‘Become Desert:’ Light And Thrall Of Cosmic Unity

Five different orchestral groups, including some in the upper balconies, enveloped the audience in sound at the Seattle Symphony world premiere of John Luther Adams’ ‘Become Desert,’ led by Ludovic Morlot. (Photos by Brandon Patoc)
By Jason Victor Serinus

SEATTLE – John Luther Adams’ latest total immersion journey into musical oneness, Become Desert, received its world premiere by the Seattle Symphony in Benaroya Hall on March 29. A radiant successor to the composer’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning Become Ocean, which the Seattle Symphony and music director Ludovic Morlot also commissioned, Become Desert created an enthralling luminous surroundscape in which every newly opening cactus blossom, every sparkling grain of sand or gust of wind assumed what felt like cosmic significance.

Adams said he envisioned different tone colors and tempos for the various ensembles.

Specifically crafting his work for the politely resonant, mildly colorful acoustic of Benaroya Hall (which is nonetheless markedly superior to that of Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall, to which the Seattle Symphony brings the piece on April 7-8), Adams’ asked that five distinct ensembles, each playing at different tempos, be positioned around the hall.

That plan included a reduced string-rich orchestra onstage, with a smaller ensemble on a riser above it; two additional small ensembles, each stationed in an upper balcony flanking the stage and positioned on opposite sides of the hall perhaps halfway back; and a chorus, here comprised of Women of the  Seattle Symphony Chorale, situated on high in the top balcony, at the rear of the hall.

From my virtually ideal seat in row J of the orchestra, just two rows in front of seats occupied by Adams, his wife, and his assistant, the sense of being subsumed by sound, to the point of achieving mystical union, was supreme. If more earthly observation suggests that balance was less than ideal – sound from behind and above seemed to dominate, to the point that glockenspiel strikes observed onstage were often inaudible — the sounds were so brilliant, and their cumulative effects so mesmerizing, that such concerns seemed of only limited consequence.

Adams’ new opus completes a trilogy that includes ‘Become River’ and ‘Become Ocean.’

“It’s all about space, an obsessive metaphor for my music throughout my life,” Adams said in his pre-concert talk with Classical KING FM 98.1 host Dave Beck. “I had this space somewhat in mind when composing Become Ocean, and very much in mind for Become Desert. Back then, I imagined three different orchestras with different tone colors and tempos. Here, there are five, in unconventional locations.”

In actuality, the ensembles included four flutes, four oboes, four clarinets, four bassoons, eight horns, four trumpets, four trombones, and four harpists – Adams said that he loves the harp.

Strings were positioned as far as possible from this surround-sound brass choir and the high-voiced human choir in the rear.  Predominant throughout the piece were what Adams described as “lots of bells and chimes” — glockenspiel, crotales (heavy brass bells), chimes/tubular bells, and hand bells. These glistening sounds rang in marked contrast to the low, almost subterranean rumble of percussion that emerged later in the piece, but which never achieved dominance.

Even the mainstage seating was specific to Adams’ composition.

Become Desert began with distant, high tinkles. As select members of the onstage string section began to play sul ponticello (with the bow near the bridge, creating a nasal sound), sound quickly enveloped audience members seated in central locations. As volume increased and textures changed subtly, each successive chime achieved what felt like cosmic significance. Awareness of the desert as a living organism – an all-encompassing biosphere – continued to build as blossom after blossom, and color after color, emerged with clarity. The sense of radiance was supreme.

Perhaps 12 minutes in – thoughts of literal time ceded to wonder – deep rolling waves from what could eventually be identified as drums began to advance and subside. Above what seemed like a bit of discord, the voices of the celestial choir began to emerge. It was as if an infinite vista became an infinite vision, and for me, being with supplanted thinking about.

Eventually, music and textures lightened. Illumination and clarity continued to dominate, even as sounds softened and became more delicate. Ultimately, there were just solitary chimes. Morlot held the audience in suspended silence for what seemed like a good 15 seconds. (Who knows?) Finally, increasingly thunderous applause. It hardly seemed possible that 40 minutes had passed.

Music director Ludovic Morlot held the audience in suspended silence at the work’s end.

Adams’ Become Desert – the final piece in a trilogy that also includes the 20-minute Become River, written in 2010 for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and the 40-minute Become Ocean – has the power to create the same out-of-time, out-of- body sense of oneness to which many great composers, along with countless meditators and mystics, have ascribed. Certainly a number of classic New Age and Space Music artists, Aeoliah and Deuter amongst them, have composed acoustic/electronic music with similar goals, but few non-religious “classical” composers for full orchestra have created, by acoustic means alone, music of such all-consuming, transcendent power. Mahler may take us to the heavens, for example, but who else in the history of composition has so masterfully set us down in the middle of nature, and then enabled us to discover the divine in every sound?

With generosity the byword of Seattle Symphony programming under Morlot, vice president of artistic planning and creative projects Elena Dubinets, CEO Simon Woods (sadly departed for the Los Angeles Philharmonic), and a progressive board of directors headed by outgoing chair Leslie Jackson Chihuly, the concert began with pianist Jeremy Denk joining the orchestra for Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat (Emperor). Here, far more than in Become Desert, the limitation of just two rehearsals showed.

Pianist Jeremy Denk strove for lightness of touch in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5.

Denk played wonderfully – the soft passages were extremely compelling – but he and Morlot rarely achieved the one mind which distinguished the performance of Become Desert. Throughout the concerto, Denk seemed to strive for an early-instrument lightness of touch whose subtle dynamic shifts seemed out of place amidst Morlot’s more heavy-handed conducting. The orchestra sounded opaque at the work’s start and never produced the crystalline highs that Denk effortlessly coaxed from his grand instrument. The second movement’s orchestral introduction lacked the grace and lift that would have made for a sublime experience, and Denk’s brief attempt at playfulness in the final movement scamper never found its playmate.

Only when he played unfettered, as in the short Andante from Mozart’s Piano Sonata, K. 545, that served as an encore, did Denk successfully convey the joy and wonder at the heart of this music. The Beethovenian sense of majesty and mystical oneness that are central to the “Emperor” concerto and which reigned supreme in Become Desert was, for the most part, absent.

Jason Victor Serinus writes and reviews for Seattle Times, San Francisco Classical Voice, Stereophile, American Record Guide, Opera Now, Listen, Bay Area Reporter, and many other publications. He whistled Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” as “The Voice of Woodstock” in an Emmy-nominated Peanuts cartoon. He resides in Port Townsend, WA.