Pulitzer Prize-winning work by John Luther Adams boosts mixed Seattle Symphony concert
Almost ten years ago, the British magazine The Wire held one of their “Invisible Jukebox” sessions (where a writer plays music for a musician while hiding the recording information, and elicits their response) with the composer Steve Reich. At one key point, Reich remarked that the history of 20th-century music was an argument between Schoenberg and Debussy, and that Debussy had won.
Reich was right—tonality won out over atonality. More, Debussy showed that there were different ideas about form and structure than motivic development and counterpoint, and it is that victory that continues to renew the Western classical tradition.
The Seattle Symphony brought an entire program of these still-new ideas to Carnegie Hall Tuesday, for the second of six nights of Spring for Music. The sizable complement of the symphony’s hometown fans helped make this the most in-demand ticket of the spring, but the real draw was the local premiere of John Luther Adam’s Become Ocean, which received this year’s Pulitzer Prize in music.
Become Ocean belongs to the tradition that Debussy pioneered, and the great French composer was on the program as well, with his symphony-in-all-but-name, La Mer. Two is a trend, three is an argument: rounding out the evening was Varèse’s Déserts, an exploration of how music can be organized around rhythm and timbre. The stated connection through landscape and ecology was window dressing for abstract music about form, structure and time.
Adams, in attendance, was the star of the evening, and Become Ocean is splendidly crafted and affecting. Opening the concert, it has symphonic duration—about forty-five minutes—but unlike a symphony it does only one thing. And that thing is profound.
The consistent formal element in Adams’ music is time: his pieces sit inside large, still windows of time, pushing at the boundaries without ever bothering with a destination. He works with sound, and proportion, and relishes how color and timbre change through sustained duration. These are Debussyian ideas (also found in Sibelius and Morton Feldman), and the sound of Become Ocean inhabits the same world as La Mer.
But the piece begins by sounding like Das Rheingold, with a bass drone, augmented by four harps and a timpani roll that registers more as an impression than a pitch. Other instruments enter, section by section: cellos, woodwinds, violins, brass, and two percussionists on opposite sides of the ensemble start continuous arpeggios that move from marimba to vibraphone to orchestral bells and back again.
Adams subdivides the orchestra into three groups, each with their own pulse and set of patterns, and the music comes out in enormous, overlapping waves. Internally, the arpeggiations and sustained chords are basic compositional elements that come together to make complex structures and produce compelling results.
Though there is a lot of activity, the music is quiet. Most attacks are hidden within the overall orchestral sound, so notes and colors elide smoothly and continuously. Listening to it is like sitting on a bank besides that stream, staring gently at a single stretch of water, watching the surface change endlessly without any sense of passing time.
The large-scale form is assured. A piece that lasts so long built on a single idea, could easily be deadly. But Adams has built the proportions, like Debussy, with exactitude. When it seems like the next crescendo is one too many, each subsequent one brings more weight and moves from trough to crest more rapidly, pushing the gigantic pulses forward until the final diminuendo, which comes at the perfect moment.
The balancing was not ideal—the grand piano directly in front of conductor Ludovic Morlot was never heard in the overall sound—but the effect was powerful: even at low volumes the sonorities were rich and full, and the pace and shape of the dynamics sounded perfect. The essential quality of a performance is how it sounds, and this sounded beautiful.
Frustratingly, the second half fell far short of ideal in concept and execution. Déserts is not just a sound-painting of desolate landscapes, but of barren inner conditions, and an important study in how music can be constructed out of timbre and rhythm. Morlot chose to play the piece without the electronic tape part, and the music doesn’t hold the same logic and meaning without that, no matter how sure and colorful the performance was.
And while the Seattle Symphony is a fine orchestra, they just did not have the sonic weight to fully realize La Mer. As multi-dimensional as they were in Become Ocean, the ensemble sounded surprisingly thin and light while playing the Debussy, the orchestral blend and grand climaxes two-dimensional. Perhaps the cause was nerves: the opening phrases sounded stiff, while in contrast the encore—“Fêtes” from Nocturnes—was relaxed, expressive and totally satisfying.
Spring for Music continues through May 10. The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra performs tonight at 7:30 p.m. springformusic.com.