Superb violinist makes Seattle Symphony debut

Thursday night’s Seattle Symphony concert at Benaroya Hall was a study in contrasts: a refined performance of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto and an expansive performance of Mahler’s immense Fifth Symphony. Both were successful, but the truly memorable part was the playing of German violinist Isabelle Faust with her 1704 “Sleeping Beauty” Stradivarius.

The immediate thought when hearing her first notes was how relaxed she was, and how beautiful the pure, gentle sound emanating from her violin. Her bow was so light on the strings it’s as though the sound floated out in an exquisite, silvery stream. Lest this sound sugary sweet, it wasn’t. There was depth and phrasing, shape and contrast here, but always without ostentation. Fast runs seemed easy with plenty of time for each note to be perfect by itself and in its place. There was expressive dynamic range in her playing, but she achieved some extraordinary pianissimos which were nevertheless audible over the orchestra. Faust’s style seemed exactly right for the Mendelssohn. And never have I heard a performance where less was so much more.

A slightly reduced orchestra under music director Gerard Schwarz gave her good support and sensitive accompaniment. Schwarz does an excellent job with the orchestra in performance with soloists—careful not to overwhelm them and appropriate as a partner. He doesn’t then go into the frenzy we’ve been seeing more of lately in purely orchestral works he’s conducting, apparently trying to whip the players up into ever louder, more intense climaxes.

Mahler’s fifth asks for some of these, but it seemed a bit soon to hear the first climax of that caliber shortly after the work’s beginning, leaving one wondering, Where can this go from here?

However, despite a good many wince-making episodes of extreme volume (particularly the cymbals clashes and screaming violins) from the large orchestra Mahler demands, Schwarz also pulled back in between for some fine expressive music making in Mahler’s large, colorful work. The music is lush enough in itself that it needs a little restraint rather than exaggeration to show it at its best, and Schwarz achieved this in many places. It seemed unnecessary to bring principal hornist John Cerminaro to the front like a soloist in the fourth movement, no matter how prominent his role and how smooth his playing. It was distracting to watch him frequently empty out the drips from his instrument.

Kudos though to the whole brass section, notably principal trumpet David Gordon, for its performance.

This concert brought the orchestra’s new associate concertmaster on stage, England’s Emma McGrath, most recently assistant concertmaster with the Colorado Symphony.

Three more performances of this program remain: today, Friday, lunchtime, Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon. For tickets at $17-$100, call 206-215-4747 or go to seattlesymphony.org

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