The Amazing Seattle Symphony

In the last few weeks, our Grammy award-winning Seattle Symphony has outdone itself performing difficult contemporary music and presenting FOUR world premieres!

The Chamber Music concert featured Tessa Lark in a preconcert (they always have a free recital before the main concert.) Lark is a violinist, but she played fiddle inspired violin music. Her humorous dialog explained the intersections of the blue grass music of Appalachia with classical music. She also played pieces of her own and an impossibly difficult contemporary work by John Corigiano. Then in the main concert the highlight was Leoš Janáček String Quartet No. 1 “Kreutzer Sonata” led by Grammy award nominated violin player (and artistic director of the Seattle Chamber Music Festivals) James Ehnes. This intense piece of music featured crashing conflicts played by the two violins, cello and viola, inspired by a Tolstoy novella about infidelity sparked by a violinist falling in love with a pianist while performing Beethoven’s Kreutzer Violin Sonata. That was thrilling!

We were so fortunate to go to “Celebrate Asia,” friends gave us their fabulous center of the orchestra tickets. It included a stunning succession of Asia related and/or composed pieces including a world premiere by Chia-Ying Lin, a 28 year old Chinese composer who won a competition for young composers sponsored by the Seattle Symphony. The highly experimental work Ascolsia, featured instruments and musical tones inspired by folk music of Taiwan. Shiyeon Sung, a South Korean born conductor, dynamically led the orchestra. A brilliant piano player, Seong-Jin Cho, also originally from Korea, played Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. It was stupendous. Katherine Kim then sang a wildly contemporary song cycle by Unsuk Chin, also Korean, based on Alice in Wonderland. Then the undauntable Symphony gave us Pubbanimitta for Orchestra by Thailand’s most famous composer, Narong Prangcharoen. Wow!

But there is even more. Later that week we heard another amazing pianist, Jonathan Biss, who had commissioned contemporary composers to create works inspired by Beethoven concertos. First he played Beethoven’s third concerto and then a SECOND concerto, the World Premiere by Caroline Shaw, inspired by the Beethoven, but totally avant-garde of course.

And last, and maybe the most thrilling of all, was the Silkroad Ensemble with Kinan Azmeh, a Syrian clarinetist, originally from Damascus. It was a truly international concert, inspired by “Beyond Borders,” a Seattle Symphony concert two years ago reacting to that original dreadful travel ban (Azmeh performed then also, barely able to get back in the country). Sandeep Das, from South Asia, gave us staggering drumming, and the world-renowned Chinese composer Wu Man performed several solos on the Pipa, a stringed instrument like a lute. Expanding our geography further, we heard the dynamic Venezuelan Christina Pato on Galician bagpipes, playing a fast moving “Latina 6/8 Suite” that included brilliant musicians from the symphony performing solos on the bass, viola, cello, and violin.

Again, the Seattle Symphony had commissioned premieres, one by the award winning Chinese composer Chen Yi (she had been composer in residence at Seattle Symphony in 2002–03). Then Kinan Azmeh transported us as he played his own new work, a clarinet concerto with the Symphony. As he played, I felt the deep tragedy of Syria in his music, in his life.

We are incredibly fortunate to have this amazing Symphony and its commitment to contemporary music. They are even launching a new venue Octave Nine, at Second and Union, which will feature an acoustic system that uses 42 speakers and 30 microphones, modular surround screens and movable panels that will immerse the audience.

March 3 features an open house, followed by another on Thu, March 7. The Family Open House is Sat, March 9, and on March 23–24, there will be a 24-hour marathon featuring what is described as “multidisciplinary new music”! Incredible. Try to get to part of it. It will expand your idea of music and your life.

~Susan Platt

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