Come for the Rachmaninov, stay for the Adams

Robert Spano’s debut with the Seattle Symphony at Benaroya Hall started with Jean Sibelius’ Pohjola’s Daughter and ended with John Adams’ Harmonielehre. In between, Dejan Lejic, a rising, young Croatian pianist joined the orchestra for Sergey Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2. In the build-up to the concert, the orchestra’s marketing emphasized Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto (“Before there was Rock there was Rachmaninov” explains a poster outside Benaroya Hall) but the orchestra could have just as easily emphasized the two seldom played pieces on the program. “Come for the Rachmaninov, stay for the Adams” – maybe?

Strangely, Robert Spano, currently the music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra never conducted the SSO at Benaroya Hall until this week. He is, however, a familiar face to many of the orchestra’s members and Seattle’s classical music community through his long relationship with the Seattle Opera. Seattle Opera has turned to Spano for two Ring cycles and Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd. These three projects presented challenges more cautious conductors would pass up. Spano, on the other hand, seems to live for difficult musical projects. On Thursday evening, Spano was given yet another challenging assignment – corralling an orchestra unfamiliar with Harmonielehre and Pohjola’s Daughter. Fortunately for the audience, Spano’s podium ability and command of the music guaranteed an exciting night.

Like nearly all of Sibelius’ other orchestral pieces, Pohjola’s Daughter is a drama shrouded in atmosphere. Drawn from the Kalevala, this particular drama follows Vainamoinen’s labors to win the affections of a maiden. In typical Sibelian fashion, ideas that begin as kernels build into powerful swells of sound signaling  narrative hooks along the way. Seattle has been fortunate to hear two well played works by Sibelius in the span of a few months. Spano’s Pohjola’s Daugher was visceral compared to Thomas Dausgaard’s memorable, but intellectual Fifth Symphony. At one point, Spano reached his left arm out toward the first violins and cellos, seemingly wrestling with Sibelius’ music, and urged through sheer physical presence an even more arresting, sinister series of orchestral colors.

John Adams’ three movement symphonic work Harmonielehre closed the night’s program. The piece came at the request of the Seattle Symphony’s artistic staff – a credit to the work Dr. Elena Dubinets, the symphony’s Director of Artistic Administration has done to broaden the orchestra’s repertory. Spano sees connections between Sibelius’ style and Harmonielehre. You can hear how Harmonielehre’s string patterns and organic development point backward to Sibelius. Or is it Sibelius’ penchant for twisting tiny musical ideas into a long, ever evolving horizontal musical line which points to Adams?

Harmonielehre is but one of many pieces to come out of the composer’s relationship with the San Francisco Symphony in the 1980’s. The first movement’s thrusting chords set the baseline for the work’s propulsive, repetitive character. But Adams’ form of minimalism often brackets lush swooning ideas (the middle of the first movement and practically the entire second movement for example) that sound like they have more in common with Rachmaninov than Phillip Glass. The finale’s huge brass fanfares and cyclonic strings once again point backward to Sibelius and are a decisive conclusion for Adams’ grand piece of music.

But, it is the piece’s ample repetition which gives orchestras problems. The piece is hard on string players, who like during a Bruckner symphony, play with few breaks to rest their bow arms. It’s no cake walk for the brass either. And, the percussion section’s only rest came during the pauses between movements. And the performance was not without its flaws. But for an orchestra who had never performed the piece before, the SSO did remarkably well by the music. Hats off to David Gordon (trumpet), Joe Kaufman (bass), Michael Werner (percussion), Mark Robbins (horn) for demonstrating through your playing  and leadership why I think the SSO’s future is very bright.

Judging by the empty seats after intermission, it was Dejan Lazic’s performance of the Second Piano Concerto people came to hear. Lazic didn’t disappoint. The performance was notable for Lazic’s poetic approach to the piece. Lazic’s virtuoso talents were used to further the piece’s appealing melodic attributes and not to merely show-off. The orchestra and Spano allowed Lazic plenty of room to spin gold from Rachmaninov’s tunes, and added their own silken, balanced playing.

Come for the Rachmaninov, stay for the Adams? I wish it were true. And, I wish Seattle’s audiences would open themselves to music they’ve never heard. The fault isn’t entirely theirs to bear. The SSO, like a lot of orchestras, has lost its way by presenting just a concert. Popular culture doesn’t look as kindly on classical music as it once did, and as a result, orchestras have to do more to educate, prepare, and sometimes even trick audiences into hearing music that is both new and approachable. I got the impression when I talked with Spano that he understands the perilous state of our classical music institutions and knows how to fix it. His work with the Brooklyn Philharmonic and Atlanta Symphony are cases in point.

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2 thoughts on “Come for the Rachmaninov, stay for the Adams

  1. Interesting review, and intriguing teaser about Spano (tell us how he has “fixed it” in Brooklyn and Atlanta?). A great preview for me, as I am attending tomorrow. But your use of commas drives me nuts!!

  2. I was at Saturday’s concert, and the first half felt somewhat lackluster and unfocused. The Adams, on the other hand, was absolutely amazing – everyone felt “on”, there was a real sense of concentration and excitement. My father, who is not interested in most “classical” music, left the hall in awe and is looking for recordings of the Adams. Happily the hall was better than 80% full, by my eyeball estimate. Spano would be an interesting choice to replace Schwarz, particularly if the SSO administration would allow him to program pieces we haven’t otherwise heard a chance to hear.

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