Gilbert Varga takes the podium in a commanding performance with the SSO

By Philippa Kiraly

With flair, Swiss conductor Gilbert Varga made his debut on Seattle Symphony’s podium Thursday night for remarkable performances of Enescu’s “Romanian Rhapsody No. 1, Stravinsky’s “Petrouchka” and, with Horacio Gutierrez, Beethoven’s P iano Concerto No. 4.

It was hard to take your eyes off h im. Varga almost danced the music, gracefully using his entire body and the whole podium to convey to the orchestra what he wanted, and so clearly that the musicians responded with the precision of a Rolls Royce engine. He used no score for either the Enescu or Stravinsky, allowing him to give his attention to the musicians throughout.

Precision was only the beginning. I’ve never heard as brilliant an exposition of
Petrouchka,”a work for big orchestra and wide range of instruments that demands the total immersion of every player for its complicated cacophonous score, and where each facet of the music must be diamond-bright.

Varga brought out all the drama while allowing every instrument to sing, relaxed and exact at the same time, leaving soloists to shape their phrases undirected by him.

The orchestra responded with a will

, sounding at its considerable best. I found myself proud of our musicians that a visitor should hear one after another solo from winds and brass executed to perfection, all notable, but with special kudos to principal trumpet David Gordon and principal flute Scott Goff. The strings sounded rich, singing with high energy and color.

All in all this was truly memorable and the audience responded after by surging to its feet with long applause accompanied by a plethora of shouts and bravos.

Enescu is not a composer we often hear here. H

is Rhapsody, from only a decade earlier than the Stravinsky, is tonal and Varga gave it a leisurely reading, allowing the melodies to expand and flow.

Although Varga and Cuban pianist Horacio Gutierrez have not performed together for years, in Beethoven’s concerto these two, both in their early 60s, seemed to have an innate communication. In the unusual beginning, where the piano opens alone for one phrase and is followed by the orchestra with the next, the continuity, the flow of musical thought set the tone immediately for the entire work. It was such a small moment, quickly gone and one easily passed over, yet it was arresting in its beauty.

Like Varga, Gutierrez does not need to force anything to find the results he wants, here a joyful, lighthearted spirit to the music, musing at one moment, with zest and energy at another. Excellent partners, the two delivered w ith the orchestra a fine performance of this familiar work.

As with all visiting conductors this year, Varga must be on a list of those being considered for the Seattle Symphony’s music director. The position opens up next summer when Gerard Schwarz steps down.

His would be a fascinating choice. His approach is very different from Schwarz’s and the orchestra seemed energized by him and also to respect and enjoy working with him. Certainly the musicians played as well as I’ve ever heard them.


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