It’s a fine idea to begin this Seattle Symphony season with three concerts specifically geared to the sophisticated but not-so-wealthy, need-an-evening-out crowd. The Beethoven and Wine Festival began last night, Wednesday, and continues the next couple of nights with different, shorter (less hours to pay baby-sitters) programs each night at a starting price of $9, and starting with a happy hour of four ‘pours’ of wine for $5. A good deal.
It certainly drew in a large crowd Wednesday, though there should have been more bartenders. Lines were long to the moment the concert began. Beginning his 25th season with the Seattle Symphony, music director Gerard Schwarz chose Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto and Seventh Symphony, both warm and appealing works. The only soloist of the three nights was Sara Davis Buechner, a pianist I’d never heard of before (she changed her name some years ago and I hadn’t heard of her under her previous one either), and it’s my loss.
This is a pianist who played Beethoven with bare feet on the pedals and a bubbling lightness contained within a firm architectural frame, a crisp, decisive touch and excellent articulation and clarity. In the slow movement Buechner’s lovely moony legato enhanced the music’s quality. Within the architecture, her phrasing and dynamics were musical and subservient to the composer, rather than a display of “Look at me, me, me the soloist!” which is not as rare a phenomenon as one would wish. Never did she over do it, except perhaps in her choice of a cadenza for the first movement. This, which she composed herself, had an ever-whelming extravaganza of notes to begin with, quite out of sync with Beethoven’s writing.
Fine partnering by the orchestra under Schwarz was equally sensitive, and produced some of the best pianissimo playing I’ve yet heard from it, not breathy as it used to be, but a singing, very soft tone. There was a sense of restraint in the whole conception of the concerto which matched with the elegance demanded by the era. This concerto was written in 1795 and revised in 1800, but it must have been a huge musical departure at that date, following straight on from the concertos of Mozart.
Symphony No. 7 received a very different type of performance. Yes, it was composed around 15 years later, but times had not changed so much as this performance would suggest. It seemed more that the concerto’s interpretation stemmed from Buechner’s understanding, and the symphony performance followed Schwarz’s musical choices.
Over the past few years, Schwarz has tended more and more to whip the orchestra up with frenzied conducting any time he wants a really big sound, to the same degree whether it’s Shostakovich or Beethoven. This unfortunate tendency leads, in Beethoven, to a hard, unyielding sound where it should be exciting There was, though, some well-nuanced phrasing at times and good tone from the orchestra, which sounded fresh and on its toes even after coming off a month of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle, in which it played over 17 hours of performance per week in very long stints.
Without intermission, these two long works came in at 90 minutes of playing, about the same length of performance as a full concert with intermission. The next two programs, tonight and Saturday, should be somewhat shorter. For tickets, go to seattlesymphony.org or call 206-215-4747.