Performed with Zen-like concentration by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and Chorale under conductor Ludovic Morlot, the world premiere of “Become Desert" rebooted fundamental assumptions about what the concert experience can offer, surrounding the audience in a sonic envelope.
It’s a rare concert when a major work of Beethoven gets upstaged. Rarer still when the music responsible for the upstaging is brand new.
Add that feat to John Luther Adams’ list of accomplishments. Last night’s world premiere of his latest composition, “Become Desert,” immersed those who were fortunate to be present in an environment of ego-erasing, sensitivity-enhancing musical images. Performed with Zen-like concentration by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and Chorale under Ludovic Morlot, “Become Desert” rebooted fundamental assumptions about what the concert experience can offer.
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“Become Desert” follows on Adams’ first major project for Seattle Symphony, “Become Ocean” (premiered here in 2013), which remains one of the pinnacles of the Morlot era in Seattle and which went on to garner a Pulitzer Prize and Grammy Award. A third piece for chamber orchestra, “Become River,” completes a de facto trilogy that, as the composer has said, he never consciously set out to write.
“Become Desert” is roughly the same length — on Thursday night, forty-plus minutes — as “Become Ocean,” and follows a similar formal pattern, which is based on the steady accretion of sections of the orchestra to a midpoint and then a “reversal” that retraces the pattern in the opposite direction.
But the differences are striking. For “Become Desert,” Adams divides his forces into five sections or “choirs” (his term), adding the human voice to his palette in the form of a mixed choir of 32 voices. Some of Adams’ pieces are conceived as sonic installations that take place out of doors, where listeners can walk among the players. “Become Desert,” which he conceived specifically with Benaroya Hall in mind, represents a kind of compromise between such installations and the conventional division between seated audience and orchestra on concert stage.
While the strings and woodwinds (the latter seated on raised platforms) remain onstage, the other choirs are dispersed around the hall, surrounding the audience in a sonic envelope that enhances the sense of surprise as the piece unfolds. Among its most searingly beautiful moments is the realization that, imperceptibly, seamlessly, choral voices have become part of the mix (they utter only the Spanish word for light, “luz”). The punctuated yet resonant presence of bell sounds intensifies the work’s characteristic luminosity.
Adams has not invented these techniques from a vacuum. His wide array of influences includes Morton Feldman, the texture music of György Ligeti, Edgard Varèse (himself the composer of “desert music”) — and passages even bring both Wagner’s “Lohengrin” and “Rheingold” preludes to mind. But, like “Become Ocean,” “Become Desert” is at the same time a profoundly original creation that puts the listener right inside the music as it unfolds. It’s an experience that simply can’t be replicated outside live performance, its uniqueness an antidote to the noisy stream of infinitely repeatable data in 21st-century digital culture.
A more familiar model of the concert experience was represented on Thursday’s program by the “Emperor,” the last and grandest of Beethoven’s piano concertos. Soloist Jeremy Denk has earned his large, devoted following through an admirable combination of searching intellect and poetic radiance. He zoomed in on particular gestures, such as Beethoven’s curious exploitation of trills — bombastic and lyrical — to suggest connections across all three movements, and was attentive to the concerto’s enormous span of contrasts.
Yet Denk’s individual touches never quite coalesced into a compelling narrative arc, and some coordination speed bumps from the orchestra hampered the account. At times, Morlot elicited fond memories of the optimistic energy that fueled his Beethoven “Eroica” back in his first SSO season. Yet focus slackened at others, resulting in an odd juxtaposition of the poetic and the pedestrian.
Beethoven’s concerto is all about direction, gesture, event — precisely the musical parameters that John Luther Adams negates in his signature language of layered sonorities that shift and blend in vast waves or clouds or light rays; the metaphors are interchangeable only because the experience of this music is itself so elemental that whatever imagery it evokes seems to morph at will.
With the music of Adams, Morlot and the SSO will embark on a tour of Nevada and California next week, including a special residency at the University of California, Berkeley.
Seattle Symphony premieres “Become Desert” by John Luther Adams, with Ludovic Morlot, conductor. Also on the program: Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, with piano soloist Jeremy Denk; Thursday, March 29; repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 31; Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; 206-215-4747, seattlesymphony.org.