Covid As Music: ‘Today And Today And Today…’ Then, In Sibelius, Hope

The Seattle Symphony’s 2015-2016 conducting fellow, Ruth Reinhardt, took over a program originally scheduled to be led by music director Thomas Dausgaard, who resigned in January. (Photos by James Holt / Seattle Symphony)

SEATTLE — Two momentous events distinguished the Seattle Symphony’s Feb. 3 program at Benaroya Hall. The first was the world premiere of 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Music winner Ellen Reid’s pandemic-inspired TODAY AND TODAY AND TODAY AND TODAY AND TODAY AND TODAY AND TODAY AND TODAY AND TODAY AND TODAY — let’s call it TODAY…. — commissioned by the Seattle Symphony. The evening also marked the return to the podium of the orchestra’s 2015-2016 conducting fellow, Ruth Reinhardt.

Although it’s impossible to parse how much of the evening’s superb musicianship owed itself to Reinhardt’s conducting and how much was intended as a collective response on the orchestra’s part to concerns over the future of the Seattle Symphony in the face of the deeply troubling sudden resignation of music director Thomas Dausgaard, the result was one glorious night of music-making.

Reid’s 15-minute work opened the program. Following it were Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, performed with the towering pianist Garrick Ohlsson, and Sibelius’ Symphony No. 1 in E minor. The latter, initially intended as part of Dausgaard’s much-anticipated two-year Sibelius symphony cycle, was a key test for any young conductor standing in for a seasoned artist known for his way with Finnish and Scandinavian music.

TODAY… was the first of seven new works the Seattle Symphony commissioned with the express hope that they would receive inspiration from the Sibelius symphonies with which they were paired. In Reid’s case, that influence surfaced most in occasional, somewhat incongruous snatches of echt romantic themes that brought to mind both the Sibelius First and the music of one of its key inspirations, Tchaikovsky. That the other work of the evening, Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody, also received inspiration from Tchaikovsky’s music united all three works on the program.

Composer Ellen Reid, center, with conductor Ruth Reinhardt and the Seattle Symphony following the world premiere of a Reid work written during the pandemic.

Tellingly, TODAY…, created in response to month after month of COVID-occasioned routine, begins with a strong, sustained unison chord that unexpectedly fragments into discordant elements that rise in pitch. Soon, other fragmenting chords and drones replicate the pattern. Whether successive passages rise or descend (they do both), they leave a sense of overwhelming monotony punctuated by occasional outbursts that fail to develop into a clear sense of direction or purpose. According to Christopher DeLaurenti’s program note, Reid labels one of these opening segments “Dark, Murky” and includes directions such as “Slowly Degrading” and “Sheer Will.” There are glimmers of hope — those romantic, Sibelius-like fragments mentioned above — but they surface through a sometimes overbearing atmosphere of dread, danger, and incipient chaos that renders any light amid the darkness directionless and fleeting.

At one point, Reid’s music of time and place seems to embark on a syncopated journey that, without warning, stops and starts and stops again. Just as you seem to know where her music is headed, it changes course. Toward the end of the work, an unexpected percussion interlude, complete with congas and piano, occasions optimism. I immediately thought of New York City, where the Tennessee-born Reid now spends the bulk of her time, but she told me during intermission that her intention was to inject a sudden burst of life and energy irrespective of locale. In the final section, what DeLaurenti identifies as the “scratch tones” of rumbling strings, serve less to discomfort than to reassure that life, both in the Big Apple (which I continued to hear in Reid’s music) and beyond, will continue. A lovely light ending, complete with spiraling harp glissandi that sound notes of optimism, sends the music on a soft upward ascent that offers glimmers of hope.

With Ohlsson’s entrance, hope turned to glory. As he approaches 74, the Bronxville-born pianist walks a bit stiffly, but his hands move with the fluidity of a star player of the New York Knicks. Rather than bending over the keyboard, he sits straight, taking advantage of his height to allow his forearms, hands, and fingers to do the talking. And talk and sing they do, with the strength and eloquence of what I expect Ohlsson offered as a 21-year-old International Chopin Piano Competition winner poised to enter the long prime of his career.

Garrick Ohlsson was the soloist in ‘Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini’ with the Seattle Symphony under Ruth Reinhardt.

No matter how much Ohlsson’s hands scampered up and down the Steinway keyboard, they maintained a state of relaxation and ease that made for magical transitions from energetic flourishes to remarkably light and feathery passages. He and Reinhardt increasingly worked as one, with the orchestra rising beautifully to join the piano during crescendos. The beloved romantic 18th variation, with its unforgettable melody, emerged and then receded without undue fanfare, paving the way for delightful final tumbles and the thrilling conclusion that sent the audience to its feet. As if he had just begun to warm up, Ohlsson awarded the audience’s embrace by announcing his encore, Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C sharp minor, Op. 3 No. 2. Dynamics were tremendous, with multiple fffs sonorous rather than clattering. The ending, punctuated by a few droll cellular chimes from the audience, was miraculous.

With Sibelius’ First, Reinhardt showed herself a master of the grand romantic sweep. She indulged Benjamin Lulich’s opening clarinet solo, allowing it to linger magically in the air before capturing the nervous energy of the initial thematic build-up. Balance from top to bottom was warm and ideal, and individual lines emerged with clarity and eloquence above a firm bass foundation. Huge blocks of sound, complete with restless underpinnings and excellent percussion, recalled the sound of some of the great European orchestras. The Andante was beautifully phrased, its sighs and yearnings voiced with liquidity. Color contrasts were supreme in the short scherzo.

With Reinhardt in firm but hardly overbearing control, the tragedy and darkness of the thrilling finale transformed into a triumph for conductor and orchestra alike. If the Seattle Symphony continues to play at this level through the remainder of the season, there is hope that music lovers in the Pacific Northwest will emerge from the gray, gray days of winter with optimism and hope.