Lessons learned

If you went to the Seattle Philharmonic concert this past weekend you learned two lessons. First, parents should keep their young children at home. Second, among community orchestras, the Seattle Phil is the best I have heard so far this year. They are a group of musicians capable of unexpected, even stunning results.

The first lesson arrived late in Sunday’s concert. In the final piece of the afternoon, Dvorak’s spirited Seventh Symphony, a toddler made her way onto stage during the scherzo. It was a perfect YouTube moment that I hope the Phil’s camera man considers posting on the site. The toddler didn’t do any lasting harm to the performance. In fact, based on the sighs and gasps coming from the crowd, she might have actually snapped us to attention. The toddler didn’t tug on Adam Stern’s leg nor did she fiddle with anyone’s sheet music, but she did make it to about mid-stage before she decided to turn around and head back to her mom.

When it comes to concert disruptions I am fairly tolerant. I can deal with sudden epidemics of tuberculosis during new pieces, programs falling onto the floor like confetti in a parade, and clapping after movements. And, when it comes to children at concerts, I think parents should always try to expose their young ones to classical music. Take them to concerts, let them listen, but at all costs keep them quiet and keep them in their seat. I draw the line at toddler dance parties during Dvorak symphonies.

Lesser community orchestras would have lost their composure. This fact leads me to the second lesson of the afternoon – the Seattle Philharmonic is darn good orchestra. Adam Stern is one of the area’s most inventive music directors. What Stern does, more often than not, is expose audiences to the unfamiliar side of familiar composers. Unlike Orchestra Seattle (another excellent community orchestra), which has a strong choral component on each program, the Seattle Phil focuses its efforts just on large-scale orchestral pieces. On Sunday, Gustav Holst’s unfamiliar side was given attention with performances of A Fugal Overture and Ballet Music from the Perfect Fool.

Between the Holst and Dvorak was another surprise, this one from Lorin Maazel. Maazel is one of the most accomplished American conductors, recently stepping down as music director of the New York Philharmonic. Most, however, don’t know Maazel is also quite the composer. As good as the rest of the Phil’s concert was, the Giving Tree (based on the Shel Silverstein book by the same name), was the highlight for me. Maazel’s style is descriptive without sounding hackneyed. An image of a tree materialized from ruffling fragments and Messiaen-like bird calls and groaning dissonances reflected every exploitation of the tree. The Giving Tree wasn’t perfect, the microphone for the narrator wasn’t turned on.  This required Adam Stern to fix the problem and start again.

Even though an eager toddler reminded us of the problems children at concerts can pose, it was the second lesson of the day, which will endure for the rest of the season and long into the future. Talk to critics and writers who don’t confine their listening to events at three venues (Meany, Town Hall, and Benaroya) and they will tell you the Seattle Philharmonic is capable of technically sharp and insightful performances. Not even a runaway child could obscure this lesson.

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