Benaroya Hall, November 18
Opening promisingly with a wild cascade of palm-slapped piano, Theodore Shapiro's Avenues for piano (played by the iconoclastic Awadagin Pratt) and orchestra (under guest conductor Andreas Delfs) made an exhilarating impression at its Seattle Symphony premiere. The piece is all about contrasts: wide swings of tempo, volume, and harmony that represent the clash between Shapiro's present-dayManhattan life and his idyllic childhood. This narrative material would lay plenty of traps for a composer less intent on avoiding clich鬠but in Avenues Shapiro intelligently and wittily defies expectations at every musical turn. One simple example is his use of a siren in the score. An easy call for a piece about urban life, right? But Shapiro places the familiar whine into the most raucous moments and also incorporates it into the serene ones. The primary "childhood" theme in Avenues is a slow parlor tune heard first from a piano played offstage. Later this theme gets a Rhapsody in Blue-ish, "big tune" orchestral treatment, during which Shapiro sets the siren off in the background—not to deflate the possible sentimentality of the moment but to enhance its beauty through sheer unexpectedness.
How Shapiro managed to infuse his timbral gestures with such freshness, I don't know. I was sure I'd never need to hear the bowed vibraphone again, that echt-'70s sonic icon and new music's analog to the smile button. Yet its ethereal tone was genuinely startling in this instance—threads of sound that glistened against the offstage piano. Shapiro kept the percussion section, which included iron pipes and a trap set, busy tossing up lots of jazzy noise. Pratt played with grace and exuberance, achieving a much more colorful than aggressive result. (Here's another aspect of contrast in Avenues: Shapiro's thoughtful, even refined, sense of precisely when and how to be brash.) Pratt's fans might have wanted to hear him given more to do, but it's entirely to the pianist's credit that he commissioned a piece for himself and orchestra without insisting that it be the Awadagin Pratt Show. The piece had nothing show-offy or self-conscious about it, but Shapiro's powerful imagination revealed itself in each phrase. It engaged the ear without pandering; everything was a surprise, yet nothing sounded arbitrary. If America's new music P.R. network ran as efficiently as Britain's, the 28-year-old Shapiro would achieve the level of acclaim that he clearly deserves. This was the most satisfying and exciting Seattle Symphony premiere in recent memory.
Northwest Chamber Orchestra
Benaroya Hall, November 20
Benaroya Hall, November 19
Later the same weekend, the Northwest Chamber Orchestra offered a neatly played program of string pieces from or referring to the 18th century: Vivaldi's Concerto in D minor; Grieg's Holberg Suite and Britten's Simple Symphony, both borrowing dance rhythms; Stravinsky's ballet Apollon musagete, the musical equivalent of rococo lacework; and Hindemith's Trauermusik, a somber memorial in the tradition of the baroque tombeau. Most remarkable was the difference in timbre between the NWCO's strings and the much drier sound of Orchestra Seattle, which played Elgar, Haydn, Stravinsky, and Zeitler in the same hall the night before. This difference probably stems from the conductors' priorities. George Shangrow relished bringing out details—turning to caress a pizzicato out of his cellos, for example—and the dryness helped clarify everything. Stern, despite his name, likes a juicier tone; he realized the suspension-laden slow movement of the Vivaldi concerto as a gently shifting wall of sound rather than as the clashing and diverging of individual instruments' lines. While Stern pays attention to detail, you have to sit up and listen close. Many of the finer moments in the Grieg and Britten whizzed by at his chosen tempos—in fact, if your ear blinked, so to speak, you missed them altogether.
Seattle Pro Musica
First Lutheran Church of West Seattle, November 21
ArtsWest presents not only concerts but theater, art shows, and educational programs in West Seattle. This eclecticism extends into individual concerts; their recital season opened with three choral works, two song cycles, and a horn solo (a tart little Concertino by Jan Koetsier, bracingly played by Kathleen Vaught Farner and pianist Richard Farner). The 24-voice Seattle Pro Musica, led by Karen P. Thomas, is a gem of a local choir. They effortlessly delivered Britten's Hymn to St. Cecilia, three madrigals by Morten Lauridsen, and four clever settings by Thomas herself of Lewis Carroll poems, all with a wonderful, light texture. The newest work on the program was a truly dreadful cycle by Dominic Argento. Miss Manners on Music (the notion of an advice-column song cycle is problematic to begin with) sets excerpts from Judith Martin's etiquette column for mezzo-soprano (though it was here sung by tenor Stuart Lutzenhiser) and piano (ArtsWest music director Jane Harty). Argento fell into the trap so many composers have in setting prose to music: They end up with a meandering and arbitrary vocal line. I guess his intent was to favor Martin's crisp text by letting the melody flow aimlessly alongside, but the music's numbing randomness did just the opposite, making focusing on the words just plain impossible.