2016-2017 season highlights new works by Gabriel Prokofiev and Agata Zubel.
What drives a composer to write music — especially for a group as complex as a symphony orchestra?
The Romantic era has conditioned us to look for the answer in lofty concepts like “self-expression” and “genius.” But that represents only one variable in an intricate equation.
The practical incentives that come with a commission — performance and payment — are responsible for many masterpieces we take for granted but that may otherwise never have been written, from Mozart’s Requiem to Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra.
Morlot Conducts Beethoven & Prokofiev
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 22; 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 24; and 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 25. Tickets start at $22-$122. Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle (206-215-4747 or seattlesymphony.org).
“Nurturing young composers to write for big orchestras presents a challenge, but it’s a real opportunity,” says Ludovic Morlot, music director of the Seattle Symphony. He and the SSO will unveil the first commission of the new season at their concerts of Sept. 22-25: “When the City Rules,” a major orchestral work by Gabriel Prokofiev, who shares the program with music by his famous grandfather (Sergei) and a pair of Beethoven symphonies. Next month brings “In the Shadow of an Unshed Tear,” a new orchestral work by Polish composer Agata Zubel.
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“When you commission a piece, you take a gamble that is always exciting,” according to Morlot. And the process isn’t solely for the benefit of the composer. “It’s a way to help orchestras find their own identity and sustain their voices.”
That gamble can have unexpected payoff. Take the example of “Become Ocean,” a commission that premiered in 2013. The piece not only won composer John Luther Adams a Pulitzer Prize and widespread recognition, but it gave the SSO its first Grammy Award — and, more importantly, enhanced the orchestra’s reputation for incubating significant new musical creativity.
“Commissioning has become a very important part of our mission,” explains Elena Dubinets, whose responsibilities as SSO Vice President of Artistic Planning include advising Morlot on potentially exciting candidates for the commissioning program.
“This isn’t a random undertaking. We follow a systematic approach and work with young composers constantly as part of this strong commitment.” The result is an average of 10 commissions per season — spread out between the main subscription programs, the late-night [untitled] events, and the hugely popular Sonic Evolution series.
Music by Gabriel Prokofiev has in fact already appeared over the past few years on both the unconventional [untitled] series and, in 2014, on Sonic Evolution, when he was part of an SSO collaboration with Sir Mix-A-Lot that went viral.
“When the City Rules” will be his first piece on an SSO subscription program, which accounts for its sharing the bill with such heady company — this is also the start of the second year of Morlot’s ongoing Beethoven cycle with the orchestra.
Also known for his work with dance music and the club scene, Prokofiev was fusing genres that are usually considered separate worlds well before his adventure with Sir Mix-A-Lot. A Concerto for Turntables & Orchestra was heard at the BBC Proms in 2011, and he has written a “remix” of the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth.
In a phone interview from his home in London, Prokofiev, 41, said that “When the City Rules” has some of his trademarks, such as “syncopated rhythmic material and lots of exciting and unusual percussion instruments, but this is a straight-up symphonic piece. An orchestra like the Seattle Symphony has such control and a range of emotion and technique that there’s no need to add electronics.”
Designed in four movements and lasting about 26 minutes, Prokofiev’s new work treats the orchestra as “a community of people,” with some solo instruments as “protagonists.”
Overall, he was inspired by the image of cities and their hold over us: “Cities have become global moving points that rival the nation-state. It’s not program music, but the piece reflects on how we deal with that.”
Despite her poetic title “In the Shade of an Unshed Tear,” Zubel wants to let each listener “find their own story. I prefer to keep it open so you can listen from different perspectives.” Because some of the SSO will be engaged playing for Seattle Opera during these concerts, Zubel was asked to restrict herself to a small orchestra — to the size used by Beethoven in his Second Symphony, with which she shares the program.
It’s an unusual restriction for a contemporary composer, says Zubel, who is also an acclaimed soprano — she can be heard in that role on the [untitled] program on Oct. 28, which includes her “Chapter 13.” “I tried to have musical ideas to work with this classical sound environment, but then to explore them from different perspectives. There’s no influence from the style of Beethoven.”
Other than practical issues of which players will be available, Dubinets explains, SSO commissions afford composers “full freedom” as to subject matter, form and style for the piece. But Prokofiev points out that he welcomed a suggestion to give some prominence to the flute and cello in his score, as a nod to patrons Norman Sandler and Dale Chihuly (underwriters of the commission — these are instruments played by their wives).
Before submitting his score, Prokofiev asked his partner to listen to an audio demo he created. “She’s a non-musician, and I think it helps to have someone else’s nontechnical reaction. Very much is about instinct and impact. In the past, my grandfather would play a piece he was working on to his colleagues on the piano and sometimes would make changes based on that.”