MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

The Latest “Sonic Evolution” from Seattle Symphony

Last week brought the newest installment in Seattle Symphony’s adventurous Sonic Evolution series: a collaboration with Seattle’s Earshot Jazz Festival.

The SSO describes Sonic Evolution, which began with Ludovic Morlot’s tenure and is now in its fifth season, as “a bridge for the Symphony to engage with Seattle’s creative community through innovative concert programs that celebrate the past, present, and future of the city’s musical legacy.”

Alack and alas, the series has managed to trigger a panic attack for the likes of Norman Lebrecht, who was moved last year to pen an absurd editorial claiming that the orchestra had “handed the pass to the enemy.”

This despite the irrelevant triviality of not having actually attended the performance in question, a part of which featured the rap legend Sir Mix-A-Lot (the object of his freak-out).

Two Sonic Evolution events rather than one have been baked into the current season. (Is that enough for Lebrecht to fret over the prospect of this unconventional concert format “replacing” the usual repertoire?) The second one, in May 2016, promises a collaboration (to which I’m especially looking forward) with the Seattle International Film Festival, Michael Gordon, William Brittelle, Fly Moon Royalty, and others.

There was much to recommend last week’s program as well, titled “Under the Influence of Jazz.” The concept of a jazz band-symphonic “fusion” of course has long roots by now, with George Gershwin among its most celebrated pioneers.

It remains a tricky proposition. And yet Derek Bermel upped the ante by pitching his multi-movement jazz concerto The Migration Series on an epic scale. (Bermel was returning to Seattle after a new commission last year from the Seattle Chamber Music Society.)

For this listener the risk paid off abundantly. Bermel originally wrote The Migration Series in 2006 on a commission from the American Composers Orchestra and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra under Wynton Marsalis.

It wasn’t until he was already involved in the composition, Bermel said during a brief onstage interview, that the sounds he was hearing began to evoke memories of the great cycle of 60 paintings by the same title by Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000). The artist had a Seattle connection, having moved here later in his career, where he became a professor at the University of Washington. Bermel added that as a teenager he recalled being profoundly affected by seeing the series (which is currently split between the collections of MOMA in New York and the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.).

This cross-connection between music and visual art is another dimension of the ways Sonic Evolution is experimenting with opening up the concert format to other kinds of stimulation. As we listened to the Bermel, reproductions of paintings from Lawrence’s cycle were projected, ranging from landscapes and urban settings to chilling depictions of the violence faced by African-Americans during the Great Migration northward, along with complex crowd scenes.

Bermel says he didn’t aim to “illustrate” particular paintings but wanted “to focus on the shapes, colors, moods, and atmospheres evoked by groups of scenes within the series… In this grand American story, I gravitated toward the larger themes, those of determination, mystery, despair, and hope; Lawrence’s unique sense of perspective and distance – his generosity and universality of narrative – allowed the space for me to add music.” Apparently this was the first performance of The Migration Series to present the music in tandem with the art that inspired it.

Bermel constructs his five-movement score (with three connecting interludes) as a kind of jazz concerto grosso. The super-talented Roosevelt High School Jazz Band took on the role of the concertino, the band as hyper-soloist in dialogue with the SSO, while Bermel himself played a soulful, extended clarinet solo.

The composer aptly compares his method of construction here to a mosaic, and parts of the score tend to lure the ear like glittering shapes, while simple motifs recur as binding devices. If some stretches feel a touch overlong, what remains most striking is the quality of Bermel’s musical language: engaging, original, with something genuine to say. (You can hear a sample at the bottom of this piece from Second Inversion.)

Also on the agenda was a world premiere was by local jazz wizard Wayne Horvitz: Those Who Remain, a compact two-movement concerto for his longtime collaborator, jazz guitarist Bill Frisell. In this case, I found the interest of the source of inspiration — the poetry of Seattle’s own Richard Hugo (1923-1982) — overshadowed the substance of the musical work.

Horvitz’s solo part (including room for improvisation) for Frisell seemed deliberately understated, and the orchestration was colorful and vibrant — especially the second movement’s chorale theme — but for all its charms, a first hearing left me underwhelmed, without a clear sense of musical profile.

In fact I was fortunate to have gotten a wonderful Horvitz fix earlier in the week at the Paramount Theater’s presentation of his original score for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (part of the Trader Joe’s Silent Movie Mondays): Horvitz and his ensemble performed the music live. It’s a fascinating and truly inventive collaboration between jazz and silent film.

The concert’s second half brought the Seattle-born vocalist Shaprece center stage, accompanied by Morlot and the SSO in arrangements of her songs by Phillip Peterson (and by an expressive pair of dancers and a bearded backup vocalist).

The theme of visuals continued throughout the concert — less successfully for the Horvitz and then with more liveliness (and club floor slickness) for Shaprece’s numbers. She commands such a beautiful voice I’d love to hear Shaprece in a wider range of material. But anything that’s reminiscent of Björk, as several songs in her set were, is fine by me.

–(c)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: art, jazz, review, Seattle Symphony

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