High above the symphony

I previously wrote about how we went to the KUOW Front Row Center event at the Seattle Art Museum, and a couple weeks ago was another event, this time at the Seattle Symphony. It featured a piano concerto we're quite familiar with performed by a pianist we're also quite familiar with.

Since Marcie Sillman likes to have a variety of art forms as part of Front Row Center, it was only a matter of time before a music performance came around. It had been a while since we were at Benaroya Hall, so I decided to go also (Melody tries to make it to as many of the Front Row Center events as she can, but I pick and choose).

The performance consisted of A New England Holiday Symphony by Charles Ives and the Emperor Concerto by Beethoven, performed by Emanuel Ax. In addition, other art forms were integrated with the Ives piece. All of Us Belong combined the orchestral piece with stories, animated drawings, and poetry.

Although we had heard Ax play several times, this was the first time we'd heard Ludovic Morlot conduct the Seattle Symphony; the last time we went there was a guest conductor.

Pre-concert talk

Before the concert was a talk about the Ives piece given by Larry Starr, Chair of American Music Studies at the UW School of Music. We got there pretty early, so it wasn't until we got up to leave that we realized how many people went to listen; there must have been at least a couple hundred people there.

We were told about the different movements along with clips from the piece to underscore what Professor Starr was explaining. During the first movement (Washington's Birthday) he said that Ives called for a Jew's harp. At the time, it was a pretty common instrument (I remember Snoopy playing it in Peanuts animated cartoons) and it was expected that the audience would participate and play along.

The final movement, Thanksgiving normally would include a chorus, but there wasn't to be one at this performance. Professor Starr mused that Ives would be pleased if audience members sang their favorite hymns during that section, but if one were to do so, it would be wise to do it softly in case nearby people weren't so inclined.

Finding our seats

We were sitting a few rows from the stage for the talk. After it was over, we went back out to the lobby then started going up the stairs to the top level to get to our seats, in one of the boxes on the left. It was the first time we had not been on the orchestra level, so we expected the view to be quite different.


A New England Holiday Symphony by Charles Ives has four movements, each representing a season: Washington’s Birthday, Decoration Day (now known as Memorial Day), The Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and Forefather’s Day. It was composed a movement at a time over sixteen years and was finished in 1913.

Even though the piece is a century old, it would fit in today's remix culture. Washington's Birthday includes “Good Night, Ladies”, Decoration Day has “Taps” (played by a solo trumpet at the back of the hall), and Fourth of July has several patriotic numbers, including “Yankee Doodle”, “Dixie”, and “Battle Hymn of the Republic”. The pieces were played over Ives' music, sometimes as a counterpoint, sometimes intentionally clashing.

Before each movement art was shown on a large screen. The pieces were drawn by people at Catholic Housing Services, Compass Housing Alliance, and Mary’s Place, giving those experiencing homelessness to express themselves through art. The pieces were done with tracing paper and charcoal pencils, and in some cases, the drawings were animated for the presentation.

While the art was shown (along with portraits of the artists), Seattle's Civic Poet, Claudia Castro Luna, read original poems inspired by the pieces. She did so from the frontmost box in the first row on the right, so we had a great vantage point.

When the Jew's harps were introduced in the first movement, the audience had a good chuckle. Between movements, as the music came to an end, you could hear some coughing, but once Morlot put his arms down, the coughing really started up.


As I had mentioned above, we're quite familiar with Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Emperor”) in E♭ major, Op. 73. The recording I know the best is the Boston Symphony Orchestra with conductor Seiji Ozawa and soloist Rudolf Serkin. That's a pretty high bar.

Emanuel Ax is a pianist I've been following off and on since I was in high school. When we've seen him, he's always been solid and very gracious with the audience. He also doesn't worry if he isn't perfect; he just keeps going, and most people wouldn't notice.

During intermission, the stage was rearranged for the concerto. Most obviously, the piano was moved, but several chairs were also removed since this piece was scored for a much smaller orchestra.

Usually, when a piano is on stage, especially for a concerto, the concertmaster plays “A” on the piano so the instruments can tune. This time, however, the oboe was used. Seemed odd.

The performance did differ from the Ozawa/Serkin recording in several subtle ways, and I found it both interesting and enjoyable. It was also neat to watch it from high up; we got to see Ax's hands very clearly, and the piano didn't block our view of the orchestra or Morlot.

Seattle audiences are very quick to give soloists standing ovations, and this performance was no different. Ax came out a couple times, and when it was evident that he was going to play an encore, a roar swept through the audience and within about a second it completely died down as people sat back down.

The encore Ax chose was the Chopin Nocturne No. 5 in F# major, Op. 15, No. 2, a quite challenging piece which he nailed.

Front Row Center

Marcie Sillman was going to interview Ludovic Morlot in the lobby right after the concert. Unfortunately, we were located about as far from the coat check as you could be. We rushed out past the lobby to the coat check, got our things, then back into the lobby. The interview had already started, but it looked like we didn't miss much, and were able to grab seats.

The most interesting question to me was about the Ives. During the times that multiple pieces were being played at the same time, some were pretty simple, but others were very complex. Marcie was Intrigued by this and was asking Morlot how he and the musicians kept things straight.

Morlot answered that the view of the piece is different for him than for the orchestra. He likened each instrument as a colored dot, and it's his job, seeing the big picture, to convert that to a pointillist painting.

The Seattle Symphony under Morlot

I mentioned that this was the first time we'd heard Morlot conduct the Seattle Symphony. I was very impressed.

We had heard Gerard Schwartz conduct them several times, and they were fine, but not a top-tier orchestra. We especially heard the difference when the Russian National Orchestra gave a performance, and they were excellent.

This performance was extremely impressive. Things were quite crisp, there were subtleties in phrasing and balance between the different sections, and the players were quite precise. Obviously, the changes can't all be due differences between Schwartz and Morlot, but it was a stunning difference over a few years. Whatever the change, it was great to hear.