Austin, Texas calls itself “The Live Music Capital of the World,” and it sure attempts to live up to that reputation, often shoehorning live music in situations where silence would be preferred.
I spent 14 years enjoying both the local scene and the touring shows that stopped by the city. Classical music, however, is a big blind spot in an otherwise diverse scene. Yes, Austin has an orchestra, but in terms of national reputation, orchestras in Houston and Dallas have a higher profile. Houston, for example, premiered John Adams’ Nixon in China.
One year, SXSW actually scheduled a classical night that featured works by Steve Reich and Philip Glass. The festival never tried anything like that again.
I had gone so long without listening to the classical music which appealed to me — namely, modern works — that I didn’t know what I was missing.
Then I moved to Seattle in 2012.
The Seattle Symphony may not have the cachet of the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra or the Boston Symphony Orchestra. But it sure nips at the heels of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the recorded output of the Seattle Symphony far outstrips Austin, which has … one.
Ludovic Morlot was mid-way through his second year with the symphony when I relocated to Seattle. I hadn’t been in Seattle for more than a month when I learned the orchestra would premiere a work by Nico Muhly. I bought a ticket and pretty much fell in love with Benaroya Hall.
My next symphony concert was a few weeks later, when Renée Fleming included a few songs from her indie rock album among a program of arias. I was so thoroughly impressed by the orchestra’s offerings that I subscribed.
In fall 2012, the orchestra introduced a series of concerts called Untitled. The concerts consisted entirely of modern works performed in the lobby of the hall, not the auditorium. They were held on Fridays at 10 p.m., and it was general admission seating. Alcohol was available throughout the concert.
In short, Benaroya’s lobby became a night club for new music.
I subscribed for the series and got discounts on orchestra concerts throughout the season. In the last three years, I’ve heard the orchestra perform such works as:
- The Chariman Dances, Harmonielehre, Lollapalooza and the first string quartet by John Adams. (Another quartet is currently in the works.)
- Black Angels by George Crumb
- The Firebird, Petroushka, and the Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky
- War Requiem by Benjamin Britten
- Symphonies Nos. 5, 6 and 7 by Jean Sibelius
- Symphonies Nos. 5 and 7 by Ludwig van Beethoven
- Requiem by Wolfgang Mozart
- Symphony No. 9 by Antonin Dvorak
The Untitled Series itself featured works by Karlheinz Stockhausen, George Perle, John Zorn and Vladimir Martynov.
Seattle Symphony isn’t the only organization programming new music in the city. Town Hall Seattle’s Hall Music series has brought JACK Quartet, Roomful of Teeth and NOW Ensemble.
Bang on a Can brought its marathon to the Moore Theatre, which included the Seattle premiere of Music for 18 Musicians by Steve Reich.
The Seattle Chamber Music Festival held twice a year programmed Reich’s Different Trains, and a free recital featured Dmitri Shostakovich’s Quartet for Strings No. 8.
At a concert for the University of Washington New Music Ensemble, an undergraduate quartet tackled Crumb’s Black Angels. Let me repeat: undergraduates. I wouldn’t have pictured my classmates at the University of Hawai`i doing such a thing.
In my student days of studying classical music, I rarely had an opportunity to hear works I would discover through recordings. In Austin, it wasn’t even a consideration.
It wasn’t until I moved to a city with a vibrant classical community that I realized how starved I was. Honolulu and Austin conditioned me to live without. Seattle showed me that was unacceptable.
The upcoming season includes a new work by Adams, the Requiem by Gabriel Fauré and a premiere of the first symphony by Wayne Horvitz with Bill Frisell as a soloist. I haven’t even mentioned UW World Series, which has the Danish String Quartet performing Alfred Schnittke’s String Quartet No. 3. Kronos Quartet is also stopping by in 2016.
So, yes, my appetite for new music will continue to be well fed.