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Exciting debuts from within the Seattle Symphony
Exciting debuts from within the Seattle Symphony
by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Winter Dreams
Benaroya Hall
December 12


Having seen several women conductors, both in the UK and the US, I have until now found each of them competent but un-exciting. The debut last week of Seattle Symphony Associate Conductor Carolyn Kuan allows me to say at last that I've seen proof that women conductors can be just as good as men. Beyond maintaining the excellent standard set by SSO guest conductors, Kuan brought the players to a new level of excellence.

And she did this with music distinctly outside her special interest in new music. The High Baroque and Tchaikovsky filled this program. We began with Handel's 'Concerto Grosso in C minor, Op. 6, No. 8.' Even though this was no period instrument orchestra, the 22 players (strings and harpsichord) honored the baroque traditions of minimal vibrato and light-footed clarity. Everything was full of energy and intent. The sound was luminous and exciting.

More baroque followed with Vivaldi's 'Oboe Concerto in C major, RV 447.' Acting Principal Oboe, Ben Hausmann, confirmed the fine impressions of his playing throughout the season. This concerto is a virtuosic piece that offers a multitude of opportunities for the soloist to show off not only facility in florid passages but also in beautiful legato lines. Hausmann clearly had fun with it all, playing with a boyish glee and a nervous eagerness throughout. His tone has continued to grow in beauty in the past two seasons, and this performance showed he has the confidence to handle any assignment.

Kuan was no less convincing in the Vivaldi, this time with only 18 players. She is a dynamic figure on the podium, small of frame but athletic in gesture. Her beat could not have been more clearly defined, and the players seemed to enjoy responding to her clarity of intention. They played not just notes but sentences full of direction and meaning.

But it took Tchaikovsky's 'Symphony No. 1' ("Winter Dreams") to make me see a glimmer of greatness in this young conductor. What I saw in the SSO players that was new (and thus had to be attributed to Carolyn Kuan's work) was a level of cohesiveness that reminded me of the best concert I have ever heard at Benaroya. When Vladimir Jurowski conducted the Russian National Orchestra last season in Tchaikovsky's 'Pathetique,' the togetherness of the players and conductor was as though some invisible glue tied each player to each other and to Jurowski's little finger. I'm not talking about mere precision; it was a kind of magical, spiritual connection that opened our ears to a seemingly direct view of the composer's expression. It was almost frightening in its power. It gave me a new benchmark for orchestral playing.

I have never heard, until this concert, anything like that kind of togetherness from the SSO. It was apparent from the opening moments of the work. Even though my partner, Dale, did not love the symphony as much as I did, he too recognized this special quality in the playing.

Although Tchaikovsky's first symphony shows his immaturity, compared to his last works, it is nonetheless filled with first-rate ideas that are interestingly explored. The melodies are what one expects from this composer, clear and lovely. But the special element here was the atmospheric quality, and Kuan made the most of it. Moods were perfectly sustained, and the all-important transitions from quiet/contemplative to energetic outbursts came naturally. Very few conductors could have made this a finer trip.

Ben Hausmann got a well-deserved solo bow for his lovely solo in the second movement. It was quite an evening for this artist! It should be noted that this excellent concert reflects the depth of talent within the SSO, for Carolyn Kuan is the associate conductor of the SSO, this being her first subscription concert as conductor.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu

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