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.

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

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.

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.

What was especially remarkable here was the illusion of in-the-moment improvisation the musicians maintained. Much of modern music is associated with “cerebral” organization, to the point that this factor by itself can intimidate audiences who otherwise have no problems with the inherent complexity, say, of J.S. Bach. To be sure, Messiaen’s compositional design employs a complex mathematical rhythmic system, but the performance brought out the ecstatic, visionary state this music ultimately expresses. Similarly, I was struck by the romantic warmth and individuality of expression in the extended solos for van Sant and, in particular, the vibrato-heavy playing of Williams and Rynes.

All of this made for fascinating comparison/contrast with the concert’s other piece, Andriessen’s Hoketus. Here we also find another example of the paradox of strict organization that ends up sounding wildly free and on the wing. But Hoketus transcends ordinary time by gradually transforming inhuman, mechanistic patterns of repetition into their opposite. The title refers to the technique of “hocketing” developed by pre-Renaissance composers: i.e., a sort of musical “hiccup” (the words are related) which splays a melody across different voices, each of which rests while others take up the thread.

Andriessen comes from a family of acclaimed composers. Turned on to American jazz as a teenager, he defied the doctrinaire aspects of the European avant-garde by tweaking the verboten techniques of minimalism. His sound filters his unique take on minimalism with influences from Stravinsky, bebop, electronics, and hard rock. The first version of Hoketus dates from the mid-1970s, when Andriessen was replacing the traditional symphonic ensemble with eclectic, amplified performance collectives. He even founded an ensemble based on the scoring for Hoketus: pairs of pan-flutes, pianos, amplified keyboards, bass guitars, and congas; there are also parts for alto sax, though SMO left these out.

Tai conducted the paired quintets (whose players I couldn’t find listed in the program). Together they squeezed out a maximal sense of tension and release at each turning point in the piece, where the material traded between the groups is suddenly altered. Andriessen marries the looping patterns of Steve Reich with brutally non-tonal blocks of sound, all corralled into a massive, antiphonal tennis match between the two groups. Hoketus is also a work of sonic illusion, and the effect of the “unified” jam that emerges by the end became pure, raucous joy.

SMO brings a much-needed perspective to Seattle’s musical life. Their next concert, also being presented by Cornish, will explore the world of the string orchestra, with works by Claude Vivier, Iannis Xenakis, and John Adams.


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