Seattle audiences welcomed Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Harbison to Benaroya Hall this past weekend with the west coast premiere of his work, What Do We Make of Bach? for orchestra and obbligato organ, just in time to commemorate the Baroque master’s birthday. The themes of Harbison’s symphonic piece, jointly commissioned by the Seattle Symphony and the Minnesota Orchestra and enhanced by the virtuosity of organist Wayne Marshall, fitted in well with the rest of the program, which included Johann Sebastian Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor and Symphony no. 15 in A major by Dmitri Shostakovich. Music director Ludovic Morlot conducted everything in this ambitious, adventurous program with poise and aplomb.

Ludovic Morlot
© Chris Lee

One of Bach’s most identifiable works, the Toccata and Fugue holds a lofty position among his other compositions, especially in Leopold Stokowski’s opulent and popular arrangement. Morlot made full use of his expanded orchestra to display the improvisatory elements. With the sheer immensity of its sound, powerful enough to electrify the audience, the orchestra came across like one huge cathedral-sized organ.

From his early days as Music Director of the Bach Cantata Singers at Harvard in the 60s and 70s, to his numerous residencies with major symphony orchestras all over the country, Harbison has kept himself in the mainstream of contemporary American classical composers, where he is highly esteemed and respected. His new book, of the same name as the work premiered here, examines the Baroque master’s keen influence on both Harbison and on musicians in general. Like Bach’s Toccata and Fugue, Harbison’s literary and musical works reflect a deep love and reverence for Bach’s exalted oeuvre and also features the solo instrument most revered by the master.

Well-known in his native Britain, celebrated organist Wayne Marshall is experienced in both church music and jazz, as well in conducting, having recently performed Leonard Bernstein’s Mass with the Orchestre de Paris. His expertly performed interpretation on Benaroya’s mighty Watjen Concert Organ of Harbison’s fiendishly difficult obbligato showed a combination of mastery, daredevil pyrotechnics and a fiery risk-taking seldom heard in organ performance. As always with his interpretations of contemporary works, Morlot showed deep knowledge and command of the score, which was at times lyrical, at times emphatically dissonant and comparable in its power and scope to the formidable Toccata and Fugue.

20th-century master symphonist Dimitri Shostakovich’s compositions show a panoply of characteristics, from massive in scope to up close and personal. The Fifteenth, which he wrote in about one month in the summer in 1971, debuted in Moscow the following winter, helmed by his son Maxim. The composer pays homage to Bach in his final symphony with recognizable configurations and motifs, while quoting his own works and those of Rossini (a highly recognizable theme from William Tell, to the delight of the audience), Glinka, Mahler and Wagner. Even filmmaker David Lynch attributes major influence on his Blue Velvet to this final symphony of Shostakovich. With the orchestra well warmed-up by the brilliance and challenges of Harbison’s work, this piece sounded positively luminous.

In the Allegretto first movement, the composer uses the five-note motif E♭-A♭-C-B-A, cleverly spelling out the name of his grandson Sascha, to symbolize ingenuous naiveté. Starting with an extensive, playful melody, sweetly rendered by the solo flute, the piece then exploits some of the extreme ranges of the horns, clarinet, trumpet, bassoon and percussion to give the skilled Seattle musicians – and their nimble-fingered concertmaster – ample opportunities to seize the limelight.

The opening choral of the second movement (Adagio-Largo-Adagio-Largo) showcases the now-outstanding brass section along with an arduous, concerto-like solo, superbly played by the principal cello. A haunting celesta melody adds to the mysterious, introspective atmosphere. Morlot is known for specializing in these kinds of moments, and he made the most of them, with subtle, sinewy gestures. In the third movement Allegretto, conjoined with the previous movement, the focus shifted to the woodwinds, again challenging the players with virtuoso passagework. The Seattle winds were more than up to the task.

The final movement changes twice between Adagio and Allegretto, and reflects motifs from several of the composer’s early symphonies. In keeping with the eerie ambiance of the second movement, a squadron of percussion take their turn in the spotlight, giving these players an extended opportunity to demonstrate their dexterity. Morlot kept the resulting tumult deftly in control, brought out the Wagner references (Götterdämmerung and Tristan, both appropriate for the composer’s “swan song”), poignantly and with graceful humor but not obviously; and made sure the final extended chord gave an appropriately striking impression, confirming that the piece fits squarely in the key of A major.