Julia Tai: Getting up to date, the Seattle Modern Orchestra way

The conductor and co-artistic director, whose profile is rising, talks about the inspiration for the new group that presented its first concert last fall.

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

The conductor and co-artistic director, whose profile is rising, talks about the inspiration for the new group that presented its first concert last fall.

Just as with painting or fiction, a lot of the enjoyment of listening to the standard classical music repertory comes from sensing the conversation that goes on within a tradition: Brahms responding to and trying to outdo Beethoven, who for his part competes with the legacy of Haydn and Mozart , etc. And the same applies to getting to enjoy the mind-boggling diversity of styles found in modernist and contemporary classical music. With its first concert this past fall, Seattle Modern Orchestra (SMO) launched its mission to demystify the image of “modern music” for local audiences. This Friday (May 13) SMO performs its third and final concert of the season at Meany Hall with a focus on 20th-century concertos.

SMO’s co-artistic director and conductor Julia Tai points out that the pieces they perform require no academic background or special knowledge on the part of listeners. She and fellow artistic director and composer Jeremy Jolley don’t merely conduct the program in the traditionally aloof concert format: They turn it into a forum that includes discussions of the works to be played. “We talk about how and why the music was composed, how it was put together, as part of a dialogue with the audience.”

Tai, 30, is increasingly in demand and was recently appointed music director of Philharmonia Northwest (her tenure there begins this fall). She recalls being inspired to found SMO while she was a graduate student in conducting at the University of Washington: “I conducted a contemporary-music ensemble at the UW in classic modernist pieces that we had studied as part of music history. Suddenly it was so thrilling to be able to bring these to life.” Tai and Jolley, also a graduate of UW Music School, together decided to establish a flexible local chamber ensemble on the model of the Paris-based ensemble intercontemporain.

The actual ensemble can vary considerably from concert to concert depending on the scoring for each piece, but SMO draws on a core of local players who are an active part of Seattle’s new-music scene. For performance venues, SMO has developed partnerships with Cornish College of the Arts and UW, giving concerts alternately in Poncho Hall on Capitol Hill and Meany Hall.

SMO’s season finale promises a characteristically thought-provoking program that brings together four modern composers and their utterly distinctive approaches to the concerto format. Hardly any genre has become more hackneyed in today’s marketing of conventional classical music than the concerto: Symphony orchestra concerts are often advertised on the basis of the celebrity draw of pianist X or violinist Y who appears in “Z’s Piano/Violin Concerto” (while whatever else is on the program is simply ignored).

“I think people are fascinated by virtuoso players and individual performers,” ventures Tai, “as a part of human nature. The character of the individual artist becomes part of the musical experience.” Many a 19th-century composer grappled with the solo concerto’s identity crisis, trying to craft a balance between crowd-pleasing virtuoso stunts and musical substance. But the works featured on SMO’s program question the very model of the solo concerto.

The music of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho plays with the texture and weight of sounds, often producing hauntingly beautiful mirages that incorporate electronic sources or “extensions” into a subtle blend with acoustic instruments, as in her piece NoaNoa, which juxtaposes flute and electronics. On the surface, Giacinto Scelsi’s Anahit veers more closely toward the traditional idea of a violin concerto, Tai explains, and even includes a solo cadenza, but his use of microtones creates an unusual relationship with the orchestra.

The identities of instruments themselves come into question in Luciano Berio’s Circles, in which the soprano soloist is so tightly integrated with the ensemble of harp and percussion that she is made to imitate their sounds. The program will end with György Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto: the only work, Tai points out, to use the word “concerto” in its title. “But it’s for 13 instruments, not any one of which is the soloist.”

Tai notes that much of what SMO is performing includes repertory that’s considered classic in the world of contemporary music (in fact, of the four composers on the finale concert, only Saariaho is still living). Her hope is that these sorts of programs will help lay the groundwork for local music lovers to get to know composers who are major players in the development of contemporary music but who do not appear as part of a regular diet of offerings by Seattle's established institutions.

“We’re playing masterpieces of today in a way that’s a bit different from the formal concert experience," she says. :By offering a dialogue with the audience, we hope to continue building it up.”

If you go: The Seattle Modern Orchestra performs at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, May 13, at Meany Theater on the University of Washington campus, 206-543-4880. Tickets: $10-15.


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