MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

“More Light! More Light!” Morlot and the Seattle Symphony Tackle Beethoven’s Fifth

It would be interesting to know how many audience members comprising the very full house for this performance were hearing their first-ever live Beethoven Fifth. Even for aficionados, the encounter was unusual. Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony created a boldly original framework in which to present the Fifth Symphony, their account of which also marked the conclusion to a two-year cycle of the complete symphonies and piano concertos.

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Filed under: Bartók, Beethoven, review, 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 Unveils a New, Custom Concerto

ajkernisMy latest for The Seattle Times: a preview of Aaron Jay Kernis’s new Violin Concerto for James Ehnes and the Seattle Symphony:

How is the current political environment affecting the work of American artists?

This week’s Seattle Symphony concerts offer one very recent example. The orchestra will give the U.S. premiere of Aaron Jay Kernis’ Violin Concerto, conducted by music director Ludovic Morlot and featuring James Ehnes as the soloist.

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Filed under: commissions, James Ehnes, Seattle Symphony, Seattle Times

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

Music for Troubled Times: Seattle Symphony’s Shostakovich Concerto Festival

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Violinist Aleksey Semenenko, with Pablo Rus Broseta conducting the Seattle Symphony; photo (c)Brandon Patoc

My review of Seattle Symphony’s remarkable, two-part Shostakovich Concerto Festival is now available on STRINGS:

The Seattle Symphony just offered a rare chance to hear all six of Dmitri Shostakovich’s solo instrumental concertos back-to-back in a two-day marathon (January 19–20) featuring three young virtuosos, all led by the ensemble’s associate conductor, Pablo Rus Broseta.

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Filed under: review, Seattle Symphony, Shostakovich

Shostakovich Concerto Festival at SSO

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Soloist Aleksey Semenenko with the Seattle Symphony and Pablo Rus Broseta conducting; (c) Brandon Patoc

The Seattle Symphony’s Shostakovich Concerto Festival started off last night with a powerful program covering half of the Russian master’s six concertos for solo instruments.

It’s a fascinating opportunity to hear, compare, and contrast each of the pairs of concertos for piano, violin, and cello in a two-evening marathon. Ditto the three young artists appearing as the soloists: pianist Kenvin Ahfat, violinist Aleksey Semenenko, and cellist Edgar Moreau. Leading the Seattle Symphony is its marvelously talented associate conductor, Pablo Rus Broseta.

I’ll have a report on the whole festival later on in Strings magazine. In the meantime, based on the caliber of the performances — not to mention the new relevance of Shostakovich at the dawn of an era of profound political and cultural angst — I highly recommend Part Two this evening. On the program tonight: the Second Piano and Cello Concertos and the First Violin Concerto.

Filed under: Seattle Symphony, Shostakovich

Heavy-Metal Dmitri

Getting in the mood for the start of Seattle Symphony’s two-concert Shostakovich Concerto Festival.

Filed under: Seattle Symphony, Shostakovich

At Seattle Symphony, Cosmic Radiation from Beethoven and Messiaen

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The Seattle Symphony, with guest musicians and vocalists, perform works by Messiaen and Beethoven this weekend. (Brandon Patoc)

My Seattle Times review:

In their first program of the new year, Ludovic Morlot, the Seattle Symphony and guests offer an inspired pairing of Beethoven’s immortal Ninth and the spiritually attuned music of Olivier Messiaen.

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Filed under: Beethoven, Olivier Messiaen, review, Seattle Symphony, Seattle Times

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

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