Edging Into Concerts, Seattle Symphony Puts Twin Tasks On Barnatan

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The Seattle Symphony performing with pianist-conductor Inon Barnatan at Benaroya Hall on May 20 (Photos by James Holt / Seattle Symphony)

SEATTLE – It seemed like the answer to a prayer. After more than 14 months of silence and then online concerts, the Seattle Symphony has moved one step closer to in-person concertizing. On May 20, perhaps 50-75 masked Seattle Symphony subscribers plus this critic attended a shortened-for-internet-viewing, intermission-less concert of pianist Inon Barnatan performing and conducting Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat major, (Jeunehomme) and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major in Benaroya Hall.

The concert, which Seattle Symphony President and CEO Krishna Thiagarajan characterized during a pre-concert Zoom interview as “a consequence of the joint sacrifices of the musicians and staff and the amazing support of our patrons and donors,” was performed in a carefully controlled, socially distanced environment in which everyone was legitimately masked – no bandanas or exposed noses allowed – temperatures were taken before admission, air conditioning-filtering ran at 100 percent, and post-performance departures were regulated to prevent mass grouping. Stage lights were brighter than usual, with colorfully lit side panels providing a welcome change from Benaroya’s usual drab, pasty-yellow monotoned concert lighting. In a 2,500-seat hall, Barnatan performed and conducted to the camera, with his back to the audience, before a lidless grand piano and a chamber orchestra of widely spaced players.

The Seattle Symphony has fared fairly well during the pandemic. Musicians, operations staff, and most of the marketing staff have been retained, albeit with significant salary reductions. Front-of-house staff ushers were initially furloughed but are currently being retrained and brought back with the help of government pandemic support. The chorus is another story altogether.

“It’s probably been the worst crisis that we’ve all faced together,” Thiagarajan said. “From all the data that we have seen, the COVID-19 pandemic has actually had a more significant impact on the entire performing arts industry than the disruption caused by World War II.”

Shortly after the pandemic hit, the symphony resolved to honor its commitment to pre-season ticket holders as it explored ways for its musicians to perform together and stay in shape. In six weeks, it created its new online platform, taught stage managers how to become camera operators, and learned how to cope with internet slowdowns. A front-of-stage platform, complete with special exhalation receptor vents, was erected for unmasked singers who might perform solo or with a small combo. The platform, which covers six or seven rows of orchestra center, had a positive unexpected consequence: By reflecting sound from the main stage behind it, it enlivened the acoustic, rendering sound far more vivid than usual in Row Q where I was seated. Row Q was about as close as one could get to the stage before the platform began to obstruct the view.

An audience member listening to the Seattle Symphony with pianist-conductor Inon Barnatan

By and large, donors have stayed loyal to the symphony. A number of new and significant donors have entered the picture, and some dynamic younger-than-usual members of Seattle’s booming tech industry have joined the Symphony Board. Fundraising revenue has actually increased during the pandemic, helping to balance a marked decrease in earned revenue.

“We are really, really lucky that we have really supportive people who have rallied around the orchestra,” said Thiagarajan. “We’ve also been able to avail ourselves of federal funding. We haven’t really been able to participate in the state stimulus monies because they’re for smaller organizations. But we’re in a solid financial position because staff took the financial hits and made the sacrifices.”

Seattle’s forthcoming fall season may start with audiences up to 1000. “We’ll build from there,” Thiagarajan said. “I’m still concerned about the upcoming flu season. We have purposely planned to start with some of the smaller orchestral works, with the larger works in the second and third parts of the season. The chorus actually returns by season’s end.”

Seattle Symphony President and CEO Krishna Thiagarajan

If this concert was any indication, the Seattle Symphony remains in great shape. After three rehearsals with pre-marked scores, Barnatan elicited perfect pinpoint articulation from his ensemble. Favoring dynamic, highly expressive orchestral playing in the Mozart, he reveled in the dialogue between his instrument and the musicians. Barnatan’s passion for swimming and scuba diving seemed reflected in a performance in which his every perfectly articulated run seemed to flow over and through orchestral crests like a surfer exulting in every encounter.

After the exuberant Allegro, Barnatan and the ensemble grew increasingly tender in the Adagio. Notes were lovingly caressed, even in the most rapid passages. Although the piano’s lowest notes sounded a mite muffled in the acoustic, at least from my vantage point – a period instrument would have fared better – the final movement’s point-counterpoint between piano and small instrumental groupings offering abundant delight. Imagine the joy of young children dancing in the spout of a fire hydrant that someone has opened on a hot summer’s afternoon, and you can begin to sense how Barnatan romped through the 21-year-old Mozart’s concerto.

Only two bassoons and a flute may have been added for Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto, but Barnatan elicited a notably weightier and more substantial bass foundation that reflected the transition from Mozartian clarity to a more romantically effusive era. After a maximally expressive orchestral introduction, the piano’s entrance seemed a bit rushed, even sounding perfunctory. At times, the playing seemed stronger on virtuosity than substance. But, as in the Mozart, every time the tempo slowed and the piano grew softer, the playing was magical. The hushed dialogue between piano and orchestra in the middle of the Allegro con brio was wondrous. The only time Barnatan faltered slightly was after the tempo picked up, when he was so eager to rise from the keys and conduct that the final notes of a long ascending run dropped a little in volume.

Inon Barnatan performing with the Seattle Symphony in Benaroya Hall

The second movement Adagio was beautifully felt – piano and orchestra seemed like one – and the perfectly timed pause before the final movement elicited wonder. In the concluding Rondo: Molto allegro’s delightful gambol, Barnatan played with a specific weight that anticipated the profundity of Beethoven to come. Every slight shift of sonority seemed like the major event that the orchestra’s return to concertizing before an audience most certainly was.

Jason Victor Serinus writes and reviews for Seattle Times, San Francisco Classical Voice, Stereophile, American Record Guide, Opera Now, Listen, Bay Area Reporter, and many other publications. He whistled Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” as “The Voice of Woodstock” in an Emmy-nominated Peanuts cartoon. He resides in Port Townsend, Wash.