Sheng and Schuller combine with Bartok and Borodin for latest SSO concert

Violinist Gil Shaham.

This season with the SSO, nearly every week is an adventure in brand new music written especially for this, Gerard Schwarz’s last season as music director. The Gund/Simony commissions are in addition to the new pieces and premieres already scheduled for the season.

This was again the case this past weekend. Two new pieces, one brand new, the other receiving a Seattle debut, were on the program. Bright Sheng’s Shanghai Overture is the second piece in two weeks by the composer performed by the SSO. Sheng’s Prelude to Black Swan — a Gund/Simonyi commission — introduced the annual performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Written for the Shanghai Youth Symphony, the Shanghai Overture straddles traditional Chinese music and traditional Western classical music. This isn’t unfamiliar territory for Sheng. He has spent nearly 30 years composing music that sounds as Western as it does Chinese that is also born out of the experience of suffering under the Cultural Revolution.

The SSO is especially familiar with Sheng’s music having given the premieres for countless pieces over the years. Schwarz is equal to the orchestra in understanding Sheng’s amalgamated musical language. It should be no surprise that the Shanghai Overture’s craggy rhythms and exotic colors fared well under the direction of Schwarz.

The main attraction of the first half of last week’s concerts however was Bartok’s Second Violin Concerto played by Gil Shaham. Shaham balanced the piece’s tender romanticism with raw energy. He savored the concerto’s seductiveness and dove into its fiery passages, creating an alluring experience which seemed to stop time and transfix everyone in Benaroya Hall that night.

Gunther Schuller’s catchy Bagatelle: With Swing started the second half of the concert. Like Sheng, Schuller has built a career composing works that combine styles. Sheng merges Chinese influences with Western classical music. Schuller does the same with Jazz and classical music. It is too bad the world premiere of Bagatelle was relegated to the second half. Schullar’s likable piece couldn’t overcome Alexander Borodin’s mostly dull (the exception being the slow third movement) First Symphony.

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