MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Moving Nonsense and Beauty from Theatre22

Cast of Nonsense and Beauty (c) Truman Buffet

I can’t recommend Theatre22’s current production highly enough. It marks the West Coast premiere of Scott C. Sickles’s Nonsense and Beauty, a dramatic portrayal of the decades-long love story between novelist E.M. Forster and Bob Buckingham.

Sickles is a welcome discovery for me. Nonsense and Beauty received its world premiere in March 2019 at the Repertory Theatre of Saint Louis. Structured as a mostly linear sequence of brief, cinematic scenes, the play traces the emotional and sexual connections between the lovers from their first encounter during an Oxbridge boat race party in 1930 until after Forster’s death in 1970. The dialogue is gratifyingly stylish and compelling; Sickles occasionally incorporates excerpts from Forster’s prose as well. (The eponymous quote, from , runs: He felt that nonsense and beauty have close connections,—closer connections than Art will allow,—and that both would remain when his own heaviness and his

Sickles is a welcome discovery for me. Nonsense and Beauty received its world premiere in March 2019 at the Repertory Theatre of Saint Louis. Structured as a mostly linear sequence of brief, cinematic scenes, the play traces the emotional and sexual connections between the lovers from their first encounter during an Oxbridge boat race party in 1930 until after Forster’s death in 1970. Aside from a few longueurs that could be clipped, the tempo flows smoothly and is engaging.

The dialogue is gratifyingly stylish, compelling, without pretension; Sickles occasionally incorporates excerpts from Forster’s prose as well. (The eponymous quote, from The Longest Journey, runs: “He felt that nonsense and beauty have close connections,—closer connections than Art will allow,—and that both would remain when his own heaviness and his own ugliness had perished.”)

Based on biographical events, Nonsense and Beauty poignantly, without self-congratulatory hindsight, reimagines the atmosphere of risk-taking, secret intimacy, fear, and life-affirming liberation that surrounded Forster (Eric Mulholland) and his much younger lover, a policeman at that (Russell Matthews). Sickles doesn’t limit himself to the couple’s relationship but also explores the confusion that unfolds when Bob decides to marry May, an independent-minded nurse who has cared for him — and who loves literature, especially Forster’s writing (Jennifer Ewing). What results is a far cry from the stereotypical love triangle but a moving portrayal of the complex web of entanglements and loyalties of an enduring love.

The love story expands to include the circle of Forster’s close friends, represented by the witty, outspoken, and courageously out fellow writer and editor J.R. Ackerley (Hisam Goueli). His mother Lily (Marty Mukhalian), with whom he still lives in the first years of his relationship, observes judgmentally but suppresses her own critique after a certain point.

Corey McDaniel, who is Theatre22’s founder and producing artistic director, does the company proud directing a first-rate cast who each bring an individual stamp to their characters. Thanks to the efficiently Minimalist design, the flash of color provided by a symbolically fraught rosebush is especially effective.

But the achievement is bittersweet, as it seems this is, unexpectedly, Theatre22’s farewell production. I fondly recall the company’s inaugural show from almost a decade ago (also directed by McDaniel). Theatre22 has been a much-needed part of Seattle’s theater ecosystem, so it’s painful to realize all that will vanish. All the more reason not to miss Nonsense and Beauty, which runs at the Seattle Public Theater through October 2.

Filed under: review, theater

Seattle Symphony Continues Its Reunion with Ludovic Morlot

Ludovic Morlot conducting the Seattle Symphony with soloist Jan Lisiecki in Grieg’s Piano Concerto; image (c) Brandon Patoc

Several times during Seattle Symphony’s concert last night, it felt like a time machine had whisked us back a few years to the Ludovic Morlot era. The orchestra reunited with its former music director last weekend on opening night and is continuing the collaboration for the first full concert of the season’s subscription series. And they’ve managed to reactivate something of the chemistry that made their first seasons together so exciting.

You could sense it in the joyful enthusiasm with which they brought to life the opening piece, Tidalwave Kitchen, by Gabriella Smith. For the second time in a row this month, Morlot and the SSO launched a concert with music by a young woman composer inspired by the West Coast’s natural beauty — last Saturday, it was the world premiere of PNW native Angelique Poteat’s  Breathe, Come Together, Embrace. So far as I know, Tidalwave Kitchen marked the first time the SSO has performed music by Smith, who hails from Berkeley and was mentored early on by John Adams. 

In a short introduction onstage, the talented young composer remarked that it was in this piece that she first had the reassurance of arriving at her own voice. Smith wrote it a decade ago, prompted during her student years on the East Coast by intense homesickness for the “beautiful and dramatic landscape of the Northern California coast” where she’d grown up. 

Smith elaborates in her composer’s note on the memories of that landscape that inspired her: “hikes shrouded in fog, tide pooling on the rocky beaches, and sitting by the Pacific listening to the hallucinatory sounds of the ocean, the keening gulls, pounding surf, sizzling of sand and sea foam, drifting in and out of fog and clarity, order and randomness, reality and imagination.” 

The resulting music paints no pretty postcard but is an immersive, sensory-rich orchestral fantasia, unpredictable yet persuasive in its wildly dramatic mood swings. Smith seems to want to embrace the world the way a Mahler born into the 21st century might have set out to do so, using post-Minimalist devices to power up and take flight. 

Fragments of a stable melody (or hymn?) want to coalesce at several points but remain shrouded by the almost-psychedelic haze of Smith’s timbral palette. A raucously festive outburst arrives at the climax, but its brash exuberance spills over into something vaguely ominously manic and then subsides. 

Over the summer, Morlot conducted the San Francisco Symphony in Tidalwave Kitchen, and he elicited palpable excitement from the SSO. It’s one thing to possess the keen musical imagination on display in this music, but Smith also shows a remarkable technical command of the resources of an orchestra, making the piece especially apt as a concert curtain raiser. I hope we get to hear more of her music in Benaroya Hall. 

Morlot will conduct his new orchestra (the Barcelona Symphony) in another piece by Smith later in October. Incidentally: this sought-after composer will be on the panel for the New York Times Events-sponsored seminar A New Climate exploring collective responses to climate change (October 12 in San Francisco).

Raucous, fiery energy likewise abounded in Jan Lisiecki’s account of the competitive folk dancing that drives the finale of Grieg’s Piano Concerto. Returning to the Benaroya stage following his inspired contribution to the opening night concert, Lisiecki approached the familiar concerto from an almost dizzying plenitude of perspectives. 

His variety of tonal colors was spellbinding: the thunderous chords of the massive first movement cadenza thrilled with power and accuracy, while the plaintive trains of the Adagio breathed the poetry of Lisiecki’s most personally inflected Chopin. It was especially nice to hear his rendition of Chopin’s posthumously published Nocturne in C minor as an encore, where he distilled that poetry to its most concentrated essence. I was also struck by the quality of his partnership with Morlot and the orchestra as he responded to the phrasings of individual players, such as the idyllic interlude flutist Jeffrey Barker shaped in the finale. 

The extreme pianissimos Lisiecki drew out of the Steinway foreshadowed the drama whipped up in the second half of the program. Morlot led the SSO in Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony back in 2014 (when it was similarly paired with new music — a piano concerto by Alexander Raskatov). Eight years on, to my ears there is no doubt that his understanding of this music has deepened and darkened. His command of the larger span of Tchaikovsky’s design has strengthened as well. 

The opening lamentation — expressively phrased by bassoonist Luke Fieweger, in one of several outstanding cameos from across the SSO’s ranks — set the terms of the drama as effectively as a memorable establishing shot by a seasoned director. Morlot outlined the long first movement’s disparate sections with a clarity that underscored the emotional polarities of Tchaikovsky’s enigmatic final symphony.

However, I found something lacking in the middle movements. The tricky meter of the second movement waltz came off sounding slack, even a bit sloppy, while the swaggering march in the third movement needed a tighter rein to wield its full irony. But Morlot inspired the most moving playing of the evening in the Requiem-like finale, building by subtraction so that the pitiless subsidence of Tchaikovsky’s conclusion overwhelmed with its negation.

The program will be repeated Friday and Saturday.

Review (c) 2022 by Thomas May. All rights reserved.

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

A Restorative Opening Night at Seattle Symphony, with French Accents

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Jan Lisiecki, Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony; image (c) Brandon Patoc

My review of this weekend’s opening night concert:

Mixing the familiar with some discoveries, the Seattle Symphony offered a pleasingly varied program to open its new season. The event also brought an element of reassurance by evoking welcome memories of a more stable era as former music director Ludovic Morlot reunited with the orchestra…

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Filed under: commissions, pianists, review, Seattle Symphony

BBC Proms 2022: Guest Report

Guest contributor Thomas Luce on the recently concluded BBC Proms season:

The British Broadcasting Corporation’s 72 Promenade Concerts, which started in mid-July, ended two days before the Last Night of the Proms originally scheduled for 10 September. This is because such hugely joyful and triumphant public events would be inconsistent with the National Mourning following Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s deeply and widely grieved death on 8 September. 

The 2022 edition of the Proms very successfully delivered the gigantic and demanding variety of classical, modern, and some populist music summarised in my post here on 3 May. All of the programmed orchestras turned up, including those from Australia, Ukraine, Berlin, Finland, Norway, Cologne, and Philadelphia. And, generally, there were huge audiences in London’s Royal Albert Hall, which in the Promenade season can accommodate nearly 6,000 people.

All this year’s Prom concerts remain available on BBC Sounds until 10 October. Of the concerts we attended or heard, I would especially recommend the huge and powerful choral and orchestral programmes — which, until the end of Covid pandemic-related public restrictions (though not, of course, of the pandemic), were not allowable in public. So, for the first time in a couple of years, there were huge choruses with full orchestras: on Verdi’s Requiem(14 July), Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony (24 August), 29 August (Bach’s B minor Mass), Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius (31 August), Beethoven’s Choral Symphony (2 September) performed by the ethnically diverse Chineke! Orchestra supplemented by English choral societies, and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis (7 September) in a phenomenal performance by the Monterverdi Choir and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. Also very worthwhile were the two evenings by the world-famous Berlin Philharmonic on 3 and 4 September, which included Mahler’s Seventg Symphony, Schnittke’s interesting Viola Concerto, and Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony, as well a the superb performance by Sir Andras Schiff on Sunday morning (4 September) of Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas.

In addition to its recently broadcast public concerts, BBC Sounds makes all of its musical programmes available for a month or so. These include regular daily or weekly programmes, such as each day’s 24-hour playlist. Each Saturday morning also presents interesting record reviews. And each week a different composer is featured in hour-long discussions each day, which are informative and educational. Recently featured composers have included Dieterich Buxtehude and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Another advantage of the performances available on BBC Sounds is that they are not interrupted by advertisements. The intervals usually contain musically illustrated and informative discussions of the programme and its performers. A good recent example was the interval discussion during the Prom of 5 September, which included works by the Franco-American Betsy Jolas and Mahler’s First Symphony, which provided fascinating information on the music as well as on professional performances of both composers.

The last of the dozen Proms that my wife and I went to was by the Philadelphia Orchestra on 8 September. We reached the hall a short time after the Queen’s death was announced. The orchestra was on the stage, but it was announced that because of her death the intended programme would not be performed and there would solely be the National Anthem and the Nimrod Variation from Elgar’s Enigma Variations: a sombre and subtly sad piece that beautifully reflects public grievance, just as Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings comparably does in America. It was very movingly played by the Philadelphia musicians, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Filed under: BBC Proms, review

Donizetti’s Elixir of Love at Seattle Opera

Andres Acosta as Nemorino in Seattle Opera’s production of “The Elixir of Love.” (Sunny Martini)

Seattle Opera’s new season has opened with a production of The Elixir of Love, Donizetti’s melodramma giocoso from 1832. Although I have to miss these performances, I reviewed the company’s production directed by David Gately when it was presented at the height of the pandemic virtually, as a film (with a different cast and a very small ensemble):

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

The New York Phil Pays Heartfelt Tribute to Stephen Sondheim at Bravo! Vail

Emmett O’Hanlon, Isabel Leonard, Leonard Slatkin; photo (c)Carly Finke

Here’s my report on the New York Philharmonic’s closing orchestral concert of the 2022 Bravo Vail Music Festival:

One of four orchestras appearing at Bravo! Vail this summer, the New York Philharmonic brought along six different programmes, the first four of which were led by music director Jaap van Zweden – including a cathartic Mahler Sixth. Leonard Slatkin took over the reins for the remaining two programmes in the open-air main venue: an all-Tchaikovsky evening and this concluding concert, “A Sondheim Celebration”….

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Filed under: Bravo! Vail Music Festival, New York Philharmonic, review, Stephen Sondheim

Seattle Chamber Music Society Launches Its 2022 Summer Festival

Ehnes Quartet; image © Jorge Gustavo Elias

And they’re off to an auspicious start… Here’s my review of opening night for Bachtrack:

Nothing could stop this show from going on — not even a popped viola string nearly midway through Béla Bartók’s grueling String Quartet no. 6 at the center of the program that opened the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s 2022 Summer Festival

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Filed under: Bartók, Beethoven, Brahms, review, Seattle Chamber Music Society

Don Giovanni Completes the “Mozart-Da Ponte Trilogy” at San Francisco Opera

Etienne Dupuis as Don Giovanni;
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

I wrote about Michael Cavanagh’s production of Don Giovanni currently being presented by San Francisco Opera.

SAN FRANCISCO  — The flames are already flickering as the overture begins in the new production of Don Giovanni directed by Michael Cavanagh at San Francisco Opera. Set and projection designer Erhard Rom’s accompanying visuals establish a scenario of civilizational destruction as the backstory for what we’re about to see transpire onstage. 

Filed under: Mozart, review, San Francisco Opera

A New Figaro at Seattle Opera

Ryan McKinny (Figaro) and Soraya Mafi (Susanna)

I reviewed the Figaro production that just opened at Seattle Opera for Bachtrack:

There’s a moment in Seattle Opera’s end-of-season production, as the threads are being steadily pulled ever tighter in the final act, when Figaro reaches out from his hiding place behind a tree, trying to make contact with Susanna…

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Filed under: Mozart, review, Seattle Opera

Roderick Cox Triumphs with the Seattle Symphony

Roderick Cox conducting the Seattle Symphony Orchestra; photo (c)James Holt

I left last night’s performance convinced that Roderick Cox is a major talent destined for something great. Winner of the 2018 Sir Georg Solti Conducting Award, Cox had caught my interest last year leading a Barber in San Francisco Opera’s return to live performance. Those were unusual circumstances dictated by social-distancing rules (with a parking lot as the auditorium, the music transmitted to our car radios), so it was splendid to get to experience this young conductor in the limelight, with a full orchestra, unhampered by any pandemic restrictions more cumbersome than a mask. [UPDATE: Check out the film Conducting Life, an intimate portrait of Roderick Cox and his path toward his vocation.]

Cox chose a challenging program that revealed an impressive gift for communicating his musical vision. The first half was given to William Levi Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony of 1934–a landmark of early 20th-century American symphonic writing has been shamefully, disgracefully neglected while so many tireless mediocrities continue to clutter the repertoire.

This performance had the quality of a double epiphany, confirming what an excellent piece of music we’ve allowed ourselves to be missing out on and at the same time shedding light on the journey Dawson’s symphony traces–outwardly, the harrowing passage from Africa to the New World, but also an implicitly personal journey. He clarified the originality of Dawson’s response to the challenge Dvořák had issued to cultivate an authentically American voice. For Dawson, that meant writing a symphony that, as the composer put it, “is unmistakably not the work of a white man.”

Negro Folk Symphony is a marvel of the imaginative, indeed, symphonic, transformation of simple, ready-made folk material–Dawson draws on three spirituals in particular–into a complex, multi-faceted structure. Cox led a dramatically compelling account that highlighted Dawson’s elaborate use of rhythmic mottos as a unifying device, while also lavishing attention on the orchestral details that give this score such resonance. His spacing of the implacably tragic minor chords ending the “Hope in the Night Section” was especially memorable. This was the SSO’s first performance of the Dawson, and part of the excitement came from the sense of the players sharing in these discoveries along the way, clearly inspired by Cox’s guidance.

Concertmaster Noah Geller gave a deeply felt and polished interpretation of the 1904 Violin Concerto in A minor by Alexander Glazunov–who, like Dawson, straddled a period of drastic change in musical values and pressures. Basking in his warmly expressive lower register in the opening passage, the violinist kept the audience at an attentive hush in Glazunov’s extended cadenza, counterbalancing the piece’s gentler lyricism with its giddy high spirits and vivaciously articulated virtuosity.

Cox proved fearless in Belá Bartók’s Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin, a piece that doesn’t tolerate weak-willed, insecure conducting. He drew an electrifying performance from the outset, never letting go of the ominous, hair-raising tension and danger that animate this early Bartók score. The music echoes, though in a very original way, impulses from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Strauss’s dancing Salome, also hinting at the spirit of film noir to come. Cox emphasized its brutal violence but also knew how to bring out the delicacy and spookily muted colors of Bartók’s orchestration, loosening the reins to give the platform to Benjamin Lulich for his arresting clarinet solos.

The glowing rapport between the players and Cox left me hoping to see much more of this conductor on the Benaroya stage. Thursday’s audience, though relatively sparse, was enthusiastic and grateful. What a pity it would be to miss this excellent program, which repeats Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm.

Review (c) 2022 Thomas May

Filed under: Bartók, conductors, review, Seattle Symphony

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