Week in classical music: Rush Hour, Composer Slash, and Hoketus

For the first time in my life I didn’t feel like a geezer at a classical concert. Thank you Seattle Symphony. Thank you Rush Hour series. And, most of all, thank you Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Stephen Hough, and the Pablo Heras Casado.

The SSO’s Rush Hour series is designed to appeal to a younger, downtown audience. Concerts fall on Fridays, have an earlier start time of 7 pm, and are shorter. Friday’s program was a little longer than an hour. To make a shorter concert, a piece, or two are excised from the week’s regular program. This week, Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No. 1 was axed from a program that also featured Prokofiev’s Third Symphony and Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto with Stephen Hough at the keyboard.

Prokofiev wrote the Third using themes and material from his lusty, though not very popular, opera the Fiery Angel. The symphony is a jittery, disconcerting experience compared to the better known First and Fifth Symphony. Those works seethe life, grin at the listener with humor, and easily gallop into our subconscious with catchy melodies. The Third dispenses with all of these wonderful, Prokofiev traits. The opening eruption reminded me of Bernard Hermann’s stabbing music from Psycho. Glissandos which slip from the orchestra’s strings in the third and fourth movement, do so with shivering effect. The orchestration is coagulated. Only in the second movement do we even get a hint of the melodic Prokofiev we know.

Hats off to Stephen Hough for making me love Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto again. Alexander Toradze’s ponderous, halting performance with Gergiev and Kirov Orchestra a few years ago at Benaroya Hall was one of the worst performances of any piano concerto I have ever heard. Hough was the exact opposite of Toradze. He breezed through the music with a well-gauged touch that was neither too light (think Jean Yves-Thibaudet) nor too heavy.

Last night, fresh off the SSO’s performance, the Seattle Modern Orchestra played their first concert of the season titled Stopping Time. Olivier Messiaen’s ubiquitous Quartet for the End of Time opened the program. The Dutch composer Louis Andriessen’s Hoketus ended the concert. The pieces, as the title points out, give the impression of time standing still even as perceptible, subtle change continues.

The Quartet for the End of Time is probably Messiaen’s most performed work and as such turns up on traditional concert stages with some frequency.  The familiarity audiences with the piece didn’t stop Akiko Iguchi (piano), Eric Rynes (violin), Stefan Van Sant (clarinet) and Peter Williams (cello) from delivering a melancholic performance that floated effortlessly and seemed to measurably slow time down.

Seattle Modern Orchestra got its start last year after Julia Tai, a conductor and violinist, couldn’t accept that Seattle didn’t have an ensemble which played the big, challenging, avant garde orchestral music of the 20th and 21st Century. They made their debut as an ensemble with Steve Reich’s Tehilim. With a home now at Cornish College, the Modern Orchestra has a full schedule this year. It’s a season that includes John Adams’ Shaker Loops for strings, Gyorgy Ligeti’s Piano Concerto, Xenakis’ Syrmos, and Berio’s Circles. Julia Tai’s concept for the orchestra is bold, challenging, and needed.

Tai along with Jeremy Jolley, explained Andriessen’s inspiration for the piece comes from hoket, a musical device that divides a theme, melody, subject among different voices or groups of musicians. Andriessen divides his music and musicians into two groups. Typical of the minimalist style, pulsing static characterizes most of the music. Because each set of musicians is playing a different part of the whole, the performance created a mesmerizing antiphonal effect. Occasionally, a musician lost his place, jumping in at the next credible moment. These lapses didn’t damage anyone’s enjoyment of the piece given the enthusiastic response at the end of the concert.

After the concert I thought about the Seattle Symphony. Next season Ludovic Morlot has an opportunity with the SSO to make an ensemble like Julia Tai’s orchestra project obsolete. If we can hear Ligeti downtown, where does that leave Seattle Modern Orchestra? Does it enhance or diminish the new group’s status? These are questions we’ll get answered soon enough. I don’t expect Morlot will totally upend the repertory for a diet of Carter, Turnage, Ades, Scelsi, and many others, but I expect there will be changes which, I hope will be good for Seattle’s music community.

Composer (Slash) the second concert of Joshua Roman’s Town Music series featured contemporary music of a different sort with Seattle Symphony members. Hearing the SSO play week in and week out it is easy for us to form our idea of the orchestra’s musicians by what we hear on stage. We forget their playing which entertains us is work for them. Composer (Slash) gave us a look, albeit a small one, at the interests and talents of four of the orchestra’s musicians — Emma McGrath (violin), Seth Krimsky (bassoon), Ben Hausmann (oboe), and Arie Schacter (viola) — when they aren’t ensconced on the Benaroya Hall stage. The four musicians each contributed original chamber works to the program. Hausmann a short, genial Oboe Quartet and a piano work Variations on a Four Note Theme. Schachter’s densely scored Quartet ended the program. Expectedly, Schacter saved the best music and the best solos for himself. It was a definite pleasure to hear the milky tone of Schacter’s viola stand out for a change.

Sillyloquy by McGrath and Violin Piece No. 1, not by McGrath but by her friend Darren Bloom, steered the recital away from Hausmann and Schacter’s romantic sensibilities. McGrath’s Sillyloquy resembled a musical collage of bits, pieces, and ideas from different points in her life. But it was Seth Krimsky who presented the most daring work of the night. Wired, for amplified processed bassoon, hung in the air like a Seattle mist. We know the bassoon as a grumbling, sometimes plaintive woodwind with a limited range. Wired gave us the bassoon at its most fascinating. The colors Krimsky created didn’t cover the full spectrum, they stayed close to the dark hues the instrument is known for, but they did bleed into one another creating a sonic portrait unlike anything else heard that evening. Krimsky drolly introduced the piece by saying it was “based on fifths, if that means anything to anyone.”


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