In a new marketing strategy for the Seattle Symphony, this weekend's concerts are doing double duty. Along with marking the traditional finale to the season's subscription series, they're serving as opener for the just-launched SummerFest initiative, which is intended to capture new audiences.
As has become the custom for their season-ender programs, music director Gerard Schwarz and the SSO have pulled out all the stops to present a sonic extravaganza. Often this has meant a Mahler symphony, but in this case we get a twofer, with a programmatically smart coupling of Wagner and Mahler. Indeed, given the expansive orchestral forces Mahler calls for in his Sixth Symphony — augmenting the SSO are 13 extra players — it seems only Benaroya Hall's Watjen concert organ is being left unused. Thursday night's performance included moments of first-class playing from the SSO as well as frustrating reminders of the ensemble's untapped potential.
Part of the evening's draw for a very enthusiastic crowd was soprano Jane Eaglen's appearance to sing Isolde's final vision in the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. This famous concert extract offers Wagner's tone-poem-size condensation of his opera simply by linking its opening and closing sections; it also happens to be one of the formats in which the public first heard this epoch-making music, before the opera itself was premiered in 1865.
The orchestra gave an impressive reading, including noticeably tight string ensemble, to wring maximal emotion from Wagner's dense harmonies and splendidly gleaming timbral balances. Schwarz unforcedly shaped the Prelude toward its inexorable, bleak climax, yet — as if unintentionally foreshadowing some of the drawbacks of the Mahler to come — he let whole sections pass along the way with virtually no profile (the restlessly circular phrases echoed between strings and winds, for example).
But the real disappointment here was Eaglen's can belto "Love Death." As someone who has been captivated by some of her most memorable performances, I'm well aware of the glory of which Eaglen's steel-reinforced soprano is capable. Nearly a decade after her triumphant debut as Isolde at Seattle Opera, however, Eaglen delivered a sluggish succession of undifferentiated and graceless phrasings, with an unpleasantly harsh edge to her top notes. Her formidable volume through most of her range makes for an oddly unsettling contrast with the timid, scarcely audible lower end of her voice. As far as the dramatic context goes, Eaglen's unrelievedly monumental sound suggested little of Isolde's radiant leave-taking from the material world.
Mahler's symphonies make for great end-of-season programming in part because they showcase the full spectrum of an orchestra. At the same time, they also test a conductor's technical and interpretive mettle to the utmost. That particularly goes for the Sixth. It lacks an extramusical program to help sell it (aside from the unofficial moniker "Tragic" and loose, after-the-fact associations between Mahler's personal life and the fatal "hammerblows" of its finale). What's more, the Sixth ends by shutting off all escape from the nightmarish, pitiless world it graphically explores in a wide-spanning — though classically oriented — structure.
Mahler himself, according to his widow Alma, was so overwrought by what he had created that he nearly sabotaged the music with a poor performance when he conducted the premiere in 1906. Part of the aura around the San Francisco Symphony's Grammy-winning account of the work under Michael Tilson Thomas comes from the fact that it was recorded from live performances beginning on September 12, 2001.
Schwarz launched the affair with an overpowering, dread-filled urgency that revealed the close cousinage of Shostakovich's cruel forced marches. And typical Schwarz strengths were in full evidence — in the way he italicized structural signposts and paced climaxes; in the driven, tightly sprung rhythms; and in the brassy brightness of the score's most exuberant moments.
But unlike the Tristan music, a roughshod and sloppy inattention to balances often proved distracting. The oversize brass section sometimes threatened to swallow the rest of the orchestra. Key details of texture, such as the swirling string figures which collapse around the first theme, swept incoherently by. Most egregious was the episode scored for offstage cowbells. What's supposed to suggest an indescribably ethereal moment — Mahler likened it to "the last greeting from earth to penetrate the remote solitude of the mountain peaks" — sounded like a clumsy encounter with the kitchen's Calphalon during a power outage. These details are no small matter: Mahler's masterful orchestration is never merely decorative but rather integral to his musical argument.
The order of the two inner movements remains a matter of heated debate for Mahlerphiles, since the composer himself changed his mind after first conceiving of the Scherzo as the second movement (I tend to find the case for Scherzo-then-Andante, as on Bernstein's recordings, more compelling since it intensifies the ghastliness of the Scherzo). Schwarz has chosen to follow the currently approved practice of the International Mahler Society, which is Andante followed by Scherzo (although, curiously, he ignores Mahler's revision of the hammer strokes in the finale to two and includes all three, as scored in the first edition).
The Andante — a melody-rich entire movement of what turns out to be pure illusion in the Sixth — proved the best-executed part of the performance, with Schwarz shaping beautifully arched long phrases. There was slicing, teeth-gnashing grotesqueness in the Scherzo proper, but things sputtered out of focus in the contrasting trio, as if waiting for the next big "moment" to rally the forces. The same scenario replayed itself on a vaster scale in the finale, as Schwarz whipped up considerable excitement around the marches but never quite brought all of the intervening episodes to cohere or convince. Given the committed level of playing on hand, there were many lost opportunities for a more probing interpretation than the Technicolor Armageddon that prevailed.
The excellent contributions of solo players are too numerous to elaborate in their entirety. Especially outstanding were timpanist Michael Crusoe, clarinetist Christopher Sereque, bassoon player Seth Krimsky, David Gordon on trumpet, and trombonist Ko-Ichiro Yamamoto. Susan Gulkis Assadi's gasping sobs on viola made a fascinating counterpart to Frank Almond's violin solos, their sweet flavor tinged with a citrus bite. (Please, someone remind me why we can't get around the politics and go ahead and make him fulltime concertmaster?)
Before the concert, the SSO's VP of Development, Mark McCampbell, noted the considerable achievements of the orchestra as it concludes its first decade in Benaroya Hall — and made an appeal for more donors. Stay tuned for a future report on the state of the SSO and some of its ongoing challenges.