FOR A HUNDRED years now, the Seattle Symphony has been our pre-eminent classical music performing group. Both in its own right and as the backbone of the Seattle Opera, the symphony has helped dispel the citys reputation as a cultural dustbin and made it an artists mecca. The strength of the symphony is one of the reasons I moved here; its one of the reasons a lot of people move here, or that natives stay. In addition to keeping the warhorses alive, Gerard Schwarz, the SSOs music director since 1985, has always been a noble advocate for new music, offering a premiere or two each season, some novelty-filled spring festivals, and, in honor of the orchestras centennial this year, a special lineup of no less than six commissions.
But its ironic, and disappointing, that this civic institution, otherwise so vital a part of our arts community, isnt celebrating its birthday with more Seattle music. Of the six commissioned composersDaniel Brewbaker, Chen Yi, John Harbison, Samuel Jones, Bright Sheng, and David Stockfive are out-of-towners. The exception, Jones, moved here from Houston in 1997 at the age of 62 to become the SSOs composer in residence. Hes written some powerful works since, but most of his career was spent elsewhere. Ideally, alongside Jones work wed hear music by composers with deeper ties to Seattle.
Schwarz has stayed closemaybe too closeto his New York City roots; like Schwarz, Brewbakers a Juilliard alumnus, and Honorary Composer in Residence David Diamond has taught there for years. Other New York composers whose music Schwarz has recently programmed include Hugh Aitken, Francis Thorne, and Theodore Shapiro. Does any New York orchestra do as much for New York composers as the SSO?
Of course, musics all about collaboration, and composers have always written for their friends. Whats troubling is that Schwarz and the SSO, after 18 seasons together, have not been able to cultivate more such relationships here at home. The one local name Schwarz has championed, onstage and in recordings, is the late Alan Hovhaness, whom the conductor met in 1963, and who settled in the area in the early 1970s. Apart from his work, there have been only two local pieces (one by Diane Thome, one by David Kechley) performed by the SSO recently, both in the Music of Our Time series in Benaroya Recital Hall. Both works featured SSO players as soloists; it was their advocacy, as much as Schwarzs outreach, that got the works programmed.
The SSOs not alone in ignoring local composers on special occasions. One blatant example that still sticks in my craw is the Seattle Choral Company: In 2001, planning to mark Seattles sesquicentennial with a musical setting of Chief Seattles 1854 Treaty Oration (Yonder sky that has wept tears of compassion . . . there is no death, only a change of worlds), they turned to a composer fromyou guessed itNew York City. A local ensemble, a civic anniversary, a significant and powerful piece of Northwest history, and yet someone 3,000 miles away got the job. What made this especially galling is there are plenty of skilled choral composers in town who were overlookeda dozen or two names come quickly to mind.
BY CONTRAST, Seattle Pro Musica, Opus 7, and the Esoterics have each staged all-Seattle concerts recently. The fact that these local choirs program local pieces may even be the reason we have so many talented choral composers in town. This is how a performing ensemble contributes to the richness of a musical culture: Not just by giving audiences something polished to enjoy, but by encouraging its creators, making its community a place that generatesnot just importsnew ideas.
Anthony Spain, conductor of Buriens Northwest Symphony, knows this: He makes a point of playing a Northwest composers work in every concert, by established professionals or by up-and-comers. Other organizations are only concerned with new local work, which makes this city a good place to write music: Polestar Music Gallery, the Seattle Composers Salon, Sound Currents, the Degenerate Art Ensemble, and the Washington Composers Forum (of whichfull disclosureIm an officer. To prevent sticky conflict-of-interest issues, in case you were wondering, Ive hustled my own music around town pretty gingerly, and avoided the SSO entirely). Honorable mentions also go to the Seattle Youth Symphony, Philharmonia Northwest, the Seattle Philharmonic, Orchestra Seattle, and Quake. Even Seattle Opera opened McCaw Hall with a piece by Seattle native William Bolcom, conducted by Schwarz.
But a few groups Ive just about given up on, whatever their other virtues: the Bellevue Philharmonic, say, or the Auburn Symphony. Its oddthey both work so hard to cultivate a high profile within their communities and to pull in classical newbies, but it never seems to occur to them that those communities also include composers or that newbies might be intrigued to learn that orchestral music isnt all about dead Europeans. The woman behind them in line at Wal-Mart just might also have written a pretty decent symphony.
Of course, a lot of American orchestras scarcely bother with new music at all, much less the work composed within their own city. Six commissions is a remarkable achievement; add to that list works by John Adams and Stephen Albert, and contemporary music fans are being well served by the SSO this season. Yet what makes Seattles music scene so exciting is the concentration of talent among both creators and performers. Its a shame they all couldnt have worked together more closely to celebrate the longevity of an ensemble thats played so important a role in our citys cultural history. E
Gavin Borcherts Fall Favorites
When cellist Matt Haimovitz played three Bach suites at the Tractor Tavern in February 2002, it was an insightful choice of venuethe modern recital hall would have been completely alien to Bach, who did all his music making at home, at church, or in coffeehouses. Haimovitz will be back there next week (hes starting a 50-state tour in Seattle) honoring Sept. 11 with a very different program of all- American music from his new CD, Anthem. He had an expressionistic, even experimental, way with Bach, imbuing it with startling color and edgy drama. This styles ideal for the brand-new stuff on his CD, like Tod Machovers thrashing, metal-flavored With Dadaji in Paradise or his own cello re-creation of Hendrixs Star-Spangled Banner. Tractor Tavern, 866-468-7623. Sept. 11.
The English Eccentrics
Town Hall has presented speakers; Town Hall has presented musicians. Town Halls doing both at once this fall on two occasions. First up, a performance of Enoch Arden, Tennysons epic melodrama in verse, for which the young Richard Strauss composed a velvet- upholstered piano accompaniment stuffed with sentiment and silent-movie-score effects. Victorian audiences lapped up this sort of thing, but today the piece is remembered, if at all, by Glenn Gould fans: The pianist recorded it with Claude Rains in 1962. Resurrecting it here next month will be actor Jean Sherrard and pianist Rachel Matthews. Enoch Arden is just the sort of thing poet Edith Sitwell and composer William Walton were rebelling against when they collaborated on Fa硤e, rhythmic recitations with instrumental backgrounds. Her snappy, snarky, surreal patterns in sound and his nose-thumbing dance-music parodies defined au courant in the early 1920s. The Seattle New Music Ensembles playing it in November. The narrator remains to be announced, but I know who theyre trying to get, and he would be fabulous. Town Hall, 652-4255. Oct. 14 and Nov. 12.
The Blithe Spirit
Back in the 1950s and 60s, Lou Harrison offered one way out of the ever-smoldering battle between the serialists (the Schoenberg line) and the neoclassicists (the Stravinsky line)both sides too myopic to see that they were equally, and paralyzingly, obsessed with Europe. Harrison looked to the East rather than the West for inspiration: He applied Indonesian tuning and rhythmic systems to music for Western instruments, with ravishing results, and wrote directly for Indonesian instruments, building gamelans (percussion orchestras) in his central California workshop. Unfailingly curious and relishing contact with younger composers, he was a frequent guest at new music festivals all over until his death last February at age 85, outside a Dennys in Indiana, while he was en route to yet another festival. Seattles Gamelan Pacifica is presenting a concert in remembrance. Cornish College of the Arts, 325-6500. Nov. 2122.