The Seattle Symphony Orchestra season keeps going deeper and deeper into summer. While one might think it would dumb down its programs, because of the longer, sunnier days, it is doing almost the opposite with well-considered, well-crafted collections of music. But it is not only the music that is often so striking but also the music-making.
Thursday night at Benaroya Hall is a case in point. There were the popular works as well as the local premiere of Thomas Ades’ Violin Concerto tucked in between. What made the evening particularly splendid was the high level of the playing, and conducting by David Robertson.
The world of new music is populated with any number of leading figures. We only hear a small portion of them in Seattle, most likely because the rental fees for the music are high. Living composers expect to be paid for their efforts. Born in London in 1971, Ades is a major figure on the circuit, widely admired and performed by musicians such as Robertson and Leila Josefowicz, who was the soloist Thursday night. The concerto was premiered in Berlin four years ago and is making the rounds of music capitals. Cast in three movements, it is not long, about 20 minutes, in mildly contrasting sections. It is not a consciously bravura vehicle, but one that lives and breathes by its striking coupling of complexity and simplicity. It is often remarkably beautiful and uses dissonance as punctuation. While it has the sense of an Arvo Part score, in that it does not speed to anywhere, it is by no means a copy. Ades is very much is own man, and while a main current seem to be slow moving, the undertow can be powerful and swift in its effect.
Josefowicz — who made her Seattle debut while barely in her 20s at the Seattle Chamber Music Festival — is a musician of uncommon gifts. It was obvious then and is obvious now — still very young and stylish. She possesses a virtuosic technique, which she puts to good use, not only in standard repertory but also contemporary music of which she is an ardent champion. She has a penetrating tone, a powerful bow arm and long, arcing phrases. The Ades piece suits her well. She has a sure grasp of its intellectual material as well as its substantive musical ones.
Robertson is not a stranger to Seattle, but he doesn’t come often enough due to his many commitments elsewhere in the United States and abroad. Not only does he guest conduct most of the leading orchestras in the Western world, he is music director of the St. Louis Symphony and principal guest conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. His connection to the Seattle Symphony is a powerful one. One can feel it. The musicians respond by playing their very best, which is considerable.
Mussorgsky’s “A Night on Bald Mountain,” in Rimsky-Korsakov’s arrangement, opened the concert. It is usually given routine readings which pick out all the famous tunes and leave it at that. Robertson made a coherent whole of the work, illuminating it in all sorts of ways. One was reminded why it has remained such a staple of the orchestral repertory. Stravinsky’s 1910 ballet score, “The Firebird,” is also often treated carelessly. Conductors and musicians don’t have to work hard to make an impression. People inevitably stand up at the end. With Robertson, and the SSO, one was reminded why the work is one of the great pieces of the past century. In part its world is all about color, and Robertson evoked most of them. The result was a brilliant array from the strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion. The symphony was large, filling the Benaroya stage, including three harps. The sonic consequences were enormous, with fortes that were mind-blowing. The pianissimos were startling as well. Balances were superb and ensemble crisp and clean. First-class solos abounded. Often the music is played in an abbreviated suite. Thursday night it was not, and the effect was a kind of narrative revelation that brings the listener back to the story and its characters.
The program will be repeated Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoon.