Melinda Bargreen

 

Welcome to the website of Melinda Bargreen, a Washington State writer, critic, composer and teacher. After 31 years as classical music critic of The Seattle Times, I’m now spending more time on my own creative projects.

On this site, you can browse my blog, contact me about freelance writing projects; hear (and order!) some of my music, and chat about the amazing arts scene in the Pacific Northwest. Enjoy -- I’m glad you’ve found this page!

A Life in the Arts


Contact me: mbargreen@aol.com


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NEWS AND NOTES


Opera Book is on the way!


In the works for this summer: I’m writing a book for Seattle Opera’s 50th anniversary, with a complete history of all the company’s productions, people, innovations, and -- of course -- the Wagnerian “Ring” that has made Seattle famous in cultural centers around the world. Stay tuned for details on the book, scheduled to be available in time for the company’s Golden Anniversary festivities and its ceremonial farewell to visionary general director Speight Jenkins, as he passes Wotan’s Sword to successor Aidan Lang.


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A Wonderful Memoir by the British author Penelope Lively

(February, 2014)


“Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir,” by Penelope Lively. Viking Press, $26.95 (234 pages).

By Melinda Bargreen


This delightful and engrossing memoir by the 80-year-old award-winning novelist Penelope Lively accomplishes everything one could wish for in autobiographical writing. It is thought-provoking, evocative, masterly, deeply human, and – at a mere 234 pages – also succinct.


And it’s unconventional, too: a preface and a set of five interrelated meditations on memory, history, books, beloved objects, and the process of the evolution of a human being over a series of decades. Not for Lively is the ordinary memoir that begins with birth and early childhood, marching sequentially on through adulthood and into old age. We discover snippets of the author’s fascinating past, through the “moth-eaten” fabric of memory that makes certain events vividly recollected, while others recede as if they’d never happened.


Hers was an eventful childhood. Lively’s father was a British diplomat, and she was born in Egypt, where her early years were colored by events of World War II and by the vivid sights and sounds of Cairo. She was sent to boarding school in England, going on to study history at Oxford, and meeting her husband – whose death at 69 has deprived Lively (in common with many in her demographic) of her lifetime companion. Very little space is accorded to the fact that she also wrote more than two dozen books, most of them novels, and some of them highly acclaimed (“Moon Tiger” won the Man Booker Prize).


An avid reader who cherishes and revisits her collection of blue Pelican paperbacks, Lively recounts the changes wrought by aging, concluding that “So this is old age, and I am probably shedding readers by the drove at this point.  . . . And if it sounds – to anyone – a pretty pallid sort of place, I can refute that. It is not.


“I am as alive to the world as I have ever been – alive to everything I see and hear and feel,” she writes, noting that she is reading John Lanchester’s “Capital” very slowly “because it is the sort of capacious novel I like and I don’t want it to end.” Lively observes that old age involves “a sea-change” leading to “an almost luxurious appreciation of the world that you are still in. Spring was never so vibrant; autumn never so richly gold.”


There are losses, too, of course: the “collapsing years of old age,” in which time whizzes by in a way it never did during childhood, when a year was an eternity. “What has happened to time, that it whisks away like this?” Lively ponders. In some of the most moving passages, she argues passionately for the teaching of history: “If you have no sense of the past, no access to the historical narrative, you are afloat, untethered … You will not have an understanding of time, and a respect for memory and its subtle victory over the remorselessness of time.”


The final chapter, “Six Things,” focuses on treasured objects (including the two objects of the book’s title: the thousand-year-old pottery shard with dancing fish, and a rock with two little fossils picked up on a Dorset beach). We learn why these deeply personal beloved objects are springboards to important memories. Lively’s book may well become a similarly treasured object for her readers.


“WAGNERIAN IDOL”

This August, at Seattle Opera


I’m not sure which is the more illustrious: the lineup of 10 young artists in Seattle Opera’s August 2014 International Wagner Competition, or the panel of judges. That latter group includes star mezzo Stephanie Blythe, stage director/pedagogue Stephen Wadsworth, Opera Frankfurt director Bernd Loebe, and directors Peter Kazaras and François Rochaix. Three familiar Seattle names are among the contestants: soprano Marcy Stonikas, mezzo Suzanne Hendrix, and tenor Ric Furman, all of whom have sung important roles with Seattle Opera. Basso Roman Ialcic and soprano Tamara Mancini also have Seattle Opera connections. The conductor is quite new to Seattle: conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing, also an experienced Wagnerian.

The competition is set for August 7 in Seattle’s McCaw Hall -- and there’s an audience-favorite prize (the orchestra votes too). The last two International Wagner Competitions have been positively electric. Mark your calendars!



Harmony and Heartbeats, from the BBC News Service:


Choir singers not only harmonize their voices, they also synchronize their heartbeats, a study suggests.

Researchers in Sweden monitored the heart rates of singers as they performed a variety of choral works. They found that as the members sang in unison, their pulses began to speed up and slow down at the same rate.

Writing in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, the scientists believe the synchrony occurs because the singers coordinate their breathing.

Dr Bjorn Vickhoff, from the Sahlgrenska Academy at Gothenburg University in Sweden, said: "The pulse goes down when you exhale and when you inhale it goes up.

"So when you are singing, you are singing on the air when you are exhaling so the heart rate would go down. And between the phrases you have to inhale and the pulse will go up.

"If this is so then heart rate would follow the structure of the song or the phrases, and this is what we measured and this is what we confirmed."


Mozart and Babies

From Tel Aviv comes the news that premature (30-week) infants may be more soothed by Mozart than by Bach. The study was conducted with a small research group (12 babies), but researchers at the Ichilov Hospital found nonetheless that listening to Mozart may be of benefit to the benefit of early newborns. The study divided the babies into three groups and played each group Mozart on the first day, Bach on the second, nothing on the third. After 10 minutes of Mozart, the babies’ metabolic rate dropped by 9.7%. The same amount of Bach lowered the rate by 4.5%. (When no music was played, the metabolic rate stayed level.) The conclusion? ‘Lowering the metabolism rate of premature babies causes them to lose fewer calories and increase their weight faster, which is a positive state.’ Way to go, Mozart!


OPERA NEWS: Seattle Opera has a new general director designate: English-born Aidan Lang, who will become the Opera’s third man at the top in the company’s 50-year history. Lang, currently general director of New Zealand Opera, will succeed Speight Jenkins in the Seattle Opera post on September 1, 2014, following a six-month transition period in Seattle when Lang will work closely with Jenkins and executive director Kelly Tweeddale to ensure a smooth changeover.

Lang, in Seattle for the eagerly anticipated announcement, told Classical KING FM that the Seattle Opera job is “perfect for me, in three ways. The scale of the company is perfect; the timing is perfect; the place is perfect.” He is “ready to move on” from New Zealand, where his daughter Eleanor (now 16) will finish school in the fall of 2016.

Born in the UK in 1957, Lang is a former freelance opera director who has held leadership positions at the Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Glyndebourne Touring Opera, Buxton Festival, and Opera Zuid (of the Netherlands). He is a graduate of the University of Birmingham and has been married for 23 years to Linda Kitchen, an operatic soprano who coincidentally was a schoolmate of Wagnerian diva Jane Eaglen.

“We are looking forward to living in Seattle,” Lang says, jokingly adding that his wife has placed him under “strict embargo not to do the Underground Seattle tour until she arrives.” His previous posts have all had a duration of approximately 7-9 years: “I don’t have itchy feet, but opportunities do happen. The arts are always in a state of flux, and you have to keep aware of change to lead change. You need to bring people along: your team, audiences, donors.”

Lang explains that he gets about four or five offers a year from opera and theater companies, but the Seattle Opera one is “not a job that comes up every day.”

It certainly isn’t, with only two general directors (Jenkins and founder Glynn Ross) in half a century.

His background in stage direction has made Lang acutely aware of opera’s crucial task in engaging audiences. His great mentor, the German theater and opera director Peter Stein, told him: “In the first ten minutes of a show, you have the audience at its maximum attention. This is when you lay down the rules of the production, making it clear to your audience what their journey is.” The key, Lang says, is clarity – communicating the opera to the audience.

Lang was impressed by his Seattle Opera interview earlier this spring, when he spent “an extraordinary three days” with the company. He says he was “amazed by how passionate and informed the Seattle Opera team is, and how the culture of the company is so devoted to the joy of putting on opera.”

“Yes, there will be challenges ahead,” he concedes, “but they become a lot easier when you have a team that is fully engaged in everything that happens.”

Look to Lang to continue Seattle Opera as a Wagnerian center. He is a longtime “Ring” devotee who has been deeply involved in the Wagnerian masterpiece, working on two cycles (including an assistant directorship in the last presentations of the acclaimed Götz Friedrich production at the Royal Opera at Covent Garden). Lang also considers the re-establishment of the Young Artists Program, which has been temporarily suspended next season due to lack of funding, a priority for the company. Restoring the number of annual mainstage opera productions to five (presently there are four) is also on Lang’s list of objectives.

“Here in Seattle we have four great strengths: the Opera, the Ballet, the Theater, the Symphony. This is a great starting point. Now we need to widen our audience and keep widening it. At Seattle Opera, there are wonderful audiences, and we need to engage them and gradually stretch them a little … but not too far. Our work is all about engaging the audience – not about the egos of the presenters!”


             

     Want to hear Mozart’s music played on Mozart’s own instruments? Violinist Daniel Stepner and violist Anne Black are the performers on Mozart’s Klotz violin and viola in this clip from the WGBH studio, courtesy of the Salzburg Mozarteum Foundation (owner of the instruments) and Classical New England’s “Mozart Comes to America” special (producer of the program). The short clip features the Finale of Mozart’s Duo in G Major (K.423). The performance has a few imperfections, but it’s still shiver-inducing to think of the hands that once held those instruments. (They’re playing at a “classical-era” pitch, too, which helps sustain the illusion.)


Here’s the link:


http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=dhuVbhYpMys#!                                   

         


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Delighted by my trip to New York as one of the winners of the Sorel Medallion Choral Composition contest. I heard the premiere of my choral piece “Stella Splendens” in the best possible circumstances: with the remarkable Voices of Ascension performing under the direction of Dennis Keene, artistic director. What a thrill! I placed second in the competition.

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Meanwhile, the electronic revolution continues, with the rise of tablet computers as a replacement for traditional paper music (Jon Kimura Parker used a tablet for his recent and excellent recital at Meany Theater). Check this out:


Brussels Philharmonic is the first orchestra in the world to replace its paper sheet music by Samsung GALAXY Note 10.1 tablets. This unique cooperation was launched at a world premiere in Flagey, in the centre of Brussels. Culture, craftsmanship and technology joined forces in ways that have never been seen before.

Since the 19th century, the way symphonic orchestras work has barely been touched. Think about it: every piece of sheet music has to be handed out to each of the more than hundred musicians participating in a play. This takes a lot of time, paper and meticulous work. It goes without saying that these documents are carefully kept for future use. As you can probably imagine, they have grown to take up quite a lot of space over all these years.  All in all, it’s a very labour-intensive, complex and ecologically unsound process.

Brussels Philharmonic goes 10.1
That is why the Brussels Philharmonic set out to find a solution to optimize the way it works. Their search led them to NeoScores, a young Belgian software company that develops software specifically aimed at orchestras. Combined with Samsung’s GALAXY Note 10.1, the only tablet on the market that offers the necessary features to meet the high creative demands of a symphonic orchestra, this makes for a technological and musical world premiere.

A revolutionary step ahead
Brussels Philharmonic is the first orchestra in the world that will replace its paper sheet music with tablets. Samsung is giving each of the hundred musicians a GALAXY Note 10.1 with NeoScores’ software installed. The Galaxy Note 10.1’s smart S pen can be used to change the sheet music and share it between the conductor and the orchestra, the orchestra leader and the orchesta or individual musicians. From now on, they’ll be able to effortlessly switch back and forth between their sheet music with their GALAXY Note 10.1. What’s more, they’ll always have their sheet music at hand, wherever they go!

Making ecologically sound choices
This not only increases the orchestra’s efficiency in a substantial way, it also helps them cut down on paper. Thanks to the GALAXY Note 10.1, Brussels Philharmonic can now save a huge amount of paper - worth about 25 000€ ! This evolution also adds to the musicians’ comfort: all their sheet music is bundled in a 600 gram tablet that they can take wherever they go. From now on, Brussels Philharmonic travels light!

But these aren’t the only advantages the Samsung tablets offer the orchestra. Before, the people working for the orchestra spent several hours a day preparing and copying sheet music. This process has now become much more efficient, winning them precious time that they can use to optimize the daily activities of the orchestra and to work on new, progressive projects. The result? Better prepared musicians, and more musical quality. Another plus is that Brussels Philharmonic will be able to save all its sheet music digitally from now on, saving them a lot of storage space and money. 

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Something new: I’ve started posting some CD reviews, as well as live concert reviews, on the “Some Recent Reviews” page (see menu above).



    Leave it to The Economist to report on what really matters: whether hard-line, “despotic” conductors like the late Herbert von Karajan are really more effective in getting a great performance out of an orchestra. The British magazine cites a study (published in The Public Library of Science) in which two anonymous conductors led five excerpts from Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, with violinists whose bows were equipped with infrared reflectors (as were the conductors’ batons). A panel of 10 experienced musicians  rated the performances numerically on several aspects (e.g. melody, tempo, and emotional content).

    They found that the conductors who imposed their will on the musicians (as measured by their responsiveness to his baton rather than their dependence on each other) produced the performances that were rated highest.

    In other words, as The Economist puts it, “Baton-toting despots like the late Herbert von Karajan do add value -- but only if they rein in the uppity musicians in front of them.”

    Uppity musicians, let’s hear from you!

    

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    Choral composition -- the intersection between words and music -- is a fascinating and rewarding endeavor. But the rewards are artistic and emotional, and very seldom financial! That’s why the occasional recognition is so heart-warming. I was delighted to be named one of the top winners of the Sorel Choral Competition in 2013, and one of the finalists for the 2012 American Prize in Choral Composition.

    And the ChoralNet Composers Showcase recently picked “Silver Night,” a piece I wrote for the Cathedral Choral Society (Washington, D.C.) and its conductor J. Reilly Lewis, as one of three “Silver Platter” featured works. The new Showcase is a way for composers to promote their own pieces on a self-publishing basis. With so many branches of communications moving away from traditional paper publishing, composers and writers of all kinds need to focus on the electronic dissemination of content. It’s not an easy time, especially for those of us who are (ahem) not youngsters, but you know what they say about change: Adapt or die. (I much prefer the former!)


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      Magnificat in Hong Kong: Just heard that the Sacred Heart Canossian College Choir of Hong Kong (Renie Sinn, conductor) performed my “Gordon Magnificat” (originally composed for the Gordon College Women’s Choir) recently ... and a Belgian choir also is currently rehearsing it. Since this is an unpublished work, I am just amazed that it is going around the world. Thank you, YouTube and ChoralNet!

             

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                                An Amazing Memoir


    Want to read something truly astonishing? Try the new autobiography by Seattle’s 97-year-old Wunder-senior, Randolph Hokanson, a respected pianist and University of Washington emeritus professor. “With Head to the Music Bent” (published by Third Place Press, available at University Bookstore outlets) will make you laugh, ponder ... and marvel. Find out more on this site’s “Some Recent Reviews” section.



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Watch KING-FM’s “Club 98” Newsletter (and sign up at www.king.org) and The Seattle Times, as well as this website’s review pages, for reviews of current concerts as they appear.


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    Interested in hearing the Norwegian Folksong Suite? Clips from the wonderful performance conducted by Faith M. Lueth are posted on the “My Music” section of this website.

    Choral conductors, want to get scores of the Norwegian Folksong Suite scores for your own choruses? Visit the “My Music” pages for details.

    Meanwhile, check out my recent freelance concert and opera reviews! You can click on “Some Recent Reviews” on the top menu bar.



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Little did I realize, when I started writing music reviews back in 1974, that this would be my career focus for more than three decades. It’s been a great run! I have heard, reviewed and interviewed some of the world’s finest, most fascinating classical artists and opera stars.

    And now that I’m officially a free agent, I’m engaged in a number of interesting creative projects -- and always looking for more.

    So welcome to this website, where you can read a sampling of what I’ve written (both words and music) and discover both the sublime and the ridiculous aspects of arts journalism. Happy reading, and listening!



Copyright Notice: All information you receive on this site is owned by Melinda Bargreen and is protected by the copyright laws of the United States. Information includes stories, graphics, photographs, music, sound clips, and video files. Copyright laws prohibit copying, redistributing, retransmitting and republishing of any copyright material. You may download information from this site for personal, noncommercial use, provided you do not copy or redistribute it without the written permission of Melinda Bargreen.