To Orchestra In Need, Guest Conductor Brings Affinity Of An Old Friend

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David Robertson led the Seattle Symphony in a ‘logical, sonically transparent’ performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. (Photos by Brandon Patoc)

SEATTLE — So far this season, the Seattle Symphony has played under no fewer than seven conductors as part of its central masterworks subscription series. The musicians have shown remarkable flexibility in adapting to a dramatically varied range of podium styles and personalities for each program as the search for a permanent music director continues.

But in the orchestra’s most recent program, the combination of intensity and clarity obtained by visiting conductor David Robertson might easily have been mistaken as the result of a long-term collaboration. To be sure, Robertson has shown a strong rapport with the orchestra over the years, as his appearance here last March confirmed. If each guest performance is to be considered a de facto audition for the vacant post — regardless of availability, let alone desire to take it on — I’m tempted to single out Robertson as among the most promising fits on the basis of the consistently high level of playing the Seattle Symphony delivers under his baton.

Mahler’s Fifth Symphony occupied the bulk of the program. This is the very work Robertson had taken on the previous week, when he made his unexpected debut appearance with the Toronto Symphony in lieu of Michael Thomas Thomas, one of our most eminent Mahlerians, who had to cancel the engagement on doctor’s orders.

The Fifth is Mahler’s first symphony to come without a heavy load of programmatic baggage — even if its essential trajectory, from funeral march to affirmation of life (in all its complexity), might be seen as processing major turning points in the composer’s life, including his recent close brush with death as well as the blossoming of his love for Alma Schindler, whom he married while completing the work.

Rather than approach the score as the transcription of sessions with a psychotherapist — let alone as the imposing beast to be tamed as the film Tár mythologizes it — Robertson brought a logical, sonically transparent perspective to his interpretation that reminded me at times of Boulezian precision.

The absence  from the Fifth’s scenario of the crutch of a program narrative or a text set to music seemed to give the conductor free rein to focus on the sheer impact of sonic events, their contrasts and relationships — all which required keeping the orchestra on the highest alert, with mindful attention to what was unfolding in the moment. For example, Robertson introduced brief pauses in the funeral march — slight intakes of breath between phrases that added notes of sobriety. Even the vehement attacks at the start of the second movement, for all the clarity of their articulation, came across as carefully parsed.

Pianist Orli Shaham was soloist in David Robertson’s ‘Light forming’ with the Seattle Symphony

It took a little time for this somewhat detached take to settle in. I prefer more differentiation between the music of grieving and of unsettled anguish, and the opening pair of movements comprising Mahler’s Part I as a consequence sounded to me a touch too prosaic, the least convincing in this performance; a couple of off-kilter entrances added to the undercooked impression. But with Efe Baltacıgil leading the cellos in the keening recall of the opening threnody that emerges in the stormy second movement, the expressive level heated up to soul-stirring effect. The moment of disappointment, when the the brass chorale “breakthrough” at the climax shows itself to be illusory, was marvelously timed and balanced, the remainder of the movement a meticulous study in entropy.

Robertson’s firm grasp on the precise sounds and combinations of sounds he wanted served him particularly well in the constantly shifting swirl of the Scherzo, arguably the most elusive part of the Fifth. Positioned in a space of his own downstage left, principal horn Jeffrey Fair played with beautifully tapered tone; the unusual positioning added sonic drama to his dialogue with the other horns and the ensemble — a wayfarer’s cries in the distance. Robertson encouraged wonderfully characterful phrasing from the winds and pizzicato strings, clarifying inner lines and balances that often go unnoticed. 

The Adagietto benefited from the conductor’s European-style placement of the strings, with first and second violins divided spatially. As throughout the symphony, Robertson steered clear of hyperbolic emotion and tempo extremes. If the Adagietto didn’t quite attain the level of a transcendent serenade, its details of texture gained clarity, with harpist Valerie Muzzolini’s colorings in particular gaining more profile.

Robertson and the orchestra were at their finest in the outstandingly realized final movement, whose connections with the Adagietto sounded organic and in keeping with the larger picture. Clarity of line and voice took priority in this account, so that Mahler’s kaleidoscopic polyphony sounded abundant and exciting rather than cluttered. The return of the Adagietto strain, speeded up, had an intriguingly nonchalant character — as if any tinge of melancholy had been purged. But there was also complexity in the concluding, “real” breakthrough, not mere erasure of preceding tragedy, as the orchestra’s exuberant outburst in the final measures resounded with an anarchic joy.

Mahler was a star conductor who famously composed in his “free time.” Robertson, who studied horn and composition in his early days at the Royal Academy of Music, only recently returned to composing amid his many responsibilities as a sought-after conductor and mentor. The program’s first half presented evidence of this side of the artist with Light forming, a concerto he wrote for his wife, the pianist Orli Shaham, who gave the premiere with the Orlando Philharmonic under the baton of Eric Jacobsen in 2022 and who was on hand to introduce the work to Seattle audiences. 

David Robertson conducted the Seattle Symphony amid the orchestra’s search for a music director.

Mahler’s Adagietto is recognized as a love letter to his fiancée Alma — rather than the Fifth’s second funeral march, as it has been interpreted over the years — and Light forming similarly represents a reaffirmation of Robertson’s love for his wife and her artistry. “Her singing tone, richly shaded approach to harmony, and exquisite ability to shape phrases spoke to me immediately,” he writes of the first time they met, which was for a rehearsal of Chopin’s E minor Piano Concerto. 

Cast for a Mozart-size chamber orchestra (with percussion), Light forming proved itself to be an attractive piece that incorporates aspects of its composer’s encyclopedic knowledge of the repertoire without becoming an exercise in facile eclecticism. Allusions to Mozart and Ravel (the Concerto in G) are unmistakable yet unforced, but it’s above all the sensibility of late Bartók (the Third Piano Concerto) that filters through as a guiding inspiration. Gestures evoking John Adams (Robertson is a prominent champion) also emerge in a remarkable passage in which the piano and orchestra seem to be teaching each other a new language.

Music-as-a-language in more than a metaphorical sense even served as an impetus for the concerto. “The musical sensation of listening to a language one doesn’t speak, hearing subtly volatile speech sounds, gradually gives way to a focus on meaning as we become conversant in the language,” writes Robertson in his commentary on Light forming, describing in essence the work’s dramaturgy. The opening gesture is an erratically repeated A on the piano, which gradually coalesces as a key musical idea shared with the orchestra in the first movement, named after a phrase from Proust’s Sodom and Gomorrah (“… la musique incertaine de leur voix…”)

The piano has a nearly constant presence in the 21-minute concerto, which stitches the genre’s traditional three movements together into a single span. Between them, Robertson and Shaham had at their beck and call a vast store of piano techniques, but these were used with expressive deliberation.

The solo part is characteristically dialogue rather than confrontation, and often ruminative — with the advantage that Robertson’s sensitive orchestration (and conducting) continually adjusts the sound worlds of the piano and ensemble for optimal balance. Shaham shaped the often linear material with grace, delineating the heavy chordal motif in the middle movement with elegant precision and the vivid flow of the finale with luminous pleasure.