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Made in America Festival: Part 2: music by Thomas, Benshoof, Kellogg, Matheson, Perle, and Bermel soloists, Christian Knapp, cond., members of the Seattle Symphony Chorale, Seattle Symphony, Benaroya Hall, Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall, Seattle, 6.5.2006 (BJ)

“Part 2" indicates that this year’s festival is the follow-up to a first instalment that was presented during the 2004/05 season. Part 1 “examined the great American music of the first three quarters of the 20th century,” music director Gerard Schwarz explained in his introductory note for Part 2. For his next trick, he has bravely and illuminatingly concentrated on living American composers. This opening program placed four composers 42 years old and younger alongside 73-year-old local resident Ken Benshoof and George Perle, who by happy coincidence celebrated his 91st birthday on the day of the concert. In the event, to my ears at least, youth won the day.

Let me be clear. Most of the music being written today is not, to put it diplomatically, for the ages. The same was always true, even in Mozart’s time, as (to pluck just one example out of a possible thousand from the air) listening to the first few dozen bars of a bassoon quartet by Franz Danzi will make abundantly clear. Fortunately for our sanity, the bad or at least mediocre music of the past has already been winnowed out; we rarely encounter it in the concert hall. For the music of our own time, that process has still to be completed–but we must go through it, because we have to inspect what is on offer if we are to be able to distinguish the fruitful grain from the chaff.

At least two of the works on this program qualified for the former designation, which makes the evening’s score a pretty good one by any reasonable standard. The most successful piece came from the pen of Daniel Kellogg, the youngest composer of the evening: he was born in 1976 (in Connecticut), and wrote his Suite for Eleven Players in 1999. The work is cast in a relatively consonant harmonic language, and each of its three movements is conceived as, in Kellogg’s words, “a tribute to a different composer who meant a lot to my growth as a composer.” Soft Tones and Mad Illuminations paid skillful homage, in respectively luxuriant and nervously energetic veins, to Barber and Stravinsky. But it was in his concluding Messiaen tribute, An Intimate Silhouette, that Kellogg, even while cleverly evoking the personality of his honoree, proclaimed his own individual voice with the most impressive vividness.

That is certainly one talent to watch, and so is Derek Bermel, born 38 years ago in New York, whose Soul Garden, for solo viola and a string quintet with two cellos, closed the evening on a comparably personal and poetic note. “In the cadenza,” Bermel tells us in his note, “one hears a dialogue reminiscent of both call-and-response in gospel music and J.S. Bach’s multidimensional solo writing–one example of how Soul Garden unearths common ground between disparate traditions.” A large claim, this suggests the kind of catch-all eclecticism, interweaving tradition with contemporary pop-related styles, that I often find tiresome–but it is a measure of Bermel’s resourcefulness that the result was entirely coherent and often beguilingly beautiful.

If I consign Benshoof, Perle, and the 36-year-old James Matheson to that other, less complimentary, category, it is not for any lack of expertise in their writing. Benshoof’s In Shadow, light and Matheson’s Buzz both evince impressive craft; it is just that I think there are dozens, if not hundreds, of other composers currently producing work that is equally well written and equally short of individual character. The same is true–even truer–of Perle, the thorough yet arid proficiency of whose Sinfonietta I had me puzzling over how it is possible, in one work after another, to go so convincingly through the motions of making music without communicating anything.

The program opened with a contribution from Augusta Read Thomas, born 42 years ago in New York state. Hers is a talent that has often impressed me, if at times threatening to go off the boil–a problem she shares, it must be said, with a number of other initially gifted young American composers who have seemed to lose their creative way. So far as critical judgment is concerned, her Love Songs for a cappella voices turned out, pretty though it sounded, to be neither here nor there. Indeed, it was hardly there at all, because only two of the seven songs were performed, which in the circumstances seemed a pity. For the rest, however, I have nothing but praise for what Maestro Schwarz conceived in this program, or for the totally committed and passionate performances offered by members of his Seattle Symphony–and especially viola soloist Mara Gearman–under Christian Knapp’s persuasive baton. All in all, the month’s winnowing was well instituted by this opening concert, and I am only sorry that a long-planned out-of-town trip will keep me from attending the rest of the festival.

Bernard Jacobson




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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)