Seattle Sounds Program Notes

by Bradley Clem and Claudia Jensen


Sarah Bassingthwaighte

Born: March 29, 1967, Rochester, Minnesota

Sleeping in the Forest – World Premiere (2018)

We are delighted to open our concert with a world premiere, Sleeping in the Forest, a symphonic poem by composer Sarah Bassingthwaighte, commissioned for Philharmonia Northwest. The work is based on the poem by Pulitzer-prize winning writer Mary Oliver (b. 1935), from her 1985 collection also called Sleeping in the Forest. Sarah writes that she thought of the piece as “beginning at sunset and ending at sunrise, with the changes in light being reflected in the texture and tonality of the music.” It falls into three large sections, which she describes as a “gentle, mysterious opening, followed by the raucous and somewhat absurd center, which transitions into a gentle, but different (transformed?) closing.” In order to portray these shifting moods and textures, she uses many solo instrumental voices and a variety of special effects throughout the orchestra. As a whole, she says, the work is “characterized by shifting colors, sudden sharp contrasts, and episodic musical themes ‒ the result is sometimes whimsical, sometimes foreboding, often dreamlike or surreal in an Alice-in-Wonderland kind of way.” The composition reflects her own experiences sleeping in the forest, with the night full of sounds: in her description, “the sounds of water, wind, of tiny animals exploring, crackling leaves and snapping twigs, and more than once the sound of heavy footsteps and breathing from creatures much larger than me.” 


Ken Benshoof

Born: January 3, 1933, Nebraska

Concerto for Cello and String Orchestra (1974)

Seattle composer and teacher Ken Benshoof wrote his Concerto for Cello and String Orchestra in 1974 for his wife, Theresa, who was the soloist at the premiere by the  Northwest Chamber Orchestra. Our soloist today, Walter Gray, was in the orchestra at the time of the premiere, so he has known this work from the beginning. Walter described the very fond memories he had of playing this piece as an orchestra member, and is grateful to Julia and PNW for the opportunity to bring it back to the stage after such a long hiatus ‒ this is the first performance since that long-ago premiere.

When he described his approach to the concerto, Walter said that his main goal was simply “to have the most amount of fun possible!” The work is in two movements, opening with a cadenza for the soloist (labelled “searching” in the score), and moving into an increasingly propulsive second movement with distinctive rhythmic motifs and drive (to be played “with strength”). There is no overall program for the work but, as Walter explains, the fluidity of its style allows him to conjure up images brought forth by the music and then reflect them through his performance. For example, he asks, what does it mean to create a sense of wistfulness in sound? How can the solo cello capture the shadows introduced near the end of the first movement?

The composer has made a few small changes in the score for this performance, particularly because PNW is larger than the original ensemble for which the concerto was written. But the essence of the piece remains ‒ an accessible, in places even a bit jazzy, contemporary musical language that is burnished and, especially in the second movement, rhythmically energizing. Let’s hope that the performance today brings this beautifully satisfying piece back to the stage for good!


William Bolcom

Born: May 26, 1938, Seattle

Seattle Slew Suite (1986)

William Bolcom’s Seattle Slew Suite is a light-hearted romp (canter?) through the world of racing, depicted in three movements featuring stylized dance-like elements: the Derby Dressage (delightfully interrupted with tango inflections), the Preakness Promenade (a jaunty stroll featuring a typically Baroque repeating descending line), and the Belmont Bourrée (a duple-time Baroque dance, here a sly Jazz Age strut). Seattle Slew, as long-time Seattleites in the audience surely remember, not only won the Triple Crown in 1977, but was the first to do so following an undefeated season. Needless to say, Seattle was Slew-Mad during that year.

The dance qualities of Bolcom’s work are entirely appropriate, for the piece was written for the Pacific Northwest Ballet, which premiered it in March 1986. But the dancers weren’t the only performers in the house at the premiere. Although PNB director Kent Stowell choreographed the dancers, an actual horse – Seymour – also appeared briefly on the stage. Stowell’s description of the staging echoes the music itself (and reinforces Walter’s remarks about the concerto on our program). It is all “just for the fun of it,” Stowell said. “It’s fun. It’s like going to the races.” This echoes Bolcom’s approach not only in this piece, but in all of his work. He is known as a versatile and wide-ranging composer; as Bernard Holland wrote in an interview in the New York Times (1995): “as a ragtime pianist and espouser of American popular song who writes operas and symphonies, Mr. Bolcom works hard to erase the lines between the elite and the vulgar, the intellectual and the visceral, the select and the popular.” As Bolcom himself said, he is neither eclectic nor a synthesizer. Rather, he explained, “I’m interested in showing how different elements relate. The more I look to the future in music the more I keep coming back to the past.” The Seattle Slew Suite balances all of these ideas and approaches: fun, popular, intellectually interesting, and approachable. All that, and a horse on the stage!