The Seattle Symphony's new music director, Thomas Dausgaard, is clearly having a lot of fun with the job.
This weekend he's conducting Mozart's Jupiter Symphony, Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 4, and the U.S. premiere of Olga Neuwirth's Aello, which is a contemporary re-imagining of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 4.
Aello is fascinating. Neuwirth's composition keeps a lot of the same musical material from Bach's original concerto, but she changes the tuning of the instruments, which transforms the piece into this eery Halloween version of itself. Part of the eeriness comes from the sounds of the typewriter, which she uses in place of the harpsichord. But it's not just any old typewriter.
In the score, Neuwirth specifies that the typewriter must be an Olivetti Lettera 22, and she instructs the player to hit certain keys at certain times, knowing that the space bar makes one kind of sound and the "a" key, for instance, makes another.
In an interview on Wednesday, Dausgaard, who conducted the world premiere of the piece with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra at the BBC Proms last year, tells me the composer incorporates the typewriter's "ding!" sound, as well.
But Neuwirth isn't just calling for a typewriter because it's extremely cool and funny to do so. Her elevation of this humble, workaday machine challenges our notions of which "instruments" belong on a symphony stage and which don't. And that decision also aligns, philosophically at least, with the egalitarianism we see in the instruments Bach chose to feature in his Brandenburg Concertos, which subvert the orchestra's typical instrumental hierarchy.
Normally, Dausgaard says, violin soloists play the main roles in concertos. But in the Brandenburgs, Bach calls for lowly harpsichords and violas to take the lead. In Brandenburg Concerto No. 4, the flute, which may have been played by an amateur musician in Bach's time, is the star of the show.
Dausgaard thinks Bach's understanding of Christianity influenced these radical reorderings. "Music was music for God, and in his music [Bach] wanted us to realize that the hierarchy we have here on earth is not necessarily the kind we’d have in paradise. Paradise would be different, and he gives us a glimpse of what that difference might look like," he said. So, lions lying down with lambs, the first being the last, and flutes taking the lead in concertos. That sort of paradise.
According to Dausgaard, Bach also greatly influenced Mozart, and he sees that evidence most clearly in Jupiter, Mozart's last symphony. Bach was obsessed with twisting a single theme in a million different ways. He would take a theme and play it backwards, and then play it double-speed or half-speed at the same time as the other themes, Dausgaard says. This obsession led him to writing many fugues, moments when independent musical phrases layer on top of one another. At the end of Jupiter, Mozart takes the fugue to the next level.
"I think Bach would have enjoyed that," Dausgaard said. "He tumbles in just about every theme of the last movement together with a Bach-style fugue in the finale, so it’s a crowning glorification of Bach, and it’s so awe inspiring that Mozart was able to unite his own style with the artistry of Bach’s world."
So this weekend concertgoers will see two homages to Bach; one Classical composer who takes his signature musical move and goes big with it, and one contemporary composer who takes his democratic impulses to new heights—or new lows—depending on how you look at it.
In general Dausgaard says he's loving the new job. An illness kept him from hopping over to his native Denmark for the last month, so he's been hanging around Seattle and trying to set up plans for the future. Those plans sound pretty good.
He says he wants to collaborate more with the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra, and in general bring more kids into the fold. "I have a dream that every child growing up in Seattle will share a stage with the Seattle Symphony," he said. "You should not be able to grow up without having experienced the fire onstage here with us."
He's also bringing back a new iteration of the Native Lands Project, which commissions new work from Puget Sound's indigenous musicians in collaboration with the symphony, led by local composer Janice Giteck. That work will culminate in the Potlatch Symphony 2020, which will run during the Beethoven Festival.
Dausgaard also wants to take the symphony on the road, believing in general that touring improves the reputation and the quality of orchestras. "They change when they go into performance gear, and I want people to hear that," he said.