Review: Seattle Symphony, Portland Baroque Orchestra: New sounds from Seattle

Ludovic Morlot conducted the Seattle Symphony in Portland Sunday.

Ludovic Morlot conducted the Seattle Symphony in Portland Sunday.

Last week, visitors from Seattle brought a refreshing blast of artistic energy to Oregon classical music institutions. Yet both performances also reaffirmed the value of Portland’s own performers. And they demonstrated that, when a music director — regardless of city — has earned the audience’s trust with astute programming and committed performances, they’ll take a chance on new sounds.

A few years ago, the Seattle Chamber Players sponsored a kind of smackdown between East and West Coast composers, co-curated by New Yorker writer Alex Ross. As the concert coincided with a SCP performance of music by mid century American composer Morton Feldman, I asked the composers in a panel discussion how big an influence Feldman’s music exerted on their work. All nodded or exclaimed affirmatively — none more enthusiastically than John Luther Adams.

Feldman’s influence reverberates through Become Ocean, the major (45 minutes or so) new orchestral work by the Northwest’s greatest living composer, whose music has so long evoked the bleakly beautiful Alaskan landscapes he’s called home for decades. Adams titled his orchestral evocation of the sea after a quote from Feldman’s mentor and friend John Cage — yet Cage was referring not to Feldman, but instead to Cage’s earlier friend and musical partner, Portland born Lou Harrison. Judging by the Seattle Symphony’s performance at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall last weekend, Become Ocean (like Adams’s heartfelt chamber orchestra tribute to the late maverick, and his own great mentor, For Lou Harrison) owes much less to Harrison’s Asian and Baroque-fueled esthetic than to Feldman’s gravid atmospherics, the related work of Adams’s teacher James Tenney, and the repetitive structures of American minimalism.

Become Ocean is by any measure, including Ross’s (he called it “the loveliest apocalypse in musical history” in his New Yorker review of last year’s world premiere), a major 21st century orchestral creation, clearly descended from other recent repetitive atmospheric Adams works like For Lou Harrison. It also continues another long-running Adams trope: using music to evoke nature, as in his earlier epic performed in Portland last year by Third Angle New Music, Earth and the Great Weather, and the “sonic geography” of the percussion-propelled outdoor works Strange and Sacred Noise (inspired by the complex fractal patterns of nature) and songbirdsongs, both played last summer at last summer’s Ojai Festival in California, the latter on a mountaintop, where it sometimes proved difficult to distinguish Adams’s percussion translation/evocation (not literal imitation) of various species of birdsong from the real thing.

By gradually and constantly altering the musical relationships between three different sub-aggregations of the orchestra (strings, brass, winds, each augmented by piano, harp and/or percussion), Become Ocean almost does just what its title commands. “Each ensemble plays consistently at its own speed throughout the piece, with slowly changing chords sustained by the winds, and rapidly undulating, rhythmically unchanging, repetitive figures for the other instruments,” according Paul Schiavo’s informative program notes. “The combination of these events, unfolding in their respective tempi, produces a pulsating field of sound, complemented by the visual field of the lighting. Those fields change color, aurally and visually, as different instruments are deployed and the range of notes they sound expands and contracts. Moreover, the music of each ensemble follows different dynamic arcs, crescendoing or fading at its own speed, thereby forming long, slow waves of changing volume. The interaction of those dynamic waves continually alters the composite music’s predominant timbre. Occasionally, the waves crest together, creating powerful climaxes.”

Listeners not attuned to the minimalist esthetic (and who therefore focus on the similarities rather than the changes illuminated amid the repetitive structures) might have found it tedious, especially stretched over three quarters of an hour. I felt that way during For Lou Harrison (which also juxtaposes several different tempo layers and harmonies) at last summer’s Ojai. “The formal structures of the composition recur throughout the score, but the sound of the music is always changing,” Adams wrote about that 2003 piece for string quartet, string orchestra, and two pianos, but for all its sonic attractions, my interest in those changes ultimately couldn’t endure its hour-plus length.

Happily, Become Ocean had the advantage of a much larger and more varied palette, though it still requires looking for different colors than usual. It worked for me … but I confess, I can walk along the beach for an hour, gazing out at the ever changing sea, which is always the same yet never the same, transfixed by the subtle, ever changing frolic of light and shadow, spray and splash. When I contemplate the ocean, I’m not expecting a narrative but rather a feeling. Similarly, Become Ocean generates fascination not via the linear progressions (melodic or harmonic) of conventional Western music, but from its swirling sonorities, and Adams’s clever and constant changes in the way the music of each of the three sub-ensembles splashes up against the others, paradoxically producing a constantly changing portrait of the same scene, a kind of moving still-life — just like the ocean itself.

The earliest approximation of Adams’s intentions in Western classical music is, of course, Claude Debussy’s The Sea, which closed the orchestra’s program (after the drier interpolation of Edgard Varese’s Deserts). Debussy’s 1905 tone poem adopted an impressionistic rather than evocative perspective, which the Seattlites communicated with admirable clarity, cohesiveness, and conviction, one of the better performances I’ve heard at the Schnitzer Concert Hall in recent years, though the venue’s well-documented sonic limitations (and the orchestra’s consequent adjustments to their usual sound) no doubt undermined the impact the concert would have had in their hometown’s acoustically superior Benaroya Hall, or at this month’s Carnegie Hall performances. However, it sounded no more compelling to my ears than several recent performances by Oregon’s own flagship orchestra. Until the next Timbers-Sounders game, or Portland receives a major league baseball or NFL franchise (or Seattle regains its Supersonics), we’ll have to call this latest Northwest smackdown a delightful draw.

If only our orchestra’s stodgy programming could similarly approach its northern counterpart’s artistic ambition, as evidenced by its commission of Adams’s brilliant new composition. “The Seattle Symphony, under leadership of Ludovic Morlot, is a revitalized orchestra, avid for new music and offbeat programming,” Ross wrote.

Contrary to Oregon orchestra managers’ evident supposition (judging by our orchestra’s far less abundant 20th and 21st music) that listeners prefer to look back rather than forward, Seattle audiences have responded enthusiastically. “What we have noticed over the past three years since Ludovic’s arrival is that the orchestra has been drawing a more diverse and curious set of audiences of all ages, including younger patrons,” wrote SSO spokesperson You You Xia. “This is a result of Ludo’s efforts to make the orchestra more accessible to the public, and a vision to present programs which have artistic significance. We have not only performed and commissioned a lot more new music, but have also programed rarely heard gems from past decades. While these are not always the biggest draw from a ticket sales perspective, our community has followed and embraced our transformation over the years and we can see this in our attendance and sales numbers overall.”

The SSO’s novel program proved a sell out in Portland, too. Are Oregon listeners really more close-minded than our northern neighbors? If Seattle’s orchestra can win new audiences and invigorate old ones by looking forward, why can’t Oregon’s?

Sweet and Lowdown Sounds

This weekend, Portland welcomed another recent Seattle arrival — or rather returnee, as lute master Stephen Stubbs returned to his hometown in 2006 after three decades building a reputation as one of the stars of the early music movement with his ensemble Tragicomedia and others. Now director of Pacific MusicWorks (along with co-directing Boston’s famous early music festival), which Portland Baroque Orchestra hosted here last year, Stubbs has enhanced Seattle’s and the Northwest’s already thriving Baroque music scene. He served as guest artist (and gave the pre-concert talk) for this weekend’s PBO concerts, which, like the SSO’s, violated the rule of timid, unimaginative arts organizations by asking its audiences to take a chance on almost entirely unfamiliar repertoire.

Again, Portland audiences responded — by nearly filling First Baptist Church for these rarely performed 17th century works. Clearly, PBO listeners trust its visionary artistic director, Monica Huggett like Seattle audiences trust Morlot (and, to use an earlier Oregon example, Eugene audiences trusted its symphony’s Conductor Laureate Marin Alsop) to bring them rewarding if unfamiliar music. Their faith was repaid by sterling small-group performances of music by obscure composers like Bruhns, Nicolai, and Weichlein as well as more familiar (yet still not so widely known) names Buxtehude, Biber and Bach — not THAT Bach but an earlier member of that vast tribe of music masters.

Monica Huggett (l), Harry van der Kamp (c) and Stephen Stubbs (far right) starred in Portland Baroque Orchestra's concerts.

Monica Huggett (l), Harry van der Kamp (c) and Stephen Stubbs (far right) starred in Portland Baroque Orchestra’s concerts. Photo: Laurel Degutis, PBO.

Not surprisingly, most of the best music turned out to be by the recognizable composers, and despite the excellence of Stubbs (playing a chitarrone, a long-necked lute that’s usually confined to a relatively reticent accompanying role) and the remarkable bass soloist Harry van der Kamp, the star turned out to be a familiar figure: Huggett herself. The violinist drew the loudest applause of the night for her bravura performance of one of Heinrich Biber’s great Mystery (or Rosary) Sonatas, based on a Biblical story of Mary’s annunciation featuring the winged angel Gabriel, which therefore teemed with what she called “all kinds of fluttery things,” brilliantly evoked in her solos. In the one revelatory discovery on the program, Austrian composer and Biber disciple Romanus Weichlein’s Sonata op. 1 no. 3, she and veteran PBO fiddler Carla Moore also got all high and flightly in call and response passages soaring over the simple hum and strum of lower pitched instruments.

In fact, the very dominance of all those lowdown sounds emanating from Stubbs’s chitarrone, PBO stalwart Curtis Daily’s violone (stand-up acoustic bass), Jillon Stoppels Dupree’s portative organ, and no fewer than three violas da gamba (which must be some kind of a record) and of course van der Kamp’s Johnny Cash-ranged vocals served to place the violins in greater relief. Huggett’s palpable chemistry with the Dutch singer (and long-time friend) in their duet provided the major interest in Biber’s otherwise forgettable (and long forgotten) Nisi Dominus, one of several so called “vocal concertos” that placed van der Kamp in the solo role that in later Baroque compositions would be assumed by instruments like violins and keyboards. Despite almost being covered at times by the occasionally boomy organ, the singer was somehow able to negotiate what seemed an impossibly low range with the facility of a tenor. His relatively rhetorical, even conversational style seldom sounded blurry or overly stentorian, blending nicely with the small ensembles. In Johann Christoph Bach’s closing cantata, Why Are You Then, O God, Inflamed with Wrath Against Me?, he sounded a note so low (accompanying the text’s nadir of despair) that I feared seismic consequences.

Ending a concert with such a bummer of a piece violated another rule: leave ’em smiling. Yet despite the downbeat spirit and ending, the audience heartily cheered the performance.

Another valuable musical guest, gambist Josh Lee, excelled in one of the other highlights of this concert that alternated accompanied vocals with instrumental-only pieces: a sonata by Buxtehude, the north German eminence whom J.S. Bach himself reputedly walked 250 miles from his home town to hear play the organ. But despite his and van der Kamp’s and Stubbs’s skillful performances in this Baroque geekfest, what really rose above was Huggett’s energetic performance — and her audience’s trust that she’ll present music they’ll likely enjoy despite, or even because of, its unfamiliarity. Seattle has its stars, but Huggett’s an Oregon music treasure.

At this writing, some seats are still available for Portland Baroque Orchestra’s encore performance of its Vocal Concerto concert this Saturday, April 5.

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7 Responses.

  1. curtis heikkinen says:

    Thanks for your comments regarding the recent Seattle Symphony concert. I consider myself to be an adventurous listener when it comes to classical music. However, I found the Adams’ piece rather tedious and uneventful. I don’t deny that it had attractive qualities, but the material did not justify its length in my view. I suspect that concert goers expecting to get an idea of the quality of the Seattle Symphony’s playing may have been disappointed. We did not really get the chance to hear what the orchestra could due until La Mer, which was given a very fine performance. I enjoyed the Varese piece but the orchestra was so greatly reduced I felt a bit cheated.

    I think a comparison with the Oregon Symphony’s Carnegie program is useful. While I enjoyed the Seattle Symphony concert, there is no doubt in my mind that the Oregon Symphony’s program was far more substantial with a bracing 20th century symphony, a vocal work by a living composer and the magnificent Britten piece.

    I am familiar with your views regarding the Oregon Symphony’s programming. I think you are a bit too harsh. I just returned from a concert featuring one of the last century’s great cello concertos, the 2nd of Shostakovich. I think that it represented pretty adventurous programing. Britten’s War Requiem was featured earlier this season. I find that Carlos Kalmar has done a good job of mixing things up in the concerts. He has brought a large number of works to Portland that have never or very rarely been played. Sure, I would like to see more works by living composers, but I believe the reality here in Portland is that audiences are generally not as welcoming of contemporary works as those in a larger city such as Seattle. The Seattle Symphony concert was well attended but I suspect there were a significant number of free tickets given out. I know my wife and I had free ones. I have to question how well a similar Oregon Symphony program would do at the box office.

    I have been attending concerts here in Portland for some time. I can only speak for myself but I would count myself as largely satisfied by the Oregon Symphony’s programming given the realities of operating an orchestra in this city.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Curtis. I’m glad the Oregon Symphony’s programming works for you. A lot of it works for me, too. But this isn’t really about us but rather about new audiences. Comparing a commission from a living, Northwest composer, John Luther Adams (born 1953, and writing music inspired by our own time and place) and Britten (born in England 1913, died 1976) and Shostakovich (born in Russia 1906, died 1975) is really apples and oranges. Great composers, sure, and two of my own personal favorites, but only in the historical museum view of too many classical institutions would musicians who were born before my grandparents (and I’m middle-aged myself) and died nearly four decades ago be considered happening artists.

    Had that museum attitude been in place when they were actually alive and composing, audiences of their time wouldn’t have heard their music at all, but would instead have received at best a steady dose of Elgar, Rachmaninoff, and Nielsen — which come to think of it isn’t too different from what our musty orchestras are still programming today.

    There’s nothing wrong with Oregon orchestras performing historical music of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, but if they’re going to build new audiences, like those in Seattle, Los Angeles and elsewhere are doing, they also need to be devoting a substantial portion of each season and each concert (not just occasional token short works) to today’s music — not just that of their audience’s grandparents and great-great grandparents. It seems to be working in Seattle.

    • curtis heikkinen says:

      I would have to say that the Oregon Symphony’s programming isn’t doing badly. I see that they set a record of over 7 million in ticket sales this past season. I have certainly lamented the inability of classical music to move past the heavy reliance on warhorses. I have also heard the same arguments that orchestras have to build new audiences. However, that view has been around for a long time, yet the audiences still show up. Just last night the hall was packed for the Shostakovich cello concerto. Perhaps we have overstated the need to build new audiences. People seem to come to appreciate classical music eventually on their own.

      • Barry Johnson says:

        That’s a rosy analysis! A lot of the increase in ticket sales comes from a larger number of concerts, which isn’t quite the same thing as increasing the audience. And those concerts were scheduled because the symphony was/is facing a large deficit.

        On the West Coast, the thriving orchestras are the ones programming more contemporary work. Maybe that wouldn’t work in Portland, and the Oregon Symphony’s approach is the best. BUT I wish they would make that case in public, the case for their conservative programming decisions.

  3. curtis heikkinen says:

    Rosy analysis or not, the symphony seems to be doing something right in achieving record ticket sales. I suspect that if Portland had the donor base of LA, SanFrancisco or even Seattle, it would be thriving as well. Carlos Kalmar has brought a large number of new or rarely performed works to Portland. So I don’t believe the programmming is quite as conservative as you make it sound, Barry. It is one thing to be on the sidelines and criticize programming and quite another to actually make the decisions on programming and to live with the consequences. I personally would like to see even more adventurous programming here in Portland but I recognize the reality that there is a great risk that comes with it. On balance, the symphony has done a good job making the concert experience fresh, while
    still selling the tickets necessary to stay afloat.

    • Barry Johnson says:

      We’re just repeating ourselves at this point (Brett has written a more than a few times about the extent of contemporary work in the symphony’s seasons—and the extent is very small), but I would like to lodge an objection to your comment that we shouldn’t criticize programming (or anything else) because we don’t live with the consequences. In fact, we DO live with the consequences. A weaker symphony isn’t a good thing for the culture of Portland, the state or the Northwest. And the best way to arrive at good decisions is to discuss and argue positions in public. Leaving the decisions to the professionals without discussion in the community nearly destroyed a major orchestra recently (Minnesota–though union busting, not programming was the issue) and seems to have led to the closure of the San Diego Opera (there’s still SOME hope it will survive). In both cases, top managers and board members made the decisions without discussion, consultation, debate, and consideration of other points of view, either with their communities of interest or the general public.

      I like the symphony. I think they play exceptionally well. I’m afraid some of their current practices (programming is just one of them) have marginalized the orchestra in the culture, isolated them from their natural constituents, and kept them from adding to that base of support. Therefore, it wouldn’t be appropriate for me (or Brett) NOT to comment, given the importance of the institution.

  4. Jeff Winslow says:

    I’m not that big a fan of John Luther Adams, just based on what’s been heard around Portland in recent years, but I have to say that “Become Ocean” stood out well above the rest. To me it seemed a lot shorter than 45 minutes. For most of it I was utterly fascinated by the shifting textures and harmonies coming out of the orchestra. My attention wandered a little in the last third of the piece or so (guessing), but I think if he’d been more adventurous with the harmony rather than being so obsessive about smoothing it all out towards the end, it would have held me even then.

    I was a little underwhelmed by the Debussy. I got a notice from the Seattle Symphony a few days later announcing a FREE preview of the program for Seattle audiences before the Carnegie jaunt. After Portland paid for the privilege. It seems we heard the first tryout in public, and it sounded like it. Still, it was more than acceptable and it’s such a great work I was happy to be there.

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