Igor meets Edgard


Ludovic Morlot impressed again this week with a program that featured the smartly chosen Ameriques of Edgard Varese and Stravinsky’s classic ballet the Rite of Spring. As Morlot pointed out in the open rehearsal earlier in the week — Varese is to Stravinsky the way Beethoven is to Haydn. Ameriques’s homage to the Rite is overt, borrowing themes, rhythms, and mimicking solos. The Rite opens with a bassoon solo, Ameriques opens with a flute solo (bravo Seth Krimsky and Judy Kriewall).

Morlot seems to be focusing the orchestra on the fundamentals of their craft: rhythmic precision, dynamic range, color, and above all else the idea of an orchestra as a musical team. Ear splitting climaxes were a signature of the Schwarz era. Morlot’s climaxes in Ameriques were forceful without being painful to hear.

When the big moments came during Ameriques, there was always room for more sound, more energy. This paid huge dividends at the piece’s conclusion when Morlot pulled a massive, driving crescendo out of the orchestra. Chailly, Boulez, Dohnanyi, none of them in their recordings of the piece, achieve the same humongous sound and none of them match the drama of the work’s final bars.

Some might have thought pegging Ameriques at the end of the program created an anticlimactic concert experience. They would be wrong. The Rite of Spring is a popular piece and its rhythms, harmonies, and violence are part of the vocabulary of most classical music lovers.  Putting a popular piece last always leaves the crowd satisfied. Varese’s vocabulary, however, isn’t far removed from Stravinsky.  There are enough interesting fragments and repeated ideas to keep the piece interesting.  As far as visceral listening experiences go, Varese wins easily. Hearing Varese and Stravinsky side-by-side I couldn’t help but wonder why we don’t hear Varese more often especially placed in the context of more familiar and warmly accepted contemporaries like Gershwin and Stravinsky.

If you like the Rite of Spring shaped by pathos, fury, and romantic fire then Morlot’s view of the piece probably wouldn’t have caused you to riot. Morlot’s performance was perhaps too tame for the piece, but just the right approach for an orchestra playing with the renewed clarity, focus, and shared musical goals of the SSO.

I hope Morlot gives the Rite another go in a few seasons. I’d be interested to hear if the conductor can generate more heat once he and the orchestra are more familiar with one another.

Stravinsky and Varese

Today the SSO is opening its doors to the public with an open rehearsal of this weekend’s performance. We will get to watch Morlot and the orchestra tinker with the Rite of Spring and if we are lucky Edgard Varese’s Ameriques, which if the program notes are to be believed, will close out the concerts this weekend.

Rite of Spring


Listen boldly

Listen boldly. This is the new motto for the Seattle Symphony. In only two concerts with his new orchestra, Ludovic Morlot is challenging audiences to do exactly that.

Last weekend he began this season’s survey of Henri Dutilleux’s orchestral music with the composer’s violin concerto — Tree of Dreams. Violinist Renaud Capucon made his Seattle Symphony debut with a performance of the concerto that was painted with vivid orchestral colors uncommon for Seattle’s orchestra.

But, the night’s closing piece — Beethoven’s ground breaking Third Symphony — was the most memorable piece on the program. In part, this has to do with how foreign Tree of Dreams and Frank Zappa’s Dupree’s Paradise are to audiences (including myself). They are seldom played and seldom recorded. Pierre Boulez’s recording of Zappa’s orchestral music is only available as an import and to my knowledge there are only two recordings of Dutilleux’s concerto. Both pieces are rare in the concert hall. I won’t try to guess how rare. Juxtaposed against the Eroica Symphony, these two pieces underscored how revolutionary the symphony truly is, even today.

Morlot’s Beethoven was memorable for another, more important reason. In very little time, Morlot has turned the SSO into an orchestra that plays with clarity, precision and color. Morlot’s interpretation missed the grand arc of the piece. His focus on details, perfectly executed solos, controlled dynamics, and a plethora of orchestral colors I don’t usually associate with the Austro-German symphonic tradition made up for any interpretative oversights.

It may very well be that Morlot is making the calculated decision that before he can start imposing his own artistic license on Beethoven his orchestra needs to brush up on the fundamentals. I will be listening closely to see how his style develops over the rest of the season.

Paul Schiavo’s program notes have always bothered me. They are either too topical, too obtuse, and always dull. Schiavo’s note for Dupree’s Paradise was especially bad. I am not sure someone should get an author credit for a program note that block quotes paragraphs from Zappa’s memoir. Schiavo’s original contribution to the edification of anyone who read the note was limited at best. If as an audience member I am expected to listen boldly, then I expect Schiavo to write boldly. This season is filled to the brim with pieces that are hard for audiences to hear and comprehend. Schiavo can do a lot by providing a road map for audiences.

Dupree’s Paradise

Music matches context this past Sunday

Jeremy Denk. Photo credit: New York Times.

The experience of listening to music — recorded or otherwise — is impacted by countless external forces. And for me, the surrounding context of hearing music is as important as the music itself. Years ago a close friend of my family fell ill. At the time, no one knew this person’s days were limited; their final moments counted in hours instead of years. However, after a bedside vigil, I drove home to Des Moines in my nearly new Saturn Sedan. For these long trips I usually brought a stack of CD’s to keep me company. Without any real reason, I brought along my recording of Bach’s cello suites.

With the picture of my ailing loved one still fresh in my mind, Bach’s suites, which never struck me as spiritual or religious statements, assumed a gravity fitting of that sensory moment. To this day, I have thought Bach’s suites would be perfect music to die to.

This experience — fitting music to context — has been repeated many times over the years. Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony is forever connected in my mind with a bad date I had in Iowa City. Love and life, both fickle and fleeting, must be embraced firmly and more often than not bravely.
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Summer festival season is here

Johannes Moser

The summer festival season starts in earnest tomorrow with the commencement of the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s 6 week long festival. This year’s festival marks the 30 year anniversary of Toby Saks’ affiliation with the festival. She founded the series, played an integral part in recruiting top-shelf talent for the festival, and after this summer she will be stepping down as artistic director, making way for James Ehnes to take up the role. Concerts do sell out, but there are always free recitals an hour before the official concert begins. One (of many) highlights from the recitals this summer will no doubt be Johannes Moser’s performance of Lutoslawski’s Sacher Variations.

Up north in Bellingham, the Bellingham Festival of Music started on July 1 and continues through the rest of the month. Two Seattle favorites — pianist Jeremy Denk and violinist Stefan Jackiw — appear with the festival orchestra this year. Denk will play Liszt’s Second Concerto and Jackiw will play Sibelius’ Violin Concerto. Both Denk and Jackiw play with extreme intelligence and undoubtedly will invigorate both pieces. Britten’s Serenade for Tenor Horn and Strings (a favorite of mine) will also be played on the same program as Denk’s Liszt and there is a concert performance of Fidelio on July 17th to close the festival out.

Local composer Nat Evans is putting on a festival of sorts of his own by taking his music and love of site-specific experiences on the road to Chicago, DC, NYC, and elsewhere. Evans is also featured in this month’s Believer magazine too.

Quarter notes: in the news

The Seattle Symphony has finally found a principal cellist. The spot has been vacant for years. Joining the section will be Efe Baltacıgil. Baltacigil comes from the Philadelphia Orchestra where he is the associate principal cellist. This is a good selection for the SSO, and it says much about the optimism many people in the music world have for Morlot at the SSO. But, it also says as much about the current state of disarray, reorganization, and decline of the once great Philadelphia Orchestra.

From the Seattle Symphony’s press release:

Seattle Symphony Music Director Designate Ludovic Morlot commented, “I am honored that Efe Baltacıgil will be joining the Seattle Symphony. Hiring such a talented artist is a very special occasion, and these opportunities are so important in the life of an orchestra. Efe is a superb musician, and his deep passion for everything he tackles is infectious. I am immensely looking forward to our new musical relationship. Welcome, Efe!”

Also in the news, Morlot has been named the chief conductor of Belgium’s La Monnaie. With this appointment, Morlot gets an operatic assignment to round out his orchestral assignment. La Monnaie is at the center of Europe’s opera culture and will cement the conductor’s already strong ties with the continent’s musical scene.

From the press release:

Ludovic Morlot, Seattle Symphony’s new Music Director, has accepted an additional position as Chief Conductor of one of Europe’s leading opera houses — La Monnaie/De Munt — in Brussels, Belgium. The five-year appointment, commencing on January 1, 2012, will allow him to broaden his career as a conductor of opera, and add to his already impressive work with symphony orchestras. During his first full season at La Monnaie, starting in the fall 2012, his programs will include Alfred Bruneau’s Requiem as well as his first performances of Debussy’s Pélleas et Mélisande. La Monnaie’s historic and ongoing commitment to contemporary music means that Morlot will play a key role in commissioning new works. With this important appointment, Morlot will join the ranks of other music directors of American orchestras who also served (or are currently serving) as principal conductors of European opera houses, including Franz Welser-Möst, Daniel Barenboim, Zubin Mehta and Riccardo Muti.

A quick note about the lack of posts on the Gathering Note. Personal and professional obligations have required the site to scale back some. In the life of any endeavor there are always periods of growth and contraction. I hope to resume a more regular blogging schedule in the fall.