The Mathematics of the Pathetique

Tchaikovsky and John Luther Adams don’t appear to have much, if anything in common. More than 100 years separate the two in time. They are separated by continents and countries. Their styles are hugely dissimilar too. Tchaikovsky epitomizes the lushness of the romantic period and Adams pushes the boundaries of music with his experimentations in sound. By accident this weekend, two concerts, one featuring Adams’s percussion piece Mathematics of Resonant Bodies and the other, which ended with Tchaikovsky’s melancholy Sixth Symphony, showed me that there is at least one common feature.

At Benaroya Hall Friday night, guest conductor Arild Remmereit fashioned a riveting concert that began with the North American premiere of Irgen-Jensen’s suite The Drover and ended with Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony. Remmereit conducted the SSO a few years ago. I missed that concert, and because of the Pathetique, I resolved not to miss his return appearance.

Remmereit and the SSO’s rendered a powerful reading of the symphony. Remmereit is not a well-known podium commodity in the United States. He has crafted a career out of filling in for ailing conductors.  After his Seattle appearance he was heading to Detroit to fill in for Leonard Slatkin who is recovering from a heart attack. Nevertheless, Remmereit is interested in a post with an American orchestra and specifically the Seattle Symphony music directorship. Under his leadership, The SSO’s string section played boldly. The lower ranged basses and cellos were especially powerful slathering melancholy all over the music. The first and second violins played with unanimous zeal and purpose which is not always the case with the SSO’s violins. The orchestra’s brass section interjected with bright punctuations and the woodwinds added all of the languidness Tchaikovsky fans expect.

The next night, Tchaikovsky’s raw and often fevered emotion, was replaced by a more subdued and intellectual program at the Chapel Performance Space in Wallingford. Local pianist Christina Valdes and California percussionist Steven Schick, presented a recital of works by John Luther Adams. Unlike Tchaikovsky, Adams basically eschews melody. Adams tends to work with sounds and sound worlds. On first listen, Adams’s music can sound monotonous and boring. Forms are fluid and musical time seems eternal. Mathematics, stretches for an hour across eight movements, unfolding like an immense landscape, each movement played by a different percussion instrument. The piece begins and ends with the snare drums which establish the work’s cyclical character. In between the first and last movement, are movements for siren, triangles, tam-tam, bass drum, tom-tom, and cymbals. My attention wandered during the performance, and I suspect this was true for others too. These lapses didn’t seem to matter, because Adams’s focus is on how the eight movements and the sound worlds he creates fit together over the entirety of the piece.

How Tchaikovsky and Adams relate, didn’t occur to me until I was sitting in the Chapel watching and listening to Schick play. Until I saw Schick perform, I don’t think I would ever use the word graceful to describe a percussionist. Hitting, banging, tapping, and winding are the antithesis of graceful. Yet, as I watched, the best word to describe his playing is graceful. Schick’s fluid command of the various mallets and sticks he used to strike the instruments created a polished sound world. Watching Schick transported me back to the previous night’s concert of Tchaikovsky. Schick’s stick technique with instruments reminded me of Remmereit’s own stick technique and the Seattle Symphony.  Like Schick, Remmereit’s left hand twitched and coaxed, while his right, the hand hand holding his baton, flowed broadly through the air.

Comparing Schick and Remmereit’s stick technique, got me wondering about Tchaikovsky and Adams. Finding a connection between Adams and Tchaikovsky is not easy. Musically, both composers are wildly different. Both composers, however, draw inspiration from elemental sources – nature and human emotion. In my opinion, Tchaikovsky’s music is only possible because of his oscillating moods and emotions. Tchaikovsky understands the power of human emotions better than any other composer and creates pieces which illuminate these fundamental characteristics life. To listen to the Sixth Symphony, is to experience the full range of human emotion and their elemental power.

Like Tchaikovsky, Adams’s music is only possible because of his proximity to the elemental power of the natural world. John Luther Adams has spent much of his adult life in close contact with the imposing power of the natural world. Adams’s inspiration tends to come from the natural world surrounding him — towering mountains, slow moving glaciers, and seismic shifts deep beneath the earth. And if Tchaikovsky’s Sixth exposes listeners to a full range of human emotions, to hear the Mathematics of Resonant bodies, is to hear and experience all of Alaska.


2 thoughts on “The Mathematics of the Pathetique

  1. Great write up Zach. And I think it is great that you brought those two worlds together. I had to miss the Adams recital unfortunately, but was able to hear him speak at UW on Friday. And what an amazing musician and thinker he is. One other connection I would probably make (based on your recent reviews, Steve’s talk and my experiences with Cristina) is that passionate musical performances of one’s repertoire are (not to sound to obvious) essential. Steve referred to John L. Adams as his best friend, and you can tell that these are works that he has in his muscles in the same way that the best conductors hold repertoire in theirs. After hearing your conversation with Mr. Remmereit (and reading this review), I certainly hope he winds up here… a bit of a dark horse pick, but one that I think would be a good choice for Seattle!

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