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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, November 5, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 45
Young soloist and conductor light up Benaroya Hall
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Young soloist and conductor light up Benaroya Hall

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Seattle Symphony
October 30
Benaroya Hall


This must be an age of potentially great young conductors. Take Gustavo Dudamel, now head of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, for example. Add our guest conductor, Michael Francis; he demonstrated all the talents and none of the faults I would look for in an orchestral leader. Only 10 years out of the Royal Academy of Music, he looks like an English choirboy, with tight blonde curly hair, slim body, and a boundless energy that seems to be all musical.

As the players began Mozart's 'Symphony No. 33,' one was immediately struck by Francis' elegant, broad gestures, conducting with his whole body but without excess. The Seattle Symphony, with most of its players busy at Seattle Opera's Lucia performances, was reduced to about the same size as the 27-member Karmerata Baltica, which had performed on the same stage the previous evening. (Another similarity to the previous concert was the half-empty hall!) The Mozart was lean (with minimal vibrato) but warm, energetic yet graceful, with tempi brisk but never too fast. In short, it pleased these ears in every way.

Next came a curiosity, Alfred Schnittke's 'Moz-Art รก la Haydn,' composed in 1977. The composer described his technique as 'the interaction between various stylistic fields, between different quotations from totally different types of music.' In other words (or so it sounded), you put quotes from different composers into a blender and mix them all up and end up with & chaos? Supposedly there were quotes from Mozart's 'Haffner' Symphony as well as the 40th Symphony. But they were so brief and so disguised that I caught only one. The work required a very long setup, with stagehands running electrical strips so that every music stand could have a light, and there was a large microphone at the back, whose purpose I could never divine. It began in darkness, and then, to quote from the notes, 'The performance ends with a dimming of the stage lights as the musicians depart while still playing their parts, leaving the conductor to stand and beat time in silence.' Sounds like a fun gimmick, but none of it achieved anything musical. Mildly humorous, but not worth the long setup, and on first hearing mostly a mess, which was not the fault of the musicians.

But after intermission, it was all gold! The meltingly beautiful 'Clarinet Concerto' of Aaron Copland (1947) could not have been presented with more charm, wit, and musicality than that of soloist Jon Manasse. Commissioned by Benny Goodman, this masterpiece of modern lyricism was an utter delight from start to finish. Manasse caressed the opening movement with a love that matched Copland's brilliance and made me want to moan with appreciation. He also made the long cadenza an adventure, moving his athletic body as he shaped each phrase. Then came the sheer joy of the 'Rather Fast' closing movement. The interplay between soloist and conductor was perfection, making this work one of the most memorable performances of the year.

Haydn's 'Symphony No. 45, 'Farewell,' echoed the gimmick of the Schnittke peace, with the musicians leaving their seats on cue in a series of exits (including our conductor!), leaving at last only two violists to play the last notes. In Haydn's day, each musician would snuff out his candle as he departed. We saw the lights go down until only a couple of music stand lights (remember those from Act One?) remained on. Needless to say, Haydn's wit worked better than Schnittke's.

Like most Mozart, Haydn's symphonies leave the musician no place to hide; his or her musicianship is out there, naked. Thus, this 'Farewell' symphony gave an excellent avenue into Michael Francis' musical soul. And a beautiful soul it was! While the formal shape of Haydn's proportions was perfectly maintained, each phrase seemed molded to maximum musical effect. The sound of the Seattle Symphony also, as in the Mozart, seemed wholly changed by the use of mostly straight-toned strings (no vibrato), giving the Haydn special clarity and brilliance.

The well-justified excitement about Ludovic Morlot's appointment as the next music director of Seattle Symphony would, I think, be equally justified had the choice gone to Michael Francis. The players responded supremely well to his every wish, no matter how subtle. The half-empty house will, I think, fill up much faster with such communicative and charismatic musicians at the helm.

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

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