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Dausgaard brings excitement, disappointment to symphony
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Dausgaard brings excitement, disappointment to symphony

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Thomas Dausgaard
at Seattle Symphony
Friday, March 26th
Benaroya Hall


Music is a language that speaks differently to different people. That's why the most important understanding of our group of passionate opera-loving friends is that we can always agree to disagree, whether it's about a singer, a composer, or a "concept" for presenting Wagner's RING cycle. Critics, too, can disagree, and no one is more "correct" than another. We hear music differently based on our emotional makeup, the age of our ears, our experience with the music, and even what we had for dinner.

Thus it was with amusement that I read the Seattle Times review about this concert. What the reviewer loved most (the Sibelius) was the most disappointing to me, and the parts I found terrifically exciting, he hardly mentioned.

Guest conductor Thomas Dausgaard began with Witold Lutoslawski's "Symphony No. 4." Written just two years before the composer's death in 1994, this unfamiliar work fascinated me from the first measures. First of all, I have never heard the Seattle Symphony sound better. The orchestral magic of the composer allowed Dausgaard and the players to create some of the most exciting, muscular, and musical sounds I can remember. The technical complexity and challenges never got in the way of clarity, and often wrought moments of great beauty. The single-movement form seemed coherent on first hearing and left me more than a little excited at its conclusion.

So spectacular was the cohesive articulation of the players that I thought that this work must have occupied most of the rehearsal time allotted to our guest conductor. Yet the Rachmaninov "Piano Concerto No. 4" that followed was equally nuanced and expressive. Indeed, I have never enjoyed any performance of any of Rachmaninov's concerti more! Never has this composer's orchestration sounded more skilled and inspired, leaving me wondering why this work is so poorly regarded and so seldom played.

Pianist Arnoldo Cohen and our conductor worked perfectly together, with the piano and orchestra as equal partners in passion. Cohen's immense hands and perfect technique combined with his supreme musical sense to bring this music vividly to life. His tone was big, masculine, and sublimely musical. The balances between orchestra and piano were perfect. In short, Rachmaninov seemed to be playing with the imaginative, passionate Stokowski in the old Academy of Music - with intensity and emotion, the music was wildly effective without ever threatening to get out of control.

Then, after intermission, came the great Sibelius "Symphony No. 5," one of my all-time favorite works. While I'm not one to look for visual images in music, Sibelius often breaks through that reluctance, painting gorgeous pictures in my head of atmospheric murky mists and majestic mountains, never more intensely than in the finale of this symphony. Sibelius was a passionate patriot, and his music seems always closely associated with his native Finland, even if it lacks majestic mountains.

My problem with this performance was that, while there was much one could praise (as did the Times critic), it lacked the atmospheric evocations I look for and love in this work. It was, like a recent "Pathetique" at Seattle Symphony, too energetic, lacking any repose. Too windy for any mists to form here! Andre Previn and the Pittsburgh Symphony worked wonders in this regard when they played it here a couple years ago. To experience the kind of atmospheric Sibelius I'm talking about, audition any of Herbert von Karajan's recordings.

After the Lutoslawski and Rachmaninov, I wanted to see Thomas Dausgaard as our next music director at Seattle Symphony. The Sibelius left me not so sure. Repose can be as important in musical interpretation as energetic dynamism. Not sure he has it.

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

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