Contemporary chaos

From moderns to Mozart, the SSO hits some highs and more than a few lows.

Gerard Schwarz's taste in contemporary music doesn't overlap much with mine. In the program he put together for the "Music of Our Time" concert last week, which featured works by the Seattle Symphony's five former and current composers-in-residence, his personal preferences were very much on display. Schwarz is clearly a conductor of strong convictions about new music, and that's obviously far better than having no convictions at all. But the list of composers he seems indifferent to is dishearteningly long: Adams, Boulez, Carter, Glass, Gubaidulina, Kancheli, Ligeti, Messiaen, Penderecki, Reich, Schnittke, Sessions, Stockhausen, late Stravinsky, Thomson Varese, Xenakis. Schwarz and the SSO are never going to touch these guys, and while I'm trying to resign myself to the fact, I'd be thrilled to be proved wrong.

Seattle Symphony: Music of Our Time, Day of Music

Benaroya Hall, September 16 and 20

till October 11

When I say that the five works on the program ranged from pleasant enough to hopeless, I suppose you can factor out my unavoidable difference of opinion from the maestro's. What I didn't expect, even considering how hard the players had been driven during Benaroya's inaugural week, was the performance quality. "Under-rehearsed" is the preferred euphemism for sloppy playing, but quite a bit of the concert sounded as though the orchestra hadn't rehearsed at all. The result was more like a decent sight-reading session, unsure, uncommitted, and without nuance. Admittedly, without seeing the scores, I can't be quite sure the lapses in ensemble weren't intentional effects; David Stock might well have asked for the pyramiding repeated string chords at the opening of his new Viola Concerto not to be played together or on the beat. The orchestra did play fortissimo when the music called for it, as in the explosively aggressive passages in the third movement of Bright Sheng's colorful suite Postcards, but for everything else an all-purpose mezzo-forte sufficed.

In other works of Stock's I've heard, he's imparted a fresh feeling of forward motion, which pits regular and irregular rhythms against each other nicely. In his new concerto he chose to concentrate instead on lyricism, letting the viola's rich, unique lower registers sing. This would seem a natural decision, though comparing this concerto with his other works, I sense that he's more comfortable working with rhythms than with lines. A couple of musical ideas of only slight interest were grossly overworked: those repeated string chords, or the upward-curling, nine-note figure in the final section. This was a surprising lapse in judgment; in other works, he's put repetition to effective use. Despite the pallid material, SSO principal Susan Gulkis played the viola solo warmly and forthrightly.

The most disturbing work, Richard Danielpour's First Light, opened the show. An unconscionable number of the orchestral pieces of the last 15 years, all up-tempo concert openers, sound like this: notes splashing everywhere, that tedious Morse-code syncopation (bap! bap-bap! bap! bap! ba-ba-bap!), mere sound effects with no identifiable content. Did Danielpour create this market trend, or is he merely following it? And are composers composing this stuff because every orchestra is playing it, or the other way around?

A simple test for vocal works is that if you can understand the words, the composer set them well; if not, he didn't. In Stephen Albert's Flower of the Mountain (based on a text from Joyce's Ulysses), I got about 40 percent of the lyrics, not a passing grade. Cynthia Haymon, the fine soprano soloist, was no doubt doing just what Albert asked, so I don't hold her responsible. The music itself did have an attractive directness, however. Samuel Jones' Janus came in two sections: a very Hansonian slow movement from his late-'50s student days to which he added a second movement for this concert. This new movement, with acrobatic themes constructed out of whizzing scales, was the most convincing work of the evening overall.

One more thing that was hard not to notice: "The Music of Our Time" pieces were all written for an orchestra of regular size, not a pared-down chamber orchestra. Couldn't this concert have been in the main auditorium? Perhaps not all 2,500 seats would have been filled, but new-music audiences are used to that.

What did fill those seats, to the brim, were the SSO's two joyously applauded sets (Mozart and Diamond, Webern and Stravinsky) at last Sunday's "Day of Music." The nine-hour, six-venue festival proved to be spectacularly, even frighteningly, successful. Lines were long—at the peak, about 4 in the afternoon, the line just to get into the building ran 360 degrees around the block, and to enter the auditorium or recital hall required yet another waiting period. For the future, remember the Bumbershoot Rule: Get in line for any venue one act prior to the act you want to hear. After this incredible turnout, how could Benaroya's administration not make the "Day of Music" an annual event? Given the crowds, it could make it into a two-day event. There'd be no better way for local classical groups to drum up interest in a new season than with this sort of autumn-kickoff free-sample extravaganza.

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