Robert Spano returns to Benaroya Hall

By R.M. Campbell

Robert Spano is a familiar figure in Seattle, not only at Seattle Opera, where he conducted the 2009 “Ring,” but also the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, which he conducted Thursday night at Benaroya Hall.

Music director of the Atlanta Symphony, Spano is a highly regarded conductor particularly known for his advocacy of contemporary music. His program at Benaroya was hardly brand-new but all four works were born in the 20th century and became some of the most famous and celebrated music of the era. The original order was Copland’s suite from “Appalachian Spring,” followed by Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” Ravel’s Piano Concerto in D and Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements. By opening night that had changed, with Stravinsky opening the program, the Gershwin ending it, and the Ravel and Copland in the middle. Certainly the motivation was to ensure that people would stay through the second half — Stravinsky is still a bogey-man for some — but the result was felicitous.

Spano gave the Stravinsky transparent textures, rhythmic acuity and a sharp sense of going forward. The conductor wasted no time, but he did not rush things either. Everything was perfectly articulated. There was plenty of energy coupled with high intelligence and well-defined sensibilities. The work has been labeled “violent,” but there was no feeling of that in Spano’s reading. For all of its electricity and quickness of breath, it was measured and deliberate although never to the point of lacking in spontaneity. “Appalachian Spring” began life as a ballet score commissioned by Martha Graham. Her choreography and Copland’s music are among the most revered moments in high culture over the past century. In Spano’s hands the 1945 suite, for 13 players, became an astonishing vehicle for soft-edged lyricism. I can’t remember when I have heard a performance so tender and beautiful. The phrases were seamless and handsomely formed. Dynamics were understated. This was poetry, something one rarely encounters in performances.

Marc-Andre Hamelin was the piano soloist. The Ravel Concerto was written for Paul Wittgenstein, brother of Ludwig, who lost his right hand in World World I. Wittgenstein commissioned a number of left-hand concertos, as well as other music, but none became as famous as the Ravel. It is notorious for its difficulty, but Hamelin rose above those challenges with playing that was ardent and confident, exact and occasionally brusque. Nothing hindered his progress, and the result was compelling if not breathless at times. The pianist took a similar virtuosic approach in the Gershwin making it into a brilliant and bravura piece. “Rhapsody” does not always get the respect it deserves, but Hamelin made a strong case for it, perhaps somewhat at the loss of its jazzy inflections. Nevertheless, the performance was exhilarating. Balance between soloist and orchestra was not always in favor of the soloist.

All night there was first-class playing from the strings and all of the woodwinds.

The program book noted the death of Craig Watjen, one of the symphony’s strongest and most generous donors. The great Fisk organ is a result of his gift, thus its better-known name, the Watjen organ. A professionally trained clarinetist, Watjen knew music and brought that connoisseurship to symphony concerts and all music in general.


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