“New Expressions” Showcases Seattle Symphony Composers

Seattle audiences are most familiar with the musicians of the Seattle Symphony as a collective, coming together to perform beloved works the Benaroya Hall stage. On April 26, symphony fans got a chance to see their favorite local performers in a different light, as accomplished composers exploring a wealth of different musical styles and modes of expression.

Seattle Symphony musicians perform Ben Hausmann’s Oboe Quartet No. 2 (Photo: Seattle Symphony)

Seattle Symphony musicians perform Ben Hausmann’s Oboe Quartet No. 2 (Photo: Seattle Symphony)

The concert, dubbed “New Expressions”, turned the spotlight over to individual musicians, showcasing three new compositions by members of the orchestra alongside striking works by composers Chinary Ung and Anna Clyne. This concert of world premieres was part of the symphony’s “Untitled” series, meant to draw new, youthful audiences to Benaroya Hall. Held in the sumptuous Grand Lobby, “Untitled” events create a casual setting for adventurous programs of 20th century and contemporary works.

Seth Krimsky’s Love Song combines an unusual palette of sounds, blending the rich coffee-like tones of the bassoon with sensual strings and echoing chimes. Beginning with solemn notes from two sets of long metal chimes, the principal bassoonist’s composition features a winding melodic line that curls upward like a wisp of smoke.

First appearing in the dark timbre of Krimsky’s bassoon, the melody eventually made its way to violinist Emma McGrath, whose vibrant sound added a brightness to the line. Cellist Meeka Quan DiLorenzo rounded out the trio, her rich cello tones weaving in and out between the violin and bassoon.

Principal double bassist Jordan Anderson’s Traction offers a peek into the sound world of the largest member of the string family. Broad brushstrokes from Anderson’s bow gave way to soaring glissandos and plucky pizzicatos. The short, improvisatory piece often veers into jazzy territory during brief melodic sections.

A tribute to the classical string quartet tradition, principal oboist Ben Hausmann’s Oboe Quartet No. 2 evokes the style of works by Mozart and Haydn, with just a slight touch of Romanticism. Violinst Mikhail Shmidt, violist Mara Gearman, and cellist Rajan Krishnaswami joined Hausmann onstage for the premiere performance of his well-crafted work, which felt slightly out of place amongst the evening’s modern sounds.

Hausmann’s work explores a wide spectrum of expression, often jumping between different musical moods over the course of a single movement. With Shmidt in the lead role, the lyrical melodies of the second movement, dubbed “Two Lonely Notes,” flowed smoothly into a lively, dancing scherzo in the third and final movement, “A Pair of Happy Notes.”

A spellbinding feat of musical finesse, Chinary Ung’s Grand Alap succeeds in making a cello and percussion duet sound like an entire ensemble of musicians. Composed in 1996, the work evokes the musical traditions of Northern India and Ung’s native Cambodia, interspersing instrumental noise with chanting, humming, and occasional shouts. With several previous performances of the work under their belts, cellist Walter Gray and percussionist Rob Tucker gave a razor-sharp performance, deftly maneuvering through the challenges in timing and coordination that the piece requires.

From my perch on the balcony above the stage, I had a perfect bird’s eye view of the action as Tucker presided over a massive collection of percussion instruments, including a vibraphone, marimba, kettledrum, cymbals of all shapes and sizes, and a family of gongs. Meanwhile, Gray explored the full range of his cello, sliding his bow over different parts of the instrument to yield a full spectrum of timbres and even bowing the strings with a chopstick. Under soaring cello melodies, somber drumbeats and cymbal crashes melded with duo’s vocalizations, weaving a sonic tapestry laden with ceremonial and ritual meaning.

Written for string quartet, young composer Anna Clyne’s Roulette folds in an ethereal mix of electronic sounds, adding an invisible fifth member to the ensemble. Outfitted with headphones, the four musicians of the quartet — led by principal second violinist Elisa Barston — moved through a series of layered harmonies and melodies, blending with Clyne’s haunting soundtrack.

The recorded noises — ghostly chanting, booming echoes, and the occasional sound of a female voice gasping — seemed to follow the quartet through the score. Though the piece can be played without the recorded sounds, the noises added an element of unsettling beauty to the performance. Currently composer in residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the 33-year-old Clyne is one to watch.

A pre-concert performance of John Luther Adams’ songbirdsongs kicked off the evening’s events. Positioned around the lobby’s circular balcony, a trio of flutists and piccoloists serenaded the audience with a chorus of tweets and chirps while two percussionists on the lobby floor used cymbals, marimba, and bamboo wind chimes to evoke the sounds of the wind, rain, and rustling trees. The natural world is a common theme for Adams, who draws inspiration from the wilderness that surrounds his Alaskan home. The performance was a fitting preview for Become Ocean, a new work by Adams that will be premiered by the Seattle Symphony in June.

Originally posted on The SunBreak on April 30, 2013.

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