MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Byron Schenkman & Friends: Schumann Fairy Tales & Fantasies

Tonight at 7pm, Byron Schenkman is joined by clarinetist Thomas Carroll and violist Jason Fisher in a program celebrating the Romantic imagination. Here’s the menu:

R. Schumann:

Fairy Tales, op. 132,  for clarinet, viola, and piano

Marie Elisabeth von Sachsen-Meiningen:

Romance for clarinet and piano

Luisa Adolpha Le Beau:

Three Pieces, op. 26, for viola and piano

Max Bruch:

Romanian Melody, op. 83, no. 5, for clarinet, viola, and piano

R. Schumann:

Robert Schumann: Dreams, op. 15, no. 7, for piano 

R. Schumann:

Fantasy Pieces, op. 73, for clarinet and piano

Max Bruch:

Night Piece, op. 83, no. 6, for clarinet, viola, and piano

Filed under: Byron Schenkman, music news, Schumann

Roderick Cox Triumphs with the Seattle Symphony

Roderick Cox conducting the Seattle Symphony Orchestra; photo (c)James Holt

I left last night’s performance convinced that Roderick Cox is a major talent destined for something great. Winner of the 2018 Sir Georg Solti Conducting Award, Cox had caught my interest last year leading a Barber in San Francisco Opera’s return to live performance. Those were unusual circumstances dictated by social-distancing rules (with a parking lot as the auditorium, the music transmitted to our car radios), so it was splendid to get to experience this young conductor in the limelight, with a full orchestra, unhampered by any pandemic restrictions more cumbersome than a mask. [UPDATE: Check out the film Conducting Life, an intimate portrait of Roderick Cox and his path toward his vocation.]

Cox chose a challenging program that revealed an impressive gift for communicating his musical vision. The first half was given to William Levi Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony of 1934–a landmark of early 20th-century American symphonic writing has been shamefully, disgracefully neglected while so many tireless mediocrities continue to clutter the repertoire.

This performance had the quality of a double epiphany, confirming what an excellent piece of music we’ve allowed ourselves to be missing out on and at the same time shedding light on the journey Dawson’s symphony traces–outwardly, the harrowing passage from Africa to the New World, but also an implicitly personal journey. He clarified the originality of Dawson’s response to the challenge Dvořák had issued to cultivate an authentically American voice. For Dawson, that meant writing a symphony that, as the composer put it, “is unmistakably not the work of a white man.”

Negro Folk Symphony is a marvel of the imaginative, indeed, symphonic, transformation of simple, ready-made folk material–Dawson draws on three spirituals in particular–into a complex, multi-faceted structure. Cox led a dramatically compelling account that highlighted Dawson’s elaborate use of rhythmic mottos as a unifying device, while also lavishing attention on the orchestral details that give this score such resonance. His spacing of the implacably tragic minor chords ending the “Hope in the Night Section” was especially memorable. This was the SSO’s first performance of the Dawson, and part of the excitement came from the sense of the players sharing in these discoveries along the way, clearly inspired by Cox’s guidance.

Concertmaster Noah Geller gave a deeply felt and polished interpretation of the 1904 Violin Concerto in A minor by Alexander Glazunov–who, like Dawson, straddled a period of drastic change in musical values and pressures. Basking in his warmly expressive lower register in the opening passage, the violinist kept the audience at an attentive hush in Glazunov’s extended cadenza, counterbalancing the piece’s gentler lyricism with its giddy high spirits and vivaciously articulated virtuosity.

Cox proved fearless in Belá Bartók’s Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin, a piece that doesn’t tolerate weak-willed, insecure conducting. He drew an electrifying performance from the outset, never letting go of the ominous, hair-raising tension and danger that animate this early Bartók score. The music echoes, though in a very original way, impulses from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Strauss’s dancing Salome, also hinting at the spirit of film noir to come. Cox emphasized its brutal violence but also knew how to bring out the delicacy and spookily muted colors of Bartók’s orchestration, loosening the reins to give the platform to Benjamin Lulich for his arresting clarinet solos.

The glowing rapport between the players and Cox left me hoping to see much more of this conductor on the Benaroya stage. Thursday’s audience, though relatively sparse, was enthusiastic and grateful. What a pity it would be to miss this excellent program, which repeats Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm.

Review (c) 2022 Thomas May

Filed under: Bartók, conductors, review, Seattle Symphony

David Fulton on Acquiring — and Dispersing — His Storied Collection

I had a chance recently to spend some time with David Fulton and wrote about his new book for Strings magazine:

Right after Thanksgiving in 1981, David Fulton, to his astonishment, took possession of a Pietro Guarneri violin made in Mantua in 1698. This “little Petrus” turned out to be the unexpected beginning of a matchless collection acquired over the next two decades: 28 historic Cremonese instruments, which Fulton gathered into an assembly arguably unrivaled among contemporary private collectors around the world…

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Filed under: Strings

RIP Radu Lupu (1945-2022)

A tragic day. There’s nothing to say, to add, to the music. RIP, Maestro.

Filed under: music news, pianists

RIP Sir Harrison Birtwistle (1934-2022)

Birtwistle on Birtwistle

The fiercely independent and original English composer Harrison Birtwistle has died at the age of 87, his publisher Boosey & Hawkes reported today. He died at his home in Mere, UK.

Jonathan Cross wrote an assessment for Boosey: “He knew what he wanted, and he simply did what he did. Pan, embodied in Panic’s solo saxophone, was – like Orpheus, like the Green Knight, like the Minotaur – just another of those mythical creatures with which Birtwistle became obsessed, and through which he was able to articulate deep ideas about time and identity, longing and loss. This is the essence of the music of Harrison Birtwistle, and the source of its power. This will be its enduring legacy. And it is to this music we shall return time and again to continue to mine its immense riches.”

Observes David Beard: “Birtwistle’s music reflects an intensely personal vision of the world in which degrees of musical complexity may be related to our experience of the world by metaphors of journeying, ritual, or multiple perspectives of the same object. Although influenced to varying degrees by Stravinsky, Messiaen, Boulez and Cage, his distinctive characteristics include wind- and percussion-led antiphony, extended melodies free-flowing over a mechanical ground, and shifting pulses that question our ability to count clock time. Textures may become densely layered, but from such soundscapes individual voices speak with fanfare- or dance-like gestures. Birtwistle’s music, in other words, is always firmly grounded in the body. This should come as no surprise given his early experience of musical theatre ….”

A tweet from younger peer Thomas Adès observes: “Harrison Birtwistle once said of Messiaen ‘when he dies the whole house of cards will fall down’. I feel a bit like it has fallen today.”

UPDATE: And Monday 18 April 2022 continues to bring tragic news in the classical music world: also announced today were the deaths of two pianists, the legendary Romanian Radu Lupu and his younger American colleague Nicholas Angelich. This truly is the end of an era.

Filed under: Harrison Birtwistle, music news

Joel Sachs’s Farewell Concert

It’s hard to process the reality that Joel Sachs has decided to retire as of June 30 after 52 years of teaching and music making at Juilliard; he will hold the status of professor emeritus. Generations of musicians and musical thinkers have been mentored by Sachs, who as a conductor, pianist, and curator has also made invaluable contributions to new music. I’ve been immensely privileged over the years to benefit from his incredible wisdom while editing the programs he single-handedly writes for Juilliard’s always-stimulating Focus festival at the beginning of the year. Zachary Woolfe wrote about Sachs and the 2022 edition of Focus in The New York Times here.

Sachs tonight conducts the New Juilliard Ensemble, which he founded and has led for 29 seasons, in their final concert of the season and his own farewell concert (at 7.30 pm ET).

The program, which will be live-streamed, is characteristically intriguing and full of discoveries:

Yangfan XU Fantastic Creatures of the Mountains and Seas
     Lennox Thuy Duong, Narrator
Paul FREHNER Sometimes the Devil Plays Fate
     
Mary Beth Nelson, Mezzo-Soprano
Diana SYRSE The Invention of Sex
     
Diana Syrse, Soprano
Paul DESENNE Sinfonía Burocràtica ed’Amazzònica

A digital program can be found accesible digital program.

Writes Sachs in his farewell announcement: “Of course, I have mixed feelings–making music with our great young performers is always a huge pleasure. But having arrived at age 82 in excellent health, it struck me as time to move on to other projects–recording, performing as a pianist, and writing–and to indulge in luxuries that come with an open schedule, such as more traveling and more time with my children and grandchildren.”

I’m looking forward to the next project Joel Sachs will be sharing with us. In the meantime, warmest congratulations!

Filed under: Joel Sachs, Juilliard, music news, new music

St. Matthew Passion from Raphaël Pichon and Pygmalion

I reviewed the new Raphaël Pichon/Pygmalion recording of the St. Matthew Passion for Early Music America:

Perhaps the best way to adequately describe the extremely intense, 3-D quality of motion that Raphäel Pichon and the Pygmalion ensemble achieve in the St. Matthew Passion’s opening chorus is by way of comparison with another art: say, Stendhal’s description of the young Fabrizio caught up in the fog of Napoleonic battle in The Charterhouse of Parma (which Balzac praised as a marvel that “often contains a whole book in a single page”)….

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Filed under: Bach, CD review, Early Music America

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

Mendelssohn Festival in Lucerne

Tonight in Lucerne, the festival year will be launched with a three-day Mendelssohn Festival — which is also the first in a new spring residency for the Lucerne Festival Orchestra and Riccardo Chailly that will complement their customary Summer Festival performances.

This mini-Spring Festival will explore Mendelssohn in conjunction with his leading contemporaries, including, for the opening tonight, with his chief antagonist, Richard Wagner.

Anne-Sophie Mutter and friends will also join with musicians from the Lucerne Festival Orchestra for a special benefit concert for Ukraine on Saturday, performing chamber music by Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Shostakovich.

more on the Mendelssohn Festival

Filed under: Lucerne Festival, Mendelssohn, music news

John Corigliano’s Triathlon at San Francisco Symphony

In his programs this weekend with San Francisco Symphony, guest conductor Giancarlo Guerrero will lead the world premiere of Triathlon by John Corigliano. Now 84, the composer has contributed a major work to the saxophone repertoire in this concerto for the remarkable Tim McAllister. I had the privilege of writing the program note for this world premiere. The rest of the program presents music by Adolphus Hailstork, Antonio Estévez, and Astor Piazzolla.

program notes

Filed under: commissions, John Corigliano, program notes, San Francisco Symphony

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