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.

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