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    Seattle Symphony Music Director Ludovic Morlot stands before his orchestra just before their Spring for Music concert at Carnegie Hall on May 6, 2014. (Inspired by the oceanic theme of the concert, the musicians are wearing deep blue scarves and ties created by Seattle fashion designer Michael Cepress.)
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    Spring for Music, the Carnegie Hall concert series featuring North American orchestras, encourages audience members to cheer for the Seattle Symphony by waving specially colored hankies.
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    The opening piece on the program was Become Ocean by John Luther Adams. The 40-minute work earned Adams the Pulitzer Prize for music in April.
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    Become Ocean is scored for large symphony orchestra, including four harps. Adams says the orchestra is deployed as three separate ensembles. "It's really a piece for three orchestras," he says. "The different instrumental choirs are separated as widely as possible in the performance space."
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    Adams describes the piece as "An ocean of sound ... working in waves of orchestral sound that ebb and flow ... and every now and then there are these big tsunamis of sound, when all the crests of all the waves coincide."
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    The concert also included Claude Debussy's La Mer, another symphonic evocation of the ocean. In the opening movement, Debussy uses cellos, playing up high, to create the effect of a sudden sound echoing across the water.
    Melanie Burford/for NPR Music
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    In contrast to the two ocean-inspired pieces, Ludovic Morlot chose to include Deserts, composed by Edgard Varese in the early 1950s. Written for just 20 players, the music represents not only physical deserts, but also a kind of psychological desert where man "is alone in a world of mystery and solitude."
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    Ludovic Morlot says he wasn't so familiar with the music of John Luther Adams before the Seattle Symphony commissioned Become Ocean. "It took me a little while to enter this world," Morlot says of the new work. "Forty-two minutes of keeping a steady pulse is not that easy to do."
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    The composer John Luther Adams, whose music is often inspired by the natural world, accepts the enthusiastic applause from the Carnegie Hall Audience after the Seattle Symphony performance of his Pulitzer-winning piece Become Ocean.
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    This was the first time John Luther Adams heard his piece live, and his first time in the storied halls of Carnegie Hall.
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Classics in Concert

Seattle Symphony, New Pulitzer Winner At Carnegie HallWQXR

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The great outdoors is a perennial theme in classical music, usually expressed through bucolic or picturesque works. But the Seattle Symphony knew that to appear on Spring for Music — an annual festival of adventurous programming by North American orchestras — it required a more unusual, daring take on this theme.

The orchestra's program — which NPR Music and WQXR will broadcast live from Carnegie Hall May 6 at 7:30 p.m. Eastern — will feature three distinct scores by Claude Debussy, Edgard Varèse and John Luther Adams.

The headline-grabber is the opening piece, Become Ocean, by Adams. In April, it won the Pulitzer Prize for Music, arguably the highest honor for a living American composer. It drew much attention for suggesting, according to the Pulitzer committee, "a relentless tidal surge, evoking thoughts of melting polar ice and rising sea levels."

Adams acknowledged the theme of climate change in an interview with NPR Music's Tom Huizenga. "It's perhaps the central defining issue of this moment in our history as a species," Adams said, "so it's always on my mind in everything that I do. It was certainly at the forefront as I composed this piece."

The title, Become Ocean, comes from a poem that John Cage wrote in honor of fellow composer Lou Harrison, describing the breadth of his colleague's music. The final line is 'listening to it, we become ocean." Harrison was a mentor to the 61-year-old Adams, who grew up on the East Coast and has lived in Alaska since 1975.

Because the Pacific Northwest and Alaska share a geographic affinity, Adams was the first composer Ludovic Morlot approached after becoming Seattle's music director in 2011. The orchestra premiered Become Ocean June 20, 2013. The 40-minute work calls for the orchestra to be divided into three parts on the stage — groups of strings, brass and woodwinds, each with a separate percussion ensemble — which move together and apart at various points in the piece.

Seattle's Spring for Music program moves in reverse chronological order. After the Adams comes Déserts, Varèse's classic 1950's score that was inspired by the composer's sojourn in the New Mexico desert. The concert ends with Debussy's evocative La mer (1903-05), returning to the maritime theme.

Adams told WQXR's Elliott Forrest that he was at least partly influenced by Debussy, and that he composed Become Ocean while vacationing in the desert. He added that he's happy for the recognition that's come with the Pulitzer.

"I've been working for over 40 years now," Adams said. "Most of those 40 years I've been working in my cabin studio in Alaska, far removed from all this hubbub. It's nice as I get into my 60s now to get a little love. More substantially, it's wonderful that other people are receiving the music and making it their own."

Program
  • John Luther Adams: Become Ocean (NY Premiere)
  • Edgar Varèse: Déserts
  • Claude Debussy: La mer

Seattle Symphony

Ludovic Morlot, music director

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