MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Music Of Shostakovich Brings Fresh Drama To Silent Film ‘Potemkin’

Music from Shostavich’s Fourth, Fifth, Eighth, Tenth and Eleventh Symphonies was performed live to Eisenstein’s film. (Seattle Symphony photo)

I wrote about a very interesting film + live symphony event at Seattle Symphony with guest conductor Frank Strobel:

In 1925, Sergei Eisenstein made cinematic history with the release of Battleship Potemkin, his feature debut. Dmitri Shostakovich, still a precocious teenager, was hard at work on his First Symphony, which also caused a sensation when it was premiered the next year by the Leningrad Philharmonic.


Filed under: Classical Voice North America, film, film music, review, Seattle Symphony

Abel Selaocoe Brings His Spirited Musicianship to Seattle

Abel Selaocoe and the Seattle Symphony; photo (c) Carlin Ma

What a memorable concert this was — my latest Seattle Symphony review:

“I feel very welcome here,” said Abel Selaocoe just before making his debut with the Seattle Symphony. Not only did he seem completely at home: in remarks introducing Four Spirits, his new work for cello, voice and orchestra, the young cellist-composer invited the audience to enter into his musical world, indicating that he would cue them when to sing along at the appropriate moment. “I’ll see you on the other side,” he winked, just before taking up his position to launch the piece.


Filed under: Berlioz, cello, new music, review, Seattle Symphony

Seattle Symphony Announces 2023-24 Season

UPDATE: See Michael Schell’s insightful comments on the new season announcement here.

The Seattle Symphony’s (SSO) 2023-24 season announcement was released today. The orchestra will celebrate two anniversaries: 120 years since its founding and 25 years since the opening of Benaroya Hall, which became home base in 1998. Main areas of focus: broader programming across all SSO series to connect with new audiences, an increase in the presence of living composers, a greater concentration of works new to SSO’s repertoire, and the launch of a new curated series (“Playlist”).

Opening night will replicate part of the SSO’s first-ever concert from December 29, 1903 (Schubert’s “Unfinished” and Massenet’s Overture to Phèdre) and the first concert the musicians played at Benaroya Hall on September 12, 1998 (selections from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung — which featured Jessye Norman back then); Arthur Honegger’s Pastorale d’Été will also be introduced to the SSO’s repertoire; Ludovic Morlot conducts.

SSO’s distinguished emeritus will return for another program in June (versus three separate programs led by Morlot in the current season). Aside from appearances by Sunny Xia, SSO’s Douglas F. King Assistant Conductor, the rest of the season will be led by a wide range of visiting conductors — many of whom have already guested here. Alpesh Chauhan and David Robertson led especially impressive performances earlier this season, so it’s nice to see that they will return. Making their debuts on the podium are Kevin John Edusei, Christian Reif, Bernard Labadie, Sarah Hicks, and Andy Einhorn. I’m also looking forward to hearing the much-touted Dalia Stasevska (I wasn’t able to make her SSO debut a year ago). She will be joined by her composer/electric bassist husband, Lauri Porra, in a program of the Sibelius Fifth complemented by Porra’s concerto for electric bass, Entropia, andNautilus by Anna Meredith. Note that this is not a continuation of the halfway-completed Sibelius cycle paired with new commissions that Thomas Dausgaard had launched before the pandemic. That endeavor has been discontinued.

The SSO has been keeping quiet about the ongoing search for a music director. The Press Office states that “the search is well underway and many performances from seasons past, current, and future are all carefully being considered by the Search Committee.”

I also asked about this press release statement: “The 2023/2024 season brings a continuation of creative partnerships that welcome not only the next generation of composers and performers, but new members of our community as well.” The response was that this refers to less traditional programs like the Metropolis evening and the weeklong residency in January of film composer, conductor, and pianist Joe Hisaishi, as well as popular programming with artists like Audra Macdonald. It also refers to programs and series featuring newer voices among the young generation of classical musicians and SSO’s educational programming.

On the new music front: the press release calls out the following among the “more than 35 living composers” who are part of the programming: “Salina Fisher, Nina C. Young, Aaron Jay Kernis, Reena Esmail, Lauri Porra, David Robertson, Steven Mackey, Linda Catlin Smith, Gretchen Yanover, Donghoon Shin, Dorothy Chang, Han Lash, Sarah Gibson, Alexandra Gardner, Angélica Negrón, Fazil Say, Jake Heggie, Jennifer Higdon, Edgar Meyer, Jessie Montgomery, Kevin Puts and more.” The last five named are co-collaborators for the Elements Concerto featuring Joshua Bell, which Marin Alsop will conduct on the closing program of the season. It should also be noted that several of these are part of the Octave 9 season performed in the SSO’s adjacent experimental space. The SSO began expanding this sold-out series during the current season.

A focus on “firsts” is also on the agenda. Remarkably, Bach’s St. John Passion will receive its first-ever SSO performance. Other firsts for the orchestra: Julia Perry’s Short Piece for Orchestra, John Adams’s Harmonium, Salina Fisher’s Rainphase, Lutoslawski’s Cello Concerto, Dorothy Chang’s Northern Star, Donghoon Shin’s Of Rats and Men, Fagerlund’s Stonework, Aaron Jay Kernis’s Elegy (For Those We Lost),  the previously mentioned Elements Concerto and Meredith and Porra pieces. A program that looks especially intriguing will be the SSO’s first-ever performance of Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No. 7 (Antarctic) led by Gemma New and featuring soprano Jennifer Bromagen. This event promises “an immersive multimedia experience of the doomed Terra Nova Expedition” — Robert Falcon Scott’s journey to the Antarctic in 1910-13 — with original visuals from 1912.

Among debuting soloists, I’m delighted to see that the pianist Mahani Teave will be making her SSO debut in Mozart’s K. 466 piano concerto in October. A native of Easter Island and has an amazing story I wrote about for the New York Times here. Teave will also inaugurate the new no-intermission Playlist Series, which will be curated by Conrad Tao and Noah Geller.

As far as new commissions, however, I see only one by SSO on the program (versus five commissions this season, four of them orchestral): a not-yet-titled work for solo cello an video design by Gretchen Yanover, which will be premiered on the Octave 9 series. Reena Esmail’s wonderful Concerto for Hindustani Violin, co-created with soloist Kala Ramnath, will make a welcome return after its premiere here last year.

Complete chronological listing of the 2023-24 season:

–Thomas May

Filed under: music news, Seattle Symphony

Seattle Symphony Delivers Playful Ligeti, High-tensile Bartók, and Reconsidered Rachmaninoff

David Robertson conducts the Seattle Symphony; photo (c)Brandon Patoc

David Robertson guest conducted the Seattle Symphony last week in a program of Ligeti, Bartók, and Rachmaninoff. My review:

Since it lacks a music director, the Seattle Symphony is presenting a smorgasbord of guest conductors throughout the season. These have been mostly younger artists still early in their careers, but David Robertson’s engagement marked the return of a seasoned conductor already well-liked by the players and in full command of a formidable talent….


Filed under: Bartók, Ligeti, Rachmaninoff, review, Seattle Symphony

Lee Mills Returns to Seattle Symphony: Beethoven, Corey, and Ripper

Lee Mills and Seattle Symphony in Beethoven’s Seventh

UPDATE: This is a fantastic program and well worth seeking out this weekend. I was completely enchanted by João Guilherme Ripper’s touching, witty, sophisticated, and deliciously melodic song cycle based on the poetry of the legendary Vinicius de Moraes. Mills does a great service introducing this prolific Brazilian composer to U.S. audiences — and this is just one peek into the wealth of creativity south of the border that is routinely ignored here. Filling in at the last minute, lyric soprano Tess Altiveros brings passion and humor to her interpretations.

And Mills inspires the SSO to a refreshingly buoyant account of Beethoven’s Sixth. He closely follows the composer’s metronome markings but without sounding rushed or hectic., The result really is akin to breathing in the invigorating freshness of the countryside — and above all elicits the joyful elation of this score.

Two more chances to hear the program: Saturday at 8:00pm and Sunday at 2:00pm.

Lee Mills, who finished his tenure as Seattle Symphony Associate Conductor last season, returns this week to lead the band in what promises to be an interesting program of Beethoven and contemporary composers. We’ll hear the world premiere of Charles Corey’s Together, This Journey, commissioned and composed in collaboration with members of Northwest Center and Best Buddies (originally as part of the 2020 Beethoven Festival) and Brazilian composer João Guilherme Ripper’s Cinco poemas de Vinicius de Moraes. Written for soprano (Tess Altiveros) and orchestra, Ripper’s piece sets five poems by Moraes to sketch out the story of the poet’s life. And Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony will complete the program.

I wrote a profile of Mills just about a year ago for Musical America.

Performance times:

Thursday 9 February at 7.30 pm

Saturday 11 February at 8.00 om

Sunday 12 February at 2.00 pm

Tickets here.

Filed under: Beethoven, conductors, Seattle Symphony

Abdullah, Hadelich, and the Seattle Symphony Offer a Winter-Conquering Musical Feast

Augustin Hadelich, Kazem Abdullah, and the Seattle Symphony; photo (c) Brandon Patoc

Kazem Abdullah’s Seattle Symphony debut included Sibelius, Britten, and a brand-new work by Dai Fujikura. Here’s my review for Bachtrack:

Framed by early and late Sibelius, this luminous program pushed the pause button on dank winter anxieties. A warm bond developed between debuting guest conductor Kazem Abdullah and the Seattle Symphony musicians during the course of the concert, reaching incandescence in their cloud-busting account of the Finnish composer’s Seventh Symphony.


Filed under: Britten, commissions, conductors, Seattle Symphony, Sibelius

A Double Bill of Boulanger and Beethoven Rings in the New Year in Seattle

David Danzmayr and the Seattle Symphony; photo (c) Jorge Gustavo Elias

I closed out 2022 with a review of the Seattle Symphony performing Boulanger and Beethoven:

The tradition of attending performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony around New Year’s in Japan — where it is known simply as daiku — has a counterpart in Seattle. That the score’s epic journey spans such a spectrum of human experience yet culminates in a message of overwhelming affirmation makes the Ninth ideally suited for the Janus duty of casting a retrospective glance over the highs and lows of the year drawing to a close while ringing in the one just beginning with hope-filled anticipation….


Filed under: Beethoven, review, Seattle Symphony

Tan Dun’s Buddha Passion

Composer Tan Dun (Courtesy of Tan Dun)

I wrote in advance about this week’s visit to Seattle Symphony by Tan Dun. Thursday night he conducted the Seattle Symphony, Seattle Symphony Chorale, Northwest Boychoir, and guest soloists in a moving performance of his Buddha Passion.

Here are excerpts from my review of the US premiere of Buddha Passion, performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel in 2019:

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.

Buddha Passion uses the rough outlines of the Christian Passion oratorio as a vehicle to explore the life and teachings of the Buddha. Tan drew inspiration specifically from the Mogao Caves outside the northwestern Chinese city of Dunhuang. These encompass over a millennium’s worth of murals and sculpture relating to Buddhism as well as artifacts that even contain evidence about the music of this period. xx`

It’s fitting that Dunhuang was an ancient Silk Road outpost, since, on multiple levels, Buddha Passion stages a meeting place for diverse cultural phenomena: not only between the Passion format of the Christian West and Buddhism but between the Western orchestra/chorus and a Chinese-inflected soundscape, populist folk idioms and innovative “high art,” music, theater, and visual art. 

Tan’s Water Passion from 2000 responded directly to the Christian model, representing a millennial, global perspective on Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. In my view, Buddha Passion’s looser connection to the Passion idea—the composer also conceives of it as an opera—has resulted in a much more compelling work of art that transcends surface novelty and achieves a moving coherence on its own terms.

Over its two hours (including one intermission), Buddha Passion unfolds in six “acts,” each using a famous story associated with the Buddha himself or his teachings and sharing a core message of compassion, underscored by a recurrent chant motif. Tan distributes the voice of the Buddha among his various soloists and the chorus. In the first act, for example, the death of a bird leads Little Prince (sung by mezzo Huling Zhu) on his path to enlightenment. The stories share the clarity and directness of folk tales—such as the Deer of Nine Colors (soprano Sen Guo), a benevolent force who is killed by a man she has saved from drowning (tenor Kang Wang), or a contest of minds in the Zen tale of a woodcutter (bass-baritone Shenyang) whose wisdom awes the Master Monk. Yet from such simple elements and easily recognizable music gestures, Tan has constructed a monumental and richly complex work.

His instrumental resources blend the Western orchestra with an expanded percussion section including Tan’s hallmark “organic” sound sources from water and wood. In one scene, the fantan pipa virtuosa and dancer Chen Yining enchanted by setting the scene for a magnificent palace. 

Tan crafted his own libretto from original sources (a few bits in Sanskrit, the majority in Mandarin), and the LA Master Chorale as well as LA Children’s Chorus were also called on to incorporate Chinese techniques, including extensive glissandi.

Paradise seems never to be as conducive as the stumbling blocks to get there when it comes to inspiring art, and at moments I worried that Tan’s mellifluous, long-limbed melodies would become too syrupy. But context is everything here, and I found the sincerity of these gestures to be enhanced by the enormous variety of stimuli—not only musical—with which Buddha Passion teems, so that these moments served an emotional purpose similar to the directness of the narratives. 

The most powerful foil to potential sentimentality came in the indelible fifth act (“Heart Sutra”), which recounts the tragic meeting between a minstrel monk and Nina, a woman from the West who dies in his arms. With contributions by two indigenous artists taking center stage here—the Mongolian throat singer and Batubagen, also playing erhu, and the singer-actress Tan Weiwei—the intensity of this section made it stand apart as an opera-within-the-passion. Yet it was also brilliantly integrated into the narrative flow Tan had established. 

This passage also underscored the success of another facet of the composer’s fusion in this work: the ability to weave ancient, folk-based music and traditions into his unique language. Elsewhere in Buddha Passion we heard dense harmonic clusters radiating an Ivesian aura while, punctuating the finales of both parts (acts three and six), vibrant, tumultuous dithyrambs of rhythmic energy. This Buddha, when awakened, is not one to go gently into that good night. 

Filed under: review, Seattle Symphony, Tan Dun

An Electrified Concerto Zaps Violin Tradition With Cosmic Fantasy

Pekka Kuusisto was the soloist in Enrico Chapela’s ‘Antiphaser,’ a concerto for electric violin and orchestra, with the Seattle Symphony under Andrew Litton. (Photos by Brandon Patoc)

My review of Enrico Chapela’s new violin concerto, Antiphaser, which Pekka Kuusisto premiered on Thursday with the Seattle Symphony under guest conductor Andrew Litton:

It’s been nearly a year since Thomas Dausgaard’s abrupt departure as the Seattle Symphony’s music director, but the projects initiated under his tenure and delayed by the pandemic continue to make their way to the Benaroya Hall stage. The latest of these is Antiphaser, a concerto for electric violin and orchestra by the Mexican composer Enrico Chapela. Trading his 1709 “Scotta” Stradivari for an electronically amplified instrument, Pekka Kuusisto joined the orchestra to perform the world premiere under the baton of Andrew Litton on Nov. 3….


Filed under: commissions, review, Seattle Symphony, violinists

Tan Dun Comes to Seattle

Composer Tan Dun (Courtesy of Tan Dun)

My Seattle Times story on Tan Dun and his upcoming appearances next week with Seattle Symphony:

A transformative encounter in cave temples inspired Tan Dun, who will conduct his epic Buddha Passion as part of a Seattle Symphony mini-festival of his works Nov. 3-13.


Filed under: Seattle Symphony, Seattle Times, Tan Dun

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