MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Overview of the 2019 BBC Proms

The following is a guest contribution by Tom Luce, who offers an overview of this year’s  2019 BBC Proms season, which took place between 19 July and 14 September:

This year’s edition of the BBC Promenade Concerts  ended on 14 September with the last of more than 80 concerts over a bit less than two months. It marked the 125th season since the Proms were inaugurated.

As is to be expected from the modern model for the series, there was a wide range of music. The classical repertoire remains the bedrock and was very fully covered, but some show music, jazz and folk were also featured.

The 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing was marked with some space-related programs: Holst’s The Planets, of course, music from space movies, and various commissioned pieces.

Climate concerns were also reflected — not least through the first European performance of In the Name of the Earth by John Luther Adams a composer well known in Seattle, sung by 600 unaccompanied choral singers with some audience participation.

A good proportion of the newly commissioned world premieres was from women composers, reflecting a BBC objective of gender equality in its music commissioning. Some neglected older works were given rare performances. These included a fine symphony, a powerful cello concerto, and an interesting string quartet by Mieczysław Weinberg, a contemporary and protégé of Shostakovich.

Performers and ensembles of global stature were well represented. Orchestras came from Vienna, Leipzig, Dresden, Paris, Shanghai, Prague, Munich, Bremen, Hanover, the Middle East, and the United States. Conductors included Barenboim, Haitink, Rattle, Jansons, Dausgaard, Salonen, Bychkov, Grazinte-Tyla, Andris Nelsons, Andrew Davis, Eliot Gardiner, Pappano, and Sakari Oramo.

This year, the main contribution from the United States was youthful and collaborative. Musicians from the Juilliard Orchestra combined with London’s Royal Academy students in one concert. Another was given by the National Youth Orchestra of the United States, which gave an outstanding program of fascinating contrasts. The first half consisted of Berlioz’s song cycle Les Nuits d’Été, ravishingly sung by Joyce DiDonato. The second offered Richard Strauss’s monumental Alpine Symphony, in which the ensemble was supported by some extra brass players from Britain’s National Youth Orchestra. Under Antonio Pappano’s direction, they excelled equally in the delicate subtleties of the Berlioz and the huge power and energy needed for Strauss’s lengthy and demanding Alpine expedition. They diplomatically concluded with a touching rendering of Elgar’s Nimrod variation. Equally diplomatically, in their program, the Shanghai players chose the Beatles’ Hey Jude as an encore.

As usual, the series attracted high attendances. For the main orchestral concerts, the attendance rate apparently averaged 89%. In its Proms configuration, the Royal Albert Hall’s capacity is 6000 — double or more than that of most large concert halls. So on average, around 5,400 people attended each of nearly 60 concerts on consecutive days over two months, many of the programs including new or unfamiliar music. It is doubtful whether so great an outreach has ever been achieved elsewhere.

All of the concerts are broadcast by the BBC and can be heard internationally on its website for up to 30 days. Of those still accessible — though not now for long — I would choose the superb performance of Berlioz’s neglected masterpiece Benvenuto Cellini that was  led by John Eliot Gardiner on 2 September, as well as a profoundly moving performance on the following day of Bruckner’s 7th Symphony by the Vienna Philharmonic under the inspired direction of Bernard Haitink, who has now retired permanently.

By way of contrast, I would also choose an item from the final concert, the Last Night of the Proms (14 September). The first half of this iconic event has a variety of fairly short pieces, including some songs. The solo singer re-emerges in the second half to lead the audience in popular patriotic songs traditional to the occasion.

This year, the American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton was the soloist. Advance publicity heralded an emphasis on diversity, including LGBT rights and other minorities fighting bigotry and oppression. The opening, a newly commissioned piece by Daniel Kidane, was entitled Woke.

In the second half, Barton led the audience in Thomas Arne’s Rule Britannia, Britannia Rule the Waves… The tradition is that towards the end the singer unfurls the British flag. But on this occasion, it was different. As the London Times’ critic reported: “Half way through her blazing performance of Rule Britannia, Jamie Barton produced a large gay pride rainbow flag, which she waved as vigorously as she sang. I have rarely heard a bigger cheer in the Albert Hall.”

I would also recommend Barton’s performance of Harold Arlen’s Over the Rainbow in the first half. It was ravishing, not least because of the sensitive and nuanced delivery of the song’s subtle harmonization and changes of tempo and mood by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under their conductor, Sakari Oramo — a concluding illustration of their magnificent contribution to the whole series.

Filed under: BBC Proms

RIP Christopher Rouse (1949-2019)

News of the death of Christopher Rouse has spread quickly on social media. This great American composer, who was 70, passed away at his home in his native Baltimore, according to a statement issued by his publisher, Boosey & Hawkes.

His final work, Symphony No. 6, will be given its posthumous premiere on October 18-19 by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra led by Louis Langrée.

Here’s an interview of the prolific composer discussing his Requiem, which was written to pay homage to Hector Berlioz on his bicentennial. Rouse deemed it “the best piece I’ve ever written.” Grant Gershon led the LA Master Chorale in the premiere of Rouse’s Requiem in 2007.

John Adams, who shared the same birthday with Rouse (February 15), made these remarks in a Tweet:

I will very much miss Chris Rouse’s benevolently grumpy, Brahmsian presence, not to mention his strong music. We shared the same birthday, and would communicate once a year on that date. I’ll forever regret my eternal razzing of his beloved and luckless Orioles.

Here’s a brief overview from B&H:

Born in 1949 in Baltimore, where he lived until his death, Rouse developed an early interest in both classical and popular music. He graduated from Oberlin Conservatory and Cornell University, numbering among his principal teachers George Crumb and Karel Husa. Rouse maintained a steady interest in popular music: At the Eastman School of Music, where he was Professor of Composition from 1981-2002, he taught a course in the history of rock for many years. Rouse was also a member of the composition faculty at The Juilliard School since 1997, and the Distinguished Composer-in-Residence at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

Rouse’s prolific catalog includes six individualistic symphonies, concertos for 12 different instruments, and a multitude of vivid, colorful symphonic works with programmatic themes. His concertos garnered him several prestigious awards. The Trombone Concerto, written for Leonard Bernstein and dedicated to him after he passed away, earned Rouse the 1993 Pulitzer Prize in Music. His Cello Concerto, premiered by Yo-Yo Ma and the Los Angeles Philharmonic for the orchestra’s 75th anniversary, won two Grammy Awards. His guitar concerto Concerto de Gaudi, inspired by the Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi’s combination of surrealism and mysticism, won the 2002 Grammy for Best Contemporary Composition.

Throughout his life Rouse was championed by the greatest orchestras and conductors across the US and around the world, most notably Marin Alsop, Alan Gilbert, David Robertson, Leonard Slatkin, and David Zinman. He composed works for renowned soloists Dawn Upshaw, Evelyn Glennie, Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax, Cho-Liang Lin, Sharon Isbin, Carol Wincenc, among others. From 2012–2015, Rouse served as the Marie-Josée Kravis Composer-in-Residence at the New York Philharmonic. Rouse was also resident composer at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Helsinki Biennalle, Pacific Music Festival, Tanglewood Music Festival, Eugene Symphony, and Aspen Music Festival.

Filed under: Christopher Rouse, music news

Reframing the Image: A Contemporary Lens on Robert Mapplethorpe’s Provocative Art

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Later this month, Cal Performances will present Triptych — a meditation on the legacy of Robert Mapplethorpe 30 years after his death that was composed by Bryce Dessner to a libretto by korde arrington tuttle. Here’s the article on this hybrid theatrical work I wrote for Cal Performances:

In this age of selfies, promiscuously disseminated Snapchat sexting, and Instagram—the omnipresent reflection of our image-saturated, disposable culture—it almost defies belief that an exhibition of photographs was once the flashpoint for the culture wars that continue to divide America…

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Filed under: art exhibition, Bryce Dessner, Cal Performances, Patti Smith, photography

Thomas Dausgaard Starts the Seattle Symphony Season

Tonight in Seattle, new Music Director Thomas Dausgaard begins his tenure with an opening night program of Carl Nielsen, Richard Strauss, and Sergei Rachmaninoff, with Daniil Trifonov as the soloist in the Russian composer’s Fourth Piano Concerto. I’m not able to be there for the opening but look forward to reporting on Dausgaard’s work with the orchestra later in the fall.

Meanwhile, you can listen to the conductor’s rapport with Strauss on the new SSO release, which includes an account of the Alpine Symphony from performances in June 2017 (which I reviewed here), as well as the prelude to the opera Antichrist by fellow Dane Rued Langgaard.

Filed under: Seattle Symphony, Thomas Dausgaard

Living Inside the Music: Teodor Currentzis and musicAeterna

Looking ahead to his American debut at The Shed in November, my profile of Teodor Currentzis for the fall issue of Early Music America magazine is now available.

Within a few moments of listening to a performance led by Teodor Currentzis — whether live or recorded — you realize something different is unfolding. Nothing sounds taken for granted. What you assumed to be familiar parameters of a well-known piece — tempo, dynamics, accentuation — are suddenly open to question, the music propelled by a spirit of fierce collective concentration….

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Filed under: conductors, early music, Early Music America, profile

Bernard Haitink Bids Adieu

BH-2019

Tonight is the night: after farewell concerts in Amsterdam and London, Bernard Haitink will officially raise his baton for the last time when he conducts the Vienna Philharmonic is his very last concert at the 2019 Lucerne Festival. The concert has long been sold out.

Yesterday Haitink and his wife Patricia were the special guests at the vernissage launching the new book by Erich Singer and Peter Hagmann: Bernard Haitink: Dirigieren ist ein Rätsel. The maestro was visibly moved by the tributes to his life and legacy.

On tonight’s program, Haitink will conduct Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with Emanuel Ax in the solo role. Could you imagine a more graceful exit from such a distinguished career?

Filed under: Anton Bruckner, Beethoven, Bernard Haitink, conductors, Lucerne Festival

Chailly Meets the Lucerne Festival Academy Alumni

One of the programs I’m most looking forward to in Lucerne is the Academy Alumni Orchestra program this Sunday, which will be led by Riccardo Chailly, music director of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra.

Yesterday, Wolfgang Rihm and Mariano Chiacchiarini introduced the culminating work of the program: Rihm’s early orchestral composition Dis-Kontur from 1974, which starts off with a post-’68 generation update of the catastrophic hammer blows familiar from Mahler, Berg, and Schoenberg. As Ulrich Mosch writes:

Fundamental to Rihm’s pieces for orchestra was his decision to refrain from transforming the orchestra into a large, structurally controlled “sound generator” and from reinventing the ensemble by taking the approach of reorganising it according to “internal, social” assumptions – a co-op effort of equally entitled individuals or a self-regulating social and musical system, for instance.

The rest of the program that Chailly will conduct the Soviet Alexander Mosolov’s The Iron Foundry, Bruno Maderna’s Grande Aulodia for flute and oboe solo with orchestra (Swiss premiere), and Schoenberg’s Five Orchestra Pieces.

 

UPDATE: You can watch this splendid concert here:

 

Filed under: Lucerne Festival, Lucerne Festival Academy

Setting Sail with Billy Budd: A Selective Overview of the Opera’s Production History

Here’s an article I wrote for San Francisco Opera’s upcoming production of Billy Budd, which opens on Saturday.

The late New Yorker critic Andrew Porter deemed Billy Budd “musically the richest and most arresting” of Benjamin Britten’s fifteen operas. It is also arguably his most provocative and challenging. While the novella Billy Budd became enshrined in the canon shortly after the belated publication of Melville’s unfinished text in 1924 — boosted by a dramatic reappraisal of the author following a long period of neglect — the opera has taken more time to find a place in the repertory….

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Filed under: Britten, San Francisco Opera

Clara Schumann, Music’s Unsung Renaissance Woman

The 200th anniversary of Clara Schumann’s birth is quickly approaching. Here’s a story on her legacy I wrote for The New York Times:

Schumann is among the most celebrated names in the classical music canon — for most people conjuring the poetic and intense work of Robert Schumann, the Romantic master.

But when the Schumann in question is his wife, Clara, the name should remind us most of the frustrating lack of recognition still accorded female composers.

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Filed under: chamber music, Clara Schumann, New York Times, pianists

Guest Review: An Unusual but Successful Meistersinger in London

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Fulham Opera, Die Meistersinger
image: Matthew Coughlan

Guest review by Tom Luce of Die Meistersinger at the London-based Fulham Opera:

Wagner’s epic comedy is one of the longest and largest pieces in the operatic repertoire. Sixteen solo roles, the semi-chorus of apprentices, and big chorus and orchestra requirements combine with its up to five hours’ duration to make Die Meistersinger one of the most daunting artistic and financial challenges opera managements can face.

Outside Germany and Austria, where some houses do it every year, it is difficult to find performances. I have been lucky this year to see it twice, in Berlin and then London.

In April, the Berlin Staatsoper staged Die Meistersinger with a distinguished and experienced cast, the world-class Berliner Staatskappelle in the pit, and Daniel Barenboim, one of our epoch’s most outstanding musicians, on the podium. It was every bit as powerful and inspiring as one would expect. Andrea Moses’ production presented Nuremberg as a center of global capitalism, with its Mastersingers as major corporate figures. Not everyone appreciated this approach, but the director did interestingly convey the crowd’s response to Hans Sachs’s concluding monologue as a commitment to art rather than nationalism.

The forces involved in the London performance around a month ago could not have been more different. The Fulham Opera is a small fairly new undertaking of the type often characterized as “fringe.” It presented this most challenging of operas without cuts but with a chorus totaling only 23 (including the apprentices). There were 19 musicians in the pit: 9 winds, 9 strings, and a lutenist for Beckmesser. They played Jonathan Finney’s reduced version of the score.

One might think that an ensemble on so small a scale would guarantee failure to deliver Wagner’s expansive epic. But the actual event undermined such prejudgments.

There were indeed some elements not wholly successful — the overture sounded thin and unbalanced, and the brawl at the end of the second act did not fully come off. But other big moments were successful. The third-act prelude was warmly and beautifully delivered, and the great “Wach Auf” Chorus came across powerfully. Throughout, the staging, acting, singing, and playing gave a real sense of the lyrical flow and the interactions between characters that are essential to the piece.

The limited scenery concentrated more on furniture than on the Nuremberg setting but did provide plenty of scope for the comic interactions between the apprentices and their leader David and the Mastersingers in Paul Higgins’ effective and enjoyable staging. All the soloists sang and acted convincingly and were matched by skillful and committed playing in the pit under the fluent and sympathetic musical direction of Ben Woodward.

Rather, I must confess, to my own surprise, l left the Fulham Opera performance with the wonders of Wagner’s great masterpiece resonating not all that much less than I had left the Berlin performance.

The success of this daring enterprise shows that there are a large number of very gifted singing actors in the operatic profession without — at least for the present — the celebrity status expected by big opera company audiences. It also shows that elaborate scenery is not necessary for an effective staging.

This prompts an interesting question. Die Meistersinger has been performed by London’s two big established companies twice in the last decade. Seattle Opera’s last performance was in 1989. Do the glitzy expectations of big companies’ audiences and supporters inhibit their managements from considering less infrequent and more affordable presentations of this astounding and essential masterpiece?
–Tom Luce

Filed under: Wagner

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