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Conductor had all the fun at Seattle Symphony
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Conductor had all the fun at Seattle Symphony

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Gilbert Varga with Seattle Symphony
April 15
Benaroya Hall


Let me count the ways that guest conductors make for interesting concerts. First, of course, is how they may interpret the works being played. Are the tempi suitable? Is the style correct? Is the music alive with phrasing, dynamics, and atmosphere? Is the interpretation new and startling, or just routine?

But of even more interest to me is how the players respond to the guest on the podium. Do they respond to his/her every gesture, as they did with Thomas Dausgaard recently? Or do they more or less ignore him, as they often seem to do with music director Gerard Schwarz?

Of less consequence musically, but significant nonetheless at a live concert, is the conductor's manner on the podium. Does he/she use a score? A baton? Move much? Give clear cues? Seem involved? Set the mood with his/her appearance? Is he/she fun to watch?

Guest conductor Gilbert Varga was described in the printed program as "renowned for his commanding baton technique." Indeed, this rather dashing man with wavy silver-gray hair was great fun to watch, as he danced, a la Bernstein, on the podium. His energetic style made it clear that he was having a very good time. But how was the communication with the orchestra? Fortunately, it seemed to work pretty well. Cues were clear and mostly present, and the players seemed to respond to his wishes - although with nothing like the enthusiasm they showed with Dausgaard.

The evening began with George Enescu's "Romanian Rhapsody in D major, Op. 11, No. 2." It was a tuneful, enjoyable piece, with less-than-commanding, heavy orchestration. Too often there were instruments whose sound was buried in the overall flood. It made the clarity of the subsequent Beethoven all the more appreciated.

Varga proved himself an excellent accompanist in his work with pianist Horacio Gutiérrez in Beethoven's "Piano Concerto No. 4." The two artists seemed totally in synch, especially in the clarity of their execution. The beauty of tone and perfect balances kept this performance from being routine. There was nothing new about it, but it all flowed with a natural ease so that Beethoven shined through without interference. Gutiérrez used the Beethoven cadenzas.

The performance of Stravinsky's brilliant ballet Pétrouchka (1947 version) was lively but less than memorable. In fact, Varga's own dancing at times eclipsed the music. This work falls easily on the ears now, but at its inception it was new in so many ways that music would never be the same afterwards. The use of the orchestra is, to borrow from the printed program, "beyond masterful." The trouble with reviewing a favorite work is that too many past performances, live and recorded, set a beloved standard that is difficult to achieve. This one lacked a refinement and articulation I look for, although I am being picky here. Among standouts were David Gordon's prominent solos and the superbly musical work of Michael Crusoe on tympani.

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

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