MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

And Still More on Dausgaard and the Seattle Symphony…

The first actual in-depth reporting on the disaster that has befallen the Seattle Symphony with Thomas Dausgaard’s sudden departure has just been published at Post Alley.

The formidable Doug McLennan brings powerful journalistic chops to a dismayingly complex story that appears to involve a toxic work environment. Many questions are left unanswered — not least because of the stonewalling he reports, which itself would seem to reinforce the picture painted of an institution out of balance.

I would also add that this story fails to give proper credit to Dausgaard’s predecessor, Ludovic Morlot. He played an undeniably important role in developing the orchestra’s current level of artistic excellence.

I rather like the use of “repotia” here — the same rhetorical device Shakespeare uses in “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears…”: “Again though, when a new leader comes in, culture inevitably changes, and there’s almost always turnover among staff.”

So sad that the fallout from all of this will inevitably affect these amazing musicians for some time to come — just as we’re coming out of the pandemic…

Filed under: music news, Seattle Symphony, Thomas Dausgaard

Strained Relations

in happier days…

After the bombshell that dropped on Friday, we hear a response from Thomas Dausgaard via Javier Herndández’s report in The New York Times on the Thomas Dausgaard-Seattle Symphony breakup: “I felt personally not safe,” Dausgaard said, providing few specifics as he offered his first public comments on his abrupt resignation, which the orchestra announced on Friday. “I felt threatened.”

According to Hernández’s report: “Dausgaard said he felt the culture of the organization shifted and became ‘ruled by fear.’ At one point, he said, an employee of the orchestra was pressured to make negative comments about him to the administration. (The symphony denies the accusation.)”

The irony is that, as far as I could tell, Dausgaard and the musicians still had an impressive chemistry together, even after the long absence due to visa restrictions and whatever else might have been responsible — as I noted in what turns out, in retrospect, to have been a de facto farewell concert.

The pandemic obviously exacerbated tensions that seem to have already been simmering, as Hernández points out. What a distressing turn of events — just when SSO was playing at such a high level. Along with Dausgaard and Jaap van Zweden, who are some other major classical music figures who have so radically reassessed their career commitments?

NYT story

Filed under: music news, Seattle Symphony, Thomas Dausgaard

Thomas Dausgaard Steps Down as Seattle Symphony’s Music Director

This bombshell has just arrived: Thomas Dausgaard is resigning from his position as Seattle Symphony’s music director. Here’s the official press release, which leaves many questions unanswered:

SEATTLE, WA – The Seattle Symphony honors Thomas Dausgaard, whose defining 12-year partnership alongside the Symphony comes to a close with the announcement today of his decision to step away from his role as its Music Director, ahead of his originally planned final season in 2022/2023. Dausgaard, who appeared regularly as a guest conductor since 2010 and became Principal Guest Conductor in 2014, began his tenure as Music Director of the Seattle Symphony in 2019. Dausgaard’s collaboration with the Symphony for over a decade has earned widespread acclaim, marked by innovative programming, championing of music by composers of today and Grammy-nominated recordings.



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Filed under: music news, Seattle Symphony, Thomas Dausgaard

Thomas Dausgaard Is Back

Even with the audience at Benaroya Hall well below capacity, the atmosphere on Thursday night was electric for the long-awaited return of music director Thomas Dausgaard to the Seattle Symphony podium. The menu was meat and potatoes — a Beethoven appetizer (Overture to Egmont) and Brahms’s First, both given high-energy, taut, muscular accounts. Curiously, the Brahms even turned out to contain some Beethovenian echoes beyond the usual ones.

In between came a virtuoso showcase in the form of Saint-Saëns’s Second Piano Concerto in G minor. The Italian pianist Alessio Bax was the sparkling soloist, balancing the piece’s flamboyant, impish, and lyrically touching dimensions with dazzling articulation and style.

I’ll be reviewing this and next week’s concerts in a forthcoming piece discussing Dausgaard’s reunion with the SSO musicians. In the meantime, tonight’s repeat of the program is recommended. The sheer joy and commitment they radiate in making music together again are irresistible.

Filed under: Brahms, Seattle Symphony, Thomas Dausgaard

Weekend Concert Tips in Seattle

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If you’re in the Seattle are, there’s a lot to choose from this weekend. One more chance to catch the incomparable violinist Gidon Kremer, who has become a major champion of the long-neglected Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-96). Earlier this week, Kremer gave an intimate performance at Octave 9, playing his transcriptions of half of Weinberg’s 24 Preludes for Solo Cello as well as his vast First Sonata for solo violin and the Bach D minor Chaconne.

Under Dausgaard’s baron, he will perform Weinberg’s Violin Concerto (from 1960) again on Saturday evening. Last night’s account was a major discovery, leaving me moved, thrilled, enraptured–and hungry for more. Weinberg is routinely compared to Shostakovich (same thing happens to Galina Ustvolskaya), but for all the superficial resemblances, I was drawn to Weinberg’s distinctive lyricism and the pockets of hopefulness he weaves into this score. It delighted me no end that Kremer chose what I immediately selected as my favorite of the Preludes for his encore.

The rest of the program was magnificent: Dausgaard mixed rich oil with theatrical flair in the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture — Tchaikovsky’s early breakthrough — and brought out many a smile from the musicians in a heartfelt, vibrant, even deliriously unbuttoned interpretation of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8. SSO principal flutist Demarre McGill’s exquisite solos alone negated any excuse to miss this.

Sunday brings a real feast. Octave 9, which has been on overdrive lately with not-to-be-missed concerts, will present one of the most compelling young cellists at work today: Seth Parker Woods, in a program titled Difficult Grace. The teaser reads: “Inspired by Dudley Randall’s poem “Primitives,” this interactive concert features five world premieres and one Seattle premiere by Monty Adkins, Nathalie Joachim, Pierre Alexandre Tremblay, Fredrick Gifford, Ryan Carter and Freida Abtan. ‘Difficult Grace’ showcases an array of visual art and music by some of today’s most imaginative storytellers.”

Parker Woods is also a brilliant curator, so there’s bound to be some excellent discoveries here. More background on the cellist.

Elsewhere in the Benaroya Hall complex on Sunday evening, Byron Schenkman & Friends will perform a program enticingly titled Baroque Bacchanalia. The wonderful harpsichordist Byron Schenkman has curated an evening of selections on mythological themes by Bernier, Campra, Jacquet, and Rebel, with bass-baritone (and composer) Jonathan Woody as the featured vocalist.

Earlier on Sunday, Early Music Seattle presents a semi-staged production of Vivaldi’s Motezuma at Town Hall. This version was reconstructed and reimagined by Matthias Maute, music director of the Montreal-based Ensemble Caprice Music Director. The Other Conquest, a response to Vivaldi’s colonialist distortions by composer Héctor Armienta and Seattle poet Raúl Sánchez, is being presented Saturday evening (free of charge) at Broadway Performance Hall.

Also Sunday afternoon: Temple de Hirsch Sinai on Capitol Hill (1441 16th Ave) is presenting a free concert at 2pm featuring pianist Judith Cohen, SSO clarinetist Eric Jacobs, and violinist Hal Grossman. Their program is titled Bernstein, Copland, Bloch, & Gershwin: Legendary Jewish Composers of the 20th Century. I’m especially looking forward to hearing Copland’s Vitebsk Trio, a study in quarter-tones from 1929. The concert is actually just one of a weekend-long series of events at Temple de Hirsch Sinai celebrating Shabbat Shirah (Shabbat of Song).

Filed under: Byron Schenkman, Gidon Kremer, music news, Seattle Symphony, Seth Parker Woods, Thomas Dausgaard

Intensity and compassion: Patricia Kopatchinskaja’s stunning return to Seattle

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Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Thomas Dausgaard and the Seattle Symphony
© Carlin Ma

When Patricia Kopatchinskaja is on the bill, you’re guaranteed to encounter the unexpected, no matter how well-known the music …

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Filed under: Patricia Kopatchinskaja, review, Seattle Symphony, Thomas Dausgaard

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

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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…

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

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

Seattle Symphony Announces 2019-20 Season

As part of its inaugural season under new Music Director Thomas Dausgaard, Seattle Symphony has just announced an impressive and inspiring lineup of 25 living composers: John Adams, Eddie Mora Bermúdez, Anna Clyne, Chick Corea, Charles Corey, Anthony DiLorenzo, Reena Esmail, Janice Giteck, Daniel Kidane, Elena Langer, Hannah Lash, Flo Menezes, Olga Neuwirth, Juan David Osorio, Angelique Poteat, Huang Ruo, David Sampson, Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez, Kate Soper, Bent Sørensen, Tyshawn Sorey, Conrad Tao, Lotta Wennäkoski, Ryan Wigglesworth, and the 2020 Celebrate Asia Composition Competition winner.

Composer-in-residence Tyshawn Sorey will write a Cello Concerto for artist-in-residence Seth Parker Woods. Other SSO commissions: Reena Esmail’s Sitar Concerto — which promises to be a highlight of the season, given her inspired work to date — Elena Langer’s Figaro Gets a Divorce Suite, Hannah Lash’s Double Harp Concerto, and Angelique Poteat’s Cello Concerto, and pieces by Charles Corey and Janice Giteck. (Concertos clearly remain one of the most popular orchestral genres contemporary composers seem to prefer.)

I’m less excited about yet another Rachmaninoff concerto festival — but tickets do need to be sold — and we’ll have to see how the obligatory Beethoven Festival for the 2020 anniversary year works out. I do like juxtaposition of the symphonies with several of the above-mentioned commissions.

And there will be plenty of upcoming news about the soon-to-open Octave 9 project.

The complete press release can be found here.

Filed under: season programming, Seattle Symphony, Thomas Dausgaard

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