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Saturday, February 2, 2013 - Page updated at 04:30 a.m.

Composer Elliott Carter’s symphonic gift for the SSO

By Michael Upchurch
Seattle Times arts writer

Whole sumptuous realms of melody will be on offer next week when the Seattle Symphony performs Brahms’ Symphony No. 4, Schumann’s Piano Concerto and Rossini’s “William Tell” Overture.

But there’s one item on the program that’s both a special occasion for music director Ludovic Morlot and a possible worry to less adventurous music lovers.

It’s the world premiere of Elliott Carter’s “Instances,” the last orchestral piece the experimental composer wrote before his death at 103 last November.

The Carter premiere is, in its way, a surprise to Morlot.

“It’s a commission,” he said in an interview earlier this month, “that happened without me really commissioning it.”

A little background: As assistant conductor at the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which premiered a number of Carter pieces, Morlot was familiar with the composer’s work. But his Carter connection took a dramatic turn in 2006 when, with only 24 hours’ notice, he was tapped to lead the New York Philharmonic through Carter’s “Allegro scorrevole.” The performance won both men great acclaim.

They subsequently grew close, and when Morlot learned he’d be taking the helm at the Seattle Symphony, he told the composer, “I’d love you to write a little something for me.”

He didn’t hear anything from Carter for a while. Then, last spring, the score of “Instances” turned up in the mail, with an inscription on its first page: “This score is dedicated to Ludovic Morlot who has performed many of my works so beautifully.”

“Just to know that for two minutes he’d been thinking of me while composing — it’s very moving,” Morlot says.

The piece is written for chamber orchestra and is just under 10 minutes long. For those who might think of Carter as forbidding, Morlot has two pieces of advice. First, 21st-century Carter is not mid-20th-century Carter. It has a lightness, he says, not found in Carter’s works from the 1960s.

Morlot’s second piece of advice: “One shouldn’t even think about it. One should just experience the incredible balance of the piece. It’s so optimistic. It’s beautiful. It makes you smile. It feels like the work of a 20-year-old, not a 103-year-old.”

Listening to “Allegro scorrevole,” you can hear what he’s talking about. The scurrying, protean scherzo is filled with all sorts of unexpected orchestral colors and twists. It’s giddily organic in its sound.

“Instances,” Morlot says, continues in the same feathery, shape-shifting vein. “When he got into his 90s and his 100s, suddenly there was more a human dimension to it.”

Carter the man had equal appeal for Morlot: “He was very well read. He had a great sense of humor. ... It’s just sad that he can’t be with us for the premiere, because he would have made it, for sure. He would have crossed the country.”

As for the rest of the program, the Brahms initiates a cycle Morlot and the orchestra will make through the composer’s symphonies. They’re starting with Symphony No. 4, Morlot says, “because it’s the one I’ve been most exposed to.” With the Schumann piano concerto, featuring Nicholas Angelich as soloist, Morlot is trying to counteract what he sees as a neglect of a great composer.

The order of the program — Carter, Brahms, Schumann, Rossini — may surprise some listeners. Morlot says he’s following an early 20th century model of programming, where the weightier fare — usually a symphony — is on the first half of the program and the lighter fare is on the second half.

Once you’ve heard the “William Tell” Overture, he believes, it feels odd to launch into the Schumann concerto.

“Always close with the overture,” he counsels with light irony in his voice, “so that people can go home happy.”

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com


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