Category Archives: Concert review

LUCO’s Ambitious Russian Repertoire Takes A Delirious Path Through Spectacle, Grim Urgency, and Bleak Hope

As the members of the Lake Union Civic Orchestra (LUCO) took the stage for their season finale performances of Stravinsky and Shostakovich at Meany Hall on Saturday evening, granite clouds rained dramatically over the surrounding University of Washington campus, appropriately evoking the composers’ St. Petersburg roots. The program consisted of Stravinsky’s bright, showy Circus Polka (1942), as well as two works by Shostakovich – the notoriously technically challenging Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major (1959) and the emotionally shattering, rarely performed Symphony No. 8 in C minor (1943) – a set that only orchestras as adventurous and spirited as LUCO would work into one program.

LUCO at Meany Hall. (Photo: Shaya Lyon)

The prolific and buoyant director of LUCO since 2000, Christophe Chagnard, joyfully swept up to the conductor’s platform and led the group through the two-toned tents, popcorn, and enraptured crowds of the Circus Polka. Upon commission, Stravinsky had famously declared that he would only write a polka per the Ringling Brothers’ request if it were intended for “very young elephants.” LUCO succeeded admirably in rallying the energy of several young circus elephants and bringing them to life for the four-minute piece.

In a significant shift in tone, the orchestra then moved away from Stravinsky’s carnival and into Shostakovich’s feverish cello concerto. Virtuosic soloist Michael Center expertly navigated the two worlds of extreme technicality and emotional expression, proving an excellent interpretive match for the solo, 148-bar cadenza. The percussion section and timpanist Rachel Dobrow Stone joined with high-register winds to effectively fill out the mood of grim urgency in the finale.

LUCO at Meany Hall. (Photo: Shaya Lyon)
LUCO at Meany Hall. (Photo: Shaya Lyon)

Following intermission, Chagnard depicted Leningrad (St. Petersburg) of 1943 for the audience, proclaiming that it would be “difficult to think of a darker year in human history, and for Russia [in particular]”. It had been two years since the initial printing of the Soviet propaganda poster featured on the concert program, showing a square-jawed, hawk-eyed, Red Army soldier determinedly glaring into the future, tank cannons ablaze in the background, above the phrase “Вперед! Победа близка!” (Forward! Victory is near!), and the Nazi siege of Shostakovich’s hometown would continue for yet another year. Supplies were extremely scarce, the Russian winters brutal without fuel, and “every month, [tens of thousands] more people died of starvation.” On top of that, Stalin’s authoritarian government was extremely adept at making people disappear if they spoke one wrong word or made art that was not precisely just so.

Such was the context in which Shostakovich penned his heartrending Symphony No. 8 in C minor.

LUCO captured the gravity and depth of the 8th Symphony with a highly conscientious, present performance. As a unit the winds and strings moved under the radar at speeds of varying levels of caution and anxiety. The brass followed Chagnard’s orders closely, joining the winds and strings for several horrific, hair-raising howls, representing the thousands of people the city lost month after month.

Moving deliriously through the constant fear of a knock at the door, imprisonment, and finally to the faintest shred of hope sans optimism an hour later, LUCO performed the five movements of the symphony with careful attention and stirring aptitude.

Storm clouds at the University of Washington on the eve of the performance. (Photo: Shaya Lyon)
Storm clouds at the University of Washington on the evening of the performance. (Photo: Shaya Lyon)

BrendanHoweOakland native Brendan Howe grew up surrounded by music and has been performing since the age of six. He has been listening to a lot of Tom Waits, Sviatoslav Richter, and Kate Bush lately.

Seattle Modern Orchestra Challenges Expectations, Musical Limitations in Season Finale

The Seattle Modern Orchestra, directed by the charming and vivacious duo Julia Tai and Jérémy Jolley, rounded out its 2015-2016 season on June 11th at the Good Shepherd Center with pensive, erudite performances of three notable contemporary concept pieces: Gérard Grisey’s Périodes (1974), Claude Vivier’s Samarkand (1981), and the West Coast première of Anthony Cheung’s Discrete Infinity (2011).

Seattle Modern Orchestra (Photo: Huck Hodge)

Several elements came together to make this performance particularly unique and engaging. First, the remarkable, apparent ease with which the musicians performed both as a unit and as individuals at will. Second, the clear relationship between the three pieces, as each exhibited a shuttering of tradition in favor of using the parts for other purposes. And, finally, the surprising parallels between the pieces and the turning points in the history of the Chapel at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford in which they were performed.

Grisey notes that his Périodes for seven instruments represents the “soft” periodicity of the respiratory cycle (organic and varied, as opposed to mechanical and precise): inhalation, exhalation, and rest. A noted proponent and composer of liminal music, which emphasizes the perpetually transitory nature of music itself, Grisey wrote Périodes to explore five of these breathing cycles. Each sequence constructs increasingly complex series of harmonics that share a single fundamental note.

In the first derivation, violist Heather Bentley droned on a dark, controlled low D while the other instruments built up a harmonic profile around it, cut through by a sort of tolling-bell rhythm by trombonist Rebecca Good. The sequence resolved into a calm yet apprehensive whole tone melody before coming to a rest and beginning a new sequence, this time focused on rhythmic structures.

The final cycle included a comedic, revelatory sense of perpetuity, reminiscent of the introduction to Mel Brooks’ 1987 film Spaceballs – just when it’s almost certainly over, it continues. Then it continues to continue, similarly to the intended function of the respiratory cycle.

To open Vivier’s Samarkand, clarinetist Angelique Poteat and oboist Ursula Sahagian joined forces with flautist Jessica Polin, bassoonist Steven Morgen, and Josiah Boothby’s French horn to create a dissonant groundswell of sound while Bathsheba Marcus’ heavily-accented piano forged its own path, stoking an unmistakable sense of fretfulness. The effect was similar to that of listening to a rant of a bona fide mad scientist in a basement lab, whose thread could be logically followed to a point before veering off in a completely unpredictable direction – simultaneously unnerving and enthralling. Gradually, the winds and brass echo the piano, adding a new dimension of depth and clarity, and Vivier again surprised with instructions to rap lightly on the piano’s open lid with a rubber ball.

As the piece came to its glacial close, the winds remained unflinchingly discordant, and the structure of their details lost within each other created an atmosphere of blended, inextricable tension. The SMO’s meticulous interpretation of Samarkand challenged the audience to break free of assumption again and again.

The intermission allowed audience members and performers to mingle over wine and cookies, which fostered a welcoming sense of conversation and community. I was fortunate enough to speak with composer Anthony Cheung about his piece, Discrete Infinity.

A well-spoken, thoughtful, engaging man, Cheung revealed that the piece had taken on a life of its own before he perceived its connection with Noam Chomsky’s idea of discrete infinity: that despite the finite nature of certain systems, such as language, infinite meanings are possible.

Cheung recognized that he could apply this idea to his music. He knew that he wanted his as-of-yet-untitled piece to build on harmonics, primarily those of strings, which derive their intricacy from a single tone or series.

He wrote ascending lines for the brass and wind sections, building upon tones with strong harmonic relationships, then introduced a cacophony of sound from all instruments to break them all down again. The sounds reduced into their discrete properties, leading to previously undiscovered combinations. Cheung accomplished his goal of representing the idea of infinite possibilities in music over time in Discrete Infinity, the limitations of resources and equipment notwithstanding.

BrendanHoweOakland native Brendan Howe grew up surrounded by music and has been performing since the age of six. He has been listening to a lot of Tom Waits, Sviatoslav Richter, and Kate Bush lately.