Captivating, Immersive Become Desert from John Luther Adams

United StatesUnited States Adams, Beethoven: Jeremy Denk (piano), Seattle Symphony Orchestra and Women of the Seattle Symphony Chorale / Ludovic Morlot (conductor), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 31.3.2018. (ZC)

John Luther AdamsBecome Desert (2017, world premiere)

Beethoven – Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat major Op.73

World premiere mania swept over the Seattle this week. A series of concerts by the Seattle Symphony featured Become Desert, a new piece by John Luther Adams. The piece completes a trilogy of nature-focused works by Adams, which began with Become River and Become Ocean.

Commissioned by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Become River premiered in 2010, and is an 18-minute meditation for chamber orchestra of melodic streams and ideas. Become Ocean, for full orchestra, was commissioned by the Seattle Symphony and premiered in 2013. The second work of the trilogy is from the same meditative mold but unfolds on a different scale. Unlike Become River, which is a confluence of meandering streams, Become Ocean is vast. The components swell and recede, conveying both the tumult and calm of the seas. This work ushered in a poignant 2014 for Adams, the Seattle Symphony, and conductor Ludovic Morlot, as the composer would win both the Pulitzer Prize for Music and the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition, and the Seattle Symphony would take the piece to New York as part of the final Spring For Music Festival.

Become Desert follows Adams’ familiar musical formula. Simple ideas emerge from almost nothingness, evocative lines are layered creating small, subtle, almost imperceptible transitions. Structured as a palindrome, the work begins quietly, builds to a climax, and then fades away as quietly as it began. Adams’ recent works don’t become anything, they just are, and Become Desert is no exception. The work reminded me of gazing out over a broad, stark landscape—both beautiful and seemingly still. Even in the most peaceful sequences, the image is in constant flux, altering the experience over time, which is at the essence. Rather than describing a moment, Become Desert is an impression elongated through time.

Unlike its predecessors, the sequel relies critically on the physical space of its performance venue. In addition to the main orchestra on the stage, three small ensembles were positioned around Benaroya Hall. At times, the placement created an enveloping effect, immersing listeners. Music radiated from balconies on opposite sides of the hall, while an ethereal choir of voices soared out and down from the third tier balcony behind.

As a listening experience, Become Desert is beautiful and at times captivating. I watched as many people settled deeper into their chairs, absorbing the shimmering sounds filling the hall, at times completely losing themselves.

In the first half, pianist Jeremy Denk, this season’s featured artist, held sway with Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Piano Concerto. Denk is one of classical music’s most philosophic performers, in the same tradition of the Richard Goode, and the late Charles Rosen and Alexis Weissenberg. His performances are musical essays that hold together because every note and every phrase are exhaustively considered and re-considered. Few pianists can reflect, analyze and perform at Denk’s depth. This approach can sometimes frustrate listeners because his sound in standard repertoire doesn’t always fit neatly in an idiomatic box, but even then, the results are always illuminating and revelatory.

Denk was stormy and rollicking in the outer movements, while he wove tenderness through the slow one. Both soloist and orchestra embraced their antagonistic roles for a take on Beethoven’s most popular piano concerto that was simultaneously thoughtful and precise.

Zach Carstensen

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