MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Rites of Ecstasy: Thomas Dausgaard Pairs Knockout Scores by Scriabin and Stravinsky

152723-sso-2019-11-21-carlin-ma-9911

Thomas Dausgaard conducts the Seattle Symphony; photo (c) Carlin Ma

My review of the most recent program performed by Seattle Symphony under Thomas Dausgaard:

As Thomas Dausgaard continues along in his inaugural season as Seattle Symphony’s Music Director, it’s gratifying to see his intense rapport with the musicians expanding to different areas of the repertoire…

continue

Filed under: Alexander Scriabin, review, Seattle Symphony, Stravinsky, Thomas Dausgaard

Exceptional Schumann from Beatrice Rana

Such a satisfying experience to hear Robert Schumann’s much-played Piano Concerto with Beatrice Rana as the soloist. It felt like a genuine rediscovery. The clip above is from the 2018 BBC Proms — and if you’re in Seattle this weekend, you have a chance to get the live experience, with Peter Oundjian conducting.
Thursday night’s performance was spellbinding from start to finish — the opening volley of chords precise and powerful, without any need for overstatement or attention-grabbing. Rana conveyed the secrets of Schumann’s work with poetry, sensitivity, honesty, and keen musical intelligence. The reduced size of the orchestral strings allowed for intimacy and transparent, chamber music-like dialogue, with the Seattle Symphony winds (especially Mary Lynch on oboe) providing eloquent exchanges.
The program also included a rich, full-bodied account of what was actually the last symphony by Schumann’s friend, Felix Mendelssohn, though we know it as the Third (“Scottish”). Oundjian built up the details of the slow introduction so carefully that everything else seemed to be spun out from its melancholy atmosphere.
A wonderful complement to the Schumann opened the program: Anna Clyne’s Within Her Arms, a single-movement piece for string orchestra from 2009. Clyne wrote it in memory of her recently deceased mother. She found inspiration in the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist: “Earth will keep you tight within her arms dear one — / so that tomorrow you will be transformed into flowers — … Flowers that speak to me in silence,/the message of love and understanding has indeed come.”

This music with its understanding of loss and consolation really hit home for me: a loving elegy that never succumbs to the maudlin. A long-sustained bass line symbolizes the grounding of which the monk speaks, before a final, breath-taking release. Clyne taps into a neo-Renaissance sensibility, transforming the simple, descending ladder of notes of the core motif from a standard lamento into searing beauty.

Filed under: Anna Clyne, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Seattle Symphony

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

gramophone-cover-july-19_0

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….

continue

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…

continue

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

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

Debussy

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.

continue

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

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

RSS Arts & Culture Stories from NPR