Week in classical Music: Peters v. May, Thalia, Degenerate Music, and Capucon

Gautier Capucon

Seattle possesses a new, contemporary, modern music scene. A devoted and talented one at that. This is a discovery for some and crusade for others. Late in the week Thomas May — author, editor, Crosscut contributor — praised the Seattle Modern Orchestra for injecting life into a supposedly timid modern music scene. Steve Peters, a composer and head of Nonsequitor and the Wayward Music Series, promptly responded with a long note explaining for May the depth and breadth of the contemporary music he is missing.

Peters isn’t wrong, and nor is May. Peters is rightly frustrated. His Wayward Music Series at the Good Shepherd Center is a robust center of adventurous music activity that is also regrettably under covered. And it’s not just Peters’ concerts which go unnoticed. Music Northwest — which had their second concert of the season — had never even received a mention until I wrote about them last year. Jane Harty routinely gives her loyal West Seattle audience a healthy dose of music written in the not too distant past. This was the case this past Sunday when Piazzolla, Ginastera, and Schulhoff were on the program. Later in the year Morton Feldman makes an appearance. Last year there was John Cage and Gyorgy Ligeti.

Sunday’s concert was given by Jane Harty (piano), Mara Finkelstein (cello), and Leonid Keylin (violin). Too many people missed an intriguing mix of music. Schulhoff’s Duo for Violin and Cello is the only work on the program that has come close to becoming standard chamber repertory. Zingaresca, the work’s second movement, is a salty romp which easily impresses when played by talented musicians like Finkelstein and Keylin. Ginastera’s Pampeana No. 2 for Cello and Piano is essentially a series of fantasies for cello and piano separated by what amount to solo cello cadenzas. The works opens with a climbing cadenza, settles into a mysterious dance in the middle, and dashes toward a conclusion that squeezes in one more cello cadenza for Finkelstein. Piazzolla’s Four Seasons has been arranged for countless combinations — even as a piano trio. We know Piazzolla from his endless run of tangos — a fact he was ashamed of. Nadia Boulanger convinced the the composer to play a tango for her to which she said “Here is the true Piazzolla, do not ever leave him.” Piazzolla’s seasons closed out the program, and as Boulanger says this is the true Piazzolla — dissonant, urban, and energetic.

I don’t know why May called Seattle’s contemporary music scene timid. I suspect his comment was aimed at our leading institutions which have largely stayed away from contemporary music that hasn’t already been vetted to some degree by concert audiences. Yet, this season and many seasons prior Schwarz and the SSO have given world premiere performances of countless pieces of music. Are they as exciting or even challenging as what the Seattle Modern Orchestra is presenting this year? Maybe, maybe not. Everyone hears differently.

Peters’ comments more accurately highlight the sad state of affairs of music journalism these days. There is too much happening and not enough willing or able writers to attend (and write about) concerts night after night. Seattle doesn’t just have an abundance of modern music, it has an abundance of choral music, early music, chamber ensembles, choirs, organists, and community orchestras. All of them competing for an audience and all of them competing for the attention of people like me.

In journalism’s dilapidated state, responsibility for uncovering and writing about intriguing, noteworthy local acts is falling to freelancers and do it yourself writers like myself with other jobs and other responsibilities. I don’t consider myself an expert in every possible genre of music, but I don’t consider myself clueless either. My ears are open but my calendar is another matter entirely.

The Thalia Symphony emerged from a summer of turmoil and uncertainty about its future on the 14th with an opening concert that was both surprising and frustrating. The program was a tried and true series of standard works — Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Nothing wrong with this per se. Both the Ravel and Mendelssohn were genuinely well executed even if both would have benefited from a higher degree of refinement. Sophia Stoyanovich — the teenaged violinist soloist — played assuredly in Mendelssohn’s concerto. Her performance crackled with energy and the orchestra happily followed her lead. Ravel’s edges needed softening, but his crayon box of colors glowed abundantly. The second half of the concert didn’t fare as well. Besides being an orchestra standard, it is a show piece which places considerable demands on every section of the orchestra. Wobbly trumpets at the very beginning of the piece foreshadowed the difficulties to come.

Stephen Radcliffe took over conducting the Thalia Symphony earlier this year. He also helms the Seattle Youth Symphony. Radcliffe’s background teaching young musicians should be a big help as he tries to coax the best possible performances out of a band made up of musicians of varying abilities. The conductor is no stranger to this type of project. Long ago, before coming to Seattle, he lead the Sioux City (Iowa) Symphony. Like many orchestras in Iowa, the Sioux City Symphony is a professional orchestra with a great deal of learning left to do.

In the middle of the week, the duo of Gautier Capucon and Gabriella Montero came to Benaroya. The cello and piano team brought a line up of reliable pieces along with them. With the exception of Mendelssohn’s Second Cello Sonata, Capucon and Montero have committed everything else they played on November 16th to disk a few years earlier. A record which includes Rachmaninov and Prokofiev’s Sonata as well as the duo’s own arrangement of Rachmaninov’s Vocalise (played as an encore.) Each piece resounded with type of distinction that sticks in your musical memory for years to come. Capucon and Montero’s Benaroya recital will be my benchmark for both the two Russian sonatas they played. What made these performances stand out for me? It was Capucon’s nearly three dimensional tone. Pizzicato in Rachmaninov were like beads of music you could touch that jumped off Capucon’s cello with each pluck. For Montero, her best moment was the slapstick second movement of the Prokofiev Sonata. Its stuttering passages were recast in the improvisational style that made her an international classical music star.

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