All posts by Dana Wen

A Weekend of World Premieres With Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra

Composer Tyler Kline (Photo: Caitlin Slover)
Composer Tyler Kline (Photo: Caitlin Slover)

There’s a special thrill associated with world premieres, especially in the classical music world. Today’s composers draw from a dazzling palette, blending hundreds of years of Western musical history with a diversity of newer sounds, including flavors of jazz, pop, and electronica.

On Saturday, Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra wraps all the excitement and genre-mixing of contemporary classical music in a single program, featuring five pieces by composers from around the world. World premieres by up-and-coming composers join recent works by Gabriel Prokofiev and Alex Baranowski, both known for melding classical styles with pop influences. A symphony by local composer Alan Hovhaness rounds out the program, a tribute to Seattle’s long, rich history of musical innovation.

Founded in 2009 by conductor Geoffrey Larson, SMCO functions as a pipeline for Seattle’s young professional musicians. The orchestra provides these rising artists a place to study and perform classical masterpieces — both old and new — as they embark on their careers. Despite their relatively young age, the musicians of SMCO are an energetic group with the chops to match their enthusiasm.

Along with providing opportunities for young performers, Larson and SMCO also champion the work of emerging composers. This past year, the orchestra’s first composition competition drew entries from around the world. Tampa-based composer Tyler Kline‘s sinfonietta was selected as the winner and will receive its first performance at Saturday’s concert. Also set to debut is Binna Kim’s The Letting Go. Kim’s work draws inspiration from her Korean heritage as well as the experimental tinkering of 20th century composers Luciano Berio and Edgard Varèse.

SMCO concertmaster Rose McIntosh takes the spotlight for the first West Coast performance of Gabriel Prokofiev’s Spheres for solo violin and orchestra. As the grandson of Sergei Prokofiev, London-based Gabriel can certainly boast of an impressive musical lineage. However, the younger Prokofiev has made a name for himself in his own right, finding acclaim as a composer, DJ, and founder of the Nonclassical record label and club nights. (Catch the globe-trotting composer in Seattle tonight as he debuts a new collaboration with the Seattle Symphony and local rapper Sir Mix-A-Lot.)

Like Prokofiev, fellow Londoner Alex Baranowski weaves between genres. He’s collaborated with pop bands like The xx, and his work in musical theater recently earned him a Tony Award nomination. SMCO performs Baranowski’s Musica Universalis for violin and orchestra, with McIntosh in the solo role. It’ll be the first North American performance for this soaring, meditative work.

What We’re Hearing This Month: Classical Music Picks For June

Soprano Mary Mackenzie performs Schoenberg's "Pierrot Lunaire" at Town Hall Seattle on June 24
Soprano Mary Mackenzie performs Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire” at Town Hall Seattle on June 24

This June, Seattle’s ending the concert season with a bang, in the form of a month-long flurry of world premiere performances. Seattle Symphony, Town Hall Seattle, and Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra are among the ensembles and venues joining in on the new music fun. As the 2014-15 season draws to a close, celebrate another year of local classical music with brand-new works as well as perennial favorites.

May 30 – Jun. 8 — Our classical music critic Philippa Kiraly dubs Pacific Northwest Ballet‘s Giselle as “one of the company’s best”. Read her review and discover why this production is a must-see.

Jun. 6 — Sir Mix-A-Lot at the Seattle Symphony? The orchestra’s Sonic Evolution concert is (baby got) back, celebrating the Seattle music scene with new orchestra pieces inspired by local luminaries. Seattle band Pickwick joins Mix-A-Lot and the symphony for this unique program.

Jun. 7 — Premieres abound at Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra‘s season finale concert. Hear brand-new works by Binna Kim and Tyler Kline, as well as West Coast and North American premieres by Alex Baranowski and Gabriel Prokofiev (grandson of Sergei Prokofiev).

Jun. 8 & 14Northwest Chamber Chorus concludes the concert season with “Vices and Virtues”, a musical journey that explores the qualities that make us all human. The wide-ranging program features everything from Baroque classics by Bach and Monteverdi to music by living composer Alice Parker.

Jun. 13Seattle Modern Orchestra tackles the theme of “Musical Commentaries” with three pieces that pay tribute to the legacy other composers. The program includes a recent work by UW professor Joël-François Durand as well as music by 20th century composers Franco Donatoni and Earle Brown.

Jun. 15 — Piano and harpsichord maestro Byron Schenkman concludes the inaugural season of his concert series with a performance of Schubert’s Trout Quintet. Schenkman is joined by a quartet of local musicians for this beloved chamber music masterpiece.

Jun. 19 & 21 — With his ballets The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring, Stravinsky cemented his legacy as one of the great composers of the 20th century. In a near-superhuman feat, the Seattle Symphony performs all three of these masterworks in a single program.

Jun. 24 — The month of world premieres continues at Town Hall Seattle. The Town Music series features new works by Raymond Lustig, Amir Shpilman, Wang Jie, and Artistic Director Joshua Roman. Also on the program: Soprano Mary Mackenzie sings Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire song cycle.

What We’re Hearing This Month: Classical Music Picks For May

Pacific Northwest Ballet's Kaori Nakamura as Giselle (Photo: Angela Sterling)
Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Kaori Nakamura as Giselle (Photo: Angela Sterling)

Though May is already in full swing, there are still plenty of options for classical music fans looking for live music this month. It’s a busy time of year for Seattle’s classical music community as ensembles and organizations prepare to end the concert season with a bang. This month’s offerings run the gamut from opera and chamber music to modern dance and ballet. Don’t miss out on the action as international stars and local favorites take the stage at venues across the city.

May 3 – 17 — Only two more weekends left to catch The Tales of Hoffmann at Seattle Opera. Offenbach’s sparkling fantasy about the adventures of a wandering poet is Seattle Opera’s Speight Jenkins’ final production as general director.

May 12Music of Remembrance‘s spring concert blends silent film, klezmer, and a world premiere. New York-based ensemble the Klezmatics provides live accompaniment for the 1918 silent film The Yellow Ticket. Also, don’t miss the premiere of a new work by Lori Laitman, whose song cycle is based on poetry by Selma Meerbaum Eisinger, a Jewish teenager and Holocaust victim. 

May 15-17 & 22-24Spectrum Dance Theater joins forces with the chamber musicians of Simple Measures for Rambunctious: A Festival of American Composers and Dance. Spanning two weekends, the festival presents seven new works by Spectrum artistic director and choreographer Donald Byrd, each set to a string quartet performed by Simple Measures. Composers represented include Gershwin, Copland, Ives, and Zorn.

May 16-18 — Based on a Greek myth, Handel’s Semele tells the tale of a young mortal woman who falls in love with Jupiter, the king of the gods. Early music ensemble Pacific MusicWorks and the University of Washington School of Music collaborate on a production of this Baroque masterpiece, complete with an all-star cast and orchestra.

May 17-18Seattle Pro Musica sings one of Brahms’ most beloved choral works, Ein deutsches Requiem (“A German Requiem”). The choral masterpiece features complex layers of vocal harmonies and melodies, as well as a timeless humanist message.

May 18 — Finnish pianist Ruusamari Teppo and cellist Jussi Makkonen visit Ballard’s Nordic Heritage Museum for a program of chamber music by Sibelius and other Finnish composers. Part of the museum’s Mostly Nordic concert series, this unique performance will be followed by a traditional Nordic smorgasbord meal.

May 29 – Jun. 1 — Join the Seattle Symphony for an evening of swinging patriotic favorites. The Celebrate America program features classic tunes like “Yankee Doodle” and “America the Beautiful” alongside hits by John Philip Sousa, John Williams, and others.

May 30 – Jun. 8Pacific Northwest Ballet‘s production of Giselle features retiring principal dancer Kaori Nakamura in the title role. Premiered in 1841, Adolphe Adam’s ballet follows the story of a peasant girl who dies of a broken heart and joins a group of vengeful female ghosts.

Violinist Hilary Hahn Shines at UW World Series

Violinist Hilary Hahn (Photo: Karsten Moran)
Violinist Hilary Hahn (Photo: Karsten Moran)

A few pieces into violinist Hilary Hahn‘s recital at the University of Washington, my companion leaned over and whispered in amazement, “Her tone is like clarified butter!” Indeed, Hahn’s sound is gloriously full and smooth — anything but gritty. When combined with her exacting technique and musical poise, it all adds up to the very picture of a master violinist at the top of her game.

A touring soloist since her teenage years, the 34-year old Hahn first gained attention for her interpretations of the classics, especially Bach. Recently, she’s expanded her musical horizons, pushing beyond the traditional classical canon. In 2012, she recorded an album of improvisations with German composer Hauschka, who’s known for his pared-down soundscapes featuring prepared piano.

Hahn’s latest recording project is In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores. The album features twenty-six short pieces commissioned from an illustrious list of composers including Nico Muhly, Jennifer Higdon, and Mason Bates. Hahn’s open contest to find the 27th encore drew a pool of more than 400 submissions from around the world.

Last week, Hahn visited Seattle for a UW World Series recital with pianist Cory Smythe. The April 29 concert at the UW’s Meany Hall for the Performing Arts paired repertoire by Mozart, Schubert, and Telemann with new pieces by living composers Antón García Abril and Richard Barrett, commissioned as part of Hahn’s encores project.

Speaking from the stage, Hahn introduced the pieces on the program, providing background and explaining her connection to each work. She’s an affable speaker, never talking down to the audience. Instead, Hahn’s intelligent commentary felt like an invitation to join her in her musical world.

Like her speaking, Hahn’s playing is a reflection of her personality. Calm and collected, Hahn brings a sense of understated warmth to her music. Her playing always feels firmly planted on the ground, radiating emotion instead of gushing passion.

Standing alone on Meany Hall’s immense stage, Hahn began Telemann’s Fantasia No. 6 in E Minor by creating an atmosphere of calculated melancholy. Though she took small liberties in tempo throughout the solo work’s four movements, these moments all made sense and felt completely natural. After listening to Hahn perform Telemann, it’s easy to understand why she first made her name as a Bach player. Her understated brand of musical expression brings a graceful emotionality to the Baroque style.

Spanish composer Anton Garcia Abril’s Third Sigh blends a variety of musical styles. Some harmonies recall Bartok’s beloved Hungarian folk tunes, while others evoke jazzy Gershwin tunes. Commissioned by Hahn for In 27 Pieces, Third Sigh begins with a flurry of extended violin trills that evolve into soaring melodies. At times giddy, at times grave, the work strings together beautiful phrases that flow one after another. It’s all very nice-sounding, but in the end doesn’t seem to add up to any greater statement.

“Sweet” and “tender” aren’t adjectives typically associated with Arnold Schoenberg’s work. Yet Hahn and Smythe’s performance of the Phantasy for Violin and Piano was full of unexpected sweetness and fleeting tender moments. “It’s not about each note,” said Hahn in her introduction to the piece. “It’s about the gesture. It can be spiky, but it can also be lyrical and ethereal.” There were certainly plenty of spiky moments as Hahn and Smythe exchanged volleys of notes. The musical conversation between the duo could have been enhanced by a sharper tone in the piano.

Violin and piano found an ideal balance during Mozart’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major. The two-movement work began cheerfully, with Smythe’s bubbling piano lines providing a foundation for Hahn’s buoyant tone. Here Hahn’s playing was the picture of Mozartean elegance, combining the composer’s refined musical style with a dash of wit. In the theme and variations of the second movement, the duo highlighted dramatic changes from major to minor key.

Hahn and Smythe concluded with Schubert’s Fantasia in C Major for Violin and Piano, the most emotionally vulnerable performance of the evening. Here Hahn was at her most dramatic, effectively managing the ebb and flow between storm and sunshine. One impeccably-timed pause cut perfectly into a particularly angst minor key passage like a gasp of breath, seeming to bring time to a halt before dissolving into a sunny major key. Though Smythe’s sensitive accompaniment worked well in lyrical sections, he could have stepped up to better match Hahn’s energy in stormier passages.

Following on the emotional high point of the Schubert, Hahn and Smythe concluded with an encore by British composer Max Richter. The final track on In 27 Pieces, Mercy is a sweetly sentimental work that brought out yet another side of Hahn’s musical personality. Her rich violin tone took on just a hint of longing and raw emotionality, a parting gesture that left me intrigued and wanting to hear more.

TSB interview: Revolutionary Organist Cameron Carpenter

Organist Cameron Carpenter with the International Touring Organ
Organist Cameron Carpenter with the International Touring Organ

There’s a popular YouTube video of Cameron Carpenter in which the organist performs his arrangement of Chopin’s “Revolutionary” Etude. The piece is difficult enough to play in its original piano version, which keeps the left hand busy swooping up and down the keyboard while the right hand tolls out the ominous melody. On the organ, the work becomes pure choreography, a ballet for hands and feet that spans the instrument’s pedals and multiple keyboards, called manuals.

Clad in an all-white outfit dripping with sequins, Cameron zooms through the Etude with seemingly effortless confidence and musicality. Even on the computer screen, the performance is enthralling, a blend of technical fireworks, emotional intensity, and punk rock swagger.

This is the world that the 33-year old Juilliard graduate inhabits, a universe where the organ is freed from the relatively staid and conservative trappings that have surrounded it for centuries. Carpenter’s flamboyant style — which extends from his playing to his taste in fashion — will likely be on display on Friday during the organist’s solo recital at Benaroya Hall.

For the April 25 concert, Carpenter performs a unique program on the massive Watjen Concert Organ, which looms over Benaroya’s main auditorium. The setlist includes several classic works for organ as well as Carpenter’s own arrangements and improvisations. Hear Bernstein’s colorful Overture to Candide come to life on the organ as well as an arrangement of Liszt’s darkly virtuosic piano work Funérailles.

Since graduating from Juilliard in 2006, Carpenter’s successful touring career has brought him to organs around the world. As he traveled from city to city, encountering a completely different instrument in each new locale, Carpenter became acutely aware of the limitations of these organs and the restrictions they placed on the player.

“Those instruments are subject to the institution,” he explains. Even the greatest organs in the world are still constrained by the rise and fall of the churches and concert halls that house them. They’re expensive and impractical to maintain. For a touring soloist, the inconsistencies between instruments are inconvenient at best and musically restrictive at worst.

Enter Carpenter’s mission to create what he calls his “dream machine”, a portable performance organ built exactly to his specifications. Dubbed the International Touring Organ, the instrument was created for Carpenter by Massachusetts-based organ builders Marshall & Ogletree. The digital organ comes with its own specialized sound system and can be transported in a single truck.

Carpenter’s grand plans for his new instrument are already well underway. He’s recorded an entire new album on the International Touring Organ. Called If You Could Read My Mind, the record brings together a medley of traditional and sensational pieces designed to show off the instrument’s range. Last month, the organ made its concert debut at New York’s Lincoln Center. Now it’s on its way to Europe for an inaugural tour, with debut performances in the US scheduled for autumn of this year.

“The International Touring Organ is one of the only organs ever to be built with the intention of being played by a single person,” Carpenter declares proudly. Though his willingness to embrace innovation and change has won him fans in the organ world, he’s gained critics as well, especially in regards to his love for the digital organ. In response, Carpenter seems to distance himself from the insular organist community, which he describes as “conservative” and “exclusive”.

“It’s a commonly held tenet in the organ world that the organ itself is the point, when in fact it’s a tool,” Carpenter explains. Like all instruments, the organ is subject to changes in the world around it, including technological advancements. Carpenter sees his transition from traditional pipe organs to digital instruments like the International Touring Organ as a natural evolution. But he wonders if the organ community will be able to adapt.

“There’s a perceptible sort of new conservatism among young organists which to me is rather symptomatic of an institution in its threatened stages,” he notes. Conservatories and music schools continue to graduate organ students, who enter the workforce facing a scarcity of job opportunities. One strategy is to turn inward, building up a community that Carpenter compares to the academic ivory tower. Another tact is to embrace change and learn to march to the beat of one’s own drum.

For Carpenter, playing the organ isn’t about perpetuating musical tradition. It’s all about personal expression rather than trying to fit a mold. “I feel that what I have to do and the voice that I bring, whether it’s to the old machine at Benaroya Hall or my own dream machine, is so full of personality that you can’t get it anywhere else.”

Though he clearly loves the repertoire he plays, Carpenter doesn’t see himself as part of the classical music establishment. “Part of the miracle of classical music is simply letting it be music,” he says. To Carpenter, the classical repertoire is simply his chosen vehicle for personal expression. It’s a philosophy that’s helped him remain confident amidst cries that classical music is dying or in crisis.

“You don’t become an artist in the 21st century — particularly when your vision involves building a million dollar instrument and hauling it around the world — because you’re the sort of person who’s frightened by crisis and risk.”

An Eclectic Easter With the Portland Cello Project

Portland Cello Project (Photo: Jason Quigley)
Portland Cello Project (Photo: Jason Quigley)

Portland Cello Project knows how to rock. They also know how to jazz, to funk, to rap, and to classical. It seems like there isn’t a musical genre that hasn’t been lovingly remixed by this roving band of cellists. Since 2007, the dozen-or-so musicians of PCP (as they’re lovingly called by members and fans) have pursued their mission to to boldly go where no cello has gone before, from rock clubs and art galleries to sports arenas and dive bars.

The ensemble’s adventurous arrangements and cello-playing chops have won them legions of fans in the Portland area and beyond. After wowing Seattle audiences in 2013 with an eclectic mix of Beck, Bach, and Brubeck, the band returned to the Triple Door on April 20 for an Easter Sunday concert. They were joined by the Alialujah Choir, a band of fellow Portlanders who blend folk-inspired tunes with layered vocal harmonies.

Alialujah Choir (Photo: Tarina Westlund)
Alialujah Choir (Photo: Tarina Westlund)

In true PCP spirit, Sunday’s program had something for everyone. Hits by Radiohead, Kanye West, Beck, and Fleet Foxes figured prominently, along with fallen hometown hero Elliott Smith. A nod to the cello’s classical roots came in the form of Rossini’s William Tell Overture and a tribute to British choral composer John Tavener. The ensemble’s take on Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo à la Turk” was one of the most interesting arrangements of the evening, the ensemble tossing Brubeck’s energetic piano theme from cellist to cellist.

Sunday’s concert was performed by six of the ensemble’s rotating group of cellists, all fine players at the top of their game. I was impressed by the quality of PCP’s arrangements, which utilize the full range of the cello and often play with timbre in clever ways. Their arrangement of Tavener’s “The Lamb” brought a buoyant quality to the solemn choral piece, shedding a new light on the Easter-appropriate work. In contrast, the arrangement of the theme from Princess Mononoke echoed the film score to a tee, evoking the soaring string melody of the original.

The six cellists received support on some songs from a backup band of drums, bass, trumpet, and keyboard. Though the rhythm section added a lot of energy to the ensemble, the songs with drums and bass guitar sounded muddled and too busy. The reverb on the bass guitar drowned out the nuanced cello arrangements in some of the more rocking tunes like Radiohead’s “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” and Beck’s “Paper Tiger”. A jazzy cello solo in Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo à la Turk” was barely audible amidst accompaniment from the other cellists as well as the backup band.

Vocalist Patti King also joined the cellists for a few numbers. She quickly became a crowd favorite, drawing cheers for her performances of Radiohead, Beck, and her own original song, “My Arrow”. PCP and King joined forces for a couple of numbers from Beck’s Song Reader, the artist’s 2012 album that was released only in sheet music format. The wry “Last Night You Were a Dream” was full of charm, with King’s sunny vocals floating over cello harmonies.

Not surprisingly, PCP sounds best when focusing on what its members know best: The cello and its vast musical capabilities. My favorite piece of the evening was “Denmark”, an original work written for the ensemble by composer and founding member Gideon Freudmann. A tentative pizzicato phrase kicks off the tune, transforming into a countermelody as the layers of the piece slowly unfold, revealing an elegant theme that’s passed around the group. It’s a short, relatively simple little piece, but “Denmark” goes far in showcasing the range and versatility of the cello ensemble.

In the spirit of Portland-flavored DIY, Sunday’s program was a true community effort, bringing together arrangements by different members of the band. With a repertoire of over 800 songs, it’s easy to believe that no two PCP shows are alike. I appreciated the opportunity to hear from each of the six cellists during their Triple Door performance, whether it be in the form of a solo passage or through a piece they arranged.

Alialujah Choir opened the evening with a brief set. With one band member missing due to illness, guitarist Adam Shearer and pianist Meredith Adelaide struggled to impart fullness to the group’s brand of wistful folk tunes. Their efforts were valiant indeed, with the pair’s lovely vocal harmonies floating in perfect balance with intertwining instrumentals. However, without the harmonizing power of the full band, the typically-rich songs felt a little hollow and repetitive after the first few numbers.

Keep an eye on Alialujah Choir for a chance to catch them in full force and health. They’ll be touring Oregon, Idaho, and the Southwest with Blitzen Trapper this fall.