An exciting new orchestra in Seattle

Seattle Modern Orchestra is a welcome newcomer to Seattle's timid contemporary-music scene. Here's a report from a rousing recent concert at Cornish.

Jeremy Jolley, co-artistic director of the Seattle Modern Orchestra.

Jeremy Jolley, co-artistic director of the Seattle Modern Orchestra.

Julia Tai, co-artistic director of the Seattle Modern Orchestra.

Julia Tai, co-artistic director of the Seattle Modern Orchestra.

In less than three years we’ll be marking the 100th anniversary of Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, but somehow the mere phrase “modern music” still manages to intimidate audiences — and, of course, the larger institutional gatekeepers who maintain the public image of “classical music.”

So it’s encouraging to discover a newcomer to Seattle’s timid contemporary-music scene in the form of the Seattle Modern Orchestra (SMO). Over the weekend, the SMO launched the first of three concerts scheduled for the season. Spearheaded by artistic directors Jeremy Jolley and Julia Tai, the concert was presented as part of Cornish College of the Arts’ adventurous music series. The performance took place at Cornish’s PONCHO Concert Hall on Capitol Hill.

Rather than a fixed ensemble, the SMO is a sort of curatorial project organized by musicians who are passionate about exposing audiences to the marvelous range of composers over the last century. Their mission is “to provide Seattle audiences with live performances of the best in contemporary chamber and orchestral music, music seldom if ever performed in Seattle until now.” The focus, though, seems naturally to gravitate toward chamber-size works, not only for practical reasons of economy but because so many representative pieces of modern music rethink the template of the traditional orchestra.

It’s clear that the SMO intends to dispel the (unfortunately widespread) myth about “modern music” — that it represents a grey monolith of nothing but atonal angst — by sampling the incredible diversity and contradictory impulses of this literature. Concerts programmed around a particular idea or genre provide the framework to juxtapose different generations of modern composers, and each program includes living composers alongside modernist icons. For example, the debut concert, titled “Stopping Time,” paired two early works by Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) and Louis Andriessen (b. 1939), one of the most interesting composers alive.

And the SMO doesn’t want to limit itself to performance. Their mission statement refers to ambitious plans involving “radio talks, lectures, and other forms of outreach in an accessible and inviting format, all designed to expand the listener’s appreciation and awareness of the music of today.”

I’m eager to see how that will play out. Saturday night gave us a taste as Jolley and Tai — both alums of UW grad school — teamed up for an informal, ice-breaking talk session at the start of the concert to introduce some of the main musical issues explored by Messiaen and Andriessen. A native of Lyon, France, Jeremy Jolley is a composer who has performed with rock and fusion bands; Taiwan-born Julia Tai is an emerging conductor. (She led an enjoyable UW Opera production of Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins a few years ago.)

They both convey an infectious enthusiasm. And their commentary was helpful, pointing out some of the different technical means Messiaen and Andriessen use to “stop time” — more precisely, to subvert the linear sense of time’s arrow that underlies so much familiar Western music. It set up expectations for things to listen for but would have benefited immensely from pausing to illustrate with some specific musical samples. The give-and-take of an audience Q&A might also enhance this part of their program.

The longer first half of the concert was given over to "Quartet for the End of Time," widely acknowledged as a chamber masterpiece of the 20th century. Messiaen famously composed this large-scale, eight-movement work while he was being held in a German prisoner-of-war camp shortly after the fall of France (fellow inmates premiered the work at the prison in January 1941). SMO presented a spellbinding, committed performance by violinist Eric Rynes and cellist Peter Williams (both principals with the Northwest Symphony Orchestra), pianist Akiko Iguchi, and clarinetist Stefan van Sant.

Despite its title and its inspiration by the Book of Revelation, Messiaen’s quartet isn’t apocalyptic in the flashily sturm-und-drang sense; instead, outbursts of trilling birdsong and joyous, jagged ensemble alternate with rapturously prolonged meditations glossed by the composer as louanges or “praises” to the timelessness of Jesus. Even the sixth movement, with its references to the “seven trumpets” of the Apocalypse, evokes a jazzy exuberance — and contains one of the piece’s formidable technical challenges, with its intensely irregular unison lines for all four players.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Nov 19, 4:01 p.m. Inappropriate

Greetings Mr. May,

Reading your review of the Seattle Modern Orchestra brings on some seriously mixed feelings for me. While it is certainly nice that you chose to encourage and support this new ensemble with a lengthy and favorable review, your comments about "Seattle's timid contemporary music scene" and the SMO "bringing a much-needed perspective to Seattle's musical life" irk me to no end. The reality is that the SMO is just the latest (and certainly welcome) addition to Seattle's active and wide-ranging contemporary music community.

For starters, I run an organization called Nonsequitur (http://nseq.blogspot.com/) that has been presenting concerts consistently in Seattle since 2004 (and before that in New Mexico since 1989). Just two nights ago we presented ex-Bang on a Can pianist (and Seattle resident) Cristina Valdes doing a terrific program of Messiaen, Lachenmann, Scelsi, Ives, and others to a sizable and enthusiastic audience. This spring we co-presented the May Day! May Day! New Music Marathon with the Seattle Chamber Players and Town Hall - twelve hours of contemporary music by local musicians and composers. And in the recent past we've presented visiting composers such as John Luther Adams, Iva Bittova, Frederic Rzewski, Peter Garland, Harold Budd, Rachel Grimes, Olivia Block, Annea Lockwood, Pauline Oliveros, Lubomyr Melnyk, Michael Pisaro, Carl Stone, and Matana Roberts. Also: pianist Stephen Drury playing Rzewski and Feldman; violinist Karen Bentley-Pollack playing newly commissioned works for solo violin and electronics; pianist Ruth Serrão playing contemporary Brazilian composers; pianist Ana Cervantes playing contemporary Mexican composers... And that's just the stuff that could be considered "contemporary classical."

Since 2007, Nonsequitur has also sponsored the Wayward Music Series at the Good Shepherd Center Chapel in Wallingford (http://www.waywardmusic.blogspot.com/). The series runs ten nights per month - that's well over 100 concerts per year! - and specializes in contemporary classical, electronic and electro-acoustic, improvisation, new opera, out jazz, etc., presented by a number of organizations including Nonsequitur, Washington Composers Forum, Seattle Chamber Players, DoubleSharp, UW, Earshot, Seattle Improvised Music, Seattle Composers Salon, Jack Straw Productions, Monktail Creative Music Concern, as well as by many individual artists and ensembles: Seattle Experimental Opera, the Fisher Ensemble, Seattle Percussion Collective, Gamelan Pacifica, Affinity Chamber Players, Splash!, WA Composers Orchestra, and many more (including the SMO next year).

Aside from the Wayward series, many other classical concerts take place at the Chapel, often featuring work by living composers. And beyond the Chapel, contemporary music is being presented throughout the year by folks like Music of Remembrance, Gallery 1412, UW's Music and DX ARTS programs, Cornish, Jack Straw, On the Boards, Decibel, and a host of other artists organizing their own concerts in small venues and churches around town. There are plenty of brave, talented, and committed musicians (including members of the SSO) presenting challenging, adventurous music for little or no compensation, and more often at their own expense. They may not have the "prestige" or the financial backing of the more mainstream arts institutions, but neither must they grovel and justify themselves and/or apologize to their patrons for playing music written after the 19th century.

Far from being "timid" or lacking in "perspective," the Seattle contemporary music scene is surprisingly busy, diverse, and persistent in the face of almost total neglect by the local arts press. It is discouraging, though not surprising, that the Times (and what's left of the P-I) and KUOW rarely look beyond Benaroya and McCaw Halls. The two glossy monthly mags are likewise clueless, and City Arts is basically a pop culture rag. Gavin Borchert, a composer himself, does what he can at the Weekly, but is severely limited in column space and editorial support. When composer Chris DeLaurenti stopped writing for the Stranger earlier this year to focus on his own music, we lost the only consistent (weekly), informed voice for new music in the local press, and even that was limited by too few column inches and way too many events for one person to cover. That leaves us with the online alternative press, which has so far been equally disappointing.

So my question for you is: Where have you been? Your previous reviews mainly focus on the symphony, opera, early music, and other more mainstream fare (the only notable exception being the Icebreaker series put on by the Seattle Chamber Players). Nothing wrong with that, but it hardly puts you in a position to cast yourself as a champion of the avant garde, let alone to scold the music scene for not being adventurous enough. Reviewing the SMO at Cornish is all well and good, but I would encourage you to please cast your net a bit wider, and look beyond the obvious. This music comes in many flavors, and happens in many places. We are all doing our part to keep it alive. It would be great (and helpful) to have more people like you paying attention to it on a regular basis.

Sincerely,

Steve Peters, living composer/Director of Nonsequitur

nonseq

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