Late-Night [untitled] Series Draws New Listeners

United StatesUnited States  New Expressions: Hausmann, Anderson, Ung, Krimsky, and Clyne: Seattle Symphony members and friends, Benaroya Hall Grand Lobby, 26.4.2013 (BJ)

Ben Hausmann: Oboe Quartet No. 2 (world premiere)
Jordan Anderson: Traction, for solo double bass (world premiere)
Chinary Ung: Grand Alap, for cello and percussion
Seth Krimsky: Love Song, for bassoon, violin, cello, and metallic percussion (world premiere)
Anna Clyne: String Quartet, Roulette

Under the impact of initiatives like the [untitled] series introduced by Ludovic Morlot, which on this occasion came up with three world premieres and two other substantial contemporary works, it would be wrong to forget the achievement of his immediate predecessor. In his 26-year tenure as music director, Gerard Schwarz established the Seattle Symphony as a leading champion of new music in general, and new American music in particular.

That said, the freshness and creativity of Maestro Morlot’s innovations deserves to be enthusiastically welcomed. The notion of performing modern music late at night (10 p.m.), and not in one of Benaroya Hall’s two formal auditoriums but in the totally informal surroundings of the Samuel & Althea Stroum Grand Lobby, has clearly attracted a substantial number of new listeners. The 26 April audience, including an encouraging number of young people, and disposed variously on chairs, in booths, on an array of colorful cushions, and on the stairs, was obviously having a good time, enjoying a set-up nothing like the almost hierarchical separation between players and public in an actual concert hall.

The evening’s three premieres were all of works by orchestra members. The sonorities of principal oboe Ben Hausmann’s Oboe Quartet No. 2 occupied an attractive mid-ground between harmonic and polyphonic writing. His instrument, rather than dictating the course of the work, was deployed rather to inject a subtle additional color into the ensemble. At one point, some chugging chords threatened banality, but the danger was averted with a quick resumption of real musical invention.

Principal bass Jordan Anderson offered Traction, a subtly allusive piece, mysterious in manner and highly effective in its quiet and understated virtuosity. It amounts to a sort of Succeeding, in contrast to Failing, the hilarious piece by Tom Johnson that has the bass-player lamenting the fact that he is doing just that. The most straightforwardly romantic of the three new works was principal bassoon Seth Krimsky’s Love Song, scored, along with his instrument, for violin and cello, and incorporating a few tubular-bell effects produced by the players themselves. Its easeful euphony clearly made a strong impact on the audience.

The three debutant pieces were bravely interspersed with works by two distinguished composers who are not part of the Seattle Symphony family, and good as those works were, the home team was by no means disgraced in the comparison.

Cambodian-born Chinary Ung’s superb orchestral work Inner Voices won him one of music’s biggest honors, the Grawemeyer Award, in 1989. His contribution to this program, Grand Alap, is a wonderfully evocative setting of the cello against the background—one might say in the embrace—of warmly resonant sonorities on the tuned percussion.

Anna Clyne’s String Quartet Roulette revealed her as (to reverse the familiar phrase) a sort of sheep in wolf’s clothing. Rather like the great Iannis Xenakis, whose use of mathematical and scientific formulas never concealed the beating of a richly romantic heart, she succeeds in drawing from devices of what I like to call the “avant-derrière-garde” a romanticism of her own that reached, in this piece, a climax of true grandeur.

The three premiering composers were joined and supported by several of their Seattle Symphony colleagues—violinists Mikhail Shmidt, Emma McGrath, and Elisa Barston, violist Mara Gearman, and cellists Walter Gray and Meeka Quan DiLorenzo—as well as by guests Rajan Krishnaswami on cello and Rob Tucker on percussion. Their performances, without exception, were totally committed and often remarkably beautiful.

In the context, it hardly matters that, to my taste, the musical and poetic offerings of the even more informal pre-concert program—compositions by John Luther Adams and poems by John Haines—were not so much boldly contemporary as almost laughably New-Age-y. In both phases of the evening, presentation steered a skillful course between free flow and informative management, and it was good to see so numerous, and so diverse, a crowd having serious fun with the music of our time.


Bernard Jacobson

A shorter version of this review appeared in the Seattle Times.