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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, February 18, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 07
Wildness and decorum mixed, not shaken
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Wildness and decorum mixed, not shaken

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Peter Serkin with the Seattle Symphony
February 10
Benaroya Hall


Last week, I wrote that it didn't take rocket science to get a non-French orchestra to sound French, and this week along comes British guest-conductor Douglas Boyd to prove it! The sound of the Seattle Symphony playing Ravel's 'Le Tombeau de Couperin' was trés trés French, with the strings super-light on their bows and super-bright when playing loud. Everything about the Ravel was just right.

Boyd is young and handsome and has an easy manner with the orchestra, sometimes using a baton and sometimes not. His beat, at any rate, could not be more clear. His range, if this program was any reflection, is rather broad. Consider the scope of Ravel, Messiaen, Mozart, and Brahms.

Olivier Messiaen's 'Oiseaux exotiques' is no little bon bon! In it, Messiaen abandoned most human traditions of harmony and rhythms and went for the birds! A world-renown ornithologist, he was quoted as saying, 'In artistic hierarchy, birds are the greatest musicians existing on our planet.' Thus, this piece attempted to use birdsong as its harmonic and rhythmic base, or rather bases, for he used specific exotic birds from all over the planet as models. Its sounds were both harsh at times and beautiful. Certainly it was a breath of fresh air!

Pianist Peter Serkin and Donald Boyd made an excellent case for this work. They could not have been more in accord throughout. The orchestra consisted of winds, brass, and percussion. (Michael Crusoe was on the huge orchestral gong instead of his usual tympani. A second player was required to effect the sudden damping of the gong after loud outbursts!) The piece achieved its own kind of wild ecstasy and freedom, especially when the piano played extended solo passages.

The piano was moved to a more traditional position for the Mozart that followed. (I'm told by friends who sat in the first few rows that Mr. Serkin sang along as he played the 'Rondo for Piano in D major, K. 382.') This extreme shift in musical worlds posed no problem at all for either pianist or conductor. The result was satisfying in all regards.

Brahms 'Symphony No. 4' showed another side of Douglas Boyd, and what an attractive one it was! A few years ago this orchestra, under Gerard Schwarz, played the worst performance (rather like a sight-reading) of this work I have ever heard. Though a good portion of the available rehearsal time must have gone to mastering the challenges of the Messiaen, this Brahms was well-shaped, warm, and articulate from beginning to end. While it may have lacked the ultimate polishes that might have made the big moments more moving and/or dramatic, this performance, despite a few flubs in the horns, was far from the disgrace of some years ago. It was musical and beautifully phrased throughout.

I would welcome back Donald Boyd to the podium any time the orchestra and he can arrange it.

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

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