By R.M. Campbell
A world premiere and Brahms symphony aside, the major attraction of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra’s opening gambit Thursday night at Benaroya Hall was pianist Yefim Bronfman.
Unlike some major pianists who rarely grace the symphony stage, Bronfman is almost a fixture. He made his local debut in the 1970’s as part of the SSO Sunday afternoon series dedicated to up and coming artists. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma also made his local debut on that series. He was a teenager while Bronfman had already crossed into his 20s. Just. Young they may have been but obviously brilliant futures were ahead. Bronfman’s vehicle then was Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto. On Thursday, and through Sunday afternoon, it is another Russian composer — Prokofiev.
The Rachmaninoff is immensely appealing. The Prokofiev is not, even in the hands of a virtuoso like Bronfman and experienced interpreter of the composer. The bravura and poetic charm in the Rachmaninoff is all of a piece and thrilling. Unlike the Third Concerto, the Second of Prokofiev seems like mostly virtuosic effects that only dull the senses after awhile. It lacks the freshness of the First Concerto and the penetration of the Third. All that said, Bronfman was predictably glittering. The octave passages were riveting, the passage work exact, and the audience jumped to its feet at the end. Bronfman excels in many concertos in the repertory. I wish he had played one of them. Alas.
If the Prokofiev is the lesser of the earlier concertos of the composer, then the Brahms’ Third is the most problematic of the four. It is hard to get the right combination of factors to make this symphony as extraordinary as it can be. Unfortunately, the first half of the concert was pretty much Johnny-One-Note in tone — rather pastoral in nature, slow-moving and ultimately not so interesting collectively. They all needed a contrasting context. The Brahms suffered the most because it is, regardless of its musical issues, the genius piece on the program and comes with the most expectations. On Thursday, it seemed drawn out and too languid, partly because of which its interpretation by Gerard Schwarz and partly because it followed the new Joseph Schwantner and Arthur Foote.
The Schwantner, the second of 18 pieces commissioned by Agnes Gund and Charles Simonyi, is a rather lack-luster piece and a poor opening with little to say and what it has to say is done too leisurely. The solo violin (Maria Larionoff) has a major role, but it is poorly defined in contrast to the orchestra. The soloist could have been in the next room. Whatever its defects, in another setting, it might have been more potent.
Born in Salem in 1853, Arthur Foote has become rather obscure despite success during his lifetime. He did not take to modernist ideas in composition. Although he felt the cold wind of modern ideas behind his back, he was satisfied with composing pleasant music It is to Schwarz’s credit that he has worked to bring new attention to this neglected American composer, as he has other composers of the period. Paul Schiavo notes in the program that the symphony’s recording on Naxos of Foote’s orchestral music is the only one in the catalogue. His “Francesca da Rimini” is an attractive work that needs a different context to be more successful.
Mark McCampbell, interim executive director of the symphony, paid apt tribute to Michael Killoren, director of the Mayor’s Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs, who is leaving Seattle for a top job at the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington. He is the rare public official who understands not only the political process but the uniqueness and importance of the arts. He will be missed.