A Japanese Tone Poem Conjures Formlessness Of World At Its Dawning

Conductor Kazem Abdullah and composer Dai Fujikura share in the ovation after the world premiere. (Photos by Brandon Patoc)

SEATTLE — Rudderless, as in without a music director, the Seattle Symphony may still be. But artistically stagnant it is not. With guest conductor Kazem Abdullah at the helm Feb. 2-4 for the world premiere of Dai Fujikura’s Wavering World, Britten’s Violin Concerto with soloist Augustin Hadelich, and Sibelius’ Finlandia and Symphony No. 7, the musicians of the Seattle Symphony played splendidly.

Fujikura, who was born in Osaka in 1977, has lived in the U.K. since age 15. The Seattle Symphony expressly commissioned his 15-minute Wavering World to pair with his “favorite symphony,” the Sibelius Seventh.

Abdullah opted for an unusual seating arrangement. First and second violins were spread across the entire stage, with cellos arrayed in a pie-shaped wedge formation a few rows in on the left of the audience. With double basses and percussion also on the left and violas toward the center, it was up to the winds and brass, seated as usual on center and rear right, to join some of the second violins on the right in balancing out the soundstage.

Taking his lead from Sibelius’ concentration on Finnish folklore, Fujikura drew on its Japanese counterpart as he created music to express “the humid wetness and wonder of creation” and the appearance of the first three shapeless and genderless gods as the world opened for the first time.

The Seattle Symphony, shown performing under guest conductor Kazem Abdullah, is still searching for a music director.

The layout of surround-sound strings created a mystical aura, as if the world was were emerging from a primordial melting pot. As strings glistened over the woodwinds, Fujikura attempted to lead us through Japanese legend as he painted the newborn world as a bed of reeds. His sound world was original, unfamiliar, and difficult to grasp fully in a single hearing. Color and textural contrasts were numerous, with rapturous outbursts morphing into liquid murmurings that continually bubbled to the surface. After a brief outburst of timpani, tom-toms, bongos, and bass drum, huge discordant chords led to an anti-climactic ending that seemed to suggest more to come. The audience greeted the composer with warm but hardly rapturous applause. Apparently, I was not alone in my lack of clarity over what I had just experienced.

In the totality of the concert, Seattle’s strings sounded as silken as I’ve ever heard them. And percussion, especially when guest timpanist Eric Schweikert joined symphony percussionist Mike Werner, was thrillingly strong and vital. When everyone rose to the challenge, as in Sibelius’ Seventh, it felt as though the entire orchestra was immersed in a bath of liquid strings. But when, in Finlandia, the brass remained implausibly reticent, the balance seemed disturbingly off.

Nor was brass all that was missing in Sibelius’ short nationalistic rallying cry. Abdullah, who seemed to have little room for sentiment, dashed through Finlandia’s lovely pastoral hymn of gratitude as if paradise had been paved over for a parking lot. No heart-tugging allowed. It was hard to imagine Finns marching to victory with music like this.

Augustin Hadelich was soloist in the Britten Violin Concerto with the Seattle Symphony under Kazem Abdullah.

Thankfully, everything improved when Hadelich took to the stage. As he played the first bars of Britten’s fascinating, continually inventive concerto, his tone was so disarmingly sweet — so indescribably beautiful, whole, and healthy — as to promise 32 minutes of joy. The concerto’s Spanish theme emerged with idiomatic beguiling lilt, the entire violin section sounding as if inspired by Hadelich’s heavenly playing. In the middle movement Vivace, the violins sounded remarkable as they ceded to the sound of two piccolos chirping over a tuba. Hadelich maintained strength and beauty during the movement’s huge turmoil. Some soloists may slash more emphatically, but few can maintain such sweetness. Brass in the final cadenza was remarkably strong, and the conclusion profound. Abdullah couldn’t quite convey a transcendent sense of spiritual deliverance, but the final orchestral explosion was thrilling. Hadelich played with moving tenderness in the conclusion.

After such a marvelous performance, the audience demanded an encore. Hadelich played the Sarabande from Bach’s Partita No. 2 with supreme delicacy, his tone exceedingly fragile and inward as it bent to his numerous subtle changes in dynamics. Under his bown, Bach’s Sarabande was transformed into a short poetic journey to a land of mystical wonder.

With Sibelius’ Symphony No. 7 in C major, the orchestra had another opportunity to stretch its wings. Strings soared, their sounds sweeping across the stage in plush tones that, near the symphony’s end, glowed with light. Huge outbursts were all but overwhelming in their impact, and the seeming ascent to the summit was glorious. Abdullah almost captured the grand sweep at symphony’s end. Even while unconvinced that his vision of the Seventh was fully formed, I could not get the grandeur of the sound out of my body or head.