Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Concert Review: Seattle Symphony plays Britten, Knussen, and Bedford; 11/17/11

This is the first of a couple of blog postings that are late being posted, due to my being busy over the Thanksgiving weekend...

Guest conductor (and composer) Oliver Knussen conducted this concert of 20th- and 21st-century British works.

First on the concert was the seldom-heard “Canadian Overture” by Benjamin Britten. This was a delightful, light opening piece, beginning and ending with a “special effect” of fragments of a melody over waves of suspended cymbals. It contained an off-kilter waltz and a racous semi-fugue on “Alouette”. Said Oliver Knussen during a post-concert talk, “Nobody evey does this piece, and I don’t know why… I like to call it ‘El Salon Montreal’”, obviously referring to Copland’s piece about Mexico (not an exact quote).

The orchestra shifted into artistic high gear with Knussen’s own violin concerto. The violinist Leila Josefowicz walked out on stage, looking rather glamorous; she proceeded to play the transparently textured modernist work with verve and emoting reminiscent more of a rock guitarist than classical violinist. It did not distract from the work. The piece itself began with a bell tone (tubular bells) that seemed to dissolve into the violin’s opening harmonics; from there, melodic materials were passed around and variously developed (or not); finally coalescing into a beautifully melodic slow movement and a gigue that retained its dance-like elements despite its atonality. All in all the orchestration and general “sound” of the piece reminded me of “post-Debussyism” as it has been developed by Asian composers (Toru Takemitsu, Isang Yun, even Tan Dun) more than other contemporary European composers – this was due to the ethereal, reverberant textures, bell-tones, sometimes startling use of the harp, and shimmering chords in the strings that seemed to be neither dissonant nor quite harmonious.

The bell-tones and shimmering strings were, however, a feature of this concert – and according to the pre-concert talk, represent a trend in 20th and 21st-century British classical music. Certainly they were there in the two Benjamin Britten pieces, and echoed in the other, more recent, works. (I had actually first noticed Britten’s use of strings on a recording of an “epic” ballet with the unfortunate title “The Prince of the Pagodas”, a little-known but exciting score.) The connections to Asia are probably more obvious to me because I’m more familiar with those particular composers – but in both cases, inspiration has been drawn from Debussy and Ravel.

After the intermission, Knussen presented a short piece by the young British composer Luke Bedford. “Outblaze the Sky” was a meditation on a single chord that grew and expanded (through portamenti, other string effects, and suggested rhythms) into a brief, brassy, “blazing” climax – and then abruptly ended. It was over far too soon, I thought. “It was one piece that was written for a young composers’ project,” Knussen commented in the after-concert talk, “the pieces were to be about six minutes long, and were to be played by a major orchestra. Most of the pieces were just a lot of notes played by all the instruments all the time and very loudly – a “THIS IS AN ORCHESTRAL PIECE!!!” kind of style. One can look over the written scores and see that most of the pieces are like that, and need more work. On the other hand, those that are really good and really bad, or really original in some way, stand out immediately. This is one that was really good, and original.” (Not exact quotes, again.)

(A little aside comment here, from me as a probably controversial critic: “just a lot of notes played by all the instruments all the time and very loudly” is my usual criticism of orchestral works by Johannes Brahms – thick orchestral mud, I call it – but few seem to share my sentiment there.)

The concert concluded with another Britten piece, the “Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia” from the opera “Peter Grimes”. These are too familiar to warrant much of a discussion here (though I always notice the extraordinary orchestrations, such as the use of tubular bells and trombones together to create what sounds like a new percussion instrument to imitate church bells in the “Sunday Morning” section, or the use of overlapping French horns for the same effect earlier in the same piece). Knussen’s particular version of these pieces was to put the Passacaglia in the middle (rather than at the end), as something of an extended development section. This alleviated the usual complaint about the piece that (being excerpts from a longer work) it doesn’t really come to any satisfying conclusion; though it made the following shorter movements sound rather incomplete and undeveloped. That said, the piece did conclude the concert with a blaze of color. An exciting concert, to say the least.

If the reader thinks this blog seems to be shifting away from its "experimental" roots and going too classical, the next postings should be welcome...

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