It is easy to be dismissive of orchestra programs that plumb popular dance scores for their own use. Almost always that means a series of excerpts in which the whole of the work is lost. However, the up side of this experience is the opportunity to hear splendid music is a concert setting. Almost inevitably the result not only represents a fuller sound but often better music-making. The sound blooms on stage where it often does not in the pit. Another advantage is the possibility to focus entirely on the music.
The Seattle Symphony Orchestra occasionally dips its toes into these waters, as it did Thursday night at Benaroya Hall with excerpts from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet,” one of the most splendid ballet scores in existence. The orchestra, led by its music director Gerard Schwarz, played with striking vitality, a handsome sound and a wealth of details. When needed, Schwarz did not hesitate to raise the dynamic level to triple forte. The effect was electrifying. But he did not neglect the pianissimos in the score. They could be ravishing.
There is so much to admire in this score. And if one has seen the ballet, its dances fly by in one’s memory. There is constant state of invention, of telling rhythms and provocative melodies. Everything was given its due, a sense of resonance and sheer beauty. Even brutality. Even though the symphony is nearing the end of its formal season, it did not sound tired or weather-worn. although it could easily be.
The slow movement to Mahler’s unfinished Tenth Symphony opened the concert. For my ears, this is not first-cabin Mahler. That said, there was plenty of first-class playing, especially from the violas, led by principal Susan Gulkis, and first violins, led by guest concertmaster Ani Kavafian. The legato from all was sustained and remarkably vibrant.
A little-known, late 19th-century and early 20th-century Russian composer, Julius Conus, provided the concerto for the program. He was well-established in his day, but no where near the top levels of Russian composers from the period. If his violin concerto is an example, it is not hard to see why. While it provides all sorts of bravura and merry-making for the soloist, its ideas are pretty humdrum. Maria Larionoff, SSO concertmaster, played with customary panache and made the most of every moment she could. I think it will be some time before we hear this concerto again.
For an encore, she played Sarasate’s flashy, and delicious “Navarra” with Kavafian. It was sort of a farewell to a much respected musician who has been one of several violinists who have acted as co-concertmaster and guest concertmaster in the symphony’s protracted search of a new concertmaster. Beginning in the fall, Larionoff will hold the title concertmaster exclusively. There will be no more guest concertmasters, as they have been called in the past season or so. It was never a satisfactory arrangement.
The program will be repeated Saturday night at 8,