They say you don't know a good thing until it's gone...and speaking as someone who's about to leave Seattle, I can tell you that's all too true.
Other similarly-sized U.S. cities can't compare to Seattle's rich, diverse arts scene. Whether you're a concert-going purist or you like your music with a generous helping of beer, Seattle has you covered. Whether you want to wear a ball gown to your next concert outing or you can't be bothered to change out of your hoodie and jeans, there's a local concert to suit you. Even if you'd rather listen to rappers than to Rachmaninoff, you can still exist in Seattle's classical realm.
Every season, local audiences have hundreds of concert options, and so many are worthwhile. That said, there are a few experiences you absolutely must check off your bucket list if you live in Seattle and love classical music.
1. THE RING
For superfans of this legendary German composer, the Emerald City is the number-one U.S. destination. That's largely because Glynn Ross, Seattle Opera's founding General Director, pulled off a thrilling production of Wagner's four-opera cycle, The Ring of the Nibelung, beginning in the 1970s. His successor, the now-retired Speight Jenkins, continued the tradition with two more intriguing and breathtaking productions of the complete Ring. Seattle Opera's Wagnerian legacy lives on with its promise to continue performing The Ring regularly. We don't have any dates for the next cycle just yet, but in the meantime, the Opera has compiled a handy list of other Wagner events taking place this season.
2. OPENING NIGHT WITH THE SEATTLE SYMPHONY
The Seattle Symphony's Opening Night Concert & Gala is the ultimate night out for any local classical lover. The repertoire is always lush, varied, and guaranteed to please. The Seattle Symphony's Artistic Director, Ludovic Morlot, is always at the podium. And of course, a world-famous soloist is always on hand to give a dazzling performance. (This September, that star is pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet.) If you have the means, you can also indulge in an elegant post-concert dinner at the nearby Fairmont Olympic Hotel, where black tie formal attire is encouraged. Here, you'll rub shoulders with the Seattle area's biggest arts benefactors and you'll get a chance to meet the musicians.
3. SCANDINAVIAN MUSIC
An astounding number of native Seattlites boast Norwegian and Swedish ancestry. As such, there's no better place in the country to catch a concert celebrating the heritage of those Northern countries. As it happens, one of the premier concerts of the fall features Grieg's compelling Piano Concerto, played by the ever-popular Lang Lang. Plus, stay tuned for the 21st season of the Mostly Nordic Chamber Series, presented each year by the Nordic Heritage Museum. Each cleverly-themed concert singles out one Nordic country and ends with a smörgåsbord of eats from that nation.
4. SING (AND PLAY) ALONG CONCERTS
Seattlites pride themselves on their inclusivity, which is why it's easy to find a whole host of non-auditioned community orchestras and choruses to join. If you love performing music but your schedule just doesn't permit regular rehearsals, you can still join in at one of many sing-and-play-along concerts in the city. Every year on December 26, this Ravenna church famously performs Handel's Messiah with a volunteer orchestra and chorus numbering in the hundreds. More than a hundred volunteer singers and instrumentalists gather for a Mozart Requiem performance during the annual Northwest Folklife Festival on Memorial Day Weekend. And of course there's Summer Sings, a concert series hosted by the Seattle Symphony Chorale, where singers of all levels can show up, grab a score, and sightread a variety of classical masterworks.
5. BEETHOVEN'S NINTH AT BENAROYA
Ludwig's last symphony was revolutionary for its time, and today it's a concert hall classic. Every season, right around the New Year, audiences pack Benaroya Hall to hear the Seattle Symphony perform this classical staple alongside other holiday favorites. From the fantastic opening crescendo to the beautiful strains of "Ode to Joy," it's easy to see why this is a perennial pick for seasoned fans and newbies alike.
6. OUTDOOR SUMMER CONCERTS
We locals famously endure months of clouds and drizzle for a huge payoff: a long, glorious Seattle summer. Make the most of the perfect weather and late sunsets by getting yourself to an outdoor chamber concert. The Seattle Chamber Music Society always hosts a free concert at Volunteer Park in the middle of its Summer Festival. Many of the free summer concerts held at the Ballard Locks feature classical repertoire. Classical KING FM even co-hosts a series of free lunchtime chamber concerts in Westlake Park.
7. THE NUTCRACKER
For more than 30 years, Pacific Northwest Ballet celebrated the beloved artist and author Maurice Sendak with its annual production of The Nutcracker. All the sets and props were created and designed by Sendak, who is known for his children's book Where the Wild Things Are. Though PNB decided to retire its unique Sendak production this year, never fear: the new sets will still be one-of-a-kind. PNB is in the process of working with Ian Falconer, illustrator of the Olivia the Pig children's books, to design striking 2015 Nutcracker sets. Audiences are sure to enjoy the refreshed artwork, classic Balanchine choreography, and always-impressive musicianship of the PNB Orchestra this year.
8. A FESTIVAL OF LESSONS AND CAROLS
While we're on the subject of the holidays, let's all admit that nothing says "Christmas" quite like the angelic voices of children. That's why the Northwest Boychoir's annual Festival of Lessons and Carols is a Northwest holiday staple. The 90-voice choir performs its traditional carols, interspersed with readings and a sing-a-long, all around the Puget Sound region in sold-out halls. There's nothing jollier than a concert the whole family can enjoy, from grandparents to in-laws to little ones.
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Where else but in Microsoft's homeland can one watch a Kinect conduct robotic instruments? New technology and genre-defying sounds mark two adventurous concert series produced by the Seattle Symphony, Sonic Evolution and [untitled]. Sonic Evolution is the same series that got the whole country buzzing when rapper Sir Mix-A-Lot took the stage to perform "Baby Got Back" alongside an orchestra and a dozen gyrating women. The 2015-16 season promises to be just as daring, this time exploring classical music's relationship with jazz, blues, hip-hop and electronica. Those with avant-garde tastes will love the late-night [untitled] series, held in the grand lobby. Forget the usual museum-like silence between movements; in fact, forget the concept of "movements" altogether. At [untitled], you can roam freely throughout the concert and expect the unexpected.
10. VIDEO GAME CONCERTS
For those who enjoy gaming just as much as classical music, Seattle is a great place to live. We already know that there are myriad ways for video game enthusiasts to geek out in the Northwest, from PAX to the Retro Gaming Expo. But now two categories of nerd-dom can come together in what is rapidly becoming a cultural touchstone in Seattle: the Video Game Concert. Just last month, 2,500 Seattle-area fans happily shelled out between $60 and $600 each to hear an orchestra play music from Final Fantasy as the game was projected on a giant screen above the stage. Earlier this season, the story was the same with The Legend ofZelda. Even if you aren't a gamer yourself, you might appreciate the music--it often sounds a lot like film music--and you'll certainly enjoy seeing the elaborate costumes on some audience members.
Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, classical audiences cheered, jeered, drank, and talked amongst themselves at concerts. There's one place in Seattle where it's entirely acceptable to respond to classical music like this, and it's in a bar. For years, music lovers young and old have swarmed a handful of Seattle's dive bars, like the Blue Moon Tavern and the Paragon, to hear professional and amateur opera singers belt out classic arias in a rowdier-than-normal setting. It's all thanks to Opera On Tap, a collective of Seattle "divas" who thoughtfully organize a few events each year and get the word out on social media. If you're looking for an unusual concert setting but want something slightly more refined, Early Music Underground offers house concerts, beer tastings, and distillery tours alongside performances of Baroque and Renaissance music.
13. THE COMPLINE SERVICE
In the Christian church, the Office of Compline is a meditative service meant to close the day serenely and peacefully. But you don't need to be religious or even spiritual to enjoy this service, which takes place at St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral every Sunday at 9:30pm. Seattlites of all ages congregate here weekly for the half-hour a cappella concert, performed by a dozen volunteer male singers. While it's entirely acceptable to enjoy the service from a pew, the popular preference is to bring a pillow or blanket, lie down on the cathedral floor, and listen with eyes closed. (Of course, you can do the same thing from your own home when you listen to the Compline on KING FM!) If you're a night owl, stick around for a few minutes after the service ends and you might be treated to some organ music.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that as a clarinetist and lifelong Brahms devotee, I do have a tendency to fall in love with albums such as this. Clarinetist Andreas Ottensamer’s second solo release plays to the strengths of his family’s Viennese and Hungarian heritage, pairing Brahms’ immortal Clarinet Quintet with a variety of arrangements by Stephan Koncz. Like the feel of an old family-run Hungarian restaurant outside the Gürtel in Vienna, this mix includes two classic Brahms Viennese waltz selections and Hungarian dances together with some of his Hungarian inspirations: the Two Movements of Leo Weiner and a set of traditional Transylvanian dances. Andreas is joined by violinist Leonidas Kavakos and other famous friends in what eventually amounts to something like a late-night chamber music jam session. They even managed to add the amazing sound of a cimbalom, a large Hungarian hammer-dulcimer instrument, played by Oszkár Ökrös. The principal clarinet of the Berlin Philharmonic and also a highly talented cellist and pianist, Andreas comes from a dynastic musical family that includes his father Ernst, principal clarinet of the Vienna Philharmonic since 1982, and his brother Daniel, also performing as principal clarinet of the Vienna Philharmonic since 2009.
Listening to this recording, one can’t help but marvel at the smoothness and polish of Andreas’ playing, and that wonderful darkness of sound that we have come to expect from Viennese and German playing that extends up even into the higher registers. I should really have a punitive “swear jar” ready to plunk in a dollar for each of my clari-nerd comments. Just the softness with which Andreas is able to place his fingers down over the tone holes of the instrument, achieving a seamless legato free from the slightest bump or pop as is so difficult throughout the Brahms Quintet, is magnificent. (Plunk, there goes that first dollar.) If you know and love Hungarian music, you probably saw the insane, barn-burning speed of that last Transylvanian dance arrangement coming, and Andreas and friends certainly have the fingers for it. At the risk of emptying my entire wallet into the clari-nerd swear jar, I could rant all day about Andreas’ amazing breath control that gives him a wonderfully sustaining sound through the long phrases of the Quintet, and allows him to use dynamic contrast to great effect (two more dollars in the jar). However, technical blabber is so boring when one is speaking about first-class musicians. So what is their approach to the music?
Possibly the most interesting aspect of this album is how Andreas and friends seem to use the style of the Hungarian music to inform their performance of the Brahms waltzes and Clarinet Quintet. The Weiner and Transylvanian dance arrangements are stylistically the folksiest, with appropriately schmaltzy string sliding and even the occasional growling in the sound of the solo clarinet. Endless ebb and flow of tempo rule the group’s performance of the arrangements of the Brahms Hungarian Dances. It seems these arrangements actually strive to bring the music closer to its Hungarian origins – more of a un-arrangement of sorts – and here the ensemble nearly convinces us that they would be more at home playing in a narrow street in Budapest rather than onstage at the Philharmonie. The Viennese flair that the Brahms Liebeslieder Waltzes require is not a far cry from the charm of the Hungarian melodies, and including the short waltzes seems to bridge the stylistic gap between Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet and his Hungarian Dances.
The rubato that is taken to such wonderful extremes in the waltzes and Hungarian dances is not always at home in the Brahms Clarinet Quintet, however. In primarily the first and second movements of this performance, as technically assured and emotionally sound as the playing is, such excessive stress and rubato is applied that the basic rhythm is distorted multiple times within a single passage, and passionate phrases nearly always rush. This kind of playing can honestly create moments that are tremendously compelling and beautiful, but when it is used throughout the piece without variation it becomes exhausting. Why not present the opening statements of these amazing cantabile themes in a more straightforward, honest manner, but then use all the rubato and stress to make their restatement something different in the recapitulation? As fascinated as Brahms was by the fervor of Hungarian music, his Clarinet Quintet comes from a different, less overt, deeply personal place. The performance seems almost uniformly espressivo, but seems to cut the final notes of the second and third movements curiously short and misses opportunities to show the simplistic beauty of certain passages. Of course, given the choice of a performance played almost metronomically without rubato and one that occasionally goes slightly overboard, I would always choose the latter, and this recording’s artistic achievement cannot be ignored. The ensemble achieves magic with soft dynamics of incredible delicacy and fiery fortes of tremendous force. It’s worth listening just to hear Ottensamer and Kavakos trading melodies and playing together in octaves at the start of the second movement, and the addition of Antoine Tamestit’s viola countermelody in the recapitulation makes for possibly the best performance of these passages ever recorded. Pitch is stunningly accurate throughout, balance is uniformly superb, and Andreas’ gorgeous sound is captured with breathtaking quality by the engineers.
The recording as a whole does something really quite special: although it is immaculately rehearsed and prepared, it still has a striking spontaneity that shows just what a delight it must have been for these world-class musicians to have recorded together. It’s beautifully polished inside and out; if the cover shot wasn’t enough to cement Andreas Ottensamer’s status as a contender for a Buzzfeed Top Ten Classical Musician Hunks article, the seemingly endless glamour shots filling out the liner notes should definitely do the trick. It certainly deserves to be picked up by more than just the infatuated 14-year-old clarinet girl, and serves not only as a shining artistic product but one that shines a light on the origins of Brahms’ Hungarian fascination.
Geoffrey Larson is the Assistant Music Director at Classical KING FM 98.1, and the Music Director of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra.
How often do you have the chance to hear a 100-year-old concert pianist in recital? A recital, moreover, that encompasses important works of Bach, Mozart, and Chopin?
Well, there was Mieczysław Horszowski (1892-1993), who died before his 101st birthday (but apparently played his last performance at age 99). And then there was . . . well, nobody.
Randolph Hokanson’s June 24 recital at his residence, Bayview Manor on Queen Anne Hill, was presented two days after the pianist’s 100th birthday, to a capacity crowd of residents, fans, and music lovers. The astonishing fact about this performance was not just that it took place at all – but how good it actually was.
Hokanson retired in 1984 from the music faculty at the University of Washington, but he hasn’t lost the professorial desire to enlighten his audience with information about the composers and the works he performed. The familiar twinkle in his eyes, the quick quips and obvious deep love for music, are all as evident as always with this beloved artist. He is a little slower to make his way to the keyboard these days, using a walker for balance. But there’s nothing slow about his agile fingers, galloping through Bach Preludes and Fugues, a Mozart sonata (with the excellent violinist and longtime duo partner Marjorie Kransberg-Talvi), and a Chopin set that included two Etudes and a Nocturne.
With his student and friend Judith Cohen at hand to turn the pages, Hokanson explained to the June 24 audience that he had made some substitutions to the planned program because an old hand injury had affected his ability to “stretch” the right hand to a wider compass. He replaced the mighty, thundering Chopin Ballade in F Minor with a different set of shorter pieces. Hand injury or not, those two Chopin Etudes Hokanson chose are definitely not for sissies. The technical requirements of the whole program were uncompromising, and most of the time they were very successfully met.
What a life lesson for all of us! A gifted man, one who inspires tremendous affection and who has taken continued lifelong joy in sharing his gifts with students and audiences, has learned how to make beautiful music even with a few concessions to extreme age. He still has much to teach us, as listeners discovered from Hokanson’s explanatory prefaces to the works on the Bayview program, many of them bearing his own nicknames. The songlike phrasing in the right hand, the telling details, and the obvious love for the music – all longtime Hokanson attributes – are still there.
If you don’t know his wonderful autobiography, “With Head to the Music Bent: A Musician’s Story” (Third Place Press, 2011), you have a treat in store. In this memoir, Hokanson calls up rich details of his eventful life, including his studies “between the wars” in London, his narrow escape from a torpedoed ship during World War II, his concert tours, and his musical experiences with such important mentors as Dame Myra Hess.
Also highly recommended: his nine-CD anthology, “The Pianism of Randolph Hokanson: The University Years (1949-1984),” compiled with the help of UW archivist John Gibbs, and the late audio engineer Al Swanson (with Gary Louie). This substantial souvenir of Hokanson in his heyday should be a part of every music lover’s collection.