Julia Tai. Photo courtesy Seattle Modern Orchestra.
Julia Tai. Photo courtesy Seattle Modern Orchestra.

“That [work] is almost a hundred years old,” remarked conductor Julia Tai of the Seattle Modern Orchestra, which performs its second concert of the season on January 28 at Cornish College of the Arts PONCHO Hall. Tai is referring to Arnold Schoenberg’s Erwartung, programmed by the Seattle Opera a few seasons ago. This opera undoubtedly challenged even staunch opera-goers.

The mainstays of classical music repertoire—Beethoven symphonies, Tchaikovsky piano concertos and other favorites—routinely draw a loyal following, all the more reason why programs often include traditional pieces alongside a contemporary work. Speaking of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto Tai adds, “When he composed it, nobody [thought] that anybody [could] play it. Now it’s standard repertoire.”

The SMO features composers’ works solely from the twentieth century to the present day. Considering the plethora of styles and influences in modern music, the upcoming concert’s theme of “Strictly Strings” highlights the “range of sounds composers draw from the same instrument,” says Tai. The instrumentation includes a chamber ensemble of violins, violas, cellos and bass.

The program will open with Zipangu by Claude Vivier (1948-1983), which employs “extended techniques” of the stringed instruments such as glissandi, granular sound—produced by pressing the bow firmly into the string—and snap pizzicati or plucking of the string. Also featured are Syrmos by Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001) and Shaker Loops by John Adams (b.1947). Adams strove, in his own words, to “emulate the ripple effect of bodies of water” in this four-movement work written in 1978. Xenakis, also an engineer, used mathematical models and architectural forms in constructing his pieces. Michael Hall in his book “Leaving Home: a conducted tour of twentieth-century music with Simon Rattle,” writes of Xenakis’s music: “Despite the complexity of the concepts used by Xenakis to describe how he composed them, they are actually extremely vital and often very witty pieces. They exude the spirit of the Mediterranean than that of the study.”

The seeds of SMO’s genesis began last June after Tai applied for and obtained a grant from the City of Seattle smART ventures. She then recruited local musicians for a concert at Magnolia United Church of Christ, where she works as music director. Musicians came out of the woodwork to donate their services, eager to play rarely performed works such as Steve Reich’s Tehillim. The orchestra’s inaugural concert took place last November at PONCHO Hall to a responsive audience. Co-artistic director Jeremy and French-American composer Jolley also comprises the SMO artistic staff. “[Jolley] came on board…with me when we started this season because we have the same vision and passion for new music.” The season’s third concert is planned for May of this year.

A native of Taiwan, Tai studied violin and voice, later attending a performing arts school there until she was 18. She continued vocal studies at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and participated in workshops with the conductor Jorge Mester. During her years at USC, she began pursuing musical studies in conducting. Her mother, a high school music director in Taiwan, also provided Tai with years of exposure to this craft. She continued studying conducting with Peter Eros at the University of Washington.

“I like to go to a concert and hear a piece I’ve never heard before,” says Tai. With SMO she hopes to cultivate “immediacy between the audience and the performer.” Tai observes that while the traditional classical repertoire has already filtered through the collective consciousness of what is good and enduring, the prospect of presenting pieces that have not yet “stood the test of time” is an exciting one.

For more information on SMO’s upcoming concert, visit www.cornish.edu.

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