ALBUM REVIEW: 26 by Melia Watras

by Geoffrey Larson

Photo by Michelle Smith-Lewis

If you’ve ever witnessed a live solo or chamber music performance by Melia Watras, you are familiar with the sense of immediacy that her playing involves. It’s this immediacy of beautiful tone and hard-charging energy that seizes the listener in her live performances. I was hoping that her new album on Sono Luminus, titled 26 after the total number of strings on instruments played in the recording, would yield the same ear-grabbing experience. On the whole, it does not disappoint.

The album’s selections are all world-premiere recordings of new works of music, the majority of which are Watras’ compositions. The program of music here is smart for a couple reasons. First, let’s be honest: an album of contemporary viola solos and duets may not be everyone’s cup of tea, even fellow musicians. But for those in search of interesting discoveries of great new music and those eager to discover the far reaches of a viola’s solistic capabilities, this album presents a vibrant range of music that refreshingly eschews mainstream-appeal fluffiness. Watras’ personal connection to the composers and performers also strengthens the performances immeasurably: her former teacher Atar Arad performs his and Watras’ compositions, and she is also joined by her husband, violinist Michael Jinsoo Lim and longtime collaborator Garth Knox on viola d’amore. For these reasons, it definitely deserves a listen.

Watras’ compositions on 26 present a style with foundations in improvisation, rounded out with high amounts of technical difficulty. Liquid Voices, with its shimmering harmonics, crunching dissonances and angular, Stravinsky-like melodies, was inspired by a Virginia Woolf short story. Prelude and Luminous Points are both intensely personal portrait-like works, the first inspired by Bach and Watras’ relationship with her former teacher and the second by Lim’s evocative high playing. Photo by Mikel is possibly the album’s most energetic work and sounds especially improv-driven, evoking all sorts of different characters from the instrument. The Sonata for Viola Solo seems like a real repertoire piece, just jam-packed with musical content that utilizes a huge range on the instrument and some interesting techniques. Though the speed at which ideas move by is occasionally jarring, this is great musical storytelling, and I am left feeling like I’ve been along with Watras on a real journey of some sort. Its message is slightly uplifting, with the theme of a “timeless positive force” from the second movement returning at the very end in offstage playing.

Bicinium, a composition by Watras’ UW colleague Richard Karpen, presents two long, winding lines that succeed in creating a lush, enjoyable texture from only two instruments. Lim’s violin and Watras’ viola are tightly wound together, never resting in this marathon 20-minute composition until the viola gets the last word at the end. The piece’s general idea is varied in expressive ways, evoking shifting pastel colors, but this work is straightforward overall, producing no sounds that seem particularly new or different.

The two works by Arad and the one by Garth Knox are more instantly accessible than the other pieces on this release, for better or for worse. In the album-opening Toccatina a la Turk, I could feel a bit of Brubeck even before I heard the direct Blue Rondo reference. The short, fiery variation at the end left me wishing that this brief composition was longer, and took that theme further into Turkish territory. Esther contains some of the most lyrical writing on the whole album, and is a wonderful showcase for the richness of Watras’ and Arad’s viola sounds. Knox’s Stranger is possibly the album’s most tonal work, but not one of simplicity, cycling through some arresting sonic elements that are easy to love and stay with the listener.

The crystal-clear Sono Luminus sound only serves to strengthen the impact of 26. This is an album that does more than just show off virtuosity: it showcases Melia Watras’ bravery as a performer and composer, and clearly translates the power of close personal relationships in great chamber music performances. The only thing better would be seeing these musicians perform this program live in person.

[editor’s note: you CAN see selections from this performed live! Melia’s 26 album release show will be on Friday, February 24 in Brechemin Auditorium (University of Washington School of Music) at 7:30pm. The program includes selections from 26, a video presentation, and commentary from the artist.]

New Composed Music: February 2017 Seattle * Eastside * Tacoma

SI_button2Second Inversion and the Live Music Project create a monthly calendar featuring contemporary classical, cross-genre, and experimental performances in Seattle, the Eastside, Tacoma, and places in between! 

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Keep an eye out for our this flyer in concert programs and coffee shops around town. Feel free to download, print, and distribute it yourself! If you’d like to be included on this list, submit your event to the Live Music Project at least 6 weeks prior to the event and be sure to tag it with “new music.”


 

Racer Sessions
A weekly showcase of original music with a jam session based on the concepts in the opening presentation.
Every Sunday, 8-10pm, Cafe Racer | FREE

Wayward Music Series
Concerts of contemporary composition, free improvisation, electronic/electroacoustic music, & more.
Various days, 7:30/8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15
waywardmusic.org (check website for complete listings)

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Ancora presents Wild! With Skyros Quartet
Aimee Mell leads a program of works by Randall Thompson, Ola Gjeilo, Sarah Quartel, Joan Szymko, Dan Forrest, and Jackson Berkey.
Sat, 2/4, 7:30pm, Trinity Lutheran Church | $11-$16

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Seattle Music Exchange
Pianist Angelo Rondello will perform works by Seattle composers Samuel Jones, Peter V. Stevens, Angelique Poteat, Adam Haws, & Benjamin Salman.
Sat, 2/4, 8pm, Nordstrom Recital Hall | $20-$42

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Seattle Rock Orchestra performs The Police
SRO shakes out hits like ‘Roxanne,’ ‘Message In A Bottle,’ ‘Don’t Stand So Close To Me,’ and ‘Every Breath You Take.’
Sat, 2/4, 8pm, Kirkland Performance Center | $40

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Solaris Vocal Ensemble with Seattle Modern Orchestra
SMO collaborates with UW’s Solaris Vocal Ensemble in a unique performance of Julia Wolfe’s Thirst and works by Dempster and Erickson.
Fri, 2/10, 7:30pm, Meany Studio Theater | $10-$20

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Andrew Joslyn & the Passenger String Quartet
Violinist, composer, and arranger Andrew Joslyn presents an afternoon of music with The Passenger String Quartet.
Sun, 2/12, 4pm, Bainbridge Waterfront Community Center | $5-$20

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Adagio: The Music of Arvo Pärt
An evening of music from Estonian composer Arvo Pärt where the spirit of early music meets ultra-spare modern minimalism in a meditative, intimate setting.
Sun, 2/12, 7pm, On the Boards | $20

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Cornish Presents: Jesse Myers
Pianist Jesse Myers brings John Cage’s prepared piano music to the stage on which the instrument was born.
Fri, 2/17, 8pm, PONCHO Concert Hall | $10-$20

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Inverted Space: Composers Concert
Inverted Space presents a concert of new works featuring the music of Adrian Swan, Charles Corey, Anna Stachurska, & Jacob Sundstrom.
Fri, 2/17, 8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

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Lake Union Civic Orchestra: Temptation
Baritone Charles Robert Stephens performs music by Seattle composer and pianist Jeffrey Moidel. Works by Milhaud and Shostakovich round out the program.
Sat, 2/18, 7:30pm, Center for Spiritual Living | $15-$20

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Wayward Music Series: Melanie Voytovich
Percussionist Melanie Voytovich and friends bring you a night of new work featuring Storm Benjamin, Scott Langdon, Maggie Brown, Brad Hawkins, and Ella Maher (dance).
Sat, 2/18, 7:30pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

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NOCCO: Resonance: Celebrating Black American Composers
Hear a newly commissioned work by Hanna Benn & performance artist Davida Ingram and works by Scott Joplin & George Walker.
Sat, 2/18, 2pm, New Holly Gathering Hall | $15-$30 (under 18 FREE)
Sun, 2/19, 7:30pm, Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute | $15-$30 (under 18 FREE)

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Melia Watras: 26 Album Release
UW faculty violist Melia Watras performs selections from 26, her newly released CD on Sono Luminus, with a video presentation and commentary.
Fri, 2/24, 7:30pm, Brechemin Auditorium | FREE

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Seattle Pro Musica: Chichester Psalms
Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms is paired with James MacMillan’s Cantos sagrados, both exploring the desire of humankind to seek social justice and peace.
Sat, 2/25, 8pm, St. James Cathedral | $12-$38

VIDEO PREMIERE: Liquid Voices by Melia Watras presented with Sono Luminus

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photo: Michelle Lewis-Smith

Melia Watras: Violist, Chamber Musician, Composer, Professor of Viola, Sono Luminus Recording Artist, Chair of Strings at the University of Washington. And to top it all off? One of the nicest people you could possibly meet.

Second Inversion has had the opportunity to review her album Ispirare, film a video with her and Michael Jinsoo Lim in our studios, host the two of them on The Takeover, and now we’re thrilled to premiere the video for Liquid Voices, a piece from her upcoming album 26 to be released on Sono Luminus on January 27, 2017.

Melia Watras wrote Liquid Voices in 2013, inspired by Virginia Woolf’s short story, The Fascination of the Pool. Watras was taken with the story’s fluidity, imagery and depth, which helped shape the structure and basic concept for the piece: voices floating on top of each other. Liquid Voices was recorded by Michael Jinsoo Lim, violin and Melia Watras, viola and this video was created by Ha Na Lee.


If you’re in the Seattle area, take note that Melia’s 26 album release show will be on Friday, February 24 in Brechemin Auditorium (University of Washington School of Music) at 7:30pm. The program includes selections from 26, a video presentation, and commentary from the artist.

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CONCERT PREVIEW: Q&A with Andrew Waggoner (Seattle Modern Orchestra)

Seattle Modern Orchestra opens its 2016-17 season with a concert featuring works by three composers who reflect on the past, both personal and cultural, to create an expressive piece of music for today. Both celebrated German composer Wolfgang Rihm and Lithuanian composer Vykintas Baltakas recontextualize ideas from other works in their respective catalogs, with a language of gesture linking us to past traditions.

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We had the great pleasure of chatting with Andrew Waggoner, the third composer on the program, whose Concerto for Piano will be premiered by Grammy-winning pianist Gloria Cheng:

Second Inversion: How did the collaboration between you, Gloria Cheng, and Seattle Modern Orchestra come about?

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Gloria Cheng. PC: Lefteristphoto.com


Andrew Waggoner:
My relationships to Gloria and to Julia and the SMO are representative of what I love most in my compositional life: the chance to work over many years with small and intersecting groups of close friends who are also beautiful artists. Gloria and I met in 1989 when I went to Los Angeles for concerts with the L.A. Phil. Soon after that we started working together on a range of projects, including two large-scale solo piano pieces I composed for her and the durable, collaborative L.A. series Piano Spheres. She also picked up another piano piece that I had written for myself as a kind of compositional etude and gave its first performances, just because she liked the piece. Everything she does, from her Grammy-winning disk of Stucky, Salonen and Lutoslawski, to the concerto she’s premiering with the SMO, is a labor of love, which is one of the main things I love about her.

I met Julia through Michael Jinsoo Lim. Both Mike and Melia Watras knew Julia well from her time at UDub, and Mike had performed the Scelsi violin concerto with her and the SMO. He suggested that we meet and so we did, and almost immediately started looking for ways to work together. Julia and Mike collaborated on the premiere of my violin concerto with Philharmonia Northwest, another labor of love! The piece had been commissioned by an orchestra in the UK, then had gone begging for four years before Julia picked it up. Once Gloria and I had decided the time was right for a concerto we offered it first to Julia and the SMO and were thrilled when she responded with an enthusiastic “yes!” (this both for the idea of the piece and for the chance to work with Gloria!).

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Julia Tai. PC: Amy Vandergon Photgraphy.

Gloria was also part of the original personnel for our group Open End, with Mike; Melia; my wife, cellist Caroline Stinson; and me, so the Seattle connection is deep and multifaceted.

SI: What does it mean to you to be working with such a young, yet thriving, ensemble here in Seattle on the premiere of your piano concerto?

AW: I’m deeply honored to work with the SMO. Everything about the group, from the scope of its season to the depth of its programming, is unique on the current new music scene. To commit to doing full concerts of large, sinfonietta-scale works, many of which are among the most sophisticated in recent memory, is really remarkable. There’s not a whiff of political convenience or professional grandstanding in anything they do; as a composer one feels safely tucked into a program of complete integrity, one that, at the same time, is vivid, exciting and welcoming to the audience. That the group exists in Seattle and not New York is telling, and a wonderful corrective to the (still weirdly persistent) notion that the East is where it’s at. Not so!

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Seattle Modern Orchestra. PC: Amy Vandergon Photgraphy.

SI: What would be helpful for audiences to know about the piece before hearing it? And what kind of impression do you hope to leave?

AW: Probably the most important thing for the audience to know in advance about the concerto is that it is highly personal; I was well into composing it when it occurred to me that it’s very much a diary piece. This was unintentional, but is certainly an outgrowth both of the depth of my affection for Gloria and her playing, and of my relationship to concerto writing in general: I can’t get anywhere with a concerto until I know who the soloist is, that is, who the instrument is in dramatic terms. I need to hear the instrument’s voice as a character with a whole backstory that defines its expressive personality. Once I have that the piece takes shape fairly quickly, and in this case it became clear that the backstory was in large part mine, and that the piano both gives voice to and comments upon that story over the course of the piece. The piano, then, is a trusted friend with her own emotional response to what is, at least to some degree, a shared history.

The large-scale trajectory of the piece takes the listener from an interlacing of dream- and waking-states, sometimes violently juxtaposed; through an extended rumination on the necessity and challenge of compassion, for others and for oneself, that seems to grow directly from the dream encounters of the first movement; to an extended reminiscence that has a kind of incandescent quality, called Quantum Memoir. While I was deep in the heart of this movement we lost Steven Stucky, one of the strongest, most significant musical voices of the last 40 years, and a very close friend and mentor. Steve, then, impresses himself upon this memoir that seems to be inscribed in pulsating quanta. Exactly how is difficult to say, but I feel him there, and so the movement is dedicated to him.

Both the first and second movements jump off from literary points of reference, Carl Jung’s The Red Book in the first, Whitman’s poem Reconciliation in the second, at the center of which are these lines:
For my enemy is dead—a man divine as myself is dead;
I look where he lies, white-faced and still, in the coffin—I draw near;
I bend down, and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.

As for the impression I’d like to leave, it’s fairly simple: I want listeners to have an experience that is both strange and beautiful. Strange in that they feel pulled in a direction, to a place, they would neither have anticipated nor, perhaps, chosen for themselves; beautiful in that when they’re in it they find that they’re happy for it, even if they can’t quite say how or why.

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PC: Amy Vandergon Photgraphy.

SI: Outside of any concert-related activities, what are you looking forward to doing in Seattle while you’re in town?

AW: I’m looking forward to seeing friends and to eating at Poppy! Beyond that, I’ll be there with my son Henry, who came with me the last time I was in town for the violin concerto with Julia and Mike. He and I can’t wait to: visit the aquarium; eat Top Pot doughnuts; and swim in the local pools.

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PC: Amy Vandergon Photgraphy.

SI: What’s next for you this season?

AW: On the near horizon is another piano piece; and a new movement for a six-voice chanson I wrote two seasons ago for the virtuoso vocal collective Ekmeles, based on a poem by my oldest daughter Sally Williams. This coming spring will see the premiere of a new string octet, Ce morceau de tissu, for two string quartets, (inspired by the writing of Fatima Mernissi) commissioned by the Lark Quartet for their 30th anniversary. The first performances will be given by the current and founding Larks, in Weill Hall at Carnegie on May 1st, and next season at the Schubert Club in Saint Paul. After that I’ll spend some quality time writing songs, and get started on a new orchestra piece that will be in some way be constellated around Michelle Alexander’s epic (and shattering) study, The New Jim Crow.

Seattle Modern Orchestra’s season opener is Thursday, November 3 at 8 p.m. at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford. For information and tickets, please click here.

NEW VIDEO: Decoda plays György Kurtág’s Hommage à R. Schumann

by Maggie Stapleton

Three members of Decoda (Carnegie Hall’s first ever affiliate ensemble!) stopped by our studios during their Spring 2016 residency at the University of Washington School of Music to film one of their favorite pieces, György Kurtág’s Hommage à R. Schumann.

Meena Bhasin, viola
Carol McGonnell, clarinet
Elizabeth Joy Roe, piano

Decoda is a chamber ensemble comprised of virtuoso musicians, entrepreneurs, and passionate advocates of the arts. Based in New York City, they create innovative performances and engaging projects with partners around the world.

And a bit of exciting Decoda-related news: we were ecstatic to discover recently that Decoda cellist Saeunn Thorsteinsdottir has launched new a Seattle-based ensemble with violinist Michael Jinsoo Lim, Pacific Northwest Ballet Concertmaster and violist Melia Watras, fellow University of Washington professor. Keep your eyes and ears peeled for Frequency!

NEW VIDEO: Berceuse by Melia Watras

by Maggie Stapleton

It’s no secret that we’re big fans of husband and wife duo Michael Jinsoo Lim and Melia Watras. They’re one half of the Corigliano Quartet, whose recordings are often heard on our 24/7 stream, we’ve featured them on our weekly program The Takeoverreviewed Melia’s latest Sono Luminus album Ispirareand most recently we hosted them in our studios to record a video of Melia’s composition, Berceuse. This piece showcases Melia’s composer-performer role and the beauty of a relationship between two people share a life in and outside of music.

“Berceuse for violin and viola is an adaptation of the original voice and viola version of the piece, which I wrote for the fantastic folk singer Galia Arad. The piece first took shape while I was practicing the exquisite fourth movement lullaby of Robert Schumann’s Märchenbilder. Galia’s folk style was very much in my mind as I composed.

Violinist Michael Jinsoo Lim and I have been performing together since we met in our freshman year at Indiana University, so it was a natural fit to adapt Berceuse for violin and viola. Mike also exchanged bow for pen, as the author of the text for the vocal version of the piece.” – Melia Watras

Michael and Melia are integral to the (new) music community in Seattle – Michael as Concertmaster of the Pacific Northwest Ballet and Melia as Associate Professor of Viola and chair of Strings at the University of Washington. Both actively perform in other venues around the Northwest and are always pushing the boundaries of what music and art can be.

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To see more videos produced by Second Inversion, check out our video page!

ALBUM REVIEW: Ispirare by Melia Watras

by Maggie Molloy

Think of the composers that have most inspired you. What is it about their music that makes your ears perk up, your heart soar, and your soul come alive? What is it about their music that makes you want to pick up an instrument and play something?

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Violist Melia Watras asks all of those questions in her new album, “Ispirare”—but she also asks one more: what is the music that most inspired the composers themselves?

“‘Ispirare’ consists of contemporary music for viola and the pieces that inspired their creation,” Watras said. “I wanted to build a program around works that were not only engaging to perform and listen to, but also provided a creative spark for other composers.”

Watras has commissioned and performed numerous works by living composers throughout her career as a soloist, chamber musician, and recording artist—establishing herself as a very versatile violist in the contemporary classical music scene.

So who made it on Watras’s list of most inspiring contemporary composers? The album features works by George Rochberg, Atar Arad, Luciano Berio, and Shulamit Ran.

“Ispirare” begins with George Rochberg’s 1979 Sonata for Viola and Piano. Written late in his career, the piece is a lush tapestry of gorgeous melodies with clear ties to earlier composers. The first movement makes heavy use of chromaticism, extended tonality, and a unique harmonic language at times reminiscent of Bartók, while the dramatic, sweeping piano figures pay tribute to Richard Strauss. The soaring melodies and poignant lyricism of the second movement glide above jazz-infused harmonies, and the third movement ties the piece together with a neoromantic fantasia, an epilogue of sorts borrowing bits and pieces from the first two movements.

The piece that follows, “Caprice Four (George),” was inspired by Rochberg’s sonata, and even quotes part of it. Composed in 2003 by Watras’s former viola professor, Atar Arad, the piece is part of a set of viola caprices which Arad intended as “thank you notes to composers who graced us with great viola pieces.” With the exception of the opening phrase, the caprice is played entirely on the G string of the viola, with the instrument’s rich tone ringing and echoing unaccompanied. Intimate and exposed, the piece showcases the viola’s immense power and force as an instrument—and likewise Watras’s intensity and expressivity as a soloist.

In another cross-musical connection, Atar Arad’s daughter, singer Galia Arad, appears on the album’s next track: Luciano Berio’s “Black is the Color…” from his 1964 song cycle, “Folk Songs.” Composed for mezzo-soprano and small chamber group, the piece borrows from American, Armenian, Azerbaijani, and Italian folk traditions. Wistful viola motives and modal harmonies accompany Galia Arad’s gentle, daydreaming voice as she drifts through the sweet, simple, and sincere vocal melodies.

The song is so achingly beautiful, it’s no wonder it was the inspiration behind the next piece on the album, Shulamit Ran’s 2010 “Perfect Storm.” Watras commissioned Ran to compose a piece that made use of an existing work of her choice, and Ran chose to expand upon the viola motif in Berio’s song. The result is an unaccompanied viola solo which travels through a series of diverse musical landscapes: at times rocky, jagged, and intense, but at other moments sweet, shy, longing, and lyrical. It is (as the title suggests) the perfect storm: wind, rain, and rhythmic turmoil envelop the listener before the clouds clear, the pizzicato pitter-patter fades away, and they are left with a beautiful, airy silence.

The final and most experimental piece on the album is Berio’s 1985 “Naturale (Su Melodie Siciliane),” written for viola, percussion, and the recorded voice of a Sicilian folk singer. Recorded by the composer in Palermo, the voice belongs to Celano, whom Berio described as “perhaps the last true Sicilian storyteller.” The piece highlights the contrast between the highly refined classical transcription of folk songs with the raw and organic voice of a true folk singer. It’s the perfect ending to the album, as it juxtaposes, quite plainly, the musical inspiration itself with the music that it inspired.

And like all of the pieces on the album, “Naturale” illustrates the way musicians both inside and outside of the classical music sphere can teach one another, learn from one another, engage with one another, and ultimately, inspire one another.

PS, If you missed Melia’s edition of “The Takeover” with her husband Michael Jinsoo Lim, listen below!IMG_5874-Edit-Edit-Edit+copy