By Philippa Kiraly, Special to the Sybaritic Singer
Johann Sebastian Bach was born March 14, 1685, this year being the 334th anniversary of his death. Bach learned from his own contemporaries and predecessors, but composers from all backgrounds since have learned steadily from his work right up to and including the present day.
Fittingly, the Seattle Symphony devoted its Masterworks concerts of this weekend at Benaroya Hall to Bach’s influence, by close proximity, by structure and in homage. Last week it performed his B Minor Mass.
The closest was Bach’s great D Minor Toccata and Fugue, composed for organ but played here in an orchestration by Leopold Stokowski, first performed in 1926. The original for organ is a work of incomparable majesty. It is hard to think of it as being able to achieve that effect with an orchestra, but Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony came close on Thursday. Chords were absolutely together with an attack which while never scratchy had the impetus and energy of the organ, not easy with dozens of instruments. Stokowski’s choices of brass, winds and percussion gave colors, the strings played with richness, depth and warmth and all was superbly played. Bach’s music works no matter what instruments it is played on (I’ve heard it on steel band and sung as scat), but the effect here was as good as any arrangement gets.
As one of his last choices for SSO commissions (this one jointly with the Minnesota Orchestra), Morlot asked John Harbison, 80-year-old distinguished composer who has been steeped in Bach his whole life, to write a work for orchestra and suggested an obbligato organ part.
The result, What Do We Make of Bach? is a substantial 20-minute work. Bachian organization, the same orderliness and contrapuntal feel, were evident throughout, including a set of variations, a chorale and a fugue with intricate interweavings of musical lines, but all of it with a frequently dissonant, contemporary harmonic structure, Bach tonal elements unrecognizable. British organist Wayne Marshall took on the busy obbligato role, often alternating with the orchestra and including a lengthy cadenza.
He gave a remarkable encore. Morlot explained to the audience that since Bach was a frequent improvisor, he was challenging Marshall to improvise on two musical motifs in the next work on the program, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15. These were the signature melody from Rossini’s William Tell Overture (which many know from The Lone Ranger—tiddly-um-pom-pom, tiddly-um-pom-pom) quoted by Shostakovich and his incorporation of his grandson Sasha’s initials.
Marshal took it from there, developing the two themes into a great edifice and using all the resources of the organ, earning his enthusiastic applause from audience and orchestra alike.
Shostakovich’ last symphony is far more spare than most of his others, with many sections where only a solo instrument plays quietly accompanied by one or other orchestra section. Bach’s influence is there in the work’s careful structure, There were long solos by principals flutist Demarre McGill, obeist Mary Lynch, cellist Efe Baltacigil, trombonist Ko-ichiro Yamamoto, concertmaster Noah Geller and several more. It’s a work which showed off the quality of the orchestra’s principals, the first movement with its sassy rhythms and impudent feel; the more mournful, slow second movement with its expressive cello solo and flute duets, then sudden crashing percussion; the light and slightly quirky third and the fourth with yet another quote, this time from Wagner’s Lohengrin, only three notes but the harmony easily recognizable. The whole is a symphony with dozens of component parts always holding the interest, yet it needs a sure hand to keep it moving exactly together, which Morlot and the orchestra gave it.
The concert is repeated Saturday night.
Philippa Kiraly has writing classical music criticism since 1980, for several newspapers in northern Ohio and Seattle, magazines, both local and national, and blogs. She is passionate about the importance of independent criticism for the fine arts, an art in itself which is dying with little interest by many publications and no longer a viable career for most. But writing for tickets is always worthwhile!
Pippa is a keen gardener, a keen grandparent, and can get lost in a good book.
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