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Review: Seattle Symphony debuts David Lang’s new work in a program of hero and anti-hero

10th February, 2018

A symphonic world premiere is always a special event, although having one on the program isn’t always a big audience draw. Many concertgoers are leery of the new, the experimental, and especially the atonal. Seattle Symphony audiences, however, will find no need for trepidation in this week’s premiere performances of David Lang’s very approachable new work, “symphony without a hero.” (The title is a lowercase, antiheroic take on the Russian poem that inspired Lang’s composition, “Poem Without a Hero.”)

Tonal and straightforward, the Lang piece lies squarely in the tradition of minimalism: the piece stays in the same minor key for most of the 28 minutes, during which the same dark, rising motif in the brass and lower strings is gradually overlain by harps, keyboard and percussion. As the piece moves forward, the upper voices change and shift, and the lower instruments slowly drop out.

Conductor Ludovic Morlot did everything possible to introduce nuances and variety in the performance, and the orchestra (particularly the brass sections) played well; it must have taken serious concentration to keep one’s place in such a repetitive score. Composer Lang was on hand to receive the enthusiastic response of the audience. 

The program’s second half was entirely different: Richard Strauss’ flamboyant, colorful “Ein Heldenleben” (“A Hero’s Life”). Surging and questing ever upward, this lengthy 1898 tone poem changes character as rapidly as the twist of a kaleidoscope, with Strauss’ score hurtling from mood to mood.

The music offers substantial challenges for nearly every section of the orchestra; Morlot never allowed the solo lines to be swallowed up in the dense orchestration. The individual section leaders rose admirably to the requirements of the solo work, with all its fanfares and noble motifs ricocheting through the score.

Most impressive of all was concertmaster Cordula Merks, playing solo lines that were so extensive that parts of the “Heldenleben” sounded almost like a violin concerto. Never forced or overstated, Merks’ playing was both elegant and eloquent, lifting the Strauss to an impressive level.

 

9 February 2018
Melinda Bargreen / The Seattle Times