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 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!

CONCERT PREVIEW: Viola and Vixens: Women in Classical Composition

by Maggie Molloy

Women ComposersIf you attended a major symphony performance anywhere in the U.S. last year, chances are you did not see any works by women composers.

Women Composers Statistic

Infographic by Rachel Upton and Ricky O’Bannon.

In fact, if you’re like most Americans, it’s quite conceivable that you have never seen a live performance of a symphonic work by a woman composer.

According to a survey of the 22 largest American orchestras, women composers accounted for only 1.8 percent of the total pieces performed in the 2014-2015 concert season. And of the performances of works by living composers, women accounted for just 14.3 percent.

To say that women are underrepresented in the classical music canon would be an understatement. Women are clearly not being heard—the question is, why is nobody listening?

Amber Archibald-SesekLearn about this and many more issues of feminism in classical music at Dr. Amber Archibald-Sešek’s FREE Viola and Vixens recital tonight, which features the WORLD PREMIERE of Seattle-based composer and clarinetist Angelique Poteat’s new piece, “Water Pastels.” Also included on the program are three other leading contemporary female composers: Rebecca Clarke, Libby Larsen, and Amanda Harberg.

I am also very proud to announce that yours truly will be presenting the pre-concert lecture on the past, present, and future of feminism in classical music.

My lecture will traverse the following topics:

     1. Who are some of the key women composers in music history?
     2. Why are these women are not included in the Western classical music canon?
     3. How does this relate to larger issues in feminism?
     4. How can we begin fixing the issue of women being underrepresented?
     5. What might the future of classical music might look like?

I won’t give too much away, but I will say it’s an event you definitely do not want to miss!

Viola and Vixens is on Thursday, March 31 at Seattle University’s Pigott Auditorium on Capitol Hill. This concert is FREE, though donations will be accepted to help fund the Seattle U viola studio’s upcoming trip the American Viola Society conference in Oberlin, Ohio. The pre-concert lecture starts at 6:30 p.m., and the concert starts at 7:30 p.m. For more information, please visit this link.

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

ALBUM REVIEW: Feral Icons

by Maggie Molloy

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When you hear the word “feral” used to describe a musical instrument, the first thing that comes to mind is probably something wild and ferocious like an electric guitar, a saxophone, maybe even a double bass—but probably not a viola.

Unless, of course, you are composer Peter Vukmirovic Stevens. In his latest album, titled “Feral Icons,” he explores the tempestuous and untamed territory of solo, unaccompanied viola. The performer on the album is violist Mara Gearman, a Seattle native and a member of the Seattle Symphony.

Stevens is a Seattle-based composer, pianist, and multimedia artist whose music is deeply influenced by visual media, literature, and travel—and “Feral Icons” is no exception. The music was inspired, in part, by his travels and his interest in art history.

“I’ve been surrounded by icons my whole life, growing up,” said Stevens, whose first musical influences came from the Serbian Orthodox church where he sang during church services as a child. His new album was especially inspired by the rich history of icon paintings in places like Cyprus and Bulgaria, where he recently visited.

“I was doing my research on that art form, which I think is unique in the Western world in that it’s very symbolic,” he said. “The work is done anonymously by the artist, and the amount of symbolism that is present in icons was a great vehicle for adding live musical ideas as musical representations of icons and people that I admire…Each piece is sort of an icon, a painting in itself of a particular attribute.”

The album is a suite of six pieces for solo, unaccompanied (and very assertive) viola which combine the instrument’s rich tone with an exotic harmonic language and a thematically rich musical arc. For Stevens, the pieces on the album collectively represent a single entity, though each is varied in its symbolism and character, as is brought out through Gearman’s commanding performance.

“Watching her play is like a display of power,” Stevens said. “She is a tremendous player. In order for solo instrument pieces to be communicated, having somebody of her caliber is really important to bring the music to life.”

The opening title track, “Feral Icons,” begins with broad, full-bodied bow strokes that highlight the viola’s rich, raw tone. The expressive melodies are perfectly balanced against double-stop harmonies and unrelenting rhythms, creating a gorgeous contrast of musical textures.

It is followed by the melancholy reveries of “Sovereign, I,” a pensive and heartfelt musical meditation. The musing melodic lines ring across the viola’s entire pitch range above rich harmonies. In fact, Stevens considers the spacing of harmonies to be one of the most important aspects of his harmonic thinking.

“The benefit of working with a string instrument is that you can play the same note sometimes on three or four different strings, and it allows you to create different tonal effects and different timbral effects,” he said. “And it’s nice that it’s not a piano, because you have all these different strings available to think about the color of the sound you want and where it is on the fingerboard.”

The third work on the album, “Sanctuary,” is an opulent exploration of color, with textural interest created through dreamy, sweetly ringing melodies contrasted with lush chords, percussive flourishes, and the occasional, deliberate silence.

The next piece, “Ex Nihilo,” takes its title from the Latin phrase meaning “creation out of nothing.” Expressive melodies, aggressive rhythms, forceful double-stops, and shifting tempos create a richly varied tapestry of musical textures.

“Bloodlines” follows with its haunting, romantic melodies dancing above a low drone, and the album comes to a close with the breathtaking lyricism and visceral energy of “Black and Gold.”

And balanced against the power and intensity of 45 minutes of solo viola, Stevens manages to maintain the sincerity, the vulnerability, and above all, the beauty of a single, unaccompanied instrument.

“It’s a wonderful challenge to write for a single instrument,” he said. “That a single instrument can carry the entire musical vehicle that is needed for a good piece of music to be realized. And that challenge is so exposed. It’s a wonderful metaphor for the individual, for a single person just trying to process the world around them. The solo instrument is a wonderful means of expressing that individuality and that complexity within each of us.”

A “Feral Icons” CD release party and performance featuring Gearman will take place at Seattle’s Steve Jensen Gallery on Capitol Hill this Saturday, Sept. 12. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. and the performance begins at 8 p.m.

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ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Jessica Meyer’s “Sounds of Being”

by Maggie Molloy

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Traditionally the viola has always played more of a supporting role in classical music—crammed between the violin and the cello, its rich, luscious tone sometimes gets lost in larger orchestras. And so, violist and composer Jessica Meyer decided to create a new musical album in which viola is the star—in fact, viola is the entire orchestra.

Meyer’s “Sounds of Being” is an electroacoustic album featuring her own original compositions for viola and loop pedal. The seven pieces utilize the full range of her instrument (and the full range of her pedal) in order to take the listener through different emotional states of being, ranging from blissful joy to tormenting anger—and everything in between.

 

Meyer’s diverse background in Baroque, classical, jazz, and contemporary music informs her compositions, which combine elements from a wide variety of musical styles to create an innovative, avant-garde sound.

“My music is inspired by sounds I have either performed over the years as a classically trained violist or listened to while driving my car—from Bach, Brahms, and Blues, to Flamenco, Indian Raga, and Appalachian fiddling,” Meyer said.

The loop pedal allows her to multiply her gorgeous, expressive tone, and the delicately layered textures blend to create an ambient one-woman orchestra. Throughout the album, her viola paints beautiful soundscapes of surprisingly varied colors and timbres.

“I love performing fragile timbres, wailing gestures, and percussive grooves to make my instrument sound like a drum, an electric guitar, an Indian sarangi, or an extension of my own voice,” Meyer said. “The loop pedal helps me combine all of these sounds together to form an entire orchestra of emotion.”

One of the simplest human emotions is captured in Meyer’s “Hello,” a piece which explores the simple and innocent joy of truly connecting with another person.

“This is that warm and fuzzy feeling you have when you’re spending time with a person and they move from just being an acquaintance to something more meaningful,” she said of the piece. “Nothing is particularly said, but the connection is clearly felt.”

A gentle opening melody flows sweetly and simply, rising higher and higher in pitch like the butterflies you get in your stomach when you’re around a new crush. The piece develops into a series of charming, happy, hopeful variations on a simple theme, capturing the innocence and joy of truly falling for someone.

“Into the Vortex” transports the listener to the opposite end of the emotional spectrum: anger. Meyer describes it as a “bluegrass-meets-death-metal” piece about the way it feels when you allow negative energy to suck you in.

The piece starts out soft, calm, and inquisitive, but a little over a minute in is when you fall into the vortex, spinning and whirling, picking up speed until everything is frenzied and chaotic. Strong, visceral bow strokes and extended techniques create an aggravated, rhythmic texture that encompasses the listener in a blur of fury.

Meyer’s “Touch” explores yet another uniquely human feeling: the body’s response to human contact.

“This piece strives to illuminate what happens inside your body on a cellular level when this basic human need is met,” Meyer said.

The piece begins with dramatic pizzicato hairpins which gradually give way to delicately overlapping melodic phrases, creating a constantly shifting soundscape which is grounded in its softly pulsing rhythm. The music repeatedly swells in intensity and shrinks back into calmness, imitating the vivid and varied perception of touch.

The album closes with the dramatic “Duende,” a musical exploration of passion and power. Broad, sweeping bow strokes soar across a wispy, high-pitched backdrop, with Meyer’s freeform solo playing steadily growing in intensity throughout. She layers in a lively, repetitive percussive groove to serve as a vibrant and captivating musical backdrop for her dynamic melodies, ending album with a bold and beautiful bang.

“‘Duende’ is a concept the poet Lorca wrote about—the moment when someone is inhabited by a mysterious and powerful force that everyone around them can feel, but no one can explain,” Meyer said. “This last piece is the quest for that moment; when the spirits rise up from the soles of your feet, and you don’t give a damn about anything anymore…and you just play.”

VIDEO: In-Studio Performance at Second Inversion

Joshua Roman, Susie Park, Jocelin Pan, and Andrius Zlabys perform the first movement, Toccata, from Yevgeniy Sharlat’s Piano Quartet.

This piece was featured on the TownMusic at Town Hall Seattle season opener in September and the musicians stopped by our studio for a sneak peek.

Stay tuned for more exciting video projects from the Second Inversion studios!