The Seattle Symphony has been taking pains to minimize the upheaval caused by the sudden departure of its music director, Thomas Dausgaard, moving swiftly to secure guest conductors and preserve the repertory for the season’s remaining concerts as planned. But fans of the Symphony’s new-music programming will be glad to hear that its most intriguing project is staying on course: brand-new commissioned works, each, by the orchestra’s request, “very loosely inspired by” one of the seven symphonies by Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). This series, to be presented as an ambitious, multiseason Sibelius Cycle, will present the music of some of today’s most acclaimed and active composers while providing new contexts for the older works in a dialogue between then and now.
The project, launched in late 2019, stems from the Danish Dausgaard’s close affinity with the Finnish composer, whose music is the most significant contribution to the orchestral repertory by any Scandinavian. It’s since been shepherded by Raff Wilson, the Symphony’s current vice president of artistic planning, and Wilson’s predecessor Gregg Gleasner. The first two premieres in the series will be heard Feb. 3 and 5 and April 5 and 7.
Sibelius was a good fit for the Seattle Symphony’s project for additional reasons. His attachment to nature (he lived for decades in a remote house surrounded by forest) and the landscapes and natural processes his music evokes should resonate with environmentally aware, and outdoorsy, Seattle audiences. Also, there’s Sibelius’ longstanding status with concertgoers as one of the few widely popular 20th-century composers. Even the backlash to this popularity that Sibelius suffered during his lifetime works to his benefit, Wilson points out: As he was criticized for sticking to his own path and refusing to follow composers in the new-music vanguard, like Stravinsky and Schoenberg, he’s become a role model for composers striving to develop their own voice.
Dausgaard and Gleasner drew up the initial list of potential composers, including one clear choice: Ellen Reid, winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in music for her opera “p r i s m.” She was invited to contribute late that year, and worked on her piece mostly during the summer of 2021, delivering the score to the orchestra last fall. For her commission — to be led by Ruth Reinhardt Feb. 3-5 alongside Sibelius’ Symphony No. 1 — Reid drew not on Sibelius’ music itself, but on a near-mythic fact from his biography: his long composing silence, after achieving worldwide fame, starting in 1926 at age 60.
Though he tried to work intermittently on an Eighth Symphony — or said he did, starting a long cycle of promises and retractions to conductors in America and elsewhere eager to perform anything he wrote — nothing came of his decades of effort. His decision to burn piles of old manuscripts in 1945 surely destroyed whatever work he had managed to complete on it.
In a phone interview from her home in Los Angeles, Reid poignantly described this period of anguished self-doubt, Sibelius’ isolated writer’s block in his home in the woods — “sitting in his composition room in the middle of nature, staring into the void.” For 30 years.
For Reid, Sibelius’ silence resonated with the hiatus forced on the arts world by the pandemic, resulting in the title of her new work: “Today and Today and Today and Today and Today and Today and Today and Today and Today and Today.” This title carries a dual meaning: for one, the “trapped repetition,” as Reid describes it, felt by so many during the pandemic’s socially distanced, working-from-home days.
But more positively — at least for artists — this isolation could be a phase of “intense presentness,” Reid says, not only providing composition time, but inducing a Zen-like focus on the moment and on one’s work. With promising projects at hand, Reid took advantage of necessity and immersed herself in her music. “It’s different than living,” she reflects on her composing periods, “transporting yourself into this imaginary land.”
Composer Angélica Negrón, too, interpreted the commissioning guidelines broadly, deciding to present a piece that would complement, rather than echo, the Sibelius works on her program, scheduled for April 7 and 9 with former Seattle Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot on the podium. For her it’s a familiar strategy; whenever she gets a commission, her first step is to find out what other music will be on the program, considering, she said in our phone interview, “how my work is in conversation with other composers” and always being aware of “the historical baggage of the canon.”
At first, after the invitation came from the Symphony in late 2019, Negrón says she spent about a year sketching more traditionally melodic and harmonic musical ideas, keeping in mind that the Sibelius works also slated for this program were the popular Violin Concerto (to be played by violinist Isabelle Faust) and the Symphony No. 2. But a concurrent project provided a breakthrough.
Working with synthesizers and acoustic samples while composing a score for an upcoming HBO documentary series, it occurred to Negrón to use the Concerto as a sort of anti-exemplar. It would be more interesting, she realized, to “resist virtuosity and traditional embellishment” and instead base her piece on just a small handful of sounds — and the electronic-music methods, like delay and echo effects, that she was using in her documentary score, which could be translated into orchestral terms, enabling her to expand this small handful into a 10-minute work.
“I was trying to resist using anything electronic,” she says, but she did end up including synthesized MIDI samples. This is just one example of the inventive tweaks Negrón brought to the standard orchestral instrumentation, especially in the percussion section. She’s also included a vibraphone, asking for its resonating tubes to be covered with bits of aluminum foil, adding a sort of sizzling shimmer to the tone, and a melodica — a handheld keyboard activated by air blown through a tube. She finished her piece, “Color Shape Transmission,” over the holidays and delivered the score and parts at the beginning of this year.
Based in Brooklyn, Negrón is a full-time composer. In addition to the HBO score, commissions from the Louisville Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic have kept her busy in the past year, as well as a new work for Symphony clarinetist Eric Jacobs, to be premiered in the Octave 9 performance space April 10, the same weekend as her Seattle Symphony premiere.
She sees parallels between her music and Sibelius’. Sonically, she mentions “entrancing, hypnotic textures” as a trait in common; spiritually, she recognizes a kinship with the older composer as one who “makes space for joy, but has a heavy emotional weight … the two are not mutually exclusive.”
Plans are still in flux for the rest of the commissioning series, says Seattle Symphony’s Wilson, though one composer has already been locked down for next season, to be revealed when the Symphony announces its 2022-23 season in March. This new piece will be paired with Sibelius’ Symphony No. 7, a highly concentrated work in one movement from 1924 that turned out to be one of the last pieces he wrote before his long retirement. That his legacy is now, nearly a century later, being used as the inspiration for a series of new works could be seen in a way as compensation for the 30 years he was unable to offer anything more to the listeners who have ever since kept his music in their hearts.
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