5:10PM; Friday, April 24.
South on Highway 99 in Glenn Crytzer’s Beetle with the top down. We’re talking about the place of music in society as we drive to a dress rehearsal for the premier of his “Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra,” which debuted with Joshua Roman on cello on the 25th.
Glenn is a cellist himself, a composer, and the Seattle Opera’s music librarian. His concerto is a strong statement, a memory of his late cello teacher in four movements. The music has its clear influences: components of jazz and expressionism, rhythms and harmonies sometime reminiscent of Stravinsky; but the voice of this concerto is all its own.
We sit eight rows back, with the score propped in front of us, as the Northwest Symphony Orchestra rehearses. Watching the music unfold on the staffs of the printed page as the notes issue from the orchestra gives it a synesthetic feel; transforming the intervals of the melody into visual peaks and troughs, so that my eye’s seem to be hearing the music in place of my ears. I enjoy this effect, and the life that it gives to the music, like a devilish dance unfolding on the paper. This score is especially visually arresting. Wildly arpeggiated in sections, rhythmically diverse throughout. The piece excels in juxtaposing puckish moments of full-lifed exuberance, with reflective, slow passages that linger on the ear.
These are the evenings which remind, in no uncertain terms, that very remarkable classical music is still being created and that new music is alive, if not kicking, in Seattle.
9:32PM; Saturday, April 25.
The audience at Benaroya Hall is on its feet for Marc-André Hamelin. He looks considerably different than I expected, older than the videos on YouTube, which must have been recorded decades ago. Hamelin is a beast of piano technique, and I’ve been hoping to see him play in person almost since I became interested in the piano.
I am standing only ten feet from him (one of my favorite divergences between classical music and popular music is that in the concert hall, the cheap seats are often the ones closest to the orchestra. Good luck getting $17 tickets to stand stage-side at a Justin Timberlake concert) and still a bit breathless from the coda of Totentanz, which he’s just finished playing.
Franz Liszt had a flare for the dramatic - there is a story of Liszt, Marie D’Agoult, and George Sand finding a small cathedral in Italy with a new organ and asking the church organist to step aside so that Liszt might have a shot at the instrument. The resulting improvisation, an experiment with variations on the theme “Dies Irae,” was said to have shaken the church and stupefied the regular organist - and Hamelin handles the virtuosity of Totentanz (also a rhapsody on the Dies Irae) with ferocious conviction. He is not a player of great theatrics, but his hands move so quickly, and with such power, that it seems unbelievable when the piano is left standing and in tune at the end of a performance.
This music has a power that keeps people coming back, again and again. As with popular bands, there are cults of the devoted. Individuals who will travel thousands of miles to see classical musicians perform certain works. The Seattle Symphony may not draw the crowds of Bumbershoot, but this music has a staying power that popular artists can’t hope to achieve.
It would be naïve to compare popular with classical music, but standing in Benaroya hall on this Saturday evening, I am reminded of the singular capacity of classical music to move the observer, in many cases, centuries after its original composition. It makes me think also of my experience at the Northwest Symphony Orchestra’s rehearsal last evening. Glenn’s music won’t sell out the Key Arena, but with his concerto, he has made a statement that could effect thoughts and emotions hundreds of years from now. That is no small accomplishment.
10:00PM; Sunday, April 26.
Puzzle over this one. I’m lying in the southwest corner of St. Mark’s Cathedral on Capitol Hill surrounded by hundreds of people my age (who, unlike me, are hip) and we’ve just finished listening to music that’s about a thousand years old. The Sunday evening Compline service at St. Mark’s is exactly the inverse of an evening at Benaroya, young face after young face, interrupted only occasionally by an older countenance. Many come to worship, but like myself, there is also a population at the Compline who come for the music alone.
Unlike the concert hall, people here are strewn everywhere. Some are perched in pews, but most sit or lie on the floor of the Cathedral. They are dressed informally: jeans, sweatpants, and hoodies the most common costume, and there is no clapping at the end of the service. All that is left are a few hundred individuals, comfortably enjoying some of the simplest music in existence, which happens to be a millennium old.
I’ve had several discussions recently about formality and classical music. Feelings that the concert hall should be a place of jackets and ties, long dresses and high heels. These are not feelings that I share, and I think that this is why: the patrons of St. Mark’s Sunday night Compline are so contented, free to be swept up by the music without a second thought.
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