“Tuning Up!” — the Seattle Symphony’s wide-ranging exploration of American music — highlights the meditative and environmentally aware compositions of John Luther Adams in two events this week.
As far as Ludovic Morlot is concerned, classical music is an art of the present, not past tense. When he designed “Tuning Up!” — the SSO’s two-week salute to American musical creativity now under way — Morlot made sure living composers were prominently represented.
Opening night linked works by contemporaries Derek Bermel and John Adams to American classics, and this week the festival’s focus turns to John Luther Adams (no relation to the “other” Adams) over two separate evenings.
On Thursday, June 30, Morlot conducts “The Light That Fills the World,” an orchestral work by Adams that will be accompanied by visuals from lighting designer Jeff Lincoln. This Minimalism-flavored program will also include pieces by Morton Feldman (a major influence on Adams), John Cage, Philip Glass, and Julia Wolfe (“My Beautiful Scream,” her musical response to 9/11).
Tuning Up! featuring John Luther Adams
7:30 p.m. Thursday June 30; 10 p.m., Friday July 1, $25 (June 30) and $15 (July 1), Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle (866-833-4747, seattlesymphony.com).
The following evening brings a chamber concert devoted to “In the White Silence,” another of Adams’s signature immersive soundscapes. It will be performed in the relaxed, late-hour format the SSO has developed for its “[untitled]” series.
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Even if the name John Luther Adams is unfamiliar, anyone who saw the film “The Revenant” will have heard an excerpt from “Become Ocean,” Adams’ first collaboration with Morlot and the SSO, which commissioned the piece not long after Morlot began his tenure as music director.
The reception of “Become Ocean” far exceeded what anyone had imagined, winning Adams a Pulitzer, a Grammy, and performances by other prominent orchestras that have been guest conducted by Morlot (including the Los Angeles Philharmonic).
Ironically, Adams has yet to actually hear his music resounding in Benaroya Hall. He was unable to attend the world premiere of “Become Ocean” there in 2013 on account of an eye problem requiring last-minute surgery. Not until the following year did Adams experience it in live performance: at Carnegie Hall, where Morlot and the SSO gave the New York premiere of the work.
“But I have heard other concerts in Benaroya,” Adams said in a recent phone conversation from his home in New York. “I came in for a couple of events after I got the commission, while we were ‘dating.’ Ludo and Elena [Dubinets, the SSO’s Vice President of Artistic Planning] suggested my doing that, to help me understand the orchestra and the acoustics of the space.” Adams will be in the house for the “Tuning Up!” concerts, following a creative retreat to work on his latest orchestral score at a home he keeps in the Sonoran Desert.
“In the White Silence,” the sole piece on the chamber program, is a “paean to the Arctic, and to my love of the Alaskan landscape,” says Adams. Written in 1998 during his long residency in Alaska — a place that enabled him to discover his real voice — “Silence” unfolds over about 75 minutes without a single sharp or flat to cloud its expansive soundscape.
He composed “The Light That Fills the World” the following year. It was the first piece, Adams says, “in which I conceived the whole musical landscape as a play of light and color.” The result has been likened to the color field paintings of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman.
“Light” originated as a chamber piece, which Adams was later asked to arrange for symphony orchestra. He returned to that score recently “to buff up the orchestration” in a new version that Morlot presented last year at the Tanglewood Festival, conducting the Boston Symphony in their first-ever performance of music by Adams.
“What I find especially appealing about the SSO is its openness and fearlessness,” Adams said. “Some of that perhaps originates with the conductor, but I think it also comes from the creative outlook of the musicians. There’s a uniquely Seattle attitude toward orthodoxies — an attitude with which I have a real affinity — and I think that’s audible in the sound of the orchestra.”