MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Morlot To Step Down in 2019

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Photo credit: Brandon Patoc

Seattle Symphony’s press office released a statement on Friday afternoon announcing Music Director Ludovic Morlot’s decision to leave that position at the end of the 2018-19 season, after eight seasons with the orchestra.

Maestro Morlot gave the following statement:

I will be forever grateful and proud to have been given the opportunity to help write a chapter in the history of the Seattle Symphony. And what a beautiful chapter it is; thrilling performances played to full houses, the appointment of so many outstanding musicians, three Grammys, a strong list of commissions and premieres, a memorable concert at Carnegie Hall, an upcoming residency at Berkeley, and so much more. I am also extremely appreciative of the commitment that the community as a whole has offered to me at the artistic helm of this extraordinary organization. The decision to step down as Music Director when my contract comes to an end in 2019 is not one I have taken lightly. We are in the midst of a wonderful, stimulating and exciting artistic journey and I look forward to continuing this in the next two seasons. However, I feel that by 2019 the time will be right for me to explore new musical opportunities and for the Symphony to have the inspiration of new artistic leadership.

The news comes as something of a shock and is especially disconcerting to Seattle music lovers, since Morlot’s presence has done nothing less than transform the city’s music scene. His work with the SSO is a model for how to make the institution of an orchestra relevant in contemporary life while maintaining the highest musical standards.

Everyone has kept tight-lipped about whatever new project Morlot has on the horizon. In the meantime, local audiences will be savoring his every moment at the podium more than ever.

What are your favorite moments to date from Morlot’s tenure with the SSO?

The complete SSO press release is here.

Filed under: Ludovic Morlot, music news, Seattle Symphony

Chasing Victory with Beethoven’s Fifth at Seattle Symphony

My Seattle Times preview of this week’s Seattle Symphony program:

Three shorts and a long.

It’s the musical equivalent of E =mc 2 : on the surface, a deceptively simple formula that yields previously unimaginable results — including many Ludwig van Beethoven himself couldn’t have possibly foreseen. In World War II, the Allies equated the Fifth Symphony’s famous motto with the dot-dot-dot-dash denoting “V” in Morse code. The BBC regularly included this “V for Victory” message of hope in broadcasts to Nazi-occupied Europe.

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Filed under: Beethoven, Ludovic Morlot, Seattle Symphony, Seattle Times

A.J. Kernis’s Killer New Violin Concerto at Seattle Symphony

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photo by James Holt

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).

Talk about making a great first impression! Despite — or even because of — its terrorizing challenges for the soloist, this is a concerto built to last: it’s so good and makes such an obviously satisfying contribution that I’d bet at least some of the more interesting virtuosos at work today will be intrigued to take it on.

I sometimes wonder whether we’ve been going through something of a concerto overload in recent years: too many composers relying on the supposedly built-in attractions of a structure that can feature a star protagonist while also benefiting from the color and horsepower of an orchestra (even if the latter is used merely for “atmospheric” painting rather than in a richer, symphonic way).

One of the many things that impress me about this new piece is that Kernis has really thought through the concerto idea and created something substantial and fresh without relying on esoteric novelties — without trying to reinvent the wheel.

In fact, an attempt at abstract description of the piece might make it sound almost old-fashioned, but it’s not. Like Brahms writing for Joseph Joachim (though Kernis himself studied violin as a youngster), he resorts (distantly) to Baroque forms in the outer movements — an intensely felt and gripping Chaconne for the first and a “Toccatini” (his play on the toccata) for the finale — with a soulful “Ballad” doing service as the aria at the center. And the profusion of little cadenza-islands amid the orchestral archipelago also underscores the concerto’s conventional identification with virtuoso prowess.

But Kernis animates all of these conventional elements with a marvelously contemporary spirit. The first two movements have deep emotional resonance, while the finale is so infectiously zippy (and outrageously hard to play) it leaves you with a buzz — a musical martini, as the composer jokes.

He’s often described as “eclectic,” but I don’t think that does justice to the distinctive personality Kernis conveys in his Violin Concerto. True, there are hints of, well, Brahms (in the emotional severity and fatalism of the first movement), Berg, Bach, Stravinsky for sure (in the finale), Messiaen (the wondrous tangles of sound in the “Ballad,” which is also cured with jazz and blues flavors). But instead of a random mishmash, Kernis amalgamates these idioms into a rich, compelling harmonic language and flow of ideas.

One could appreciate Kernis’s score on the level of its orchestral ingenuity alone: such interesting sounds and blends, which paradoxically erase the model of individual “versus” the orchestra — at least over long stretches of the piece. Paradoxically because, on the most obvious level, this concerto it is a virtuoso showpiece in the old school sense.

But with James Ehnes as the soloist, the clichés often signaled by “virtuosity” — mere dazzle, effects without causes — have no bearing. It’s clear that Kernis tailored the piece to display this unmatchable violinist’s musical intelligence, taste, and beautiful sound production above all incredible technical feats he calls for (of which this piece is essentially a violinist’s compendium).

Whether Ehnes was attacking a fearsome passage of double-stop chords with his signature elegance or deftly sprinkling a torrent of precisely placed pizzicati,  it was like watching  a veteran climber scaling a particularly brutal mountain face sans ropes.

But for all the thrills and escapades, the overall impression he left of the concerto — which Kernis has dedicated to Ehnes — was of a rich, many-colored, joyful composition that has something compelling to say, and that resonates afterward.

Again, this is all part of the extraordinary balance Kernis has achieved in his Violin Concerto, overriding binaries of dark/light, intense/carefree, Apollonian/Dionysian, “serious”/enjoyable.

Morlot — a big part of this success in the less obvious task of precision-engineering and calibrating Kernis’s complex orchestral apparatus — was a deeply  sympathetic collaborator in this premiere.

He opened the program with a youthful curiosity by Debussy from a student cantata (the “Cortège et Air de danse” from L’enfant prodigue). The second half brought Beethoven’s Sixth.

Morlot’s account of the Pastoral from several seasons ago has stayed with me as some of his best Beethoven. It’s fascinating to hear him continuing to develop his ideas of this piece. Connections between the movements (even between symphonies) emerged effortlessly — above all in the limber, serenely flowing string lines of the second and last movements, which were reminiscent of his vision of the Ninth’s slow movement at the beginning of the year.

Despite some ensemble untidiness, there was especially delectable work from the winds (Eric Jacobs’ clarinet as beguiling as the voice of Orpheus). Michael Crusoe’s timpani pulsed with dramatic thunder and lighting in a storm movement that sounded like a sketch for The Flying Dutchman: further evidence of the silliness of that persistent cliche about the “placid” even-numbered versus “revolutionary” odd-numbered Beethoven symphonies. Next week brings a further chance for comparison, when Morlot and the SSO close out their two-year Beethoven cycle with the mighty Fifth.

(c) 2017 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: American music, Beethoven, commissions, James Ehnes, Ludovic Morlot, review, Seattle Symphony

Seattle Symphony Is Making Music Matter

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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

Revolution No. 9

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It was premiered almost two centuries ago. And Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 still feels as urgently needed today as ever.

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Filed under: Beethoven, Ludovic Morlot, Seattle Symphony, Seattle Times

A Primer in the Romantic Spirit from Seattle Symphony

khachatryan-12Sergey Khachatryan. Image courtesy of Seattle Symphony.

My review of this weekend’s Seattle Symphony program with Ludovic Morlot and violinist Sergey Khachatryan is now live on Vanguard Seattle:

The Seattle Symphony Orchestra (SSO)’s sixth season with Music Director Ludovic Morlot has so far included a pair of electrifying programs that paired world premiere commissions by composers of today with Beethoven classics—the latter part of an ongoing two-year cycle of the composer’s complete symphonies and piano concertos.

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Filed under: Berlioz, Ludovic Morlot, review, Seattle Symphony, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Vanguard Seattle

(Prokofiev) x2 + Beethoven 1 + Beethoven 8 = SSO Triumph

 

 

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.

 

Filed under: Beethoven, Ludovic Morlot, new music, review, Seattle Symphony

The Joyce of Music: Opening Night with the Seattle Symphony

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My review of Seattle Symphony’s opening night program with guest star Joyce Di Donato has now been posted on Bachtrack:

“Wishing your lover dead is a terrible way to come back to Seattle”, remarked Joyce DiDonato, her lips twisting in mock consternation as she faced the tumultuous applause following her outrageously over-the-top rendition of “Ove t’aggiri, o barbaro” from Giovanni Pacini’s 1845 dramma lirico Stella di Napoli (the title, too, of her 2014 release blending bel canto classics and rarities).

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Filed under: Ludovic Morlot, review, Seattle Symphony

Gabriel Prokofiev, Agata Zubel: A New Season of Commissions at Seattle Symphony

gprokofievMy latest piece for the Seattle Times (in the Sunday edition) has now been posted online:

What drives a composer to write music — especially for a group as complex as a symphony orchestra?

The Romantic era has conditioned us to look for the answer in lofty concepts like “self-expression” and “genius.” But that represents only one variable in an intricate equation.

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Filed under: commissions, Ludovic Morlot, new music, Seattle Symphony

Adventures with the Seattle Symphony

The September 2016 issue of Gramophone is out and contains my feature on innovations at the Seattle Symphony in the era of Ludovic Morlot.

Filed under: Gramophone, Ludovic Morlot, Seattle Symphony

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