MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Seattle ProMusica Sings Ethel Smyth & W.A. Mozart

For the grand finale to their 50th-anniversary season, Karen P. Thomas and Seattle Pro Musica will pair major works for chorus, soloists, and orchestra by Ethel Smyth and Wolfgang Amadé Mozart at St. James Cathedral this Saturday, May 20, at 8 pm. Tickets here. You can also register for free access to an online stream here, which will be available starting May 27 at 7:30pm until June 26, 2023.

Thomas will lead Seattle Pro Musica and the orchestra, plus soloists Tess Altiveros (soprano), Dawn Padula (mezzo), Zachary Finkelstein (tenor), and Charles Robert Stephens (bass) in Ethel Smyth’s Mass in D (1891) and Mozart’s unfinished “Great” Mass in C minor, K. 427 (1782-83).

Thomas provides the following commentary:

Mass in D by Ethel Smyth (1858-1944)

“The exact worth of my music will probably not be known till naught remains of the writer but sexless dots and lines on ruled paper,” Ethel Smyth wrote in 1928. It seems she was right, and her music is only recently beginning to get the attention it has so long deserved. Ethel Smyth was a radical and a non-conformist from a young age.

Born into an upper-middle class family, she rebelled against the restrictions of her Victorian-era girlhood. Her father strongly opposed her desire to study music – so she locked herself in her room and refused to eat until he capitulated. She began studying at the Leipzig Conservatory in 1887 at the age of 19. Leipzig was a great center of music activity, and while there Smyth met influential composers such as Antonín Dvořák, Clara Schumann, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Edvard Grieg, and Johannes Brahms. Her best-known work, The Wreckers, was performed in London by Sir Thomas Beecham in 1909. In 1903 she became the first woman to have a work performed by the Metropolitan Opera – Der Wald (The Forest), and in 1922 she became the first female composer to be granted Damehood.

“She was a force of nature, a feminist composer of phenomenal talents, whose music set records and won great acclaim. She had passionate affairs with prominent women – including the celebrated suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst – and a lasting friendship with Virginia Woolf,” writes Beverley D’Silva of the BBC. “Her unstoppable spirit shocked polite society…her activism landed her in prison.”

All her life she fought to have her music performed in the face of misogyny and male critics who dismissed her as a “lady composer.” Dr Amy Zigler, assistant professor of music at Salem College, wrote that if Smyth and others wrote music that was “energetic, loud, forceful or virile” it was damned as “unnatural and unbecoming of a woman.” If they wrote music that was “graceful, soft, lyrical or sentimental, it was deemed to be just ‘parlour’ music for young women to play at home – unimportant or inferior.” While fighting such sexist attitudes, Smyth won the support of conductors like Sir Thomas Beecham, Bruno Walter, and Adrian Boult.

In 1910, at the age of 52, Smyth joined the Women’s Social and Political Union to campaign for women’s suffrage, giving up her music career for two years to further the cause. She and Emmeline Pankhurst went on a campaign in March 1911 in response to adverse comments by a secretary of state about the Votes for Women campaign; they broke windows at the Houses of Parliament, were arrested, and sent to Holloway Prison. On visiting her in prison, Thomas Beecham arrived in the courtyard at Holloway to see the spectacle of a “noble company of martyrs marching round it and singing lustily their war chant, while the composer, beaming approbation from an overlooking upper window, beat time in almost Bacchic frenzy with a toothbrush”. This “war chant” was the work Smyth wrote and dedicated to Pankhurst, The March of the Women, which became the anthem of the women’s suffrage movement.

Smyth composed the Mass in D following a renewal of her Anglican faith, stimulated by reading The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis, while she was ill in Munich on Christmas Eve 1889. The book belonged to her Catholic friend Pauline Trevelyan, to whom Smyth dedicated the Mass. She composed much of it while a guest of Empress Eugénie at Cape Martin near Monaco, in the summer of 1891.

The Mass in D was premiered in January 1893 with about 1000 performers in the enormous Albert Hall in front of an audience of 12,000 people. The “Gloria” was performed as a festive finale at the end of the Mass, as she specified. In spite of the enthusiastic reception at the premiere, the work languished and did not receive a second performance until 30 years later. Smyth blamed this on prejudice against female composers.

The Mass was revived in February 1924, conducted by Adrian Boult. George Bernard Shaw reviewed the performance, and thought the Mass “magnificent.” In the years following, it was performed a number of times. In 1934 a performance of the Mass conducted by Thomas Beecham, attended by Queen Mary, was the culmination of the Festival Concerts celebrating Smyth’s 75th birthday. By this time, Smyth had lost her hearing and was suffering from tinnitus – she turned from music to writing, producing 10 mostly autobiographical books. She died in Woking, Surrey, in 1944, aged 86.

In her late seventies, writing in the final memoir As Time Went On, Smyth declares that the musician in her “won through in the end,” in spite of her deafness:

“If you are still in possession of your senses, gradually getting accustomed, as some people do, to a running accompaniment of noises in your head; if instead of shrinking from the very thought of music you suddenly become conscious of desire towards it… why, then anything may happen… and once more you begin to dream dreams.”

Great Mass in C minor by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91)

As with his other monumental work, the Requiem, Mozart left the Mass in C minor incomplete, missing portions of the Credo and the entire Agnus Dei. It is certainly his most ambitious and complex sacred work – even in its unfinished state, it is immense in conception. The choral writing ranges from four-part and five-part choruses to the eight-part Osanna, and includes an impressive fugue, Cum Sancto Spiritu. The contrapuntal writing for chorus clearly shows the influence of Mozart’s study of the music of Bach and Handel, while the writing for solo voices owes much to his fluency in Italian operatic style.

From the age of 16 to 24, Mozart was in the service of the Archbishop of Salzburg – an appointment which had been secured by his father, Leopold. Restrictions on the duration and dimension of music in the liturgy, along with severe limitations on his ability to travel to the musical centers of Europe to advance his career were a source of frustration for the young composer. He eventually asked to be released from the archbishop’s service in 1781. The break with the archbishop and Mozart’s subsequent move to Vienna was also a break with his father. His courtship of the young soprano Constanze Weber further widened the rift, and on August 4, 1782 the couple was married at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna, without having received Leopold’s blessing.

Mozart began writing the Mass in C minor in the summer of 1782, probably shortly after his marriage to Constanze. He mentioned the work in a letter to his father, dated January 4, 1783, with an indication that it was half finished. Wolfgang and Constanze arrived in Salzburg in July 1783, and the Mass in C minor was premiered on October 26 at the Benedictine Abbey Church of St. Peter, with Constanze singing the soprano solos. By all accounts, the visit did not go well – after this visit, the composer never returned to Salzburg. And though the music of the Mass in C minor was later recycled as the cantata Davidde Penitente, the work itself faded into obscurity, to be revived only in the 20th century.

Filed under: choral music, Ethel Smyth, Mozart, Seattle Pro Musica, Uncategorized

Morlot Leads the Next Chapter in the Seattle Symphony’s Sibelius Adventure

Ludovic Morlot reunites with the Seattle Symphony (image: Nick Klein)

For the second installment in the Seattle Symphony’s Sibelius cycle, emeritus conductor Ludovic Morlot rejoined the orchestra to lead a program centered around the Second Symphony. The occasion inspired some spectacular, edge-of-your-seat playing on Thursday night.

The concert started off with another in the series of commissions of new works from contemporary composers that find a way to “relate” to each of the Sibelius symphonies. In February, when the cycle launched with the Sibelius First (conducted by the talented Ruth Reinhardt), the pairing presented an intriguingly provocative new piece by Ellen Reid. The Puerto Rican composer Angélica Negrón faced the challenge of responding to what is, for many Sibelius fans, the best-loved of the seven symphonies. Color Shape Transmission, the result, offers an imaginatively fresh take on the phenomenon of acoustic space and the orchestra as a kind of mobile aural sculpture. Negrón spins her vast array of forces into a kaleidoscope of mysterious timbres, rapturously sustained clusters, and subtle echo and richochet effects. The impression of a ritual or procession brought to mind the mystery of the Second Symphony’s Andante, with its walking bass and swelling hymn.

I seem to recall that this program had originally been planned to include Sibelius’s Violin Concerto with Isabelle Faust. She was the soloist in Stravinsky’s contribution to the genre instead, but it was a wonderful match and proved captivating from first note to last. Faust displayed multiple personalities, all equally convincing, in Stravinsky’s one-of-a-kind take on the concerto idea: alternately cheeky, heart-breaking, whimsical, and invigorating. Morlot’s tenure with the SSO included some especially memorable encounters with Stravinsky, so it was gratifying to find him shedding light on a different aspect of the composer, tending so carefully to his piquant timbral combinations of woodwinds and soloist; concertmaster Noah Geller matched Faust’s ravishing tone in the duet between both violinists in the Capriccio finale.

But what left the most resounding impression was the epic sweep conveyed by the Second Symphony. In this account, Morlot navigated the SSO through Sibelius’s drastic transformations of landscape with a convincing sense of purpose. Sunlight shifting on the meadows, impending storms, glorious new vistas opened up — the sonic imagery flowed generously, but Morlot shaped its ebbs and flows with architectural understanding, aside from the occasional haze produced by a passing sonic imbalance. He homed in on Sibelius’s use of tension and release to thrilling effect.

In his excellent program notes, Christopher DeLaurenti points out that Sibelius had little use for the political purposes which his work seemed to serve, while at the same time hinting at the Second’s uncanny relevance for the terrible present moment. Its premiere in 1902, he writes, “was welcomed by the Finnish public as a missive of nationalist resilience against their Russian overlords.” He also quotes the composer’s friend and champion Robert Kajanus hailing the Second as “a broken-hearted protest against all the injustice that threatens at the present time to deprive the sun of its light and our flowers of their scent.” Grasping the music’s agonized heroism, this performance invested the final moments of the Second with cathartic grandeur.

The full program will be performed again on Saturday, 9 April, at 8pm. If you need a dose of hope, don’t miss it.

Filed under: commissions, Ludovic Morlot, Seattle Symphony, Sibelius, Uncategorized

An Evening of John Luther Adams

The sudden cold blast, climate change, a pandemic that seems never-ending, World War III angst — I’d rather take a night off and focus instead on the transportive music of John Luther Adams. Erin Jorgensen has curated a program of small-ensemble works that is being presented at 8pm on Thursday, 24 February, at the Chapel Performance Space in Seattle.

JLA of course has an important relationship with this city: Seattle Symphony commissioned his Pulitzer Prize-winning (and Taylor Swift-approved) Become Ocean as well as its companion work Become Desert.

Thursday’s program, which includes lighting designed by Charles Smith, will consist of:

The Farthest Place | violin, vibes, piano, marimba, double bass

The Wind in High Places | string quartet

Among Red Mountains | piano

The Light That Fills the World | violin, vibes, keyboard, marimba, double bass

Seattle Symphony members Mikhail Shmidt (violin), Andy Liang (violin), and Joseph Kaufman (double bass) are among the musicians, who also include Rose Bellini (cello), Storm Benjamin (vibraphone), Rebekah Ko (marimba), Jesse Myers (piano), and Erin Wight (viola). Mask and vaccination required for entry; tickets $15-$30.

PS In case you missed it, JLA’s memoir Silences So Deep came out in the height of the pandemic.

Filed under: John Luther Adams, music news, Uncategorized

San Francisco Opera’s 100th Anniversary Season

So it’s now official: San Francisco Opera will launch its centennial season with the world premiere of a new John Adams opera: Antony and Cleopatra, set to the composer’s own libretto culled from Shakespeare’s tragedy and various classical sources (Virgil, Plutarch, etc.). Music Director Eun Sun Kim will conduct the production directed by Elkhanah Pulitzer; the cast will be led by Julia Bullock and Gerald Finley as the lovers, with Paul Appleby, as the young Caesar, Octavius, Alfred Walker as Antony’s confidante Enobarbus, and mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong as Octavia (Octavius’ sister and the wife of Antony).

But there’s much more that promises to make this an extraordinary season, with a return to eight mainstage offerings. SFO will present the local premiere of El último sueño de Frida y Diego by Gabriela Lena Frank, an SFO co-commission that will receive its first performances at San Diego Opera in October 2022 before coming to the War Memorial Opera House in June 2023.

There will be new SFO productions of La Traviata directed by Opera San José’s incoming general director Shawna Lucey, Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice featuring countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński in a new production by Matthew Ozawa, and Madame Butterfly directed by Amon Miyamoto and starring Karah Son and Michael Fabiano.

Two operas that received their American premieres in the 1950s are also being featured: Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites and the Richard Strauss masterpiece Die Frau ohne Schatten in a David Hockney production. Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is also part of the lineup, in the Bay Area premiere of the Robert Carsen production. On 16 June 2023, there will additionally be a gala 100th Anniversary Concert.

Complete press release here.

Bookmark for the latest news and updates.

Filed under: John Adams, music news, San Francisco Opera, Uncategorized

Music on the Strait


Over at beautiful Port Angeles on the Olympic Peninsula, Music on the Strait opens tonight at 7pm PST with a program of Haydn, Ravel, and Schubert performed by the Takács Quartet. There will also be a free or pay-what-you-can livestream.

On Saturday, Jeremy Denk joins the Takács in Schumann’s Piano Quintet; the program also includes music by Johan Halvorsen plus solo piano works to be announced.

Music on the Strait

Filed under: Uncategorized

A “Guest” Visit from Donald Runnicles at Grand Teton Music Festival

Image (c) J. Gustavo Elias: Sir Donald Runnicles with the Grand Teton Music Festival Orchestra

Gemma New was originally scheduled to make her Grand Teton Music Festival debut conducting this week’s full orchestral program. But when she had to cancel at the last minute, GTMF’s music director Sir Donald Runnicles stepped in to save the day, adding two more concerts to those for which he is already responsible during this 60th-anniversary season.

My full report is forthcoming elsewhere, but in the meantime, even though the remaining performance tonight at 8pm is sold out, you might have luck by getting on the Festival’s waitlist (see here for ticket info and contacts).

The warm bond Runnicles enjoys with the Festival musicians was gloriously evident, moving to behold and experience. He led the orchestra in an account of the Four Sea Interludes from Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes — with such a fierce intensity that the entire opera seemed distilled into this purely instrumental music of transition and commentary.

Also on the menu was another Runnicles specialty, Edward Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36 (aka the Enigma Variations). No matter how often he has conducted this repertoire staple, how often the musicians have delivered it as part of their respective subscription seasons back with their home orchestras, there was no sign of jaded habit, no room for “been-there-done-that” mediocrity.

The loving attention to every detail in Elgar’s score clearly pulled the Walk Festival Hall audience breathlessly in, reaffirming confidence — sorely needed confidence after the long deprivation — in music’s power to transform. (Incidentally, you can get another potent dose of Runnicles’s affinity for Elgar in an account of the Symphony No. 1 with the Berliner Philharmoniker from 2011, available in the Digital Concert Hall.)

The Britten and Elgar framed the evening’s contemporary work, Five Hallucinations for Trombone and Orchestra by the Australian composer Carl Vine. The work was commissioned for GTMF Orchestra’s principal trombonist (and fellow Australian) Michael Mulcahy and premiered in Chicago in 2016. It makes a solid addition to a rare repertoire, taking for its inspiration case studies described by Oliver Sacks.

Vine describes his starting point: “Hallucinations are fascinating phenomena – instantaneous random inventions of our brains overlaid on the sensation of common reality and indistinguishable from it…. Sufferers of brain damage or a range of neurological disorders regularly hallucinate. Others without mental illness but under great stress or fatigue can also hallucinate, as of course can those who use psychotropic drugs. It is this bridge between the real world and some of the surprising ways in which our brains interpret the mundane reality around us that I find endlessly fascinating.”

Filed under: Donald Runnicles, Grand Teton Music Festival, Uncategorized

Inon Barnatan with Seattle Symphony

Tonight’s Seattle Symphony program presents guest soloist Inon Barnatan, who also conducts, in a pair of early Mozart and early Beethoven concertos: K. 271 and the B-flat major Concerto, respectively (Beethoven’s first complete work in the genre, though known as the Second).

Livestreaming begins at 7.30pm PST.

Above is a clip of the stream from last week’s concert, with guest conductor Nicholas McGegan conducting Schubert’s sunny, Mozartean Fifth Symphony.

Filed under: Uncategorized

New from Byron Schenkman & Friends

Tune in for Bach & Baroque Virtuosity from Byron Schenkman & Friends on Sunday, 27 December (7:00pm PST). The concert features Rachell Ellen Wong, Andrew Gonzalez, and Byron Schenkman and will remain available for the foreseeable future on the BS&F YouTube channel.

For this concert harpsichordist Byron Schenkman is joined by violinist Rachell Ellen Wong and violoncello da spalla (“cello of the shoulder,” an unusual Baroque instrument rediscovered in recent years) player Andrew Gonzalez. The program journeys through music by Antonio Vivaldi,; Jean-Marie Leclair; Johann Sebastian Bach (the Partita in D Minor, which includes the famous Chaconne); and Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, who was one of the most-celebrated French composers of her time. In addition to music for violin and harpsichord we offer a rare opportunity to hear the violoncello da spalla (cello of the shoulder), an unusual Baroque instrument only rediscovered in recent years.

Filed under: Byron Schenkman, early music, music news, Uncategorized

Recommended New Release: Luís Tinoco’s  Archipelago

Have you heard the wonderful music of Luís Tinoco? I invite you to try out the latest album of his work, Archipelago, recently released on the Odradek label.

I first encountered this excellent Portuguese composer and acclaimed radio host — who grew up in the post-revolution generation — in the early Morlot days with Seattle Symphony, when they played FrisLand, a kind of orchestral ode to Bill Frisell. (FrisLand is available, along with such works as Tinoco’s Cello Concerto, on his previous Odradek album, The Blue Voice of the Water).

Tinoco, 50, has written some pieces for the stage as well as vocal and orchestral works. Archipelago focuses on chamber pieces featuring percussion and surveys Tinoco’s musical language over the past two decades.

The composer’s father was a professional painter and an amateur jazz musician, and the obvious camaraderie Tinoco enjoys with the Porto-based Drumming Grupo de Percussão (Drumming GP) — though he himself is not a performer — suggests an intriguing blend of working with a classical chamber ensemble and a tight-knit jazz band.

Drumming GP, led by Miquel Barnat and celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, has earned a strong reputation for its boundary-crossing projects. Tinoco first collaborated with the group when they commissioned him in 2003, and he dedicates to them the album’s culminating work, Steel Factory (another of the several pieces they have commissioned from him over the years).

Archipelago was recorded in the monastery of São Bento da Vitória in Porto. The album is also available in 5.1 surround, so you can immerse yourself entirely in the expert production by sound engineers Hugo Romano Guimarães and Santi Barguñó.

Tinoco has included several pieces from the early 2000s. The opening track, Short Cuts, revisits his 2004 saxophone quartet, refashioned here for percussion. Already in this early stage of his career, Tinoco was developing a language centered on deftly channeled currents of energy, here intensified through the alluring timbral combinations he has devised anew for the percussion ensemble.

Another early piece, the circular Ends Meet, is for marimba and string quartet and was originally written for the percussionist Pedro Carneiro. Tinoco derives fascinating dramatic impulses from the combination of these sound worlds over the course of this four-movement piece as it continually revisits material from different perspectives.

Mind the Gap from 2000, is the earliest piece here, a product of Tinoco’s years as a postgraduate student in London, and charts a variety of journeys with solo marimba.

If Tinoco’s neatly chiseled rhythmic patterns evoke a sense of distances traveled, the recent Genetically Modified Fados (2018, a commission from Drumming GP) oscillates back and forth in time. Tinoco juxtaposes music for percussion quartet with archival recordings of Portuguese Fado featuring male and female singers. These faded, embedded artefacts strip away any sentimentality from the nostalgia. The radiant ghostliness of the triptych’s third panel, Camellias, is especially spellbinding.

In Zoom in – Zoom out, another Drumming GP commission (2010, dedicated to Bernat), Tinoco turns to the popular music of Brazil subliminally by alluding to its rhythmic patterns and melodic structures. It is scored for a trio playing vibraphone, two marimbas, and two bass drums.

The most recently composed music is the title track (2019, also dedicated to Bernat), which is for solo vibraphone and eight wah-wah tubes. Archipelago is a stunningly beautiful poem made of subtly timed resonances, exquisitely micro-tonal differentiations in the tuning of the tubes, and a carefully calibrated dramaturgy of varying mallets and bowings (and even hands). Archipelago submerges the listener in a hauntingly liquescent environment. Add it to your list of evocative water musics.

Archipelago also makes for a fascinating contrast with the grand finale and longest track, Steel Factory (2006). In this piece for an ensemble of steel drums, Tinoco again foregrounds his music of energy, starting with deep, ominous pulsations that set the stage for its highly theatrical gestures. The sound world here also incorporates bongos and steel bars (sixens) and elicits an astonishing variety, later building to a thrillingly clangorous climax.

Review (c) 2019 Thomas May — All rights reserved

Filed under: CD review, new music, new release, percussion, Uncategorized

Brahms, the Consoler

Filed under: Uncategorized

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