Watras’s new album Firefly Songs is a collection of original compositions exploring themes of community and personal folklore, with performances from some of her closest friends and collaborators. Firefly Songs is out now on Planet M records. For more details, click here.
Fairy tales and folk songs are just a couple of the major influences behind violist Melia Watras’s new album, Schumann Resonances. More specifically, the album grew out of her love for Schumann’s Märchenbilder (Pictures from Fairyland), one of the great pieces of the viola repertoire.
The album features Watras performing six world premieres of new works inspired by Märchenbilder, fairy tales, and other folklore. Among them are enchanting new pieces by Cuong Vu, Richard Karpen, and Watras herself.
We’re thrilled to premiere the video for one of Watras’s original compositions from the album, “Berceuse with a Singer in London.” Scored for voice and viola, Watras dedicated the piece to folk singer Galia Arad (the daughter of violist and composer Atar Arad, with whom Watras studied). The piece is equal parts art song and folk lullaby, its intertwining melodies made more potent by its sparse texture and poetic text, which was written by Watras’s frequent collaborator, violinist Michael Jinsoo Lim.
Schumann Resonances also marks the launch of Planet M Records, a brand new record label founded this year by Watras and Lim. The Seattle-based, artist-led label specializes in music at the intersection of classical and contemporary.
Melia Watras’s Schumann Resonances is out Friday, Feb. 8 on Planet M Records. Click here to learn more and pre-order the album.
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.]
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.
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.
Second Inversion: How did the collaboration between you, Gloria Cheng, and Seattle Modern Orchestra come about?
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!).
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!
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.
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.
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.