MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Breaths of Fresh Air: The Seattle Symphony Premieres Olga Neuwirth

Last night’s concert was the first chance I’ve had to experience Thomas Dausgaard in action with the Seattle Symphony since his inaugural season as music director began. Even with just a fraction of the players onstage for the entire first half (and a modest-sized orchestra for the second), this was music-making on a very high level. There was no fall-back on routine — which might easily have been the case, in view of the presence of two ultra-familiar works anchoring the program: the fourth of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and Mozart’s final Symphony, the so-called (though not by the composer) “Jupiter.”

What gave the programming an edge was the inclusion, side-by-side with the Bach, of a new work by the Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth titled Aello – ballet mécanomorphe. Dausgaard led its world premiere in Stockholm last year, with flutist Claire Chase as the soloist and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra (which he helmed until starting his SSO tenure this fall). Neuwirth was one of six contemporary composers commissioned by Dausgaard and the SCO to write new response works that somehow react to the Brandenburg Concertos. (For the record, the others include Uri Caine, Brett Dean, Anders Hillborg, Steven Mackey, and Mark Anthony Turnage — the whole project was presented at the 2018 BBC Proms [see video above].)

The Seattle Symphony had the honor of giving Aello‘s U.S. premiere — and, it is to be hoped, will continue pursuing the music of this boldly imaginative, singular, uncompromising composer. Neuwirth is at last gaining long-overdue recognition. She was a key presence at the recent Musikfest Berlin
(where I had a chance to hear Susanne Mälkki conduct the young Karajan Akademie musicians in Aello, with Berlin Philharmonic principal Emmanuel Pahud as the soloist).

Neuwirth’s commission was to write a companion piece to be paired with the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G major (BWV 1049), using essentially the same chamber ensemble. Except she replaces Bach’s soloist trio of violin and two flutes (or flute-like instruments) with a solo flute as protagonist. Her counterparts are a pair of trumpets (one piccolo) that play with various mutes — taking on the role of the Bach flutes. (The doubleness of the latter come back as well in the flute soloist’s alternation between her “normal” instrument and a bass flute for the final movement.)

As “continuo,” Neuwirth substitutes a multiple-personality “harpsichord” comprising a synthesizer and a percussionist (Michael Werner) who plays a mechanical typewriter (the score specifies an “Oilivetti Lettera 22” model, which is amplified), a triangle made to resound with an automatic milk foamer, and a water-filled glass pitched to a high E. And even the string ensemble is “de-natured” by the complex multiple tuning system Neuwirth establishes for the whole ensemble (including the solists), with four layers of different pitchings.

Claire Chase, the score’s dedicatee, is a widely acclaimed musical adventurer who has built her solo career around expanding the potential for her instrument. Neuwirth avails herself not only of Chase’s extraordinary musicianship but of her stage charisma as well. The flutist’s performance last night cast a spell with her commanding gusts and mysterious whisperings, egging on the motley trumpet sounds and breaking free from the ensemble’s attempts at hegemony.

As she nimbly — indeed, balletically — turned and twisted, Chase’s compelling stage presence seemed to conjure an oracle, at times blissful, at others demonic in its aura. Aello actually refers to an ancient Greek harpy, but Neuwirth subverts the sexist image by making her mythical being into “someone sent by the gods to restore peace, if necessary with force, and to exact punishment for crimes.”

Similarly, the “macho” personae of Baroque trumpets is tamed and, as it were, Dada-fied through the mutes and the resultant kaleidoscope of colors (Neuwirth herself studied trumpet). The legacy of Dada — its absurdist play with machines and “stuff,” with the mechanical aspects of modernity — is another important influence on Neuwirth’s aesthetic.

There were some muffled gasps and giggles from the audience, reacting to the absurdist humor of the piece — yet Aello is by no means a simple “parody” of the Bach companion (neither in the usual sense of the word nor even the Baroque sense).

Neuwirth follows Bach’s three-movement design and quotes snippets of his motifs and melodies, but these appear more as vanishing recollections of a musical world that no longer makes sense. Along with the playfulness, there are moments of mesmerizing mystery — above all in the slow middle movement, which approaches the ethereal — and even of terror. Neuwirth’s sense of pacing is superb — no wonder she has a flair for the stage and for film scoring. She dramatizes a remarkable attempted coup by the ensemble in the final moments that is thwarted, once again, by the flute-goddess’s knowing breath.

Dausgaard led a (mostly) standing ensemble in the Fourth Brandenburg itself to start the program and set the stage for Aello. Claire Chase joined principal flutist Demarre McGill and concertmaster Noah Geller to form the solo group. All of them listened intently to their fellow musicians and responded with in-the-moment honesty. Dazzlingly stylish and refined, Geller gave the insanely difficult violin cadenzas the elan of breakout jazz solos. I especially relished the mingled “mega-flute” colorations McGill and Chase created as their lines bobbed and wove together.

The Mozart sounded … BIG in comparison to the chamber delicacy of the first half (Baroque and Dadaish alike). I would have preferred a slightly less beefed-up string section. Dausgaard mostly succeeded in keeping balances beautifully weighted, but Mozart’s wind writing was at moments a tad lacking in presence because of the wall of string sound.

Still, the Danish maestro enjoys an inspiring rapport with the SSO, and everyone was on high alert to deliver. He even pulled a few Arthur Nikisch moments, in which he conducted using nothing but his eyebrows. Dausgaard approached the “Jupiter” as a proto-Beethovenian epic, exploiting explosive accents (with dynamic contributions from James Benoit on timpani) and delineating a sense of musical travel, above all in the outer movements.

He obviously possesses a fantastic ear, and the ability to coax microsecond readjustments, so that rich, unexpected colors emerged — most wondrously, in the veiled murkiness he elicited from the slow movement’s harmonic clouds. Mozart’s pauses became a powerful theatrical device through which he drew intriguing connections between the first two movements, the one Apollonian in majesty, its cantabile counterpart an Orphic reverie.

Mozart famously performs his own retoolings of Bach (and Handel) in many of his late period works: the “Jupiter” finale is glorious exemplary. Dausgaard kept the architecture cleanly in view without dampening the visceral excitement.

The program will be repeated on Saturday 12 October at 8pm. And Claire Chase performs in recital tonight at 7.30pm at Octave 9.

Review (c)2019 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Olga Neuwirth, review, Seattle Symphony, Thomas Dausgaard

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