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  • Arthur Bacon

Seattle Symphony and Minimalism

Updated: Mar 22, 2021

As sometime symphony goers, and thanks to today’s information gathering techniques, we received free tickets to hear the Seattle band play their up-coming Carnegie Hall program at Benaroya Hall. The program did not excite me but Ludovic Morlot has turned what had become a querulous ensemble into a first-rate orchestra so we looked forward to the evening. Once the doors were opened the mad rush for good acoustics demanded quick decisions and we were happy with our loge looking down on all the texters and gamers below.

The first half of the program was John Adams’ Become Ocean, a forty-five minute tone poem more about the Puget Sound than any ocean I have known. The Seattle Symphony is a superb ensemble and probably capable of making any dots on staph lines sound good but this was a stretch as ripple after ripple of saccharine harmony washed over us endlessly with occasional crescendos of container ship waves. Forty-five minutes of beautifully orchestrated harmonies without a single melody revealed the signature talent of Mr. Adams: boring-ness (a good friend of mine who is a painter loves John Adams because the mindlessness of Mr. Adams’s music is good to paint by). After five minutes I whispered to my girlfriend, “Wake me up if you hear a melody”. I wish I could have actually slept but the waves of hope kept me restlessly hoping for a melodic sound to reflect Mt. Constitution, Hood Canal, the Duwamish or Mt. Rainier. When the soporifics ended I whispered again to the girl, “Well, at least it can’t get any worse”. Little did I know!

After half an hour looking down on all the texting, games and intercourse below an attenuated band came out again and proceeded to assault us with Edgard Varese’s cacophony of assorted noises generated by expensive conventional instruments as well as sticks, stones, counter tops and god-only-knows what contrivances to make us think we might be walking through about two miles of Sonoran desert: a rattlesnake here, a mite there, a sparrow hawk, a lizard scurrying, a stink beetle and a Gila monster. Embarrassingly, Maestro Morlot commanded this onomatopoeia with the same serious vigor he attends to Beethoven or Mahler. The best part of the piece came after a long silence when we heard from the darkened third tier, “Ground control to Major Tom” by David Bowie followed by shocked silence and then more blurts, squeaks and thuds. About all I can say for certain is that Mr. Varese must not be very comfortable walking through the desert at night.

Thank god for the sea and Debussy! At last, a guy who knows how to write music, even if it is not my cup of tea, my alegria adelante. By now you have probably figured out that I am a curmudgeonly old Bach, Beethoven, Brahms sort of guy so the delicacy of Debussy’s sound waves left me longing for any of the myriad local brews as soon as I could get out of all that tropical hardwood paneling and sidle up to a pine bar. The previous two pieces had left me aurally exhausted and I lacked the mood to sit back and revel in La Manche fantasies.

We hurried through the crowd and ran across the street just to see our bus heading north up 3rd Avenue. Half an hour before another #40. But then we heard some kind of music coming up Union Street. It was actually melodic and got louder and then around the corner appeared a bunch of rag-tag, black-dressed twenty-somethings playing a medley of Brazillian and French tunes with an ensemble of drums, clarinets, saxes, trumpet and tuba accompanied by assorted dancers and flag-wavers moving rhythmically, surreally down the sidewalk in front of Benaroya Hall where they stopped in front of the main door and cheered the minimalist depression out of us with their good humor, melodic charm and joie de vivre. Once they had disposed of John Luther Adams and Edgard Varese they flowed back up 4th Avenue and disappeared down Union to the sea.

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