Mendelssohn loved Scottish islands, Vaughan Williams was inspired by England’s birds; Arthur Honegger vacationed in the Swiss Alps and Beethoven tramped the Austrian countryside. None of them ever made it to the Pacific Northwest, but the landscape here wouldn’t have seemed too different from the landscapes that inspired them at home: islands, oceans, mountains, forests, green fields, gentle summers. The Northwest Sinfonietta builds on this similarity by combining four landscape-inspired works with images of actual landscapes in this weekend’s concerts in Seattle, Tacoma and Puyallup, in a multimedia program “Soundscapes” that features the photography of renowned Northwest landscape architect Richard Haag.
“This is a first for me,” says Haag, an award-winner and fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects and founder and professor emeritus of the department of landscape architecture at the University of Washington. His work is internationally known for sensitivity to the natural environment.
Haag, whose wife Cheryl Trivision is on the Sinfonietta board, chose 300 out of his 3,000-odd landscape-based photographs to offer the Sinfonietta as a visual backdrop to their performance of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 6, the “Pastorale.” Trivision, who knows the music better, then worked with Sinfonietta director Christophe Chagnard to select 120 slides best suited the score.
Beethoven, who composed often in his head while taking walks around Vienna and the surrounding countryside, wrote the “Pastorale” as a directly narrative sound-painting – a style that would become highly popular in the 19th century but which was unusual in 1808. Writing five movements rather than the traditional four, the composer also annotated each movement with descriptions of what was happening in the countryside depicted in the music: the landscape’s inspiration of cheerful feelings, a brook, a noisy country gathering, a thunderstorm and thankful shepherds’ songs after it ends.
Haag’s photos will sync with the music with anywhere from a few seconds to a minute per slide, says executive director Neil Birnbaum.
What’s interesting, though, is that Haag says he usually tries to include people or other objects (like cars) in his photographs to indicate scale – but since the slides were to accompany a 200-year-old piece of music, that obviously wasn’t ideal.
“I had to go through and find ones that didn’t include (those things),” says Haag. “I was looking for pictures that portrayed a distillation of nature.”
While the other three pieces on the program have no slideshow, they’re equally evocative of the landscapes that inspired them. Mendelssohn’s “The Hebrides” overture (also known as “Fingal’s Cave”) was written after the composer’s trip to Scotland in 1809, when he was 20. The sea-cave, on the remote Hebridean island of Staffa, features not only fierce waves but cathedral-high basalt columns, and has inspired artists from Jules Verne to Keats, Tennyson and Matthew Barney, who used it as the location for the film “Cremaster 3”. Mendelssohn’s overture depicts the cave’s sounds with echoing phrases in cellos and bassoons, the wildness of the sea in surging crescendi and decrescendi, and bird calls in the woodwinds.
Honegger, a Swiss composer in the early 20th century who lived in Paris, wrote “Pastorale d’été” after a 1920 holiday in the Swiss Alps. Composed like the Mendelssohn for a chamber-sized orchestra, it has long, sweeping phrases with lush instrumentation and occasional flurries of string or woodwind to imply fluttering insects. Ralph Vaughan William’s “The Lark Ascending,” though written just a few years earlier, has a much more romantic style, capturing both the essence of the soaring bird in the George Meredith poem that inspired it and the quiet green English countryside that was to be disrupted so completely by the war and industrialization that followed. Denise Dillenbeck, Sinfonietta co-concertmaster and now of Central Washington University, will play the virtuosic solo line.
7:30 p.m. Feb. 14 at Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; 866-833-4747. 7:30 p.m. Feb. 15 at Rialto Theater, 310 S. 9th St., Tacoma; 800-291-7593. 2 p.m. Feb. 16 at Pioneer Park Pavilion, 330 Meridian Ave., Puyallup; 800-838-3006. Tickets $27-$55/$10 student rush 90 mins before concert. nwsinfonietta.org
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 email@example.com