Ludovic Morlot, conductor of the Seattle Symphony [contract recently extended through 2019] and a frequent guest of the Boston Symphony since his tenure as assistant conductor in 2004-2007, introduced the composer John Luther Adams to the orchestra’s repertory on Sunday’s concert at Tanglewood, along with familiar pieces by Mozart and Dvořák.
Adams received the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for a work commissioned by Morlot and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, entitled Become Ocean. The Adams work performed on Sunday was a different one, The Light That Fills the World. This is an older piece, its orchestral version dating from 2000, inspired by the landscape of Alaska, where Adams lived for many years. His music, when connected to environmental images, often suggests no actual events, no themes, melodies, or rhythms with a clear beat. Music of this sort may be hard to imagine for listeners who’ve never heard any of Adams’s work. Conveniently, the Seattle Symphony’s recording of Become Ocean under Morlot’s direction can be heard [here].
The Light That Fills the World is a meditation on the northern world of ice and snow at the end of winter, an image that certainly will be understood by residents of Massachusetts after last winter. The conductor beats a steady pulse, but the music seems to exist almost without reference to it. It is a work of sheer sonority, pulsing irregularly, with slowly changing, sustained sounds. as the composer noted in an essay published in the BSO program book: “There are no sharply defined lines—only changing colors on a timeless white field. All the edges are blurred.” As the orchestral sounds pile on one another, the first effect is of unchanging sonority pressing upon the listener, who gradually becomes aware of slow changes with little to pin one’s finger on. Given the visual inspiration of the piece, it suggests the aural equivalent of snow blindness. Everything is white—and yet it is not.
Morlot kept this pulsing sonority moving yet not moving, seeming to swell, yet within fixed confines. The psychological mood is striking; the listener scarcely knows where he is—at the beginning of the piece, the middle, or the end. Yet the effect for one who has enough patience to sit and let it happen is indeed striking.
The remainder of the program was far more traditional, consisting of Mozart and Dvořák. Mozart was represented by the Violin Concerto No. 3 with Pinchas Zukerman as the soloist. He brought to bear fine expressive qualities of a romantic style, with extremes of dynamics, loud and soft, that threatened to lose the sound of the violin entirely in the quietest passages. The Koussevitzky Music Shed is surely at least 10 times as large as any hall in which Mozart might have imagined the concerto to be played, and allowances must be made for that size. The most charming moment of the performance came at the very end when Zukerman turned his back to the audience and played the final solo phrase directly to the woodwinds at the back of the stage. They in turn responded with a brief fanfare-like finish while the strings remain silent. Mozart invented this charming manner of ending, and the performers made it visible.
Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony, at times his darkest and always his most patriotic, provided the colorful closer. Here the interplay of string, brass, and woodwind sections was highlighted with carefully worked out dynamics to produce the vivid colors so characteristic of the composer. The energy of the celebratory, martial, and dancelike passages was vividly depicted, while the poignant moments, especially in the slow movement, were deeply expressive. The hymnlike march built to a ringing peroration.