Philharmonic sells out with help of Henze (and a Groupon)

Hans Werner Henze

Buoyed by a Groupon and the Northwest premiere of Hans Werner Henze’s Symphony No. 4 the Seattle Philharmonic sold out their concert last Sunday — the first one that I can remember in my seven years in Seattle. Normally, Seattle Philharmonic concerts are sleepy affairs which attract a devoted audience interested in Adam Stern’s eclectic and challenging programs (I hear Stern is aiming to perform Arthur Honneger’s Joan of Arc at the Stake next season).  No jostling. No hunting for seats. No crowds.

There were so many people trying to get tickets, trying to find seats, that the start of the concert was delayed nearly thirty minutes. The Philharmonic’s ticket crew was overwhelmed. No matter, the Philharmonic achieved what every classical music organization — professional, amateur, community — butts in seats. Take note Seattle classical music organizations: Groupons sell tickets.

The Groupon deal — $9 for any concert — was good enough to pack Meany Hall with plenty of new concertgoers. According to the expired Groupon page 990 tickets/vouchers were sold. Wow. I am willing to bet at least some of them were unfamiliar with the Seattle Philharmonic and Adam Stern. I am also willing to bet that the Phil might actually have set an attendance record for a community orchestra in Seattle.

In the end it hardly matters because the Seattle Philharmonic capitalized on technology to fill the hall. Hopefully the Groupon audience doesn’t stop going to concerts by the Seattle Philharmonic.

It is a curious time for classical music when the promise of a good deal is more of an attraction than a performance of a rarely heard symphony by Hans Werner Henze. Henze’s Fourth Symphony was preceded by jaunty and spirited performance of Johann Strauss’s Emperor waltz. The concert concluded with Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto performed by local keyboard wizard and Cornish faculty member Peter Mack. The concerto deserves its place in the classical music repertory, but at the same time it has suffered from overexposure. In Seattle we have heard at least three performances of the concerto in the last two music seasons.

Take away the Groupon, put the Emperor aside for another time, the people I spoke with were there to hear the Henze – a rarity in even the cultural capitols of the United States. With the new regime at the Seattle Symphony set to take over next season it might not be the last time. A line-up of pieces by the French composer Henri Dutilleux gives me hope that Henze might show up in Ludovic Morlot programs over the course of his time as the SSO’s music director.

Adapted from the second act finale of his opera Konig Hirsch, Henze’s Fourth Symphony often sounds like incidental music that if heard in the theater would naturally connect one scene to the next, one act to the next. Much of the time, the symphony’s diffuse sound world – its colors, phases of counterpoint, and amorphousness – hovers in the ears and in the mind. Angular dissonances protrude but they are blunted by Henze’s lush orchestration. In depicting a living breathing forest, the cycles of nature, the orchestra’s performance was similarly Arcadian.

Adam Stern and his orchestra have never backed down from challenging pieces. On any given day, the Philharmonic is capable of out-playing their professional counterparts downtown. Even if the orchestra’s refinement is sometimes lacking, I have never doubted the orchestra’s understanding of the music they are playing. As Stern was quoted by the Seattle Times, “It took on life during rehearsal, when it seemed less abstract and more of a logical link from the Romantic era to the modern.” The orchestra’s awareness of everything music can be is due to Stern. For him, music is more than notes on a page. Stern is one of the city’s underappreciated artistic leaders.  With a little help from the Phil’s Groupon this will change.

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