SMCO makes Benaroya debut with concert of German Masterworks

In less than two years Geoffrey Larson and the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra (SMCO) have gone from a pick up ensemble of sorts, with an ever changing cast of musicians, to a core ensemble of 29 musicians that made its Benaroya Hall debut on January 15th. SMCO is an exceptionally talented group of musicians, that deserved it’s billing at the Nordstrom Recital Hall. The wind section is top notch, the French horns surprisingly good, and the string section — usually one of the weakest sections in a community orchestra like SMCO — better than average. Larson, although still learning the art of conducting, is an adroit leader who has a good understanding of musical shape, detail, and each piece’s greater message.

For their debut downtown, SMCO’s program featured German masterworks: Beethoven’s First Symphony, Robert Schumann’s Cello Concerto, and the First Serenade of Johannes Brahms, a lesser known piece that led to his first symphony by acquainting the composer with large scale orchestral and symphonic writing.

I doubt anyone would quibble with Larson’s love of Beethoven; no matter how many times we hear his symphonies, concertos, and chamber music it never fails to inspire, surprise, and challenge. In the Seattle Times Larson said Beethoven is terrifying to get exactly right, but it’s time someone tried. It was clear by the intensity and focus of SMCO’s performance of the First Symphony that Larson believes he and his orchestra were getting it right. Many young orchestras fall into the trap of playing Beethoven too fast thinking that speed alone is enough to generate drama and create a successful performance. SMCO’s performance benefited from zippier tempos, but it also succeeded because Larson knew — almost instinctively — when to pull back, when to let his excellent winds reach above the strings, when to have his players dig into the music.

The First Serenade benefited from Larson’s balanced approach as well. As a piece, the serenade is a lopsided work. The first three movements go on, and on. It is long winded, repetitious, and while in form points to serenades from an earlier time, the effect of this serenade’s music was somniferous. Larson’s orchestra — again, especially his winds and French horns — produced a enjoyable performance in spite of the piece’s failings.

Only Schumann’s Cello Concerto disappointed. Nordstrom Recital Hall can betray performers who don’t heed its fussy acoustics. SMCO sounded muted, distant, like a blanket was draped over the orchestra. Adam Cathcart, the soloist for the concerto, projected prominence to the point of sounding shrill. There were too many unintended dissonances to lay blame for the poor performance on Nordstrom Hall. A little less emo might have helped.

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