MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Breaths of Fresh Air: The Seattle Symphony Premieres Olga Neuwirth

Last night’s concert was the first chance I’ve had to experience Thomas Dausgaard in action with the Seattle Symphony since his inaugural season as music director began. Even with just a fraction of the players onstage for the entire first half (and a modest-sized orchestra for the second), this was music-making on a very high level. There was no fall-back on routine — which might easily have been the case, in view of the presence of two ultra-familiar works anchoring the program: the fourth of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and Mozart’s final Symphony, the so-called (though not by the composer) “Jupiter.”

What gave the programming an edge was the inclusion, side-by-side with the Bach, of a new work by the Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth titled Aello – ballet mécanomorphe. Dausgaard led its world premiere in Stockholm last year, with flutist Claire Chase as the soloist and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra (which he helmed until starting his SSO tenure this fall). Neuwirth was one of six contemporary composers commissioned by Dausgaard and the SCO to write new response works that somehow react to the Brandenburg Concertos. (For the record, the others include Uri Caine, Brett Dean, Anders Hillborg, Steven Mackey, and Mark Anthony Turnage — the whole project was presented at the 2018 BBC Proms [see video above].)

The Seattle Symphony had the honor of giving Aello‘s U.S. premiere — and, it is to be hoped, will continue pursuing the music of this boldly imaginative, singular, uncompromising composer. Neuwirth is at last gaining long-overdue recognition. She was a key presence at the recent Musikfest Berlin
(where I had a chance to hear Susanne Mälkki conduct the young Karajan Akademie musicians in Aello, with Berlin Philharmonic principal Emmanuel Pahud as the soloist).

Neuwirth’s commission was to write a companion piece to be paired with the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G major (BWV 1049), using essentially the same chamber ensemble. Except she replaces Bach’s soloist trio of violin and two flutes (or flute-like instruments) with a solo flute as protagonist. Her counterparts are a pair of trumpets (one piccolo) that play with various mutes — taking on the role of the Bach flutes. (The doubleness of the latter come back as well in the flute soloist’s alternation between her “normal” instrument and a bass flute for the final movement.)

As “continuo,” Neuwirth substitutes a multiple-personality “harpsichord” comprising a synthesizer and a percussionist (Michael Werner) who plays a mechanical typewriter (the score specifies an “Oilivetti Lettera 22” model, which is amplified), a triangle made to resound with an automatic milk foamer, and a water-filled glass pitched to a high E. And even the string ensemble is “de-natured” by the complex multiple tuning system Neuwirth establishes for the whole ensemble (including the solists), with four layers of different pitchings.

Claire Chase, the score’s dedicatee, is a widely acclaimed musical adventurer who has built her solo career around expanding the potential for her instrument. Neuwirth avails herself not only of Chase’s extraordinary musicianship but of her stage charisma as well. The flutist’s performance last night cast a spell with her commanding gusts and mysterious whisperings, egging on the motley trumpet sounds and breaking free from the ensemble’s attempts at hegemony.

As she nimbly — indeed, balletically — turned and twisted, Chase’s compelling stage presence seemed to conjure an oracle, at times blissful, at others demonic in its aura. Aello actually refers to an ancient Greek harpy, but Neuwirth subverts the sexist image by making her mythical being into “someone sent by the gods to restore peace, if necessary with force, and to exact punishment for crimes.”

Similarly, the “macho” personae of Baroque trumpets is tamed and, as it were, Dada-fied through the mutes and the resultant kaleidoscope of colors (Neuwirth herself studied trumpet). The legacy of Dada — its absurdist play with machines and “stuff,” with the mechanical aspects of modernity — is another important influence on Neuwirth’s aesthetic.

There were some muffled gasps and giggles from the audience, reacting to the absurdist humor of the piece — yet Aello is by no means a simple “parody” of the Bach companion (neither in the usual sense of the word nor even the Baroque sense).

Neuwirth follows Bach’s three-movement design and quotes snippets of his motifs and melodies, but these appear more as vanishing recollections of a musical world that no longer makes sense. Along with the playfulness, there are moments of mesmerizing mystery — above all in the slow middle movement, which approaches the ethereal — and even of terror. Neuwirth’s sense of pacing is superb — no wonder she has a flair for the stage and for film scoring. She dramatizes a remarkable attempted coup by the ensemble in the final moments that is thwarted, once again, by the flute-goddess’s knowing breath.

Dausgaard led a (mostly) standing ensemble in the Fourth Brandenburg itself to start the program and set the stage for Aello. Claire Chase joined principal flutist Demarre McGill and concertmaster Noah Geller to form the solo group. All of them listened intently to their fellow musicians and responded with in-the-moment honesty. Dazzlingly stylish and refined, Geller gave the insanely difficult violin cadenzas the elan of breakout jazz solos. I especially relished the mingled “mega-flute” colorations McGill and Chase created as their lines bobbed and wove together.

The Mozart sounded … BIG in comparison to the chamber delicacy of the first half (Baroque and Dadaish alike). I would have preferred a slightly less beefed-up string section. Dausgaard mostly succeeded in keeping balances beautifully weighted, but Mozart’s wind writing was at moments a tad lacking in presence because of the wall of string sound.

Still, the Danish maestro enjoys an inspiring rapport with the SSO, and everyone was on high alert to deliver. He even pulled a few Arthur Nikisch moments, in which he conducted using nothing but his eyebrows. Dausgaard approached the “Jupiter” as a proto-Beethovenian epic, exploiting explosive accents (with dynamic contributions from James Benoit on timpani) and delineating a sense of musical travel, above all in the outer movements.

He obviously possesses a fantastic ear, and the ability to coax microsecond readjustments, so that rich, unexpected colors emerged — most wondrously, in the veiled murkiness he elicited from the slow movement’s harmonic clouds. Mozart’s pauses became a powerful theatrical device through which he drew intriguing connections between the first two movements, the one Apollonian in majesty, its cantabile counterpart an Orphic reverie.

Mozart famously performs his own retoolings of Bach (and Handel) in many of his late period works: the “Jupiter” finale is glorious exemplary. Dausgaard kept the architecture cleanly in view without dampening the visceral excitement.

The program will be repeated on Saturday 12 October at 8pm. And Claire Chase performs in recital tonight at 7.30pm at Octave 9.

Review (c)2019 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Olga Neuwirth, review, Seattle Symphony, Thomas Dausgaard

Thomas Dausgaard Starts the Seattle Symphony Season

Tonight in Seattle, new Music Director Thomas Dausgaard begins his tenure with an opening night program of Carl Nielsen, Richard Strauss, and Sergei Rachmaninoff, with Daniil Trifonov as the soloist in the Russian composer’s Fourth Piano Concerto. I’m not able to be there for the opening but look forward to reporting on Dausgaard’s work with the orchestra later in the fall.

Meanwhile, you can listen to the conductor’s rapport with Strauss on the new SSO release, which includes an account of the Alpine Symphony from performances in June 2017 (which I reviewed here), as well as the prelude to the opera Antichrist by fellow Dane Rued Langgaard.

Filed under: Seattle Symphony, Thomas Dausgaard

Gramophone 2019: A Letter from Seattle

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Here’s a little contribution from me to this month’s Gramophone magazine:

Across the United States, the pressure is on to redefine longstanding classical music institutions that otherwise face potential extinction….

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Filed under: Gramophone, music news, Seattle Opera, Seattle Symphony

John Luther Adams: Become Desert

Become Desert by John Luther Adams — one of his most spellbinding and innovative compositions — has just been released. Here’s my review from the world premiere by Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot last year.

It’s a rare concert when a major work of Beethoven gets upstaged. Rarer still when the music responsible for the upstaging is brand new…

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Filed under: John Luther Adams, Ludovic Morlot, Seattle Symphony

Ludovic Morlot Takes Leave of the Seattle Symphony (For Now)

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Ludovic Morlot at his farewell Seattle Symphony concert; photo (c) Brandon Patoc

A look at Ludovic Morlot’s Seattle Symphony legacy:

SEATTLE — With the elegiac strains of the Mondscheinmusik interlude from Richard Strauss’s Capriccio as an encore, Ludovic Morlot brought his final program as music director of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra to an end over the weekend. Stepping back to let the spotlight fall on principal horn Jeffrey Fair during his incandescent solo was a characteristically generous touch. It reminded me of the moment at the end of his opening night concert in 2011, when Morlot descended the podium to join the violin section during Boléro — music making as a shared undertaking among equals.

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Filed under: Ludovic Morlot, review, Seattle Symphony

Ludo’s Farewell Concert

Strauss & Dvorak ConductingIt’s already here: this weekend Ludovic Morlot is leading his final performances as music director of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. The program is characteristically enticing and original: Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde followed by a suite from Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (fashioned in 1983 by Marius Constant) and the Nocturnes, and a genuine rarity: Leoš Janáček’s cantata The Eternal Gospel, written on the eve of the First World War.

I’ll be putting together some thoughts on the significance of the Morlot era in Seattle soon. In the meantime, it will be a bittersweet occasion tonight, but with the consoling thought that Ludo should be back here with some frequency thanks to his new title as Conductor Emeritus.

Filed under: Ludovic Morlot, Seattle Symphony

Ludovic Morlot Named Seattle Symphony Conductor Emeritus

This announcement just in from Seattle Symphony:

Seattle Symphony Board Chair René Ancinas and President & CEO Krishna Thiagarajan announced today that Ludovic Morlot, the Seattle Symphony’s Harriet Overton Stimson Music Director, has been named to a new position, the Judith Fong Conductor Emeritus, in recognition of his exceptional role in the transformation of the Seattle Symphony over the past eight years. Morlot steps down as Music Director at the end of the current season, becoming Conductor Emeritus this fall. He will be succeeded by Music Director Designate Thomas Dausgaard, who has served as the Seattle Symphony’s Principal Guest Conductor since 2014.

The lifetime title of Conductor Emeritus is being bestowed on Morlot in recognition of his past accomplishments and his future relationship with the orchestra. Morlot will return for regular guest conducting engagements and will have the opportunity to continue working with the orchestra on future recordings, tours and residencies when the Music Director is not available. As Conductor Emeritus, Morlot will continue his fruitful relationship with the Seattle Symphony, which has resulted in an expanded orchestra, nearly 60 commissions and premieres, 19 recordings on the Seattle Symphony Media label, five Grammy Awards, and Gramophone’s Orchestra of the Year Award.

Filed under: Ludovic Morlot, music news, Seattle Symphony

Jonathon Heyward’s Outstanding Seattle Symphony Debut

By the end of last night’s concert with Jonathon Heyward guest conducting the Seattle Symphony, I couldn’t help thinking of John Lennon’s wry understatement after a famous rooftop performance: “I hope we passed the audition!”

Could this really have only been Jonathon Heyward’s first engagement leading the Seattle band? The chemistry between them produced such subtle and winning results that it defies belief they haven’t been regular collaborators for years.

Even more, Heyward demonstrated a level of confidence and musical intelligence that belied his youth. The 26-year-old, who comes from Charleston, South Carolina, studied cello before turning to conducting in his teens and is currently finishing up a three-year residency as assistant conductor of The Hallé in Manchester. He was recently named Chief Conductor of Germany’s Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie, where his tenure will begin in 2021. But word has already gotten out — no wonder this amazing talent is so highly sought after.

The program drew on multiple facets of Heyward’s strengths. He opened with a gripping introduction to the music of Hannah Kendall — another name you’ll want to remember, as she is deservedly gaining international recognition.** This marked the U.S. premiere of The Spark Catchers, a 10-minute piece that was first heard on a BBC Proms concert in 2017.

Born in London to first-generation immigrants from Guyana, Kendall has been making a name with some intriguing collaborative projects, such as her chamber opera The Knife of Dawn (2016), which pays homage to the real-life story of the Guyanese poet and political activist Martin Carter, received much acclaim.

Her sensitivity to poetic texts and dramatic flair are likewise evident in the purely orchestral The Spark Catchers, Kendall’s response to the poem of the same title by the British writer Lemn Sissay. The poem pays tribute to the women and adolescent girl workers who went on strike in 1888 to protest inhumane working conditions in a matchmaking factory in London’s East End.

Kendall’s score is wrought with great skill, making effective use of suspenseful pauses. Sections of menacingly coiled rhythms erupt with volatile energy, framing a central oasis that seems to float free, cheating time. Where many young composers are content to merely establish a vague atmosphere through evocative use of timbre, Kendall develops her ideas with rigor and imagination. Heyward intensified the score’s dramatic qualities and well-placed contrasts.

The young conductor took on a very different set of challenges with Haydn’s Symphony No. 98 in B-flat major — one of the set of 12 “London” symphonies, which Haydn introduced in 1792, near the end of the first of his two trips to the capital (just a few months after his friend Mozart’s death). Here, the orchestra shrank down to late classical size (I’m guessing Heyward positioned the strings according to the practice typically used with The Hallé, though I have not confirmed that.)

Heyward delighted the audience with his obvious sympathy for this composer’s humor but also for his impeccable logic. Ensemble passaged sparkled with wit and elan. Highlights were an especially affecting Adagio as well as the games of timing and syncopation in the brilliant finale.

The program’s second half shifted gears still again, with a downright thrilling, superbly shaped account of Gustav Holst’s The Planets. Here was still an entirely different conception of the orchestra — the players cramming the Benaroya stage to meet the gargantuan demands of Holst’s score. Yet across all of the evening’s varying styles, Heyward showed an instinctive feeling for how to clarify musical architecture, always keeping the big picture in view. He inspired the orchestra to create vivid, fully dimensional sound worlds for each of Holst’s portraits, gently acknowledging the full auditorium’s insistent applause between them.

At the same time, Heyward tirelessly shaped the sound, encouraging subtle refinements and using expressive gestures to blend and adjust the mix. He understood that Holst’s dazzling score isn’t just about the brassy climaxes — wonderfully prepared for here — but also homed in on its varieties of mystery and awe. The latter became genuinely unworldly in the final “Neptune” section, as the female voices of the Seattle Symphony Chorale seeped in unseen.

**On Monday night at 7.30pm, Hannah Kendall will be on hand with SSO musicians to present some of her chamber works at Octave 9.

–review (c) 2019 Thomas May

Filed under: conductors, Haydn, new music, review, Seattle Symphony

Heiner Goebbels Brings His Surrogate Cities to Seattle

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Seattle Symphony in Heiner Goebbels’s Surrogate Cities; photo by James Holt

Last night’s program was a landmark not just of this season but of the Ludovic Morlot era. By the end of the concert, which was devoted exclusively to Surrogate Cities by Heiner Goebbels, the thrilling sense of having just shared a one-time experience had palpably swept through the audience.

It was clear that this full-throttle performance by an expanded Seattle Symphony and guest artists Jocelyn B. Smith and David Moss had been an unprecedented evening at Benaroya — opening up new vistas about what a symphony concert can be and how much territory remains unexplored in the context of this revered medium.

The German composer Heiner Goebbels, an especially compelling personality among the postmodern avant-garde (and now 66), emerged in the 1970s as a socially engaged leftist with a radical understanding of the composer’s identity — and responsibility. His interest in the stage and film and in popular musical idioms is anchored in a fascination with the theatricality of musical performance — hence his close and fruitful association with such figures as the East German playwright Heiner Müller.

Goebbels’s efforts to blur stereotypical distinctions (between composing/performing, for example, or music and other arts, let alone between genres) became a signature well before defying such boundaries was a more widely adopted stance.

Surrogate Cities is a massive, immersive project that began in the 1990s as “an attempt to approach the phenomenon of the city from various sides, to tell stories of cities, expose oneself to them, observe them,” in the composer’s own words. Seattle Symphony’s presentation last night included the world premiere of a brand-new section the orchestra had commissioned: Under Construction, which occurs as the sixth of seven sections, the whole work now lasting close to an hour and a half.

Goebbels points out that Surrogate Cities “was inspired partly by texts, but also by drawings, structures, and sounds, the juxtaposition of orchestra and sampler playing a considerable role because of the latter’s ability to store sounds and noises ordinarily alien to orchestral sonorities.”
The work’s title comes from the novel Surrogate City published in 1990 by his contemporary, the Irish writer Hugo Hamilton, which provides the text used in the seventh, final section, “Surrogate.”

The pluralization here is characteristic: Goebbels’s manner is omnivorous (though in a sense different to Luciano Berio, whose musical rivers drifting with postmodern flotsam evoke another category of aesthetic response) — as with John Cage, everything is up for consideration as part of the total art work.

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Jocelyn B. Smith, vocalist, and Ludovic Morlot with Seattle Symphony; photo by James Holt

At the same time — and Morlot brought this out brilliantly — Goebbels shows a connection to some surprisingly traditional ideas about working out musical motifs and cells and establishing coherent architectures. It is in its arresting juxtapositions — of rigorous, “serious” orchestration with all-out aural assault from aggressively amplified samples, instrumentals and radically different kinds of vocals, symphonic logic and surreal sound images — that Surrogate Cities casts its spell, provoking unexpected thoughts about the repertoire and suggesting the overlooked musicality of daily life.

Goebbels also created the lighting design that in some ways functions like a second conductor. Over 150 cues call for lots of different moods: from luminous gold to mystical, intimate blue or the shadows of a dodgy nightclub, later followed by a kind of rock arena flamboyance. The composer has here discovered a new “art of transition,” the lighting assisting the transformations in character of his urban soundscapes.

The vast orchestra meanwhile became a veritable spectacle, swelling to fill the Benaroya stage, with five percussionists perched atop a raised platform upstage. Their “extra” instruments (balls swirling in a glass bowl, shaken sheets of foil) enhanced the character of Goebbels’s orchestration as inherently theatrical.

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Heiner Goebbels, David Moss, and Jocelyn B. Smith (l-r); photo by James Holt

Prominent roles for two vocalists are integral to this symphonic spectacle. Jocelyn B. Smith was a highlight during a movement of three songs (“The Horatian”) recounting a story from ancient Roman history, her mezzo in the tragic refrain about inevitable violence plummeting deep into the soul of each syllable.

David Moss, an unclassifiable vocalist and improvisational genius for whom Goebbels tailored parts of the work, was a trippingly tongued, one-man vocal orchestra, commanding an improbable spectrum of pitches and complex rythms (imagine Elliott Carter penning patter song).

A lengthy section that blends sampled sounds with the orchestra (including an especially moving use of Jewish chant preserved on “scratchy recordings from the 1920s and ’30s”) brought to mind more recent efforts, such as the electronica brand with which Mason Bates initially made his name — to the detriment of the latter, which seem distinctly pedestrian by comparison.

Goebbels can summon the energy of a rock band from his forces, but without “dumbing down” the orchestra: he makes room for subtle dynamic differentiation and fascinating timbral combinations of the live instruments and his palette of sampled industrial sounds. An especially exciting moment was the carefully built, superheated crescendo Morlot elicited in the final section, leading to Moss’s vocal outburst, “She’s been running…”

“The associations I have are with a realistic, certainly contradictory, but ultimately positive image of the modern city,” according to Goebbels. “My intention was not to produce a close-up but to try and read the city as a text and then to translate something of its mechanics and architecture into music…”

Filed under: Ludovic Morlot, review, Seattle Symphony

Demarre McGill Dazzles in Dalbavie Flute Concerto

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Demarre McGill, Ludovic Morlot, and Marc-André Dalbavie with Seattle Symphony

Seattle Symphony audiences are familiar with Demarre McGill’s magical flute artistry from countless solo moments he’s performed as the ensemble’s principal flute. But this week’s program puts him center stage for the Flute Concerto by Marc-André Dalbavie — and it was an unforgettable highlight of Thursday’s performance.

The French composer wrote his Flute Concerto in 2006 for the Berlin Philharmonic’s principal flutist, the Franco-Swiss Emmanuel Pahud, so you can readily imagine the caliber of playing required. Even at 17 minutes, relatively brief for a concerto, the piece keeps the soloist frenetically active for long stretches.

McGill negotiated its challenges with pure grace and eloquence, engaging in Dalbavie’s unusual dialectic with the orchestra. Rather than a sweet-tuned concerto of airy charms, the flute seems to be simultaneously urging on and trying to tame the orchestra’s ebullient spirits. McGill projected a complex protagonist, Orphic in the central slower section, sprightly as Puck girdling the earth in the rapidfire passages.

Ludovic Morlot led a vivid, gorgeously textured performance that was the theme of the entire generous program, mostly a French affair. He began with another of his specialities, Maurice Ravel’s Suite from Ma mère l’Oye. This time, I detected a radiant, but never forced, tone of elegiac wonder in Sleeping Beauty’s Pavane and the concluding scene of the Enchanted Garden. There was ebullience in the latter as well, underscoring a kinship with the parallel concluding moment in The Firebird. The SSO’s playing was at its most refined, full of silken caresses and subtly articulated rhythms.

The first half ended with the world premiere of Tropes de : Bussy, an ambitious symphonic work the SSO commissioned from Joël-François Durand, Associate Director of the UW School of Music. The title alone requires considerable unpacking and points to the layered associations and post-modern play of Durand’s score. Explains the French-born composer, who developed his concept of the piece while orchestrating some of the piano Préludes of Debussy: “As I kept re-working my arrangements, I gradually started to modify the original music, as if adding more and more interpretive filters with each attempt… Tropes de : Bussy is at first glance a pun on the French composer’s last name, but it also reflects the distance I took from the original texts, revealing and at the same time hiding most of the actual music.”

Durand chose five of the Book I Préludes (Les sons et les parfums, La danse de Puck, Le vent dans la plaine, Des pas sur la neige, and Minstrels. There was much to admire in the imaginative soundscapes he conjured from a large orchestra. If the piece seemed to overstay its welcome, stretching the game of hide-and-seek with the familiar Debussyan harmonies and ideas on at great length, it offered numerous enchanting moments (particularly the “slow” movement after Des pas sur la neige. With its deconstruction of rhythmic structures, the finale after Minstrels recalled something of Ravel’s strategy (though not his sound world) in La valse.

To conclude, Morlot led the one non-French work on this wonderful program. His account of Mozart’s later G minor Symphony, K. 550, glistened with the textural alertness that had been his focus in the French pieces. Taking the Andante at a brisk “walking” tempo worked especially well, and Morlot set off sparks by leaning into the cross-rhythms of the Minuet. The relentless drive of the outer movements gained freshness from being juxtaposed with the Dalbavie.

Review (c) 2019 Thomas May

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

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