MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Mahler’s Fifth by Way of Ligeti in Seattle

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Seattle Symphony and Seattle Symphony Chorale; (c) Brandon Patoc

The road leading to the fusillade of bright, brisk chords at the end of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony – which concluded Seattle Symphony’s current season – was unusually long and winding. And dark …
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Filed under: Ligeti, Ludovic Morlot, Mahler, review, Seattle Symphony

Ligeti-Mahler Program for Seattle Symphony’s Closing Concert

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I spoke to Ludovic Morlot about his remarkable programming of Ligeti’s Requiem with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony to close Seattle Symphony’s season:

Saying a proper goodbye is an art. Ludovic Morlot plans to conclude his current Seattle Symphony season with a lot more than a bang…

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Filed under: Ligeti, Ludovic Morlot, Mahler, programming, Seattle Symphony

Thomas Dausgaard and Seattle Symphony Climb Strauss’ Magic Mountain

“I am the last mountain of a large mountain range,” declared Richard Strauss towards the end of his life. Thursday night’s Seattle Symphony program, led by Principal Guest Conductor Thomas Dausgaard, combined the metaphorical mountain-climbing the composer depicted in Eine Alpensinfonie with the Four Last Songs.

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Filed under: review, Richard Strauss, Seattle Symphony, Thomas Dausgaard

Ludovic Morlot To Make Berlin Philharmonic Debut

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Opera star Joyce DiDonato is shown with Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony last September. Morlot and DiDonato will appear together in Berlin later this week. (Carlin Ma)

The Seattle Symphony’s music director has been asked to replace an ailing colleague as guest conductor of this week’s concerts with Berlin Philharmonic — one of the world’s most prestigious orchestras.

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Filed under: Ludovic Morlot, music news, Seattle Symphony, Seattle Times

A Mind-Expanding Evening with Seattle Symphony

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Carl Nielsen (1865-1931); photo from 1908

Last night was the first of two programs being led this month by Thomas Dausgaard, Seattle Symphony’s principal guest conductor. If you want to experience how Carl Nielsen’s symphonic music can deliver some of the most lofty moments in the concert hall, Dausgaard is the one to be your guide.

The symphonic music of Nielsen, the conductor’s fellow Dane, still awaits the level of recognition by the public at large that would be anywhere near commensurate with its quality. Dausgaard’s commanding interpretation last night made it clear that he regards this music on a par with the symphonies of Nielsen’s symphonist contemporaries, Sibelius and Mahler (whose Tenth Symphony Dausgaard has recorded with the SSO).

Last season Dausgaard led the SSO in Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony (“The Inextinguishable”). Unfortunately I had to miss that performance though I later heard lots of good buzz about it. One result is that it was decided at the last minute while planning the current season to make room for the Third Symphony from 1910-11.

I can see why. This is one of those remarkable collaborations between conductor and orchestra that simply works, for whatever reasons of chemistry and collective inspiration. It’s similar to how music director Ludovic Morlot has managed to turn the SSO into one of today’s premier exponents of Dutilleux.

Even without a history of being steeped in this music — of  performing it over a long period (on the part of the players, that is) — the Nielsen sounded vital and necessary. The Third abounds in interpretive enigmas. Take, for instance, the title, Sinfonia espansiva, even though it’s not a particularly epic work. There’s also the issue of Nielsen’s scoring, which adds a solo soprano and baritone to the soundscape, but only for a portion of one movement (and without words — they’re just used as a timbral addition, though in context it seems they are symbolic, too).

Nielsen resorts to a conventional four-movement plan, but his originality permeates the Third. The powerful unison chords on A that launch the piece make for one of the most striking starts of any symphony — the Eroica‘s industrial revolution factories turned into something cosmic. (The opening of John Adams’s Harmonielehre also comes to mind.)

Nielsen goes on to stage the fundamental symphonic idea of conflict in an extraordinary way. It’s as if the two main impulses of the work — the primal urgency of the opening and an elated, out-of-doors exuberance of being lost in nature (one possible signification of the expansiveness intended) — are unfolding on separate tracks, within and across its movements.

Yet, in Dausgaard’s reading, they made sense as complementary, ultimately striving towards a synthesis. This is music the conductor has obviously internalized. Dausgaard conducted without score or stand to impede his interactions with the SSO, and from those opening shocks, he seemed to command an overview of the entire trajectory of the piece, through all its details.

Here was another sense of expansion: simple seeds that can sprout into something majestic. But Nielsen’s originality is to suggest that through ellipsis … He doesn’t need a gigantic movement, in which we see every frame, to get the point across.

The Andante pastorale was especially beguiling, almost implying a creation-of-the-world scenario that was far more than bucolic daytripping. The entrance of the male and female human voices (John Taylor Ward and Estelí Gomez, literally singing from on high in the organ loft) became the Nielsenesque equivalent of the evolution Mahler scopes out in his massive Third, but telescoped into a frame that seemed almost casual. The Rheingoldish E-flat major of the Andante‘s gentle ending was a moment to savor — such beautiful work from Jeffrey Baker on flute and Jeff Fair leading the dulcet horns.

Dausgaard elicited many other examples of superb solo work but also shaped the score’s contrapuntal richness in full dimension, allowing for light and shade and clarifying lines in the mid- and background as well.  The almost manic dynamism of Nielsen’s climaxes emerged in doses of controlled ecstasy. Sinfonia espansiva turned out to be an epic in compact form.

Patrons were invited to stay on after Thursday’s concert to continue exploring Nielsen: a special dessert (Thursday only) offered the String Quartet No. 4 in F major, performed with fervor by violinist Stephen Bryant and violist Timothy Hale (both SSO players) and UW music students Erin Kelly (violin) and  Chris Young (cello).

The concert’s first half featured a U.S. premiere: Snow, the second number in a pair of compositions by Helen Grime inspired by the artist Joan Eardley (1921-63). (The first is Catterline in Winter.) Dausgaard, who also serves as chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, joined with the BBC to commission these as part of a series called Scottish Inspirations. Snow was premiered at the 2016 Proms.

Helen Grime, who was born in 1981 and grew up in Scotland, spoke in an interview with the SSO’s Andrew Stiefel of what attracted her to Eardley’s paintings: “There’s a real bleakness that I think Eardley brings across beautifully in her paintings. You immediately get a strong feeling of the landscape, of the place, and of being there.”

(c) DACS/Anne Morrison; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Snow, Joan Eardley, c. 1958

Lasting about 9 minutes, Snow is an accomplished mini-tone poem of considerable imagination. “I wasn’t trying to re-create [the Eardley paintings] as musical pictures,” Grime remarks. “I wanted it to be like you were imagining the same scene in different ways.”

Grime showed herself to be a highly skilled orchestrator, but instead of using her large orchestral apparatus merely to create an atmospheric haze, Snow conveys a distinct impression of “moving on” to a different place by the end — what we’ve heard, the sounds that have happened, matter.

Also on the first half was a welcome return visit by Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto for Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. Kuusisto made quite an impression with the Sibelius Concerto when Dausgaard invited him as part of his three-part Sibelius cycle in spring 2015.

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a moment of interaction between violin soloist Pekka Kuusisto and Thomas Dausgaard; photo (c) Brandon Patoc

From that memory, I expected Kuusisto to take a notably original approach to such a familiar score, and he did not disappoint.  He played up the contrast between where Mendelssohn famously starts out (with the soloist joining in almost at once) and where he takes us by the end. In this, Dausgaard was completely on the same page. It was fascinating to witness the active interactions and gestures between the two. The first movement had an added note of defiance to its pathos, while in the sparkling finale Kuusisto became a trickster, teasing and inciting the orchestra.

As with the Nielsen, here was an enigma: there’s something self-effacing about Kuusisto, yet he radiates a strong personality. He was at his finest in the middle Andante, phrased with the direct, unaffected emotions of the most serene folk song. And in an encore, Kuusisto showed another side of traditional folk music-making, with a slyly humorous performance of an example from his native Finland.

If you go: the program repeats Friday and Saturday (June 9 and 10); next week Dausgaard leads the SSO in an all-Strauss program (Four Last Songs and An Alpine Symphony), on June 15 and 17. Tickets at the links provided or call  206.215.4747.

(c) 2017 Thomas May. All rights reserved. 

Filed under: new music, review, Seattle Symphony

Ravishing Ravel from Seattle Symphony

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Michèle Losier as the Boy, with Delphine Haidan as the Dragonfly and Alexandre Sylvestre as the Tree; image (c) Brandon Patoc

I was able to catch the final performance (Saturday night) of this week’s Seattle Symphony program led by Ludovic Morlot: a fascinating semi-staged presentation of Maurice Ravel’s one-act opera L’enfant et les sortilèges, combined with a Mozart piano concerto and a bit of orchestral Bizet as appetizer.

The program would have sated most appetites perfectly with the second half alone, the Ravel, so it was a special added delight to have Mozart’s K. 271 Piano Concerto on the bill (the so-called — inaccurately — “Jeunehomme” Concerto).*

“Mozart is absolute beauty, perfect purity,” Ravel believed — in so doing, of course, describing his own aesthetic of perfectionism.  I’m always reminded of the Mozart-Ravel connection whenever I hear Jean-Yves Thibaudet perform the latter’s Concerto in G (as he has done more than once with Morlot).

I can’t say that was the case with the soloist in K. 271, Jan Lisiecki. The 22-year-old Canadian pianist, acclaimed especially for his Chopin, arrived on the scene as a prodigy and already commands an impressive resume of partnering with world-class conductors and ensembles. His performance of the Mozart exhibited some very sensitive playing, but to this taste, overall, left little of a lasting impression.

Well-executed passagework and spirited moments abounded, but I missed a strong point of view about what it can all add up to, as well as the — well, Ravel-like — iridescence that Mozart can evoke with even the simplest of phrases. 

But there was nothing lackluster in the account from Morlot and the SSO. Again and again, I marveled at being reminded of just what an astonishingly original score this pre-Vienna concerto is, composed at such an early stage — particularly the epic flair of the first movement and the window-framed dance interlude plopped right into the middle of a bustling finale.

The unusual choice of the minor key for the slow movement was underscored by the stirring pathos of this reading. Here Mozart is already transforming the keyboard concerto into substitute opera, which made the choice of K. 271 all the more appropriate for the Ravel.

Morlot  intoned the theme of childhood at the start with George Bizet’s Petite Suite from 1871  — a sequence of five numbers the composer orchestrated from a set of 12 miniatures originally written for piano duet (known as Jeux d’enfants and later choreographed by Balanchine). The SSO played with considerable polish, zest, and charm.

Ravel Opera

image (c) Brando Patoc

The semi-staged performance of L’enfant et les sortilèges in the second half of the program has to be accounted one of the season’s highlights. Ravel felt a deep kinship with children and with what he called “the poetry of childhood,” consciously tapping into his own memories of the fantasies of childhood for inspiration.

In fact, I’d say this sensitivity, when combined with his watchmaker-like precision and perfectionism, is among Ravel’s most fascinating aspects. 

Like the Bizet suite, his beloved Ma mère l’Oye (Tales of Mother Goose) actually began as a composition for piano duet (intended for the children of a couple that had befriended Ravel). 

L’enfant et les sortilèges — usually translated “The Child and the Spells” — is the second of the two operas Ravel managed to complete, each consisting of only one act. The first, the rarer L’heure espagnole, premiered in 1911; L’enfant, more prolonged in gestation, was conceived during the First World War and composed several years after. The initial idea was for a ballet, which eventually became a “fantaisie lyrique” in two parts — a fantasy opera, which was premiered in 1925 in Monte Carlo (with the young Balanchine providing choreography).

Both Ravel and his librettist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette — the eminent French novelist known simply as Colette — were both deeply affected by their involvement in the war effort and by the loss of loved ones. This sensibility even seeps into the texture of L’enfant, on the surface such a disarmingly innocent and playful evocation of a child’s unbridled imagination.

The story recounts the “education” of a temperamental young boy (a trousers role, sung by mezzo). After being scolded by his mother, he experiences the aftermath of his temper tantrum: the objects of his rage come to life and confront the boy with the results of his behavior.

Morlot and the SSO enlisted a fantastic creative team for their first-ever presentation of an opera together on the Benaroya stage: director and production designer Anne Patterson, projection designer Adam Larsen, and costume designer Zane Philstrom.

Patterson, whose bio points out that she has synesthesia, conjured an appealingly surreal visual environment — sort of a cross between Lewis Carroll and Sendak in feeling, though with entirely original iconography. Her team conveyed the sense of wonder in Ravel’s music, thankfully steering free of unwanted cuteness or sentimentality, which have no place in this score.

The singers positioned mostly far downstage (though at times elsewhere in the hall), sometimes even occupying a corner of Morlot’s podium. Even within that confined space, with the cast acting in front of both the orchestra and several layers of dangling ribbons that formed a permeable, dreamlike screen, the story was engaging.

Ravel Opera

image (c) Brandon Patoc

Larsen’s beautifully changing light scheme and his projections of the animated objects as transient emanations offered a spellbinding counterpoint to Ravel’s exquisite score.

Philstrom’s large white head sculptures, worn by the objects that come to life, served as emblems to distinguish the very large cast of characters triggered by the boy’s theatrical imagination.

Morlot gathered a distinguished cast that would be just as home with this material in a full-scale opera house production. Especially outstanding were Michèle Losier as the Child, after her initial rampage passing through an enormous spectrum of emotions within the opera’s compact duration, and soprano Rachele Gilmore in the delirious coloratura roles of the Hearth Fire, the storybook Princess, and the Nightingale.

With her rich mezzo, Delphine Haidan morphed from the stern Mother to a broken china teacup (was some of the libretto’s “pidgin”  — offensive to today’s sensibilities — expurgated?) and, finally, a plaintive captured dragonfly.

Colette’s large cast calls for an armchair, a grandfather clock, a shepherd and shepherdess from the wallpaper pattern the feisty boy has ripped up, assorted animals and garden creatures, even the numbers from a math lesson come to life in a kind of Pythagorean nightmare … and much more.

Portraying multiple roles, the rest of the cast was uniformly strong, including sopranos Rachele Gilmore and Soraya Mafi, mezzo Allyson McHardy,  Jean-Paul Fouchecourt (a star of French Baroque opera, hilarious in his turns as the torn math book and the tree frog), baritone Alexandre Duhamel, and bass-baritone Alexandre Sylvestre.

On top of all this, the Seattle Symphony Chorale and Northwest Boychoir (both prepared by Joseph Crnko) were part of the cast as well, at times contributing a subtle wall of sound (with the Chorale positioned upstage behind the orchestra).

It was quite an ambitious array of forces for such a short work, yet not a moment felt superfluous. Morlot had his players basking in Ravel’s delectable score — one of those miracles of remarkably far-ranging stylistic references that transcends being merely “eclectic.”

There were far too many moments of superb musicianship to recount them all in detail — such as Demarre McGill’s (in a welcome guest return) flute solos to the storybook Princess’s lament of what could-have-been (Rachele Gilmore).

Best of all was the loveliness of the garden scene that takes over in the second part. This luminous and stirring music transports L’enfant onto an altogether different plane of magic and perception — childlike innocence as recaptured by the knowing adult’s memory.  And it was utterly stunning on Saturday night.

A downside to this adventure: just a little over a month since Morlot announced his plans to leave the SSO in 2019, the sense of joint accomplishment feels bittersweet, as it must with the knowledge that the clock is ticking away.

____________________________________________________________________________________________* I do wish the music biz would acknowledge the important work of scholars and get rid of the annoying faux-name “Jeunehomme” — and, along with it, the false history that is continually reiterated in program notes.

I’m referring here to the research of musicologist Michael Lorenz, who has brought to light the fascinating figure of this very specific female pianist –Victoire Jenamy (1749-1812) — for whom Mozart wrote this concerto.

The perpetuation of the musty old nonsense about poor “Mademoiselle Jeunehomme” being lost to history is the sort of thing that makes “classical music” appear so sadly out of step with the living, breathing reality. We still have plenty to learn about Mozart — all that is to be known has not been already revealed!

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

Filed under: Ludovic Morlot, Maurice Ravel, Mozart, review, Seattle Symphony

Seattle Symphony’s [untitled] 3: Wow!

Friday night brought the season finale of Seattle Symphony’s innovative — and always fun — late night [untitled] series. As usual, the affair offered a program of adventurous and far-ranging chamber music, here linked by the personalities of two powerfully individual artists who feel familiar yet who remain mysteriously unfathomable.

“I am deeply superficial,” goes one of the bon mots — or Warholian koans —  in Andy Warhol Sez, a collection of seven brief pieces for bassoon and piano by American composer Paul Moravec. Each is prefaced by the bassoonist reciting a quotation from Warhol, followed by bassoon-keyboard duets that either further ironize or contradict the statement — or perhaps have nothing to do with it at all.

Moravec wrote AW Sez for David Sogg, a bassoonist with the Pittsburgh Symphony, in Warhol’s native city, but it seemed tailor-made for SSO principal Seth Krimsky. His drily sardonic recitations gave way to spirited playing that conjured multiple personalities.

Cristina Valdés, who supplied theatrically appealing counterpoint from the keyboard, returned for the second work, Tinkling or killing time in an airport lounge (and being arrested) by Yannis Kyriakides, a composer now based in the Netherlands.  The inspiration here was a scene from the documentary Thelonius Monk: Straight, No Chaser, in which the jazz legend was found wandering around Logan Airport and taken by the police to the state hospital and released after a week of observation.

Elena Dubinets, SSO’s Vice President of Artistic Planning, explained that Kyriakides created a virtual mini-piano concerto, giving a demanding and prominent role to the pianist, who frames the piece, which is based on Monk’s song Trinkle Tinkle.  Valdés conveyed the hypnotic fascination of the writing flawlessly,  which certainly mirrors the composer’s description of the airport scene: “Monk [was] seen spinning around like a whirling dervish in an airport space.”] SSO Associate Conductor Pablo Rus Broseta, leading the chamber ensemble, allowed space for the most eccentric gestures to register without sacrificing rhythmic precision.

The rest of the program was filled out by a winning and generous “sample” of a larger work: Andy: A Popera, courtesy of the Philadelphia-based collective The Bearded Ladies Cabaret. This is not a “bio-opera” but a fanciful, whimsical, at times unexpectedly incisive music theater hybrid that loosely riffs on images of an artist who was all about riffing on images.

The score itself is characteristically unclassifiable, a seamless mingling of contributions by company member Heath Allen and Dan Visconti, to a libretto and direction by the insanely talented John Jarboe (Bearded Ladies’ artistic director).

Gender is merely one category that becomes dizzyingly fluid in this show, which resurrects the artist’s mother, Julia Warhol (Malgorzata Kasprzycka) and presents the Birth of a Legend as Andrei (Mary Tuomanen) emerges from a sealed cardboard box, wielding a little camera and pinpointing members of the audience at random for their (diluted) 15 seconds of fame.

As Candy Darling, Warhol’s meta-tragic Superstar, Scott McPheeters commanded attention across the multi-level set, dying a Dido-ish death and glorying in Rebecca Kanach’s flowing, billowing costumes.

The five-member chorus was first rate, backed by a mostly rock/pop-style band that also featured SSO violinist Mikhail Shmidt on viola. The confluence of pop and classical trained voices never jarred but sounded utterly convincing — a tool to ratchet up emotions just when needed.

The whole experience was so lively and enjoyable, it seemed to end too quickly. “An artist is somebody who produces things that people don’t need to have,” according to Andy Warhol. But, as he knew, who can also make people have the need.

(c)2017 Thomas May – All rights reserved

Filed under: Andy Warhol, new music, review, Seattle Symphony

Morlot To Step Down in 2019

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Photo credit: Brandon Patoc

Seattle Symphony’s press office released a statement on Friday afternoon announcing Music Director Ludovic Morlot’s decision to leave that position at the end of the 2018-19 season, after eight seasons with the orchestra.

Maestro Morlot gave the following statement:

I will be forever grateful and proud to have been given the opportunity to help write a chapter in the history of the Seattle Symphony. And what a beautiful chapter it is; thrilling performances played to full houses, the appointment of so many outstanding musicians, three Grammys, a strong list of commissions and premieres, a memorable concert at Carnegie Hall, an upcoming residency at Berkeley, and so much more. I am also extremely appreciative of the commitment that the community as a whole has offered to me at the artistic helm of this extraordinary organization. The decision to step down as Music Director when my contract comes to an end in 2019 is not one I have taken lightly. We are in the midst of a wonderful, stimulating and exciting artistic journey and I look forward to continuing this in the next two seasons. However, I feel that by 2019 the time will be right for me to explore new musical opportunities and for the Symphony to have the inspiration of new artistic leadership.

The news comes as something of a shock and is especially disconcerting to Seattle music lovers, since Morlot’s presence has done nothing less than transform the city’s music scene. His work with the SSO is a model for how to make the institution of an orchestra relevant in contemporary life while maintaining the highest musical standards.

Everyone has kept tight-lipped about whatever new project Morlot has on the horizon. In the meantime, local audiences will be savoring his every moment at the podium more than ever.

What are your favorite moments to date from Morlot’s tenure with the SSO?

The complete SSO press release is here.

Filed under: Ludovic Morlot, music news, Seattle Symphony

“More Light! More Light!” Morlot and the Seattle Symphony Tackle Beethoven’s Fifth

It would be interesting to know how many audience members comprising the very full house for this performance were hearing their first-ever live Beethoven Fifth. Even for aficionados, the encounter was unusual. Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony created a boldly original framework in which to present the Fifth Symphony, their account of which also marked the conclusion to a two-year cycle of the complete symphonies and piano concertos.

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Filed under: Bartók, Beethoven, review, Seattle Symphony

Chasing Victory with Beethoven’s Fifth at Seattle Symphony

My Seattle Times preview of this week’s Seattle Symphony program:

Three shorts and a long.

It’s the musical equivalent of E =mc 2 : on the surface, a deceptively simple formula that yields previously unimaginable results — including many Ludwig van Beethoven himself couldn’t have possibly foreseen. In World War II, the Allies equated the Fifth Symphony’s famous motto with the dot-dot-dot-dash denoting “V” in Morse code. The BBC regularly included this “V for Victory” message of hope in broadcasts to Nazi-occupied Europe.

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Filed under: Beethoven, Ludovic Morlot, Seattle Symphony, Seattle Times

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