Photo: Brandon Patoc

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Seattle Symphony is Making Music Matter

11th February, 2017

Say goodbye to ivory towers.

So far this month, the Seattle Symphony Orchestra (SSO) and music director Ludovic Morlot have presented three widely varied programs. Two of these addressed red-hot current events that would have seemed surprising in the middle of a “normal” concert season not too long ago.

But then, we aren’t living in “normal” times.

In fact, serious change has been afoot ever since Morlot began his tenure helming the SSO a half decade ago. Much of the transformation has to do with artistic programming, as you’d expect. One prong of this shift is an emphasis on masterpieces of the (especially modern) repertoire that had gotten short shrift or simply been ignored in Seattle.

Another prong is the symphony’s bold commissioning venture, which presents an impressive range of composers at work today. A few years ago, Morlot and the orchestra struck gold when they commissioned a genuinely original voice, John Luther Adams, to write the epic orchestral work Become Ocean. It won a Pulitzer and a Grammy, and seems to channel the Zeitgeist in its mesmerizing suggestion of global apocalypse.

New Roles for a 21st-Century Orchestra

Another change in programming is the creation of events that make the symphony more accessible, such as the [untitled] concerts. These are held a few times a season, late on Friday evenings. Guests enjoy a mix of cocktails and heady modernist and post-modernist fare in a relaxed lounge atmosphere.

The dependably sold-out “Sonic Evolution” adventures promote a dialogue between the orchestra and voices from Seattle’s popular music traditions. (E.g. Did you happen to catch the 2014 viral YouTube video of Sir Mix-A-Lot performing an orchestral version of “Baby Got Back” with Morlot, the SSO and a lively group of spontaneous dancers from the audience?)

The SSO also goes into the community to offer its art, from mentoring projects in the schools to chamber performances in local prisons.

As one of the city’s most prestigious performing arts institutions, with a history dating back to 1903, the SSO could try to rest on its laurels and just keep playing the classic repertoire. But it’s clear now to anyone with an interest in this side of the music business that such an approach is no longer sustainable. Some institutions prefer the comfort of inertia, holding off on necessary change until the last minute. The SSO, in contrast, has enthusiastically embraced its role as a catalyst for change—well knowing that, as with any creative process, this entails some awkward results along the way.

The Homeless Respond to Charles Ives

February began with two concerts from SSO’s “masterworks” program that also integrated one of its community partnership programs in a remarkably beautiful and original way. The first half of the bill was a substantial four-panel series written by Charles Ives between 1897 and 1913, which depicts his memories of New England Holidays. The second half was a concert staple by Beethoven, the last of his five piano concertos, known as the Emperor, and with a classical music star, Emanuel Ax, as the soloist.

It was Ives’ work that was given a local touch in the shows on February 2 and 4. In his composition, Ives set about evoking images of the community as he recalled it growing up in 19th-century New England. SSO invited voices from Seattle’s community to be part of this re-creation, but instead of the voices we usually hear, the focus was on the ones that tend to get ignored.

SSO has a stated commitment to engage with people in transitional housing or without homes, and last fall SSO partnered with three community nonprofit organizations to engage individuals through a series of workshops and discussions. Participants were invited by Seattle Civic Poet Claudia Castro Luna, SSO Teaching Artist Becky Aitken and other SSO staff, and UW music professor (and Charles Ives scholar) Larry Starr to share their own narratives and responses to the music by Ives. They expressed their reactions by creating visual illustrations, which were projected during the performance along with photo portraits. Luna also read a quartet of poems, one each to preface the four movements, which she wrote following these interactions.

A French Take on Ives’ Americana

Morlot is an Ives enthusiast, and with his French background he brings a fascinating angle to this quintessential American maverick. New England Holidays are far from straightforward patriotic hymns to a vanished era. Rather—and this is exactly what Morlot’s interpretation underscored—they are multilayered, blending exuberance, nostalgia and a peculiar and pensive melancholy that tends to linger well after the brash outbursts.

They’re really about psychological time, the psychology of a community in which many voices coexist. It’s revealing to compare this composer’s use of “Americana” as thematic material to the nationalistic trends in Europe of the time (such as the celebrations of Czech idioms in the music of Dvořák).

Ives’ use of fragmentation and collage—especially evident in his treatment of “Decoration Day” and his boyhood memories of “The Fourth of July”—provokes a far more complex emotional response. The collage principle can work horizontally, as patches placed one next to the other, or vertically, piled simultaneously according to Ives’s gritty polyphonic sensibility.

Details were exquisite, with hints of Mahler and Debussy, as in the subliminal timpani roll just before the emergence of “Taps” in “Decoration Day.” But I can’t say Morlot succeeded in convincing me of an overarching unity, even though Ives later decided the four parts should be regarded as a symphony. The one thread that seemed to work was the recurrence of certain effects: the suspended time of the openings, the even more impressive fade-outs to flickering memories.

This was the context in which we then heard the concerto by Beethoven, whose “strong” voice made him an idol of Ives.

Ax on Beethoven

Emanuel Ax always has something interesting to say with this music. He’s something of a jack-of-all-trades in the sense that he’s able to be extroverted, or “poetic,” or super-refined as the occasion calls for it. There was no mannered exaggeration of any particular aspect at the February 2 concert. The famous opening trio of cadenzas, for example, avoided being overly solemn or portentous, but sounded youthful and ready for action, keeping the playing field open, as it were, for a variety of interpretive directions.

Ax is also a natural chamber player, and there were memorable moments of interaction with the SSO, including a breathtaking duet with flutist Jeffrey Barker in the slow movement. However, I wished for some more aggressive push and shaping on the orchestra’s part in the outer movements.

Still, Morlot presided over some telling details (an exciting scrubbing from the strings just before the marvelous moment of recapitulation in the massive first movement). Ax treated the audience to an encore that still rings in my head, spinning out Chopin’s F-sharp Nocturne from Op. 15.

Music Beyond Borders: An Impromptu Concert Gift

The Ives project—music profoundly aware of the role of immigrant voices in the American fabric—had been planned well ahead of the current administration’s sudden travel ban. But on Wednesday the SSO gave an impromptu gift to Seattle and all of its residents. Tickets, made available for free, were claimed for the entire hall within a matter of hours. The concert was also streamed live for anyone wanting to watch online.

About one quarter of the SSO’s musicians are immigrants. The entire orchestra and Morlot wanted to make a passionate statement about the value of connections rather than walls between nations. The result was a program titled Music Beyond Borders: Voices From the Seven, referring to the seven countries whose citizens were singled out by executive order: Iran, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen and Libya.

With lightning speed, the SSO succeeded in putting together a program featuring artists from five of the affected countries. The lineup included works by two Iranian composers (Alireza Motevaseli and Gity Razaz), the Iraqi Rahim Alhaj, Sudanese composer Ali Osman, and the Syrian clarinet virtuoso and composer Kinan Azmeh, as well as a performance by Samatar Yare, a Somalian immigrant to Seattle, of a popular song by a Somalian disco/funk band (Dur-Dur Band).

SSO musicians including principal trumpet David Gordon and violinist Mikhail Shmidt (an immigrant from Russia who settled here at the very end of the Soviet era) introduced the pieces. One of them, by the young New York-based composer Gity Razaz, was especially imaginative in its use of the full orchestra.

Her piece also happened to be inspired by the myth of Narcissus, whose predicament Gordon described as one of “obsessive self-infatuation,” triggering an (unintended?) eruption of laughter from an audience already exhausted by weeks of unrelenting presidential narcissism.

Coming Home: AlHaj and Azmeh

The crowd became visibly moved by Rahim AlHaj’s Letters from Iraq, a suite for orchestra and oud (basically, the Arabic lute), with the composer himself performing as soloist. The sincerity of emotion was overpowering.

It was a sheer stroke of luck that enabled Kinan Azmeh to be present to perform as clarinet soloist in his two-movement Suite for Improvisor and Orchestra. As part of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project, Azmeh had been traveling in Berlin and Beirut, introducing one of his new compositions, when the travel ban was issued. He’s made his home in Brooklyn for years but was suddenly left uncertain as to whether he could even return to it.

Fortunately Judge James Robart’s temporary restraining order meant he could join with the SSO to play in the Suite. Both meditative and raucously joyful, Azmeh’s music brought to mind something of that emotional complexity from the previous week’s Ives. Azmeh dedicated the second part, which depicts the mood of a Syrian village wedding, to “all the Syrians who managed to fall in love in the last six years in spite of all the suffering. Falling in love is probably one of the very few human rights that no authority can take away from you.”

Some have expressed annoyance, even outrage, at these developments. And cynics will say such social commitments are today’s equivalent of the days when “modern music”—code for the ugly and unpleasant—was treated as an onerous duty, like vegetables that had to be mixed with the tastier, surefire rep.

But they’d have a hard time honestly trying to maintain that position if they experienced the extraordinary sense of bonding that occurred with the audience on Wednesday night. What’s more, the performance on the following evening (Feb. 9) made it clear that this wasn’t just a one-off affair: the affirmative energy and connection of the Beyond Borders concert spilled over into the performance of the regularly scheduled program.

That effect also manifested a longer-term, organic phenomenon: the business of “change” described above goes beyond programming, even beyond the SSO’s identification of its mission. It also includes the artistic quality of performance. Morlot has succeeded in intensifying the players’ concentration, with results that come to the fore in this weekend’s program (two more performances remain, on Saturday and Sunday).

A Modernist Faun, and Hillary Hahn

The concert opened with Debussy’s trail-blazing Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. Composed in the early 1890s and lasting a mere ten minutes, it accomplished a sonic revolution—the moment that arguably represents the birth of modern music. I had a brief sonic illusion that I was hearing the first second or so of Rite of Spring from 1913 (where Stravinsky exchanges the flute’s sustained note for a bassoon at the top of its range).

What I especially like about Morlot’s approach to his fellow Frenchman’s music is the balance of full-bloodedness with its sensualism. All the woozy, delicate textures were there—in their full dimensionality, grounded in subtly shifting bass gestures—but without seeming fragile or merely evanescent whispers. In the piece’s ebb tides, Morlot made a point to prop up Debussy’s lyricism, giving welcome attention to Afternoon’s larger melodic flow.

Hilary Hahn, a featured artist with the SSO this season, appeared as the soloist in Max Bruch’s First Violin Concerto in G minor (1868). I admit wishing at the outset that we could hear her playing something more adventurous. As it happened, Hahn’s performance was so enthralling it made me reevaluate the Bruch and hear it in a completely new way. A staple that I thought I didn’t need to hear again for awhile suddenly became full of meaning.

Hahn has reached a level of artistry that renders the standard critical jargon useless. The intonation is superb, her phrasing deeply felt and smart, and overall she projects a strong will that somehow is never egotistical.

But it’s futile to try to convey the real intensity of her performance. The way she drew the long deep G at the bottom of her instrument (her entrée into the Concerto) spoke volumes, and she lived up to all the promise that contained. Hahn is also a fantastic partner with the orchestra; in a climactic moment in the animated finale, you could even see her paying close attention to the timpanist. Morlot and the SSO made the most of this chemistry.

As a lagniappe, we got an encore of solo Bach, one of Hahn’s specialities, with the Gigue from the E major Partita. The dance theme made a nice reference to the balletic aspects of the Debussy. (Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes presented a scandalously choreographed version of Afternoon late in the composer’s life.)

A Grand 20th-Century Symphony That Dances

The concluding work of the performance, Prokofiev’s massive wartime Symphony No. 5, also recalled something of the dance. That’s because Morlot, conducting without a baton, underlined the “new simplicity” of Prokofiev’s later style here, which is perhaps best known from its expression in the long, embracing melodic lines of his earlier score for the ballet Romeo and Juliet.

This is obviously still the same composer who gave us the music for The Love for Three Oranges, which SSO paired with a new commission from the composer’s grandson, Gabriel Prokofiev, at the opening of this season. However, in the Fifth, composed two decades after The Love of Three Oranges, the density of ideas has been thinned and the canvas stretched out to enormous lengths.

For all of the mass of the orchestral resources, including a battalion of brass and expanded strings, rhythms and weights were articulated lucidly. The effect was downright kaleidoscopic in the wild second movement, with first-rate contributions from all the winds, especially clarinetist Ben Lulich. The entire body of strings played with breath-taking expression and grace.

This has been another of the long-term improvements during the conductor’s tenure, and it’s impossible to miss when the SSO is working at the inspired level it showed with the Prokofiev.

 

11 February 2017
Thomas May / Vanguard Seattle