Falling in Modern Love with Seattle Modern Orchestra
Following World War II, there was a massive creative explosion across all the arts. Painters started slashing at canvases or painting huge color fields; movies grew darker, more cynical; popular music leaped into rock and soul; and classical music composers experimented with new sounds and valiantly tried to create a new language for music.
The overall results have been hit-or-miss in terms of popular appeal and lasting cultural change. Painters like Pollock, Rothko, and the abstract expressionists did create a new language for their art, and rock and roll is here to stay, but that new generation of classical composers struggled to find receptive audiences.
But maybe that’s because this is music best played by true believers. Those who are wiling to trust in the aspirations of the composers and in the ability of this music to move audiences.
Last Friday, Seattle Modern Orchestra presented three modern works, one each from the 1950s, ’70s and ’80s, in concert at Cornish. It was magnificent evening of music and a victory of true believers: a powerful, moving, and fascinating adventure.
Launched last year, Seattle Modern Orchestra is led by co-artistic directors Jeremy Jolley, a composer, and Julia Tai, a conductor. The two opened the show with an engaging introduction to explain to the audience, or perhaps warn them, about the unusual sounds they could expect to hear. Eager, nervous, and clearly pleased with the standing-room-only crowd, the two staged a mock Q&A about the composers in the program and then invited violist Larissa Brown onstage to show the different techniques the employed by the composers.
There followed examples of plucking, striking, bending, and sliding notes. Brown played a note on the bridge, a somewhat scratchy sound, and on the neck, a low murmur. It was hard not to feel a bit apprehensive about what was to come, but Jolley and Tai had the right idea. These composers try for a new language for music, one that is based more on timbre than melody and harmony, a more constructed sound.
The concert kicked off with Claude Vivier’s Zipangu (1980), a lovely work for small orchestra. The music jumped and swayed and featured the unusual, almost spongy sound of musicians tightly pressing down the strings of their instruments as they slowly drew their bows over the notes. As a result, there was a somewhat tipsy feel to the piece, though with echoes of Middle Eastern and south Pacific island rhythms.
Next came Iannis Xenakis’s Syrmos (1959), and a signal for the faint of heart to leave the building. An architect and engineer by trade, Xenakis made the massive leap into music believing he could create a musical language based on mathematics. The piece didn’t follow a melody as such; it was more a piece of construction, demanding pinpoint timing from the musicians to pluck the notes at perfect intervals. The resulting sound was something like a room full of typewriters punctuated by a whining, almost sighing sound of the musicians drawing the wood side of the bow over the strings. It was part cartoon music and part catfight, but it was eerily haunting at the same time.
At a brief intermission, the musicians spilled into an adjacent hallway to hook up with a crowd no doubt swelled by family and friends.
“Pretty weird, huh?” a young violinist said to four friends who readily agreed.
“I’ve never had to pay such close attention to any music as much as I do with this music,” another violinist said to a friend.
And she was right: sitting close to the musicians, you could see them totally engaged lest they miss a key note or movement.
There is something thrilling and essential about music that is as exciting for the musicians as it is to the audience.
The program concluded with Shaker Loops (1978) by John Adams. Adams is no unknown artist plying his trade in the far fringes of the music galaxy; he is a major composer who won a Pulitzer Prize for On the Transmigration of Souls, a haunting elegy for the victims of 9/11.
Adams has a created a large, impressive body of work, which includes several well-known operas: his ripped-from-the-headlines work Nixon in China (1987)–Seattle Opera, why haven’t you done this opera yet?–and Dr. Atomic (2005), about the making of the atom bomb.
Shaker Loops is a powerful piece. The violinists lay down a rapid, propulsive beat, which is colored by lighting runs of violas and cellos. Some notes are held long enough to subtly suggest the sound of horns. On Friday, the orchestra refused to yield to Adams’ demands for speed and accuracy and the piece flew by in a breathless race, slowed for a key, quiet movement and then raced to the finish.
It’s the best classical performance by a group of musicians that I’ve seen in years.
Credit must go in large part to conductor Tai, who runs a tight ship. In her words, manner and professionalism, you can tell that this music is her passion, that she believes in it body and soul, and she is willing and dedicated to bringing it to a wider audience.
Seattle Modern Orchestra’s next concert is May 13 at Meany Hall.