By Philippa Kiraly
The Seattle Symphony began its Beethoven and Wine series and its annual season at Benaroya Hall on a high note, with the Seattle Symphony debut of violinist Augustin Hadelich playing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, and the world premiere of a fine little work by Augusta Read Thomas.
Her composition was the first to be performed of eighteen commissioned from contemporary composers by Agnes Gund and Charles Simonyi to mark the farewell season of artistic director Gerard Schwarz. The list of composers, all working in this country, is a Who’s Who of today’s most respected names in the field Their works will be performed at concerts throughout the season, and this first one will be heard again in each of the remaining Beethoven and Wine concerts, tonight (Thursday) and tomorrow.
Read Thomas describes her five-minute “Of Paradise and Light” as a soulful work of reflection, “as though a sliver of paradise and light came down to shine upon a garden of colorful flowers.” So often a description like this leaves the listener, on hearing the work, wondering just what the composer meant. Not so here. She has captured her words in sound.
There is an unhurried sense about it. It’s peaceful, and the harmonies are open and sunny. I was reminded of Copland, both his harmonic and structural style, yet this well-organized work is not at all derivative and there are sections of close harmony as well. It’s a lovely piece with which to say goodbye, leaving optimism and warmth in its wake.
Chamber music devotees have been able to hear violinist Augustin Hadelich playing with colleagues at the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Summer Festival the last two summers, but this was his debut with the Seattle Symphony.
This was not your usual interpretation of a very well known concerto. A musician’s musician who plays a 1683 Stradivarius, Hadelich seems to have thought through every note and every phrase and their place in the arc of the work, and come to a fresh view. His tone is clear, silvery and warm, sometimes no bigger than a spider’s thread, but like that thread, strong and purposeful at the same time and exquisitely sweet. He draws the sound out of the violin so that it is never pushed, yet there is plenty of emphasis where needed. His violin sings like a nightingale.
Schwarz and the orchestra gave him excellent accompaniment. While not loud, Hadelich’s tone cut through easily, but at the same time Schwarz took care not to allow the orchestra to obscure any of Hadelich’s playing. When it was the orchestra alone, Schwarz allowed an appropriately wider dynamic contrast.
The audience was nothing short of enthralled. You could have heard a pin drop, and at the end when the audience surged to its feet there were roars of approval from all parts of the house which lasted through three bows until he played an encore; Paganini’s Caprice No. 17, with all its fireworks and requiring a formidable technique, but still with that light silvery tone.
Twenty-six this year, Hadelich’s technique is all the more amazing since at age fifteen he was badly burned over his upper body, face and bow arm, requiring 20 surgeries and a protracted convalescence, but in two years he was back playing. However, perhaps that difficult time may have given him an unusual depth of musical insight for his age.
In between these two works in this concert without intermission came sections from Beethoven’s “Creatures of Prometheus,” notable for Schwarz’s relaxed music making, a far cry from the frenzied style we were seeing at the end of the last season. The orchestra played well if not always totally together and the result was a fresh-sounding performance.
Beethoven and Wine Series: Thursday 9/9 and Friday 9/10 at Benaroya Hall at 7.30. Tickets $9-69 at 206-215-4747 or seattlesymphony.org