By R.M. Campbell
All things considered, the Seattle Symphony Orchestra concert Thursday night at Benaroya Hall was a pretty conventional affair with its Rossini overture, Bizet symphony and Ravel’s “Bolero.” What gave it an edge of difference was a Philip Glass violin concerto, although not so much because the composer’s music is pretty ubiquitous these days.
The work was written in 1986, well beyond Glass’ most minimal period. Nevertheless, it is very much in this style, both in its austerity, repetitive patterns and occasional harmonic surprises. The slow movement is the cream of his creative moment, with its brooding ground and elegiac melody above it, all very simple and very effective. This is Glass at his best and most inventive, although the slow, lyrical passage that conclude the concerto is also telling in a haunting and poignant way. The outer sections are not especially interesting on any basis. He repeats himself endlessly, just like tired old days of the original minimalism: Nothing seems to happen.
Elisa Barston was the soloist. Since her arrival at the symphony as its principal second violin, she has been given a number of solo or chamber opportunities, all of which she deserves. She is an excellent musician, one of taste and considerable technical abilities. Her musical breeding, beginning with her mother, a violin teacher in Chicago, and extending through studies at the University of Southern California and Indiana University, is evident in everything she does. She is among those newer SSO musicians who have added so much to the orchestra. The Glass is not a very gratifying piece for the soloist, or so it would seem, except for the lyricism in the middle movement and near the end of the piece. Otherwise, the soloist has to deal with sheer repetition of material that is hardly compelling, awkward to play and falls between the cracks of the orchestral sound. Riccardo Frizza was not always helpful in that regard. I hope she returns in a vehicle more suited to her.
It is always hard to argue with a Rossini overture to open a concert, in this case “Semiramide.” Frizza maintained a rather leisurely pace through this sprightly piece, more common in the concert hall than in the opera house. There were some good details, sharp accents and excellent woodwind playing, especially Christopher Sereque, principal clarinet, and Zartouhi Dombourian-Eby, piccolo.
Bizet’s Symphony in C has just as many tunes as his more famous “Carmen.” Both reveal his taste for piquant melodies and soft lyricism. It is a remarkable work, in spite of its lengthy finale, because it was written when Bizet was only 17 then never performed until 1935, well after his death in 1875. One of its principals attractions is the long slow oboe solo in the Adagio, which Bizet has the decency to repeat. It was performed with handsome beauty of tone and long, seamless phrases by Ben Hausmann, principal oboe. This is a musician who seems to grow every year, both in the breadth and depth of his musicianship. Frizza gave a meticulous reading of the score.
If the work appears very familiar to some in the audience, it is because Balanchine set a ballet (“Symphony in C”) on it that is central to his canon and central to Pacific Northwest Ballet’s repertory. It is one of the company’s prizes, which it used (final movement only) as its statement at the opening of McCaw Hall seven years ago.
“Bolero” ended the concert. Frizza chose not to give the familiar work a sense of tension but rather one of languid mystery. The audience roared its approval at the end. The woodwinds were given many solo assignments Thursday. Among those who should be mentioned in the Ravel are Scott Goff, principal flute; David Gordon, principal trumpet, and Ko-ichiro Yamamato, principal trombone, who captured the jazzy feeling the composer intended. The solo saxophone player should be mentioned as well. Unfortunately, he is unnamed in the program.