Wrapping up the Central Europe Music Festival

The Seattle Symphony Orchestra should take more such risks.
The Seattle Symphony Orchestra should take more such risks.

Seattle Symphony: Wrap-Up of Central Europe Music Festival The final two programs of the Seattle Symphony's festival of music from Central Europe bridged a century of extreme reversals: from the confident outlook of a newly independent country after the First World War, through Soviet suppression, to the new landscape faced by today's composers. They also gave contrasting perspectives - large-scale versus intimate - of the ensemble interacting with Music Director Gerard Schwarz. Sadly, the audience for the big event June 7 following Bartók's Bluebeard was scant. The program was anchored to LeoÅ¡ Janáček's Glagolitic Mass, which is scored for large chorus and orchestra, along with organist and four vocal soloists. It was a bit unsettling to see so many empty seats in Benaroya for such a massive musical statement. The Glagolitic Mass from 1926 is one of those astounding products of Janáček's late-life inspiration. It comes from the decade that also gave us several of his most famous operas. Already in his 70s, he wrote the bulk of the mass within a month, in a rush of fevered inspiration. Film buffs know the work from Kenneth Anger's short 1954 film Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (which uses the entire piece in its soundtrack). Its title refers to the earliest Slavic alphabet, introduced by Saints Cyril and Methodius, and, by extension for Janáček, to the Old Church Slavonic versions of the Latin Mass he sets here. That linguistic choice is an instance of the composer's attraction to pan-Slavism (his final opera, after all, was inspired by Dostoevsky's From the House of the Dead). More importantly, the Glagolitic Mass's musical exuberance has both political and personal roots: Czech national pride (stoked by the recent emergence of an independent Czechoslovakia from the Habsburg ruins) and inspiration from the great love and muse of Janáček's late years, the far younger Kamila Stösslová. A significant aspect of Janáček's idiom here is a particular kind of rhythmic vigor, unpredictable and rousing. Schwarz remained typically focused on this drive, and he brought an exciting charge to the score's energetic fanfares and barely bridled momentum. At the same time, just as critical to Janáček's musical vision is his brilliantly original orchestration and arrangement of choral forces (he had a lifetime of experience as a choral conductor behind him when he came to compose the Glagolitic Mass). The piece abounds in fascinating contrasts of volume, timbre, and vocal range. Much of this nuance was lost by continual misjudgments of balance – above all in the spectacularly inventive "Credo." Schwarz's full-throttle approach gave little room for colors to blossom, details to claim their proper due. The Seattle Symphony Chorus, prepared by the retiring George Fiore, was in better form than in the disappointing Missa Solemnis earlier in the season but sounded poorly aligned with the soloists and orchestra. On hand was an unusually personality-rich quartet of vocalists. Actually, the show pretty much belonged to soprano Christine Goerke, with lots of work for tenor Gary Lakes, as well. Janáček uses his mezzo and bass sparingly – a pity, since I wanted to savor more of Sarah Heltzel's amber tone, and Patrick Carfizzi's booming bass-baritone had real character. Janáček writes in a punishing tessitura for the soprano and tenor. Goerke negotiated it well, soaring ecstatically in the "Gloria" but buoyed by a richly colored, full sound. Gary Lakes's unmistakable tenor was ardent (if a bit thinner) but too often drowned out as the chorus overflooded its banks. Inexplicably, the program neglected to list organist Joseph Adam. His lengthy, gripping solo (between the "Agnus Dei" and the concluding recap of the "Intrada") was a linchpin of the performance and burned with the intensity Janáček invested in this music. The first part of the concert was imaginatively programmed. First up was a new work by Hungarian Levente Gyöngyösi, a composer in his early 30s who was in attendance. Verkündigung ("The Annunciation") is a cycle of six symphonic miniatures inspired by the poetry of Rilke (and written originally for a Hungarian youth orchestra). Instead of New Age, fuzzy kitsch, which one might have feared from a musical grappling with Rilke's references to angels, Gyöngyösi devises intriguing sonorities of dark energy and stabbing dissonances. A haunting, spectral memory of the rondo finale theme from Schumann's Piano Concerto intrudes into the proceedings. Also programmed was Karel Husa's Music for Prague, written in exile (in upstate New York, where the composer still resides) to news of the Soviet invasion after the 1968 Prague Spring. Schwarz kept a tighter rein on the piece, which made for a taut and suspenseful reading and a nice payoff in the clarity of lines. The all-percussion Interlude sparkled. June 8 offered an engrossing program which brought the political theme underlying much of the festival to the fore. Somewhat confusingly titled "Voices Unleashed," it featured five composers hailing from countries where the dogma of "Socialist Realism" once tried to mandate a conformist "accessibility." The Nordstrom Recital Hall traded the vivid acoustics of the concert hall downstairs for greater intimacy, with the musicians' expressions clearly visible. This was an especially riveting advantage for the opener, Trois mouvements concertants by the 30-something, Prague-born Krystof Maratka. It's a concerto-in-miniature for cello and string orchestra and showcased the Seattle Symphony's new principal cellist Joshua Roman front and center. Roman's contributions to the festival have been especially noteworthy, including his captivating accounts of the Kodaly and Ligeti cello sonatas (heard in his Town Hall debut earlier this spring). Roman brought his now-expected passionate intensity and individualized tone, his hands and facial reactions adding another level of counterpoint to the IRCAM-influenced Maratka. Romanian-in-exile George Enescu was next up, with his Chamber Symphony from 1954 – another work of late-period summing up and illumination. The work flows with elaborations of seemingly simple basic ideas. A sense of camaraderie from the 12 Seattle Symphony musicians playing it seemed palpable. Here, as throughout the concert, Schwarz conducted with bare hands and appeared to enjoy a more relaxed rapport with the ensemble. In this somewhat less formalized environment, a couple of introductory remarks about the pieces would have enhanced the music even further. The program's high points came from the Polish composers Andrzej Panufnik (about whom Puget Sound resident Bernard Jacobson, who lectured before the program, is writing a study) and Witold LutosÅ'ꀚawski. In one of those endless paradoxes of 20th century music, Panufnik fled the pressure of conformity in post-war Poland for Britain, only to be accused by the avant-garde pundits of writing music that was too "accessible." Geographical and musical politics aside, his Autumn Music came through as a composition of a quarter hour or so of spellbinding beauty. This is a composer (he died in 1991) obviously in love with the sheer miracle of sonority. Autumn Music looks ahead to the inscapes of the "Holy Minimalists" (Arvo Pärt and company), while its delicate scoring glistens like fragile bubbles catching the light, ready to burst at any moment. You could actually see the joy Schwarz and the players took in bringing to life the masterly Funeral Music (for string orchestra) LutosÅ'ꀚawski composed as a tribute to Bartók in the mid 1950s. It's based on a sustained arc of tension, which never really resolves but dies back into the almost inaudible grief which begins things, with razor-thin sobs from Roman's cello. The audience followed with a sustained hush – not even an errant cough audible. Concluding the festival was the Concerto for String Orchestra of Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-1969). Her work required a smaller ensemble (differently configured) and soon dispelled the gloom with the rhythmic energy of its outer movements. But beneath its playful surfaces lurked–with varying degrees of insistence–something almost ominously mechanized. All told, the Central Europe Music Festival brought some boldly imaginative strokes to the season, which has another month to go before it concludes. The festival involved an intriguing array of programming choices, in contrast to the first half of the symphony's season, which had been far too conventionally weighted. Projects such as the Chihuly-Seattle Symphony collaboration for Bartók's Bluebeard – aside from all the surface glitter – may have sparked some new discoveries (both for the symphony and for music lovers). Other orchestras around the country have been pioneering new ways to cross-pollinate without compromising artistic values. Consider, for example, the L.A. Philharmonic's recent "Tristan Project" (a concert staging of Tristan und Isolde with contributions from video artist Bill Viola). There's a lot of room for creative thinking here. Even if the payoff isn't immediately apparent, the Seattle Symphony can gain from taking more such risks.


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