MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Seattle Symphony Continues Its Reunion with Ludovic Morlot

Ludovic Morlot conducting the Seattle Symphony with soloist Jan Lisiecki in Grieg’s Piano Concerto; image (c) Brandon Patoc

Several times during Seattle Symphony’s concert last night, it felt like a time machine had whisked us back a few years to the Ludovic Morlot era. The orchestra reunited with its former music director last weekend on opening night and is continuing the collaboration for the first full concert of the season’s subscription series. And they’ve managed to reactivate something of the chemistry that made their first seasons together so exciting.

You could sense it in the joyful enthusiasm with which they brought to life the opening piece, Tidalwave Kitchen, by Gabriella Smith. For the second time in a row this month, Morlot and the SSO launched a concert with music by a young woman composer inspired by the West Coast’s natural beauty — last Saturday, it was the world premiere of PNW native Angelique Poteat’s  Breathe, Come Together, Embrace. So far as I know, Tidalwave Kitchen marked the first time the SSO has performed music by Smith, who hails from Berkeley and was mentored early on by John Adams. 

In a short introduction onstage, the talented young composer remarked that it was in this piece that she first had the reassurance of arriving at her own voice. Smith wrote it a decade ago, prompted during her student years on the East Coast by intense homesickness for the “beautiful and dramatic landscape of the Northern California coast” where she’d grown up. 

Smith elaborates in her composer’s note on the memories of that landscape that inspired her: “hikes shrouded in fog, tide pooling on the rocky beaches, and sitting by the Pacific listening to the hallucinatory sounds of the ocean, the keening gulls, pounding surf, sizzling of sand and sea foam, drifting in and out of fog and clarity, order and randomness, reality and imagination.” 

The resulting music paints no pretty postcard but is an immersive, sensory-rich orchestral fantasia, unpredictable yet persuasive in its wildly dramatic mood swings. Smith seems to want to embrace the world the way a Mahler born into the 21st century might have set out to do so, using post-Minimalist devices to power up and take flight. 

Fragments of a stable melody (or hymn?) want to coalesce at several points but remain shrouded by the almost-psychedelic haze of Smith’s timbral palette. A raucously festive outburst arrives at the climax, but its brash exuberance spills over into something vaguely ominously manic and then subsides. 

Over the summer, Morlot conducted the San Francisco Symphony in Tidalwave Kitchen, and he elicited palpable excitement from the SSO. It’s one thing to possess the keen musical imagination on display in this music, but Smith also shows a remarkable technical command of the resources of an orchestra, making the piece especially apt as a concert curtain raiser. I hope we get to hear more of her music in Benaroya Hall. 

Morlot will conduct his new orchestra (the Barcelona Symphony) in another piece by Smith later in October. Incidentally: this sought-after composer will be on the panel for the New York Times Events-sponsored seminar A New Climate exploring collective responses to climate change (October 12 in San Francisco).

Raucous, fiery energy likewise abounded in Jan Lisiecki’s account of the competitive folk dancing that drives the finale of Grieg’s Piano Concerto. Returning to the Benaroya stage following his inspired contribution to the opening night concert, Lisiecki approached the familiar concerto from an almost dizzying plenitude of perspectives. 

His variety of tonal colors was spellbinding: the thunderous chords of the massive first movement cadenza thrilled with power and accuracy, while the plaintive trains of the Adagio breathed the poetry of Lisiecki’s most personally inflected Chopin. It was especially nice to hear his rendition of Chopin’s posthumously published Nocturne in C minor as an encore, where he distilled that poetry to its most concentrated essence. I was also struck by the quality of his partnership with Morlot and the orchestra as he responded to the phrasings of individual players, such as the idyllic interlude flutist Jeffrey Barker shaped in the finale. 

The extreme pianissimos Lisiecki drew out of the Steinway foreshadowed the drama whipped up in the second half of the program. Morlot led the SSO in Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony back in 2014 (when it was similarly paired with new music — a piano concerto by Alexander Raskatov). Eight years on, to my ears there is no doubt that his understanding of this music has deepened and darkened. His command of the larger span of Tchaikovsky’s design has strengthened as well. 

The opening lamentation — expressively phrased by bassoonist Luke Fieweger, in one of several outstanding cameos from across the SSO’s ranks — set the terms of the drama as effectively as a memorable establishing shot by a seasoned director. Morlot outlined the long first movement’s disparate sections with a clarity that underscored the emotional polarities of Tchaikovsky’s enigmatic final symphony.

However, I found something lacking in the middle movements. The tricky meter of the second movement waltz came off sounding slack, even a bit sloppy, while the swaggering march in the third movement needed a tighter rein to wield its full irony. But Morlot inspired the most moving playing of the evening in the Requiem-like finale, building by subtraction so that the pitiless subsidence of Tchaikovsky’s conclusion overwhelmed with its negation.

The program will be repeated Friday and Saturday.

Review (c) 2022 by Thomas May. All rights reserved.

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

A Restorative Opening Night at Seattle Symphony, with French Accents

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Jan Lisiecki, Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony; image (c) Brandon Patoc

My review of this weekend’s opening night concert:

Mixing the familiar with some discoveries, the Seattle Symphony offered a pleasingly varied program to open its new season. The event also brought an element of reassurance by evoking welcome memories of a more stable era as former music director Ludovic Morlot reunited with the orchestra…

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Filed under: commissions, pianists, review, Seattle Symphony

Seattle Symphony Opens Tonight

Music by Angelique Poteat

Seattle Symphony launches its 2022-23 season tonight with a world premiere by local composer Angelique Poteat, some scintillating Chopin, and a Francocentric smorgasbord of delights led by conductor emeritus Ludovic Morlot.

The lineup includes Saint-Saëns’s La muse et le poète for solo violin and cello and orchestra and the 2nd Suite from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, as well as Poteat’s Breathe, Come Together, Embrace and Chopin’s Andante spianato and Grand polonaise brillante, with Jan Lisiecki  as the piano soloist. Lisiecki returns later next week for the first subscription concert to play Grieg’s Piano Concerto. Also led by Morlot, the program (Thurs-Sat, 22-24 September) also includes a new piece by a young American composer — Gabriela Smith’s Tidalwave Kitchen — and Tchaikovsky’s devastating final symphony, the Pathétique.

The performances can also be accessed from home via streaming.

Filed under: music news, Seattle Symphony

Ascending To The Stars On Messiaen Trek From The Canyons, Illustrated

Former Seattle Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot returned to conduct Messaien’s ‘Des canyons aux étoiles…‘ (Photos by James Holt / Seattle Symphony)

I reviewed an extraordinary (and rare) performance of Messiaen by Ludovic Morlot and Seattle Symphony for Classical Voice America:

SEATTLE — For their recent reunion, Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony put aside the familiar repertoire to offer a program devoted entirely to Olivier Messiaen’s vast, 12-movement work inspired by the landscape of the American West, Des canyons aux étoiles…. The experience was blissfully unique, reminiscent of similarly rare outings during Morlot’s eight-year tenure as music director (2011-19) that have not faded from memory: a riotous Varèse Amériques early on, the collaborations with John Luther Adams, semi-staged Ravel and Stravinsky — and, indeed, other Messiaen performances, including the orchestra’s first encounter with the Turangalîla Symphony….

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Filed under: Ludovic Morlot, Olivier Messiaen, Seattle Symphony

Morlot and SSO Together Again for Epic Messiaen

Ludovic Morlot conducts the Seattle Symphony in The Mayors’ Concert for Ukraine and Refugees Worldwide earlier this year. (James Holt / Seattle Symphony)

Tonight Ludovic Morlot rejoins the Seattle Symphony for the first of two performances of one of Messiaen’s Des canyons aux étoiles… I spoke to the conductor about the program for The Seattle Times:

A new chapter in Ludovic Morlot’s relationship with the Seattle Symphony is underway.

Now holding the title of conductor emeritus, Morlot has chosen some unusual fare for his concerts on June 2 and 4: the orchestral epic “Des canyons aux étoiles …” (“From the Canyons to the Stars …”) by Olivier Messiaen, which will be presented in a multimedia presentation accompanied by video projections by Deborah O’Grady.

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Filed under: Ludovic Morlot, Olivier Messiaen, Seattle Symphony, Seattle Times

Reena Esmail Returns to Seattle Symphony

The Seattle Symphony will present two free Community Concerts this May. On Friday, May 13, at 8 p.m., Seattle Symphony Composer-in-Residence Reena Esmail returns to Benaroya Hall to host the first Community Concert, titled Ram Tori Maya, which features a Seattle Symphony string quartet sharing the stage with students of Swaranjali School of Music, an institution dedicated to the preservation, learning, and performance of Hindustani classical music. This program will explore pieces arranged or composed by Esmail herself along with a carefully curated selection of popular Indian works.

The second community concert will be on Tuesday, May 17, at 7 p.m., with Associate Conductor Lee Mills conducting music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Hannah Kendall, Astor Piazzolla, Johannes Brahms, and Carlos Simon.  2022 Young Artist Henry From will join the orchestra for the last movement from Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1.


Filed under: music news, Seattle Symphony

Roderick Cox Triumphs with the Seattle Symphony

Roderick Cox conducting the Seattle Symphony Orchestra; photo (c)James Holt

I left last night’s performance convinced that Roderick Cox is a major talent destined for something great. Winner of the 2018 Sir Georg Solti Conducting Award, Cox had caught my interest last year leading a Barber in San Francisco Opera’s return to live performance. Those were unusual circumstances dictated by social-distancing rules (with a parking lot as the auditorium, the music transmitted to our car radios), so it was splendid to get to experience this young conductor in the limelight, with a full orchestra, unhampered by any pandemic restrictions more cumbersome than a mask. [UPDATE: Check out the film Conducting Life, an intimate portrait of Roderick Cox and his path toward his vocation.]

Cox chose a challenging program that revealed an impressive gift for communicating his musical vision. The first half was given to William Levi Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony of 1934–a landmark of early 20th-century American symphonic writing has been shamefully, disgracefully neglected while so many tireless mediocrities continue to clutter the repertoire.

This performance had the quality of a double epiphany, confirming what an excellent piece of music we’ve allowed ourselves to be missing out on and at the same time shedding light on the journey Dawson’s symphony traces–outwardly, the harrowing passage from Africa to the New World, but also an implicitly personal journey. He clarified the originality of Dawson’s response to the challenge Dvořák had issued to cultivate an authentically American voice. For Dawson, that meant writing a symphony that, as the composer put it, “is unmistakably not the work of a white man.”

Negro Folk Symphony is a marvel of the imaginative, indeed, symphonic, transformation of simple, ready-made folk material–Dawson draws on three spirituals in particular–into a complex, multi-faceted structure. Cox led a dramatically compelling account that highlighted Dawson’s elaborate use of rhythmic mottos as a unifying device, while also lavishing attention on the orchestral details that give this score such resonance. His spacing of the implacably tragic minor chords ending the “Hope in the Night Section” was especially memorable. This was the SSO’s first performance of the Dawson, and part of the excitement came from the sense of the players sharing in these discoveries along the way, clearly inspired by Cox’s guidance.

Concertmaster Noah Geller gave a deeply felt and polished interpretation of the 1904 Violin Concerto in A minor by Alexander Glazunov–who, like Dawson, straddled a period of drastic change in musical values and pressures. Basking in his warmly expressive lower register in the opening passage, the violinist kept the audience at an attentive hush in Glazunov’s extended cadenza, counterbalancing the piece’s gentler lyricism with its giddy high spirits and vivaciously articulated virtuosity.

Cox proved fearless in Belá Bartók’s Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin, a piece that doesn’t tolerate weak-willed, insecure conducting. He drew an electrifying performance from the outset, never letting go of the ominous, hair-raising tension and danger that animate this early Bartók score. The music echoes, though in a very original way, impulses from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Strauss’s dancing Salome, also hinting at the spirit of film noir to come. Cox emphasized its brutal violence but also knew how to bring out the delicacy and spookily muted colors of Bartók’s orchestration, loosening the reins to give the platform to Benjamin Lulich for his arresting clarinet solos.

The glowing rapport between the players and Cox left me hoping to see much more of this conductor on the Benaroya stage. Thursday’s audience, though relatively sparse, was enthusiastic and grateful. What a pity it would be to miss this excellent program, which repeats Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm.

Review (c) 2022 Thomas May

Filed under: Bartók, conductors, review, Seattle Symphony

Morlot Leads the Next Chapter in the Seattle Symphony’s Sibelius Adventure

Ludovic Morlot reunites with the Seattle Symphony (image: Nick Klein)

For the second installment in the Seattle Symphony’s Sibelius cycle, emeritus conductor Ludovic Morlot rejoined the orchestra to lead a program centered around the Second Symphony. The occasion inspired some spectacular, edge-of-your-seat playing on Thursday night.

The concert started off with another in the series of commissions of new works from contemporary composers that find a way to “relate” to each of the Sibelius symphonies. In February, when the cycle launched with the Sibelius First (conducted by the talented Ruth Reinhardt), the pairing presented an intriguingly provocative new piece by Ellen Reid. The Puerto Rican composer Angélica Negrón faced the challenge of responding to what is, for many Sibelius fans, the best-loved of the seven symphonies. Color Shape Transmission, the result, offers an imaginatively fresh take on the phenomenon of acoustic space and the orchestra as a kind of mobile aural sculpture. Negrón spins her vast array of forces into a kaleidoscope of mysterious timbres, rapturously sustained clusters, and subtle echo and richochet effects. The impression of a ritual or procession brought to mind the mystery of the Second Symphony’s Andante, with its walking bass and swelling hymn.

I seem to recall that this program had originally been planned to include Sibelius’s Violin Concerto with Isabelle Faust. She was the soloist in Stravinsky’s contribution to the genre instead, but it was a wonderful match and proved captivating from first note to last. Faust displayed multiple personalities, all equally convincing, in Stravinsky’s one-of-a-kind take on the concerto idea: alternately cheeky, heart-breaking, whimsical, and invigorating. Morlot’s tenure with the SSO included some especially memorable encounters with Stravinsky, so it was gratifying to find him shedding light on a different aspect of the composer, tending so carefully to his piquant timbral combinations of woodwinds and soloist; concertmaster Noah Geller matched Faust’s ravishing tone in the duet between both violinists in the Capriccio finale.

But what left the most resounding impression was the epic sweep conveyed by the Second Symphony. In this account, Morlot navigated the SSO through Sibelius’s drastic transformations of landscape with a convincing sense of purpose. Sunlight shifting on the meadows, impending storms, glorious new vistas opened up — the sonic imagery flowed generously, but Morlot shaped its ebbs and flows with architectural understanding, aside from the occasional haze produced by a passing sonic imbalance. He homed in on Sibelius’s use of tension and release to thrilling effect.

In his excellent program notes, Christopher DeLaurenti points out that Sibelius had little use for the political purposes which his work seemed to serve, while at the same time hinting at the Second’s uncanny relevance for the terrible present moment. Its premiere in 1902, he writes, “was welcomed by the Finnish public as a missive of nationalist resilience against their Russian overlords.” He also quotes the composer’s friend and champion Robert Kajanus hailing the Second as “a broken-hearted protest against all the injustice that threatens at the present time to deprive the sun of its light and our flowers of their scent.” Grasping the music’s agonized heroism, this performance invested the final moments of the Second with cathartic grandeur.

The full program will be performed again on Saturday, 9 April, at 8pm. If you need a dose of hope, don’t miss it.

Filed under: commissions, Ludovic Morlot, Seattle Symphony, Sibelius, Uncategorized

Seattle Symphony Announces 2022-23 Season

The Seattle Symphony Orchestra (SSO) just announced the lineup for the 2022-23 season. It’s the first time since I’ve been following the SSO that this announcement comes without a music director in place. So the first thing that stands out is the long list of guest conductors: I count a total of 30 (!), including such luminaries as Marin Alsop, Tan Dun, and Osmo Vänskä, who will close out the season with Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony on 22 and 24 June. (Asher Fisch’s moving recent account of Das Lied von der Erde marked the first time Mahler resounded again in Benaroya Hall since the pandemic, and Morlot is set to conduct the Sixth next week. The Second is the only Mahler lined up for next season.)

No fewer than 13 are set to make their SSO debuts. And there will also be familiar faces: particularly Conductor Emeritus Ludovic Morlot, who has the honor of leading the opening night concert on 17 September along with two later programs.

As to new music, five commissioned works will be presented (including both SSO concerts and the Octave 9 chamber series), including a world premiere by 2022-23 artist-in-residence Angelique Poteat (scheduled for opening night) and new compositions by Freida Abtan, Enrico Chapela, Dai Fujikura, and
Abel Selaocoe. Other contemporary voices among the 25 living composers represented include Gabriella Smith, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Tan Dun, Gina Gillie, Nina Shekhar, Salina Fisher, Qigang Chen, Caroline Shaw, Shanyse Strickland, and Hannah Lash.

The Symphony No. 7 by Sibelius will be paired with a world premiere by Dai Fujikura in response to the Finn’s last symphony. But that’s the only Sibelius that figures on next season’s schedule. It appears that the Sibelius Cycle that had been intended as a highlight under former music director Thomas Dausgaard will be left incomplete. I haven’t seen any statement on the matter but will update as soon as I do. Which means that by the end of next season, as far as I understand it, SSO will have given Symphonies 1, 2, and 7, together with their corresponding paired commissions (music by Ellen Reid and Angélica Negrón for Symphonies 1 and 2, respectively) — with 3, 4, and 5 apparently falling by the wayside. Since each of these was to be accompanied by a newly commissioned work, I wonder what will become of the “missing” commissions….

There’s also a lot of love for Rachmaninoff, who only seems to increase in popularity each season. The Spring will bring a “Rachfest” devoted to the four piano concertos, featuring pianists Dominic Cheli, Rémi Geniet, and Albert Cano Smit, with Katharina Winkor conducting — all but Geniet making their SSO debuts. Plus, David Robertson will conduct the rarely heard Symphony No. 1 (the work whose fiasco premiere nearly led Rachmaninoff to abandon composing) and yet another program of the ubiquitous Piano Concerto No. 2 in January (with Nobuyuki Tsujii as the soloist and SSO newcomer Jirí Rožeň conducting). The Rachfest originally planned for spring 2020 was cancelled when the pandemic arrived, but 2023 has the added bonus of being the 150th anniversary year of the Russian composer’s birth.

I’m especially excited about the new works by Poteat and Fujikura, as well as the incredible Gabriella Smith’s Tidlewave Kitchen, Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Cello Concerto with Nicholas Altstaedt, and the Seattle premiere of Tan Dun’s remarkable Buddha Passion (which I reviewed three years ago when Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic gave the U.S. premiere). And Octave 9 will present Tan Dun’s Ghost Opera and also welcome back cellist extraordinaire Seth Parker Woods for the world premiere of Freida Abtan’s My Heart is a River.

In fact, there’s a strong cello theme running through the programming, which includes a new work by Abel Selaocoe (featuring himself as the soloist) and Yue Bao conducting the Three Continents Cello Concerto by Nico Muhly, Sven Helbig, and Zhou Long, with the cellist Jan Vogler.

Link to the complete SSO season announcement press release here.

Filed under: commissions, music news, Seattle Symphony

Reena Esmail’s Violin Concerto for Indian Violinist Kala Ramnath

Reena Esmail, Seattle Symphony’s composer in residence (Rachel Garcia)

ALSO NOTE: Tonight Friday night at 8pm, Reena Esmail curates a program at Seattle Symphony”s Octave 9 space with Kala Ramnath and SSO musicians, titled “Ragamala: A Journey into Hindustani Music.”

I had the pleasure of writing about the marvelous Reena Esmail and her new violin concerto for Hindustani violinist Kala Ramnath, which Seattle Symphony will premiere at the Celebrate Asia concert on Sunday, 20 March.

For its opening night concert last September, when the Seattle Symphony returned for its first full season since the pandemic struck, it was music by Reena Esmail that launched the program. She continues in her role as composer-in-residence with the world premiere of a newly commissioned violin concerto …

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Filed under: Reena Esmail, Seattle Symphony, Seattle Times, violinists

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