By R.M. Campbell
The 2010-11 Seattle Symphony Orchestra season has been one of conducting debuts — both American and European. Most of the men have been interesting and well-prepared, all of which is a reminder of the talent that lies just beyond our shores.
One of the best of the lot is Jakub Hrusa, a Czech conductor who made his debut Thursday night at Benaroya Hall, with the program of Martinu, Shostakovich, Honegger and Haydn, to be repeated Friday afternoon, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. He is worth more than one hearing. He is young, only 30, yet conducts with maturity and musical insight. Already a fully developed artist, he seems equally at home in Haydn and Shostakovich. He has a keen ear for drama and is just as capable of producing well-balanced pianissimos as he is fortissimos. That is not a talent many conductors possess.
He is also man of ideas. When was the last time you attended a concert of a major symphony that concluded with Haydn? It usually opens the concert, something considered slight so as not to spoil one’s appetite for the more serious business ahead. Haydn, one of the great figures of the Classical era, is appreciated but not necessarily respected or given his due on the concert stage. Not only did Hrusa make a substantial case for him, he did it with one of the lesser known works, the Opus 60, “Il distratto.” This was not easy to do. Hrusa did not build muscle where there was none, yet his reading consisted of genuine strength. But it was more than just that. It had variety, wit, marvelous distractions, which the title suggests. The flow from phrase to phrase was easy and graceful, the line long and seamless. This is Haydn not of his later, more celebrated years, but a theater piece from the middle of his career. Hrusa not only took this symphony, fond of its jokes, and made a major statement with it.
The music was designed to accompany a theater piece, an old French comedy titled “Le distrait” by the 17th-century playwright Francois Regnard. The so-called distraction of an old professor leads to all sort of comic incidents. Haydn was given the assignment of writing incidental music to accompany a performance of the play at the great of house of Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy where Haydn was working. The music was so well-received Haydn decided to make a concert piece out of it. No changes were made. So instead of the usual four movements found in a symphony, Haydn let the six movements stand as they were. Hrusa made the most of them, with all their charm, myriad of surprises and marvelous tiny dramas. Why the work is not performed more often is probably because most conductors don’t have Hrusa’s imagination or flair to make a convincing case for it.
The concerto for the night was Shostakovich’s First Piano Concerto. Vladimir Feltsman was the piano soloist and David Gordon, principal trumpet in the SSO, the solo trumpet. The Russian-born pianist is a well-known figure in the city, both in appearances with the symphony but also in recital and chamber music. Of late he has developed an unduly percussive sound. That was not so apparent in the Shostakovich. Everything made sonic sense, including the lovely slow movement. This is a piece that is also something a jokester, and Feltsman and Hrusa took full advantage. Feltsman has a big technique which is required. He had no apparent problem with anything the composer gave him. He also enjoyed the concerto’s witticisms and surprises. The solo trumpet has a major role to play, which Gordon did superbly. He is a consistently fine musician, at home in all sorts of repertory and one of the orchestra’s major assets.
Also on the program was Martinu’s “Toccata e due canzoni,” which opened the evening. Hrusa led the orchestra in a riveting account, both varied and compelling. Honegger’s “Pastorale d’ete” is evocative — smooth and creamy and beautiful. Hrusa and the SSO made it even more so.
How well the orchestra is playing these days.