From Concert Hall to Capitol Hill Nightclub: Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra’s SPARK

by Maggie Molloy

When it comes to classical music, the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra likes to think outside the concert hall. This Saturday, Second Inversion is thrilled to sponsor the launch of SMCO’s new SPARK performance series: an immersive concert experience that presents classical music old and new in nightclubs and other unexpected venues.

“It’s every musician’s dream for their friends who have no experience with classical music to enjoy this incredible art form as much as we do,” said Geoffrey Larson, Music Director of SMCO. “I wanted to provide a space to enjoy classical music without any rules, real or perceived: where audience members could have a drink, get up and dance, applaud and scream and shout whenever they want. I wanted to show how music of the classical genre can be relevant to our lives today—whether it was composed 300 years ago or three days ago.”

The series launch, which takes place amid the neon lights of the Fred Wildlife Refuge on Capitol Hill, features music from both eras. The concert unfolds as a fully-produced, continuous musical experience that oscillates between guest artist DJ Suttikeeree’s electronic dance music sets and SMCO’s electrifying classical music performances.

Under Geoffrey Larson’s baton, SMCO pairs a Vivaldi chamber concerto with Max Richter’s modern recomposition of the Baroque master’s famous Four Seasons. The centerpiece of the evening is Mason Bates’ infectious and aptly-titled Rise of Exotic Computing for sinfonietta and laptop, and a world premiere of a new work for horns and orchestra by William Rowe—co-commissioned and performed by SMCO and the Skylark Quartet—rounds out the program. Electronic interludes from DJ Suttikeeree provide both dynamic contrasts and fluid connections between the evening’s wide-ranging works.

“Suttikeeree will be spinning his own brand of electro-hop, mixing in fragments of the orchestral music our audience will hear onstage and providing a heartbeat that ties together the different genres throughout the night,” Larson said.

The first of its kind in Seattle, the SPARK series was created with the guidance of composer and producer Gabriel Prokofiev, whose orchestral arrangement of Sir Mixalot’s “Baby Got Back” premiered to viral success with the Seattle Symphony in 2014. The grandson of legendary Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, Gabriel is also the founder of the Nonclassical record label and Club Night series based in London.

“Gabriel was extremely helpful in helping me strategize three things: what role the DJ should play in the event, how to structure the general ‘flow’ of the evening, and (to a lesser extent) what sort of music we should consider performing,” Larson said. “Through trial and error, Gabriel has come up with a pretty strong and unique concept for the flow of the larger Nonclassical Club Night events, and this sort of timing has been adapted into our plans for the SPARK series.”

Like Nonclassical Club Nights, the SPARK series aims to create immersive, cross-disciplinary performances that redefine the rules of classical chamber music, breaking away from the constraints of the traditional concert hall and sparking new and inspiring collaborations.


The SPARK series launch is this Saturday, May 20 at 8pm at the Fred Wildlife Refuge on Capitol Hill. Click here for tickets and more information.

ALBUM REVIEW: Max Richter’s Three Worlds: Music from Woolf Works

by Geoffrey Larson

Three novels by Virginia Woolf, the British modernist writer living 1882-1941, shaped a choreographic work by Wayne McGregor created for The Royal Ballet in 2015—a triptych that Max Richter was given the risky task of scoring. These three works show the great variety in Woolf’s writing, each contrasting dramatically in subject matter and purpose. In his score, Richter has drawn on his own varying talents as a pianist, film composer, and electro-acoustic producer. But is this music worthy of its inspiration?

It’s worth mentioning that Richter is not the only living composer who has undertaken the task of creating a musical companion to Virginia Woolf’s writing. Philip Glass’ challenge of scoring the 2002 film The Hours was both different and similar: the story of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway was the key subject of the film, but the action took place in three different time periods. Glass’ aesthetic was successful at weaving together the different storylines, using the bare materials of pulsing, repetitive rhythmic patterns and simple harmonic changes to help the listener connect the dots. Perhaps minimalist music, the genre that both Glass and Richter subscribe to in different ways, is that which serves Woolf’s narrative style and subject matter the best. Apart from the most obvious fact that both phrases of minimalist music and sentences of Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness writing seem to go for pages, both artistic forms create magic out of seemingly basic, ordinary materials.

“Minimalist” music makes use of repeating simplicity (say, continuous groups of eighth notes) and fairly straightforward harmony, while Woolf looks to the realistic lives of everyday people for her subject matter. The first few pages of Mrs. Dalloway are a complete tour-de-force of narrative storytelling, creating something stunningly engrossing out of the doldrums of daily routine: Woolf takes an ordinary London street scene, and with great care delves into the thoughts and dreams of one random passerby after the next, looking past the mundane to essentially create something fascinating from nothing.

It seems perfect then that the Mrs. Dalloway section that begins Richter’s album starts with a sample of London street sounds: Big Ben, church bells, etc. Slipped in at the very beginning is the only surviving recording of Virginia Woolf herself, a BBC archive of her reading the essay “Craftsmanship” in 1937. As this gives way to a gentle piano line played by the composer himself, we immediately understand that this project is something deeply personal for Richter, who spent much of his early 20s with his nose in Woolf novels. The sound of Richter’s piano anchors the music of this part, and although it has clear emotional depth and a richness of sound flowing from the Deutsches Filmorchestrer Babelsberg under the baton of Robert Ziegler, there are a couple moments that sound so similar to Philip Glass that they could be mistaken for the other composer’s heavily piano-based score of the same Mrs. Dalloway subject matter. However, what follows next in Orlando is stunningly different.

Richter always seems at his best when he brings his skill as an electronic musician and producer to bear on the world of the orchestra, and when he is confronted with Woolf’s more unusual story of a fictional 16th-century male poet who transforms into a woman and lives to the present day, things get interesting. In “Modular Astronomy” he patches together a beat using a mosaic-like conglomeration of orchestral sounds, each of them bizarrely clipped. If you are a classical musician, you are either awed and fascinated by this effect or it gives you a conniption. Richter uses analogue modular synth, sequencing, digital signal processing, and computer-generated synth as he explores Orlando, sometimes eschewing the orchestra for exclusively electronic sounds. These tracks may be the most beautiful surprise on this album, although it’s hard to beat the breathtaking reference in “Love Song” to a famous theme that composers such as Rachmaninoff also couldn’t resist modernizing.

The final track is by far the longest, and is the sole selection dedicated to The Waves, a 1931 novel consisting of the soliloquies of six characters. The sound of waves at the outset seems to have a sort of triple-significance: beyond the allusion to this most experimental of Woolf novels and the current of the river that would ultimately take the author’s life in her suicide, we can feel the relentless weight of depression washing over her. A reading of her suicide note would have seemed cheap here if they had gotten a less-than-fantastic actor to record it; we’re lucky Gillian Anderson was given the chance to do such a poignant reading. High strains of violin in wide-open intervals begin to accompany the words in a heart-breaking progression, and when the orchestra and soloists are left alone at the conclusion of the letter, the music continues on with ever-deepening orchestration and intensity. We’ve been without a true emotional climax of great orchestral scale so far in this album, but the final track does not disappoint.

There’s something else to address here. Many a graduate thesis has been written on the subject of Virginia Woolf’s great subtlety: she masterfully leads us deeper into the lives of seemingly unimportant characters and pulls us in unexpected narrative directions without our knowledge, all while crafting language that makes use of colorful, existential references and imagery. Does the music of Richter’s score to Woolf Works possess a similar subtlety? The answer is a complicated yes and no.

Richter’s music is often disarmingly and purposefully simple, which for many makes it instantly accessible. Most listeners’ ears will easily absorb the trademark “cinematic” harmony and orchestration that create drama and emotion in a straightforward way, and in a sense, what you hear is what you get. Certainly, opening the album with a recording of the voice of Virginia Woolf herself is anything but subtle. However, poetic details in this music’s construction are hidden beneath the surface. Richter claims “asymmetries and trapdoors” in the rhythm and harmony of the music for Mrs. Dalloway, with the intention that this music is meant to feel “misremembered after a long absence.” The electronic creations of Orlando draw heavily on variations on a fragment known as La Folia, popular with a huge variety of composers starting in the 17th century. A ground bass is the backbone of this sort of music, and music to The Waves is also structured this way. A “suicide” theme in the final track connects to musical allusions to the shell-shocked character Septimus in “War Anthem” from the Mrs. Dalloway music. The subtlety of these details makes Woolf Works a richer musical offering, and is probably Richter’s greatest gift to the world of art influenced by the writing of Virginia Woolf.

STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their weekly playlist. Tune in on Friday, May 12 to hear these pieces and plenty of other new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre!

Missy Mazzoli: “Orizzonte” (Cantaloupe Music)
Performed by Lisa Moore

Missy Mazzoli’s “Orizzonte”—Italian for “horizon”—features gently undulating sine waves to create an audible landscape, over which pianist Lisa Moore plays a hypnotic line of understated landmarks.

During a residency at a squat in Amsterdam, the piano on which Mazzoli worked had been left to the elements for a year as part of an art installation, so some of the keys didn’t work. She wrote “Orizzonte” for that piano. The piece includes no bar lines, so the rhythm changes with each performance. It’s the perfect music for refocusing your mind as you watch power lines rise and fall through your car window. – Brendan Howe


Richard Carrick: “Sub-merge” (New World Records)
Performed by Richard Carrick with DZ4 Wind Quartet

Have you ever wondered what a wind quartet would sound like underwater? Richard Carrick did.

His two-part “Sub-merge” is written to sound like an ensemble under the ocean, illustrated through sinuous sonic distortions and contorted musical textures. Scored for winds and piano, at times you can actually hear the individual instruments being pushed and pulled away from one another in the currents, creating rich harmonies and microtonal echoes that sparkle like a sunken treasure.
 Maggie Molloy

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 12pm hour today to hear this piece.


Max Richter: Sleep: Path 5 (delta) (Deutsche Grammophon)

This Max Richter piece reminded me of the cravings for still, peace, and introspection which often seem to come as an involuntary reaction to prolonged stress and business.  In this track, I hear both the defensive, convalescent retreat and the hopeful, rejuvenating centering that come with sleep, often in the same night.  Taking in this small portion of the piece makes me want to investigate the larger (8 hours!) work, perhaps overnight.   Perhaps I should “sleep on it.” – Seth Tompkins

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 4pm hour today to hear this piece.


Allen Vizzutti: Snow Scenes for Trumpet and Orchestra (De Haske Records)
Performed with the Budapest Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jan De Haan

Vibrant and jazzy, Allen Vizzutti’s Snow Scenes for Trumpet and Orchestra is another effortless performance by this master trumpeter. Vizzutti, who has performed on hundreds of motion picture soundtracks and TV shows (as well as with Sinatra, Streisand, Prince, and on and on…), is a bonafide savant when it comes to the trumpet. Don’t believe it? Let countless YouTube videos of Vizzutti performing while rotating the trumpet, or playing it upside down, or just teaching “trumpet clinics,” make the case.  His talent is stupefying.
Rachele Hales

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 6pm hour today to hear this piece.


Ellen Taaffe Zwilich: Memorial (Soundbrush Records)
Performed by the Canticum Novum Youth Choir

Here is a stunning work of music that cannot be ignored. Ellen Taafe Zwilich’s Memorial for the Victims of the Sandy Hook Massacre is scored for a regular SATB chorus that begins singing the Requiem aeternam text, and is then joined by a children’s choir with a heartbreaking task: reciting the names of the young victims of the school shooting.

Subject matter aside, the music is fascinatingly beautiful, with shifting colors and long, drawn-out suspensions. There is an enchanting interplay in the voices that only serves to heighten the power of Zwilich’s reaction to this tragedy, and makes this short work a must-hear.  – Geoffrey Larson

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 9pm hour today to hear this piece.

ALBUM REVIEW: Max Richter’s “From Sleep”

by Rachele Hales

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From Sleep is an offshoot of Richter’s durational album Sleep, which clocks in at 8 hours – about the amount of sleeping time scientists recommend for adults.  While Sleep is intended as “a personal lullaby for a frenetic world” and meant to be listened while one is counting sheep and through the duration of the sleep cycle, From Sleep is a more modest 60-minute ambient daydream.  It’s a warm blanket of hazy, cozy sound.  Richter calls it his “manifesto for a slower pace of existence.”  The two albums share a common landscape, but with a much shorter run-time From Sleep is less of a political statement.

The album contains seven selections that sound different enough to be their own pieces but flow seamlessly together, enough so that it’s difficult to tell when one piece has ended and the next begins.  Richter has composed a delicate musical cocoon with no sharp edges.   From Sleep opens with “Dream 3 (In the Midst of My Life).”  The gentle, pulsing piano feels like a lone boat bobbing up and down in a vast ocean.  The vaguely aqueous feel continues into the next selection, “Path 5 (Delta),” which offers up synthesized vocals from soprano Grace Davidson that sound like they could have been recorded underwater.  As the song goes on her voice even begins to sound less human and more like a beautiful, sorrowful, looping whale song.

“Space 11 (Invisible Pages Over)” is a simple drone that serves as a bridge to “Dream 13 (Minus Even),” where we are again treated to Richter’s tranquil piano.  This time the piano is less pulsing and more like a lullaby with the cello taking its time to join in like a tranquil foghorn.  The fog begins to lift at about the halfway mark and you can almost feel the warm sun dappling the aural scenery.

The looping structure of the album mirrors the looping within the songs as we move from “Dream 13 (Minus Even)” to another bridging drone (“Space 21 (Petrichor)”), to more slow, precious, circular piano in “Path 19 (Yet Frailest)”, and finally return in “Dream 8 (Late & Soon)” to silky strings, moody organ, and Davidson’s lamenting vocals floating in and out like a zephyr.

Given its graceful serenity, From Sleep could be used as ambient background music for students, a meditative companion for yogis, or the soundtrack to a relaxing evening walk.  And yes, you can also use it as a sleep aid.  Hit play on this dulcet album in any situation where the end goal is to relax, open up the mind, and disengage from the busy whirring of everyday life.