Uncertainty faces at least two of Seattle’s community orchestras this season. The untimely passing of George Shangrow has left Orchestra Seattle hanging on. In spite of the fine music making by the group, Orchestra Seattle was always driven by George’s personality and his own vision for the group. He founded the orchestra. Philharmonia Northwest is another local orchestra which is also experiencing change at the podium.
After years leading the Philharmonia, conductor Roupen Shakarian decided the commute from the islands had become too much. Other projects beckoned. With Orchestra Seattle conductor less, Shakarian has been recruited back to Seattle to fill in at the podium for that orchestra’s partial season. Try as he might, Shakarian can’t seem to get away from having orchestral responsibilities in Seattle.
With Shakarian gone, Philharmonia Northwest is undertaking a conductor search to find their next artistic leader. Four guest conductors will grace the podium at St. Stephens Church to lead the band in all. The first two concerts will be given under the guidance of local favorite Adam Stern. Stern helms the Seattle Philharmonic, teaches, and is involved in a number of other musical projects. At the Phil. Stern has built a solid reputation as an innovative programmer and capable conductor. He has ideas about the pieces he conducts; he’s not simply going through the motions. Though Stern is busy, the Philharmonia might be exactly what this conductor needs.
For the Philharmonia’s opening concert on October 10th, Stern showed the orchestra and those who came out, what the orchestra might expect if he were the permanent conductor. The first half played to the chamber orchestra’s strengths: Mozarts Idomeneo Overture and Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto with Byron Schenkman at the keyboard. The second half played to Stern’s strengths. It was the first time Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ballet Job: a Masque for Dancing was performed in Seattle. Moreover, it was the first time Stern had conducted the piece since 1977.
Job is typical Vaughan Williams. Plump strings convey an easy going pastoral atmosphere. Easy melodies give off whiff’s of English pride. Job doesn’t offend, nor does it exactly excite. Even when the music inches toward chaos, as it does in Satan’s Triumphal Dance, it never quite gets there. Job is always colorful and conveys moods easily. Job should be heard more often, but may not be heard again in Seattle for many, many years. I hope I’m wrong. In a space as resonant as St. Stephen’s, Philharmonia Northwest produced a sound so voluminous that it filled every inch of the church. There was an exceptional contribution from Cecilia Archuleta, the concertmaster.
St. Stephens’ acoustics didn’t help the first half of the concert. Historic performance practice has brought clarity to the Baroque and Classical repertory. At the same time it has changed how we expect to hear pieces from this period. I’ve said before about how I do like my Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Haydn on the heavy side. You can’t beat Furtwangler, Klemperer, Bohm, Richter, et al. But overstuffed, ambling Beethoven and Mozart is not what I expect from a chamber orchestra playing in a church. For a concert hall and a full orchestra — definitely.
Shenkman is a poised keyboard talent who is at home in the embellishments of the Classical and Baroque repertory. His work in Beethoven’s concerto exuded this ability. He spun felicitous melodies all afternoon and stood valiantly against the all consuming acoustic of the space. Schenkman’s virtuosic cadenzas were highlights. They danced and played in the air, winning the approval of the audience.
As two orchestras plan their artistic future, both should consider Seattle’s talented crop of younger conductors: Geoffrey Larson, Julia Thai, and Alan Shen. All three have distinguished themselves in various ways. Thai conducted a performance of Steve Reich’s Tehilim, Larson and Shen each started orchestras. Any of the three would bring updated repertory, seal for the craft of conducting, and a dedication to Seattle’s music community.