Seattle Symphony, In A New Chapter, Shows A New Face

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The Seattle Symphony is shown in a September 2013 concert at Benaroya Hall with music director Ludovic Morlot.
The Seattle Symphony is shown in a September 2013 concert at Benaroya Hall with music director Ludovic Morlot.
By David Gordon Duke

SEATTLE – After Gerard Schwarz’s 26-year tenure as music director of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, there is now a tangible sense of an orchestra re-inventing itself. Music Director Ludovic Morlot is giving all sorts of new ideas and attitudes a try, and there’s a general “we can do anything” spirit, with a showcase visit to Carnegie Hall in May.

Alternative series logos of the Seattle SymphonyA set of programs held in the days leading up to the Super Bowl were a further demonstration of this spirit: a pair of John Adams/Shostakovich concerts on the main series in Benaroya Hall, an abbreviated “Untuxed” program (with just Shostakovich works) featuring casually-clad musicians, and a late-night new music program, called “[untitled],” in Benaroya’s grand lobby.

Estonian guest conductor Olari Elts offered two works by Adams — the crowd pleaser The Chairman Dances (1985) in a not entirely focused account, and The Black Gondola (1989), an orchestral rendering of Franz Liszt’s La lugubre gondola, which fared better.

Estonian guest conductor Olari Eltis led works by Adams and Shostakovich.
Estonian guest Olari Elts led works by John Adams and Shostakovich.

Elts didn’t quite get the suave nonchalance of Adams’ very American fox trot, and the orchestra lacked the necessary precision and drive to completely capture the mercurial textures and rhythms. But the colorized version of the harmonically daring Gondola  was given a stylish reading in which subtle individual playing fully matched Adams’ intriguing vision.

It was the two Shostakovich works that really demonstrated what the SSO can do when it is running at full throttle. Elts’ take on the Ninth Symphony (1945) goes well beyond the conventional fun-and-games-with-lashings-of-irony approach. His was a bleak, disturbing reading that emphasized the Soviet expressionist core of the shortish work, and left the audience all too aware of the nihilistic darkness implicit in what Shostakovich called his “merry little piece.” In a brief spoken introduction that palpably unsettled his audience, Elts compared the work’s moments of apparent good humor to “someone coming and making your smile bigger – with a knife.”

Pianist Alexander Melnikov was stellar. (Marco Borggreve)
Pianist Alexander Melnikov was stellar. (Marco Borggreve)

Soloist Alexander Melnikov’s performance of the Second Piano Concerto (1957) was even better: equal intensity, spiced by an elegance, wit, and deadpan humor that gave the work depth and dimension as well as brilliance.  Tempi were often at astonishing, breakneck speeds, yet there was always time for trademark details to really speak. Melnikov – perhaps the most exciting Shostakovich player on the circuit today – knows exactly what he wants to do, and conductor and orchestra were willing co-conspirators in a performance that was fun, hair-raising, and profound.

The night before, the soaring glass and wood lobby of Benaroya Hall was filled for a ten-to-midnight program of new music. Well, sort of new: it consisted of three works from decades ago, plus Finnish composer Kalevi Aho’s unremarkable Trio for Clarinet, Viola, and Piano created for the 2006 Tampere Viola Competition.

Stroum Grand Lobby, Benaroya Hall, is home to late night concerts.
Stroum Grand Lobby, Benaroya Hall, is home to late night concerts.

The trendiness was all a bit self-conscious. Audience members were given wrist bands and encouraged to get beverages before, after, and even during the music; floor cushions were offered for those who wanted their chamber music up close and personal.

Perhaps higher quality, more consistent programming might have made the evening more exploration and less marketing ploy. Not that George Crumb’s Black Angels (1970) wasn’t enthusiastically conveyed or the watered-down Ravelisms of R. Murray Schafer’s Theseus (1983) weren’t theatrically effective.

The best work on the program was the least portentous: part three of Morton Feldman’s The Viola in My Life (1970), beautifully played by violist Mara Gearman and pianist Oksana Ezhokina. Unfortunately, Feldman’s exquisitely muted color range and perfectly chosen sonorities demanded a concentration at odds with the party atmosphere.

David Gordon Duke contributes reviews and essays to The Vancouver Sun and American Record Guide. He is academic coordinator at the School of Music, Vancouver Community College, and also teaches at the University of British Columbia.