MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

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

Opera in San Francisco

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Act III of Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” with Heidi Stober as Gretel and Sasha Cooke as Hansel, production by Antony McDonald; photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

The last few weeks have been so busy I forgot to post my coverage of a trip last month to the Bay Area. Here are links to my reviews for Musical America of two productions at San Francisco Opera (Hansel and Gretel and Manon Lescaut) and of a concert performance of the first act of Die Walküre by San Francisco Symphony.

Filed under: Engelbert Humperdinck, Musical America, Puccini, review, San Francisco Opera, San Francisco Symphony, Wagner

Rites of Ecstasy: Thomas Dausgaard Pairs Knockout Scores by Scriabin and Stravinsky

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Thomas Dausgaard conducts the Seattle Symphony; photo (c) Carlin Ma

My review of the most recent program performed by Seattle Symphony under Thomas Dausgaard:

As Thomas Dausgaard continues along in his inaugural season as Seattle Symphony’s Music Director, it’s gratifying to see his intense rapport with the musicians expanding to different areas of the repertoire…

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Filed under: Alexander Scriabin, review, Seattle Symphony, Stravinsky, Thomas Dausgaard

La storia di Orfeo: Reframing an Operatic Myth

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Amanda Forsythe and Philippe Jaroussky with Boston Early Music Chamber Ensemble and co-directors Stephen Stubbs and Paul O’Dette

In contemporary times, the connotations of myth have been degraded to suggest something like “fake news.” Still, the truths they contain make the stories passed down as myths an inexhaustible source for inspiration and enlightenment. It seems inevitable that opera, from the start, needed to fall in love with the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in particular and has needed to return to it again and again — much as the legendary hero longs to be reunited with his beloved and bring back their vanished happiness.

But these reiterated operatic Orfeos are no mere repetitions. The brilliant concept underlying Philippe Jaroussky and colleagues’ La storia di Orfeo is to juxtapose parts of three different versions of the story spanning the 17th century and thus to create a new composite.

Jaroussky introduced the project a few years ago, recording it on the Warner label with Diego Fasolis and I Barocchisti. This fall, the countertenor has taken it up again (in somewhat modified form) for a North American tour. He is joined by soprano Amanda Forsythe as Eurydice and the Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Festival, led by co-directors Stephen Stubbs and Paul O’Dette*.

Their performance in Seattle last night — hosted by Seattle Symphony at Benaroya Hall — benefited from the highest level of musical values while at the same time overwhelming the audience with its emotional force. If you have a chance to catch the show’s remaining stops in Boston and the Morgan in New York, this really is one not pass it up.

Jaroussky explains that La storia di Orfeo “was conceived as a kind of opera in miniature or as a cantata” for compact forces. I found the narrative arrangement to have an immediacy and an arc that indeed seemed operatic in effect, even with the minimal (and tastefully done) semi-staging used here.

Chronologically listed, the three source Orfeos were Monteverdi’s landmark court opera from 1607 in Mantua and two later treatments by Luigi Rossi (1597-1653) and Antonio Sartorio (1630-1680) that premiered in 1647 in Paris and in 1672 in Venice, respectively.

The dramaturgical result was not a collage but followed the story’s familiar trajectory, though with different points of emphasis than we would experience from any single one of these three operas on their own. As Jaroussky notes, “Sartorio and Rossi depict the happiness of the young lovers and the scene in which Eurydice is bitten by the snake; Monteverdi, on the other hand, concentrates more on Orpheus’s search for Eurydice in the Underworld.”

An excellent essay in the program (by Jean-François Lattarico, from the album’s liner notes) elaborated on the myth’s musical-theatrical evolution in the 17th century, pointing out that the integral role of Renaissance humanism, Neo-Platonism, and poetry. It also explained the introduction of comic elements and even convoluted subplots post-Monteverdi, as well as the movement toward closed forms.

Yet for all the variety of its pastoral and dance-propelled moments, this Storia di Orfeo projected a profoundly melancholy, tragic demeanor that was further enhanced by the streamlined focus on the lovers — the opposite of the archetypal Romantic journey, building on Beethoven, from darkness to light.

Monteverdi’s “Possente spirto,” the centerpiece of his opera (Lattarico remarks that it borrows Dante’s “metrical structure” and encompasses the “three aspects of music — worldly, human, and instrumental”), also served as a fulcrum here. But there were also counterpart solos by Sartorio and Rossi following Orfeo’s second loss of Eurydice — respectively, “Chiuso, ahimè, di Cocito” and the devastating “Lasciate Averno” — that turned the program’s second half into a vast musical stele of mourning.

Jaroussky sang with heart-rending eloquence and enormous musical intelligence. His delicately weighted countertenor added a sense of vulnerability not often found in tenor Orfeos, but he fully brought out the role’s passion and despair. In one of the many paradoxes that surround this myth and its musical transformations, his intricate embellishments conveyed overpowering emotional honesty rather than florid artifice — as if these words, in this context, could be expressed only in this way.

It was illuminating to experience the iconic moments from Monteverdi’s opera in the context of the more extensive role allotted Eurydice through interpolated pieces from the other two operas, such as the exquisite “Mio ben, teco il tormento” from Rossi’s opera for Paris. Amanda Forsythe gave an equally memorable portrayal. One of the most searingly effective moments was her sudden appearance, after her death from the snakebite, as the “shade of Eurydice,” beckoning to Orpheus to brave the journey into the Underworld. Forsythe, whose voice in previous scenes conveyed the ideal “sweetness” referred to so often in the poetic texts (never cloying), brought out the grief-stricken intensity of Sartorio’s music — visibly moving her beloved and foreshadowing his own great task of moving the dark spirits of Hades.

Forsythe and Jaroussky were additionally given a number of duets, the purity of their vocal production merging into a fascinating hybrid. It’s not surprising that they have collaborated for some years now. (They’ve recorded Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice and, for Boston Early Music Festival, Agostino Steffani’s Niobe, regina di Tebe, among other works.) So it was a very smart idea to draw out their chemistry by interpolating, at the moment of the couple’s re-encounter in Hades, a scene from Steffani’s Orlando generoso in which Angelica and Ruggiero share their feelings of the absence of their respective lovers.

Along with the cast of just two singers, the ensemble for this tour involves a total of ten instrumentalists. The choral numbers that are part of the recording are dispensed with, but in their stead Stubbs and O’Dette have woven into the dramaturgy a fascinating range of contemporary instrumental interludes from across the 17th century. These serve as implicit commentaries to enhance the mood and setting.

An excerpt from a publication of Venetian sonatas “in stile moderno” by Monteverdi’s contemporary Dario Castello, for example, proved to be wonderfully evocative after Orpheus’s vibrant “Vi ricorda, o boschi ombrosi” from the Monteverdi opera. An extraordinarily dramatic sonata by Johann Rosenmüller (who fled the sex police in Leipzig and found refuge in Venice) served as a postlude to “Possente spirto.”

The ensemble played with style and dramatic presence — at times, the various strings emerged in the spotlight as extensions of Orpheus the musician, stretching the range of his lyre. On Baroque harp, Maxine Eilander’s silvery accompaniments added textural differentiation to the bowed strings so that I never felt a lack of color despite the absence of winds.

Not wishing to leave the enraptured audience in unassuaged gloom, Jaroussky, Forsythe, and the band provided a lieto fine after all by way of an encore: the final duet from Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea (“Pur ti miro”), which no one wanted to end.

Complete Program:
La storia di Orfeo: Monteverdi • Sartorio • Rossi

Antonio Sartorio: Sinfonia to L’Orfeo
Sartorio: Cara e amabile catena
Claudio Monteverdi: Rosa del Ciel – Io non dirò
Luigi Rossi: Mio ben, teco il tormento
Rossi: Che dolcezza è la certezza
Rossi: Sinfonia from L’Orfeo
Monteverdi: Vi ricorda, o boschi ombrosi
Dario Castello: Sonata 15 from Sonate concertate…in stile moderno, Libro II
Rossi: M’ami tu?
Rossi: A l’imperio d’amore
Sartorio: Ahimè, Numi, son morta – Misero, oh Dio
Rossi: Lagrime, dove sete?
Biagio Marini: Passacalio from Sonate per ogni sorte di stromento musicale
Sartorio: È morta Euridice
Sartorio: Orfeo tu dormi? – Se desti pietà – Ferma, Euridice
Monteverdi: Sinfonia
Monteverdi: Possente spirto
Johann Rosenmüller: Sonata Settima à 4 in D minor from Sonatae a 2, 3, 4 e 5
Agostino Steffani: Se t’eclisse – Vive stele from Orlando
Sartorio: Numic he veggio
Sartorio: Chiuso, ahimè, di Cocito…Rendetemi Euridice
Rossi: Lasciate Averno

Boston Early Music Festival Musicians:
Paul O’Dette, chitarrone; Stephen Stubbs, chitarrone & Baroque guitar; Robert Mealy & Julie Andrijeski, violin; Sarah Darling, viola; David Morris, violoncello & lirone; Doug Balliett, double bass; Michael Sponseller, harpsichord; Maxine Eilander, Baroque harp

(c)2019 Thomas May — All rights reserved.

Filed under: early music, Monteverdi, review, Stephen Stubbs

Recommended Release: Michael Vincent Waller’s Moments

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Almost a year ago, the New York-based composer Michael Vincent Waller told me about a new album he had in the works. The topic came up when I interviewed him for Musical America, which featured Waller as January’s new artist of the month.

The album, titled Moments, came out just last month on the Unseen Worlds label and offers a wonderful entrée into Waller’s musical world. His third album to date, it comprises 18 miniatures, 13 of them for solo piano, the other 5 for vibraphone.

Waller continues his collaboration with R. Andrew Lee, whose sensitive performances at the keyboard were featured on his preceding album, Trajectories (along with the phenomenal cellist Seth Parker Woods). The percussionist William Winant, a well-known personality in avant-garde circles, plays the pieces for vibraphone.

“One thing I’m trying to explore as an artist is the organic, intuitive sense we have about experiences — the human subtext to what is happening in the music, in its colors, harmonies, and melodies,” the composer explained during our talk last year. In Moments, he has distilled a range of experiences with an open-hearted, intimate honesty that resonates long after the ebb and flow of his compositions’ physical sounds.

It’s not necessary to know any of the autobiographical stories or family relationships and loved ones Waller memorializes here to be moved by the emotions they elicit. On another level, Moments pays gentle tribute to musical figures who are part of a generally known cultural repertoire. “For Pauline,” for example, referring to the late Pauline Oliveros, was prompted by her death in November 2016. Its bell-like chords in alternating registers concentrate the attention on the taken-for-granted miracle that is harmony, effecting an experience of “new sound.”

Similarly, the sounds of the piano itself begin to reassemble into something not-quite-familiar. This lays the ground for the wonderful effect of the vibraphone’s first entrance well into the album (in a kind of mini-suite comprising four of the miniatures and titled “Love”).

In the spirit of Oliveros and the philosophy of what she called “deep listening,” Waller composes with a deceptive simplicity. His aesthetic relies on — and expands from — a generous patience familiar from practices of meditation and mindfulness. These “moments” radiate a fullness that belies their duration — most of the pieces are between just two and three minutes long.

La Monte Young was a formative influence who opened Waller up to new ways of perceiving the materials of a composition — indeed, the phenomenon of sonority itself. Erik Satie and Morton Feldman are some of the other musical spirits evoked by various Moments. The final piece, “Bounding,” even alludes to a mainstay of Western music history, the descending “lamento” chord progression that has taken countless forms, from flamenco to the opening of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha).

But none of these are derivative or reduced to cliches. Waller’s use of the most elemental materials and gestures combines reflective process with an unironic, unconditional sharing of self and soul that I find deeply moving.

Waller again turns to the photographer Phill Niblock — as he does on his previous two albums — for the striking cover image of Moments. An LP edition is also available, and the record includes insightful commentary by Tim Rutherford-Johnson and liner notes by “Blue” Gene Tyranny.

Filed under: Michael Vincent Waller, new music, piano, review

A Prismatic Program from the Danish String Quartet

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Currently touring the West Coast, the Danish String Quartet paid a visit recently. I now get what the fuss is about. Here’s my review for Strings:

The Danish String Quartet‘s contribution to the Beethoven 250 celebrations this season includes a tripartite North American tour. As part of the fall segment of this tour, which is currently underway, the Scandinavian foursome made a recent stop in Seattle. On offer was the first of the Beethoven-themed programs they are presenting under the project name PRISM. The performance launched this season’s International Chamber Music series at the Meany Center for the Performing Arts of the University of Washington.

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Filed under: Bach, Beethoven, chamber music, Danish String Quartet, review, Shostakovich, string quartet, Strings

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