By Philippa Kiraly
Thursday’s Seattle Symphony concert at Benaroya Hall was beautifully designed. First, a world premiere based on Mozart themes, followed by one of the symphonies and one of the horn concertos, and after intermission, the composer’s last work, his Requiem (which was completed after his death and from his notes by Franz Suessmayr). In execution, the program’s first half was satisfying, the second half less so.
Daniel Brewbaker is one of the composers who received a Gund/Simonyi Farewell (to artistic director Gerard Schwarz) Commission, the balance of works being performed at concerts throughout this final season for the conductor. Brewbaker dedicated his “Be Thou the Voice” for soprano and orchestra to Schwarz.
This brief work is based on a poem by Wallace Stevens, “Mozart, 1935,” in which Stevens entreats the performer to encompass life’s current tribulations but to stay true to his ideals and lift the hearer up rather than to allow the outside world to weigh down the performance. It’s a poem hard to take in, but Brewbaker’s song is tonal and upbeat, the orchestral role and vocal line of equal importance, and it’s full of familiar musical quotes from Mozart which go off at tangents.
Soprano Hanan Alattar was replaced at short notice by Christina Siemens, who with her clear voice, easy relaxed sound and spot-on pitch sense made an appealing case for the work. Although Siemens lives and works here as one of the senior company pianists at Pacific Northwest Ballet, and has been a long time member of The Tudor Choir, she hasn’t been heard much here in solo work, and let’s hope that is rectified. She will be singing in Orff’s “Carmina Burana” with the Symphony in June.
Schwarz conducted the small orchestra (many of the Symphony members are in the pit at Seattle Opera’s current production) and gave an excellent interpretation of Mozart’s Symphony No. 28 and the Horn Concerto No. 2. In both he chose quite brisk tempos in line with 18th century style, articulated sections clearly differentiated from smooth legato ones. These are happy, even joyous works, and that came across well while retaining 18th century elegance. The soloist, Symphony principal horn John Cerminaro, gave a predictably fine performance, lustrous, buttery smooth in tone, and a marvel of lightness and thoughtful phrasing. Orchestra members as well as audience gave him deserved plaudits at the end.
In the Requiem, however, Schwarz reverted to a practice he has increasingly been prone to these past few years, of trying to elicit every ounce of intensity and often volume from both chorus and orchestra. There were many beautiful moments, when the music was allowed to bloom without pushing, and with softer more relaxed singing: a couple of lines here and there, and the whole of the final “Ave Verum Corpus.” But all too often these were short reprieves from a much louder, jauntier style of performance, such as in the “Dies Irae,” the beginning of the “Rex Tremendae,” even the prayerful “Hostias,” which began in beauty but ended in energy, and even the “Lacrimosa” which got too hefty.
I found myself thinking, “This is a Requiem, for heaven’s sake, not a Celebration!”
The soloists were well matched and all good Mozart singers. Mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy, tenor Ross Hauck and baritone Weston Hurt joined Siemens who did well, though at times her voice sounded a little less supported than in the Brewbaker. Her effortless top notes were a pleasure to hear.
Under Joseph Crnko, Associate Conductor of Choral Activities, the 112 Seattle Symphony Chorale members have become a better balanced group with fine tone quality from top to bottom of their range. Though words were often not audible, they produced a warm soundand were well together.