MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Seattle Symphony Is Making Music Matter


Kinan Azmeh, Ludovic Morlot, and Seattle Symphony; image (c) Brando Patoc

Some thoughts on recent Seattle Symphony programs, now on Vanguard Seattle:

Say goodbye to ivory towers.

So far this month, the Seattle Symphony Orchestra (SSO) and music director Ludovic Morlot have presented three widely varied programs. Two of these addressed red-hot current events that would have seemed surprising in the middle of a “normal” concert season not too long ago.

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Filed under: American music, Beethoven, Debussy, Ives, Ludovic Morlot, Prokofiev, review, Seattle Symphony, Vanguard Seattle

Ivesian Revelations from Morlot and the Seattle Symphony

page from score of Ives/4th Symphony

page from score of Ives/4th Symphony

The last time Ludovic Morlot led the Seattle Symphony in a Charles Ives symphony (the Second), he paired it with Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto (and got pulses running with the Overture to Leonard Bernstein’s musical Candide as a curtain raiser).

I can’t say I get the connections he apparently sees between the conservative Russian and his maverick American contemporary. Maybe the idea is to add still another layer of meta-contrast on top of the already explosively varied mixtures that comprise Ives’ sound world. In any case, this week’s program brings another Rach-Ives pairing.

It was heartening to encounter such an unpredictable interpretation of Rach 3 in last night’s performance (I believe the third time in as many years that Morlot has conducted the work here). Though the previous Rachmaninoff-meets-Ives effort (back in June 2012) had featured the ever-fascinating Stephen Hough as the soloist, the Third Piano Concerto sounded a bit undercooked, the rapport between pianist and orchestra undeveloped.

Some unusual angles were explored by the young Russian pianist Denis Kozhukhin. One of the Mighty Four pianists who took part in the complete Rachmaninoff piano concerto cycle at Benaroya two years ago in January (playing the Fourth Concerto), Kozhukhin has a straightforward, unexaggerated presence at the keyboard, concentrating his (and our) attention solely on the music.


What particularly stood out in approach were the glistening, spun-silk textures in the Intermezzo and above all in the final movement. Kozhukhin executed these with such flawless grace I wished the massive chordal climax in the first movement — which was underpowered and lacked profile — had set up an even starker contrast to his gravity-defying elegance. Along with nuanced phrasing of the most lyrical moments, Kozhukhin showed a penchant for the giddier flights in Rachmaninoff’s writing. This reached a state of outright exuberance (ultimately downplaying the composer’s luxuriant moodiness) in the culmination of the finale, where a magnificent rallying of forces between the piano and orchestra joyfully reforges the theme that opens the Concerto.

Despite troublesome issues of coordination and balance between the orchestra and Kozhukhin (the Rach seemed frankly underrehearsed), Morlot coaxed a richly burnished sound from the players — particularly the string ensemble — and the wind solos gently underscored Kozhukhin’s feeling for the melodic currents amid the galaxies of notes in the solo part. (Question: When was the last time Seattle audiences didn’t leap up to give a standing ovation to a visiting soloist?)

Rach 3 was of course the audience-luring part of the program, but the real reason not to miss it is the opportunity to encounter a live performance of the Fourth Symphony, that great Ivesian summa. As fas as I can tell, this was the SSO’s first time performing the work. (You can still catch it on Saturday night, 31 January.)

The Ives Fourth is something like the symphony’s version of The Great American Novel — which is to say, in terms of its aspirations and the impossibility of living up to them. The particulars of its scoring — the need for four conductors to orchestrate the simultaneous offstage performing forces, six keyboards (in this case, with the bells Ives asks for sampled from a keyboard), enlarged onstage orchestra and chorus — sometimes tempt people to describe it like some kind of concert hall circus act. (After all, the moniker “Symphony of A Thousand” was just a marketing ploy to drum up interest in Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, whose premiere around the time Ives was working in earnest on his Fourth — in 1910 — turned out to bring Mahler his greatest success as a composer during his own lifetime.)

In fact, for all the Mahlerian comparison that might be made with Ives, the latter’s Fourth Symphony is quite modest in duration (its length comparable to that of a Classical symphony). But its blend of familiar (even “homey”) elements with the most audacious complexities immediately forces the listener out of easy-going habits. And that gives it an enormous resonance, a field of implications, that may seem disproportionate to the dimensions of the composer’s architecture. Yet it all results in a thrilling rush — and a reset/reboot to your thinking about what music can do.

As he has shown with other musical pioneers like Edgard Varèse, Morlot has an impressive grasp on just that essential point. He knows that behind the show biz factor of all the paraphernalia, the bells and whistles, this is composing at its most ambitious — thinking in music the way writers, philosophers, scientists think with their respective tools.

Ives Concert

By way of a preface, Morlot gave a fairly extensive “show and tell” intro to the piece. He introduced his fellow conductors: Stilian Kirov, who shares the stage with him, positioned a bit further upstage; Julia Tai, heading the ethereal combo of strings, harps, and partially quarter-tone-tuned piano; David Alexander Rahbee coordinating the battalion of offstage percussion for the last movement (described in the score as a “subterranean percussion ensemble”); and Joseph Crnko, who had prepared the Seattle Symphony Chorale in advance. Morlot also illustrated examples of Ives’ radical concept of polyphonic layering and simultaneous, clashing sound worlds, remarking that “this incredible complexity is built up from the simplest basic elements.”

That dialectic of simplicity-complexity informed Morlot’s own overall vision of the Fourth. Instead of presenting a mere jumble of jarring contrasts, he clearly elicited the sense of enigma that is posed in the brief, preludial opening movement — the enigma that is the engine of this work and that successive movements try to “answer.” The simple hymn tune sung by the chorus in the first movement (“Watchman, tell us of the night”) signals a pilgrimage for meaning. But that pilgrimage soon goes astray — or wanders off into directions unforeseen and unforeseeable. As he molded the music’s progress, at times I noticed Morlot using conducting gestures I’ve never seen him make before.

In Morlot’s interpretation, “the searching question” that we “ask of life” (as the composer described his “program”) has to take account of all of it: the mystical meditations of the otherworldly (and offstage) strings and harps, the bright noon of chaotically colliding marches and cheerful anarchy in the second movement (Ives’ “Comedy”), the sober, ordered fugue of the third (more wonderful string ensemble playing here), and the cosmic rhythms that set the finale in motion.

Ives may have intended the more conventional beauty of the “religious” answer offered by the third movement to be heard as parody (perhaps like Strauss in the parallel section of Also Sprach Zarathustra?) — much as the “Comedy” of the second affectionately parodies secular, civic life. Morlot allowed all of these attempts to get at “the searching question” to have their say, as if each represents the answer at the moment it holds the stage. The outsize, raucous, yawping vitality of the second movement was overwhelming, a forerunner of the spell of sonic ecstasy-from-noise that later technology would allow rock and other popular genres to exploit.

Brandon Patoc Photography

Brandon Patoc Photography

The accumulated energy of the final movement had the effect of an epiphany. In his terrific commentary on the Fourth, Michael Tilson Thomas (a longstanding Ives champion) describes the offstage percussion as “the ticking of the universal clock” and captures what it is that makes Ives’ vigorous dissonances so revelatory:

It’s typical for Ives to represent this most exalted moment of spiritual search in ever more dissonant and blaring sound…. This to me has always suggested the Mount Sinai aspect of spiritual revelation. Man searches and searches, [but] as he gets too close to the divine it is more than he can bear, the sounds and the harmonies are just too much…. We have to turn away and a few little tendrils of singed nerve endings then lead to the beginnings of the long, luminous coda.

Morlot and the SSO are recording these performances for eventual release as part of their complete cycle of Charles Ives symphonies on the in-house label. Inevitably there will be details that come across with more refinement on the recording than they do in the concert hall. But there’s no substitute for the live experience — above all in a work so reliant on an acoustically spatial concept of symphonic abundance. To have both to compare is ideal.

(c)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Ives, pianists, Rachmaninoff, review, Seattle Symphony

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