Seattle Symphony season opens with gala and warhorses

This year’s gala performance by the Seattle Symphony Saturday night celebrated the opening of music director Gerard Schwarz’s 25th season with a brief graceful speech in his praise from board president Leslie Chihuly. She also noted this was the orchestra’s 106th opening night concert, and in his reply, Schwarz also praised the orchestra and asked those players who had been there all 25 years to indicate themselves. Many couldn’t hear him as only a few waved their bows or hands, but after counting, it’s clear there are around 40 members who have stayed since the beginning of his tenure. Given the current dissatisfaction of the musicians with their leadership, this is a remarkable affirmation of the solidity of this orchestra over the years.

It’s fair to say that the orchestra has grown immeasurably under Schwarz, from a regional orchestra to one well-regarded countrywide and firmly ensconced in the tier of orchestras just under the top cream of the cream (New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Chicago). It has attracted fine performers to replace those leaving, while some have left to take prestigious positions with other orchestras (oboist Nathan Hughes’ move to the principal oboe position with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra is the most recent). It draws first rank soloists and visiting conductors (Kurt Masur visits this year). Not least is the accomplishment of Benaroya Hall itself with its excellent acoustics in the main auditorium.

Schwarz has plenty to be proud of as he gets ready to move on to the next phase of his life and hand the orchestra off to another music director. This won’t happen for another couple of years, but it takes time to find and choose the right replacement and for that person to be able to finish up at a current position.

Saturday’s concert was the usual gala program of showy warhorses, in this case Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1 and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, plus composer-in-residence Samuel Jones’ short “Fanfare and Celebration,” originallly written for the Houston Symphony but no less appropriate here. It’s typical of its kind: heraldic, with plenty of brass and cheerful noise, but Jones balances those with warm strings and some softer lyrical moments, while some contemporary harmonies go side by side with a romantic style.

Lill, now 65, is no flashy performer, and his interpretation of both works emphasized the inner qualities, at times musing or peaceful, quiet in the storm, creating delicate, filigree sections in contrast to the many avalanches of notes.

Both superb performances were ably accompanied by Schwarz and the orchestra, with well-played solos from flutist Judy Kriewall and visiting cellist Eric Gaenslen, who will be here frequently this season.

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