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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, May 14, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 20
Seattle Symphony Strings never sounded so good
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Seattle Symphony Strings never sounded so good

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Strings of the
Seattle Symphony
with Andrew Manze
May 6
Benaroya Hall


Thrills and excitement are not what I would expect from a concert of English string music. It's one thing to find them in music that has a lot of potential for such things, but it's quite another to get all jazzed up about British strings!

But that's just what happened to the whole audience at this concert by the strings of the Seattle Symphony, led by the veddy British Andrew Manze (pronounced Man-zee). Guest conductors are almost always interesting. One tends to limit one's view of how our players perform until someone comes along who gets a response from them that blows that view away. Such was the case a couple months ago when Thomas Dausgaard led the Orchestra. Likewise with Manze and only part of the Seattle Symphony, namely the strings. With most of the SSO busy at the world premiere of Amelia at Seattle Opera, we got nine each of 1st and 2nd violins, five each of violas and celli, and four double basses. But what a sound they made!

Manze began by explaining to us how Corelli's music could be considered British (quite a stretch!). It seems there was a spare period when British composers of merit were in such short supply that the English rather "adopted" Corelli as their own, much as they did with Haydn and Handel. Manze's comments before each piece could not have been more charming and, for that matter, informative. But charming narrative turned out to be the lesser of his talents.

As soon as the Corelli "Concerto grosso in C minor, Op. 6, No. 3" began, spirits took flight. Using no baton, Manze used his whole body to shape every phrase, and got such a level of response from the players that they seemed but one instrument. The music was full of lively interplay between the sections and between the quartet of lead string players and the whole orchestra. Dynamics were constantly changing without ever seeming exaggerated. In short, everything pulsed with vitality and fun, as well as soaring beauty. I have always liked Corelli's concerti grossi, but this was something beyond what I had previously known.

Then came the big surprise of the evening: Michael Tippett's "Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli." I have always respected Tippett's music, but never understood it. Manze's introduction, including excerpts played by the Orchestra, completely opened up the piece for me, and I enjoyed it a great deal. This is tricky music, and Manze chose to use a baton to make his beat even clearer.

With two very famous exceptions, Elgar's music doesn't often make it across the Atlantic. At the Edinburgh Festival one year, I discovered why: if it is any example, his huge "Dream of Gerontius" is a huge bore, so dreadful that it made me reluctant to sample more of his work. But, of course, we had Manze on our side to make Elgar work if anyone could. He led Elgar's "Introduction and Allegro for Strings, Op. 47" with such loving attention that it more than worked; it soared. Of particular note, one noticed the warmth of the sound all evening, and especially in the Elgar. Letting the double basses sing out no doubt played a significant part in this warmth.

Before concluding the program with the lovely "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis" by Vaughan Williams, Manze led the "Hymn, 'When rising from the bed of death'" from which it is derived. He also explained the importance of Vaughan Williams in British culture, just in case we didn't know him well enough to understand his music. Needless to say, the "Fantasia" was played with just the right mixture of wonder and luscious string sound. It had shape and repose, and a kind of mysterious mood that was so appropriate to the work.

Perhaps this program was too limited to judge, but I think Manze's ability to get such response from the musicians, combined with his complete musicality should make him a desirable candidate for our future music director, should he be interested.

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

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