MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Akropolis Performance Lab Serves Up Genet’s Subversive The Maids

Emily Testa as Solange in Jean Genet’s The Maids Mark Jared Zufelt/Aether Images
“Did I put on this dress to hear you sing about my beauty? Shroud me with hatred! Insults! Sputum!”

Even the process of booking an evening with Akropolis Performance Lab (APL) differs from the routine. There’s an aura of mystery to requesting an invitation to its current production of The Maids/The Vexations, which is under way until 24 November. The venue remains undisclosed until you’ve committed to actually attending.

Once arrived, you enter a room that’s been artfully converted into an almost uncomfortably intimate performance space — big enough to accommodate the three cast members required for Jean Genet’s play, an audience of 10-12 people tops, a piano, and a little bar. The aura is a blend of speakeasy and adventurous cabaret. A wall of mirrors serves as part of the set design, multiplying the spectators and actresses.

It all reinforces the hyper-self-consciously surreal atmosphere of APL’s remarkable interpretation. Jean Genet’s bold, one-act drama from 1947 (Les Bonnes en français) — his first play to be staged in Paris — was inspired by a real-life crime story that became the equivalent of clickbait news in 1933, when two sisters who were live-in French maids murdered their employer’s wife and daughter. But the very premise of a solid connection to “reality” at the most essential level — the sense of a real, authentic self — is subverted throughout the play, turning Hamlet’s sarcastic/melancholy “‘Seems,'” madam? Nay, it is; I know not ‘seems'” on its head.

Directed and designed by Joseph Lavy, APL’s production brings the point home by appending a preludial pantomime in which the three cast members, dressed in lingerie, strike varying exaggerated poses, interacting but interchangeable, prepared to shift roles on a dime.

And, on top of this, there’s a musical layer: the show actually begins with Zhenya Lavy — with Joseph, cofounding artistic director of APL — taking her place at the aforementioned piano and playing the enigmatic, sphinx-like harmonies of Erik Satie’s The Vexations: once, again, thrice, and over and over, through the pantomime, through the duration of the play.

Satie’s undated, single-page score (which has been variously described as an anti-Ring cycle and a kind of spell to get past a love gone sour) comes with the instruction “In order to play the theme 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities.” That total number of repetitions lasted over 18 hours when John Cage famously staged a presentation, but even at a fraction of that, Zhenya Lavy established a mood of archaic yet ironic ritual that perfectly suited the ritualistic anti-realism of Genet’s theater.

The play itself unfolds amid the accoutrements of the unnamed Madame’s wealth (or, at least, comfortably bourgeois lifestyle), as the maids Claire and Solange take turns rewriting the script of servitude, of mistress and servant. In the process, they enact rituals of domination and humiliation in all its connotations: sexual, political, social, religious.

Their shared, mutual fantasies of mutiny and sadomasochistic reversal climax in a plan to murder Madame with sleeping pill-laced tea, which will also solve the problem of her lover’s suddenly impending appearance, out on bail — after he had been denounced by Claire to the police and jailed.

Joseph Lavy also translated Genet’s text into an English that conveys the curious mixture of poetic filtering and religious ritual central to Claire’s and Solange’s game-playing (or is it even a game?) — aspects that get lost in more pointedly political renditions of the work on the English stage. Madame is also referred to as a kind of medieval “my lady” and, with her flowers and beautiful attire — briefly offered as gifts — creating a Madonna-like aura of reverence.

As Claire, Annie Paladino is spellbinding and dangerous, her ability to enter fully into each role as convincing as the speed with which she sheds one skin for the next. Her older sister, Solange, is given a complex, layered, deeply resonant performance by Emily Testa. One surprise of the casting is the youth of Madame (the excellent Catherine Lavy), which erases the generational distance between the characters and underscores the riddling interchangeability of identities.

All three are coached in APL’s characteristic focus style of ensemble-focused training, a refreshing, much-needed antidote to the default, watered-down “method” that dominates commercial theater and media. This company offers a wonderful, praiseworthy alternative to such predictable and formulaic theater-making.

Review (c) 2018 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Akropolis Performance Lab, review, theater, Uncategorized

Fiery and Apocalyptic, with a Melancholy Interlude: This Week’s Seattle Symphony

Alina

Alina Ibragimova

Thursday night’s concert offered the first chance I’ve had to hear Ludovic Morlot in action so far this season with Seattle Symphony, and my reward was a thrilling, full-bodied program. The first half included a fiery account of Bartók’s 1927 Miraculous Mandarin Suite (about two-thirds of the score from his earlier ballet, responsible for one of the scandal-premieres of European modernism).
Morlot focused on the score’s lurid colors and unsettling, suspenseful atmospheres, abetted by characterful wind solos (the “decoy music” on clarinet, for one) and superb string ensemble. (The choice of Noah Geller as new concertmaster has clearly been paying dividends.) Some conductors emphasize the influence of Stravinsky’s Rite, but Morlot seemed more interested in the surreal aspects of Bartók’s score, especially in how the ironic, decadent waltz of seduction emerges.
A wonderful match of soloist and concerto followed, with the 33-year-old Russian-British violinist Alina Ibragimova proving herself to be a deeply sensitive, account of the Op. 129 Concerto in C-sharp minor, the second of Shostakovich’s violin concertos.
The violinist is called on to maintain a virtually continual presence in this score, and Ibragimova held me spellbound, mining the varied facets of melancholy and sorrowing desperation embedded in this late-period work. Her tone was rich but unforced, and above all achingly expressive.
Morlot effectively stage-managed the prominent duologues of the soloist with the winds, though coordination went somewhat awry in the finale. Still, it was a moving, substantial performance — far more welcome than a flashy and breezy rep staple would have been, since Seattle Symphony has dedicated this week’s performances to victims of hate crimes: “to the lives lost and all those affected by recent hate crimes brought on by racism and bigotry, particularly those who died in the recent tragic shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and while grocery shopping in Jeffersontown, Kentucky.”
Filling the second half was Brahms’s mighty, promise-fulfilling First Symphony, which premiered just a few months after the first complete Ring cycle, in 1876. (I’ve always found that coincidence especially fascinating.) Morlot seemed to pick up on some of the fiery, driven energy from the opening Bartók, conjuring a passionately dramatic vision of the First.
This came at the cost of some clarity, I found, in the first movement above all, whose overarching architecture was occasionally obscured. The Adagio radiated emotional complexity and a touching sense of Brahmsian harmonic color; it only needed, again, a more transparent elucidation of the composer’s dramaturgy of light and shade. I wanted more time for the music to breathe.
Morlot was more convincing with the rest of the work: the third movement served as a brief shot of optimism, an interlude that tees off the apocalypse and triumph of this finale-centered score. Here, Morlot paced events with confidence and focus, acting as a kind of film director to ensure that each episode carried weight.

The program is repeated on Saturday 3 November at 8pm.

Filed under: Bartók, Brahms, review, Seattle Symphony, Shostakovich, Uncategorized

Within and Without: Addressing Citizenship through Artistic Engagement


Cal Performances at Berkeley has an especially compelling season lined up and is genuinely engaged with issues critical to our time — including the premiere of a new work commissioned by composer Jimmy López and writer-playwright Nilo Cruz. Here’s my preview:

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Filed under: Cal Performances, Jimmy López, Uncategorized

András Schiff Sets Sail with His Cappella Andrea Barca

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(c) Miguel Bueno

One of the several highlights at this year’s Lucerne Easter Festival for me was the performance by András Schiff, his keyboard partner Schaghajegh Nosrati, and the Cappella Andrea Barca. An evening of superb music-making.

The conceit of the program was to play works — by J.S. Bach and Mozart — only in C minor. That tonality has no monolithic connotation, of course (even in Beethoven you can find variance). What’s more, aside from contemporary aesthetic theories that did ascribe particular qualities to C minor, they all end of contradicting one another. Not to mention that the change in historical pitch over time is such that “C minor” for Bach isn’t even the same key, objectively speaking, as later.

So I can’t say I came away with any particular new insights into C minor or the affective use of tonality, with the exception perhaps of the concluding work, Mozart’s K. 491 Piano Concerto. But the focus anyway was on exquisite communication of shared values among like-minded musicians — and, here, Schiff & Co. provided pleasure and insight aplenty. The ensemble, by the way, is teasingly described by Schiff as a tribute to its fictional namesake, a peasant “probably born between 1730 and 1735 in the Marignolle hills near Florence [who] had a close connection to Mozart, for whose private concert of 2 April 1770 at the Villa Poggio Imperiale in Florence he was said to have served as page turner.” Rrright….

I was also delighted to get to experience the incredibly talented young German-Iranian pianist Schaghajegh Nosrati, who alternated with her mentor Schiff as the lead on a pair of Bach double concertos for keyboard — played here, naturally, on Schiff’s beloved Bösendorfers. Their styles make for some really interesting contrasts: Schiff’s BWV 1060 was almost geometrically precise, beautifully manicured, while Nosrati seemed more song-oriented, her cantabile in the Andante of BWV 1062 taking rapturous flight.

After intermission, Schiff and his ensemble treated us to meditations on the regis thema from Bach’s Musical Offering: the C minor theme supplied by King Frederick II, with which Bach built this endlessly fascinating edifice.

Schiff really does approach Bach as a sacred text. It’s not about trying to put his stamp on this music or to somehow make it new with an unexpected interpretive decision here, an infusion of personality there. Instead, Schiff gives you the impression of turning a key in the lock, opening up a treasure box or the entrance to a magical labyrinth.

With Mozart’s K. 491, on the other hand, I did sense a personal stamp, but not by way of indulgent effusions of emotion or “expressivity.” In fact, I don’t think I’ve experienced a more deeply engaging live account of this concerto, of which, according to lore, Beethoven was particularly envious. (There’s no question that he was lastingly inspired by it.)

What Schiff and his colleagues brought out was a subtler pathos — quite different from Beethoven and the later Romantic readings of C minor — that made Mozart’s incomparable feeling of balance and proportion utterly vivid and rich in meaning.

Earlier, the winds had provided a sort of interlude, playing Mozart’s K. 388 (384a) Nacht Musique, but they were in even more eloquent form here, where that choice suddenly made sense, given the special prominence of the winds in the scoring of K. 491. The finale’s variations conveyed something deeply enigmatic.

As encore: Schiff played a to-die-for account of Schubert’s C minor Allegretto D. 915.

Filed under: Uncategorized

Rising Up with Meredith Monk

In honor of International Women’s Day 2018, here’s a look at Meredith Monk and her Songs of Ascension.

MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Meredith Monk; photo by Masimo Agus Meredith Monk; photo by Masimo Agus

Songs of Ascension is one of Meredith Monk’s creations of the past few years. If you don’t know her incomparable music yet, this is a wonderful place to start exploring it.

Monk’s unclassifiable art is grounded in a unique understanding of the flexibility of the human voice. She loves to create new contexts in which to fathom its expressive depths. The result is music that sometimes sounds as if it had been quarried from an archeological dig or beamed in from a distant future. Both impressions emanate from Songs of Ascension, the tenth project Monk has recorded for ECM since her path-breaking Dolmen Music was released three decades ago. That discography charts her intrepid forays “between the cracks,” as Monk likes to put it, where different ways of perceiving the world through art converge.

On one level, Songs of Ascension encapsulates Monk’s aesthetic…

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14 Ways of Describing the Rain

Here, the experimental film from 1929 by Joris Ivens to which Hanns Eisler wrote his Op. 70 variations-score in 1941 (Vierzehn Arten den Regen zu beschreiben, in homage to his mentor on Schoenberg’s 70th birthday), using a Pierrot lunaire ensemble. This is what Daniel Barenboim selected to open the Boulez Saal’s first-anniversary concert on Sunday (alongside Schubert’s Introduktion und Variationen über Trockne Blumen and Pierrot lunaire itself).

The project inspired Theodor Adorno to collaborate with Eisler during their American exile in the 1940s on the short but potent book that first appeared in English as Composing for the Films (sic).

Eisler remarks:

What has brought about this research project is the question raised in recent years by musicians everywhere–is it really necessary to continue the current Hollywood practice of rehashing “original” scores with crumbs picked from the table of Tchaikowsky, Debussy, Ravel, Richard Strauss and Stravinsky? Is a new musical material possible? May it not even be more useful and effective?

Not hard to transpose that into our situation today…

Filed under: aesthetics, film music, Hanns Eisler, Uncategorized

Seattle under Construction

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Filed under: photography, Uncategorized

Cellist Jan Vogler and His Trio Venture into “New Worlds” with Bill Murray

MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Mira-WangBill-Murray-Jan-Vogler-New-Worlds-Tour-Photo-by-WP-Photography-Taken-at-Napa-Valley-Festival-August-2017My latest for Strings magazine (October issue):

Chamber music is all about knowing how to forge close partnerships. For the world-renowned cellist Jan Vogler, that instinct includes connecting to artists beyond the classical-music sphere. But he didn’t expect a serendipitous encounter with Bill Murray to lead to one of the most innovative projects he has ever undertaken.

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Conrad Tao: Leaving the Comfort Zone

Conrad Tao is performing Thursday night with the Berkeley Symphony.

MEMETERIA by Thomas May

My new profile of pianist and composer Conrad Tao for Steinway  is now online:

HIS NAME HASN’T changed, but mentally splicing the twenty-three-year-old Conrad Tao with the child prodigy who first came before the general public more than a decade ago is likely to make you do a double take.

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Musical America New Artist of the Month: Seth Parker Woods

This afternoon Seth Parker Woods makes his debut at the acclaimed Phillips Collection Sunday concerts series.

MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Musical America is featuring cellist Seth Parker Woods as New Artist of the Month for October. My profile here.

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