Thursday night was a terrible time to brave Seattle’s rainy and accident-clogged freeways — but a great time to be in Benaroya Hall with the Seattle Symphony and Armenian-born violin soloist Sergey Khachatryan, who was accorded one of the most wildly enthusiastic and heartfelt ovations the hall has seen in some time.
Born in 1985, Khachatryan became the youngest winner in history of the Sibelius Violin Competition in 2000, and went on to win the prestigious Queen Elisabeth Competition of Belgium five years later. But he doesn’t play like a competition winner; there was no sense of the mainstream or of “playing it safe” in his deeply sensitive, impassioned performance of the Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1 with the orchestra and conductor Ludovic Morlot. The opening Nocturne was a profound reverie; the Scherzo movement rose to a triumphant, whirling finale, and the somber Passacaglia was profoundly affecting. The fierce difficulty and staggering virtuosity of the final movement brought the audience to its feet, hoping (in vain this time) for an encore.
After intermission came the 45-minute “Become Ocean,” an eagerly awaited world premiere by Alaskan-based composer John Luther Adams.
Much is riding on this piece; Morlot and the orchestra are reportedly taking it to Carnegie Hall in May of next year. Adams unfortunately missed his premiere Thursday evening because of a health issue, so Morlot took the stage before the performance to explain the work to the audience (this is seldom a good sign). The new piece was, he said, a “musical landscape that doesn’t tell any story,” but one that is “more like looking at three clouds in the sky.” (The orchestra, wearing solid black in order to maximize the effect of the lighting, is divided on the stage into three groups for the performance, each lighted in a different color. During intermission, the stage was also bathed in light that suggested watery waves, presumably to get everyone in an aquatic mood.)
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The new piece was a rather murky “ocean” at first, with deep rumblings that slowly evolved in complexity, as the work gradually took shape in a series of busy arpeggiated figures and oscillations of sound that rose and subsided over time.
As each section made a gradual crescendo, colored lights shone on the respective players; the mallet percussion instruments were kept especially busy with repeated figures that rippled up and down. It was a pleasant soundscape, one that deployed the full orchestral palette of colors. But after the first 20 minutes or so, the musical ideas had pretty much run their course, and there were no further developments to justify sustaining the piece. (Some listeners in the balcony areas made a discreet but early retreat.) At least the music fell gratefully on the ear, delivering consonance rather than dissonance, and in its very length, “Become Ocean” evoked a sense of vast oceanic scale.
Melinda Bargreen also reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.