Since January, when the legendary Kurt Masur came to Seattle to conduct the SSO in a spellbinding performance of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony, SSO performances have steadily improved, interpretations from the podium have varied, and among musicians there is genuine excitement for the orchestra’s future. The musicians have even magnanimously stepped up their playing for Gerard Schwarz, the orchestra’s current music director. It is, without a doubt, an exciting time to hear the SSO in action.
One musician confided a few days back that it is a good thing he isn’t on the search committee to find a new music director because he is having so much fun playing for the likes of Spano, Dausgaard, Masur, Markl, Gaffigan, and Manze that he would prefer the search for a new music director go on as long as possible.
Jun Markl is the latest guest conductor this season to join the orchestra for a series of concerts. The cross-cultural conductor (Markl currently commands orchestras in France and Germany and is the son of a Japanese mother and German father) stewards a smaller SSO this weekend because of the opera but no small pieces. On his program, a Teutonic music buffet, are Richard Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto, and Beethoven’s overlooked Fourth Symphony.
Markl has regularly conducted the SSO over the years. Although on the small side physically, he is a commanding presence on the podium. In the past, I have been impressed by the conductor’s innate sense of the music he is conducting. Directions are clear. Ideas unambiguous. Details are focused. And the architecture of each piece secure. His readings don’t blur into Karajanesque mush. And this year, I can’t recall a maestro who paid attention to dynamics as closely as Markl.
During concert intermissions I have wondered what a ( insert conductor name) music director tenure would look like. I went through this exercise again Markl last night. I believe, if Markl were named the SSO’s next music director, the quality of playing would swiftly rise. It was startlingly good Thursday night. Wagner’s motivic twists and turns in the Siegfried Idyll flowed elegantly from the orchestra. If Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony was always played with same degree of sharpness and balance between every section of the orchestra (I could actually hear the back and forth between the first and second violins, the lumbering basses, and the burnished middle of the violas and cellos) more people would rank the work near the top of their list of favorite pieces.
As I mentioned, Markl held on tightly to the dynamic range of the orchestra. This was true in both the Schumann Piano Concerto in which the orchestra didn’t even try to compete, playing the foil to instead to soloist Jon Nakamatsu, and in the symphony. Markl had the strings playing so quietly my ears had to work hard to hear them from Row K. Indeed, Markl as music director would bring immediate poise and refinement that would position the band near the top of the heap for orchestras not considered part of the American Big Five.
For all of Markl’s merits and an unimpeachable performance by the Seattle Symphony, I found some of the interpretations lacking. Markl’s interpretations at times sounded faceless. This was especially the case for the piano concerto which sounded pallid compared to the extra long embrace of the Siegfried Idylll. Isn’t the concerto supposed to be a statement of Schumann’s affections for Clara Wieck, his piano teacher and eventual wife? If so, where was the passion? Markl’s dynamics also worked against him now and then. When a burst of vulgarity would have helped dispel the soporific, the orchestra’s voice stayed reliably between a whisper and slightly elevated.
Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony fared considerably better. In my interview with Markl earlier this week he spoke persuasively about his fondness for Beethoven’s even numbered symphonies and especially the Fourth. He conducted the piece from memory and with the same feeling – but not too much feeling. Compared to the pieces earlier on the program, Markl loosened his grip on the orchestra’s reigns, giving them freedom to feverishly, in the tradition of the Romantics, plunge head-long into Beethoven’s passages before whipping everyone back to a classical state of mind. Markl’s tinkering with the sound and identity of the piece didn’t bother me. In fact, Markl’s approached seemed in keeping with where this symphony sits among Beethoven’s other eight. Positioned between the revelations in the Third and the fist shaking fury of the Fifth, the Fourth reaches back to the classical shape of the First and Second Symphonies without deviating from the direction of Beethoven’s symphonic output.