SSO looks to Sibelius, Britten and Bartok

By R.M. Campbell

There were familiar and unfamiliar faces at the Seattle Symphony Orchestra concert Thursday night at Benaroya Hall. Violinist Dmitry Sitkovetsy was the soloist and Pietari Inkinen, the guest conductor. Music of Jean Sibelius, Benjamin Britten and Bela Bartok was played. All together, the concert was satisfying.

Inkinen is an able young man, music director of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra since 2008 and principal guest conductor of the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra for the past two years. He was equally adept in the Sibelius and the Bartok, each making its own demands on the podium. For the Seventh Symphony of the Finnish composer, Inkinen created a voluptuous sound and expansive phrases. Lines seemed to go on forever. Sibelius has long been patronized by critics and the professional music community for being too romantic in an unromantic century. Virgil Thomson, the eminent music critic and sometime composer, in 1941, called the Seventh “pretty amateurish,” claiming that the “gray and dirty-brown orchestral coloring” is neither the depiction of “the Finnish soul nor the Finnish landscape. . . . I think Sibelius just orchestrates badly.” A year earlier, Thomson called the Second Symphony “vulgar, self-indulgent and provincial beyond all description.” He felt no need to apologize for its long-limbed expression. The reading was restrained, as was Bartok’s “Concerto for Orchestra,” but not flat. Dynamic variation was never exaggerated, although sometimes I wished for a less monochromatic palette. That said, there was considerable beauty in what Inkinen produced, including a sea of smooth gestures. With Inkinen, one hears the Russian influence on Sibelius. It is genuine, something to be appreciated.

The Bartok has been heard quite a lot at Benaroya in recent years. The Cleveland Orchestra brought it here on tour. While the SSO performance would not raise the hair on the back of one’s neck, it possessed admirable clarity, accuracy and poise. Sloppiness was never in sight, so to speak. Everything could be heard. Inkinen is one for details, and details were handsomely laid-out in a highly polished way. He stood back, in a manner of speaking, and let the musicians deliver all the stuff that Bartok devised for them. And that is considerable. He made sure that attacks were on target, ensemble was what it should be and let the musicians do the rest. It was an admirable gesture to them. They responded by playing very, very well. As the title suggests this is a piece for individual virtuosity, particularly the winds. The principals should be named: Scott Goff, flute; Ben Hausmann, oboe; Christopher Sereque, clarinet; Seth Krimsky, bassoon; David Gordon, trumpet.

Two other musicians should also be mentioned: Ko-ichiro Yamamoto, principal trombone, in the Sibelius, and timpanist Michael Crusoe, in a variety of assignments.

Sitkovetsky has a long association with Seattle, not only a violinist and conductor but as founding director of the Seattle International Music Festival, which had a short but splendid life in Seattle as well as Bellevue. The Russian-born musician possesses authority, confidence and indefatigable fingers. He has a sound of single-minded beauty but one that is focused and penetrating. These traits served him well in Britten’s First Violin Concerto. This is a work of considerable beauty coupled with dark melancholy. It is astringent and somber. Written when the composer was only in his 20s, on the eve of World War II, the concerto calls for maturity and a mercurial temperament. Those Sitkovetsky possesses to a major degree. He never played the bravura card and gave the work a luminous performance.

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