MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Adams & Stravinsky with the LA Master Chorale

My essay for tonight’s program by the Los Angeles Master Chorale. On the menu are some of the great choruses from John Adams’s operas (with brand-new piano transcriptions) and one of his favorite works of all time, Stravinsky’s Les noces.

Filed under: essay, John Adams, Los Angeles Master Chorale, Stravinsky

“More Light! More Light!” Morlot and the Seattle Symphony Tackle Beethoven’s Fifth

It would be interesting to know how many audience members comprising the very full house for this performance were hearing their first-ever live Beethoven Fifth. Even for aficionados, the encounter was unusual. Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony created a boldly original framework in which to present the Fifth Symphony, their account of which also marked the conclusion to a two-year cycle of the complete symphonies and piano concertos.

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Filed under: Bartók, Beethoven, review, Seattle Symphony

Chasing Victory with Beethoven’s Fifth at Seattle Symphony

My Seattle Times preview of this week’s Seattle Symphony program:

Three shorts and a long.

It’s the musical equivalent of E =mc 2 : on the surface, a deceptively simple formula that yields previously unimaginable results — including many Ludwig van Beethoven himself couldn’t have possibly foreseen. In World War II, the Allies equated the Fifth Symphony’s famous motto with the dot-dot-dot-dash denoting “V” in Morse code. The BBC regularly included this “V for Victory” message of hope in broadcasts to Nazi-occupied Europe.

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Filed under: Beethoven, Ludovic Morlot, Seattle Symphony, Seattle Times

The Healing Bach

In honor of the birthday of J.S. Bach — and the coming of Spring.

MEMETERIA by Thomas May

bach-violin-partitas-strings-magazine-e1477009169612A link to my feature story, in this month’s Strings magazine, on the inexhaustible appeal of the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin:

Bach’s works for solo violin and cello are the Shakespearean monologues of the string world: The indefinable balance of technical mastery and interpretive insight they require is the touchstone of a great artist.

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Filed under: Uncategorized

Dinner at Eight Fails to Sate the Appetite

My Musical America review of the new opera Dinner at Eight by composer William Bolcom and librettist Mark Campbell is now live (behind the MA paywall).

ST. PAUL, MN–Minnesota Opera has long had in place a vigorous program to promote the creation of contemporary works. Dinner at Eight is the latest of these and brings the tally of new operas that the company has produced to 45. For this project …

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Filed under: American opera, Minnesota Opera, Musical America, review, William Bolcom

A.J. Kernis’s Killer New Violin Concerto at Seattle Symphony

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photo by James Holt

In last night’s Seattle Symphony concert led by Ludovic Morlot,  James Ehnes introduced a brand-new violin concerto written for him by one of today’s finest composers, Aaron Jay Kernis. This was the U.S. premiere; last week Ehnes gave the world premiere in Toronto (a co-commissioner with SSO).

Talk about making a great first impression! Despite — or even because of — its terrorizing challenges for the soloist, this is a concerto built to last: it’s so good and makes such an obviously satisfying contribution that I’d bet at least some of the more interesting virtuosos at work today will be intrigued to take it on.

I sometimes wonder whether we’ve been going through something of a concerto overload in recent years: too many composers relying on the supposedly built-in attractions of a structure that can feature a star protagonist while also benefiting from the color and horsepower of an orchestra (even if the latter is used merely for “atmospheric” painting rather than in a richer, symphonic way).

One of the many things that impress me about this new piece is that Kernis has really thought through the concerto idea and created something substantial and fresh without relying on esoteric novelties — without trying to reinvent the wheel.

In fact, an attempt at abstract description of the piece might make it sound almost old-fashioned, but it’s not. Like Brahms writing for Joseph Joachim (though Kernis himself studied violin as a youngster), he resorts (distantly) to Baroque forms in the outer movements — an intensely felt and gripping Chaconne for the first and a “Toccatini” (his play on the toccata) for the finale — with a soulful “Ballad” doing service as the aria at the center. And the profusion of little cadenza-islands amid the orchestral archipelago also underscores the concerto’s conventional identification with virtuoso prowess.

But Kernis animates all of these conventional elements with a marvelously contemporary spirit. The first two movements have deep emotional resonance, while the finale is so infectiously zippy (and outrageously hard to play) it leaves you with a buzz — a musical martini, as the composer jokes.

He’s often described as “eclectic,” but I don’t think that does justice to the distinctive personality Kernis conveys in his Violin Concerto. True, there are hints of, well, Brahms (in the emotional severity and fatalism of the first movement), Berg, Bach, Stravinsky for sure (in the finale), Messiaen (the wondrous tangles of sound in the “Ballad,” which is also cured with jazz and blues flavors). But instead of a random mishmash, Kernis amalgamates these idioms into a rich, compelling harmonic language and flow of ideas.

One could appreciate Kernis’s score on the level of its orchestral ingenuity alone: such interesting sounds and blends, which paradoxically erase the model of individual “versus” the orchestra — at least over long stretches of the piece. Paradoxically because, on the most obvious level, this concerto it is a virtuoso showpiece in the old school sense.

But with James Ehnes as the soloist, the clichés often signaled by “virtuosity” — mere dazzle, effects without causes — have no bearing. It’s clear that Kernis tailored the piece to display this unmatchable violinist’s musical intelligence, taste, and beautiful sound production above all incredible technical feats he calls for (of which this piece is essentially a violinist’s compendium).

Whether Ehnes was attacking a fearsome passage of double-stop chords with his signature elegance or deftly sprinkling a torrent of precisely placed pizzicati,  it was like watching  a veteran climber scaling a particularly brutal mountain face sans ropes.

But for all the thrills and escapades, the overall impression he left of the concerto — which Kernis has dedicated to Ehnes — was of a rich, many-colored, joyful composition that has something compelling to say, and that resonates afterward.

Again, this is all part of the extraordinary balance Kernis has achieved in his Violin Concerto, overriding binaries of dark/light, intense/carefree, Apollonian/Dionysian, “serious”/enjoyable.

Morlot — a big part of this success in the less obvious task of precision-engineering and calibrating Kernis’s complex orchestral apparatus — was a deeply  sympathetic collaborator in this premiere.

He opened the program with a youthful curiosity by Debussy from a student cantata (the “Cortège et Air de danse” from L’enfant prodigue). The second half brought Beethoven’s Sixth.

Morlot’s account of the Pastoral from several seasons ago has stayed with me as some of his best Beethoven. It’s fascinating to hear him continuing to develop his ideas of this piece. Connections between the movements (even between symphonies) emerged effortlessly — above all in the limber, serenely flowing string lines of the second and last movements, which were reminiscent of his vision of the Ninth’s slow movement at the beginning of the year.

Despite some ensemble untidiness, there was especially delectable work from the winds (Eric Jacobs’ clarinet as beguiling as the voice of Orpheus). Michael Crusoe’s timpani pulsed with dramatic thunder and lighting in a storm movement that sounded like a sketch for The Flying Dutchman: further evidence of the silliness of that persistent cliche about the “placid” even-numbered versus “revolutionary” odd-numbered Beethoven symphonies. Next week brings a further chance for comparison, when Morlot and the SSO close out their two-year Beethoven cycle with the mighty Fifth.

(c) 2017 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: American music, Beethoven, commissions, James Ehnes, Ludovic Morlot, review, Seattle Symphony

Seattle Symphony Unveils a New, Custom Concerto

ajkernisMy latest for The Seattle Times: a preview of Aaron Jay Kernis’s new Violin Concerto for James Ehnes and the Seattle Symphony:

How is the current political environment affecting the work of American artists?

This week’s Seattle Symphony concerts offer one very recent example. The orchestra will give the U.S. premiere of Aaron Jay Kernis’ Violin Concerto, conducted by music director Ludovic Morlot and featuring James Ehnes as the soloist.

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Filed under: commissions, James Ehnes, Seattle Symphony, Seattle Times

Ignacio Prego’s Revelatory Goldbergs

 

A new review for Vanguard Seattle:

An opportunity to hear the Goldberg Variations in live performance on harpsichord is rare enough. But the latest offering from Byron Schenkman & Friends was special in several ways. For one thing, it marked the first time that Byron Schenkman has presented a program in his chamber music series without himself being one of the performers. The Spanish harpsichordist Ignacio Prego had the show to himself for about 80 uninterrupted minutes.

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Filed under: Bach, review, Vanguard Seattle

Performing Art in the Trump Era: An Example from Seattle Pro Musica

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Photo by Shaya Bendix Lyon (courtesy of Seattle Pro Musica)

Here’s my review of Seattle Pro Musica’s recent concert for Vanguard Seattle:

Since 1987, she has presided over one of the finest choral collectives in the competitive, choral-rich Northwest: Seattle Pro Musica. Her musical sensibility is ideally matched to the transportive a cappella soundscapes in which her singers excel.

On top of that, Karen P. Thomas has an enviable knack for creating programs that cohere while offering enough variety to surfeit a hungry, curious musical appetite. (That’s an art in itself, one too often taken for granted in our era of casual iPod curation.)

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Filed under: choral music, review, Vanguard Seattle

Shakespeare the Foreseer

jack-cade

Seattle Shakespeare Company is currently presenting a two-installment adaptation of the Henry VI trilogy, which they’ve titled Bring Down the House.

Directed by Rosa Joshi — whom I interviewed three years ago about her brilliant Richard II (also for Seattle Shakes) — it features an all-female cast and is deftly paced and riveting throughout.

Along with Mari Nelson’s fiercely magnetic York and Sarah Harlett’s wickedly charismatic turn as a young, already restlessly scheming Richard III, I especially admired Peggy Gannon’s versatility in playing both Edward IV and the rabble-rouser Jack Cade, evoking a certain presidential blowhard in her portrayal of the latter.

Not that it requires any untoward exaggeration. Shakespeare seems to have anticipated the demagogic power that now so tragically holds sway:

Be it known unto thee by these                                                                                                 presence, even the presence of Lord Mortimer, that I
am the besom that must sweep the court clean of such
filth as thou art. Thou hast most traitorously
corrupted the youth of the realm in erecting a
grammar school; and whereas, before, our forefathers
had no other books but the score and the tally, thou
hast caused printing to be used, and, contrary to
the king, his crown and dignity, thou hast built a
paper-mill. It will be proved to thy face that thou
hast men about thee that usually talk of a noun and
a verb, and such abominable words as no Christian
ear can endure to hear. Thou hast appointed
justices of peace, to call poor men before them
about matters they were not able to answer.
Moreover, thou hast put them in prison; and because
they could not read, thou hast hanged them; when,
indeed, only for that cause they have been most
worthy to live. Thou dost ride in a foot-cloth, dost thou not?

History of Henry VI, Part II, Act IV, scene vii

Filed under: Shakespeare, Uncategorized

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