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The Gathering Note
A blog about classical music by Zach Carstensen
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Next weekend Morlot takes a stab at his first Mahler with the Seattle Symphony. For this he chose Kindertotenlieder, one of Mahler’s sublime song cycles. So far I am loving Morlot’s choices. He isn’t going for typical anything.

5 years ago | |
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Edgard

Ludovic Morlot impressed again this week with a program that featured the smartly chosen Ameriques of Edgard Varese and Stravinsky’s classic ballet the Rite of Spring. As Morlot pointed out in the open rehearsal earlier in the week — Varese is to Stravinsky the way Beethoven is to Haydn. Ameriques’s homage to the Rite is overt, borrowing themes, rhythms, and mimicking solos. The Rite opens with a bassoon solo, Ameriques opens with a flute solo (bravo Seth Krimsky and Judy Kriewall).

Morlot seems to be focusing the orchestra on the fundamentals of their craft: rhythmic precision, dynamic range, color, and above all else the idea of an orchestra as a musical team. Ear splitting climaxes were a signature of the Schwarz era. Morlot’s climaxes in Ameriques were forceful without being painful to hear.

When the big moments came during Ameriques, there was always room for more sound, more energy. This paid huge dividends at the piece’s conclusion when Morlot pulled a massive, driving crescendo out of the orchestra. Chailly, Boulez, Dohnanyi, none of them in their recordings of the piece, achieve the same humongous sound and none of them match the drama of the work’s final bars.

Some might have thought pegging Ameriques at the end of the program created an anticlimactic concert experience. They would be wrong. The Rite of Spring is a popular piece and its rhythms, harmonies, and violence are part of the vocabulary of most classical music lovers.  Putting a popular piece last always leaves the crowd satisfied. Varese’s vocabulary, however, isn’t far removed from Stravinsky.  There are enough interesting fragments and repeated ideas to keep the piece interesting.  As far as visceral listening experiences go, Varese wins easily. Hearing Varese and Stravinsky side-by-side I couldn’t help but wonder why we don’t hear Varese more often especially placed in the context of more familiar and warmly accepted contemporaries like Gershwin and Stravinsky.

If you like the Rite of Spring shaped by pathos, fury, and romantic fire then Morlot’s view of the piece probably wouldn’t have caused you to riot. Morlot’s performance was perhaps too tame for the piece, but just the right approach for an orchestra playing with the renewed clarity, focus, and shared musical goals of the SSO.

I hope Morlot gives the Rite another go in a few seasons. I’d be interested to hear if the conductor can generate more heat once he and the orchestra are more familiar with one another.

5 years ago | |
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Today the SSO is opening its doors to the public with an open rehearsal of this weekend’s performance. We will get to watch Morlot and the orchestra tinker with the Rite of Spring and if we are lucky Edgard Varese’s Ameriques, which if the program notes are to be believed, will close out the concerts this weekend.


Rite of Spring


Ameriques

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Listen boldly. This is the new motto for the Seattle Symphony. In only two concerts with his new orchestra, Ludovic Morlot is challenging audiences to do exactly that.

Last weekend he began this season’s survey of Henri Dutilleux’s orchestral music with the composer’s violin concerto — Tree of Dreams. Violinist Renaud Capucon made his Seattle Symphony debut with a performance of the concerto that was painted with vivid orchestral colors uncommon for Seattle’s orchestra.

But, the night’s closing piece — Beethoven’s ground breaking Third Symphony — was the most memorable piece on the program. In part, this has to do with how foreign Tree of Dreams and Frank Zappa’s Dupree’s Paradise are to audiences (including myself). They are seldom played and seldom recorded. Pierre Boulez’s recording of Zappa’s orchestral music is only available as an import and to my knowledge there are only two recordings of Dutilleux’s concerto. Both pieces are rare in the concert hall. I won’t try to guess how rare. Juxtaposed against the Eroica Symphony, these two pieces underscored how revolutionary the symphony truly is, even today.

Morlot’s Beethoven was memorable for another, more important reason. In very little time, Morlot has turned the SSO into an orchestra that plays with clarity, precision and color. Morlot’s interpretation missed the grand arc of the piece. His focus on details, perfectly executed solos, controlled dynamics, and a plethora of orchestral colors I don’t usually associate with the Austro-German symphonic tradition made up for any interpretative oversights.

It may very well be that Morlot is making the calculated decision that before he can start imposing his own artistic license on Beethoven his orchestra needs to brush up on the fundamentals. I will be listening closely to see how his style develops over the rest of the season.

Paul Schiavo’s program notes have always bothered me. They are either too topical, too obtuse, and always dull. Schiavo’s note for Dupree’s Paradise was especially bad. I am not sure someone should get an author credit for a program note that block quotes paragraphs from Zappa’s memoir. Schiavo’s original contribution to the edification of anyone who read the note was limited at best. If as an audience member I am expected to listen boldly, then I expect Schiavo to write boldly. This season is filled to the brim with pieces that are hard for audiences to hear and comprehend. Schiavo can do a lot by providing a road map for audiences.


Dupree’s Paradise

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Jeremy Denk. Photo credit: New York Times.

The experience of listening to music — recorded or otherwise — is impacted by countless external forces. And for me, the surrounding context of hearing music is as important as the music itself. Years ago a close friend of my family fell ill. At the time, no one knew this person’s days were limited; their final moments counted in hours instead of years. However, after a bedside vigil, I drove home to Des Moines in my nearly new Saturn Sedan. For these long trips I usually brought a stack of CD’s to keep me company. Without any real reason, I brought along my recording of Bach’s cello suites.

With the picture of my ailing loved one still fresh in my mind, Bach’s suites, which never struck me as spiritual or religious statements, assumed a gravity fitting of that sensory moment. To this day, I have thought Bach’s suites would be perfect music to die to.

This experience — fitting music to context — has been repeated many times over the years. Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony is forever connected in my mind with a bad date I had in Iowa City. Love and life, both fickle and fleeting, must be embraced firmly and more often than not bravely.

After an arduous spring in my other life, summer has offered little in the way of relief. Yet, Toby Saks marks 30 years this summer as the artistic head of the Seattle Chamber Music Society, and I knew I needed to get down to Nordstrom Recital Hall to hear at least one concert. Over the last three decades, Toby has built the festival from nothing to an anticipated summer music event. The familial charm, group dinners, and close relationships with the musicians have endured during the festival’s growth and expansion. Toby will continue to nurture these elements of the festival even as James Ehnes takes over as artistic director.

At the core of the Chamber Music Society’s Sunday evening concert was the intellectual pianism of Jeremy Denk. One of Toby’s enduring musical finds; Jeremy’s career has grown with each passing year. There are few musicians today who can match Denk’s rigorous study and approach to music making. There is nothing routine about a Denk performance, which is exemplified perfectly by the solo repertory in which he excels. The hallmarks of his solo repertory these days are the piano sonatas of Charles Ives. He has recorded both for his own label. Up next for Denk are Gyorgy Ligeti’s three books of piano etudes.

Ligeti’s etudes are among the most difficult solo piano pieces written in the later part of the last century. They are also among the most sumptuous and evocative short statements for the keyboard since Debussy’s own etudes. Even as Denk made Ligeti’s etudes sing, pervasive anxiety rippled through each of the short works as an undercurrent pushed, pulled, and influenced each etude. Denk’s performance successfully captured the uniform anxiety of the etudes, while it also crafted an individual point of view for each.

Denk disappeared for Vincent d’Indy’s Piano Quartet. Unlike Ligeti’s etudes, this quartet soared with the rich melodies of German symphonism mashed with French Romanticism. Lead by festival veterans Bion Tsang (cello) and Richard O’Neill (viola) the performance was successful at turning a forgettable piece of music into a perfect frame for the uncharacteristic drabness of my own emotions this past Sunday.

For the remainder of the first half of the program Denk was joined by local clarinetist Sean Osborne, violinist Erin Keefe, and cellist Godfried Hoogeveen for two works that showcased the Clarinet — Charles Ives’ Largo and Johannes Brahms Clarinet Trio. Erin Keefe and Jeremy Denk made sure the Largo’s long, arching structure unfolded with natural grace. Nordstrom’s troublesome acoustics for pianos were controlled to the very end of the piece which ended with Erin Keefe’s own gentle portrayal of the piece’s final melody.

Following Ives’ short work was Brahms’ Clarinet Trio. Denk again held sway at the keyboard while Osborne commanded the clarinet part. Hoogeveen brought his own old-world charm to this trio which is not as familiar as the composer’s other three for piano, violin, and cello. The trio’s melancholic underpinnings were brought to the forefront by Osborne and helped along by the emotionally brittle warmth of Hoogeveen’s playing. The evening concluded with a performance of Beethoven’s masterpiece the Archduke Trio. Amy Schwartz Moretti, Edward Arron, Alon Goldstein took the lead.

With context as important as the music itself, this concert had it all. Ligeti’s etudes mirrored Seattle’s frenetic caffeine addled culture complete with its vulnerability and devotion to big ideas. Ives’s Largo depicted through sound the melancholy beauty of the Pacific Northwest on that Sunday. My own emotions found outlets in both Brahms’s Trio and d’Indy’s Piano Quartet. As for Beethoven, his music is so nearly perfect as to transcend time and place. Beethoven’s music is often ideal no matter the context. As one patron said via a Facebook status update: “sometimes I wonder if we actually need any other composers.”

5 years ago | |
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Johannes Moser

The summer festival season starts in earnest tomorrow with the commencement of the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s 6 week long festival. This year’s festival marks the 30 year anniversary of Toby Saks’ affiliation with the festival. She founded the series, played an integral part in recruiting top-shelf talent for the festival, and after this summer she will be stepping down as artistic director, making way for James Ehnes to take up the role. Concerts do sell out, but there are always free recitals an hour before the official concert begins. One (of many) highlights from the recitals this summer will no doubt be Johannes Moser’s performance of Lutoslawski’s Sacher Variations.

Up north in Bellingham, the Bellingham Festival of Music started on July 1 and continues through the rest of the month. Two Seattle favorites — pianist Jeremy Denk and violinist Stefan Jackiw — appear with the festival orchestra this year. Denk will play Liszt’s Second Concerto and Jackiw will play Sibelius’ Violin Concerto. Both Denk and Jackiw play with extreme intelligence and undoubtedly will invigorate both pieces. Britten’s Serenade for Tenor Horn and Strings (a favorite of mine) will also be played on the same program as Denk’s Liszt and there is a concert performance of Fidelio on July 17th to close the festival out.

Local composer Nat Evans is putting on a festival of sorts of his own by taking his music and love of site-specific experiences on the road to Chicago, DC, NYC, and elsewhere. Evans is also featured in this month’s Believer magazine too.

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The Seattle Symphony has finally found a principal cellist. The spot has been vacant for years. Joining the section will be Efe Baltacigil. Baltacigil comes from the Philadelphia Orchestra where he is the associate principal cellist. This is a good selection for the SSO, and it says much about the optimism many people in the music world have for Morlot at the SSO. But, it also says as much about the current state of disarray, reorganization, and decline of the once great Philadelphia Orchestra.

From the Seattle Symphony’s press release:

Seattle Symphony Music Director Designate Ludovic Morlot commented, “I am honored that Efe Baltacigil will be joining the Seattle Symphony. Hiring such a talented artist is a very special occasion, and these opportunities are so important in the life of an orchestra. Efe is a superb musician, and his deep passion for everything he tackles is infectious. I am immensely looking forward to our new musical relationship. Welcome, Efe!”

Also in the news, Morlot has been named the chief conductor of Belgium’s La Monnaie. With this appointment, Morlot gets an operatic assignment to round out his orchestral assignment. La Monnaie is at the center of Europe’s opera culture and will cement the conductor’s already strong ties with the continent’s musical scene.

From the press release:

Ludovic Morlot, Seattle Symphony’s new Music Director, has accepted an additional position as Chief Conductor of one of Europe’s leading opera houses — La Monnaie/De Munt — in Brussels, Belgium. The five-year appointment, commencing on January 1, 2012, will allow him to broaden his career as a conductor of opera, and add to his already impressive work with symphony orchestras. During his first full season at La Monnaie, starting in the fall 2012, his programs will include Alfred Bruneau’s Requiem as well as his first performances of Debussy’s Pélleas et Mélisande. La Monnaie’s historic and ongoing commitment to contemporary music means that Morlot will play a key role in commissioning new works. With this important appointment, Morlot will join the ranks of other music directors of American orchestras who also served (or are currently serving) as principal conductors of European opera houses, including Franz Welser-Möst, Daniel Barenboim, Zubin Mehta and Riccardo Muti.

A quick note about the lack of posts on the Gathering Note. Personal and professional obligations have required the site to scale back some. In the life of any endeavor there are always periods of growth and contraction. I hope to resume a more regular blogging schedule in the fall.

5 years ago | |
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By R.M. Campbell

When Gerard Schwarz first came to Seattle, in 1983, he was not going to stay. Music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, he was about to launch himself in the world of major orchestras. The Seattle Symphony Orchestra must have seemed like dull pickings. But no other invitations were immediately forthcoming, so he stayed, then stayed even longer, becoming music director two years later. Seattle was a good place to learn repertory one wouldn’t ordinarily learn conducting a chamber orchestra: The city was out of the glare of the major leagues. The eighties drifted into the nineties and the 21st century.

There were good years and bad years, and Schwarz found himself in the press a lot. The Seattle he found became a more sophisticated place and sometimes the center of national attention. He came to Seattle pretty much an unknown conductor, a brilliant trumpet player who abandoned his instrument for the podium, and earned an international reputation on a wide variety of fronts. There were dozens of recordings, dozens of commissions and new works, the canon worked and reworked, multiple tours. Musicians came and went. Instead of the tired, overbooked and acoustically poor Opera House at Seattle Center, a brand-new concert complex downtown was built comprising a handsome concert hall, acoustically honest and clear, and an intimate recital hall. Schwarz had a hand in every aspect of the hall, including raising millions of dollars from people who admired and adored him. Along the way he transformed the orchestra from an pedestrian one to a superb one.

The long trip on the podium, one of the longest in history, came to an end this weekend, with University Street, between Second and Third avenues, the southern border of Benaroya, renamed Schwarz Place, and Mahler’s emotionally extravagant “Resurrection” Symphony. When Schwarz was first trying out his skills on the podium, he ended nearly every season with either a Mahler or Bruckner symphony. At first they were somewhat chaotic, then they got substantially better. Eventually he worked his way through both sets of symphonies and then reworked some of them several times; He never lost his taste for them. Neither have we.

With an enlarged orchestra, pairs of choruses and soloists (soprano Angela Meade and mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke) , Schwarz provided a reading that was vast in scale and generous in its emotions. Any performance should have a “spiritual uplift” and the reading Thursday night did. Schwarz never indulged in extremes in Mahler, seeking a middle road in which the composer’s ideas were given center stage, perhaps even restraint. There was a great flow to the phrases and a lyrical underpinning to many. Those movements that should have been charming were charming. This was a moving goodbye, one of peace and serenity and hope. The brasses were uniformly exemplary

Also on the program were a new Philip Glass — “Harmonium Mountain” — and Schubert’s “Rosamunde” Overture. The Glass was pleasant but uneventful and the Schubert predictably melodious. next

While the concert might seem a farewell to Schwarz the conductor, it is only Schwarz the music director. He will be back season and several more to follow. He leaves a great legacy.

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Seattle Opera released the details of their next Ring Cycle and Meistersinger, Seattle Opera’s next stand alone Wagner opera. Principal guest conductor Asher Fisch will lead both performances from the pit. Fisch possesses a deep understanding of Wagner’s operas. After guiding a beautifully played Tristan last summer, it is only natural that Fisch be the next conductor to tackle the Ring in Seattle.

Seattle Opera’s critically acclaimed production of the Ring, directed by Stephen Wadsworth and featuring sets by Thomas Lynch, costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, and lighting by Peter Kaczorowski, returns for its fourth incarnation, this time under the baton of Asher Fisch, Principal Guest Conductor of Seattle Opera. Fisch, who has conducted Parsifal, Lohengrin, Der Rosenkavalier, Der Fliegende Holländer, and Tristan und Isolde for Seattle Opera, “ranks among the finest Ring conductors of our time,” according to Opus Magazine. Making their Seattle Opera debuts in this production are Alwyn Mellor as Brünnhilde and Stefan Vinke as Siegfried. Mellor is a Brünnhilde of choice for Den Nye Opera, Oper Leipzig, Longborough Festival Opera, Paris Opera, and Opera North; Vinke has sung Siegfried in Cologne, Leipzig, Berlin, Salzburg, Venice, and Lisbon. Greer Grimsley returns to Seattle Opera for the third time as Wotan, a role for which he won Seattle Opera’s 2005 Artist of the Year award. Other returning artists include Stephanie Blythe as Fricka, Margaret Jane Wray as Sieglinde, Stuart Skelton as Siegmund, Dennis Petersen as Mime, and Richard Paul Fink as Alberich.

When the Meistersinger hits the stage in 2014, it will only be the second time in the company’s history this gargantuan comedic opera has been performed in Seattle.

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R.M. Campbell

Goodbye, as they say, is sweet sorrow, particularly in the hands of Pacific Northwest Ballet.

In recent years, the company in June does what it calls a “Season Encore,” which means a single performance dedicated to departing dancers. This season the class was especially large, with eight, possibly a record, including four principals: Ariana Lallone, Olivier Wevers, Jeffrey Stanton and Stanko Milov. The others were Stacy Lowenberg, Chalnessa Eames, Josh Spell and Barry Kerollis. On Sunday the performance at McCaw Hall went on for three hours. The air in the full house was exuberant and grateful for what these dancers had contributed to the company. Everyone was in top form, which made the farewells even more bittersweet. It was a swell evening of dance handsomely mounted. There were all sorts of flowers and kisses and hugs.

Peter Boal, artistic director for the past six years, made introductory remarks on stage in which each dancer was given his, or her, moment in the sun. Kent Stowell and Francia Russell, his predecessors at the company, wrote warmly and well in the lavishly illustrated and handsomely produced program. Stowell and Russell appeared on stage, as well as Patricia Barker, PNB’s prima ballerina until her retirement and now interim artistic director of Grand Rapids Ballet, as part of the flower brigade. Val Caniparoli, who choreographed “Lambarena” talked about Lallone, and a lovingly-made film about her was shown.

An amazing 12 ballets, mostly excerpts, were performed, not only by those saying goodbye but also their colleagues. Inevitably there was a lot of George Balanchine — “Agon,” “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” “Who Cares?” and “Rubies” — Kent Stowell — “Silver Lining” and “Carmen” — and other works from the repertory such as Jiri Kylian’s “Petite Mort,” Twyla Tharp’s “Nine Sinatra Songs,” Ulysses Dove’s “Red Angels” and Caniparoli’s “Lambarena.” There were two other offerings, both from departing dancers: Wevers’ “Monster” and Lowenberg’s “Rushed Goodbye.”

Everyone danced in at least one work, some multiple works, except for Milov who was out with an injury, and Wevers, who was represented by a pas de deux from “Monster.” The good news about Milov, who has had a lot of injuries these past few seasons is that he will continue his association with the company as a member of its faculty. That is terrific because he has a lot to impart to boys and young men about stage presence and carriage. He looks and dances like a genuine “danseur noble” while others only work at it.

Kerollis danced ably in a solitary work — “Rubies” — and Eames in a couple — “Petite Mort” and “One for My Baby” from “Nine Sinatra Songs”; Jerome Tisserand was her appealing partner in the latter. Spell also danced in a pair of works — “Petite Mort” and “Rubies.” He will be remembered for a number of roles, especially Puck in Balanchine’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” where he was, in a word, puckish — quick and lively and mischievous.

The affection by which Lowenberg is held by members of the audience was revealed with all sorts of bouquets and flowers thrown on the stage at the end of her piece “Rushed Goodbye,” a pas de deux with Karel Cruz. The work was premiered four years ago at the Choreographers’ Showcase at the PNB School where she occasionally taught. It’s a good piece and well-crafted, a fine beginning. She, as well as Eames, looked splendid and danced with polish.

Even though Stanton has not danced much in the past few years because of injuries, the hold he has on the audience was palpable Sunday night. He danced in five works, the most of anyone, for which everyone was grateful. A member of the corps de ballet at San Francisco Ballet, he came to PNB in 1994 making him the most senior member of the company, except for Lallone. He brought smooth elegance to everything he did as well as a quiet, almost self-effacing style. He was beloved by his many partners. Sunday’s program demonstrated his range, from the rigors of “Agon” to the jazz inflection of “Slaughter,” where he made an inedible impression three years ago and managed to finish the performance in spite of an injury that landed him in the hospital the same night. He danced with a casual panache and understanding that Balanchine wanted. So too Tharp in Stanton’s reading of “Who Cares?” He closed his dancing career in “Silver Lining,” a solo that Stowell set on him 13 years ago. He danced with the lightness and silky grace we have come to admire.

Lallone and Wevers are special cases. They were pushed out. Wevers, who joined the company in 1997, and Lallone, in 1987, were major figures at PNB. Their departure from the company is unhappy because neither one wanted to leave. Each would have liked another season. Lallone was nudged out by Boal earlier this year. She said it in an interview and he did not disagree, a sentiment subsequently confirmed by ballet officials. Wevers has been cast less and less over the past couple of seasons, he said. “He (Boal) wants me out. Although I was offered a contract for next season in December, there were no major roles for me.” Wevers said he told Boal, “What is the point (of my continuing) if I am not dancing? How can I be positive and stay in shape? He is pushing the younger dancers.”

These dancers will be not easily replaced. Each had a strong, individual presence on stage that almost no one else in the company possessed. They are still dancing with all the skill and talent at their command, as Lallone demonstrated on Sunday. Wevers had extraordinary versatility that served PNB well for a long time. He had charisma, a virtuoso technique, an extraordinary comedic flair, a sense of theater and poise. Fortunately he has a place to go: his own company, Whim W’him, which has taken off like jet over the past couple years, cultivating dancers and choreographers and winning audiences and patrons in one fell swoop. It will be doing a pair of performances June 24-25 at Intiman Playhouse.”Monster” is a striking example of what he is up to.

No one ever missed Lallone on stage. It is hard to imagine her as a member of the corps because she is so tall — well beyond 6 feet on pointe — and distinctive. She danced many roles, all with theatricality and a firm commitment to the theater. She was vivid in whatever she did, such as “Petite Mort,” “Rubies” and “Carmen,” infusing every gesture with importance, even wit on occasion and imagination.” She did a lot of showy pieces with great aplomb, but she chose a poignant solo from “Lambarena” to end her PNB career as well as Sunday’s performance.

Lallone may be leaving PNB but she can be found in the not distant future across Mercer at Teatro Zinzanni.

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