By R.M. Campbell
Early in his distinguished career, Andrew Manze was known as a Baroque violinist. But not any violinist. He brought zeal, ebullience, intelligence and scholarship to everything he touched. Those qualities he brings to the podium, as his Seattle Symphony Orchestra debut testified to this weekend at Benaroya Hall. He has a small orchestra, not quite 30 musicians, all strings. The balance is at McCaw Hall doing its duty with Seattle Opera and the premiere of “Amelia.” In some ways it makes no difference because the English conductor can accomplish what he wants with whatever means he has as his disposal. What one did glimpse were his predilections toward the Baroque era, in which he has spent a good share of his career, and English music.
The first half was quite neat in that it opened with a concerto grosso of Arcangelo Corelli (Op. 6, No. 3) followed by Michael Tippett’s take on Corelli, titled “Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli.” The second half was entirely English, mostly from the 20th century — Elgar and Vaughan Williams — as well as the 16th — Thomas Tallis. Most of the music was new to the symphony.
The Corelli was one of the most attractive pieces on the program but not as well played as the rest. Manze has plenty of verve: he likes brisk tempos. Though the orchestra was game, its playing was not always as tidy as it could have been. Despite that, Manze pressed on and delivered the spirit of the piece if not all the notes. Tippett is one of the treasures of late 20th-century English music, revered more in his native land than abroad. As Manze said in one of the many introductions, “Tippett does not travel well.” The composer, who died in 1998, is quite able to write music of great density and clashing sensibilities. His tribute to Corelli, commissioned by the Edinburgh Festival to commemorate the tercentenary of the composer’s birth in 1953, is not such a piece. It is easy on the ears, perhaps a little thick.
Elgar wrote a lot of beautiful, smoothly-flowing music which suggests the English landscape. His “Introduction and Allegro for Strings” is part of that sensibility. Its lyricism is rich and multi-layered. The strings of the SSO responded to the long line with amplitude and beauty of tone. He uses a solo string quartet within the ensemble that resembles a concerto grosso. Violinists were Maria Larionoff and Elisa Barston. They played predictably well. Normally Susan Gulkis, principal violist, would have been part of the quartet, but she was at MCaw. Instead Arie Schachter, associate principal, played with a warm, engaging tone. He played equally well later in the program.
The final section was a clever bit: Tallis’ hymn, “When Rising From the Bed of Death,” was performed, followed by Vaughan Williams’ adaptation of it for string orchestra, “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.” The hymn is a handsome piece of musical goods, its lyricism strong and appealing. So too Vaughan Williams’ arrangement which has a secure spot in the orchestral repertory. Manze had no difficulty conveying the richness of his ideas or their flow.
The conductor likes to talk from the podium. Too much. That said, he is vastly entertaining and wears his learning lightly. People might have raised their eyebrows at all these intros but at the same time enjoying their fluency and wit. .
The program will be repeated Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.