I understand why someone might be afraid to take a chance on the current run of Seattle Symphony concerts. The program is eclectic and unfamiliar. Even if people are put off by the unfamiliar pieces on the program, they certainly would embrace the performances — especially the solo performances in the first half — which on Thursday night can only be described as amatzigane.

The first half includes three virtuoso solo pieces; one for English horn and orchestra and two for violin and orchestra. Gaetano Donizetti’s concertino for English horn, Maurice Ravel’s craggy, central European inspired “Tzigane,” and the “Havanaise” for violin and orchestra by Camille Saint-Saens are not go-to solo pieces. I was only familiar with the concertino because I had downloaded it in preparation for a story I wrote last summer. I was familiar with “Tzigane,” but had never heard it. The second half was equally unfamiliar. Gerard Schwarz picked Richard Strauss’s 1917 revamp of “The Would Be Gentleman” – but not the familiar orchestral suite derived from the same incidental music. Schwarz opted for a semi-staged version of the arrangement complete with vocalists, male chorus, and narrator.

The concert notes portray the three solo pieces as a musical travelogue. With Donizetti’s concertino the audience hears Italy, Ravel’s “Tzigane” presents Hungary, and Saint-Saens’s “Havanaise” inserts us into the forbidden land of Cuba. These pieces couple the exotic with plenty of virtuosic flair.

Donizetti channels operatic melodies, but links them to an instrument with a shallow concerto repertoire. How often do audiences get a chance to hear the English horn soloing in front of the orchestra? Seldom to never is the answer. Fortunately, living composers are writing more concertos for the instrument these days; Ned Rorem and Petris Vasks both have added to the solo repertoire for the English horn. Donizetti’s concertino is primarily built on the theme and variation structure, but the piece explores the full range and capabilities of the English horn with plenty of demanding passages. Stefan Farkas, the orchestra’s English horn player, expertly carried out the solo responsibilities, putting on an a master class for the audience.

Tianwa Yang was equally as dazzling as a violin soloist for Ravel and the Saint-Saens’s showpieces. “Tzigane” opens with a long cadenza-like passage for solo violin. Yang firmly commanded the technical aspects of the piece. Double stops, tremolos, accelerations and other technical devices smoldered under her bow. She was equally at home with “Havanise.” A leisurely, drooping introduction leads into fiery passages that she made seem easy. She rewarded the crowd’s enthusiastic applause with the final movement of Eugene Ysaye’s Sonata No.4 as an encore.

Richard Strauss’s “The Would Be Gentleman,” was a failure when it was first performed in 1912. Strauss salvaged the music, turning some of it into an orchestral suite. Strauss, however, wanted to revisit the music, and in 1917  he adapted the incidental music from the play into a longer narrative which more closely follows the original play.

In this longer version, Strauss’s colorful music is unfortunately interrupted by various extraneous elements – vocal soloists, male chorus, and narrator. I would have preferred to hear just the orchestral music. This isn’t the first time the Seattle Symphony has taken a stab at a dramatic work like “The Would Be Gentleman.” In fact, Schwarz regularly programs works for orchestra and other elements. Last year Schwarz programmed the “Genesis Suite” and the year before a semi-staged version of Bela Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle.” Before both of these works, Arnold Schoenberg’s “Survivor From Warsaw” found its way into a Seattle Symphony season. Each time the orchestra has played well even if the effect of the piece as a whole is sometimes lacking.

The first half of Thursday’s concert was a clear winner. Tianwa Yang and Stefan Farkas offered exceptional performances with favorable support from Schwarz and the orchestra. The second half didn’t fare as well. As someone mentioned to me after the concert, the piece is an “acquired taste.” The revamped incidental music to “The Would Be Gentleman” may be an acquired taste but the music is vintage Strauss. Richard Strauss fans will want to investigate this concert.

Dale Chihuly's album art for the SSO's new Mahler 8 recording

Dale Chihuly's album art for the SSO's new Mahler 8 recording

The orchestra made two important announcements after the concert. First, a limited edition recording of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony was officially released. The recording was taken from the September 2008 performance of the piece. Only 2,000 copies of the album were printed. The recording can be bought at Symphonica, the Seattle Symphony’s store in Benaroya Hall.

In conjunction with this release, Dale Chihuly was announced as Artist in Association. Chihuly has partnered with the orchestra a number of times, creating memorable visuals for performances of “Bluebeard’s Castle” and the “Genesis Suite.” The first product of this relationship is the album artwork for the new Mahler release and a series of limited edition prints based on the album artwork.


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