This week at the Seattle Symphony: a new and dreamlike orchestral work by Georgian composer Giya Kancheli, a colorful symphony by Bohuslav Martinu, and the heartwarming Brahms Violin Concerto.
Composer Giya Kancheli has named his latest orchestral work, which receives its American premiere from Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony this week, after an expression of doubt. “In the Sumerian language, which no longer exists, ‘Nu.Mu.Zu’ meant ‘I don’t know,’” Kancheli explained by email.
“Nu.Mu.Zu,” a Seattle Symphony co-commission, received its European premiere just two weeks ago at the National Orchestra of Belgium under Andrey Boreyko. It arrives two years after a performance of Kancheli’s “Styx” (1999) for solo viola, orchestra and chorus made an overwhelmingly positive impression on Seattle Symphony audiences.
Kancheli’s outlook, however, has changed in the decade and a half since “Styx” first took listeners on a mystical voyage from the land of the living to the land of the dead. “Illusions that I knew something gradually disappeared and it turned out that, having approached the age of 80 and lived a life full of contradictions, I found myself utterly confused,” he wrote. “What is happening in the world is gradually, step by step, destroying the last hope in my consciousness, without which, for all of us, life loses its meaning.” Despite his fading hope, he continued, he keeps “dreaming about a world in which fanaticism, sectarian strife and violence are no longer the dominant features of world order.”
These are somber words from the expatriate Georgian composer, who previously described his essentially romantic outlook as “a high dream of the past, present and future, a force of invincible beauty that towers above, and conquers, the forces of ignorance, bigotry, violence and evil.” But “Nu.Mu.Zu” is a confession that he can no longer romanticize the troublesome state of the world.
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The work begins with a blurred, dreamlike snippet of the theme from Bach’s Fugue in E minor in Book 1 of “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” Granting prominent roles to harp, bass guitar and piano, it uses relatively simple harmonies as it progresses through reflective passages toward a huge sonic explosion. At the end, “Nu.Mu.Zu” breaks for a short silence before restating the first few notes of the Bach, almost as an afterthought.
“Slowly, I have come to realize the spiritual strength one must bring to the music of Kancheli and other contemporary composers who have left the former Soviet Union,” Morlot said by phone. “What happens in between the notes is more important than the piece itself.”
Morlot did not initially plan to program Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu’s Symphony No. 4 after the Kancheli — but, after seeing the score, he realized the Martinu would provide a near-perfect balance to the despair of “Nu.Mu.Zu.”
Also composed of simple elements — in this case, major and minor triads superimposed on top of one another — Symphony No. 4 creates what Morlot calls “colorful harmonic elements that are like a bright sun shining through a stained-glass window.” Written at the close of World War II, four years after Martinu emigrated to the U.S. to escape the Nazi invasion of France, the symphony reflects an optimism that is in short supply in the world 70 years later.
Kancheli and Martinu’s harrowing journey into and out of the abyss will be followed by the life-affirming, heartwarming beauty of the Brahms Violin Concerto that will close the program. The performance marks the return of the wonderful French violinist Renaud Capuçon to the Seattle Symphony.
“Capuçon has developed a unique relationship with his Guarneri, which is the violin on which Isaac Stern premiered the Dutilleux Violin Concerto,” Morlot said. “That is why I brought him here to play the work a few years back. Knowing the warmth and geniality he can produce on that instrument, the Brahms will be spectacular.”