The week in classical music: Stock, Yannatos, Lucia, and the University of Washington

James Yannatos

To the front of me was David Stock. To my left, Harvard composer James Yannatos. Just another week with the Seattle Symphony, and another world premiere courtesy of the Simonyi/Gund Farewell Commissions project. David Stock’s Farewell Commission – Blast – wasn’t the only new piece on the program this past Saturday however. James Yannatos’ reworked version of Ritual Images also received a world premiere performance by Schwarz and the orchestra. Stock’s piece, a boisterous mélange of percussion, brass, and pulsing strings got the concert started, but it was Yannatos’ Ritual Images which commanded my attention more. Not simply an Ives knock-off, Ritual Images expands the American primativist vocabulary.  Yannatos stitches where Ives would have collided bits of Americana together. Ritual Images lacks the free wheeling feeling humor that makes Ives’ music so much fun to hear. But Yannatos makes up for this deficiency with a better sense of orchestration.

Schwarz’s conception of La Mer was solid and soundly executed by the orchestra. At first I found this surprising. On further reflection, and after revisiting Schwarz’s recording of Daphnis et Chloe I wasn’t surprised anymore. The orchestra’s Delos recording of Daphnis is one of the great modern recordings of Ravel’s colorful ballet score. La Mer like Daphnis is a piece of deep colors and abundant imagery. Schwarz didn’t dive deep with La Mer, all of his colors stayed near the surface. But for this pictorial work about the sea staying close to the surface was enough. La Mer isn’t an angst ridden Mahler symphony after all.

The capacity crowd on Saturday night was no doubt there to hear the 64-year-old Andre Watts play the Emperor Concerto. Watts can still draw a crowd even if the poetry flowing from his fingers isn’t what it used to be. After three encores for a less than perfect Watts, I was wishing Yannatos and Stock had received the same adulation for their enterprising new work.

Early in the week Craig Sheppard embarked on a multi-concert survey of Johannes Brahms piano music. His Beethoven sonata cycle recorded at Meany Hall is a cherished contribution to the piano catalog. This Brahms series is also being recorded for release at a future date. Sheppard opened with a program pairing Schumann and Brahms. Following Sheppard through this journey is going to be one of the season’s highlights. He even delves into Brahms’ chamber music when he joins the Emerson String Quartet during their annual visit to Seattle.

It’s hard to talk about one composer and not the other. Brahms blossomed with the guidance of Robert and Clara Schumann, and the talented Brahms made such an impact on Schumann that he canonized him as one of the three B’s: Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. Sheppard’s able fingers were expert guides, examining four pieces which illuminated, touched, and probed the special connections between these two composers.

The same week as Sheppard’s opening recital a new UW orchestra director also made a debut. Johnathan Pasternack arrived in Seattle with a one-year appointment as the University of Washington’s Symphony and Contemporary Ensemble Director. His UW Symphony season includes an extra concert and programs with challenging, interesting pieces — for audiences and musicians alike. For Pasternack’s first Contemporary Ensemble concert of the year Luciano Berio’s Folk Songs — Berio’s most popular piece — were joined on a program with Edgar Varese’s Integrales. To finally hear Integrales’ incisive countenance and Berio’s sentimental journey were a real treat. There is no reason pieces like these shouldn’t be part of mainstream repertory (especially the Berio songs.) The Seattle Youth Symphony gets a lot of attention because of the prodigious talent of many of the orchestra’s musicians. However, the UW’s ensembles — with musicians just as talented — are glossed over, hopefully for not much longer.

Seattle Opera ended a successful run of Lucia di Lammermoor Halloween weekend The second cast sounded sterling to my ears when I heard the final Friday night performance. Davini Rodriguez’s Lucia soared through McCaw Hall, the sets and staging were realistic without being overdone, and in the pit the orchestra under the baton of Bruno Cinquegrani pushed and pulled with Donizetti’s dramatic arc. Performances and productions like this recent Lucia are why people fall in love with opera in the first place.

A successful production like Lucia must be a welcome change after back to back flops. Amelia, for all of its merit as a contemporary opera, didn’t draw the crowds. Tristan, a confusing, expensive albatross hung over the company in August. Rumors abound regarding the SO’s next couple of seasons. Since Speight is wrapping up his tenure with the company, the plan originally was to have Wagner each summer, culminating in the impresario’s final Ring in 2013. The Great Recession being what it is, and opera being as expensive as it is, Tannhauser is being shelved (allegedly) for Porgy and Bess. Local Wagnerites might whither at this news, but others may relish the chance to hear a local production of America’s greatest opera.

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