MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Strange Loops and Golden Braids

Last night’s performance of The Musical Offering is a contender for the highlight of the four performances I attended during this summer’s festival presented by the Seattle Chamber Music Society.

Today, by coincidence, as the thema regium occupies my mind, marks the 278th anniversary of the death of J.S. Bach. The performers — violinists James Ehnes and Amy Schwartz Moretti, violist Richard O’Neill, and cellist Edward Arron (the newly reformulated James Ehnes Quartet); violinists Yura Lee and Erin Keefe; violist Che-Yen Chen; cellists Julie Albers and Ronald Thomas; flutist Christie Reside; and harpsichordist Byron Schenkman — sustained a very special atmosphere throughout.

It differed in fascinating ways from the usual SCMS mood, Bach’s intellectual virtuosity holding the capacity audience spellbound, but with the tragic undertone that is also part of this music ever-present. Such a rare pleasure.

A few observations from Douglas Hofstadter’s 1970s classic, Gödel, Escher, Bach:

“The Musical Offering” is a fugue of fugues, a Tangled Hierarchy like those of Escher and Gödel, an intellectual construction which reminds me, in ways I cannot express, of the beautiful many-voiced fugue of the human mind. And that is why in my book the three strands of Gödel, Escher, and Bach are woven into an Eternal Golden Braid.

In [the Canon per Tonos], Bach has given us our first example of the notion of Strange Loops. The “Strange Loop” phenomenon occurs whenever, by moving upwards (or downwards) through the levels of some hierarchical system, we unexpectedly find ourselves right back where we started. (Here, the system is that of musical keys.) … Implicit in the concept of Strange Loops is the concept of infinity, since what else is a loop but a way of representing an endless process in a finite way?

To give an idea of how extraordinary a six-part fugue is, in the entire Well-Tempered Clavier by Bach, containing forty-eight Preludes and Fugues, only two have as many as five parts, and nowhere is there a six-part fugue! One could probably liken the task of improvising a six-part fugue to the playing of sixty simultaneous blindfold games of chess, and winning them all. To improvise an eight-part fugue is really beyond human capability.

“Quaerendo invenietis” is my advice to the reader.

Meanwhile, the Boston Public Library has digitized and put online dozens of Escher’s prints here.

Filed under: Bach, Seattle Chamber Music Society

Seattle Chamber Music Society’s 2018 Commission

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Composer James Newton Howard (Eric Charbonneau / Invision / AP)

For The Seattle Times: my look at the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s commission for the 2018 Summer Festival: a new piece by veteran film composer James Newton Howard:

It would be hard to underestimate how pervasively film composers shape the general public’s image of what classical music “sounds like.” …

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Filed under: commissions, Seattle Chamber Music Society

Shostakovich: Cello Sonata No. 1

Haunted by this work now, which was positioned in the middle of last night’s Summer Festival of the Seattle Chamber Music Society — in an enthralling performance by Seattle Symphony principal cellist Efe Baltacıgil and pianist Adam Neiman.

The program also included Beethoven’s “Spring” Sonata (Augustin Hadelich and Alessio Bax) and a winning account of Schumann’s E-flat major Piano Quintet (Andrew Wan, Benjamin Beilman, Jonathan Vinocour, Astrid Schween, George Li).

Filed under: chamber music, Seattle Chamber Music Society, Shostakovich

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

Seattle Chamber Music Society’s 2017 Summer Festival

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Jame Ehnes, left, Ani Aznavoorian and Andrs Daz in performance from a previous Seattle Chamber Music Festival Summer Festival. (Paul Joseph Brown)

I spoke with James Ehnes for the Seattle Times about the upcoming Summer Festival:

Seattle Chamber Music Society’s 2017 Summer Festival to feature musical postcards from across Europe, an American composer’s world premiere and a community performance of Bach before the closing open-air concert at Volunteer Park.

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Filed under: chamber music, commissions, James Ehnes, Seattle Chamber Music Society

Noah Bendix-Balgley in Seattle

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photo © Nikolaj Lund

Among this year’s lineup of newcomers at Seattle Chamber Music Society’s 2016 Summer Festival was American violinist Noah Bendix-Balgley — which gives you an idea of the level of luxury casting to which chamber music lovers have been treated.

The North Carolina native switched from his position as Pittsburgh Symphony concertmaster  to become first concertmaster with the Berlin Philharmonic in 2014 — and he’s currently only 32.

For this edition of the Summer Chamber Festival, Bendix-Balgley took part in four programs, and I made sure to catch all of them. He made his debut here with Dvořák’s Op. 87 Piano Quartet in E-flat, joined by violist Jonathan Vincour, cellist Bion Tsang, and pianist George Li (I’m not exaggerating about the “luxury casting”).

This was the kind of playing that can change your attitude toward Dvořák, make you realize that we need to hear more and more of him, not just the warhorses. They sustained their intensity across the generous arc of the piece, not merely settling for its lyrical pleasures: the Piano Quintet as a page-turner epic novel.

For appearance no. 2, Bendix-Balgley joined Bion Tsang and Yura Lee (on cello) for Mozart’s Divertimento for String Trio in E-flat (K. 563), which made for a fascinating contrast with the overbrimming Romanticism of the Dvořák: the graceful restraint of his phrasing revealed emotional depths and the power of implication.

During his third concert Bendix-Balgley teamed with fellow violinist David Chan for Prokofiev’s remarkably far-ranging Sonata for Two Violins in C major, Op. 56. Along with expertly sounding its acoustical surprises and trompe-l’oreille effects, I admired how the musicians explored Prokofiev’s independence of line — of musical thought — from two similar voices, interrogating notions of “harmony.”

Beethoven was the focus of Bendix-Balgley’s final appearance (July 25), when he convened with SCMS artistic director James Ehnes (on first violin), Beth Guterman Chu and Rebecca Albers (violas), and Raphael Bell (cello) for the “Storm” Quintet in C major, Op. 29.

The Summer Festival is known for its mix of musicians who have regularly played for years as partners and ad hoc ensembles working together for the first time, and their account could have easily fooled listeners into taking this particular group for the former. By that I don’t mean only the level of risk-taking and involvement in the playing, but the conviction they seemed to share about the “Storm” Quintet’s emotional landscape and structural quirks.

Here’s a sample of Bendix-Balgley’s captivating, richly characterful playing:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Filed under: Seattle Chamber Music Society, violinists

Seattle Chamber Music Society’s 35th Summer Festival

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Cynthia Phelps is a regular participant in the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Summer Festival.

Tonight the 2016 edition of the Seattle Chamber Music Society Summer Festival begins, with James Ehnes and his colleagues fresh from a Beethoven quartet marathon in Seoul. My preview has been posted on the Seattle Times website:

“Chamber music is about being able to trust your colleagues,” says violist Cynthia Phelps. That’s what enables the risk-taking that’s essential for this intimate musical medium, she explains. “And the chance to live and work together during the Summer Festival is a wonderful model for building that trust.”

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Filed under: chamber music, James Ehnes, Seattle Chamber Music Society

Rekindle your spirits with Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Winter Festival

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My preview of this month’s Winter Festival by the Seattle Chamber Music Society for the Seattle Times is now online.

Filed under: James Ehnes, preview, Seattle Chamber Music Society

Ehnes Quartet Review

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My review of the Ehnes Quartet and their Beethoven cycle from this summer’s Seattle Chamber Music Society Festival has been published in the current issue of String magazine. A link to it is here (pdf).

Filed under: Beethoven, chamber music, James Ehnes, review, Seattle Chamber Music Society

A Gorgeous Chamber Music Première in Seattle

Steven Stucky; photo (c) 2005 Hoebermann Studio

Steven Stucky; photo
(c) 2005 Hoebermann Studio

Along with its mix of well-known and unusual repertoire, the Seattle Chamber Music Society annually commissions a brand-new work for its Summer Festival. Monday evening’s programme unveiled the selection for 2015: Cantus by the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Steven Stucky, who has gained prominence primarily as an instrumental and choral composer. (His first opera – a brilliantly witty yet at the same time touching one-act buffa to Jeremy Denk’s libretto improbably “dramatising” Charles Rosen’s The Classical Style – will receive its full stage première next week at the Aspen Festival.)

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Filed under: American music, Brahms, chamber music, commissions, Mendelssohn, review, Seattle Chamber Music Society, Steven Stucky

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