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Review: A Pulitzer Sequel for Orchestra, Packed With Drama in Microcosm

30th March, 2018

Stress over sequels isn’t just for Hollywood moguls. Contemporary classical heavyweights can feel it, too.

In the music world, few recent works loom as large as John Luther Adams’s “Become Ocean,” from 2013. The follow-up to “Become River” (2010), for chamber orchestra, “Ocean” won the Pulitzer Prize, then a Grammy for the Seattle Symphony, which commissioned it.

It was a high bar to clear, then, on Thursday evening here, when the same orchestra gave the premiere of Mr. Adams’s “Become Desert,” completing a trilogy he never set out to write: three nature-immersed — and so inevitably, in this day and age, obliquely political — pieces. Mr. Adams has written about his concerns about our changing ecology, and has lately been pondering a line attributed to the French Romantic writer Chateaubriand: “Forests precede civilizations, and deserts follow.”

In an essay for The New York Times, he suggested that “Desert” would be an experience less obviously theatrical than the cresting waves of “Ocean”; he even imagined a listener thinking, “This music is never going to change.” In a program note Ludovic Morlot, who departs as the Seattle Symphony’s music director after next season, promised “a very different sonic landscape.”

Managing expectations made some sense. But it was also unnecessary. While “Become Desert” doesn’t have the easily graspable transitions of its predecessor, it is packed with moments of drama in microcosm. Over a nearly 40-minute span, those slight twists combine to create a new route toward a grand impact. Precisely because the two are so distinct in method, “Desert” came across as a thoroughly worthy successor to “Ocean.”

In the new work Mr. Adams divides a large orchestra and a 32-member chorus into five groups. Playing at different tempos — though none of them fast — these discrete ensembles are meant to surround the audience. In Benaroya Hall here, the singers were stationed high up, toward the rear of the space. Tubular chimes were visible two levels up from the orchestra seats, along both sides. Strings, winds and percussion instruments were congregated on the stage.

This separation of sonic landscapes brought out Mr. Adams’s gift for orchestration. After an opening section coasted for a bit on a meditative air, courtesy of pinging bells and hissing high strings, the soft-grained entrance of trumpets signaled a change, without overhauling the moderate, peaceable dynamics. At the same time, the disparate tempos between the mini-ensembles kept this from feeling like an easy-listening exercise. Chiming sounds were omnipresent throughout. But they rarely struck in alignment.

Occasionally Mr. Adams used these not-quite-unison passages to cover his tracks. At one moment, the soprano voices were layered in a heavenly harmony. But after a brief, scattered system of pitched percussion passed, those voices suddenly sounded forlorn. The transition to these new tones had been masked, so the tragic-hued change came as a gentle surprise, all the more effective for having being delivered without any obvious, stentorian announcement. A vast expanse of heartbreak was surveyed in mere seconds, from the vantage of a vessel that barely had to hum to switch gears.

Mr. Morlot’s affection for the work’s expressive richness came through clearly. Though the piece doesn’t advertise its complexity, it’s easy to imagine a performance of such airily arranged music seeming scattered or listless. The Seattle Symphony never sounded at a loss, though. The audience allowed the piece’s concluding return toward spareness to ring out fully before charging in with enthusiastic applause.

The program’s first half brought an attractive, occasionally mercurial rendition of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, with the pianist Jeremy Denk. In the outer movements Mr. Denk often conceived of trills and other ornaments as strangely marching machines — a reminder of the way he has recorded repertoire by Beethoven on the same album as pieces by the modernist Gyorgy Ligeti. But Mr. Denk also brought real lyric beauty to the Adagio, and gave a hushed, transporting encore of the Andante from Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 16 (K. 545).

Most weeks, Mr. Denk’s appearance would have been the headline news. But on Thursday, it effortlessly shared the stage with “Become Desert”: two excellent performances of two gripping pieces of music. The casual way the Seattle Symphony presented a major premiere along with a notable guest star in a repertory staple suggested an orchestra working confidently, moving from strength to strength.

 

30 March 2018
Seth Colter Walls / The New York Times