An off night at the Symphony

The orchestra has an ambitious project of short world premieres for Gerard Schwarz's farewell season. They didn't come off well in this weekend's concert, which also features Andre Watts playing Beethoven.

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Pianist Andre Watts

The orchestra has an ambitious project of short world premieres for Gerard Schwarz's farewell season. They didn't come off well in this weekend's concert, which also features Andre Watts playing Beethoven.

This week’s Seattle Symphony concerts feature an appealingly varied and substantial program. On offer are no fewer than two world premieres by American composers as well as imposing masterpieces of Debussy and Beethoven, with piano icon André Watts as soloist. Despite some arresting moments, though, Thursday night’s performances left much to be desired.

An especially ambitious project for this valedictory season of music director Gerard Schwarz is the series of 18 farewell commissions made possible by the largesse of SSO donors Agnes Gund and Charles Simonyi. It’s an exciting opportunity to showcase the latest work of a wide range of contemporary American composers — from Augusta Read Thomas and George Tsontakis to Philip Glass — via brief, five-minute-long orchestral pieces. Each of these composers has enjoyed the advocacy of Schwarz at some point throughout the maestro’s 26-year tenure.

"Blast!," the sixth in this series of commissions, is a ferociously hammy curtain raiser by Pittsburgh-based composer David Stock. A familiar name for audience regulars, Stock is a former resident composer with the SSO, which has premiered several of his works, including, most recently, his Cello Concerto.

The large orchestra "Blast!" calls for filled out the Benaroya Hall stage. But Stock mostly squandered these resources, firing off bombastic, cluttered-sounding salvos of pedal-to-the-metal brass and percussion. To their credit, Schwarz and the players typically have two weeks at most to absorb the brand-new scores for this project, and their energetic performance attempted to shake some personality out of what sounded (on first hearing, at any rate) like a generic fanfare on overkill.

Following the Stock was another world premiere — or, more exactly, the world premiere of James Yannatos’s revision of an earlier work, "Ritual Images," which he originally wrote in 1974 for orchestra and tape. Yannatos, a native of New York who was associated for nearly half a century with the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, used his very large orchestra with considerably more variety. But it never added up to a coherent musical experience — which may, after all, have been the composer’s point.

The concept behind "Ritual Images" doesn’t seem very different from what Charles Ives was exploring a century ago. Yannatos intercuts musical signposts for the manifold ways, sacred and secular, in which we compartmentalize our lives into ritualized patterns. The signifiers include rah-rah beefy brass for political sloganeering, hymnal pieties, snatches of Dvo?ák (cultural “recreation”?), and the obligatory snatches of raucous jazz to connote the “vernacular” (the weakest of the splicing effects).

As in the Stock, the brass made an especially powerful showing, with standout performances by trumpeter David Gordon and Ko-ichiro Yamamoto on trombone. While some of the orchestration is indeed quite skillful, "Ritual Images" lacks the exciting thrum and buzz of Ives’s all-embracing polyphonies. The piece meanders, a confusing jumble of competing sensations, before resolving into a final Bach-inspired peroration. Is this a metaphor for our era, with its manic musical variety and inability to sustain attention?

The bright, brassy sounds of these American compositions seemed to spill over into the SSO’s account of Debussy’s La Mer. Schwarz took a surprisingly dry, matter-of-fact approach, skimping over the mystery and oceanic desire that Debussy so hauntingly evokes. The string ensemble became frayed in the rapid scherzo-like skittering of “Jeux de Vagues,” while a generalized foreground prevailed, obscuring the vivid, colorful, precise detail and rhythmic flexibility needed to bring Debussy’s score truly to life. Schwarz whipped the orchestra into a frenzy in “Dialogue du vent et de la mer,” the final part of the triptych, and its climaxes flashed with exuberance as if to affirm the primal life force.

André Watts (who retains a remarkably youthful-looking and amiable glow at 64) joined the SSO for Beethoven’s final piano concerto to round out the program. The misnomer “Emperor” that was posthumously added in the English-speaking world has stuck but could hardly have pleased the composer: Napoleon and his troops were bombarding Vienna and making Beethoven’s life hell just around the time when he was writing this music. Beethoven scholar Leon Platinga aptly observes that the militaristic-sounding motifs in the long first movement “may have reminded him (and now us) of a generalized human struggle.” Far from an encomium of imperial pomposity and power, he suggests, the piece’s “heroic gestures pointed to a nobility of character required to prevail.”

Watts’s interpretation conveyed something of this nobility. He perceptively tuned in to the fundamental dichotomy Beethoven sets up at the start of the concerto. Watts played the triple mini-cadenzas not just as showy display (though there was an enjoyable dose of that) but injected a wistful, lingering sense of private fantasy as well: a microcosm foreshadowing the rest of the work. But Schwarz seemed to have a different and more uniformly extroverted take on this music. It resulted in a palpable feeling of strain between Watts and the ensemble, marring key passages. Woodwind solos passed across the landscape without any profile, and the more introspective passages of the development came across as mere transitions, treading water until the next rallying of the theme.

Watts brought a silken, caressing legato to the adagio and muscular vitality to the rondo, but his interplay with the SSO felt especially perfunctory in the latter. Even so, the “Emperor” generated considerable excitement by the end, imparting its irresistibly resilient spirit to the audience.


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