OSSCS takes Torke, Strauss, and Bartok to Meany Hall

About once a year, Orchestra Seattle performs its “big orchestra” concert at the University of Washington’s Meany Hall. A few years ago, Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem” was chosen for the concert. Last year, the orchestra was absent from the Meany Hall stage. This season, Orchestra Seattle returned to the University of Washington with a concert of music by Torke, Strauss, and Bartok.

For the first half, Shangrow programmed Michael Torke’s Saxaphone Concerto and Richard Strauss’ “Four Last Songs.” Eleanor Stallcop-Horrox sang the Strauss and Erik Ibsen-Nowak played the Torke as soloists. After the intermission, the orchestra took on Bela Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra.

At first, I didn’t understand how these pieces fit together. They may not have been chosen for an underlying reason other than Shangrow and the orchestra thought they would be interesting to play. This realization wasn’t enough to discourage me from trying to put the Torke, Strauss, and Bartok puzzle pieces together in a way that made sense to me.

At the center of the concert and at the center of the connections between pieces were the “Four Last Songs” of Strauss. “Songs” is the last complete piece Strauss composed before dying at the age of 84. Over his long life, Strauss was at times loved and reviled by the public and musical colleagues. Operas like “Salome” positioned the composer as a musical innovator. By the time he died, Europe was picking up the pieces of World War II and music was changing. Yet, Strauss stuck to who he was as a composer and in “Songs” he produced a masterpiece of exceptional beauty, wrought by the inner reflection.

Eleanor Stallcop-Horrox sang the piece last Sunday. This local soprano has earned acclaim for her work with the Seattle Opera, garnering mention in the Metropolitan Opera News. However, Sunday will likely not be regarded as her best performance. Stallcop-Horrox used too much vibrato for my taste; Strauss’ melodies sounded choppy. There were also times when her voice couldn’t quite reach over the orchestra. When this happened, it wasn’t always the soloist’s fault. Strauss pits the soprano soloist against an impossibly large orchestra. The soprano must sing with the utmost sensitivity while the alpine sized orchestra behind her is pushing the dynamics louder and louder.

Strauss’ piece finds a connection to Torke’s Saxophone Concerto through their use of differing sopranos. “Four Last Songs” features a soprano voice while Torke’s piece requires a soprano saxophone. The pieces also seemed to also share a stylistic connection. Like Stallcop-Horrox, the saxophone sings its own songs that are colored with the help of the orchestra’s timbrel pallet perfectly exploited by Torke . My personal favorite: the lullaby-esque second movement. Torke’s concerto isn’t a piece I would have expected Orchestra Seattle to perform. Because Shangrow and his group spend a good part of each season rediscovering seldom performed music from the past – a task they are especially good at — I don’t expect them to take on seldom played contemporary music.

Soloist Ibsen-Nowak, George Shangrow, and the orchestra dove into Torke’s propulsive music confidently. Shangrow’s challenge was keeping each section of the orchestra moving in the same direction. From time to time the orchestra seemed to slow down, perhaps uncertain if what they were playing was right.  Although the concerto sounded straightforward, Torke’s writing requires the orchestra to maintain a state of near constant motion.  When there was  sluggishness, it never lingered longer than a few moments, and it wasn’t long before the orchestra and Ibsen-Nowak were dashing through another series of repeated phrases.

Pieces like Torke’s concerto never cease to surprise me with their immediate endings. It is as if the composer decided he had said enough with the music, and rather than wrap everything up with a nice coda, he has the music stop. Nevertheless, the abruptness of the ending didn’t stop my toe-tapping.  Torke’s concerto won me over.

Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra concluded the concert. Unlike the first two pieces, which were linked by their soprano soloists, Bartok’s masterpiece, like Strauss’, was one of the Hungarian’s last compositions. It is startling to think that Bartok’s concerto was composed four years before Strauss composed “Four Last Songs.” Comparing Strauss and Bartok’s pieces underscored how unsettled classical music was at this point in the 20th Century. Strauss had spent eight decades composing lush music in the great German Romantic tradition, while Bartok was penning music that challenged 20th Century ears and drew on influences from his home country.

The Concerto for Orchestra’s kaleidoscopic colors and emphasis on each section of the orchestra always make it a piece that is fun to hear live. Moreoever, there are few pieces which challenge the totality of the orchestra like this piece. From the strings incisive playing, to the gleaming brass fanfares, and even the exultant finale, Orchestra Seattle gave its audience plenty to applaud.

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