SEATTLE – Harp concertos are, in and of themselves, rare entities. Composer-harpist Hannah Lash doubled the rarity on Nov. 18 and 20 by fulfilling her Seattle Symphony commission with a new concerto for two harps titled The Peril of Dreams. For its well-received world premiere, harpist Lash joined Seattle Symphony principal harp Valerie Muzzolini and the orchestra at Benaroya Hall. Associate conductor Lee Mills took to the podium, replacing music director Thomas Dausgaard, who was announced as ill.
So much about the evening was unusual. First was the matter of gender: Both The Peril of Dreams and its companion, Amy Beach’s Symphony in E minor, Op. 32, “Gaelic,” were composed by women. While masks for all onstage (removed and replaced by the wind players as dictated by the scores) are now the norm, the orchestra’s seating arrangement, which was the same for the previous week’s concert of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11, was not. After Dausgaard evaluated scores and programs, the only thing conventional about the staging was that he placed both harps side by side, front and center. Instead of the usual layout of violins on the left, violas in the middle, and cellos and basses on the right; he split the violin section between the two sides of the podium. Basses, cellos, and violas were arranged, left to right, behind and inside them. Percussion and winds, which were harder to see from my seat 10 rows back, seemed more or less in their customary places at stage rear. The seemingly larger-than-normal string section was determined in part by the repertoire, which needed many strings to balance composer requests for large wind and brass sections.
The resultant sound worked well for Lash’s concerto. The first of its four movements, “In Light,” begins with mysterious, ethereal sounds. The presumed veil of sleep, initially diaphanous, is soon punctuated by troubled chords and sharp intrusions. As the horns scream, the music becomes increasingly disorienting. Where are we? What will happen next? After a brief turn to the romantic and a sense of calm, what feels like boundless mental chatter takes precedence.
In “Minuet-Sequence, and a “Hymn from Upstairs,” the two harps continue to dialogue over and through the orchestra. A vague sense of unease permeates passages of extreme delicacy. A little scampering by the xylophone, reminiscent of passages in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, cedes to feelings of disorientation. Despite a vaguely familiar folk-like theme shared by the harps, the peril in this dream state is that there is nothing solid to grasp onto. The feeling of uncertainty continues in “In Spite of Knowing.” What does the sound of castanets signify? As brief post-romantic swirls gives way to the unidentifiable, cognitive dissonance prevails.
The final movement, “To Have Lost,” begins with an orchestral elegy expressed in unison octaves. With the harps silent, the unfettered orchestra continues to build in volume, only to suddenly pull back. As trumpet and harps join together for a hollow and empty end to the concerto, silence and applause filled the space. Exactly what we were applauding in Lash’s attempt to explore the great mysteries of subconscious time travel, I doubt either she nor anyone present could say with certainty. What was reassuring nonetheless was the willingness on the part of music lovers to leave the sureties of Beethoven symphonies and Strauss tone poems behind and instead explore realms that cannot be described in words.
No one who had not been informed in advance that they were about to hear the first symphony composed and published by an American female composer – it was also the first symphony by a woman to be performed by a major symphony orchestra – would have guessed that the “Gaelic” Symphony (1894) was written by the composer once known as Mrs. H. H. A. Beach. The four-movement work, which garnered acclaimed at its Boston Symphony Orchestra premiere in 1896, begins with vigorous passages that, in Mills’ hands, unleashed a whirlwind of energy.
It didn’t take more than a few minutes before the emergence of the first recognizably Gaelic theme, which was derived from “Dark Is the Night,” Beach’s song about oceanic turbulence. The second movement’s pastoral opening soon give way to several other Gaelic themes. A gorgeous soaring and soulful solo by concertmaster Noah Geller, which soon morphed into a lovely duet with principal cello Efe Baltacigil, introduced the third movement which, in Beach’s words, conveys “the laments… romance and… dreams” of the Irish people. The final movement upped the drama quotient, leading to an exciting climax.
Those are the facts. Moving beyond them, into the realm of musical eloquence, was rendered difficult by violin and brass-heavy conducting that failed to bring out the heart at the symphony’s core. Time and again, I longed for the thrillingly huge, warm, and rich waves of color-saturated sound that guest conductor Giancarlo Guerrero coaxed from the orchestra during a marvelous performance of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances seven weeks earlier. Here, a conductor far more familiar with the orchestra buried the natural warmth of cellos, basses, and woodwinds. As much as I tried, I could never reconcile what I heard with the intrinsic warmth of Beach’s themes. The parts failed to cohere.