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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, April 15, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 15
Mickelthwate an exciting young conductor
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Mickelthwate an exciting young conductor

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Seattle Symphony Concert
April 9
Benaroya Hall


Whether they look like Ichabod Crane or Kevin Bacon, guest conductors at Seattle Symphony concerts most often bring a breath of fresh air and seem to enliven the players. Such was certainly the case last week with guest conductor Alexander Mickelthwate. Tidy, nervously straightening his bow tie, this young German-born conductor with perfect golden-brown hair walked to the podium in a stiff, almost prissy manner. Nothing about his short stature or chiseled good looks suggested a powerful leader.

But the opening 'Ma Mére l'Oye (Mother Goose) Suite' by Maurice Ravel revealed absolute control of the players, whose sound was uniquely molded to the subject matter. Super-soft, utterly clean, gently caressed phrases brought out every miniaturist detail, and the infrequent loud moments got their due as well. Originally written for piano four-hands as a piece for children to play, the work eventually inspired Ravel's genius to orchestrate it, while keeping it subtle, mostly soft, and of small proportions. Mickelthwate drew an organic sound from the Orchestra that was of French delicacy and unlike what we usually hear from these players. His control was uncanny.

The Prokofiev 'Violin Concerto No. 1' that followed required a different kind of control: keeping the complex and constantly fascinating orchestration from overpowering the solo violin of Leila Josefowicz. This Mickelthwate accomplished so well that every note of the virtuosic violin part could be heard, even while every detail of this brilliant score came through clearly. This conductor is to the manor born, seemingly the master of every aspect of the art. He and Josefowicz generated a unified excitement and vitality that 'sold' the music most effectively. Josefowicz made up in intensity and articulation for anything she might lack in volume. Her tone was always musical despite the extreme demands of the score.

Once in a while, but very seldom, a performance of a work will in its unforgettable power almost ruin that piece for future occasions, none of which will ever live up to such a peak experience. Such happened for me with Vladimir Jorowski conducting the Russian National Orchestra here in Tchaikovsky's 'Pathetique,' and before that with The St. Petersburg Orchestra in Edinburgh (led by Alexander Dmitriev) playing Rachmaninov's 'Symphony No. 2.' Thus, I approached this evening's traversal of the Rachmaninov with trepidation. How could this super-tidy little man possibly pull the soulful Russian heart ... the sizzling-hot passion almost drowned in tears ... from this great score?

What he did do was play the score with such craftsmanship and power that he made it a magnificent experience, even if it didn't quite equal the Russians in Edinburgh. He used the original score, which is quite a bit longer than that used by most conductors I have heard. He also lingered so lovingly on the most gorgeous parts that it was easily the longest performance I have witnessed. But he sustained those slower moments perfectly, so that it never dragged. What's more, the Seattle Symphony responded with some of the warmest, most beautiful sounds ever to shake those walls. This work is full of one soaring overflow of emotion after another, each with its swelling crescendo of orchestra glory. If this performance didn't quite have the sobbing passion of the St. Petersburg players, it certainly gave a compelling approximation thereof.

I hope we see more of Alexander Mickelthwate in Seattle.

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

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