~ Music Diary ~

Berio & Boulez: "Untitled" at Benaroya

The Seattle Symphony does too few concerts each year of the series called "[untitled]": only three, which (in addition to shows by the Seattle Modern Orchestra) are essential for locals wanting to hear more recent music performed live. Tonight's was the second [untitled] for this season, but the last for conductor Ludovic Morlot, who had a hand in creating the series in the first place. Come June his tenure at the SSO will come to an end and I won't be alone in missing him. A good number of symphony musicians were present just to witness tonight's show, and impressive it was — also challenging for both musicians and audience, at the extremes of expression and difficulty, though the playing (and conducting in the case of the Boulez) made it all absorbing.

The first half was a performance of Luciano Berio's "Circles", a setting of poems by E. E. Cummings for soprano (sung by Maria Männistö), harp and percussion — just look at the picture! But despite the number of instruments, the music was often spare: stretching out, or bubbling up, or erupting, from an empty background.

The second half was devoted to the epic "Sur incises" by Pierre Boulez for three pianos, three harps and all kinds of tuned and non-tuned percussion including steel drums (the picture below is missing the third harp, which would soon be wheeled over from the Berio setup). I didn't find this music as similar to the Berio as I might have expected given the overlaps in instrumentation. Boulez's music combined the sounds of those instruments, creating sonorities that were often dense and sometimes unfamiliar as the musical energy moved forward over 45 minutes of constant change. Part of the fascination here was watching Morlot shape the flow, at times signing numbers to the musicians for a purpose that must have had something to do with how the score worked. I don't think listening to a recording of this difficult music would be as enjoyable as seeing it recreated in person.

Fatoumata Diawara at the Neptune

On this night I went with a bunch of friends to see Fatoumata Diawara play and sing with her band at Seattle's Neptune Theater. It was a good time. Diawara has a great voice, but I also liked it when she played the guitar as well, with her sort of free, warm style. I've listened to Diawara's albums quite a lot in the past, so it was great to see her in person.

Filippo Gorini - Recital at Meany

The young Italian pianist Filippo Gorini played at Meany Center. Beforehand I felt draggy about even going despite having a ticket, because these days I am feeling especially down on the classical world playing the same music in tuxes, and though the program was challenging and deeply interesting music (Beethoven's last two sonatas with Bartok's sonata and a Stockhausen piece in between), I've heard much of it played live in recent years. But I forgot all that while this guy played. It was fantastic.

Once again I was struck by how the same piano in the same hall can sound markedly different. Gorini's technique puts his hands in contact with the piano most of the time, holding a dynamic middle ground that allows for color and contrast, never banging without a purpose. It's the interpretive side that most impressed, however, and it comes down to emotional honesty. Gorini's playing made me think about how musicians approach music that is painful — or avoid the subject altogether. There were numerous examples in this program. I'm thinking especially of the slow middle movement of the Bartok sonata and of the first movement of Beethoven's sonata no. 32.

In most hands the Bartok slow movement comes off as stark and abstract, like an overlong study of the color brown that we must endure between the exciting outer movements. But Gorini had it play out like states of mind: ruminating, feeling pensive, or trapped, or deeply sad, sometimes gnashing or in one case floating. Not only was it absorbing but it felt exactly right, like I was finally hearing what Bartok was up to here.

I had a similar feeling in the Beethoven. His last sonata starts in a very dark place, and it's almost as if the musician can't pull it off without going there, too. Gorini certainly did. It was the same notes, but not the same canned pathos that's so often served as a replacement for real feeling — instead this actually hurt, and again it felt right. And where the music swung to opposite emotional extremes it was just as right. There's a section in the Beethoven finale that's famous for being 'jazzy' because it's syncopated, but it usually sounds awkward to me, as if the overall rhythm becomes distended (because it does). In this performance it was faster, flying up and down the keyboard, a burst of frantic excitement. Late Beethoven has sometimes been accused of being the product of a crackpot, and sometimes it even sounds that way, but I'm realizing more and more that it has to do with how emotionally real the musicians are able to get in it. And I don't mean droopy or swoopy or over-serious, I just mean real, and real is sometimes violent, or serenely happy.

SSO does Kullervo

Seeing the Seattle Symphony do Sibelius' "Kullervo" was supposed to be a highlight of the year, but I went home feeling underwhelmed. Admittedly Kullervo is an early work and not perfect, but it has many fun parts — not to mention passages of true inspiration — and moreover it's music I know. But the vibe was off: the hall was only half-full, and those who did attend were, well, mostly in the range from older to ancient (though I did see one poor kid with his collar buttoned all the way up, like grandma had forced him). As if to make up for this, the music-making felt forced at times. The SSO musicians are so good, but tonight anyway they seemed rather expressionless. It made me think of an interview I heard on the Crushing Classical podcast, in which orchestra members were described as "having a case of the fuck-its". And there was something lacking in the presentation: the stage was evenly lit, as if for a rehearsal... which is how they normally do it, but tonight it seemed like this music needed a bit of dash visually — a media collaboration maybe, or at least more dramatic lighting. As it was, there was little effort made to impart the story. I suppose we were to simply read our programs while they played? No thank you. They did try something unusual in the beginning however: a mashup of Finnish folk tunes with snippets from Kullervo, to show the similarities. This was sort of illuminating, but also sort of awkward, though I did appreciate the effort.

You can see from the picture how many people it took to perform Kullervo (not pictured: two vocal soloists). Putting this on was no small deal, and it's one of the bigger events of the whole SSO season. So where were the crowds? Nights like this make me feel even more that the Seattle Symphony is failing to connect with new audiences, let alone its current ones. Something like this needed stagecraft, and the same-old conservative concert approach is wearing thin.

Kurt Elling at the Triple Door

On this day a friend took me to see a jazz singer named Kurt Elling at the Triple Door. The experience made me realize I had never before seen a man sing jazz live, let alone a well-dressed man. I didn't know anything about Kurt Elling, who turned out to be a characterful vocalist. A lot of what he did this time (the early show of two that night) was in the ballad area, but a few of the numbers did range toward the wild. I wouldn't call any of it experimental, but they weren't playing it easy either, and the soloists in the band were all top-notch. Guest trumpeter Marquis Hill came out for at least the last half the set, and he had a satin-smooth virtuoso technique, never shrill even from our seats right up against the stage. And in one song Elling matched the timbre of the vocal line to that of the guitar playing high up its range, a quiet but penetrating effect.

Simon Trpceski plays Rimsky-Korsakov

Good lord this was amazing. After an absorbing first half comprised of the piano version of Grieg's "Holberg Suite" and selections from Mendelssohn's many "Songs Without Words," Trpceski played Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade" in full (as arranged by Paul Gilson). This was one of the most hair-raising piano performances I've ever seen (and that's saying a lot coming from me). Who needs an orchestra? Trpceski replicated so much of the color of Scheherazade that there were only a few spots I noticed it missing, and beyond that he nailed the drama and fun of it all. There were some superhuman passages in the piano arrangement that made me want to say holy fuck out loud. I wish I could get the video of his hands. And through it all the many young people in the audience that day (an entire busload of middle-schoolers, and a larger-than-usual number of kids with their parents) were transfixed, and I could hear some of them exclaiming afterwards.

Herb Alpert & Lani Hall at the Triple Door

A friend asked me, "want to see Herb Alpert?" and I said sure, not realizing he was serious. Herb Alpert and Lani Hall were playing with their band at the Triple Door and he had an extra ticket. The place was filled with enthusiastic old-timers for the most part, though I did notice a few younger folks. Alpert himself is in his eighties but he and his wife and longtime music collaborator Lani Hall are still having fun performing. We all know their old hits and they played a number of them in medleys complete with video montages celebrating their love and career, but they have a lot of other material, because rather than coasting on those hits they have never stopped producing. Alpert won a grammy as recently as 2014 it turns out. They gave the audience the old tunes they wanted, but woven through newer material, jazzy improvisations and songs that Lani wanted to sing. They put on on a fun show. I liked the six-string instrument the bass player used — he could play higher up its range like it was a rythm guitar, filling the roles of two players.

Lani Hall and Herb Alpert

SSO: Sibelius & Britten

This was one of the better Seattle Symphony shows I've ever been to: Ludovic Morlot conducted Sibelius' tone poem "The Oceanides", Britten's "Four Sea Interludes" from Peter Grimes, and, for the second half, Sibelius' second symphony. It's all music I like a lot, and I've heard the SSO play both the Interludes and the second symphony before (with different conductors), but this time they played like wildcats. The program formed part of what they will soon take on tour, and I suspect they liked playing it, but this was a Thursday show and not exactly packed, so while I've come to expect a high level of professionalism from this orchestra I did not expect this level of frenzy. As usual during the applause the conductor pointed out this or that section: the horns, the bassonist, etc., but he really should have had the strings take a bow as well: tonight they cut their parts right out of the air.

Imogen Cooper at Meany

While this night's program by the pianist Imogen Cooper was mostly classics, it was a series of unusual choices that you might say brought out correspondences between them — or rather highlighted the modernity of each. Beethoven, Haydn, and Liszt are all big names but they got that way by pushing boundaries in the substance of the music they wrote, a fact that tends to get smoothed over as we hear the same hit parade. Here however we had the deceptively lovely but out-there late Bagatelles by Beethoven, a late sonata by Haydn that must have influenced Beethoven, Haydn's dutiful, benumbed Variations in F Minor that ultimately break out in a kind of harmonic anguish, a very short but arresting new piece by Julian Anderson played together with Liszt's late expermiental "Bagatelle sans tonalite", and then finally Beethoven's "Eroica Variations". The highlight for me was hearing Cooper's clear and richly colored rendition of Beethoven's Bagatelles at the start, which I had never heard live. There were moments in the program where Cooper seemed close to a memory lapse, but on the other hand can I be sure? She simply kept going, and while I wouldn't say she is a super-virtuoso, she's a real musician and projected a strong image of each piece. On the other hand this was the kind of concert I was glad to go to alone. I woudn't drag a newbie to this show, saying "you'll see, classical music is a blast!" — the audience mostly elderly, the playing dispatched regally but not with a sense of risk. It's too much of the museum, this kind of thing. I love museums, but I want concerts like these to somehow make more connection between historical music and the present. Liner notes aren't enough (plus they make crinkling noises).

The Blasters and Wildcat Rose at the Tractor

I went to the Tractor Tavern to hear The Blasters, but I ended up enjoying the opening band Wildcat Rose more. Both bands roam around Americana, but the songs The Blasters played seemed all the same to me, jammed out from memory one after another (and I started to want to go home and not be standing there), while the local Seattle band Wildcat Rose was more playful.