MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

All-Tchaikovsky Night, and a Tribute to the Late Bramwell Tovey

The New York Philharmonic with cellist Zlatomir Fung and Leonard Slatkin; photo (c) Jorge Gustavo Elias

The conductor for last night’s Bravo Vail concert with the New York Philharmonic was to have been the much-loved Bramwell Tovey, who passed away on July 12. Leonard Slatkin, who took his place on the podium, paid tribute with a deeply felt interpretation of “Nimrod” from Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” as the encore. Slatkin was completely in his element for this sold-out, all-Tchaikovsky concert — and not just for the blockbuster works (the “Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture” and Fifth Symphony) but the “Rococo Variations” they framed. You could feel him drawing on his vast experience with and love for this music to shape a dramatic arc that overwhelmed with its intensity in both R&J and the Fifth. But he was also brought out Tchaikovsky’s neoclassical finesse in the Variations, which showcased the refined, poetic musicianship of cello soloist Zlatomir Fung.

Filed under: Bravo! Vail Music Festival, conductors, Tchaikovsky

Eugene Onegin at Seattle Opera


Marjukka Tepponen (Tatyana) and John Moore (Onegin); (c) Sunny Martini

Just what is Onegin’s problem? The alienation embodied by Pushkin’s anti-hero obviously struck a powerful chord for Tchaikovsky – he wrote an immense symphony, after all, based on Byron’s version of the character type (Manfred) – yet it’s not until Tatyana’s name-day party at the beginning of the second act in Seattle Opera’s new production that we start to get a concrete sense of his identity…


Filed under: directors, review, Seattle Opera, Tchaikovsky

Pascal Dusapin’s New Double Concerto Soars in Seattle


Viktoria Mullova and Matthew Barley, with Ludovic Morlot and Seattle Symphony; image (c) James Holt

For Musical America, I reviewed Seattle Symphony’s program of Pascal Dusapin’s wonderful At Swim-Two-Birds (in its U.S. premiere), Debussy’s Petite Suite, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4:

SEATTLE—Making its U.S. premiere at the center of Seattle Symphony’s most recent program, Pascal Dusapin’s At Swim-Two-Birds (heard on November 8) immediately stood out as one of the most significant commissions in music director Ludovic Morlot’s tenure (which draws to a close at the end of this season).

continue [paywall]

Filed under: Debussy, Musical America, Pascal Dusapin, review, Tchaikovsky

Jaap van Zweden Takes the New York Philharmonic for a Test Drive


Last week Jaap van Zweden conducted the New York Philharmonic in their first concert together since he was named Alan Gilbert’s successor as music director (starting in the 2018-19 season).

The program was a rich one: the Prelude to Wagner’s Lohengrin, Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, and the New York premiere of a brand-new viola concerto, Unearth, Release, by the highly talented young LA-based composer Julia Adolphe.

My review for Musical America has now been posted (behind the usual paywall):

NEW YORK—Four-and-a-half years after making his New York Philharmonic debut, Jaap van Zweden ascended the podium on Thursday for his first concert with the orchestra since being appointed …

continue reading

Filed under: Musical America, new music, New York Philharmonic, review, Tchaikovsky, Wagner

A Primer in the Romantic Spirit from Seattle Symphony

khachatryan-12Sergey Khachatryan. Image courtesy of Seattle Symphony.

My review of this weekend’s Seattle Symphony program with Ludovic Morlot and violinist Sergey Khachatryan is now live on Vanguard Seattle:

The Seattle Symphony Orchestra (SSO)’s sixth season with Music Director Ludovic Morlot has so far included a pair of electrifying programs that paired world premiere commissions by composers of today with Beethoven classics—the latter part of an ongoing two-year cycle of the composer’s complete symphonies and piano concertos.

continue reading

Filed under: Berlioz, Ludovic Morlot, review, Seattle Symphony, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Vanguard Seattle

Grammy-Winning Augustin Hadelich with the Seattle Symphony and Jesús López-Cobos


Last night’s Seattle Symphony concert featured two guest artists of genuine distinction: Jesús López-Cobos, Conductor Emeritus of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and former music director of Madrid’s Teatro Real, and the violinist Augustin Hadelich.

The latter is especially familiar to Seattle audiences as a longtime regular at the Seattle Chamber Music Festival. This time he returned with a fresh crowning of laurels from last month’s Grammy Awards: he won Best Classical Instrumental Soloist for his recording of L’Arbre des Songes, a violin concerto by Henri Dutilleux. (So fresh, in fact, that, as Hadelich later mentioned, he still hasn’t received the gold-plated trophy he accepted in absentia.)

Hadelich recorded the Dutilleux with the Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot on their new in-house label, and the SSO and audience welcomed him back with obvious warmth, cheering before he’d played a note. (A couple days before, Hadelich had recorded a shorter Dutilleux piece for violin and orchestra — Sur le même accord — which is due for future release on the SSO label.)

But from the moment he did start playing — the vehicle was Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto — Hadelich cast an absolutely irresistible spell. I kept trying to dissect his secret. There’s no shortage of flawlessly virtuosic young violinists, and being able to showcase your technique on the Kiesewetter Strad from 1723  doesn’t hurt.

Still, what made his performance unique was its authenticity. I mean that not in the sense of HIP, of period instrument ideology, but quite simply as a matter of musical and emotional honesty. Too often technique and sincerity (“playing from the heart”) are set up as opposite poles; operating from a stance of modesty, Hadelich grounds his technique — and it’s jaw-dropping fabulous, above all his masterful intonation and dynamics — with  sheer love of the musical message.

In the process Hadelich succeeded in dusting away the clichés, phony sentimentality, and sense of routine that frequently accompany the Tchaik. He kept his distance from the lapel-grabbing emotional sensationalism performers know guarantees excitement, but by the same token there was nothing cool or unduly “objective” here.

Overall Hadelich seemed to have in mind Tchaikovsky’s abiding affection for Mozart — always a tempering influence on his own tendencies toward excess. The violinist shaped the first movement’s main theme with a tasteful classicism. When deep pathos emerged, in the minor-key Canzonetta, it resonated powerfully.

Hadelich’s interactions with the players underscored his intense engagement in this music as a present-tense affair. I’d forgotten how beguiling Tchaikovsky’s woodwind lines are here. The clarinet — featuring the expressive work of guest player Gabriel Campos-Zamora — becomes virtually a second protagonist.

Throughout,  López-Cobos was interpretively in sync with Hadelich, encouraging clarity of shape and timbre from the players. He set a leisurely pace in the first movement but was able almost imperceptibly to quicken and then moderate it again, in accord with Hadelich’s phrasing choices. The finale was thrillingly breakneck, a rousing conclusion to a work in which Tchaikovsky seems to regain purpose and joie de vivre.

Hadelich returned for an encore: the Andante from J.S. Bach’s Second Solo Sonata in A minor. It was the epitome of this artist’s gift for fusing marvelous technique with incandescent expression: an early-21st-century version of what used to be called “the sublime.”

There was likewise a great deal to admire in Jesús López-Cobos’ work from the podium in this all-Russian program. It seemed to be connected by a “travel” theme (remember that Tchaikovsky wrote his Violin Concerto soon after his disastrous attempt at marriage while he was sojourning in Western Europe). As an opener, the Spanish conductor led a charming account of Glinka’s Summer Night in Madrid, rhythmically vivid and awash in cheerful colors.

It turned out to be a pretty accurate trailer for the characteristics he brought to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade in the second half. Particularly in the wake of John Adams’s new masterpiece, Scheherazade.2, last week — I admit to approaching another encounter with Rimsky’s crafty Sultana with some skepticism. It bored me the last time I heard the SSO play this score (three years ago).

This time, I couldn’t get enough of it. López-Cobos coaxed a uniformly high-quality performance from the SSO. Magisterial and majestic, he crafted a beautifully proportionate interpretation of Rimsky’s score, giving just the right amount of time and emphasis to its components.

So rewarding were the musical allurements that he tempted the audience to forget about the half-hearted Arabian Nights program, for which the composer in any case expressed ambivalence. The narrative that mattered was how one texture and melodic idea gave way to the next. Threading this story together was the impressively phrased, gorgeous playing from Elisa Barston, the evening’s concertmaster.

–(c) 2016 Thomas May. All rights reserved.




Filed under: conductors, review, Seattle Symphony, Tchaikovsky, violinists

Finding the Light, Facing the Darkness

It seems — at least as of now — that tonight’s opening of the Met’s double bill of Tchaikovsky and Bartók will proceed as planned, despite the blizzard arriving. It’s a new production directed by Mariusz Trelinski and starring Anna Netrebko as the blind Princess Iolanta for the Tchaikovsky one-act.

Toi toi toi!

My program essay:

Only two decades separate the composition of Iolanta and Bluebeard’s Castle. Yet during these years, the music of fin-de-siècle Romanticism sounded the last gasps of a philosophy that was rapidly being made obsolete by the efforts of a diverse generation of radical younger composers. That, at least, is the narrative we’re usually told. In fact the shift toward modernism was not nearly so clean-cut or abrupt.

You can find the whole piece here (pdf: starting on p. 3 of the insert, after p. 36)

Filed under: Bartók, essay, Metropolitan Opera, Tchaikovsky

Coming into the Light: Tchaikovsky’s Final Opera

Enjoy your Nutcracker this season, but me, I’d much rather have the other part of the double-bill with which the ballet was first paired in 1892: the one-act fairy-tale opera Iolanta.

I’m currently admiring Peter Sellars’s enlightening interpretation, paired on DVD with Stravinsky’s Perséphone from a production at the Teatro Real.

“It is a very radical opera, it is the start of symbolism in Russia, of modern art, of the search for light,” says Peter Sellars in an interview for El País.

Iolanta was Tchaikovsky’s very last opera and suffered from terrible bowdlerization under Soviet authorities. A new production starring Anna Netrebko — in a double-bill with Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle and directed by Mariusz Trelinski — comes to the Met early in 2015.

Filed under: directors, Metropolitan Opera, Tchaikovsky

Sublime Salonen from the Seattle Symphony and Jennifer Koh

Jennifer Koh; © Juergen Frank

Jennifer Koh; © Juergen Frank

My latest review:

It’s not unusual for Ludovic Morlot to offer a spirited brief introduction to a particular piece. But at the top of last night’s Seattle Symphony concert, the maestro was eager to elucidate a rationale threading together the motley menu of Samuel Barber, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and a Tchaikovsky warhorse: essentially, the proposition that all three works represented personal responses to periods of challenge or even crisis.

continue reading

Filed under: new music, review, Seattle Symphony, Tchaikovsky

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