When Elliott Carter died last November, just short of his 104th birthday, The Guardian’s obituary hailed him for his “self-made, fabulously intricate language.” The last orchestral utterances in that language were heard Thursday evening at the Seattle Symphony, when the orchestra and music director Ludovic Morlot premiered Carter’s “Instances.” Composed for Morlot, who told the audience of his surprise and pleasure at finding “this beautiful score” in the mail, the brief new piece (it lasts about eight minutes) is very much in Carter’s late-period style: abrupt contrasts, isolated notes that arise like blurted commentary from various instruments, atmospheric percussion effects.
Scored for chamber orchestra, “Instances” nonetheless spans a wide array of orchestral colors, from the highest instrument in the orchestra (piccolo) to the deepest (contrabassoon). The musical language is a little less spiky and acerbic than some of Carter’s earlier works; there are flowing, fluttering wind choirs, and some conversational interplay between the piano and brass. The piece ends with a quieter, wistful string passage that sounded, rather appropriately, like a farewell.
The Carter premiere was not the only surprise of the evening. Morlot’s programming placed the Carter and a most unlikely finale, the “William Tell” Overture of Rossini, as bookends for a very big program of Romantic-era masterpieces: Brahms’ fourth and final symphony and the Schumann Piano Concerto. Furthermore, Morlot reseated the strings for this concert, dividing the first and second violin sections on opposite sides of the stage in the manner favored by his predecessor as music director, Gerard Schwarz. And the piano soloist, Nicholas Angelich (born in 1970), made his Seattle Symphony debut with this performance.
Angelich’s Schumann Concerto performance was revelatory: intimate, deeply personal, highly expressive. He played the leisurely pianissimo passages with a silky touch, and attacked the thundering octave passages with spectacular bravura. Every note in his sparkling arpeggios was a polished little gem. Angelich’s playing seemed utterly natural and unforced; he certainly did the Schumann his own way. It can’t have been easy to follow him at times, but Morlot and his players were closely attuned to the soloist, and the performance was remarkably good.
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The Brahms Fourth didn’t feel similarly inspired. Morlot and the orchestra missed a lot of expressive opportunities in a solid performance that had some beautiful moments (especially among the wind soloists), but didn’t often rise above the routine.
Why place the “William Tell” Overture, traditionally a curtain-raiser, at the end of the concert? With playing as brilliant as the cello-choir opening, headed by the exquisitely beautiful solos of principal cellist Efe Baltacigil, the listeners quit wondering why, and sat back to enjoy this bonbon. What a dessert!
Melinda Bargreen also reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.