John Luther Adams – Become Desert (CD Review)

Become Desert

John Luther Adams

Seattle Symphony, Seattle Symphony Chorale, Ludovic Morlot, conductor

Cantaloupe Music

“Become Desert is both a celebration of the deserts we are given, and a lamentation of the deserts we create.” – John Luther Adams

Born in Mississippi, John Luther Adams first came to the attention of listeners as a composer and author based in Alaska, where he lived and worked for some forty years. Pieces such as Inuksuit, The Place Where You Go to Listen, and Dream in White on White are eloquent expressions of Adams’ time there and how it impacted him both as a creator and as a person. His book, Winter Music, is a required text for composers, as well as an accessible read of significant appeal to non-musicians. In a remarkable change of pace, Adams has recently moved to the desert, staying in Mexico and Chile.

In 2013, Adams was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music for Become Ocean, a work for the Seattle Symphony that mourned the rising seas caused by climate change, posing a timely questions: would land-roaming creatures, humans among them, be subsumed and return to the waters from whence they came. Since then, the piece has become a trilogy, followed by Become River and now Become Desert. The latest piece deals with climate change’s impact on water supply and the effects of warming in dry climates.

Like its performance and recording of Become Ocean, the Seattle Symphony, conducted by Ludovic Morlot, creates beguiling sounds eloquently shaped in their rendition of Become Desert. Whereas the former piece had an apocalyptic cast, moving from low to high and then cascading, the latter is filled with bells and chimes and sustained chords, creating the aura of aridity and hazy lights so appropriate to its subject matter. Partway through, rolling drums give us the only hit of respite from dryness, thundering against reiterated brass chords. Harps and plenty of sixth chords recall Impressionism, while the insistent repetition of overtone chords provides a spectral cast. Its end is a deliciously long denouement leaving us with faint chimes that evoke the piece’s opening.

Become Desert is one of the best recordings of contemporary music of 2019. Recommended.

George Perle Orchestral Music (CD Review)

George Perle

Orchestral Music 1965-1987

Jay Campbell, cello

Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot, conductor

George Perle Vol. 4, Bridge Records 9499

 

A recording of five previously unrecorded pieces, Orchestral Music 1965-1987 supplies excellent renditions of an underserved segment of composer George Perle’s output. Best known for his chamber music – he received a Pulitzer for his Wind Quintet No. 4 – Perle (1915-2009) also had significant orchestra commissions, including a residency with San Francisco Symphony and a 150th anniversary commission from the New York Philharmonic. Those who know his work as a music theorist will also be aware of his significant contribution to the field of 12-tone theory, as well as publications on his own idiosyncratic compositional method, “12-tone tonality.” The latter practice, with its use of carefully cultivated chromatic collections that obliquely refer to pitch centers, is fully on display in lithe and elegantly proportioned works such as Dance Fantasy (1986) and Sinfonietta 1 (1987). A bit more astringent in harmonic language are Six Bagatelles (1965), which seem indebted to Alban Berg, a touchstone figure for Perle, in their use of forceful angularity.

 

An intriguing entry on the disc is Short Symphony, 1980, which seems to be something of a response to Copland’s own, early and modernist in design, work by that name. The contrapuntal nature of its woodwind components recall some of Perle’s best chamber music. Elsewhere the orchestration is more muscular, with heraldic brass and rich passages for strings. Short Symphony display the composer’s consummate craftsmanship.

 

The standout piece on the disc is the Cello Concerto (1966), played with suppleness and impressive virtuosity by soloist Jay Campbell (also of JACK Quartet). The Seattle Symphony, under the estimable leadership of Ludovic Morlot, plays with both verve and precision. The finale is particularly varied in its demeanor, contrasting fluid cello solos with complex chords and supple wind duos, and forceful brass punctuations. It neatly resolves the well-known issue of balance in a cello concerto by bridging solos, small sections in counterpoint, and full orchestral interruptions to create a form where cello and ensemble eloquently coexist. One could readily see this piece having a substantial rebirth, particularly if Campbell continues to serve as its persuasive champion.

Seattle SO Spotlights Americans

 

Ives, Symphony No. 2, Carter, Instances, Gershwin, An American in Paris

Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot, conductor

Seattle Symphony Media SSM 1003

 

On Seattle Symphony’s latest CD, live recordings of American music that might at first seem like strange bedfellows end up being supplied with interesting connections. Part of this is the approach to interpretation of these pieces by Ludovic Morlot; he plays up the Romanticism in Ives’s Second Symphony and the modernist bite in the rhythms of Gershwin’s An American in Paris, allowing them to meet in the middle. The Seattle musicians make glorious music out of both pieces, digging into the sumptuous Brahmsian moments in the Ives as well as his collages of then-popular melodies; their Gershwin is suave and ebullient.

 

A most interesting inclusion is the CD’s centerpiece, Elliott Carter’s last work for orchestra, Instances. Written in 2012, just months before the 103 year-old’s passing, it is a whirlwind of gestures that those familiar with Carter’s late style are likely to recognize. In just under eight minutes, a large amount of material is aphoristically compressed into a taut structure that encompasses both the strenuous outbursts and rhythmic interplay for which Carter was so well known. There is also a long lyrical string line, punctuated by single piano notes, that serves as the piece’s summation. An affecting valediction.