“There are as many sides to American music as there are to the American people,” Leonard Bernstein remarked in one of his popular Young People’s Concerts devoted to the topic “What Is American Music?”
“Maybe that’s the main quality of all — our many-sidedness. Think of all the races and personalities from all over the globe that make up our country. We’ve taken it all in,” he said.
Bernstein broadcast that message almost six decades ago in 1958. Since then the musical landscape has become vastly more diverse, many-sided and multi-layered. The old-fashioned image of the melting pot seems quaint compared to the dazzling, complex intersections and border crossings that make today’s musical scene so vibrant and self-aware.
From June 17 to July 2, the Seattle Symphony Orchestra (SSO) is hosting Tuning Up!, a festival that will explore American musical creativity from a 21st century perspective. The festival’s name is taken, appropriately enough, from a piece by immigrant composer Edgard Varèse, who left his native France in 1915 to move to New York, where he reinvented himself. Varèse is known as an adventurous musical thinker and was a major influence on his fellow avant-gardists, including Frank Zappa.
Don’t expect a predictable music history lesson — this festival is about unexpected connections and directions, about the interweave of inspirations from the past with the present
“It’s impossible, of course, to summarize 100 years of musical creativity in America in two weeks of concerts,” explains Ludovic Morlot, the SSO’s music director since 2011 — himself a musician who made the journey to America. Morlot grew up in Lyon, France, the country’s third-largest city, and studied in London before he got a position as an assistant with the Boston Symphony.
“I decided it would be interesting to program a festival that touches on the big trends of the 20th century in American music that have influenced where we are today, starting with the work of Charles Ives and George Gershwin and the explorations of Modernism,” Morlot says.
“We move on to take a look at Populism, since that accounts for a big chunk of creativity starting in the 1930s, with Aaron Copland and his legacy; Populism also has its offshoot in the Pops genre, and we give a little nod to that as well. And then there’s Minimalism, but I chose a specific theme of the ways music can interact with light and inspire colors and lighting.”
Morlot’s enthusiasm for the upcoming project is evident — even when he’s giving an interview from across the ocean, and preoccupied with a series of concerts with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra that has taken him to the U.K.
Instead of trying to cram as much as possible into the scheduled concerts (which would be the musical programming equivalent of going on vacation and insisting on quantity of cities visited over quality time in a few select places), the guiding idea for Tuning Up! is to focus on a manageable number of themes. In addition to Modernism, Populism and Minimalism, the film industry’s lure for composers is another prominent thread.
Tickets to 9 events are priced at an affordable $25 each as an effort to pique curiosity about the performances
The SSO will perform five full-scale concerts: four in their home venue at Benaroya Hall in downtown Seattle — a handsome, 2,500-seat concert hall widely admired for its acoustics — and one open-air event at Marymoor Park, east of Seattle on the north end of Lake Sammamish. The park concert will be an all-Gershwin affair, featuring the internationally acclaimed pianist (and fellow Lyon native) Jean-Yves Thibaudet.
The indoor SSO concerts are the festival’s skeleton, which is being fleshed out with four chamber concerts, mostly in a smaller hall in the Benaroya Hall performance center (with one performance in the grand lobby outside the large concert hall — a space the SSO has been using since Morlot’s tenure began for its forward-looking series of late-evening untitled concerts). Because tickets to each of the nine events have been set at a single price ($25), Morlot and his colleagues have the latitude to take some risks with the programming that higher ticket prices might have prevented.
“I was able to program some things and trace some threads that I could not otherwise have done in the context of a regular subscription series,” Morlot says. “The fact we make it so available and affordable will inspire people to be curious, I hope.”
Simon Woods, president and CEO of the SSO, explains that potential concertgoers might be more inclined to take a risk when ticket prices are set at a modest level. “It makes it possible to be flexible with this kind of programming and really try out new ideas.”
Morlot and his team, including SSO’s Vice President of Artistic Planning, Elena Dubinets, have rightly earned accolades over recent seasons for their imaginative programming. Tuning Up! represents this kind of thinking at a high, concentrated dose. Don’t expect a predictable music history lesson, moving from Point A to Point B. This festival is about unexpected connections and directions, about the interweave of inspirations from the past with contemporary creativity.
I like the image of tuning up, conductor Ludovic Morlot says, because it makes us think of the festival as tuning up to American creativity
For example, the festival kicks off with a concert June 17 that includes an orchestral experiment by Charles Ives, who’s often considered a point of origin for the story of American classical music — a term that doesn’t even begin to do justice to the range of musical thinking and approaches of the composers represented here (which is part of the point).
A lot of people like to divide American music into “before Ives” and “after Ives” — with this fiercely independent New Englander as the man who broke free from the genteel tradition of heading off to Europe to get one’s “real” education (in what was supposed to be European art), and then bringing that knowledge back to our shores. Ives, whose orchestral music Morlot and the SSO have been systematically recording on their in-house label SSO Media, shattered convention after convention with his wild experimentation and rambunctiously all-embracing, Whitman-esque — at times prophetic — sensibility.
But Ives also had the example of another temporary immigrant, the Czech Antonín Dvořák, who came to New York for a few years in the 1890s (at the height of his fame) to help spearhead a newly established National Conservatory that was based on progressive ideas — enrollment was open and made affordable to women, African-Americans, and other minorities — and that was founded by the philanthropist Jeanette Thurber. It was in this context that Dvořák created one of the most popular symphonies in the repertory, the New World Symphony.
“Dvořák showed composers in America how to be braver about taking what they needed from their own traditions. Ives went on to shamelessly include all sorts of popular music into his compositions,” Morlot says.
Ives’s Orchestral Set No. 2, which is on this opening program, finds room for the then-popular ragtime idiom and for an homage to the tragic torpedoing of the Lusitania in 1915, which ended up ushering the U.S. into World War I.
“Rhapsody in Blue,” George Gershwin’s iconic breakthrough of “symphonic jazz,” will be played with its counterpart “Harlem,” Duke Ellington’s masterpiece synthesizing jazz and complex symphonic forms. These pieces meanwhile introduce another underlying theme of the festival involving the urban landscape, the sounds of the city.
Varèse became a “bad boy” of the modern music scene with his tone poem/ode to the excitement of New York titled “Amériques” — a strange brew of Debussy, the “barbarism” of “Rite of Spring” Stravinsky, and spatially experimental soundscapes, which Morlot conducted at the start of his term with the SSO. In keeping with the whole theme of beginnings, the concert begins with the Varèse piece that gives the festival its name: Tuning Up! was commissioned for a 1940s film about Carnegie Hall.
Varèse never finished the project, which was meant to be a parody of an orchestra tuning up before a concert, but his student Chou Wen-chung went on to complete a performable score from his sketches after the composer’s death. “I like the image of tuning up,” Morlot says, “because it makes us think of the festival as tuning up to American creativity.”
He points out that a long-reigning older idea of “American music” — which more or less defined it as the sound of mid-century works like Copland’s beloved “Appalachian Spring” — is not only too narrow but covers only “a brief episode” in the rich tapestry of music made in this country. This is the area Morlot is calling Populism in the festival, but “we should remember that Copland himself had gone through a phase of Modernism before this, and later in his career he was again writing things that were very experimental. So Populism was actually a very brief, though strong, chapter in musical history. In fact when I, as a Frenchman, think of American music, it’s Ives and Modernism that come to mind first, and not so much ‘Billy the Kid’.”
Leonard Bernstein is represented of course, but with the rarely played “Divertiment,” an orchestra piece that reflects on the diversity of American styles and dance types. Morlot notes that the interface between dance and musical creativity was especially productive in the Populist period (“Appalachian Spring” began, after all, as a commission for Martha Graham’s dance company).
Another development of the Populist thread takes us to the film screen and composers such as John Williams, Erich Korngold, and David Lang. For an evening titled “Live with the Silver Screen,” the SSO will use film clips, and a visual element is key as well to one of the programs focused on Minimalism and its offshoots titled, “The Light That Fills the World.”
The title piece is by John Luther Adams, whose environmentally conscious soundscapes have been capturing listeners’ imaginations in recent years. The SSO had a huge success commissioning JLA’s Become Ocean, which won a Pulitzer and Grammy Award. The eminent composer will travel to Seattle for this immersive event, as well as a performance of his profoundly meditative In the White Silence.
Morlot will combine “The Light That Fills the World” with the tragic vision of Julia Wolfe, in My Beautiful Scream, a musical response to 9/11. “I also wanted to show with this that music has power to heal,” Morlot says.
He adds that there’s no escaping the frustration of not being able to include whole swathes of American music history, like the experimental work of Elliott Carter (with whom the conductor got to know toward the end of Carter’s life) and Milton Babbitt, or the grand mid-century creations of Roger Sessions and Walter Piston, to mention just a few.
But Morlot hopes that Tuning Up! will ignite more curiosity about the many layers and weaves that can be found in American music, and that continue to evolve in ever greater varieties and genres today.
“It’s important to realize this is only a sample of the things we love,” he says. “There’s so much more to explore!”