MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Timeless Machiavelli, Timely Opera: A World Premiere from Mohammed Fairouz

Prince3

photo © Marco Borggreve

My review of the new opera by Mohammed Fairouz has now been posted on Seattle Vanguard:

There’s been a huge push in recent years for those involved in the performing arts to seem as “relevant” and “relatable” as possible. Nowhere more so than in the areas mistakenly perceived as “elitist” — above all opera and orchestral music.

But writing persuasively — with no special pleading needed — about issues and dilemmas that have a contemporary urgency seems to come naturally to Mohammed Fairouz, the acclaimed Emirati-American composer whose latest work, The New Prince, just received its world premiere in an impressive production directed by Lotte de Beer at Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam. Regarded as among the most forward-looking opera companies in the world, DNO commissioned The New Prince as part of its Opera Forward Festival initiative, which promotes new artists and fresh approaches to the art form.

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Fairouz, now 31, based his first opera, Sumeida’s Song (2011), on Egyptian writer Tawfiq al-Hakim’s play about the fatal conflict between unthinking tradition and enlightened progress. Zabur, a combination oratorio and war requiem (just out on the Naxos label), embodies his powerfully moving response to the situation in Syria that seeks hope amid its harrowing musical depiction of crimes  against humanity. Next year Pittsburgh Opera will present the opera Fairouz is currently completing: Bhutto, which focuses on the former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto (assassinated in 2007), the first woman to lead Muslim majority nation. The composer, who is also active as a commentator on foreign affairs, cowrote the libretto with the journalist and novelist Mohammed Hanif.

Meet the New Prince

The New Prince is characteristic of Fairouz both in the scope of its ambition and in being so effortlessly of our time. Set to David Ignatius’ clever libretto, The New Prince imagines Niccolò Machiavelli doing the time warp across the centuries as he faces the challenge of updating the work for which his name has become notorious — and profoundly misunderstood: Il Principe (The Prince).

The premise is that the Renaissance philosopher, writer, and diplomat has been reawakened in 2032 — 500 years after The Prince had been (posthumously) published — and must substantially revise his text to appeal to a changed marketplace. His lover and Muse, the goddess Fortuna, tells him he needs to account for world historical events in the intervening centuries. And he needs a “new prince” — a protege whom he can advise about how to wield power: Wu Virtu, the president of Amerasiopia, the troubled fusion nation of the near-future.

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photo © Marco Borggreve

This basic scenario borrows the structure Jacques Offenbach used in his Tales of Hoffmann, in which a sequence of self-contained episodes we see unfolding is unified by the presence of the writer and his muse. In a framing prologue and epilogue, we see the distressed Machiavelli  try to come to terms with his lot; by the end, as in Hoffmann, he is compelled to find solace by retreating into his inner creative world.

In The New Prince, the quickly moving episodes present famous figures from history caught up in various sorts of errors that will threaten their control of power — cautionary tales Machiavelli uses to illustrate his point, though the self-absorbed Wu Virtu only half-listens and has no interest in letting the lessons sink in.

We see examples of “why princes should beware of revolutions” in the figures of Savonarola (the fiery Florentine preacher from Machiavelli’s own time), Hitler, Chairman Mao, and the revolution-counterrevolution of contemporary Egypt. Next comes the lesson on “why princes should suppress (or hide) their human urges,” starting with the first U.S. sex scandal (a cheating Alexander Hamilton) and repeated in the Clinton-Lewinsky melodrama.

The last lesson addresses “why princes must avoid a ‘collision of civilizations.’” In the aftermath of 9-11, the figures of Osama bin Laden and Dick Cheney are seen to be alter egos in their rigid appeal to abstract “higher laws” at the expense of real human beings.

Prince1

photo © Marco Borggreve

David Ignatius is a veteran writer best known as a foreign policy expert (he’s an esteemed Washington Post columnist and editor) and also as the author of such bestselling espionage novels as the first-rate Body of Lies. But this is his debut venture as an opera librettist. Using the Hoffmann model as a guide was an inspired idea. Ignatius also seems to have had the tone of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in mind — his tight verse radiates a sardonic humor throughout, even in the most disturbing sections.

At times I was even reminded of a Brechtian Lehrstück in the “parable”-like line-up of events — though, of course, the lessons intended here are never learned. Thus the lack of character “development” — save for the negative enlightenment experienced by the hero — is inherent in the narrative fabric. Most of the characters are meant to be quick sketches, not fully fleshed out psychological portraits a la naturalism.

Ignatius adds a fascinating twist to the Tales of Hoffmann model. Machiavelli himself is assigned a “ghost-writer” in the form of that eminently modern Machiavellian (in the popular sense), Henry Kissinger — whom the Italian prizes as ideally suited to serve as his “scribe and jester.”

And in place of the evil personified by Dapertutto — Hoffmann’s arch-nemesis in Offenbach’s opera — The New Prince suggests persistently recurrent human foibles as the roadblock to effective rule. Despite believing he has “figured out, at last, the trick that makes the grand game work,” Machiavelli continues to wonder at the resistance of would-be “princes” throughout history to his wisdom: “Does anyone listen? Can any power bend the chain of princely error?”

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photo © Marco Borggreve

Strong Production Values

Fairouz has composed a delightfully fluid score that unites his gift for writing for the voice with his bold symphonic imagination. The orchestra isn’t particularly large — it had to be accommodated by the pit of the Stadsschouwburg Theatre, an alternate venue used by Dutch National Opera for some of its projects — but Fairouz paints a remarkable variety of soundscapes with economy.

The opening prologue in particular sets up the world of the opera with terrifying immediacy as we see Machiavelli undergoing strappado torture at the hand of the Medicis. The intermissionless New Prince ranges wildly across stylistic references (as it does across centuries) — curt Weill-like marches, Baroque gestures, touches of Broadway and cabaret, and simple but soul-searing melodies — but amid this cornucopia of musical imagery there erupts, always surprisingly, a sudden, live-wire interjection by the orchestra.

It seems to tap right into the violence that forms a perennial bedrock of human history — and that, for all his calculation, Machiavelli is never able to subdue or suppress. Fairouz also uses a recurring harmonic sequence as a metaphoric binding device. It’s reminiscent of Philip Glass, but Fairouz makes the gesture his own by recontextualizing it into his riotously eventful score.

With his large, expressive baritone and vivid stage presence, Joshua Hopkins excelled in creating the role of Machiavelli. Fairouz reserves most of the opera’s vocal highlights for him — especially the chastened beauty of the epilogue, after so much frantic activity, in which Machiavelli resigns himself and prepares to “enter the courts of the ancients.”

There’s also some terrific material for Fortuna (strikingly characterized by Karin Strobos), but I longed for more-extended treatments of several major characters. Simon Lim’s Wu Virtu was imposing, but the character ends up feeling too much like a blank slate to make his turning against Machiavelli at the end effective.

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photo © Marco Borggreve

The New Prince calls for a large cast of 13, and filling the roles was a mix of trained opera singers, actors involved in musical theater, and young artists from DNO’s training program. Thus Kissinger was played, with roguish style, by the Broadway performer Marc Kudisch. (It’s interesting to compare his characterization with that in John Adams’s Nixon in China from 1987, which as far as I know is the first — and only other — work to have brought the diplomat to the opera stage. In Nixon he has more of a comic relief function.)

In keeping with the opera’s core idea of the recurring patterns of human nature and history — a lesson that, we sense, makes Machiavelli suffer profound disillusionment in his 500+-year-old reincarnation — several cast members played multiple roles. Barbara Walsh, doubling as Eliza Hamilton and Hillary Clinton, exuded vulnerability, while Paulo Szot was true luxury casting for a combined Alexander Hamilton, Bill Clinton, and Dick Cheney. As a supremely cocky Cheney, Szot was especially memorable in his duet with the marvelous actor George Abud’s chillingly assured bin Laden.

DNO puled out all the stops in terms of production values. Lotte de Beer proved why she’s such a prized director, shaping a brand-new, heavily ensemble-oriented show into a thoroughly engaging theatrical experience.

Her urgent pacing, along with the choreography by Zack Winokur, was perfectly attuned to Fairouz’s busy score, abetted by Alex Brok’s almost hallucinogenic lighting design (with its occasional parodies of Broadway kitsch) and the time-traveling set and costume design by Clement & Sanôu.

Conductor Steven Sloane showed affinity for Fairouz’s highly theatrical score while also eliciting a symphonic attention to detail from the Residentie Orkest.

As a counterpart to the Cheney-bin Laden scene, Fairouz and Ignatius include an appearance by the late diplomat Prince Saud al-Faisal. It’s a bit too “straight” to fit in with the tone of the rest of the opera, but the message — that there can never be a “clash of civilizations between us … it is a contradiction in terms” — introduces a hopeful counterpoint to Machiavelli’s dictum that “if we must choose between being feared and loved, we should choose to be feared.”

Perhaps the new Machiavelli, in light of his latest experiences, will reevaluate that advice and discover a more reliable method to enlighten the ideal prince.

(c)2017 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: American opera, commissions, Mohammed Fairouz, review

Timeless Machiavelli, Timely Opera: A World Premiere From Mohammed Fairouz

Prince2

photo © Marco Borggreve

My review of the new opera by Mohammed Fairouz has now been posted on Vanguard Seattle:

There’s been a huge push in recent years for those involved in the performing arts to seem as “relevant” and “relatable” as possible. Nowhere more so than in the areas mistakenly perceived as “elitist” — above all opera and orchestral music.

But writing persuasively — with no special pleading needed — about issues and dilemmas that have a contemporary urgency seems to come naturally to Mohammed Fairouz, the acclaimed Emirati-American composer whose latest work, The New Prince, just received its world premiere in an impressive production directed by Lotte de Beer at Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam. Regarded as among the most forward-looking opera companies in the world, DNO commissioned The New Prince as part of its Opera Forward Festival initiative, which promotes new artists and fresh approaches to the art form.

continue reading

Filed under: American opera, commissions, Mohammed Fairouz, new opera, review, Vanguard Seattle

Playing Dangerously

I finally had my first live experience of Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Teodor Currentzis, who brought his Perm-based musicAeterna to Lucerne’s Easter Festival last night for the first of two programs: early Mozart and Beethoven Eroica.

It very well might have been a new music evening: that’s how unexpected and full of discoveries the performance was. Currentzis has become something of a cult figure, and it’s easy to see why. A friend compared him visually to Hoffmann’s Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler, with his spindly legs and tall, lanky figure. I wish I could have seen the expressions he was flashing, mirrored, I suspect, by his restlessly gesturing hands.

Currentzis seems to decide on the spur of the moment to fixate on a particular player or section, and then to stare them down, whip them up to further excitement, coax out a sudden swell or tamp it down to near inaudibility. No one knows when or where he’ll pounce: it’s all part of the electricity.

Mozart’s G minor Symphony K. 183 was full of shocks and epiphanies: the sort of thing we tend to privilege to the really big works like Eroica, but which are strewn about far and wide, and so unrecognized in so many other sources. I especially welcomed how Currentzis balances his spontaneous, red-hot, in-the-moment aura with carefully thought-through decisions (the articulation of the second theme reprise-time around, when it emanates a menacing despair;  tempo differentiation of the Minuet and the Trio).

Patricia Kopatchinskaja is a revelation, nothing less. The playing in her bare feet, the poses she strikes, the comic interplay with Currentzis: the things people like to focus on are just a part of her entire, fascinatingly refreshing outlook, and it’s rooted in brilliant insights about the source of invention, say, in the Mozart D major Violin Concerto (K. 218) she played.

Actually, Kopatchinskaja didn’t just  show up and “play” it, fulfill her contract, job done. It was such an unusual ratio of performance energy and creative expenditure to the Concerto’s part on the program.

It felt like an epic, and the audience seemed to learn far more than it had bargained for about what makes a concerto work, about how a soloist can interact with an ensemble of independent-minded players. Mozart’s folk song ploy in the finale became the key to Kopatchinskaja’s improvisational approach overall — the cadenzas she contributed wouldn’t have been out of place in Ligeti — and a bridge to her encores of Bartók and Enescu.

In their period-instrument Eroica, musicAeterna’s dangerous playing kept me on the edge of my seat throughout. I’ve never experienced in live performances of Beethoven’s Third such a powerful presence from the timpanist.  The impact of the drums in the Funeral March was at devastating as in Mahler’s Sixth finale.

A couple of wind players almost lost the reins in the finale when one clarinetist got so worked up he knocked a stand over– at first it looked like there might be a domino effect, just before a big solo for the oboe (so much a protagonist in this symphony!). Aside from an emanation of angst-waves — like watching a tightrope walker regaining balance — the music pushed ahead, and was the more intense for it.

 

Filed under: Beethoven, Lucerne Festival, Mozart, review

“More Light! More Light!” Morlot and the Seattle Symphony Tackle Beethoven’s Fifth

It would be interesting to know how many audience members comprising the very full house for this performance were hearing their first-ever live Beethoven Fifth. Even for aficionados, the encounter was unusual. Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony created a boldly original framework in which to present the Fifth Symphony, their account of which also marked the conclusion to a two-year cycle of the complete symphonies and piano concertos.

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Filed under: Bartók, Beethoven, review, Seattle Symphony

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

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

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