MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

John Luther Adams: Become Desert

Become Desert by John Luther Adams — one of his most spellbinding and innovative compositions — has just been released. Here’s my review from the world premiere by Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot last year.

It’s a rare concert when a major work of Beethoven gets upstaged. Rarer still when the music responsible for the upstaging is brand new…

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Filed under: John Luther Adams, Ludovic Morlot, Seattle Symphony

Ludovic Morlot Takes Leave of the Seattle Symphony (For Now)

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Ludovic Morlot at his farewell Seattle Symphony concert; photo (c) Brandon Patoc

A look at Ludovic Morlot’s Seattle Symphony legacy:

SEATTLE — With the elegiac strains of the Mondscheinmusik interlude from Richard Strauss’s Capriccio as an encore, Ludovic Morlot brought his final program as music director of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra to an end over the weekend. Stepping back to let the spotlight fall on principal horn Jeffrey Fair during his incandescent solo was a characteristically generous touch. It reminded me of the moment at the end of his opening night concert in 2011, when Morlot descended the podium to join the violin section during Boléro — music making as a shared undertaking among equals.

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Filed under: Ludovic Morlot, review, Seattle Symphony

Ludo’s Farewell Concert

Strauss & Dvorak ConductingIt’s already here: this weekend Ludovic Morlot is leading his final performances as music director of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. The program is characteristically enticing and original: Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde followed by a suite from Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (fashioned in 1983 by Marius Constant) and the Nocturnes, and a genuine rarity: Leoš Janáček’s cantata The Eternal Gospel, written on the eve of the First World War.

I’ll be putting together some thoughts on the significance of the Morlot era in Seattle soon. In the meantime, it will be a bittersweet occasion tonight, but with the consoling thought that Ludo should be back here with some frequency thanks to his new title as Conductor Emeritus.

Filed under: Ludovic Morlot, Seattle Symphony

Ludovic Morlot Named Seattle Symphony Conductor Emeritus

This announcement just in from Seattle Symphony:

Seattle Symphony Board Chair René Ancinas and President & CEO Krishna Thiagarajan announced today that Ludovic Morlot, the Seattle Symphony’s Harriet Overton Stimson Music Director, has been named to a new position, the Judith Fong Conductor Emeritus, in recognition of his exceptional role in the transformation of the Seattle Symphony over the past eight years. Morlot steps down as Music Director at the end of the current season, becoming Conductor Emeritus this fall. He will be succeeded by Music Director Designate Thomas Dausgaard, who has served as the Seattle Symphony’s Principal Guest Conductor since 2014.

The lifetime title of Conductor Emeritus is being bestowed on Morlot in recognition of his past accomplishments and his future relationship with the orchestra. Morlot will return for regular guest conducting engagements and will have the opportunity to continue working with the orchestra on future recordings, tours and residencies when the Music Director is not available. As Conductor Emeritus, Morlot will continue his fruitful relationship with the Seattle Symphony, which has resulted in an expanded orchestra, nearly 60 commissions and premieres, 19 recordings on the Seattle Symphony Media label, five Grammy Awards, and Gramophone’s Orchestra of the Year Award.

Filed under: Ludovic Morlot, music news, Seattle Symphony

Heiner Goebbels Brings His Surrogate Cities to Seattle

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Seattle Symphony in Heiner Goebbels’s Surrogate Cities; photo by James Holt

Last night’s program was a landmark not just of this season but of the Ludovic Morlot era. By the end of the concert, which was devoted exclusively to Surrogate Cities by Heiner Goebbels, the thrilling sense of having just shared a one-time experience had palpably swept through the audience.

It was clear that this full-throttle performance by an expanded Seattle Symphony and guest artists Jocelyn B. Smith and David Moss had been an unprecedented evening at Benaroya — opening up new vistas about what a symphony concert can be and how much territory remains unexplored in the context of this revered medium.

The German composer Heiner Goebbels, an especially compelling personality among the postmodern avant-garde (and now 66), emerged in the 1970s as a socially engaged leftist with a radical understanding of the composer’s identity — and responsibility. His interest in the stage and film and in popular musical idioms is anchored in a fascination with the theatricality of musical performance — hence his close and fruitful association with such figures as the East German playwright Heiner Müller.

Goebbels’s efforts to blur stereotypical distinctions (between composing/performing, for example, or music and other arts, let alone between genres) became a signature well before defying such boundaries was a more widely adopted stance.

Surrogate Cities is a massive, immersive project that began in the 1990s as “an attempt to approach the phenomenon of the city from various sides, to tell stories of cities, expose oneself to them, observe them,” in the composer’s own words. Seattle Symphony’s presentation last night included the world premiere of a brand-new section the orchestra had commissioned: Under Construction, which occurs as the sixth of seven sections, the whole work now lasting close to an hour and a half.

Goebbels points out that Surrogate Cities “was inspired partly by texts, but also by drawings, structures, and sounds, the juxtaposition of orchestra and sampler playing a considerable role because of the latter’s ability to store sounds and noises ordinarily alien to orchestral sonorities.”
The work’s title comes from the novel Surrogate City published in 1990 by his contemporary, the Irish writer Hugo Hamilton, which provides the text used in the seventh, final section, “Surrogate.”

The pluralization here is characteristic: Goebbels’s manner is omnivorous (though in a sense different to Luciano Berio, whose musical rivers drifting with postmodern flotsam evoke another category of aesthetic response) — as with John Cage, everything is up for consideration as part of the total art work.

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Jocelyn B. Smith, vocalist, and Ludovic Morlot with Seattle Symphony; photo by James Holt

At the same time — and Morlot brought this out brilliantly — Goebbels shows a connection to some surprisingly traditional ideas about working out musical motifs and cells and establishing coherent architectures. It is in its arresting juxtapositions — of rigorous, “serious” orchestration with all-out aural assault from aggressively amplified samples, instrumentals and radically different kinds of vocals, symphonic logic and surreal sound images — that Surrogate Cities casts its spell, provoking unexpected thoughts about the repertoire and suggesting the overlooked musicality of daily life.

Goebbels also created the lighting design that in some ways functions like a second conductor. Over 150 cues call for lots of different moods: from luminous gold to mystical, intimate blue or the shadows of a dodgy nightclub, later followed by a kind of rock arena flamboyance. The composer has here discovered a new “art of transition,” the lighting assisting the transformations in character of his urban soundscapes.

The vast orchestra meanwhile became a veritable spectacle, swelling to fill the Benaroya stage, with five percussionists perched atop a raised platform upstage. Their “extra” instruments (balls swirling in a glass bowl, shaken sheets of foil) enhanced the character of Goebbels’s orchestration as inherently theatrical.

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Heiner Goebbels, David Moss, and Jocelyn B. Smith (l-r); photo by James Holt

Prominent roles for two vocalists are integral to this symphonic spectacle. Jocelyn B. Smith was a highlight during a movement of three songs (“The Horatian”) recounting a story from ancient Roman history, her mezzo in the tragic refrain about inevitable violence plummeting deep into the soul of each syllable.

David Moss, an unclassifiable vocalist and improvisational genius for whom Goebbels tailored parts of the work, was a trippingly tongued, one-man vocal orchestra, commanding an improbable spectrum of pitches and complex rythms (imagine Elliott Carter penning patter song).

A lengthy section that blends sampled sounds with the orchestra (including an especially moving use of Jewish chant preserved on “scratchy recordings from the 1920s and ’30s”) brought to mind more recent efforts, such as the electronica brand with which Mason Bates initially made his name — to the detriment of the latter, which seem distinctly pedestrian by comparison.

Goebbels can summon the energy of a rock band from his forces, but without “dumbing down” the orchestra: he makes room for subtle dynamic differentiation and fascinating timbral combinations of the live instruments and his palette of sampled industrial sounds. An especially exciting moment was the carefully built, superheated crescendo Morlot elicited in the final section, leading to Moss’s vocal outburst, “She’s been running…”

“The associations I have are with a realistic, certainly contradictory, but ultimately positive image of the modern city,” according to Goebbels. “My intention was not to produce a close-up but to try and read the city as a text and then to translate something of its mechanics and architecture into music…”

Filed under: Ludovic Morlot, review, Seattle Symphony

Demarre McGill Dazzles in Dalbavie Flute Concerto

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Demarre McGill, Ludovic Morlot, and Marc-André Dalbavie with Seattle Symphony

Seattle Symphony audiences are familiar with Demarre McGill’s magical flute artistry from countless solo moments he’s performed as the ensemble’s principal flute. But this week’s program puts him center stage for the Flute Concerto by Marc-André Dalbavie — and it was an unforgettable highlight of Thursday’s performance.

The French composer wrote his Flute Concerto in 2006 for the Berlin Philharmonic’s principal flutist, the Franco-Swiss Emmanuel Pahud, so you can readily imagine the caliber of playing required. Even at 17 minutes, relatively brief for a concerto, the piece keeps the soloist frenetically active for long stretches.

McGill negotiated its challenges with pure grace and eloquence, engaging in Dalbavie’s unusual dialectic with the orchestra. Rather than a sweet-tuned concerto of airy charms, the flute seems to be simultaneously urging on and trying to tame the orchestra’s ebullient spirits. McGill projected a complex protagonist, Orphic in the central slower section, sprightly as Puck girdling the earth in the rapidfire passages.

Ludovic Morlot led a vivid, gorgeously textured performance that was the theme of the entire generous program, mostly a French affair. He began with another of his specialities, Maurice Ravel’s Suite from Ma mère l’Oye. This time, I detected a radiant, but never forced, tone of elegiac wonder in Sleeping Beauty’s Pavane and the concluding scene of the Enchanted Garden. There was ebullience in the latter as well, underscoring a kinship with the parallel concluding moment in The Firebird. The SSO’s playing was at its most refined, full of silken caresses and subtly articulated rhythms.

The first half ended with the world premiere of Tropes de : Bussy, an ambitious symphonic work the SSO commissioned from Joël-François Durand, Associate Director of the UW School of Music. The title alone requires considerable unpacking and points to the layered associations and post-modern play of Durand’s score. Explains the French-born composer, who developed his concept of the piece while orchestrating some of the piano Préludes of Debussy: “As I kept re-working my arrangements, I gradually started to modify the original music, as if adding more and more interpretive filters with each attempt… Tropes de : Bussy is at first glance a pun on the French composer’s last name, but it also reflects the distance I took from the original texts, revealing and at the same time hiding most of the actual music.”

Durand chose five of the Book I Préludes (Les sons et les parfums, La danse de Puck, Le vent dans la plaine, Des pas sur la neige, and Minstrels. There was much to admire in the imaginative soundscapes he conjured from a large orchestra. If the piece seemed to overstay its welcome, stretching the game of hide-and-seek with the familiar Debussyan harmonies and ideas on at great length, it offered numerous enchanting moments (particularly the “slow” movement after Des pas sur la neige. With its deconstruction of rhythmic structures, the finale after Minstrels recalled something of Ravel’s strategy (though not his sound world) in La valse.

To conclude, Morlot led the one non-French work on this wonderful program. His account of Mozart’s later G minor Symphony, K. 550, glistened with the textural alertness that had been his focus in the French pieces. Taking the Andante at a brisk “walking” tempo worked especially well, and Morlot set off sparks by leaning into the cross-rhythms of the Minuet. The relentless drive of the outer movements gained freshness from being juxtaposed with the Dalbavie.

Review (c) 2019 Thomas May

Filed under: commissions, Ludovic Morlot, Maurice Ravel, Mozart, new music, review, Seattle Symphony

New Concertos by Caroline Shaw and Kinan Azmeh at Seattle Symphony

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Caroline Shaw, Jonathan Biss, and Ludovic Morlot with Seattle Symphony; photo (c) Brandon Patoc

My coverage of recent world premieres by Caroline Shaw and Kinan Azmeh has now been posted at Musical America.

SEATTLE—As Ludovic Morlot’s final season at the helm of the Seattle Symphony gets closer to the final stretch, his legacy of nurturing new music is coming into sharper relief. The SSO’s last two programs in particular—otherwise so strikingly different in character and mood—each unveiled commissions that took the form of brand-new concertos of genuine distinction: Watermark, Caroline Shaw’s score for pianist Jonathan Biss; and a moving work composed by and for the brilliant clarinetist Kinan Azmeh.

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Kinan Azmeh with Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot premiering his new Clarinet Concerto; photo (c) Brandon Patoc

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Filed under: Caroline Shaw, Kinan Azmeh, Ludovic Morlot, new music, Seattle Symphony, Silk Road Project

Kernis and SSO to the Grammys

This Sunday we’ll find out whether Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony’s recording of the Violin Concerto by A.J. Kernis with James Ehnes as the soloist wins either (or both) of its two Grammy nominations: for Best Contemporary Classical Composition and Best Classical Instrumental solo. Hard to believe two years have passed since that wonderful premiere. Here’s the review I wrote back then:

In last night’s Seattle Symphony concert led by Ludovic Morlot, James Ehnes introduced a brand-new violin concerto written for him by one of today’s finest composers, Aaron Jay Kernis. This was the U.S. premiere; last week Ehnes gave the world premiere in Toronto (a co-commissioner with SSO).

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Filed under: Aaron Jay Kernis, James Ehnes, Ludovic Morlot, Seattle Symphony

Seattle Symphony Performs Stravinsky’s Perséphone

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Stravinsky’s Perséphone at Seattle Symphony in Michael Curry staging; photo by Brandon Patoc

My review of a very memorable evening with Ludovic Morlot, Seattle Symphony, and the visual artistry of Michael Curry:

Since its tepid première at the Paris Opera in 1934, Perséphone has remained among the most neglected of Stravinsky’s major scores, unable to find a comfortable home on the opera, ballet or concert stage.

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Filed under: Ludovic Morlot, review, Seattle Symphony, Stravinsky

Swept Away by Morlot’s La mer

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This week’s Seattle Symphony program culminates in one of music director Ludovic Morlot’s specialities: La mer, the finale to a program initially designed around orchestral color.

It opens with Escales (“Ports of Call”) by Debussy’s younger compatriot Jacques Ibert. This tripart travelogue from the early 1920s unabashedly exploits clichéd Orientalist and Spanish tropes, but the composer’s treatment of the orchestra is fresh, and Morlot found enough appealing nuances here to make it an enjoyable outing — and to pique interest in hearing more of this now-neglected composer’s considerable output.

The program had originally been slated to include a real rarity — Scriabin’s Piano Concerto, an early work that isn’t exactly in most pianist’s ready-to-go rep. Daniil Trifonov withdrew because of illness at the last minute, so it wouldn’t have been reasonable to expect Inon Barnatan to play the Scriabin when he agreed to save the day.

Scriabin’s synesthesia was meant to be a linking thread here — and perhaps something about Debussy’s Russian influences? — but the substitute turned out to be quite satisfying anyway: Mozart’s K. 488 Piano Concerto, which dates from just before the Figaro premiere.

I was impressed by Barnatan’s SSO debut two years ago (in Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto). Once again, there was much to admire in his ultra-refined approach to the Mozart, which I heard on Thursday night — all the more striking, given that the concerto’s seemingly straightforward textures were surrounded by the complex hues and ravaging color fields of the rest of the program.

But I was puzzled by the shift from Classical poise to Romantic exaggeration of gesture in the minor-key slow movement, which contains some of Mozart’s most heart-rending music. Barnatan is such a naturally expressive interpreter that I think he would have been more effective without adding italics. Still, there were moments of that elevated beauty squeezed from the most commonplace phrase that set Mozart apart. The finale had all the joie de vivre of the Figaro that was waiting in the wings.

Morlot combined Respighi’s Pines of Rome with Debussy (Nocturnes) early in his tenure, and this time he took up the Italian’s Fountains. It’s hard to avoid the charge of musical padding here in Respighi’s opulent, neo-Richard Straussian scoring, but Morlot shaped the vignettes into miniature dramas that held interest. The SSO’s playing was at a high level, with especially fine ensemble from the strings.

It all seemed to set the stage perfectly for Debussy’s quasi-symphony La mer — including the times-of-day conceit of Respighi’s homage to Rome, moving from the sun’s fading at the Villa Medici to Debussy’s oceanic dawn.

But it soon became clear that Morlot wasn’t interested in “painting” with tone colors or the kind of pictorialism of Ibert — in other words, that he wasn’t treating La mer as another piece of program music that proves how clever Debussy was at conjuring mental images of aspects of the sea through his orchestration. In fact, and especially in contrast to the Ibert, it became obvious how much Debussy manages to do without resorting to standard musical tropes to suggest water.

Instead, the “colors” here seemed closer to the way we find them used in a Mahler symphony: expressions of an internal cosmos, building into a wordless drama of struggle and affirmation.

In his latest take on the piece, Morlot often went in surprising directions. Most remarkable of all was the intensity of the drama in the third panel, which exuded an almost terrifying ferocity I’d not heard in live performances of La mer.

The synergy with the SSO was exciting. Mary Lynch’s rendition of the ambiguous oboe phrase crowned an evening of stellar playing by the woodwinds. Morlot has internalized Debussy’s score to such a degree that he occasionally created the illusion of writing it on the spot. A moving tribute to Debussy’s continuing relevance.
–Review (c)2018 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Debussy, Ludovic Morlot, review, Seattle Symphony

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