MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Reena Esmail’s This Love Between Us

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Tonight the Los Angeles Master Chorale gives the West Coast premiere of Reena Esmail’s moving This Love Between Us: Prayers for Unity.

Here’s my program essay for tonight’s concert, which pairs her oratorio with Bach’s Magnificat.

I also had the privilege of writing this profile of Reena Esmail for Musical America.

Filed under: American music, Bach, choral music, Los Angeles Master Chorale, new music, Reena Esmail

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

Byron Schenkman & Friends Explore Handel’s Italian Cantatas

Sunday evening’s Byron Schenkman & Friends program looks delicious: focusing on two early cantatas by Handel (including Vedendo Amor from his sojourn in Rome), it also includes some of his instrumental music plus pieces by Domenico Scarlatti, Antonio Caldara, and Anna Bon.
For some background, here’s my piece in this month’s Juilliard Journal on Handel in Rome (on p. 16).

Complete program:

George Frideric Handel:
Sonata in G Major, op. 1, no. 5, for flute and continuo

Domenico Scarlatti:
Four keyboard sonatas, K. 238, K. 239, K. 99, K. 100

George Frideric Handel:
Cantata “Vedendo Amor” for voice and continuo

Antonio Caldara:
Cantata “Soffri, mio caro Alcino” for voice and continuo

Anna Bon:
Sonata in F Major, op. 1, no. 2, for flute and continuo

George Frideric Handel:
Cantata “Mi palpita il cor” for voice, flute, and continuo

Performers:
Reginald Mobley

COUNTERTENOR
Joshua Romatowski

FLUTE
Nathan Whittaker

CELLO
Byron Schenkman

HARPSICHORD

Concert starts 7pm on Sunday 18 November at Benaroya’s Nordstrom Recital Hall.
Tickets here.

Filed under: Byron Schenkman, Handel, Juilliard

Bizet’s Pêcheurs de Perles at the Met

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Here’s the program essay I wrote for the Met’s production of Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles directed by Penny Woolcock.

Filed under: Georges Bizet, Metropolitan Opera

Pascal Dusapin’s New Double Concerto Soars in Seattle

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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).

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

Eleventh Hour

In honor of Armistice Day, on the 100th anniversary.
Gustav Holst: Ode to Death, H. 144, Op. 38 (1919), which sets a passage from When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d by Walt Whitman.

Come lovely and soothing death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later delicate death.

Prais’d be the fathomless universe,
For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious,
And for love, sweet love—but praise! praise! praise!
For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding death.

Dark mother always gliding near with soft feet,
Have none chanted for thee a chant of fullest welcome?
Then I chant it for thee, I glorify thee above all,
I bring thee a song that when thou must indeed come, come unfalteringly.

Approach strong deliveress,
When it is so, when thou hast taken them I joyously sing the dead,
Lost in the loving floating ocean of thee,
Laved in the flood of thy bliss O death.

From me to thee glad serenades,
Dances for thee I propose saluting thee, adornments and feastings for thee,
And the sights of the open landscape and the high-spread sky are fitting,
And life and the fields, and the huge and thoughtful night.

The night in silence under many a star,
The ocean shore and the husky whispering wave whose voice I know,
And the soul turning to thee O vast and well-veil’d death,
And the body gratefully nestling close to thee.

Over the tree-tops I float thee a song,
Over the rising and sinking waves, over the myriad fields and the prairies wide,
Over the dense-pack’d cities all and the teeming wharves and ways,
I float this carol with joy, with joy to thee O death.

Filed under: anniversary

Joan Tower at 80

My profile of Joan Tower, who recently turned 80, is in the September issue of Strings magazine (starts p. 27).

Filed under: chamber music, Joan Tower, profile, string quartet, Strings

A Reich Premiere and Mahler Recharged at the Los Angeles Philharmonic

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It’s been a bracing week of the non-routine in Los Angeles: Philip Glass’s Satyagraha at LA Opera and, from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, John Cage’s Europeras 1 & 2 (with Yuval Sharon’s The Industry) and Susanna Mälkki’s first program of the season. Here’s my review of the Mälkki concert for Musical America:


LOS ANGELES–This past weekend’s program by the Los Angeles Philharmonic was both a newsworthy event and a rousing artistic triumph. Newsworthy because it offered the world premiere of the first composition Steve Reich has written for a full orchestra in more than three decades. And with Susanna Mälkki on the podium, the entire concert on Friday night (November 2) made the concept of a modern symphony orchestra itself feel vitally relevant. Juxtaposed against the pleasures of Reich’s exquisitely crafted piece, a familiar Mahler symphony–the Fifth–was transformed into a revelatory experience.

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Filed under: Los Angeles Philharmonic, Mahler, review, Steve Reich

Leisurely Morning, Roman Style

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Filed under: photography

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

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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

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