MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

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

Jonathon Heyward’s Outstanding Seattle Symphony Debut

By the end of last night’s concert with Jonathon Heyward guest conducting the Seattle Symphony, I couldn’t help thinking of John Lennon’s wry understatement after a famous rooftop performance: “I hope we passed the audition!”

Could this really have only been Jonathon Heyward’s first engagement leading the Seattle band? The chemistry between them produced such subtle and winning results that it defies belief they haven’t been regular collaborators for years.

Even more, Heyward demonstrated a level of confidence and musical intelligence that belied his youth. The 26-year-old, who comes from Charleston, South Carolina, studied cello before turning to conducting in his teens and is currently finishing up a three-year residency as assistant conductor of The Hallé in Manchester. He was recently named Chief Conductor of Germany’s Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie, where his tenure will begin in 2021. But word has already gotten out — no wonder this amazing talent is so highly sought after.

The program drew on multiple facets of Heyward’s strengths. He opened with a gripping introduction to the music of Hannah Kendall — another name you’ll want to remember, as she is deservedly gaining international recognition.** This marked the U.S. premiere of The Spark Catchers, a 10-minute piece that was first heard on a BBC Proms concert in 2017.

Born in London to first-generation immigrants from Guyana, Kendall has been making a name with some intriguing collaborative projects, such as her chamber opera The Knife of Dawn (2016), which pays homage to the real-life story of the Guyanese poet and political activist Martin Carter, received much acclaim.

Her sensitivity to poetic texts and dramatic flair are likewise evident in the purely orchestral The Spark Catchers, Kendall’s response to the poem of the same title by the British writer Lemn Sissay. The poem pays tribute to the women and adolescent girl workers who went on strike in 1888 to protest inhumane working conditions in a matchmaking factory in London’s East End.

Kendall’s score is wrought with great skill, making effective use of suspenseful pauses. Sections of menacingly coiled rhythms erupt with volatile energy, framing a central oasis that seems to float free, cheating time. Where many young composers are content to merely establish a vague atmosphere through evocative use of timbre, Kendall develops her ideas with rigor and imagination. Heyward intensified the score’s dramatic qualities and well-placed contrasts.

The young conductor took on a very different set of challenges with Haydn’s Symphony No. 98 in B-flat major — one of the set of 12 “London” symphonies, which Haydn introduced in 1792, near the end of the first of his two trips to the capital (just a few months after his friend Mozart’s death). Here, the orchestra shrank down to late classical size (I’m guessing Heyward positioned the strings according to the practice typically used with The Hallé, though I have not confirmed that.)

Heyward delighted the audience with his obvious sympathy for this composer’s humor but also for his impeccable logic. Ensemble passaged sparkled with wit and elan. Highlights were an especially affecting Adagio as well as the games of timing and syncopation in the brilliant finale.

The program’s second half shifted gears still again, with a downright thrilling, superbly shaped account of Gustav Holst’s The Planets. Here was still an entirely different conception of the orchestra — the players cramming the Benaroya stage to meet the gargantuan demands of Holst’s score. Yet across all of the evening’s varying styles, Heyward showed an instinctive feeling for how to clarify musical architecture, always keeping the big picture in view. He inspired the orchestra to create vivid, fully dimensional sound worlds for each of Holst’s portraits, gently acknowledging the full auditorium’s insistent applause between them.

At the same time, Heyward tirelessly shaped the sound, encouraging subtle refinements and using expressive gestures to blend and adjust the mix. He understood that Holst’s dazzling score isn’t just about the brassy climaxes — wonderfully prepared for here — but also homed in on its varieties of mystery and awe. The latter became genuinely unworldly in the final “Neptune” section, as the female voices of the Seattle Symphony Chorale seeped in unseen.

**On Monday night at 7.30pm, Hannah Kendall will be on hand with SSO musicians to present some of her chamber works at Octave 9.

–review (c) 2019 Thomas May

Filed under: conductors, Haydn, new music, review, 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

John Harbison Comes to Seattle

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If you’re in Seattle over the next few days, don’t miss the chance to experience John Harbison in person, who will perform at the keyboard with his wife, violinist Mary Harbison at Octave 9 tonight. AND Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony give the West Coast premiere on Thursday and Saturday of Harbison’s new work for organ and orchestra What Do We Make of Bach?. The program also includes a Stokowski Bach transcription and the last of Shostakovich’s 15 symphonies.

For more background on John Harbison, here’s my profile for a recent edition of Strings magazine:

Filed under: American music, Bach, John Harbison, Seattle Symphony

Seattle Symphony’s Octave 9

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Derek Bermel, left, and Seth Parker Woods perform in Octave 9, Seattle Symphony’s new performance venue. Parker Woods is curating… (James Holt / Seattle Symphony)

My Seattle Times story on the newly launched Octave 9 space and the upcoming 24-hour contemporary music marathon:

Octave 9, the name of Seattle Symphony’s new performance venue, hints at the sense of potential yet to be tapped: The modern concert grand piano is limited to a standard range below eight octaves. Designed for artists who want to reach for that metaphorical extra octave and beyond, the space has been outfitted with cutting-edge digital acoustic and visual technology.

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Filed under: new music, programming, Seattle Symphony

Derek Bermel at Octave 9

This afternoon, in Seattle Symphony’s new Octave 9 space, Derek Bermel and friends present Brooklyn to Ballard. The program, featuring cellist Seth Parker Woods, pianist Ethan Iverson, and Seattle Symphony musicians, will focus on the permutations of jazz and its inspiration on a wide range of composers. Bermel additionally collaborates with Seattle-based visual artist Barbara Earl Thomas.

Filed under: American music, new music, Seattle Symphony

Poetry and Politics: Sir András Schiff Does Double Duty with Seattle Symphony

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Sir András Schiff © Nadia F. Romanini

Sir András Schiff began a remarkable weekend of music with his appearance as guest conductor of the Seattle Symphony. My review:

For a long time, Seattle audiences have made clear their admiration for the artistry of Sir András Schiff whenever he comes into town for solo recitals – including one occasion 17 years ago, when his Bösendorfer had an unfortunate encounter with black ice while being transported across the continent and a replacement had to be found at the last minute.

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Filed under: András Schiff, Bach, Bartók, Beethoven, review, Seattle Symphony

Seattle Symphony Announces 2019-20 Season

As part of its inaugural season under new Music Director Thomas Dausgaard, Seattle Symphony has just announced an impressive and inspiring lineup of 25 living composers: John Adams, Eddie Mora Bermúdez, Anna Clyne, Chick Corea, Charles Corey, Anthony DiLorenzo, Reena Esmail, Janice Giteck, Daniel Kidane, Elena Langer, Hannah Lash, Flo Menezes, Olga Neuwirth, Juan David Osorio, Angelique Poteat, Huang Ruo, David Sampson, Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez, Kate Soper, Bent Sørensen, Tyshawn Sorey, Conrad Tao, Lotta Wennäkoski, Ryan Wigglesworth, and the 2020 Celebrate Asia Composition Competition winner.

Composer-in-residence Tyshawn Sorey will write a Cello Concerto for artist-in-residence Seth Parker Woods. Other SSO commissions: Reena Esmail’s Sitar Concerto — which promises to be a highlight of the season, given her inspired work to date — Elena Langer’s Figaro Gets a Divorce Suite, Hannah Lash’s Double Harp Concerto, and Angelique Poteat’s Cello Concerto, and pieces by Charles Corey and Janice Giteck. (Concertos clearly remain one of the most popular orchestral genres contemporary composers seem to prefer.)

I’m less excited about yet another Rachmaninoff concerto festival — but tickets do need to be sold — and we’ll have to see how the obligatory Beethoven Festival for the 2020 anniversary year works out. I do like juxtaposition of the symphonies with several of the above-mentioned commissions.

And there will be plenty of upcoming news about the soon-to-open Octave 9 project.

The complete press release can be found here.

Filed under: season programming, Seattle Symphony, Thomas Dausgaard

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

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