by Maggie Molloy
We’ve all seen live performances of works by the classical music giants: Haydn, Mozart, (early) Beethoven—but how often do we get to see live performances of works by the neoclassical music giants?
That opportunity comes this Saturday at Seattle Modern Orchestra’s “It’s Neo-Classical!” concert at Resonance at SOMA Towers. The concert highlights neoclassicism in wind and brass music of the early 20th century, featuring chamber works by Stravinsky, Poulenc, and Dahl.
After the emotional excess and perceived formlessness of the Romantic era, the neoclassicists sought to return to the aesthetic principles of the Classical period, such as order, balance, clarity, and emotional restraint. But the composers did not just copy the Classical masters—they expanded and updated the music of the Classical period by incorporating 20th century trends like expanded tonal harmonies, folk melodies, jazz elements, humor, satire, and more.
Thus, the works performed in this neoclassical chamber concert showcase the wit and charm of modern composers while also highlighting the virtuosity of the musicians themselves.
“Seattle Modern Orchestra is a musician-driven organization,” said conductor and co-artistic director Julia Tai. “It was really because of the musicians’ passion for new music and joy of playing with each other that the group started almost six years ago. We’re very lucky to have a group of extremely talented and dedicated musicians who love music from the 20th and 21st centuries and want to bring it to the audience.”
The musicians took the initiative to pick out repertoire, organize rehearsals, and set the concert date—and they also assisted with grant writing, marketing, and organizing the musician roster.
So to find out more, we talked with flutist Jessie Polin, a performer in Seattle Modern Orchestra who played a key leadership role in putting this program together.
Second Inversion: What do you think is most unique or inspiring about this concert program and about 20th-21st century classical music in general?
Jessie Polin: This particular concert is unique in that it showcases some of the best chamber music repertoire for winds and brass. Especially with the Stravinsky and Poulenc, we’re exploring the neoclassical style in the context of a small chamber concert.
I feel really excited that I continue to have opportunities to explore 20th and 21st century classical music. I’ll admit that modern music can be pretty challenging, both as an audience member and as a performer, but I find a great deal of value in the challenge. I think it’s important to continue to expand our definition of “classical music” and to recognize that there is so much diversity within those parameters. In this concert, our audience can experience some of the earlier repertoire of what we now consider “contemporary” music. The Dahl was composed and premiered in the 1940s and is the most recent piece on the program; by our standards today, that’s not incredibly modern. However, I think all three pieces on this program make a wonderful introduction to the world of modern music.
SI: Seattle Modern Orchestra specializes in 20th and 21st century music, ranging from minimalism to spectralism, serialism to electronic, and everything in between. What do you find to be some of the unique challenges and rewards of performing works from the neoclassical period specifically?
JP: All contemporary music has a unique set of challenges. I like neoclassical music because it’s like a reimagining of music that is so familiar to us. I think when non-musicians think about classical music, they think of what Mozart and Haydn sound like. And then when they hear neoclassical music, it’s like it’s familiar but also not, which is fun and interesting. Because of that, I think it’s a great introduction to modern music in general, because while it does have new and different sounds, it’s a little more approachable for a modern music newcomer.
As a performer, I think a lot about things like articulation and extreme dynamics when I approach neoclassical music. I think it’s really important to exaggerate all the gestures so that the classical ideas come across, while also showing how much the palate of stylistic choices has expanded since the Classical period.
SI: A concert program of all wind and brass music is relatively rare—what inspired you to curate a concert program without strings or percussion (other than piano)?
JP: This didn’t start out as a program for all wind and brass music, necessarily, although I am pretty excited it turned out that way. Julia and I were in grad school together at the University of Washington, and she conducted a performance of the Stravinsky, which was the first time I had played it. We’ve talked off and on for a long time about doing it again because it’s such a great piece, and this season we decided to just make it happen. I also really love the Poulenc, and felt like it would be a great pairing with Stravinsky, so at that point, it seemed natural to keep the program strings free.
Of course, the string chamber music repertoire is expansive and wonderful, but I do feel like it overshadows what else is out there to a large extent. I’m really excited about showcasing what I think is hands down some of the best chamber music in the classical repertoire, both including music for strings and not.
SI: What are you most looking forward to with this performance?
JP: I’m excited about the chance to collaborate with a truly excellent group of musicians on some of my most favorite repertoire ever. We really have an all-star cast for this concert, and working with these people is invigorating and inspiring. I also feel like in the day-to-day of being a working musicians, it’s easy to get bogged down with just keeping up. This concert is happening just because we were excited about it and decided to do it, and that feels refreshing.
SI: What do you hope audiences will take away from the concert?
JP: I hope that our audience will be excited (and maybe surprised!) by how great this repertoire is. I also hope that people will find the fun and outright joy in this “serious” classical music. I think if anything, it’s great to approach neoclassical music with a little bit of humor, and I really hope our audience finds that in this concert.
Seattle Modern Orchestra Chamber Ensemble’s “It’s Neo-Classical!” concert is this Saturday, March 26 at 2 p.m. at Resonance at SOMA Towers in Bellevue. For tickets and information, please click here.