Category Archives: Arts & Entertainment

Seattle Symphony’s Shostakovich and Schnittke is a Don’t-Miss Concert

This week’s Masterworks program at the Seattle Symphony promised to be an exciting one and it delivered in spades Thursday night, an all-Russian concert with Russian composers, a Russian conductor, Andrey Boreyko, and a Russian soloist, concertmaster Alexander Velinzon. (There are several Russian instrumentalists in the orchestra also.) The final concert is Saturday evening.

Shostakovich’s great “Leningrad” symphony, his No. 7, came after intermission; first came the extraordinary Violin Concerto No. 4 by Alfred Schnittke.

Schnittke’s music has somewhat a reputation of being hard to listen to and take in, but this is not so, particularly in this concerto. The music is described as polystylistic, which only means that the composer drew on all sorts of musical styles, from rock, jazz, minimalist and more as well as classical, for his work. But so did popular Gershwin—jazz and classical together.

Like Gershwin, Schnittke brings them into a coherent whole in this concerto, sometimes tonal and upbeat, sometimes dissonant, sometimes both simultaneously with the soloist in one mode, the orchestra in another. While the orchestra is massive for this, the music is not, often even spare. Velinzon’s violin sang throughout: mellifluous, lyrical in many areas, soaring or contemplative in others, fast, wild or arpeggiated in still more, peaceful or powerful, but always with a firm, rich tone, never scratchy, which fit the music like a glove. Schnittke includes some unexpected instrumentation, like a prepared piano which often had a raspy, honky-tonk timbre, and duets for the soloist with other instruments. Twice, Schnittke has the orchestra rise to great sound and fury and has the violin solo continue in the air, not on the strings, as it couldn’t have been heard anyway over the orchestra. Boreyko gave masterly leadership to the orchestra which responded to his every nuanced gesture shaping the music.

Shostakovich’s symphony was a beacon of hope to Russia when it was first performed in March 1942. He composed it near the beginning of the long and terrible siege of Leningrad, which caused massive hardship and death both in the city and among the siege troops. Shostakovich was one of those ordered to evacuate the city, his home, not long after the final encirclement of the city and the siege began (though the city had been under fire for some months before that). By then he had composed the first three movements, and he completed the fourth shortly after. The symphony had its premiere in Kuibyshev, a safe area many miles east of Moscow.

It’s not a battle symphony. Rather, it is a paean to the steadfast people of Leningrad, who never gave in to the German armies; people Shostakovich knew well, living in a situation for which he was present in the early stages. What came through Thursday night under Boreyko was a sense of determination, of courage threaded through the 68-minute work. It’s not sad, not terrible, but immensely colorful.

Halfway through a serene and unhurried first movement the rhythm of marching feet begins softly and grows inexorably, tension building gradually to threatening, with clashes and the feel of scurrying, cacophony below, loud dominating march above. One gets a sense of efforts at normal life in the second and third, and in the last, it’s positive, energetic, elegiac as well, but with this sense of determination dominant.

Boreyko, who stands rock solid on the podium, sometimes conducted with minimal gestures at others described exactly what he wanted with poesy and clarity in his arm movements. He brought out all the nuances and made vivid Shostakovich’s intent. There were many fine orchestra solos, including all the wind principals and the cello. The whole was moving, even breathtaking in its sweep, color and emotional intensity. One could have heard a pin drop in the audience.

Mostly Nordic Chamber Music Series Visits Sweden

Lena Moén, soprano
Lena Moén, soprano

I had no idea Swedish art song existed, but of course it does. At the Nordic Heritage Museum Sunday afternoon, Mostly Nordic treated the audience to a concert of such songs, largely from the 20th century but dipping back to the 19th, in the third of its annual performances highlighting the music of a specific Nordic country. (There are two more concerts in the Mostly Nordic series this spring, featuring music from Norway, May 2, and Iceland, May 31.)

Swedish soprano Lena Moén  with her frequent collaborator, pianist Lena Johnson, gave us songs by composers Wilhelm Peterson-Berger, Bo Linde, Wilhelm Stenhammar, Mogens Schrader, and Gustaf Nordqvist, and included a few from out of the country by Schubert, Grieg, and Richard Strauss. The audience was provided with all the words, a thoughtful gesture which made the songs even more enjoyable.

Moén began with a startling cow call, such as was given by girls calling their family’s cows home. Sounding like a cross between a Swiss yodel and an American cowboy’s “Eee-yoww!”, she explained after that every girl had her own individual call and the cows knew which call to come to.

It was guaranteed to gather everyone’s immediate attention, and Moén continued with a charming selection of songs, mostly about love or spring or both, in a voice unlike anything we usually hear here.

Robust and sturdy, pure but not silvery, with vibrato used artfully or not at all, her voice was ideal for these songs. She reached the highest notes effortlessly, no strain and hitting them squarely except in one song where she had a slight problem with them.

The beautiful songs themselves belong fully in the art song category, not folk, and have accompaniments which are a full component of each piece, performed by Johnson and Moén as a seamless pair.

Lena Johnson, pianist
Lena Johnson, pianist

Johnson also played a few solos, one group by Peterson-Berger, one a Fantasy in B minor by Stenhammar. We are so used to hearing the cream of the cream of world pianists here, that it can be hard to judge others fairly, but while Johnson easily had the technique for all the notes, she tended to be a bit slapdash with nuance and approach.

The more familiar Grieg song “I Love You” came off well, though the Strauss songs, “All Souls Day” and “Devotion” were a little less suited to Moén’s voice. The surprise came with Schubert’s “The Shepherd on the Rock,’ which emphatically did not suit Moen, or perhaps she didn’t suit it. With Seattle’s Sean Osborn providing a clarinet role to die for in its beauty, Moen’s strong voice did not provide the classical sound required. It needed more refinement, to be less “out” there, gentler, more nuanced for this song. On the other hand, the song is difficult in that the notes go fast all over the range with wide jumps and Moén encompassed all of them with rippling ease. Only her topmost notes in the last part of the song failed quite to reach their goal.

Moén and Johnson gave one encore: an arrangement of “Over the Rainbow,” which she sang softly, and well.

‘One of the finest performances of Swan Lake that I’ve seen’

The stars were aligned Friday night, not just in the firmament, but on stage at McCaw Hall, where Pacific Northwest Ballet put on one of the finest performances of Swan Lake (April 10-19) that I’ve seen. Everything (well, almost everything) meshed into a performance visually satisfying, balletically stellar, emotionally moving.

The men dominated the first act, where the prince, danced by Karel Cruz, was being pushed by his mother to choose a wife. Cruz’s first solo was a marvel of beauty and control; most amazing of all, he achieved eight pirouettes in a row, slowing down the last two with perfect balance–and then repeated them. Truly astonishing. Add to his performance that of Price Suddarth as a quicksilver jester, Matthew Renko as the inebriated tutor—you have to be very good to manage to be off-balance, wobbly, and comic but still in complete control—and Benjamin Griffiths as part of the pas de trois, his line so clean, his timing so musical: all three with balance, style, and quality.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Carla Körbes and Karel Cruz in Kent Stowell’s Swan Lake (Photo © Angela Sterling)
Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Carla Körbes and Karel Cruz in Kent Stowell’s Swan Lake (Photo © Angela Sterling)

In the second and subsequent acts, it was Carla Körbes who drew the eye as a memorable Odette, the imprisoned swan princess/Odile, calculating daughter of evil magician von Rothbart (Otto Neubert). Each pas de deux with Cruz, a fine and supportive partner, brought storms of applause and bravos; her change of character from gentle, soft and feathery, falling in love, to Odile, quick, decisive, harder, and back again to an anguished Odette, was conveyed by her beautiful line, her exquisite arms, the movements of her head, all supported by rock-solid technique and balance.

Among the delights of Swan Lake are the swans, all 24 of them, dancing in unison to choreography of Ivanov with tweaks by Kent Stowell, all their arms fluttering together, their legs moving as one, their bodies at the same precise angle. This was one of the best corps performances I’ve seen. Four of the smallest company members, one of them still an apprentice, danced the signature cygnet pas de quatre, a charming moment which always stands out, heads, feet, bodies in perfect alignment.

The national dances in Act III are probably the least interesting choreography of the whole ballet, but the sumptuous costumes designed by Paul Tazewell and how they drape on the dancers are a pleasure, as are the sets by Ming Cho Lee, always enhanced by the lighting of Randall C. Chiarelli. Throughout this opening night performance applause was tumultuous with bravos for one after another aspect, not forgetting the orchestra under Emil de Cou which received its own generous applause complete with bravos more than once.

It will be sad not to have Körbes in the company after her retirement this summer, but between now and then there is more Swan Lake and another program end of May/early June as well as her farewell performance in June. Don’t miss them. Then we can look forward next season to the return of Noelani Pantastico, another dancer whose talents reach the stars. She returns as a principal, after seven years with Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, to an even stronger company than when she left.

The Sonics Played the Year’s Best Live Rock Show Last Thursday

The Sonics.
The Intelligence.
The Intelligence.
Steve Turner of Mudhoney.
The Sonics.
The Sonics.
Jerry Roslie of The Sonics.
Larry Parypa of The Sonics.
Freddie Dennis of The Sonics.
Dusty, Rob, Chris.
The Sonics.

(photo: Tony Kay)

The Intelligence played a solid opening set. (photo: Tony Kay)

Openers The Intelligence started things off well. (photo: Tony Kay)

It's a helluva night when a mind-blowing set by these guys isn't even the evening's highlight: Mudhoney's Mark Arm. (photo: Tony Kay)

Again, Mudhoney were great. But, you know, The Sonics: Steve Turner of Mudhoney. (photo: Tony Kay)

Rob Lind of The Sonics toots one mean horn. (photo: Tony Kay)

The Sonics' Rob Lind toots one mean horn. (photo: Tony Kay)

Still peeling paint with that voice: Jerry Roslie of The Sonics. (photo: Tony Kay)

Larry Parypa of The Sonics. (photo: Tony Kay)

Dude can scream: Freddie Dennis of The Sonics. (photo: Tony Kay)

Dusty Watson, Rob Lind, and Chris Ballew all have their heads on backwards, baby. (photo: Tony Kay)

(photo: Tony Kay)

The Sonics. thumbnail
The Intelligence. thumbnail
The Intelligence. thumbnail
Mudhoney. thumbnail
Steve Turner of Mudhoney. thumbnail
The Sonics. thumbnail
The Sonics. thumbnail
Jerry Roslie of The Sonics. thumbnail
Larry Parypa of The Sonics. thumbnail
Freddie Dennis of The Sonics. thumbnail
Dusty, Rob, Chris. thumbnail
The Sonics. thumbnail

Alongside The Kingsmen and The Wailers, The Sonics were basically responsible for the howling breach-birth of the monster that is Northwest rock and roll. Barely out of their teens when they began playing together in the early 1960s, the five snappily-dressed young badasses who comprised The Sonics mixed the soot of their industrial Tacoma hometown with the sweaty abandon of old-school rock and blues heroes like Little Richard and Howlin’ Wolf to create an unhinged new animal.

The resulting records were as primal and stripped-down as you could get—compact blasts of battering drums, growling bass, ragged fuzztone guitar, grunting animal saxophone, dirty blues keyboards, and hell-with-the-lid-blown-off singing. It was a sound that did its small but crucial part to liberate American rock and roll from years of neutered teen idols, and it made British contemporaries like the Rolling Stones sound like candy-assed dilettantes.

The Sonics never became mega-stars, but they helped write the textbook on garage rock, and when leather-jacketed wastrels in the mid-1970s got fed up with arena rock’s empty pretense, The Sonics became one of the key nutrients in the soil that spawned the entire first wave of punk. The band’s pulverizing DNA winds through Iggy Pop and The Stooges, The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, Mudhoney, Nirvana, Jack White, and the Black Keys (to name only a few).

All of the above is a long and windy way of saying that The Sonics, despite their unpretentious demeanor, are pretty much Northwest rock royalty. The simple fact that they’re even playing live at this point is cause for celebration: The fact that their gig last Thursday at The Moore Theatre was one of the best live rock shows I’ve seen in my life is nothing short of inspiring.

Sharply attired in basic black, The Sonics took to the stage just shy of 10:00 p.m., opening up with a concise and ripping version of “Psycho.” From there, the pedal didn’t leave the metal for the next hour and 45 minutes as they tore through old and new cuts alike with the no-bull forcefulness of an outfit one-third their age. Pretty much every track a Sonics fan could’ve hoped for got a workout, from originals like “Shot Down” and “Boss Hoss” to  the most menacing cover of  “Louie Louie” that  you’ll ever hear. Best of all, the band fired through nine cuts from their first all-new full-length in 48 years, This is The Sonics (a record whose flat-out brilliance could merit a couple hundred words on its own).

A lot of the evening’s considerable momentum came courtesy of the band’s founding members. Rob Lind’s saxophone and harp provided as much brute force as the bass and drums, and he served as the band’s informal mouthpiece with aplomb, working the charged-up crowd like the host of an extra-packed house party. Guitarist Larry Parypa’s low-key demeanor stood in sharp contrast to the mutant blues licks and power chords he tossed off with lethal efficacy. And let it be stated for the record that lead singer Jerry Roslie’s aggressive, soulful snarl can still cauterize any and all eardrums within earshot.

Original bassist Andy Parypa and founding drummer Rob Bennett were MIA (both, alas, are unable to travel), but thankfully the two new-ish guys forming The Sonics’ current rhythm section were little short of godsends. Drummer Dusty Watson (who’s logged in time behind the kit with everyone from Lita Ford to The Supersuckers) drove the songs with a potent combination of swing and muscle, and bass player Freddie Dennis proved to be the night’s secret weapon. Almost sweetly unassuming before he began playing, Dennis laid down a near-volcanic bottom end on the four-string, and he let fly on nearly half of the lead vocals with a bobcat wail that matched Roslie’s world-class growl slug for slug.

Ferocious as the band’s attack was, though, The Sonics never lost sight of the fact that they’ve always been (and always will be) a rock and roll party band of epic proportions. Lind led the crowd through plenty of call-and-response shouts, and the house-party atmosphere was reinforced by the numerous guest stars who periodically shared the stage. Presidents of the United States of America frontman Chris Ballew gave a spirited guest vocal on “You’ve Got Your Head on Backwards,” Mudhoney’s Mark Arm joined The Sonics for a roaring take on “Shot Down,” and Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic filled in on bass for a fierce rendition of “Cinderella.” By the time the encores rocketed to a close with a turbo-charged cover of Little Richard’s “Lucille,” even the usually-taciturn Roslie could be seen cracking a smile. True rock and roll badasses, it seems, still know how to have a good time.