By Harlan Glotzer
On Saturday afternoon the Thalia Symphony presented a brief, but by no means unsubstantial, concert of two Russian masters. Thalia, a truly remarkable group of musicians, under the baton of Eric Hanson, has been the Seattle Pacific University Orchestra in Residence since 1994. Spanning a wide range of ages, comprised of professionals, SPU students, and SPU alumni, this ensemble embodies the essence of a community orchestra. Thalia is indeed a place for young musicians to hone their skills among the ranks of peers and mentors.
The concert opened with Rickie Malgren tackling one of Rachmaninov’s greatest piano works—the Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini (op. 43). Malgren appeared right at home, even though this was his first appearance as a featured soloist with an orchestra. The beginning being a little slow for my tastes was soon forgotten by the rich and colorful playing of the orchestra. Rachmaninov’s technical fireworks were executed splendidly despite Malgren’s intermittent moments of metric arrest. However, these instances were few and were contrasted by many moments of lyrical and expressive keyboard brilliance.
The orchestra’s ability to shift mood on a dime came singing through all the different variations, and the lush romantic timbre of the strings was beyond reproach. Achieving a sonorous sound in the First Free Methodist Church is not a easy task. The peaked roof and abundance of hard surfaces boosted the already powerful brass and percussion, while mellowing the strings. Thalia, however, compensated superbly rendering this acoustic hurdle all but noticeable. Principal horn, Benjamin Harris’ solo near the end of the Rhapsody touched me in a deeply expressive way, and the whole ensemble showed its strength in the tender moments.
I was a little worried at intermission that the space was preventing the orchestra from achieving true epic Russian sound, but those worries were immediately dashed at the beginning of the second piece. Described as “powerful” and “not for sissies” by conductor Eric Hanson, the whole of Prokofiev’s Symphony no. 5 (op. 100) lived up to his words by dominating the space as if it was emanating from the spirit of every musician on stage. The ensemble really cut loose during this towering work, and the result was a much more harmonious blend. The sweeping and swelling of the violins in the first movement matched perfectly with the passage-work of the brass and winds. The second movement exemplified the ensemble’s command of shifting mood and demeanor. Watching the players navigate the quirky march-esque nature, while landing all the awkward shifts Prokofiev baked into this piece was quite an enthralling sight. The heartbreaking third movement exemplifies everything this symphony stands for and was inspired by. Written in 1944 at the height of Nazi troops on Russian soil, Prokofiev’s 5th Symphony expresses in exquisite detail the very nature of war and what it truly is to be human. After that maelstrom of emotion, the fourth movement begins delicately, but quickly drives unceasingly to the explosive climax. By far my favorite part of the whole afternoon, the fourth movement captured Thalia’s full, present sound and conveyed the jubilance of performing a masterpiece such as Prokofiev 5.
Musicians such as these, with heart and passion for performing symphonic works, are constantly growing and honing their craft. I can say without a doubt that I’m excited to see what Thalia has in store at their next performance—a Chopin Bi-Centenary. This concert will surely continue to test the limits of Thalia’s young musicians, and provide fertile ground for the more advanced players to lead by example.