On the closing and opening of new music festivals

I have a few regrets when it comes to not being in Chicago this autumn. One is missing the Cubs winning the World Series. The other far greater regret is missing last month’s sprawling Ear Taxi Festival, which dominated the city for six jam-packed days. Ear Taxi was unprecedented in its size and scope, and according to co-curator and University of Chicago professor Augusta Read Thomas, it probably won’t be reprised anytime soon.

To me, that gave the press a special responsibility, as well as a challenge: How do we review new music, anyway—thoughtfully, respectfully, but honestly? Deidre Huckabay wrote a thought-provoking piece about the utility of criticism with respect to new music, which ends up challenging the utility of criticism in general. But as she points out, and as I said earlier, talking about never-before-heard music ups the ante.

Someone in my Facebook feed noted that it’s hubristic for even experienced critics to make qualitative assertions about a work based on just one live hearing. That much I completely agree with; Schoenberg certainly knew as much when he established his Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen (Society for Private Musical Performances), where premiere works were often repeated and critics were barred from attendance.

As Vienna ramps up its own new music festival—the month-long Wien Modern, now in its 26th year—and I strap on my (extra-small, somewhat dusty) reviewing cap, I’ve been thinking about these questions anew. Expecting to engage with unfamiliar music over the course of this month, myself, I guess this foreword is a lengthy reminder that new works are almost always works in progress—if not literally, Boulez-style, then at least in the public consciousness.


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Mike Svoboda takes center stage for Georg Friedrich Haas’ Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra (2016) as Cornelius Meister conducts. Photo: Markus Sepperer

An acquaintance of mine eschews most tonal, through-composed music, and recently, while flailing to defend John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean—a perennial favorite of mineI just sighed and told him, “Y’see, I’m a sucker for structure.”

It’s true: During Wien Modern’s entire Eröffnungskonzert last Thursday, structure was on my mind. Obviously, I’m not talking structure in a classical, conventional sense; otherwise, I’d be the Sonata-Form Sucker. Rather, after hearing the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester tackle one modern classic and two premiere works in the same night under conductor Cornelius Meister, I left with a reaffirmed appreciation for form—in other words, not only a piece’s materials, but its assembly.

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Academy of St Martin in the Fields bids farewell to Sir Neville Marriner

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Buffeted by wind and rain, I was strolling past the Musikverein on Tuesday afternoon when the above poster caught my eye. Sir Neville Marriner, who passed away on Sunday, had been scheduled to lead the Academy of St Martin in the Fields that evening, the first of a three-stop European tour for the orchestra.

I ducked inside and inquired about the concert. To my shock, I learned that it was still on—the Academy was to perform the concert sans conductor, in honor of their late founder and longtime leader. Doubly shocking, the box office told me there were still two tickets left.

Marriner’s path to the podium is one of my favorites in classical music, perhaps because I sympathize all too deeply with the disgruntled-violinist trope. Though a talented performer—he was principal second violin of the London Symphony for nine seasons—when it came to his skills on the instrument, Marriner was modest to the point of self-deprecation.

“[As] a violinist of my quality, what I felt about music I couldn’t express completely,” he once lamented. “It’s rather like an actor having a speech impediment.”

Feeling stifled by life in a symphony orchestra, Marriner formed a chamber ensemble on the side with other restless LSO colleagues in 1958. The next year, they gave their first concert in the Trafalgar Square church that would become the Academy’s namesake, with Marriner leading his fellow “refugees from conductors” from the first desk.

But the conductor’s siren song proved irresistible. With some coaxing by then-LSO music director Pierre Monteux, Marriner gradually traded in his violin for a baton. Under that baton, the Academy would record hundreds of records, becoming the most prolific orchestra-conductor pair in history.

Though Marriner stepped down as the Academy’s music director in 2011, the ensemble remains inextricably tied to his name. There’s the oft-repeated crack of uncertain origin: a radio announcer says, “And that was the Academy of St Martin in the Fields…,” to which a parrot dutifully squawks, “…conducted by Neville Marriner!”

But enough of this eulogizing—as far as I’m concerned, the Academy’s concert did it best. Julia Fischer joined the orchestra for a commanding-as-ever performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, leading the orchestra with the merest of nods, followed by the Academy’s finessed and impeccable Mozart Symphony No. 39.

But the solemn tributes to Marriner which opened and closed the concert were undoubtedly the most memorable. First, the Academy requested that the audience stand, not clap, for Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture. After a glowing rendition, the entirety of the Musikverein shuffled to its feet, and profound silence filled that great hall.

Later, after the Mozart, Academy concertmaster Tomo Keller announced that the orchestra would conclude with an encore close to Marriner’s heart: Percy Grainger’s aching string orchestra arrangement of “Danny Boy.”

Academy principal violist Robert Smissen mentioned the Grainger arrangement in his touching, lively tribute to Marriner in the Guardian. “I’m not sure any of us will be able to play that for a while,” he admitted.

Two nights later, the Academy did—not in spite of their grief, but because of it. Sir Neville may be gone, but his orchestra plays on.

A Reich retrospective, und eine Reise

Alas: Low-quality photos of a high-quality event.

Before I left the house for the San Francisco Symphony’s Steve Reich tribute concert, I briefly mulled over what to wear. Would a black cap (in my case, a White Sox cap) be too kitschy? I demurred, but eventually decided against it. 

When I got there, I was none too surprised to find that plenty of people at Davies Symphony Hall that evening had taken up the mantle for me. And when music director Michael Tilson Thomas gestured to the black cap which begot them all, nestled somewhere in a box seat stage right, the enthusiastic concertgoers in front of me picked up their phones to snap photos in his general direction.

Naturally, the attendance of the man itself was enough to make the evening special, made more potent by Reich’s Bay Area connection—via Mills College’s formidable graduate music program—and longtime professional relationship with MTT. (At one point, the two men sat thigh-to-thigh on a piano bench to perform Reich’s Clapping Music—which, as you’d expect, brought down the house.)

But the finessed and insightful musicianship was ultimately what stole the show. Musicians from the San Francisco Symphony and Conservatory united for a performance of Six Marimbas that was ethereality incarnate; it was great to see Jack Van Geem leading the ensemble onstage, too, whom I haven’t seen live since his retirement in 2012 or earlier. (That being said, the percussion section is in good hands with the radiant Jacob Nissly, who performed superbly on both Six Marimbas and Double Sextet.

To say the neighborhood talent was well-supplemented would be an understatement: Reich devotees Kronos Quartet performed Different Trains, the now-classic that was written for them in 1988; guitarist Derek Johnson brought a clean, cool rendition of Electric Counterpoint; and Chicago’s own eighth blackbird melded seamlessly with SFS musicians for an unforgettable Double Sextet finale. 

Throughout, it was brilliantly apparent why Reich’s music is so satisfying to play. It is utterly self-evident music; it energizes in response to being energized. Yet, there is power in its restraint, as though an untapped reservoir of fervid intensity lies just beneath the surface.

I considered writing a full review of this concert, but the fact that I didn’t attend on a press ticket gives me a somewhat convenient pass—I fear that my review would have been stuffed with superlatives, anyway. Instead, read Joshua Kosman’s glowing (but professional) review here.

As mentioned earlier on this blog, I’ll be studying abroad in Vienna this autumn. Hopefully a change of scenery will be just what Dia[loges] needs to jumpstart itself. I leave next week—recommendations always welcome!

West Edge Opera finds a home in West Oakland

The first time I ever saw an opera, live or otherwise, was less than two years ago. (For the record, it was Lyric’s 2014 Il Trovatore—or, more accurately, the second half of it.) Prior to that, something about the opera house felt off-limits, even though I’d long felt comfortable in the concert hall. Maybe it was my near-total ignorance of the repertoire, or my mother’s intense dislike of all things opera (stemming from an unfortunate experience involving Wagner and standing-room-only tickets). But if I’m being completely honest, I still feel that way sometimes.

Thank God, then, for small companies, which, to someone like me, seem to embody everything big houses are not: young, flexible, adventurous, and, at least comparatively, cheap. (Lyric General Director Anthony Freud and Daniel Grambow of Chicago’s Floating Opera Company discussed the unique challenges of running large and small opera companies in a panel discussion at the University of Chicago earlier this year.)

Having spent most of the summer in my hometown, an East Bay suburb, I can’t help, then, but be disappointed that I wasn’t aware of West Edge Opera sooner. Otherwise, I might have been turned on to opera long before college.

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Radio silence

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You might have noticed that dia[loge]s has been rather quiet lately. For that, I apologize. I’ve had some major life changes that I feel obligated to share here.

Last month, my stepfather—a kind, deeply devout man who was part of my life for ten years—chose to end his own life. (I mentioned his death in passing here, but couldn’t bring myself to write more at the time.) The news was a shock, and the grieving process has been messy. It suffices to say that my life has changed in ways I’ve yet to begin to comprehend or process, and many things—even the things I once loved to do—seem trivial at the moment.

Oddly enough, I’ve found that the only work I can readily bring myself to do after his death is at the Chicago Maroon, the student paper of the University of Chicago. The new calendar year ushered in a new stage of my involvement with the paper, too, when I became a full editor for the Arts column. It means more editing/organizational work and less writing, but I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. It feels like catharsis, or something like it.

In the meantime, though, other writings have since been scaled back and will remain so for the time being—my work for Larry Johnson’s superb Chicago Classical Review, for one, and this blog. (On the contrary, I have gotten more vocal on Twitter recently—call it the cult of convenience.)

Looking ahead, I’ll be spending only a few more months in Chicago this year: I’ll stick around until June to close out the school year, at the very least to take a course co-taught by Lyric General Director Anthony Freud next quarter (which I couldn’t be more excited about). After that, there’s a chance dia[loges] will be California-based all summer, when I go home to the Bay Area and MJ (potentially) works in LA; in autumn, I’ll be in Vienna studying abroad and will probably use dia[loge]s for writings, pictures, and other mementos.

But that’s all in the future. For now, I’m taking things one day at a time.

 

Homecoming

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Philip Glass’s senior-year student ID, provided by the composer.

Last weekend, minimalism’s reluctant hero returned to his alma mater. My meager coverage for the Maroon doesn’t quite encapsulate the philosophical potency of Mr. Glass’s residency, though I feel fortunate to have attended all of the events and gotten the chance to speak to the composer himself.

The day after our conversation, I was listening to the Kronos Quartet’s recordings of Glass’s quartets when I realized just what it was about Glass’s music I found so compelling. It doesn’t assert itself, selfishly demanding your undivided attention. Rather, it embraces and enhances the world as it—like his music—slowly, inexorably moves around you.

So often artists present audiences with a canvas to survey. For me, Glass’s music is the lens through which we view that image. The image itself is one of our own creation.

Recap: January 2016

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Jaap van Zweden will succeed Alan Gilbert at the New York Philharmonic in 2018.

A big month in classical music news. In Chicago:

  • Lyric Opera has announced its 2016/17 season, with its usual emphasis on meaty 19th-century repertoire. Highlights include the beginning of Lyric’s new Ring cycle with October’s Das Rheingold, the Lyric premiere (!) of Berlioz’s Les Troyens in November, a new production of The Magic Flute, and the Chicago premiere of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird in March, coproduced with Harris Theater. Subscriptions go on sale tomorrow, February 1.
  • The CSO also announced its 2016/17 season this month. Like previous seasons, most of the offbeat programming comes not from commissions and new works, but explorations of lesser-known (and usually Italian) composers. That’s not to say, however, that the new season offers nothing by way of new music: Four new pieces are scheduled to be premiered by the CSO, including a cello concerto by Esa-Pekka Salonen that was co-commissioned by the CSO, the New York Philharmonic, the Barbican Centre, and the Elbphilharmonie Hamburg. (Yo-Yo Ma will premiere the work at Symphony Center in March 2017.) Other highlights include an ongoing celebration of Prokofiev’s 125th birthday year, a visit by the Budapest Festival Orchestra and music director Iván Fischer, a two-piano Chamber Series recital with Marc-André Hamelin and Leif Ove Andsnes, and a complete Beethoven piano concerto cycle. In and outside of Chicago, the CSO will also continue its community outreach concerts, including a new series at Wheaton College.

Both entities, on the whole, seem to be plugging in much the same creative direction as last season—which is to be expected—but their programming already seems more promising than 15/16 did this time last year. Autumn couldn’t come sooner, but first…

  • …a promising summer line-up is slated for the Grant Park Music Festival’s 2016 season. A bouquet of artists and pieces both familiar and new enliven the season, including a weeklong Marin Alsop residency, an appearance by the Chicago-based violinist Rachel Barton Pine, a world premiere by Michael Gandolfi and regional premiere by Aaron Jay Kernis, and finally, Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust as a riotous season closer.
  • Ravinia—or, as I call it, Chicago Pops—has also announced its CSO residency season. Its opener includes the American premiere of Wynton Marsalis’s Violin Concerto, as performed by Nicola Benedetti. (The rest of that concert has yet to be programmed.) Also appearing are Alisa Weilerstein, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Daniil Trifonov, Jeffrey Kahane, Paul Lewis, Gil Shaham, Joshua Bell, Itzhak Perlman, and Lynn Harrell.

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Pierre Boulez, 1925-2016

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Pierre Boulez—whom I wrote about on this blog just a few short weeks ago— died Tuesday at the age of 90. I never met Maestro Boulez, but today, listening to his music and his Bruckner 8 recording with the Vienna Philharmonic (a favorite), I was reminded of two stories I thought I’d share here.

One is an anecdote my teacher told me. She’s a violinist in the CSO, meaning she’s worked closely with Pierre Boulez over the years. (Boulez was named principal guest conductor of the orchestra in 1995 and held the title of conductor emeritus upon his death.)

Her most vivid memory of the maestro is rather at odds with Boulez’s granitic public persona. Roughly paraphrased, she told me the following:

“Have you noticed that music, more than anything else, has a way of ‘getting’ you when you least expect it? Once, Pierre Boulez was conducting us [the CSO] in a performance of Mahler 2. And wouldn’t you believe it—I looked up during the performance and noticed that tears were running down his cheeks. To this day, I don’t know what it was that made him cry, but something about it must’ve caught him off-guard.”

Then, a miraculous dream I had in November: I was embedded in the ranks of an orchestra, standing and facing the conductor. None other than Boulez was on the podium. Whatever he was conducting evoked the orchestral version of Ravel’s Une barque sur l’ocean, but was more immersive, more organic. Whatever it was, I felt utterly engulfed by the music; in that moment, nothing else mattered but the sounds of the orchestra. I woke up unable to remember what the piece sounded like, but Boulez’s image—stoically set jaw, minimalistic gestures and all—was embedded in my mind.

That morning, I listened to John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean for the first time. My dream had been a near-premonition: in the piece, I heard everything I’d felt the night before and more. Later that month, when I got the opportunity to speak to Adams for the Miami Herald, I impulsively told him about my dream.

“Oh, Hannah, that’s wonderful; I love that,” he cried. “And Boulez would be a great interpreter of Ocean, too.”

Unfortunately, that hypothesis remained untested, as did the Waiting for Godot hypothesis, and the countless unfulfilled revisions of Boulez’s own pieces that were surely in the works.

What a shame that is. But—what a life.

Taut, timely Bel Canto receives long-awaited Lyric premiere

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Unlikely friends Gen (Andrew Stenson) and Roxana (Danielle de Niese) are brought together by a hair-raising hostage situation.  © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2015

*WARNING: Spoilers ahead. Read at your own discretion.*

Before the premiere performance of Bel Canto, I was wandering around the grand lobby of the Civic Opera House when I ran into some friends from WFMT. They were asking patrons why they were attending the performance, then collecting soundbites from their responses for a segment.

My answer was easy: When you have the opportunity to attend the world premiere of an opera, you go—especially a show as anticipated as Bel Canto. Billed as a dream collaboration between Lyric Opera music director Sir Andrew Davis, creative consultant Renée Fleming, director Kevin Newbury, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz, and upstart composer Jimmy López, Bel Canto would also be the notoriously conservative Lyric’s first commission in more than a decade.

In the end, Bel Canto didn’t quite meet its hype—how could it’ve? But it was certainly memorable, not to mention a laudable showing for López and Cruz, who made their first foray into opera with the commission.

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