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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