NEW YORK — There is a point early in John Luther Adams’ “Become Ocean” where the gentle thrumming starts to intensify, like the waves of its title, swelling and gathering power. As the Seattle Symphony hit that point during Tuesday’s concert at Carnegie Hall, Adams closed his eyes, his expression intent.
It was a pivotal moment for both Adams, the Alaska composer who recently won the Pulitzer Prize for “Become Ocean” — and who was hearing it performed live for the first time — and for the Seattle Symphony, which commissioned it.
The orchestra last played at the historic hall a decade ago, under then-music director Gerard Schwarz. It returned, not for a traditional program in tuxes, but for the Spring for Music festival, which celebrates “adventurous programming.”
The Seattle Symphony and five others, including orchestras from Rochester, N.Y., and Winnipeg, Canada, were chosen from 60 applicants for their innovative programming. Appearing at the festival, which is in its final year due to financial constraints, meant national exposure including coverage by The New York Times, which raved that the performance was “rich with shimmering colors and tremulous energy.”
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The players from Seattle wore custom accents created in various shades of blue by hometown designer Michael Cepress. They played a program born in the 20th and 21st centuries: the Adams, plus works by Edgard Varèse and Claude Debussy.
And in the audience, surrounding Adams: more than 600 orchestra supporters who made the trek from Seattle, plus some from Alaska as well as curious New Yorkers. Lorna Mason, a researcher, said she decided to go to Carnegie based on a review of the SSO’s premiere of “Become Ocean” last year in The New Yorker magazine. (Classical music critic Alex Ross wrote that he went away “reeling” after hearing it in Seattle last July.)
“I listened to a clip and was drawn in,” Mason said. She and the friend who accompanied her both belong to a Buddhist temple with an “Earth initiative,” Mason said, with a focus this year on water, so the program was enticing.
The evening opened with remarks from SSO board chair Leslie Chihuly, who referred to the event and “Ocean” as extraordinary.
“Seattle’s a special town and we feel the orchestra should reflect the city in which we live,” she said. She listed the innovations the city has become known for, from Boeing to Starbucks, and said the symphony is part of the flow of creativity.
Forty-year symphony ticket holders Sam and Mona Dworkin agreed. The former New Yorkers attended both Tuesday’s concert and a Monday night chamber performance by a handful of players at Le Poisson Rouge, a Greenwich Village nightclub known for booking the whole musical spectrum.
“It’s a rather adventurous, risk-taking project,” said Sam Dworkin, who bought 10 tickets for friends to the Carnegie program, jokingly noting that “none are under 80 years old.”
Tuesday’s performance drew a wide range of patrons, including a handful of children. The applause was thunderous when Adams was introduced from the stage as the program began, and the unrelenting cheers brought him out twice from backstage.
Wendy Kelling and John Scannell, of Sammamish, joined a post-concert crush at The Russian Tea Room, the gilded restaurant next to Carnegie Hall.
Both were effusive about the Adams piece and the musicians’ work. Scannell is also somewhat of a symphony evangelist, having bought Spring for Music tickets for relatives in Pennsylvania.
“To see our Seattle Symphony here was a treasure,” Kelling said, as wait staff passed trays of Russian savories among guests at the private reception for symphony supporters.
“The Seattle Symphony wasn’t picked just to be the Seattle Symphony. That program was chosen,” she pointed out, referring to the Spring for Music submission process. Orchestras are chosen based on proposed programs, not their prestige, conductor or audience size.
Thinking about the past 20 years of symphony-going in Seattle, she said, “I don’t know yet where Ludovic Morlot is taking us. I am doing my best to ‘listen boldly’ — that’s the (symphony) motto, you know. But in the vast majority of cases, I leave smiling.”
The orchestra left New York on Wednesday, returning home in time for more traditional duties: Thursday night’s performance of “Tales of Hoffmann” at Seattle Opera.
Melissa Davis: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @Duckmel