Chicks, fox, witch, oxen, little kids…symphony concert?

By Philippa Kiraly

Animals, nature and generally pictorial matter suffused two thirds of the Seattle Symphony’s concert Thursday night at Benaroya Hall and, together with Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 5, they created a lively, colorful and satisfactory program.

It can be enlightening to hear show music without the visual element, in this case the Suite from Janacek’s opera “The Cunning Little Vixen.” When you are watching a complete event on stage, there is so much to see and hear and take in that the details of the music can get passed by, so it’s good to hear it shorn of other elements.

Janacek is not easily pigeonholed. His central European origins and musical idioms are shot through with highly individual harmonies.

Seattle Opera performed “Vixen” with Gerard Schwarz on the podium (and one of his young children on stage) in the 1994-5 season, and we haven’t heard the music here since, so Thursday’s performance was a pleasure. Schwarz conducted it with delicacy, allowing the score’s transparency to come though and showing off Janacek’s musical line drawings of the sounds of nature, particularly birds, even the time of day in the forest.

Not nature but culture perfuses Mussorgsky’s familiar “Pictures at an Exhibition,” and the musical descriptions of his friend Victor Hartmann’s paintings are so vivid one can see them in the mind’s eye, particlarly in Ravel’s imaginative orchestration.

Schwarz conducted with panache and fire, sometimes too much so as nowadays he tends to make every forte fortissimo and every fortissimo a fortississimo so that the ears get a bit battered. It always seems he is trying too hard at such moments. I wondered also why he slowed down the tempo of the opening “Promenade” immediately after the trumpet solo, thus making it feel heavy.

However apart from these moments the performance was gloriously colorful, with fine smooth playing from the trumpets, tuba and saxophone. A notable portrayal of the argument between the rich Jew and the poor Jew made it easy to see one as ponderous, pontificating and full of hot air, with the other whining and cringing in shrill trumpets.

The meat in the concert sandwich was another work we don’t hear often: the Prokofiev Concerto. Alexander Toradze was soloist in this energetic, technically difficult, absorbing work. Aggressive without being menacing, it begins with thumps, thuds, and stamps from the piano. All through there are times when it appears that that a heavy toddler is tramping up and down the keys in a tantrum, pouncing here and there, or else it’s Mexican jumping beans out for a party. Toradze achieved all this without it ever feeling he was just banging on the keys without particular reason. Every chord had its place, and in between there were sudden lyrical phrases. He gave great charm to the slow movement with its jaunty, jazzy elements and liquid runs. There are hints of “Peter and the Wolf,” not so much in any actual melody but just in ambiance.

Clearly in harmony with each other, Schwarz kept the orchestra closely together with Toradze and the whole was a performance it would be good to hear again.

The program is repeated tonight (Friday) and tomorrow at 8 at Benaroya Hall. Tickets at 206-215-4747, or http://www.seattlesymphony.org.

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