MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Gidon Kremer with Seattle Symphony

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Gidon Kremer; © Paolo Pellegrin

My review of Gidon Kremer’s visit with Seattle Symphony:

It’s entirely characteristic of Gidon Kremer to choose a discovery piece rather than a surefire crowd-pleaser for what was a rare appearance in Seattle…

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Filed under: Gidon Kremer, Ludovic Morlot, Mendelssohn, review, Schumann, Seattle Symphony

The Memorable Women at San Francisco Opera Continue, with La Traviata and Turandot

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Aurelia Florian as Violetta Valéry in Verdi’s “La Traviata.” Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Part two of my reviews of San Francisco Opera’s fall season is now posted on Musical America:

SAN FRANCISCO—Along with a sensational production of Elektra , San Francisco Opera’s lineup so far this season is spotlighting some of the art form’s most gripping female …

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Filed under: Puccini, review, San Francisco Opera, Verdi

High-Voltage Elektra at San Francisco Opera

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Christine Goerke; Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

New review for Musical America:
SAN FRANCISCO—“The museum is closing…” The Elektra presented as part of San Francisco Opera’s new fall season takes place in the midst of a fictional exhibition of Mycenaean-era artifacts. But this Keith Warner …

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Filed under: review, San Francisco Opera

Thrilling Berlioz and Mahler with Guest Conductor Giancarlo Guerrero and Seattle Symphony

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Giancarlo Guerrero conducting the Seattle Symphony; photo (c)Carlin Ma

It’s one thing to fulfill an emergency engagement, subbing at the last minute for to conduct an orchestra that’s essentially new to you.

But when the program is as challenging as the one Ludovic Morlot had planned to launch Seattle Symphony’s main concert series, the stakes are significantly intensified.

Giancarlo Guerrero pulled it all off to extraordinary effect on Thursday evening, the first of three concerts pairing Berlioz and Mahler. Guerrero has made himself an invaluable musical force as music director of the Nashville Symphony, where he actively promotes a vigorous commitment to new music and American composers. He’s also pursued creative links with that city’s rich music scene beyond the classical realm. [Full disclosure: I serve as the Nashville Symphony’s program annotator.]

Technically, this wasn’t the Costa Rica-born maestro’s first rendez-vous with the SSO. I can’t find any online record of it–and would love to know what the program was–though he did conduct them once before: apparently in 2004. But the membership has changed significantly since (seven members joining/rejoining the ranks as of this season), and this was no program of routine, tried-and-true orchestral fare. [Update: It was an all-Gershwin program in what was then called the “light classics series”: An American in Paris, the Concerto in F, Catfish Row, and Rhapsody in Blue — h/t Jeff Eldridge.]

(I wrote separately about Morlot’s thinking behind the program. A leg injury has sidelined the maestro, causing him to miss the season’s opening events.)

The concert began with a Berlioz rarity: La Mort de Cléopâtre, one of the four cantatas he wrote in his bid to win the Prix de Rome. (Despite its beauties, this one, from 1829, didn’t succeed with the jurors.) It’s not only a fascinating piece, but Guerrero shaped it with commendable conviction, coaxing some splendid nuances from the SSO.

And the soloist, Dutch mezzo Christianne Stotijn, credibly inhabited her character as the desperate Cleopatra facing the ultimate humiliation from her latest Roman conqueror, Octavian: sexual indifference and the prospect of trading her throne for a future of enslavement.

The writing is at times downright awkward, with long stretches of recitative, and it took a few minutes to begin making its proper impact. But Stotijn used the music’s fascinatingly unpredictable blend of anxiety, pride, shame, and sorrow to shape Cleopatra’s awareness of being trapped–and, ultimately, her restored sense of power by choosing her quietus to make.

Stylistically, it’s all very mixed: Berlioz’s love of Mozart and Gluck sits side by side with wildly original harmonies and orchestral effects, especially in the passage Berlioz devises to depict the aura of Cleopatra’s Pharaonic forebears.

Significantly, Berlioz doesn’t supply a transcendent Liebestod in which Cleopatra envisions her forthcoming liberation through death. (Then again, he was limited to a text pre-selected for him to set by the jury.) Instead, the cantata concludes in suspense and sepulchral darkness. Guerrero elicited especially impressionable moments here, allowing full resonance for Berlioz’s notably understated conclusion–all the more effective after the torrent of passions expressed earlier.

And that was just the first half of this remarkable concert. Guerrero has cultivated his gifts as a Mahler interpreter over the past decade with the Nashville Symphony, but this was my first opportunity to hear his Mahler live. The impact of his Mahler Second was electric and lasting.

Overall, Guerrero exuded an air of inspired confidence, of knowing just what he needed to get from the orchestra and singers without being overly controlling. His podium manner is quite interesting to watch: like a film director right on top of where the camera’s eye should be, he zoomed in and out, cutting across to dramatically contrasting shots and perspectives.

Guerrero turned orchestral knobs and signaled “more” for the many shattering climaxes that punctuate this symphony lasting the length of a feature film. In the Andante immediately following the vast, funereal opening movement, the scene changed so drastically it was as if we had landed for the moment in an entirely different narrative, as the conductor nearly held still, using minimal, graceful gestures to get maximal bloom. For a few moments, I was hoping Guerrero would observe the five-minute pause Mahler asks for in the wake of the devastating first movement (which he apparently has done in Nashville). Perhaps some intangible factor from the audience made him decide to limit the break to a more conventional length.

The scherzo’s restless flow (in which Mahler recycled his setting of the Wunderhorn tune “St. Anthony Preaching to the Fish”) churned evocatively, with Guerrero wiggling to direct the flow just so. He also underscored the bittersweet klezmer snap of the commenting woodwinds (featuring Ben Lulich’s wondrously phrased clarinet).

Stotijn sang a moving “Urlicht” over radiant brass and a serene bank of beautifully balanced string harmonies. That movement convinced me how multilayered Guerrero’s vision of Mahler is: he had no hesitation to go full throttle in the outer movements (and in the “panic” outburst of the Scherzo, where the intertextuality of Mahler’s symphonies–here anticipating the Third–is so strikingly manifest). But he also showed faith in Mahler’s gentlest orchestrations, savoring its most delicate intimations with genuine sensuousness.

If there’s a musical equivalent to the scope of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment fresco in the Sistine, the last movement of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony has to be a major candidate. A few moments seemed to lose a sense of the bigger picture–and this score, for all its miracles, is not without flaws–but I especially valued the suspense Guerrero built up in this scenario of Mahlerian apocalypse.

The Seattle Symphony Chorale didn’t quite achieve the sotto voce effect that makes the choral entrance such a unique, impossible moment, but they ensured that the catharsis Mahler writes into this score happened nonetheless, singing with soul-shattering, heaven-storming power, reinforced by Joseph Adam on the organ. Soprano Malin Christensson joined Stotijn, contributing thrilling colors that soared atop the mass of choral voices.

The SSO, dramatically expanded with guest players and crowding the concert stage, gifted the audience with some of the finest Mahler I’ve heard this orchestra achieve.

Review (c)2017 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

 

Filed under: Berlioz, Mahler, review, Seattle Symphony

Seattle Symphony’s Captivating Season Opener with Renée Fleming

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Seattle Symphony opening night, with conductor Pablo Rus Broseta and soprano Renée Fleming

On Saturday, Seattle Symphony kicked off its new season with special guest Renée Fleming. Associate Conductor Pablo Rus Broseta was on the podium, filling in for Music Director Ludovic Morlot (who was prevented by a leg injury from opening his seventh — and second-to-last — season helming the SSO).

Such affairs are often little more than a lightweight, pleasant upbeat to the season proper. But last night’s performance proved captivating throughout and contained several genuinely memorable moments.

Both halves of the program kept Fleming at the center of attention. The beloved soprano — who sang the National Anthem at the 2014 Super Bowl that brought the Seahawks victory — was in very fine voice indeed. To showcase different aspects of her artistry, she offered an unusual mixture that ranged from mid-century Samuel Barber to arrangements of songs by Björk and some little-known Italian gems from the late 19th century.

The Barber and Björk selections are paired on Fleming’s Distant Light album as well, released at the beginning of this year. Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 by itself became a compendium of Fleming at her most expressive: full tonal support, lush brushstrokes for sustained notes, and emotionally resonant phrasing were in generous supply, together with sensitivity to the nuances of James Agee’s text.

Drawing on all this, Fleming was able to shape the touching flashes of insight from a childhood recalled. Instead of the more comforting, lulling vision of bittersweet nostalgia for a vanished America, her account made it clear that this is a rare musical portrait of  innocence dissected — an innocence that, as the musical element reinforces, can only be ephemeral.

Fleming followed this with a foray into a pair of songs by  Björk, the adventurous, fantastically original Icelandic singer and songwriter.  She sang “Virus” (from Biophilia) and “All Is Full of Love” (from Homogenic), creating a rapturous glow in the second. But even using a mic (though from what I could tell, there was no instrumental amplification), her middle voice occasionally become drowned by the rather gentle ambient orchestration.

The concert’s second half went completely Italian. Fleming gave charming introductions to the fare, which featured sun-dappled lyricism for Licinio Refice’s Ombra di nube (from her Guilty Pleasures album) and Tosti’s delectable Aprile, as well as the swooning fatalism of the famous avalanche aria from Catalani’s La Wally (an operatic death teasingly described by the soprano).

The highlight here was Fleming’s full-throttle version of “L’altra notte in fondo al mare” from Arrigo Boïto’s Mefistofele. She made the misfortunate Margherita’s roller-coaster ride of a mad scene stunningly vivid and perturbing, peppered with featherweight trills that sounded downright eerie in the context, all the more so for their technical finesse.

Leslie Chihuly (in her final season chairing SSO’s Board of Directors) announced the lineup of seven (!) new musician appointments with the SSO:  Demarre McGill (returning as principal flute), John DiCesare (principal tuba), Emil Khudyev (associate principal clarinet), Andy Liang (second violin section), Danielle Kuhlmann (fourth horn), Christopher Stingle (second trumpet), and Michael Myers (fourth/utility trumpet).

All except McGill were able to participate in this concert, and there was a palpable sense of rejuvenating energy.  Having profiled this talented young conductor for Musical America a year ago, I wasn’t at all surprised by how splendidly Pablo Rus Broseta acquitted himself of this high-stakes assignment.

Framing each half of the concert with a substantial overture — Barber’s Overture to The School for Scandal and Verdi’s to La forza del destino — Rus Broseta showed a remarkable command of small details that make big differences, as in his calibration of the brass balance in the Verdi. It had such bite, I felt a sudden urge to see the entire opera, one of Verdi’s wildest creations.

Rus Broseta has a disciplined mind — tempered by his Modernist training — and never settles for the “showy” surface. And he was a sensitive partner with Fleming, allowing her to shine above all in the Barber and Boïto.

Extending the generous, positive spirit of the evening, Fleming returned for a set of three encores.  Lauretta’s “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, featuring her lustrous high A-flat, is an example, she suggested, of perhaps the perfect universal aria. With an invitation to the audience to join her in “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady, Fleming also gave a nod to one of her upcoming new ventures later this season, when she makes her Broadway debut in Carousel. And with a deeply felt “Song to the Moon” from Dvořák’s Rusalka, she acknowledged her own early years in opera.

Review by Thomas May (c)2017 – All rights reserved

Filed under: review, Seattle Symphony

Trying to rethink Madame Butterfly at Seattle Opera

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Alexey Dolgov (Pinkerton) and Lianna Haroutounian (Cio-Cio-San); photo by Jacob Lucas

My review for Bachtrack of the new Madame Butterfly production opening Seattle Opera’s season:

How well do we really know Madame Butterfly? So iconic that, for some, it’s the archetype of the art form itself, Puccini’s mega-popular opera has recently been coming in for renewed scrutiny.

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Filed under: Puccini, review, Seattle Opera

Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered: Alcina Casts Surprising Spells in Santa Fe

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Elsa van den Heever (Alcina) © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017

My review of Santa Fe Opera’s Alcina for Bachtrack:

George Bernard Shaw crystallised longstanding biases when he declared that Handel’s operas were “only stage concerts for shewing off the technical skill of the singers”. David Alden, a longstanding maverick director and hero of Regie-philes, made his reputation in part through his striking interpretations of Handel. If anything, his production of Alcina, which he first staged at the Opéra National de Bordeaux in 2012 (with many of the same singers), pushes too far in the opposite direction to the theatrically static fossil of Shaw’s stereotype.

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Filed under: directors, Handel, review, Santa Fe Opera

Pecking Order: The Golden Cockerel a Crowing Success at Santa Fe Opera

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TIM MIX (KING DODON) PHOTO CREDIT: PAUL HORPEDAHL FOR SANTA FE OPERA, 2017

Even though it’s still more or less a rarity for American audiences nowadays, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel can seem surprisingly — indeed, unnervingly — familiar to audiences enduring the current political moment.

At least that’s one of the main premises of the new production Santa Fe Opera is presenting this season (a co-production with Dallas Opera). Also marking its company debut, Rimsky’s final opera (better known by its French title, Le coq d’or) actually has a direct American connection as regards its source.

The libretto by Vladimir Belsky is an adaptation of a verse fairy-tale by Pushkin, who got the story from none other than Washington Irving (specifically, from The Legend of the Arabian Astrologer, one of his Tales of the Alhambra inspired by the American writer’s travels in Spain).

Despite those far-flung historical connections, Cockerel — the final opera by the prolific Rimsky (completed in 1907) — posed a trenchant contemporary critique of Tsar Nicholas II that, especially in the aftermath of the disastrous Russo-Japanese War, was obvious enough to cause trouble with the censors. Rimsky died before the opera could be premiered (in 1909 in Moscow).

 

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VENERA GIMADIEVA (QUEEN OF SHEMAKHA) AND TIM MIX (KING DODON) PHOTO CREDIT: KEN HOWARD FOR SANTA FE OPERA, 2017

Cockerel involves an odd, both beguiling and baffling combination of dramaturgical registers such that it’s a challenge to stage the work outside its Russian context, which boasts a rich performance tradition of Rimsky’s operas (despite or even because of the composer’s posthumous hurdles with Soviet cultural authorities).

The framework is standard-issue fairy-tale: in a land long ago, King Dodon hopes to put an end to the threat of warfare from beyond his borders and even considers building a wall. As he seeks advice, a mysterious Astrologer presents him with the ideal solution: a beautiful Golden Cockerel that only needs to be perched atop a building to keep watch. It acts as a kind of early-warning system, allowing the King to indulge in his love of sleep and food worry-free.

But when the warning comes, he goes on a pre-emptive war, only to be seduced by his enemy, the Queen of Shemakha. She cajoles him into a marriage to gain his kingdom, and they return to the capital. But the Astrologer had extracted a promise that the grateful Tsar would give him anything he requested. Naturally, the Astrologer now demands the new Queen for himself. The King reacts violently, and the Golden Cockerel fatally pecks him.

That’s just the scaffolding. Infused into the fairy-tale story line are elements of political satire, allegory, Orientalism, and intoxicating late Romanticism. The Golden Cockerel even became an inspiration for modernist trends thanks to the Paris production by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes company in 1914, which put a distancing wedge between the music and story by keeping the singers to the sides while dancers enacted the roles.

Director Paul Curran and the creative team accentuate the satirical elements with a kind of broad comedy that wouldn’t be out of place in a Saturday Night Live skit.  Gary McCann (responsible for the set and costumes) imprisons Tsar Dodon in a fat suit, his jello-y bulges on display when he snoozes in his long red underwear (though he is hilariously undersized for a throne many times too big for him).
Near the culmination, this master of blustering incompetence appears decked out in a modern suit with a flaming red tie (yes, that‘s the blowhard he’s meant to evoke, tho Dodon possesses certain charming aspects that undo the implied comparison). His new Queen is wearing a smart white pantsuit. 

The clowning and pratfalls grow a bit tiresome, however, and make for a dragging first act. In the second, when Dodon heads off to the Queen’s neighboring land and is engaged by her entrancing musical and choreographic come-on, the shtick really begins to wear thin.

By way of compensation, the visuals added something of the missing note of mystery, fantasy, and even potentially sinister undertow. McCann’s costumes, alluding to the Ballets Russes era, exploded with color and folk exuberance, as well as the trendy Orientalism of that period. Enhanced by Paul Hackenmueller’s lighting, his set design relied on a large wavy metal curve and Constructivist-inspired swirls (a way of paying homage to the opera’s Modernist connections).

The curve was used for Driscoll Otto’s projections, whose beautifully intriguing imagery included opulent patterns and disturbingly surreal dreamlike sequences — dreams and the psyche figure heavily in the story — though the projections for the Golden Cockerel itself were surprisingly unimpressive (and difficult to see because of the angling of the large curve). During last night’s performance (July 28), a dramatic lightning storm provided perfectly counterpointed timing for the dark “invasion” scene, into which the Queen of Shemakha enters, Kundry-like, ready to disarm the enemy with her own brand of warcraft.

The cast ranged from adequate to wonderful. After Eric Owens bowed out of the assignment, baritone Tim Mix took on the role of King Dodon. He showed a delightful sense of comic timing and sang with musical intelligence but lacked power and needed depth. As his main general Commander Polkan, bass Kevin Burdette was scene-stealingly funny, a very effective character singer who gets a nasty comeuppance.  

As Dodon’s sons, who end up slaughtering each other in battle, Richard Smagur and Jorge Espino underscored the fatal hereditary mix of arrogance and idiocy. Singing offstage, Kasia Borowiec lent her lovely soprano to the Cockerel’s (a-little-too-repetitive) crowings. (The Cockerel is conceived as a female role in the tradition of so many other ornithological characterizations, despite the bird’s sex.)

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VENERA GIMADIEVA (THE QUEEN OF SHEMAKHA) AND TIM MIX (KING DODON) PHOTO CREDIT: KEN HOWARD FOR SANTA FE OPERA, 2017

The star of the evening was the Russian soprano Venera Gimadieva in the virtuosic role of the Queen of Shemakha. Rimsky lavishes his most alluring, exquisitely ornamented music on her (including in the number “Hymn to the Sun”). Aside from some lingering insecurities with intonation, Gimadieva handled her gorgeous coloratura with nuance and panache, executing some breathtakingly tapered notes. She also showed graceful and arresting stage presence, a delightful foil in her dancing to the fat-footed, bloated King as she wraps him around her finger. 

Also superb was alto Meredith Arwady as Amelfa as a loyal royal servant, a substitute Mom to the King whose voice by itself is like a character, immense, sturdy, amber, and richly reverberant in the astonishingly low notes Rimsky writes for the part.

He also writes a double-take-inducing high E for the high-flying tenor Astrologer, who frames the opera as an it’s-just-make-believe-after-all mise-en-abyme. Barry Banks, brandishing moody sunglasses and an Andy Warhol air, suggested a hint of the eerie, E.T.A. Hoffmann-esque in his portrayal, contributing another layer that otherwise tended to be sacrificed in favor of the satirical.

Actually, there was another star of the evening: conductor Emmanuel Villaume, who coaxed consistently expressive, multi-hued, luminous playing for Rimsky’s scintillating score. He clearly treasures its shimmering beauties and gave the musicians time to indulge in the soloistic writing, but judiciously, and in ways that enhanced the theatricality onstage.  

If you go: Santa Fe Opera’s production of The Golden Cockerel by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov continues through Aug. 18. Information and reservations here.

Review (c) 2017 Thomas May — all rights reserved

Filed under: review, Santa Fe Opera

The Apple of His Eye: Review of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs

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EDWARD PARKS (STEVE JOBS) AND JONAH SORENSON (YOUNG STEVE JOBS) PHOTO CREDIT: KEN HOWARD FOR SANTA FE OPERA, 2017

My review of the new Mason Bates/Mark Campbell opera is now out on Musical America:

SANTA FE, N.M.—“Hope or hype? … Score or snore?” Early into The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, the snappy questions pour out in rapid-fire succession from an ensemble attending the first public announcement of the iPhone in 2007.

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Filed under: American opera, Mark Campbell, Mason Bates, Musical America, review, Santa Fe Opera

At Play and In Flight: Some Recent Summer Festival Concerts with Seattle Chamber Music Society

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composer-vocalist Lisa Bielawa; photo by Daniel Clark

The Seattle Chamber Music Society’s 2017 Summer Festival has now reached its midway point, with a delicious program last night devoted to French music (in honor of Bastille Day). The Taiwanese-American violinist Paul Huang in particular stood out (in the free prelude concert) with an account of César Franck’s Violin Sonata that was simultaneously passionate and also lucidly constructed. Paige Roberts Molloy matched Huang’s intensity with her strong keyboard personality.

Molloy played a big role in the main course itself, teaming with Max Levinson for a pair of four-hands piano delights: Debussy’s early Petite Suite and Bizet’s Jeux d’enfants (source of the orchestral Petite Suite we heard not long ago from the Seattle Symphony and Morlot).

The duo teased out the textural richness of the four-hands writing and also enjoyed teasing the audience with the ample humor of music-as-mimicry (especially in Bizet’s sonic imaginings of children at play). A similar angle, but magnified to a small ensemble of ten players, enlivened the concluding work, Saint-Saëns’ Carnaval des Animaux. Each of the composer’s clever vignettes was neatly etched and characterized, from the two-note joke of “Le coucou au fond des bois” (Anthony McGill as luxury casting on clarinet) to lightly shaded mystery in “Aquarium.”

Together with the less-often-heard piano suites, the hyper-familiar Saint-Saëns acquired a fresh coat of childlike wonder — or the wonder resulting from grown artists reimagining and trying to recapture something of that wonder. In that context, it also provoked some interesting questions about this particular subfield of “program music.” In contrast, say, to a grandiose R. Strauss tone poem, is it the miniaturism here — in terms of instrumentation as well as size — that makes these pieces tend to be more “about” a textural gesture?

Those works in turn made for an unusual context in which to revisit the String Quartet in F major by another great poet of childhood, Maurice Ravel. Huang, playing first violin, was joined by violinist Tessa Lark, Cynthia Phelps on viola, and Ronald Thomas on cello. They gave an engaging performance that paid special attention to Ravel’s fascinating rhythmic language, with remarkably vivid ensemble playing for the second and fourth movements.  They also succeeded in balancing structural clarity with a drive and boldness that, from less-experienced musicians, might have risked murkiness.

Fictional Migrations

This Summer Festival week began with the excitement of a world premiere. The program on Monday (10 July) unveiled this year’s commission by the SCMS Commissioning Club: Fictional Migrations by Lisa Bielawa. An important and original voice among today’s composers, she is also a performer and has toured as a vocalist with the Philip Glass Ensemble.

The prolific Bielawa, born in San Francisco in 1968, has recently been earning widespread attention in the contemporary-music scene for her ambitious, trail-blazing, highly collaborative Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch’s AccuserIt’s a “made-for-TV-and-online opera” in a dozen episodes focusing on a gifted teenage girl who becomes obsessed with female visionaries across history.

Somehow among her many other projects, Bielawa found time to write the 12-minute Fictional Migrations. The fact that the piece is scored for flute, French horn, and piano is your first clue to its unusual character. Bielawa pointed out that she was initially intrigued — if not intimidated — by the challenge inherent in working with such an apparently “absurd” sonic combination.

Her approach is to avoid futile attempts at “homogenizing” these three instruments into something tamer but rather to accentuate, even exaggerate, their distinctive characters. In her introductory note, Bielawa points out that she also wanted to develop some “reveries” prompted by another composer she deeply admires, Olivier Messiaen. The latter was a household staple when she was growing up, since both of her musician parents were fans of the French master. Fictional Migrations is dedicated to the memory of Messiaen (in observance of the 25th anniversary of his death).

The most obvious Messiaenic influence is Bielawa’s allusion to birds and birdsong, a signature inspiration for Messiaen’s musical language. She writes that she had in mind the story of  Alcyone from ancient Greek mythology “who, thinking her lover Ceyx is dead, throws herself into the sea, only to find herself transformed into a bird, flying towards him (also now in bird form).”

Bielawa also notes an impetus from “speculative fiction and the new surge of minority and feminist writers who are embracing this form — a cousin of science fiction that poses the question ‘What if?’ in relation to current cultural narratives.”

Fictional Migrations is not a piece of straight-ahead program music. Bielawa has instead constructed a “fictional” encounter among these very different sonorities. There’s not even an obvious throughline correspondence between the instruments and characters of the Alcyone story. Rather, Bielawa translates the pattern of Ovidian metamorphosis into instrumental terms: the flute and horn in particular at times play “themselves” but more often than not seem to be attempting to transcend their identities, to become something else — and to negate the gendered stereotypes of how they should sound. Bielawa shows that process at the very beginning, with an aleatoric section for piccolo at its most aggressive and shrill.

What’s more, the writing is hyper-virtuosic and highly individual for each instrument, so they are not encouraged to fuse into pleasant but bland “harmony.” The players were all first-rate. Lorna McGhee’s piccolo/flute conveyed an astonishing array of moods and affects, brilliantly articulated, while hornist Jeffrey Fair never lost his golden tone amid the dangerously difficult registral transitions. Bielawa had collaborated with pianist Andrew Armstrong, but a last-minute “cooking accident” sidelined him; in his stead, Jeewon Park accomplished the heroic feat of mastering the keyboard part, which is replete with thunderous, heavy waves and intricately nuanced figurations.

Bielawa has created an immersive, provocative soundscape, filled with “made-up birds,” she writes, that “exist in a world where prisoners fly out of captivity effortlessly, and we all magically transcend death and suffering.”

Framing the premiere were two pieces that also deviate from the chamber music “norm” in their scoring. The opener was Mozart’s K. 423 Duo for Violin and Viola in G major, with violinist Augustin Hadelich’s silky, exquisite phrasing itself was worth the price of admission; his partner was Michael Klotz, playing his viola with patrician refinement.

And a blockbuster to conclude: Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet, with its double bass instead of a second violin to give an ampler sound. The players — Andrew Wan (violin), Richard O’Neill (viola), Ronald Thomas (cello), Joseph Kaufman (bass), and George Li (piano) — collaborated with in-the-moment flashes of color and expression that are what you hope for in live chamber music.

Review (c) 2017 Thomas May — All rights reserved

Filed under: chamber music, new music, review, Seattle Chamber Music Society

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