With their first subscription concert of the new season, the Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot have already scored a home run.
If you’re a fan of new music, you’ll regret missing this; ditto if you’re fan of the core classical repertoire. That in itself gives a good indication of just how remarkable this program is.
Last weekend I previewed Gabriel Prokofiev’s new work, an SSO commission.Having now heard the first full rehearsal as well as the live world premiere of this music, I’m genuinely thrilled by what Prokofiev has accomplished.
Titled When the City Rules, his new composition is a substantial, vividly imagined, and expertly constructed half-hour-long symphonic fantasia inspired by the phenomenon of the mega-city in contemporary life. It’s not program music in the old-fashioned sense of trying to “translate” a narrative into musical terms.
When I spoke to the composer recently, he said he relished the “magical” way in which music can generate images or feelings “without being super-exact”: how it can negotiate a space between pure abstraction and a medium like film, triggering multiple subjective “plots” according to each listener, since the musical images are so “open to interpretation.”
What he does in When the City Rules is to offer a broad suggestive framework for each of the four movements: an overview of the great, looming city and the life of its citizens (think London of today, where Gabriel Prokofiev resides). His “dramaturgy” juxtaposes the big picture with suggested “close-up” moments of characters or particular feelings.
So the first movement, opening with a beautifully sustained atmosphere of layered strings, evokes “the memories that cities hold” but also the modern city’s power; an “Andante Nostalgico” touches on the melancholy associated with cities and the desire to escape to something more pristine; considerable energy and excitement come to the fore in the third movement, which taps into the nervous, ceaselessly busy energy that not only keeps the city going but is a defining trait; and a “Rondo Brilliante” finale replete with echo effects to bring the work to a bracing climax and conclusion.
But it’s no simple affirmation: by then we’ve encountered a matrix of brooding, even oppressive sounds along with Prokofiev’s most animated writing. It’s tempting to work in a sci-fi level of interpretation, of a city becoming conscious of itself and its rulership over mere mortals.
Of course the four-movement pattern just outlined can suggest a more or less classically oriented symphony as well. The point is, there’s no doubt that When the City Rules is a milestone for Gabriel Prokofiev, whether you want to use that generic touchstone or prefer to approach it as a composition sui generis.
This is no mere patchwork of “impressions” or clever soundscape-vignettes, but an ambitiously conceived large-scale piece that works in real time (though I think it could perhaps benefit from a tad more tightening in a passage here or there).
Even though Gabriel Prokofiev first caught the music industry’s attention thanks to his talent for bridging the worlds of classical music and the electronica of the popular dance club scene — his Concerto for Turntables & Orchestra was featured at the 2011 Proms — When the City Rules is, notably, written entirely for acoustic orchestra, with no electronic “bells and whistles.”
And written with marvelous flair and fluency, using its rich palette in a way that makes the orchestra itself embody a vision of the city, both as ensemble and with its prominent roles for particular protagonists (flute, cello, and trumpet, most notably, and, to wonderful effect in the “nostalgic” slow movement, a solo saxophone).
When the City Rules moreover reveals a composer with a convincing sense of where his short, often rhythmic motifs can take us, of where the music needs to “go.” Anyone expecting a one-trick game — or a repeat of Prokofiev’s orchestral rethink of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s classic “Baby Got Back” (which brought another round of viral fame during his last collaboration with the SSO and Morlot, in 2014) — is in for a big surprise.
The masterfully built-up ostinato patterns that play such a key role in When the City Rules distantly recall a trait of his grandfather, Sergei Prokofiev, as does the tone of darkened, sardonic humor and even menace they sometimes conjure. There’s also a hint of 21st-century Sacre Stravinsky in the tracks of jagged rhythms that crunch and pop.
Prokofiev’s ongoing interest in electronic and dance club music remains present as an ongoing feature. “I think those styles work brilliantly in the concert hall,” he told me, citing the pervasive use of dance rhythms in the most familiar classical music. “They just happen to be dance rhythms that are 200 years old.” And from his work DJing, Prokofiev says he has learned techniques of “mixing and cutting something up — the way dance music will be manipulated to rise up to climaxes.” These are a contemporary version, in one way, of what Beethoven does with his slicing and recombining of short, potent motifs by way of “development.”
When the City Rules is an extraordinary achievement, but just as extraordinary is the fact that Morlot and the SSO, within a few days of first reading through the score together, have been able to deliver such a gripping and well-polished interpretation of this music for the premiere. Jeffrey Barker (flute), Efe Baltacıgil (cello), and David Gordon (trumpet) added particular flavor with their vividly characterized solo parts.
Any commission is by definition a risk: I’d like to think the generous patrons who underwrote this one (Norman Sandler and Dale Chihuly) realize what a winner they’ve picked.
And Gabriel Prokofiev’s piece was only one of the success stories of the program. Grandfather Sergei was also represented, with a performance of his compact but immensely varied and orchestrally eventful Symphonic Suite from his opera The Love for Three Oranges.
Prokofiev was a master composer for the stage, but he endured an absurd amount of bad luck in that arena. This Suite is an example of some of his best opera music being siphoned off into an arrangement for the concert hall. If Prokofiev’s wash of added percussion proved overpowering in the most vehement ensemble moments, the precision and balance of the strings were especially admirable. The detailed preparation of the Suite as a whole, with its many virtuosic flourishes, was nothing short of astounding, considering the amount of attention needed to prepare the brand-new score of the evening.
And then the Beethoven: since these reflections have already gone on at length, I’ll have to defer my more detailed impressions until later in the ongoing Beethoven cycle this season. To quickly sum up: it’s thrilling to observe how much more confident and focused Morlot is becoming in his approach to these icons of the classical rep.
This program in particular, framed by Beethoven’s First Symphony and his Eighth, even replicated something of that growth, with Morlot stepping even further out and taking greater risks in his account of the Eighth Symphony, which rounded this abundant evening of music off with a rousing conclusion.
The program repeats Saturday and Sunday.
(c)2016 Thomas May. All rights reserved.