You won’t find any Mozart at this weekend’s Northwest Sinfonietta concerts.
What you will find: glassblowing videos, live dance, electric cello, African drums and living composers — two of them playing on stage in Seattle, Tacoma and Puyallup.
The Northwest Sinfonietta is blowing classical out of the box.
“The style of the concert is flexible, versatile — that’s not a common classical music feeling,” said Sinfonietta executive director Thom Mayes. “This is something unique, that you wouldn’t find the Seattle Symphony or Symphony Tacoma doing. It plays to our strength as a chamber orchestra.”
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This is something unique, that you wouldn’t find the Seattle Symphony or Symphony Tacoma doing.
Thom Mayes, Northwest Sinfonietta
And to the strength of two other local arts groups: the Museum of Glass and Spectrum Dance. The “Art for Art’s Sake” concerts this weekend don’t just have unusual pieces (all written in America within the past 35 years) — they play those pieces twice through. In the first half, the music will have a video background of artists blowing glass at the museum’s hot shop, synched to the music. In the second, Spectrum dancers will perform new choreography inspired by the works.
It’s a format that not only helps listeners better understand pieces they may be hearing for the first time, but stimulates other senses to help you hear the music differently. Coincidentally, Symphony Tacoma and the Northwest Repertory Singers will be collaborating with Museum of Glass artists for their May concerts.
“The audience gets to hear the pieces through different earpieces,” said conductor David Lockington, who chose the works to inspire the artists and dancers as well as musicians.
The five pieces, each around six-10 minutes long, represent the diversity of American classical music. “Encaustic” was recently written by Alexander Miller, a clarinetist in the Grand Rapids Symphony in Michigan, and is getting its Northwest premiere. Inspired by the encaustic technique of painting with molten wax, the piece is lyrical and otherworldly, with the solo clarinet representing the paint via virtuosic, colorful lines, and the orchestra “melting” as the wax with long slow glissandi (a slide between notes). “Stones and Bread” is a string quartet written by African-American composer James Lee III: with anguished violin lines over angry staccato cello and furiously dissonant upward flourishes, it has what Lockington reads as energy suggesting the fire that melts glass. Then there’s the final movement of “Glassworks” by iconic minimalist composer Philip Glass — chosen for obvious reasons — with mesmerizing triplets in the chamber group (flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, viola, cello and piano) that float hauntingly between major and minor. The final work is “Mai Nozipo” by Dumisani Maraire, a Zimbabwean musician who lived in the Northwest during the 1970s and 1980s, teaching at the University of Washington and the Evergreen State College. The joyful African-harmony string quartet with insistent djembe rhythms is well-known from the Kronos Quartet’s “Pieces of Africa” CD, and will finish the concert with its irresistible clarity and light — just like a piece of translucent glass art.
But beginning the concert, and linking every piece, will be two Northwest composers who happen to be Sinfonietta musicians: violist Heather Bentley and cellist Gretchen Yanover. That is where the orchestra is truly blurring classical lines.
“I was delighted to be asked to (write a piece for this concert),” said Bentley, who was asked by Lockington after she’d suggested a long list of other Northwest composers (as a violist who plays a lot of new music, she knew many), but also sent him a video of an opera she’d written.
Beginning in March 2016, Bentley knew what she’d write: a piece called “Hot Shop,” based on her experiences watching her sons learn to blow glass. Scoring it for chamber orchestra with harp and percussion, Bentley played with glass-inspired colors like icy harmonics, tremolo and ponticello in strings, and long high notes on piccolo. The piece follows the pace of a glassblowing session: frenetic activity as the glass gets hot enough to work, then a tense period as the glass cools and artists hope it doesn’t crack. In her score, Bentley instructs the strings and percussion in notes to be improvised at intervals, adding to the real-time tension.
“Watching people work with glass is really physical and dynamic, but also highly technical,” said Bentley. “It’s a little like playing an instrument. And there are often teams of people, so there’s tremendous interactivity in real time. It’s very cool to compare it to (musical) ensemble work.”
Watching people work with glass is really physical and dynamic, but also highly technical. It’s a little like playing an instrument.
Heather Bentley, composer of “Hot Shop”
Bentley will be playing viola for the whole concert, including her own piece.
Having started composition in her 40s, the 52-year-old musician acknowledged that people are sometimes surprised by the idea of a composer who’s also a professional classical musician, as opposed to a college academic or (more likely) who has been dead for some time.
“But they’re usually delighted,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of enthusiasm.”
And, said Bentley, other musicians are usually delighted too.
“I get positive feedback from musicians all the time,” she says. “We have an amazing community of musicians in Seattle. Half the people I know are composers. I feel deeply encouraged.”
The other composer playing on stage will be Gretchen Yanover, who’s a little reluctant to call herself a composer. A cellist, Yanover has been playing her own compositions for 17 years using looping: her electric cello is plugged into a foot pedal that can record short bursts of music and loop them back repeatedly through an amplifier, allowing Yanover to improvise long, sweeping melodies on top.
“I take little bits of classical music and deconstruct them, rework them,” said Yanover, who’ll be sitting solo on the opposite side of the stage from the orchestra and playing as a bridge between the other works on the program. Over the years, she’s recorded two CDs, has played in venues from cafes to yoga classes to SeaTac airport, and agrees that what she’s doing is unusual for classical musicians — especially the improvisation.
“In music schools, there’s not much improvisation, because there’s just not a lot of time (to teach it),” she said. “And while many of my colleagues in the Sinfonietta have fantastic musical lives, there are a number who just say, ‘Oh no, I’m not doing that.’ ”
Despite positive feedback from general listeners, Yanover said, there was a sense that “this other thing I was doing was not (classically) legitimate. I was embarrassed to share it with most of the classical community, because of a few comments I couldn’t shake off.”
So to have her own music featured in a Sinfonietta concert is the ultimate compliment.
“It’s neat music, and it’s fun for me to have this assignment,” she said.
For Mayes, it’s all part of a new style of classical music that breaks the usual format to encompass the best of Northwest arts.
“It’s our orchestra, and we’re showcasing these unique elements of the people who make up our orchestra family,” he said.
Art for Art’s Sake
Who: Northwest Sinfonietta, directed by David Lockington, with Spectrum Dance and Museum of Glass artists.
When/Where: 7:30 p.m. Friday (March 31) at Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Rialto Theater, 310 S. Ninth St., Tacoma; 2 p.m. Sunday at Pioneer Park Pavilion, 330 Meridian Ave. S., Puyallup.
Tickets: $21.50-$36.50 (Seattle); $20-$50 (Tacoma); $35/$10 student rush (Puyallup).
Information: 888-356-6040, northwestsinfonietta.org.