Two visiting orchestras, two knockout concerts

The Academy of Ancient Music, at Town Hall, shows how in your face "old" music can be, while the Russian National Orchestra raises goosebumps at Benaroya, making Tchaikovsky almost frighteningly up-to-date.
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Harpsichordist Richard Egarr of the Academy of Ancient Music. (AAM)

The Academy of Ancient Music, at Town Hall, shows how in your face "old" music can be, while the Russian National Orchestra raises goosebumps at Benaroya, making Tchaikovsky almost frighteningly up-to-date.

By now, the early music movement has progressed so far that when naysayers complain it's an antiquated, backward-looking venture, they merely reveal themselves to be the ones who are behind the times. Many "mainstream" ensembles and soloists have come to incorporate aspects of historically informed performance (HIP) within their arsenal, while musicians and audiences have something to gain from the larger HIP perspective of calling "tradition" (i.e., what's comfortably familiar) into question.

Quite apart from ongoing debates over particular issues of technique and actual performance practice (which in some quarters these still rage with considerable acrimony), the Academy of Ancient Music (AAM) leaves no doubt that its priorities lie with making this repertoire live in the here and now. The AAM gave vivid proof of this when they played a long-overdue visit Saturday night to a packed Town Hall, under the auspices of the Early Music Guild.

Compared to when they were last in town four years ago, the AAM appeared with a slightly smaller ensemble (just one wind player, the extraordinary flautist Rachel Brown). This was their first visit since harpsichordist Richard Egarr succeeded Christopher Hogwood as the band's leader in September 2006. Egarr's infectious charisma extends well beyond the keyboard and was also on display in his role as commentator introducing several pieces on the program of concertos by Bach, Handel, and Telemann.

Handel has been a particular focus of late for the group. The AAM just released the latest CD in their ongoing Handel cycle (the Op. 4 Organ Concertos, on harmonia mundi), but the program drew from their inaugural recording with Egarr–the Op. 3 Concerti Grossi, one of the standout releases of 2007. So it was no surprise that the G Major Concerto Grosso (the third of the Op. 3 set, using the version for solo flute) flowed with giddy (and deceptively simple) delight.

Near the beginning of the program, Egarr introduced the early Sonata à Cinque in B-flat (HWV 288) as a "sonic snapshot" of the young Handel's years in Rome, when Arcangelo Corelli presided as the "boss man" over musical politics. Despite its name, the Sonata is essentially a violin concerto and featured another of the evening's star performers, violinist Pavlo Beznosiuk. In the finale, his interchanges with Egarr ("playing" the role of Handel at the keyboard) rocked with the kind of in-your-face excitement and spontaneity that brought to mind a jazz session. Later, the Concerto Grosso in A minor (No. 4 from the Op. 6 set), with its rich emotional palette, emerged as perhaps the evening's highlight. Egarr prefaced it with a quirky depiction, comparing the third movement to music heard by "a spaceman on marijuana."

It might sound paradoxical, but the AAM's approach gives early music a thrillingly contemporaneous, in-the-moment feel. There were just a few rare spots when the ensemble smacked of going through the motions in the opening G minor Concerto for harpsichord by J.S. Bach (BWV 1058). Otherwise, they tapped a sort of musical fountain of youth that made these pieces glow with a sense of fresh discovery.

Much of this has to do with a certain risk-taking, on-the-edge attitude. The cascading lines of the Bach flowed from Egarr's fingers like a silver river. He conducted from the keyboard, bobbing and gesturing with as much animation as a baroque Jerry Lee Lewis. Bach's familiar Concerto for Two Violins in D minor (BWV 1043) dazzled with sensuous surfaces and unpredictable rhythmic articulations. Beznosiuk and violinist Rodolfo Richter ricocheted off each other and the string ensemble, conjuring a musical hall of mirrors.

With the AAM as advocates, Telemann admirably held his own amid such daunting company. Rachel Brown brought sylvan dewiness to a flute concerto, while the concert ended with one of the more adventurous, timbre-rich "Table Music" concertos (for flute, violin, and cello). Joseph Crouch emerged from the basso continuo for some choice cello obbligato phrasing. Throughout the program, Egarr and associates made it clear that far from shackling them with restraints, their philosophy of early music allows for a large dose of personality and interpretive freedom.

Breathing life into music closer to us in time is, in a sense, a more formidable challenge. Here the stumbling block isn't theory but practice–the consequence of over-familiarity. For its concert at Benaroya Hall on Sunday, the Russian National Orchestra (RNO) could have sailed smoothly and effortlessly on the glamour of expectations: here was a visiting orchestra, qualified to give the "authentic" touch to scores by two of its beloved native sons, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky. Instead, they held the sold-out house captive with stirring interpretations that gave this music almost shocking presence.

The Moscow-based RNO is a curious beast, a private- rather than state-funded ensemble that was established in 1990, during the transition from glasnost to a brave new era. As if to purge memories of an era of artistic isolationism, extensive international tours have been a key part of its agenda. They even teamed up with the Seattle Symphony to form a mega-ensemble during their last visit here a couple years ago.

For this visit, the RNO (supplemented by a few of Seattle Symphony native-Russian violinists) played under Vladimir Jurowski, the band's principal guest conductor since 2005. It was the first time local audiences got a taste of what the fuss is all about with the increasingly high-profile 35-year-old conductor. The stylish Jurowski, lean and lion-maned, has a significant presence in London (including a position as principal artist with the period-instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, which indicates the breadth of his interests). He is rumored to be a top choice to replace Christoph Eschenbach, who steps down as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra this spring.

Despite his youth, it's hard to imagine any ensemble being able to resist Jurowski's magnetic focus. His precise and patrician demeanor homes in straight to the point, without indulgent theatrics. Rachmaninov's Isle of the Dead had not only the necessary fatalism but overwhelmingly evocative dynamic control. The RNO breathed with wavelike sighs, the instrumental choirs blended with the minute care of a Dutch master mixing pigments.

The mood loosened up a bit for the composer's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Piano soloist Stephen Hough took the stage clad in a pair of eye-catchingly red slippers. His performance was just as colorful, sparkling, and nimble even in his most percussive attacks. Rachmaninov's melancholic fondness for the medieval Dies Irae melody acquired a sardonic touch here, coming right after its quotation in the tone poem opener.

And then came the blockbuster: Tchaikovsky's "Pathétique" Symphony, where the audience could at last hear the massive gong towering upstage put to use. The heavily recorded RNO made their debut release with a highly prized account of this work (under founder Mikhail Pletnev). Their profound identification with the score hasn't diminished since. An epidemic of goose bumps broke out in the perfectly unanimous, sweeping scales of the first movement, while the musical climaxes were sinewy and slashing, not melodramatic.

Even more powerful were the moments near the silent end of the spectrum. The Symphony crawled into being out of a nearly inaudible, bleak bass, into which–with devastating symmetry–it sank again by the end. Jurowski exercised tight control over Tchaikovsky's sprawling musical arguments, gesturing the rise and fall of a passage like a barometer. Steely accents in the third-movement made it prefigure the ironically swaggering hollow victory of a Shostakovich march. Jurowski's somewhat guarded distance in the Adagio lamentoso allowed Tchaikovsky's exhaling despair sound frighteningly up to date.


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