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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Concert Review: Catching the Waves

The Seattle Symphony plays Spring for Music.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Conductor Ludovic Morlot in rehearsal.
On Tuesday night, the fourth and final Spring For Music festival--that week-long celebration of of North American orchestras at Carnegie Hall with a dedicated focus on modern and obscure repertory--welcomed the Seattle Symphony for a rare New York appearance. The concert, under the baton of Seattle music director Ludovic Morlot featured the New York premiere of Become Ocean, the work that won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Music for its composer John Luther Adams.

Mr. Adams (who is not to be confused with his Californian counterpart with the similar name) is a composer whose major works reflect a love of nature and the wind-swept landscapes of Alaska, his home of many years. Become Ocean reflects the great coastline of the Last Frontier, with an inexorable swell of orchestral sound that rolls over the listener with the slow and inevitable force of a great tsunami. Like the mysteries of the ocean itself, this work has deep rewards that are at first, difficult to access.

Although the opening five minutes of this huge (45 minute) composition recalled the first pages of Wagner's Das Rheingold before the entry of the cellos and the singers, this performance revealed hidden depths and colors in the composer's sonic tidal wave. Supported by the contrabassoon, the deep strings and heavy brass (the work calls for contrabass trombone and contrabass tuba) anchored the big crescendos, ensuring the heavy impact of the sonic wave that followed. Supple upper strings and winds provided texture and the use of piano and timpani kept the slow inexorable pulse of this piece moving forward.

Following the thunderous reception for Mr. Luther Adams' work (and for the composer himself, who was in attendance for the concert) the concert moved back to "dry land" for its second half. Desérts is by that master of modern idiom Edgar Varèse, and is an unusual work by this most unusual composer. The Seattle forces were stripped down and spatially arranged for this piece, with two batteries of percussion on opposite sides of the stage, a piano, winds and a low brass section with two muted contrabass tubas.

Under Mr. Morlot's baton, Varèse's spidery construction of percussive thumps, thwacks and whacks intercut with low growls from the muted tubas and a muttered expletive from the bass clarinet. Themes emerged from the darkness in the heavy brass, only to subside with a sigh or explode into a clatter of tuned percussion on xylophone, marimba and temple blocks. And yet, this wasn't the full-frontal tone cluster assault that one often associates with this composer. The language was unusual but never unpleasant or unwelcome.

The full orchestra returned for Debussy's La Mer, at once the most familiar and most radical work on this program. The players from this coastal city seemed to take special pride in playing these three tone paintings of the sea, crating a glowing, rising crescendo of sound in the opening "De l'aube à midi sur la mer. The impression here was of contained energy, a more condensed version of Mr. Adams' musical ideas expressed through Debussy's gift for expressing rich ideas through what seem like unfinished musical fragments. The climactic horn theme was rich and supple, a good measuring stick for the quality of this orchestra in a key, familiar musical moment.

The Jeux de vagues followed, giving vent to the woodwinds and strings in the expression of dappled sunlight. The essential hostility and alien nature of the sea was heard in this  tumultuous performance of Dialogue du vent et de la mer. This released all the pent-up wrath of the first two movements, providing another chance for the Seattle brass to show their quality. As an encore, Mr. Morlot treated the Carnegie Hall audience to Fêtes, the second of Debussy's Nocturnes. Given the sad fact that this year marks the final curtain for Spring For Music it may be a long time before this city hears this fine orchestra again.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.