Seattle Symphony Premieres John Luther Adams’ “Become Ocean”

John Luther Adams (Photo Evan Hurd)

John Luther Adams (Photo: Evan Hurd)

An eager sense of anticipation filled Benaroya Hall on June 20 as audience members gathered to hear the world premiere performance of John Luther Adams’ newest work for orchestra, Become Ocean. The crowd was buzzing with questions. How exactly would Adams’ work channel the majestic waterways of the Pacific Northwest? Would Become Ocean follow the pattern of Adams’ other works, which immerse listeners in evocative soundscapes? Most importantly, what would the music sound like?

Adams is one of contemporary music’s most idiosyncratic composers. Born in 1953 in Mississippi, a passion for the natural world and wild spaces brought Adams to Alaska as a young man, where he set up shop in a remote cabin in the forest. Since then, he has called Alaska home (though he’s since traded his isolated cabin for the more urban surroundings of Fairbanks). Life amidst the Alaskan wilderness has inspired and informed Adams’ unique compositional style, which seeks to musically re-create the experience of being in nature.

Violinist Sergey Khachatryan (Photo: Marco Borggreve)

Violinist Sergey Khachatryan (Photo: Marco Borggreve)

In April, the Seattle Symphony hosted a performance of Adams’ songbirdsongs in the Benaroya Hall lobby. The meditative work is representative of Adams’ compositions. Rather than focusing on telling a story with musical elements like melody, harmony, and rhythm, songbirdsongs uses sonic cues to evoke a particular scene and mood. Scored for three piccolos and two sets of percussion instruments, the piece transports the audience into a forest where birds trill melodies and the breeze rustles through the trees. Adams takes the experience of observing bird calls in the forest and distills it down into musical elements, painting a detailed, vivid picture with a descriptive musical language.

At the June 20 concert, Seattle Symphony Music Director Ludovic Morlot touched on this penchant for rich musical description in his introduction to Become Ocean. He encouraged the audience to experience the piece in the way one would observe a natural phenomenon, likening the work to a flock of billowing clouds floating across the sky, slowly changing shape and color.

Morlot also explained how the structure of Become Ocean supported this concept, providing insight into how the piece was composed. The work splits the orchestra into three distinct groups, anchored respectively by woodwinds, brass, and strings. They’re joined by celeste, piano, percussion, and a quartet of harps, which are divided amongst the groups. Morlot brought the groups onto stage one at a time, enabling the audience to see the instrumental makeup of each. During the performance, stage lighting further accentuated this structure, bathing each group in a different color of light.

From the very first downbeat, Become Ocean envelops the audience in a sea of sound. A slow and steady timpani roll and a constant low trill on the piano provide an underlying foundation throughout most of the piece. Guided by Morlot’s steady pulse, the three groups progressed through a series of interlocking melodic and harmonic fragments, blending long tones with arpeggios and tremolos.

Like clouds, the sound is constantly shifting and changing, emphasizing the timbre of one group or another. At several points in the piece, the three streams of sound convene into an enormous swell that sweeps through the auditorium, bathing the audience in sound. Tremors in the strings are joined by long reedy tones on the woodwinds, while a chorus of brass sails above, majestic calls on the higher horns punctuated by mournful foghorn notes on the tuba.

Through its 45 minutes, Become Ocean focuses on developing a meditative mood. Unlike many works in the Western musical tradition, which emphasize the build-up and release of melodic and harmonic tension, Become Ocean creates musical drama by adding and subtracting layers of musical sound. This isn’t music that will sweep you away with soaring melodies or startle you with unexpected harmonies. Instead, Adams’ work drifts along, its ambient, drone-like qualities inspiring meditation and relaxation. I emerged from Adams’ soundscape feeling refreshed and more aware.

Armenian violinist Sergey Khachatryan opened Thursday’s concert with a dazzling performance of Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto. Though he’s only 28 years old, Khachatryan is well on his way to becoming an internationally-renowned Shostakovich expert, having already released a recording of the composer’s violin concertos with the Orchestre National de France.

The young violinist wowed the Benaroya Hall crowd with an interpretation full of technical fireworks and amped-up drama. Though at times the tension felt a bit overwrought, Khachatryan made up for this with tender moments full of imagery, particularly in the third movement’s haunting cadenza. Morlot and the orchestra provided robust support (particularly the trio of bassoons in the first and second movements), infusing the performance with bursts of energy and momentum.

Originally posted in The SunBreak on June 23, 2013.

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