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Originally published Saturday, February 9, 2013 at 10:53 AM

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Back to the future with the Seattle Modern Orchestra | Classical review

The Seattle Modern Orchestra presented “Delirious Serialists” — music by Maderna, Nono and Boulez — at Cornish College on Feb. 8, 2013.

Special to The Seattle Times

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The future of music isn’t what it used to be. Attending the performance by Seattle Modern Orchestra, presented by Cornish College in Poncho Hall on Friday evening, felt like being caught in a time warp.

Early in the 20th century, the malign influences of Sigmund Freud in psychology and Arnold Schoenberg in music helped to usher in a generation of composers who had the notion that the infliction of pain was a necessary component of any art that could lay claim to serious substance. In the 1950s, when all three works on Friday’s program were composed, the aesthetic of what, from today’s vantage point, I am inclined to call the avant-derrière garde dominated Western concert music.

The domination was imposed in part by the influence of university music departments in the United States and of high-minded radio stations and specialized music festivals across Europe. To a large degree, however, it may be said that the stylistic norms then prevalent have been superseded by a much freer, more pluralistic range of creative thinking, to the benefit of audiences, and certainly of the health of music as a living art.

But the program of “Delirious Serialists” put together by the orchestra’s co-artistic directors, Julia Tai and Jeremy Jolley, was savvy enough to include two pieces — Bruno Maderna’s Serenata No. 2 and Luigi Nono’s “Polifonica-Monodia-Ritmica” — that largely transcended the austere aesthetic of their period. For the Italian component of the then-modernistic movement was far more open to admission into its music of lyricism, charm, and — yes! — even beauty than were its counterparts in other countries. The Italian manner typified by those composers was neatly summed up by one commentator, Henri Pousseur, as characterized by “an extroverted good humor, sensual rather then sentimental.”

As its title already suggests, Maderna’s Serenata is essentially entertainment music, and its chamber-orchestra scoring happily exploits gleaming instrumental sonorities and positively playful rhythmic games. Maderna was a composer who loved sensual effects, as did Nono, whose piece, if somewhat sterner, was also well supplied with luscious moments, and these qualities were vividly realized under Tai’s direction.

Instead of Berio, the third member of the 1950s Italian modern triumvirate, the second half of the program gave us French composer Pierre Boulez’s “Le Marteau sans maître” (“The Hammer without a Master”), for voice and six instruments, which was hailed by Stravinsky as the most important new work of that period. It comes much closer than the Italian works to the “snap-crackle-pop” idiom typical of ’50s modernism, and for that reason I personally find it much less attractive, but the performance again seemed admirably assured, and alto Maria Mannisto gave a thoroughly alluring account of the vocal part.

From the start of the concert, the actual music immediately gave the lie to the description of serial techniques explained by Tai and Jolley before the performance began. But that, too, is fine: composers are artists — they make rules, but fortunately for the rest of us they don’t always follow them. Art, as a result, elbows system aside.

Bernard Jacobson: bernardijacobson@ comcast.net

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