Great Ravel from Seattle Symphony

Thursday night’s concert at Benaroya Hall had a last minute change of program and soloist. Pianist Louis Lortie called in sick last week, and was replaced by Ukrainian pianist Valentina Lisitsa, who was last heard here in February on the Symphony’s Distinguished Artists series accompanying violinist Hilary Hahn.

It can be very hard for any presenting organization to replace a soloist at short notice, having to find not only a performer with a week free to come in and rehearse as well as play the concerts, but also with the requisite concerto at his or her fingertips. Often it means a change in program and that is what happened this time. Instead of the Poulenc “Aubade” and Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto, both of which would have been a treat to hear, Lisitsa, who is known for her Rachmaninov, brought that composer’s Piano Concerto No.1, thus ensuring the complete roster of Rachmaninov piano concertos at the symphony this season.

Not a flamboyant performer, she played it well, particularly the second movement which is essentially an uninterrupted, musing solo for piano with light accompaniment from the orchestra. Lisitsa’s relaxed style of playing suited it, yet when she needed flying fingers for the torrents of notes in first and last movements, they were there with ease of execution and plenty of sound and fury. In her hands this concerto was not just a popular warhorse, and the orchestra gave good support.

Opening the program was a fresh, sparkling performance of Ravel’s “Alborado del Gracioso” (“The Clown’s Serenade”), some of the best work I’ve heard recently from the orchestra and Gerard Schwarz who was conducting. There was an exciting vitality to it, a sense of anticipation with all the details clear, light, crisp and swirling along between louder sections and sinuous, sensuous slower parts, with kudos particularly to the solos of principal bassoonist Seth Krimsky.

Finally came Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8, and here the cellos shone. Dvorak gives them considerable prominence from the opening theme on, and the symphony’s section rose to the occasion, sounding rich and warm with singing tone and fine phrasing which earned them a collective bow to themselves at the end. Schwarz asked for considerable dynamic shading from the orchestra bringing plenty of color and life to the many melodies. The first movement began a little briskly for my taste, and I’d have liked it a tad more expansive to give the cellos more soaring time, but the second had both yearning and enchantment in it, while the brass blared with impish intrusion most satisfactorily in the last.

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