Seattle Modern Orchestra's "Strictly Strings" program, Jan. 28 at Cornish College of the Arts, features works by John Adams, Claude Vivier and Iannis Xenakis.
When Julia Tai and Jeremy Jolley took the stage last November to introduce Seattle Modern Orchestra’s (SMO) performances of work by Olivier Messiaen and Louis Andriessen, they seemed almost like new music’s answer to George Burns and Gracie Allen.
Sure, they knew their stuff. That was obvious from their slide-show illustrations of the musical scores’ structures and subtleties. But they weren’t exactly in formal lecture mode. Instead, they bantered, enthused, tripped over each other’s words and generally offered their audience the warmest welcome imaginable.
A warm welcome is one key to what SMO is all about. The other is the opportunity it offers to hear modern and contemporary fare that either isn’t played in traditional symphonic settings or requires more players than most chamber groups can muster.
SMO got its start last year at Town Hall’s “May Day! May Day! A New Music Marathon,” where Julia Tai and Musicians performed an excerpt from Steve Reich’s “Tehillim.” The players involved, most of them professionals volunteering their time, were so enthusiastic that Tai felt she had the basis to start a new ensemble.
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The word “ensemble,” though, is a bit misleading. SMO is more of a shape-shifting musical amalgam of instrumentalists who are enlisted as needed. Andriessen’s “Hoketus,” for instance, required electric basses, congas, pan flutes and keyboards.
“Strictly Strings,” happening this Saturday on Cornish College of the Arts’ Capitol Hill campus, features all-string works by Iannis Xenakis (“Nomenclature”), French Canadian composer Claude Vivier (“Zipangu”) and John Adam’s “Shaker Loops.” (Note: This is Adams’ glorious string-orchestra arrangement from 1983, not the early string septet version, and it should send Cornish’s PONCHO Hall into foundation-shaking cosmic orbit.)
As the programs change, so will the players.
“Composers of the 20th century don’t necessarily write symphony pieces,” Tai explained when I interviewed her and Jolley at Cornish earlier this month. “They will come up with all kinds of different combinations of instruments.”
Tai and Jolley’s concert introductions concentrate on showing what challenging fun this stuff can be. Their approach, they feel, differs from most preconcert lectures in that it focuses more on the thought behind the music than the circumstances under which the composer wrote it.
“New music — there’s a lot of myth around it,” Tai says. “People think it’s weird, it’s inaccessible. … So we’re trying to de-mythify that conception.”
Tonality and melody, Jolley chimes in, have made stealthy comebacks in the past few decades, and atonality is “a little passé” at this point.
Jolley and Tai met at the University of Washington School of Music where Tai, originally from Taiwan, studied with Peter Erös and conducted UW Contemporary Ensemble for three years. While Erös was the special draw in Seattle for Tai, Jolley — a French American — came here from the small town in France where he grew up because his American father had family in the city.
For both Jolley and Tai, SMO is an unpaid labor of love that they hope to build into a professional ensemble. While they try to make that happen, they earn their livings by taking on a variety of freelance conducting gigs (Tai) and teaching composition and tutoring high-school students (Jolley).
They know exactly the role they’d like SMO to fill in Seattle’s classical-music scene.
“Other than the UW Contemporary Ensemble,” Tai says, “there’s not really a professional-level ensemble that does new music.” Works that she studied in music-history classes — by Penderecki, Berio, Stockhausen, Berg — are never performed here.
The Seattle Symphony sometimes presents world premieres, she acknowledges, and several chamber groups, notably the Seattle Chamber Players, specialize in modern fare. But no midsize ensemble is dedicated to contemporary work. And recordings alone, Tai and Jolley both feel, don’t do justice to new pieces.
This music has to be heard live, Jolley says, so you can savor all the drama of the pieces.
Indeed, what he and Tai do can have a high theatricality to it.
It’s all strings this time — but who knows what it will be next time around?
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org