MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Yuval Sharon’s Berlin Flute Seeks to Put the Magic Back in Mozart

Papageno (Florian Teichtmeister) and Tamino (Julian Prégardien) in The Magic Flute credit: Monika Rittershaus : Staatsoper Berlin

Papageno (Florian Teichtmeister) and Tamino (Julian Prégardien), with dead serpent, in The Magic Flute (credit: Monika Rittershaus / Staatsoper Berlin)

BERLIN — In his program note for the new production of The Magic Flute that he directed for Berlin Staatsoper, Yuval Sharon recalls the image of a young girl in Ingmar Bergman’s 1975 film version who is repeatedly shown to be deeply absorbed watching a performance of Mozart’s opera unfold. She represents the ideal audience member for this work, according to Sharon, because she retains the childlike capacity for wonder.

My review for Musical America is now up here (paywall).

Filed under: directors, Musical America, review, Yuval Sharon

Poetry and Politics: Sir András Schiff Does Double Duty with Seattle Symphony

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Sir András Schiff © Nadia F. Romanini

Sir András Schiff began a remarkable weekend of music with his appearance as guest conductor of the Seattle Symphony. My review:

For a long time, Seattle audiences have made clear their admiration for the artistry of Sir András Schiff whenever he comes into town for solo recitals – including one occasion 17 years ago, when his Bösendorfer had an unfortunate encounter with black ice while being transported across the continent and a replacement had to be found at the last minute.

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Filed under: András Schiff, Bach, Bartók, Beethoven, review, Seattle Symphony

Schubert and Britten et al. from Byron Schenkman & Friends

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Byron Schenkman, Jeff Fair, and Zach Finkelstein

Still basking in the emotions from Sunday evening’s program courtesy of Byron Schenkman & Friends – said friends on this occasion being tenor Zach Finkelstein (in his Nordstrom Recital Hall debut), Seattle Symphony principal horn player Jeff Fair, and cellist Nathan Whittaker.

Schenkman’s programming is always an art in itself, but this one really stood out for its combination of poetry and music, focusing on a pair of composers who rank among the most sensitive writers for the voice. Schubert lieder framed the evening, with a set of four songs to begin — “Der Musensohn,” “An die Laute,” “Ganymed,” and “Du bist die Ruh” — and “Auf dem Strom,” one of the miraculous products of his final year, at the close.

Finkelstein’s refined, expressive phrasing and gorgeous tone hit the mark. The tenor was alert to every nuance Schubert uses to paint the emotions evoked by the poet, adding just enough pressure and urgency to make an apparently simple melodic turn suddenly light up with hidden colors. (See the video below for more on this wonderful singer, including some of his insights on Britten.)

“Auf dem Strom” — thought to be possible a tribute to the late Beethoven, who had died the year before — came off as a thoroughly involving miniature drama. I also admired Schenkman’s affinity for this repertoire, which shows off a very different side of his artistry from the early music fare I more frequently hear him perform. Jeff Fair emphasized the touching mellifluousness of the horn part, with hints of nostalgic heroism as well.

Schenkman, Finkelstein, and Fair all have collaborated on a to-die-for recording of all five of Benjamin Britten’s Canticles, which came in 2017. Before performing the two Canticles featured on this program, Schenkman and Finkelstein read the long, intricate poems which Britten set to music: Canticle I, Op. 40 (“My Beloved Is Mine”) by Francis Quarles, composed in 1947 for his life partner, tenor Peter Pears; and 54 the 19Canticle III, Op. 55 (“Still falls the rain: The raids 1940. Night and dawn”), to a poem by Edith Sitwell, which calls for a solo horn part in addition to the piano accompaniment.

These two highly contrasting pieces — the one a mystical ode to love, the other an unsparing reflection on human nature’s darkest side, while still reaching for hope — made for a powerful juxtaposition. Canticle III is of Turn of the Screw vintage and felt both cathartic and emotionally exhausting.

When introducing the first Canticle, Schenkman pointed out the composer’s bravery in living with a same-sex partner during a period when Alan Turing was subjected to such injustice, recalling, too, how Queen Elizabeth sent a personal letter of condolence to Pears following his companion’s death in 1976. Schenkman also referred to Britten’s role in reaffirming the stature of Mendelssohn following the Nazis’ attempt to erase him from history, noting how Mendelssohn himself played a pivotal role in rescuing nearly lost Schubert masterpieces from oblivion.

Schenkman and Nathan Whittaker gave a glowing account of Mendelssohn’s Variations concertantes for cello and piano, Op. 17, after the first Canticle. The cellist also treated listeners to the solo piece The Fall of the Leaf by Imogen Holst (daughter of Gustav Holst and a close friend of Britten and Pears). Written in 1963 for Pamela Hind o’Malley, it comprises “short studies … on a 16th-century tune” from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book (by Martin Peerson). More eloquent, even grief-stricken, than restrained, Whittaker brought out the thoughtful melancholy of the descending, fatalistic theme, while playfully suggesting the ghost of a lute in Holst’s pizzicato chords.

Filed under: Britten, Byron Schenkman, review, Schubert

Tan Dun’s Moving Buddha Passion Gets Its U.S. Premiere by LA Philharmonic

Hands-down one of my highlights of the season so far: Tan Dun’s Buddha Passion, which I reviewed here for Musical America:

LOS ANGELES—A signature of Tan Dun’s most successful compositions is his gift for mixing putatively disparate elements into powerfully original amalgams. To make that happen means being able to take serious risks—and the premise behind Buddha Passion is nothing if not bold. The audience’s euphoric reaction at Walt Disney Concert Hall, where the Los Angeles Philharmonic and a cast of guest performers under Gustavo Dudamel gave the United States premiere on February 8, confirmed the tangible impact of Tan’s wildly imaginative gamble here.

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Filed under: Gustavo Dudamel, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Musical America, review, Tan Dun

A Fuller Monty: Christmas Vespers by Monteverdi

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David Fallis and colleagues

Early Music Seattle presented this remarkable concert over the weekend: and it was just what the doctor ordered in these jaded times.

Even if he hadn’t composed a single opera, Claudio Monteverdi would still belong to the greatest of the great for his achievements as a master of sacred music. His Vespro della Beata Vergine, published in 1610, is hailed as a landmark of the literature – and is the work instantly conjured whenever you hear the phrase “the Monteverdi Vespers.” But it was an altogether different setting of the Vespers service that Early Music Seattle presented at this concert, the most recent installment in the ongoing Northwest Baroque Masterworks Project.

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Filed under: Monteverdi, review

At BAM: An Early Turnage Opera Still Packs a Punch

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Photo: Richard Termine


My Musical America review of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s debut opera Greek, given its belated New York premiere at BAM in a visiting production directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins:

NEW YORK–Raw rage and political engagement were the driving forces behind Mark-Anthony Turnage’s debut opera Greek. Familiar enough for a young artist just setting out, such motivations can make a powerful initial impact but tend to give the art they inspire a rapidly expiring shelf-life. And yet Greek has not staled in the three decades since its premiere.

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Filed under: Mark-Anthony Turnage, Musical America, review

Akropolis Performance Lab Serves Up Genet’s Subversive The Maids

Emily Testa as Solange in Jean Genet’s The Maids Mark Jared Zufelt/Aether Images
“Did I put on this dress to hear you sing about my beauty? Shroud me with hatred! Insults! Sputum!”

Even the process of booking an evening with Akropolis Performance Lab (APL) differs from the routine. There’s an aura of mystery to requesting an invitation to its current production of The Maids/The Vexations, which is under way until 24 November. The venue remains undisclosed until you’ve committed to actually attending.

Once arrived, you enter a room that’s been artfully converted into an almost uncomfortably intimate performance space — big enough to accommodate the three cast members required for Jean Genet’s play, an audience of 10-12 people tops, a piano, and a little bar. The aura is a blend of speakeasy and adventurous cabaret. A wall of mirrors serves as part of the set design, multiplying the spectators and actresses.

It all reinforces the hyper-self-consciously surreal atmosphere of APL’s remarkable interpretation. Jean Genet’s bold, one-act drama from 1947 (Les Bonnes en français) — his first play to be staged in Paris — was inspired by a real-life crime story that became the equivalent of clickbait news in 1933, when two sisters who were live-in French maids murdered their employer’s wife and daughter. But the very premise of a solid connection to “reality” at the most essential level — the sense of a real, authentic self — is subverted throughout the play, turning Hamlet’s sarcastic/melancholy “‘Seems,'” madam? Nay, it is; I know not ‘seems'” on its head.

Directed and designed by Joseph Lavy, APL’s production brings the point home by appending a preludial pantomime in which the three cast members, dressed in lingerie, strike varying exaggerated poses, interacting but interchangeable, prepared to shift roles on a dime.

And, on top of this, there’s a musical layer: the show actually begins with Zhenya Lavy — with Joseph, cofounding artistic director of APL — taking her place at the aforementioned piano and playing the enigmatic, sphinx-like harmonies of Erik Satie’s The Vexations: once, again, thrice, and over and over, through the pantomime, through the duration of the play.

Satie’s undated, single-page score (which has been variously described as an anti-Ring cycle and a kind of spell to get past a love gone sour) comes with the instruction “In order to play the theme 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities.” That total number of repetitions lasted over 18 hours when John Cage famously staged a presentation, but even at a fraction of that, Zhenya Lavy established a mood of archaic yet ironic ritual that perfectly suited the ritualistic anti-realism of Genet’s theater.

The play itself unfolds amid the accoutrements of the unnamed Madame’s wealth (or, at least, comfortably bourgeois lifestyle), as the maids Claire and Solange take turns rewriting the script of servitude, of mistress and servant. In the process, they enact rituals of domination and humiliation in all its connotations: sexual, political, social, religious.

Their shared, mutual fantasies of mutiny and sadomasochistic reversal climax in a plan to murder Madame with sleeping pill-laced tea, which will also solve the problem of her lover’s suddenly impending appearance, out on bail — after he had been denounced by Claire to the police and jailed.

Joseph Lavy also translated Genet’s text into an English that conveys the curious mixture of poetic filtering and religious ritual central to Claire’s and Solange’s game-playing (or is it even a game?) — aspects that get lost in more pointedly political renditions of the work on the English stage. Madame is also referred to as a kind of medieval “my lady” and, with her flowers and beautiful attire — briefly offered as gifts — creating a Madonna-like aura of reverence.

As Claire, Annie Paladino is spellbinding and dangerous, her ability to enter fully into each role as convincing as the speed with which she sheds one skin for the next. Her older sister, Solange, is given a complex, layered, deeply resonant performance by Emily Testa. One surprise of the casting is the youth of Madame (the excellent Catherine Lavy), which erases the generational distance between the characters and underscores the riddling interchangeability of identities.

All three are coached in APL’s characteristic focus style of ensemble-focused training, a refreshing, much-needed antidote to the default, watered-down “method” that dominates commercial theater and media. This company offers a wonderful, praiseworthy alternative to such predictable and formulaic theater-making.

Review (c) 2018 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Akropolis Performance Lab, review, theater, Uncategorized

Pascal Dusapin’s New Double Concerto Soars in Seattle

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Viktoria Mullova and Matthew Barley, with Ludovic Morlot and Seattle Symphony; image (c) James Holt

For Musical America, I reviewed Seattle Symphony’s program of Pascal Dusapin’s wonderful At Swim-Two-Birds (in its U.S. premiere), Debussy’s Petite Suite, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4:


SEATTLE—Making its U.S. premiere at the center of Seattle Symphony’s most recent program, Pascal Dusapin’s At Swim-Two-Birds (heard on November 8) immediately stood out as one of the most significant commissions in music director Ludovic Morlot’s tenure (which draws to a close at the end of this season).

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Filed under: Debussy, Musical America, Pascal Dusapin, review, Tchaikovsky

A Reich Premiere and Mahler Recharged at the Los Angeles Philharmonic

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It’s been a bracing week of the non-routine in Los Angeles: Philip Glass’s Satyagraha at LA Opera and, from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, John Cage’s Europeras 1 & 2 (with Yuval Sharon’s The Industry) and Susanna Mälkki’s first program of the season. Here’s my review of the Mälkki concert for Musical America:


LOS ANGELES–This past weekend’s program by the Los Angeles Philharmonic was both a newsworthy event and a rousing artistic triumph. Newsworthy because it offered the world premiere of the first composition Steve Reich has written for a full orchestra in more than three decades. And with Susanna Mälkki on the podium, the entire concert on Friday night (November 2) made the concept of a modern symphony orchestra itself feel vitally relevant. Juxtaposed against the pleasures of Reich’s exquisitely crafted piece, a familiar Mahler symphony–the Fifth–was transformed into a revelatory experience.

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Filed under: Los Angeles Philharmonic, Mahler, review, Steve Reich

Fiery and Apocalyptic, with a Melancholy Interlude: This Week’s Seattle Symphony

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Alina Ibragimova

Thursday night’s concert offered the first chance I’ve had to hear Ludovic Morlot in action so far this season with Seattle Symphony, and my reward was a thrilling, full-bodied program. The first half included a fiery account of Bartók’s 1927 Miraculous Mandarin Suite (about two-thirds of the score from his earlier ballet, responsible for one of the scandal-premieres of European modernism).
Morlot focused on the score’s lurid colors and unsettling, suspenseful atmospheres, abetted by characterful wind solos (the “decoy music” on clarinet, for one) and superb string ensemble. (The choice of Noah Geller as new concertmaster has clearly been paying dividends.) Some conductors emphasize the influence of Stravinsky’s Rite, but Morlot seemed more interested in the surreal aspects of Bartók’s score, especially in how the ironic, decadent waltz of seduction emerges.
A wonderful match of soloist and concerto followed, with the 33-year-old Russian-British violinist Alina Ibragimova proving herself to be a deeply sensitive, account of the Op. 129 Concerto in C-sharp minor, the second of Shostakovich’s violin concertos.
The violinist is called on to maintain a virtually continual presence in this score, and Ibragimova held me spellbound, mining the varied facets of melancholy and sorrowing desperation embedded in this late-period work. Her tone was rich but unforced, and above all achingly expressive.
Morlot effectively stage-managed the prominent duologues of the soloist with the winds, though coordination went somewhat awry in the finale. Still, it was a moving, substantial performance — far more welcome than a flashy and breezy rep staple would have been, since Seattle Symphony has dedicated this week’s performances to victims of hate crimes: “to the lives lost and all those affected by recent hate crimes brought on by racism and bigotry, particularly those who died in the recent tragic shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and while grocery shopping in Jeffersontown, Kentucky.”
Filling the second half was Brahms’s mighty, promise-fulfilling First Symphony, which premiered just a few months after the first complete Ring cycle, in 1876. (I’ve always found that coincidence especially fascinating.) Morlot seemed to pick up on some of the fiery, driven energy from the opening Bartók, conjuring a passionately dramatic vision of the First.
This came at the cost of some clarity, I found, in the first movement above all, whose overarching architecture was occasionally obscured. The Adagio radiated emotional complexity and a touching sense of Brahmsian harmonic color; it only needed, again, a more transparent elucidation of the composer’s dramaturgy of light and shade. I wanted more time for the music to breathe.
Morlot was more convincing with the rest of the work: the third movement served as a brief shot of optimism, an interlude that tees off the apocalypse and triumph of this finale-centered score. Here, Morlot paced events with confidence and focus, acting as a kind of film director to ensure that each episode carried weight.

The program is repeated on Saturday 3 November at 8pm.

Filed under: Bartók, Brahms, review, Seattle Symphony, Shostakovich, Uncategorized

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