‘Watermark’ Rolls Over Beethoven At Seattle Symphony

Jonathan Biss was soloist in the world premiere of Caroline Shaw’s piano concerto with the Seattle Symphony.
(All photos by Brandon Patoc, courtesy of the Seattle Symphony)
By Jason Victor Serinus

SEATTLE — Imagine trying to review the world premiere of Caroline Shaw’s piano concerto Watermark, commissioned by pianist Jonathan Biss as a response to Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3, while a medical emergency is taking place directly across the aisle from your seat. That’s what transpired at the Seattle Symphony’s concert Jan. 31 at Benaroya Hall.

Biss performing with the Seattle Symphony under Ludovic Morlot

Music director Ludovic Morlot and Biss had already performed Beethoven’s Third and were barely two minutes into Shaw’s 22-minute work when the man in the aisle seat in row K to my right abruptly stood up and ran out the rear of the hall. His absence revealed a woman who was slumped over in her seat, though breathing.

A doctor was summoned. The woman regained consciousness and was able to leave the auditorium. Biss and Morlot proceeded uninterrupted,  unaware of this drama.

Prior to composing Watermark, Shaw spent several years immersing herself in recordings of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto before she began to view the actual score. With Beethoven’s harmonic shifts embedded “deep in her heart,” she decided to use his exact ensemble of instruments except for changing two of them to bass clarinet and contrabassoon. She also determined to follow his three-movement structure, dividing her piece into I.—, II.—, and III.—. Yet while Watermark contains a few quotations from Beethoven, it is very much a work of its own, with a very different emotional heart.

Ludovic Morlot, Caroline Shaw, and Jonathan Biss share bows with the Seattle Symphony.

As Shaw explained during a pre-concert talk with local radio host Dave Beck, what we heard were not necessarily her final thoughts on her commission. During rehearsal, she had already changed a piano cadenza and altered orchestral dynamics. More changes might come, she noted, after she had heard the piece in performance. “I haven’t yet decided if I quote him (Beethoven) too much or if I need to change some of the percussion instruments,” she said.

Watermark began and ended with some members of the orchestra either humming or playing a single note while Biss added some soft, sparse notes from the piano. Shortly after a mixture of low percussion and high tinkling sounds, a huge turmoil erupted, and the music turned grave, ominous, and quite profound (that’s when the medical emergency began to unfold).

The sense of gravity continued into Shaw’s middle movement, which was far darker than Beethoven’s serene Largo, with the piano parts often hanging on the thinnest of lines. My colleague from L.A. Richard Ginell, who was at the same concert, thought that he heard familiar chords in the solo piano cadenza that harked back to the despairing finale of Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony. He also noted that Watermark seemed to be another example of a present-day composer who instead of being intimidated by Beethoven, enjoys playing with him a la John Adams, who lately has made a second career out of Beethovenian fantasias like Absolute Jest, Roll Over Beethoven and Second String Quartet.

In its closing movement, Watermark goes wild, as it were, as Shaw mixes everything up, quoting the Beethoven concerto’s Rondo finale almost verbatim for a short stretch. As cries of alarm morphed into a Beethoven-like Turkish march, it felt as though Shaw was far more concerned with humanity’s dark undercurrents than Beethoven’s multi-octave romps up and down the keyboard.

Perhaps Biss’s awareness of Shaw’s work had something to do with his joyless performance of the Third. As Beethoven’s marvelous melodies bubbled forth in the opening movement, Biss managed to play every single note without any sense of delight. The elation inherent in all those up and down dashes across multiple octaves seemed to pass him by. Although he made some billowing sounds during the first movement cadenza, anchored as they were by a very strong left hand, the performance felt more caffeinated than carefree.

Ignoring what program annotator Paul Schiavo calls the Largo’s “almost religious tranquility,” Biss failed to express the sacred gravity of Beethoven’s creation. The sense of emotional vacuousness was certainly not helped by Jeffrey Barker’s prosaic flute solo. As the music sped up in the final Rondo: Allegro, Biss’s ability to trip over the keys without expressing an inkling of happiness was indeed remarkable.

Leave it to Morlot to supply the evening’s missing joy in his performance of the closing work, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1. Under Morlot’s baton, Shostakovich, who was not yet 20 at the time of the symphony’s premiere, sounded as if he was having a ball playing around with traditional form. Droll trills, light faerie steps through a waltz, huge marching band explosions that made a mockery of militarism — Mahler might not have been pleased, had he lived long enough to hear them, but the audience certainly was.

The Seattle Symphony at its home, Benaroya Hall

The second movement Allegro continued in the same vein, with an off-to-the-races approach that sounded more than a little bit like a cat chasing a mouse in a Looney Tunes cartoon. Guest artist Jessica Choe was hilarious in her final three chords on the piano. Topping off the movement with some of the same eerie harmonies that emerge time and time again in Shostakovich’s later works made for an especially potent close.

Shostakovich and Morlot buckled down and turned far more serious in the Lento. Here were indications of the elements of Shostakovich’s personality, musical and otherwise, that were to predominate once Stalin cracked down on him ten years later. Concertmaster Noah Geller and oboist Mary Lynch made notable contributions to a most beautiful performance.

Then came the big drum fanfare and the quasi-Viennese interlude. Here, I wished for more sweetness from Geller. But perhaps the reduced amount was appropriate for writing that seemed to turn the tables on much of what had come before. Michael A. Werner’s percussion and James Benoit’s timpani, both far stronger and more assertive than I’ve often heard from Seattle Symphony’s percussion section, helped create a memorable close.

After the concert, I approached Shaw to share my experience of trying to listen intently to her music while the medical emergency unfolded. Her reply was something to the effect of, “I didn’t hear half of my piece either. How could I possibly focus on the music while that was going on? After all, what’s more important, my music or someone’s life?”

Jason Victor Serinus writes and reviews for Seattle Times, San Francisco Classical Voice, Stereophile, American Record Guide, Opera NowListen, 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.