As Orchestra Searches For Helmsman, Vänskä Proves It’s Not Adrift

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Osmo Vänskä led the Seattle Symphony in works by Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and Donghoon Shin. (Photos by Carlin Ma)

SEATTLE — It’s more than two years since the Seattle Symphony’s last music director, Thomas Dausgaard, submitted his surprise resignation. As much as the absence of a singular guide at the helm inevitably leads to concerns that musicianship may suffer, Seattle’s forces sounded absolutely on course on March 21. In the first of two concerts that included Tchaikovsky’s well-loved Piano Concerto No. 1 with pianist Simon Trpčeski, Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 6 in E-flat minor, and the U.S. premiere of South Korean Donghoon Shin’s 11-minute Of Rats and Men, the musicians played with such unanimity of purpose and dedication as to suggest that guest conductor Osmo Vänskä had been working with them regularly for several seasons.

Exuding confidence, ease, and bonhomie as he entered the stage, Vänskä brought lovers of the Russian-Ukranian masters squarely into the present with Shin’s Of Rats and Men. Inspired by two short stories, Franz Kafka’s “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk” and Roberto Bolaño’s “Police Rat,” Of Rats and Men begins discordantly, its disconcerting din punctuated by a series of chords, each of which seem to signal finality amid the music’s unrelenting momentum. As the piece develops, an air of mystery and uncertainty hangs over the ensemble until the double basses sound emphatic notes of closure. Hardly.

More scurrying (of rats or men) ensues until, as the music grows increasingly agitated and discordant, trumpets and then piccolos sound cries of alarm and distress. I never could clearly identify Josephine’s song, played by Ben Hausmann’s solo oboe, or the police rat, signified by Luke Fieweger’s bassoon; all that was certain was that neither animals nor humans were having a good time. Despite occasional solo outbursts, the music grew more frantic and eerie until the piece ended abruptly, with a final blat from the brass.

Shin has created a uniquely compelling, unified sound world whose integrity left me wanting to hear it again. To quote an audience member seated near me, “You have to know a lot about harmony to successfully avoid it like that.”

Tchaikovsky did anything but avoid harmony in his First Piano Concerto. Heard from 11 rows back in orchestra center, Trpčeski began strong, his startling progression of opening chords matched by the strength of the orchestra’s bass foundation. His first ascending arpeggios were so perfectly connected and even as to defy notions of the piano as a percussive instrument. When given the opportunity to solo, Trpčeski slowed down markedly. His phrases became so tender that the entire audience grew silent, hanging on every note. After he ended one of his solo cadenzas with a distinct “plink,” Vänskä drove the orchestra to a frenzy, with Trpčeski following suit. The ending of the first movement was tremendous; only notions of what audience members “should” do prevented more from joining in spontaneous applause.

Simon Trpčeski was soloist in Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.

The second movement, enriched by Jeffrey Barker’s beautiful flute solo, introduced pianism even more poetic and enrapturing. While orchestra and piano echoed each other, Trpčeski and Vänskä probed deeper and deeper as the beauty of his sound grew more and more remarkable. When, at one point, oboes and cellos responded, the only momentary distraction arose from the cellos’ surprisingly nasal cast. Trpčeski’s tender recapitulation of the main theme invoked images of garlands of flowers flowing from the stage and into our hearts.

Then, with an emphatic boom, orchestra and pianist launched into the final movement. The orchestra seemed to exult in Tchaikovsky’s dance-like rhythms, with the piano dancing along joyfully. Shortly before launching into the concerto’s climactic ending, Trpčeski and Vänskä paused just long enough to smile at each other as if to say, “It’s time to run with it.” Together they did, their thrilling musicianship bringing every audience member within sight to their feet.

After numerous rounds of applause, Trpčeski returned for a short encore, which he dedicated to his friends in Hong Kong. Then followed a surprisingly wayward rendition of the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor. Concertmaster Noah Geller played with consummate sweetness, but principal cellist Efe Baltacigil was seated so far away from the other two that the music never cohered.

Simon Trpčeski with Seattle Symphony concertmaster Noah Geller

Like Shostakovich, Prokofiev was profoundly affected by the terrible losses of World War II. In his three-movement Symphony No. 6, he composed music so honest and stripped to the bones as to incur condemnation from Andrei Zhdanov, a secretary of the Stalinist Central Committee of the Communist Party, for anti-Soviet formalism.

The Sixth demands a conductor and orchestra who can hold it together and fashion a convincing argument from music that seems to arise from the mists of the war’s aftermath. Vänskä more than met the challenge. The music began as John DiCesare’s tuba issued emphatic cries over a march that seemed to signal inevitability. During an ensuing clash, Eric Schweikert’s timpani boomed out as Vänskä brought out all the colors of Prokofiev’s symphonic canvas.

The second movement Largo began with a huge dissonant explosion that led into a strong statement about the empty victories of war. Irony abounded, especial in the winds, until Valerie Muzzolini’s harp solo created consoling glimmers of hope and light amid the ashes. The final Vivace began with vigor as the percussion section sounded notes of positivity, happiness, excitement, and optimism. At the start of the thrilling climax, Vänskä whipped up a marvelous cacophonous clatter that deserved every iota of applause he received.

I don’t know if Vänskä is under consideration for Seattle’s music director position, let alone if he’d want to lead these forces on a regular basis. What is certain, however, is that if he routinely conducts as well as he did here, the Pacific Northwest will be blessed by his return.