MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Shaking Booty with the Seattle Symphony?

I like big risks and I cannot lie….

So the Seattle Symphony gave a special one-off concert last weekend, part of its Sonic Evolution series. The series — just one of the many ideas music director Ludovic Morlot inaugurated in his first season three years ago — is basically about connecting the orchestra with other musical genres spawned in the Seattle region.

For this latest edition of the series, a trio of young (or youngish) composers was commissioned to write original orchestral pieces responding in some way, with no strings, so to speak, to musical figures linked culturally or biographically with Seattle. There was the Portuguese Luís Tinoco; Du Yun, a Chinese-born composer based in New York; and Gabriel Prokofiev, who is, yes, the grandson of Sergey, who is based in London. (He’s the only one of seven Prokofiev grandchildren with a career in music.)

Composer Du Yun

Composer Du Yun

Their new compositions drew loosely on source inspirations, respectively, from Bill Frisell (who lives in the region), Ray Charles (who made his first recording in Seattle, the town “where I got my start,” as Charles once said), and the hip-hop legend Sir Mix-A-Lot. The latter’s onstage performance, backed by the Seattle Symphony, is of course what grabbed the headlines.

A final segment of the program was given over to a local band called Pickwick; they performed three of their soul-infused songs to the accompaniment of the SSO, in arrangements by David Campbell (a Seattle native who’s done lots of work for film soundtracks).

Sure, the loaded concept of “crossover” has been responsible for many a dubious or at best misguided project. The standard critique runs something like this: if you present an orchestra playing versions of “pop music,” it dilutes the original into a sappy, watered-down product while making a mockery of the players’ musicianship. Neither constituency (the classical or pop audience) is likely to find the result appealing, so what you get is music that exists in a kitschy limbo, a no-man’s-land of pointless vulgarity.

All too often that actually is the case, as we all know from any number of dreadful PBS pledge promos. But — a big but — that kind of simplistic, pandering crossover doesn’t fairly describe what the Sonic Evolution project is after. And certainly not what actually happened on Friday night’s concert.

Sonic Evolution

It’s been amusing to see how many commentators who weren’t actually there consider themselves entitled to pontificate. (And yes, there really is an “aura” aspect to these concerts that you can’t absorb via youtube osmosis.)

I’m referring mostly to the naysayers who conclude that such efforts spell the doom of civilization, but just as much to the hipster pundits who think everything else the Symphony does is irrelevant or that the pairing of Sir Mix-A-Lot and Morlot represents a rare moment of cultural credibility that you don’t get with business as usual.

Many seem to assume that the whole concert was about having the SSO play Sir Mix-A-Lot “covers” in a madcap attempt to fill the house and stir up media attention. Do they really think an entire season has been planned around busily orchestrated versions of pop music icons? That there’s going to be no more Brahms or Bach or Beethoven — or Dutilleux and Ravel, to mention the splendid program that also took place last week, one which happens to serve as a perfect example of the level of artistic excellence at which the SSO is playing these days?

In fact, Prokofiev crafted two orchestrations of hits by Sir Mix-A-Lot (“Posse on Broadway” and “Baby Got Back”), but his main event was a completely new composition titled Dial 1-900 Mix-A-Lot. In my opinion this was the most interesting music of the program, brimming with invention and a one-of-a-kind orchestral imagination. Among the challenges Prokofiev set himself was to deploy the full orchestra on its own terms, without resorting to boring cookie-cutter gestures and predictable sectional blocks. (Prokofiev discusses the process of working on this piece on his blog.)

Gabriel Prokofiev

Gabriel Prokofiev

Besides, you’ve got to admire a piece that prompts this in the program note (written by my friend Aaron Grad, also a composer): “A recurring four-note motive, for instance, traces the rhythm of the opening phrase from ‘Baby Got Back’: ‘I like big butts.'”

I also very much enjoyed Tinoco’s kaleidoscopically orchestrated ruminations in FrisLand, which he describes as “an imaginary voyage through an (also imaginary) sound-world inspired by Frisell’s music.” It was interesting to learn about the juxtaposition of Ray Charles with a bit of Buddhist folklore in Du Yun’s Hundred Heads, though I admit that the musical argument of her piece left me puzzled; here the fusion didn’t persuade me.

Luís Tinoco

Luís Tinoco

What I did find cringeworthy about the concert, though I haven’t seen anyone else mention it, was the final set spotlighting Pickwick. I’m sure they’re eminently enjoyable on their own terms, in their usual setting. But this was the part that for me reeked of cheesy crossover. Why? The three songs were two much of a kind, but most of all because of the dreary paint-by-numbers arrangements that wasted the resource of the SSO, making it into a predictable jukebox of fizzing tremolo strings, etc. etc. No imagination.

So why have some people gotten so riled up over the orchestra sharing the stage with Sir Mix-A-Lot and a bevvy of eagerly dancing women? This was one part of the program, and the spirit overall seemed genuinely joyful; certainly the musicians appeared to be having fun with the playfulness of it.

No one can seriously believe this is the Trojan horse that will suddenly yield a concert hall full of converts to Bruckner. That’s not the intention anyway, and Bruckner will still be waiting there for those fortunate enough to discover what he has to offer. But it was exciting to realize that a significant portion of the audience had never once been inside the Benaroya Hall auditorium before. And they stayed and heard some “serious” concert music by worthwhile composers at work today; they also had a blast encountering very familiar music in an unusual context.

I admire the Seattle Symphony and Morlot’s willingness to take these kinds of risks. It’s not just about trying out gimmicks. They honestly are walking the talk, putting into action the themes that had just been discussed at this year’s League of American Orchestras Conference, which had wrapped up earlier that day in Seattle: the need to rethink how our orchestras can connect with their local audiences and how the concert experience itself can be innovated, can become an event that leaves a mark. That means being willing to stumble, to get parts wrong, even to have people question your sanity.

(c) 2014 Thomas May – All rights reserved.

Filed under: new music, programming innovation, Seattle Symphony

3 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. John Marcher says:

    Hi Tom,

    While Lebrect’s reasoning is defective and racist, his conclusion is one with which I essentially agree- not because of the genre (see my post from 5/29), but because of the song, which really is demeaning, even though it’s meant to be humorous. It was a banal choice, and made at the expense of a possibly better, more artistically interesting one, though I get the local angle of the series’ programmming severely limits the available hip-hop choices. But the worst part to my mind in retrospect is that this is what it takes for an American orchestra to get national press coverage- and it was wasted on a such an insignificant moment. I hope Yanni isn’t from Seattle.

  2. […] against the norm at a sym­phony hall, did not open his mouth to sing! (I’m delib­er­ately link­ing to a review where the writer treated this, and the con­cert as a whole, fairly, rather than just […]

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