In one of the final concerts of the symphony’s “Tuning Up!” series, the pairing of John Cage’s “4’33” with Julia Wolfe’s “My Beautiful Scream” became a powerful tribute to the victims of 9/11 and Orlando.
In his most famous piece, “4’33,” John Cage wanted audiences to experience the ambient noise they usually ignore, including their own “interesting sounds” as they walked out of it.
Why did he assume they’d walk out?
Because “4’33” is four minutes and 33 seconds of silence, diligently conducted from a written score, but with the players entirely quiet.
Seattle audiences had a chance to experience “4’33” Thursday night at the Seattle Symphony’s “Tuning Up!” festival. Conductor Ludovic Morlot gave it a more specific purpose than usual, however, by pairing it with Julia Wolfe’s “My Beautiful Scream,” her visceral symphonic response to 9/11. “4’33,” which immediately followed, became a tribute to the victims of 9/11 and Orlando.
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That’s not what Cage intended, but as concert-hall drama it worked, mostly because of the power of Wolfe’s piece. “Scream” pits a lightly amplified string quartet against a full orchestra. A gradually intensifying veil of string sound is violated by brutal orchestral intrusions. Doppler-effect distortions in the brass add to the mounting chaos. When the whole edifice collapses, the frenzied quartet finds itself flailing against seething and surging batteries of percussion.
“Scream” is extraordinary — elemental in its violence, yet masterfully structured — and “4’33” worked as its somber coda (until cellphone interruption). A few people did walk out, as Cage predicted.
John Luther Adams’ “The Light That Fills the World” parallels “Scream” in method, as its orchestral textures build to colossal heights. But instead of terror, it evokes grandeur — even awe. Inspired by the late-winter landscapes of Alaska, it’s a kindred spirit to “Become Ocean,” which won Adams the Pulitzer Prize in music and won the Symphony a Grammy.
Adams, who was present in the concert hall, was cheered by the crowd. The shifting palettes of Jeff Lincoln’s lighting design enhanced both “Light” and “Scream.”
Morton Feldman’s quiet “Piano and Orchestra” was more elusive. Two pianists on opposite sides of the stage (guest soloist Alexander Melnikov and the Symphony’s Kimberly Russ) sound notes that elicit responses from different sections of the orchestra: brass, strings, bass-drum rumble. The notes are spare and serene, but need to be perfectly placed in order to shimmer. They were, prompting Melnikov to give Russ a happy wave across the orchestra as they took their bows.
The crowd-pleaser on the program was Philip Glass’ “The Light,” a shifting confection of propulsive cadences and timbres. The visual component was a slideshow hodgepodge of photographs, dimly projected. “Fantasia”-style animation might not be in the budget, but it would make more sense.