A Life’s Immersion In Bach Resonates In Harbison Work

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Ludovic Morlot consults with John Harbison and concertmaster Noah Geller while rehearsing the West Coast premiere of Harbison’s “What Do We Make of Bach?” (James Holt/Seattle Symphony)

By Jason Victor Serinus

SEATTLE – Perhaps it was inevitable that Seattle Symphony’s March 21 West Coast premiere of John Harbison’s What Do We Make of Bach? for orchestra and obbligato organ would be overshadowed by its stunning performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15, his last.  At less than half the length of the 15th Symphony, What Do We Make of Bach? may share its penchant for reflection, but Shostakovich’s work frequently moves beyond the realm of ideas into a sometimes enigmatic but ultimately shattering reckoning with grief and death.

Harbison checks his score during rehearsal. (James Holt/Seattle Symphony)

Outgoing Seattle Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot first met Harbison when Morlot was assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Having long wanted a new piece from the composer – What Do We Make of Bach? is a joint commission with the Minnesota Orchestra, which gave the world premiere in October of 2018 – Morlot encouraged Harbison to include an obbligato organ part in his three-part, 20-minute exploration. That resulted in the Chorale-Variations, Fantasia, soggetti prestiti, and Finale: Fugue sections incorporating elements of Bach’s most readily identifiable compositional formats.

In a pre-concert lecture, Harbison explained that his composition attempts to peer deeply into what he calls a lifetime preoccupation with J.S. Bach’s music. Given that he wrote a piece based on a Bach chorale 65 years ago, when he was 15, that’s a sizable chunk of time. While Harbison has since guest conducted a good 125 Bach cantatas with Boston’s Emmanuel Music ensemble, he said that Bach’s influence on his new work was “more contextual” than anything else.

Stokowski’s famous Bach transcription led off the concert. (Animated Resources)

To set the background for Harbison’s work, Morlot opened with Leopold Stokowski’s famed 10-minute arrangement of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565. Perhaps the conductor intentionally underplayed the music so as not to upstage Harbison with Stokowski’s Technicolor bombast. While the arrangement proved a fine showcase for Morlot’s ability to draw from the orchestra the same wealth of contrasting colors that organ soloist Wayne Marshall would soon deliver in the Harbison, some of the string entrances were a bit sloppy, and a number of sections lacked sufficient energy. Well before the final chord, it was hard to avoid feeling that the bulk of rehearsal time had been devoted to the other works on the program.

Wayne Marshall plays the Benaroya Hall pipe organ. (James Holt/Seattle Symphony)

Indeed, when the Harbison began, Marshall’s rather circus-like opening solo sounded grander and more impressive than anything that had come before. After a beautiful brass chorale, the organ reappeared with a spectral display of sound. An ensuing orchestral chromatic fugue kept being disrupted by rather impudent single-note interjections from the organ and snatches from the Toccata and Fugue in D minor. One fascinating idea after another followed, including sections with percussion and rollicking tubas. Nonetheless, on first hearing, Harbison’s piece seemed to lack the overarching spiritual unity that makes Bach’s music so timeless.

As an encore, Marshall returned to deliver a droll organ improvisation that melded the “Shostakovich theme” from the Fifteenth Symphony with tidbits of Rossini’s William Tell Overture. Exploiting the organ’s various registers and voices to great effect, he provided the sole entertaining excursion of the evening.

Morlot caught the biting humor in Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15.

After intermission, Morlot made the most of Shostakovich’s biting, sardonic humor in the Fifteenth’s opening movement. Principal Michael Werner and his fellow percussionists were outstanding: The snapping sounds were brilliant, and the range of colors unusual for the borderline dry Benaroya Hall acoustic. Concertmaster Noah Geller was equally commanding in his solos. Despite the occasional circus-like atmosphere that Shostakovich created by multiple interjections of the theme from the William Tell overture, the movement left the impression of an unstoppable, death-laden force.

Efe Baltacigil’s gorgeous cello solo contributed to a heart-wrenching second movement Adagio. The sadness and grief were overwhelming, and the huge percussion ending shattering. The brilliantly colored orchestra sounded the best I’ve ever heard them as they proceeded, without pause, into an Allegretto that at times felt like a dance of death and at other times seemed to mock the inevitable end of life that was approaching. In the final Adagio-Allegretto, the music’s incessant churning built to a discordant climax that yielded first to a death march and then a waltz. Happiness, however, was fleeting at best. Shostakovich seemed to be playing with us as his music faded out and, with a puff, was gone.

This was the second performance of a Shostakovich symphony I’ve heard from Morlot this year. The first, of Symphony No. 1, accompanied the Jan. 31 premiere of Caroline Shaw’s Watermark. Given the excellence of both performances, here’s hoping that Morlot’s recorded legacy with the Seattle Symphony includes a Dmitriy Lipay-engineered recording of the Fifteenth. Having heard high-resolution recordings from both Haitink and Gergiev prior to attending the performance, I fully expect that a version from Morlot and Seattle would be a major contender.

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.

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