It wasn’t business as usual on Tuesday at Carnegie Hall. The concert, after all, was part of the Spring for Music Festival.
The orchestra on duty, one of several visiting ensembles in the progressive series, was the Seattle Symphony, founded in 1903 and currently led by a remarkably energetic and authoritative music director from France, Ludovic Morlot. The audience, paying no more than $25 for a ticket, included nearly 700 home-town boosters who sat together up front and waved scarlet scarves on cue to signal institutional support. The music-making was preceded by congratulatory pep-talks from a New York radio personality and a symphonic benefactor. Clearly this was an unabashed saccharine-sentimental celebration.
But – a big but – it also was a wonderful concert, imaginatively planned and brilliantly executed. Although the ambience may have been folksy-casual, the repertory and performances reflected rare sophistication.
The central attraction involved the New York premiere of John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean, an extended tone-poem (definitely not his label) that won the Pulitzer Prize in composition this year. The award panel described it, effusively if persuasively, as “a haunting orchestral work that suggests a relentless tidal surge, evoking thoughts of melting polar ice and rising sea levels”.
Complex annotations cite Adams’ simultaneous manipulation of three dissimilar orchestras, “each of which has [its] own journey and rhythm”. And, we are fussily informed, the piece is “ultimately about you becoming an element of nature yourself, and disappearing in the whole landscape of things”.
Be all that as it may, the score casts a fine abstract spell, predicated on constantly evolving textures and surprising dynamic structures. Waves of sound, both exhaustive and exhausting, flow and ebb – mostly flow – for more than 40 minutes as smart nuances drone and tensions accumulate. The composer deserved his standing ovation.
After the interval, Morlot reinforced the modernist sparkle of Edgard Varèse’s Déserts and, returning to matters aquatic, mastered a propulsive exploration of Debussy’s La Mer. Without fuss, he matched technical bravura with expressive bravado.