’s not surprising that the pianist has devoted so much energy to the sonatas in particular.

Well in time for the upcoming deluge of Beethovenmania in 2020, Biss recorded the complete cycle gradually over the past decade, releasing the ninth and final volume just last month. He has extended his engagement with this music via his insightful online course Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas (free on Coursera).

Biss has also commissioned a project of works by contemporary composers responding to each of the five piano concertos–with memorable results for the Third C minor Concerto, as I reported when he joined the Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot last February to play that work and Caroline Shaw’s Watermark.

The 39-year-old Biss’s current season is devoted almost entirely to music by Beethoven. Along with complete sonata cycles in Berkeley, London, and Oklahoma, he played two back-to-back recitals at the University of Washington’s Meany Center this week. The second evening had initially been scheduled for early November, but Biss had to cancel that when he fell ill; he agreed to play that program while he was in Seattle for the December recital.

Biss has divided his complete sonata cycle into seven programs that mingle examples from different points in Beethoven’s career. Wednesday night’s recital at Meany Hall (the fifth of the seven programs in his Berkeley cycle) started with the ultra-compact Op. 79 in G major. This artist’s remarkable musical intelligence was at once apparent, the most rapidfire extension of a phrase registering as a crucial moment of developing variation. From the other direction, when Beethoven is grandiose and expansive, as in the fascinatingly ambitious but neglected early Op. 22 in B-flat major, Biss clarified through a kind of elegant understatement.

This intelligence animated his shaping of the smallest parts and implied their relation to the whole. It also illuminated connections between movements and even between sonatas. There was considerable originality in his “Moonlight” (Op. 14, no. 2), with a welcome but subtle link suggested between the rhapsodic rippling of the first movement and the quasi-improvisatory interpolation near the end of the raging finale — the paradox of Beethoven’s carefully calculated passions. His ever-so-slight rubato in the “Moonlight”‘s first movement found an echo in the phrasing of the slow passage that opens the F-sharp major Op. 78 (another unjustly neglected gem, and one of Beethoven’s own favorites).

Biss’s Beethoven obsession to some degree shows his pedigree from Leon Fleisher (and, ultimately, Artur Schnabel), but he brings to the composer a distinctive sensibility. Along with the thoughtfulness and the sense that something more than music and structure are at stake, Biss homes in on a cantabile quality not always associated with Beethoven — or so it seemed to me from these interpretations, even in the somewhat faster-than-usual lanes he chose for some of his tempos.

It was above all this singing-ness that made Biss’s account of the Op. 109 Sonata in E major, with which the recital culminated, its highpoint. Biss seems especially at home with the idiom of the late sonatas, and he concentrated his finest qualities into this interpretation. Unexpected choices — the shocking violence with which he launched into the second movement, for example — were never ham-handed or indulgent.

Biss emphasized the extremity of contrast among the variations of the last movement, dramatizing the payoff of the ecstasies only adumbrated in the opening movement. He captured the knowing innocence in the return of the main theme with an effect reminiscent of the parallel moment in the Goldberg Variations, when Bach simply restates the Aria at the conclusion of his journey.

Since the bonus performance on Thursday evening — program two of his seven-part division — took place at Meany’s 238-seat Studio Theatre, it was in many ways a very different kind of experience than on the preceding night. At times it felt almost like being in a salon, a privileged guest allowed to listen in on the star performer — though, to be sure, Biss managed to create the illusion of intimacy in the much vaster hall upstairs as well. On the negative side, the dry acoustics were not as flattering.

Technically, Biss also ran into a number of difficulties in the the first half that momentarily seemed to throw him off course. At his best, his technique is of the sort that avoids calling attention to itself, merely a tool to probe for the meanings he wants to convey, but his thoughts here at times outran his fingers.

It was all still riveting. Biss was a marvelous advocate for the exuberance of Beethoven’s sense of invention and sheer possibility in Op. 7, an early epic. He paced the constituent melodic parts of the Largo with genuine mastery, playing with subtle pauses the way a painter uses blank spaces. The Adagio molto of the C minor Sonata (first of the Op. 10 set) became a study in musical brushstrokes as Biss carefully shaped its intricate tracery. But his tempo choice for the final prestissimo turned out to be too driven, an uncharacteristic miscalculation.

These two early works were counterbalanced by two of the best-known sonatas. I found Biss’s take on the “Tempest” (second of the Op. 31 set) deeply satisfying in the way he channeled the dark energy of the first movement but allowed for maximal, elegiac expansion of the famous “voice from the tomb” passage in the first movement. The clipped urgency of his finale set the stage for the parallel concluding work of the program. Indeed, Biss made clear the rhymes that exist between the “Tempest” and the “Appassionata”: the mysteriously subdued winding-down of their first movements, with their tensions left to be worked out, and the relentless perpetual motion of their finales.

The middle movement of the “Appassionata” was treated less as an interlude between two hurricanes than a substantial set of variations that foreshadow something of the late style. For Biss, facing the challenges embodied in Beethoven’s piano sonatas involves more than undertaking a musical or artistic achievement. His desire to convey the depth of Beethoven’s own experience, charted in these notes, brought to mind a therapist onto whom the patient’s issues are projected, with a countertransference back onto the audience.

Review (c) 2019 Thomas May. All rights reserved

Filed under: Beethoven, pianists, review

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