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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, May 13, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 19
Symphony disappoints, then delights
Arts & Entertainment
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Symphony disappoints, then delights

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Les Violons du Roy,
Seattle Symphony
May 5 and 6
Benaroya Hall


When most of the Seattle Symphony players are busy at Seattle Opera - as they are now in Mozart's Magic Flute (running through May 21st) - we get works for smaller ensembles at Benaroya Hall. Thus, the chamber group Les Violons du Roy from Quebec City appeared Wednesday with tenor Ian Bostridge, and guest conductor Jakub Hruaa led a reduced Seattle Symphony Orchestra on Thursday in works of appropriate dimensions.

There are, however, two compounding problems with this set-up, both having to do with acoustics. First, Benaroya Hall's sound suffers terribly when the hall is less than full, with the sound becoming more and more plagued by overly long and pronounced reverberations as the number of empty seats increases. (These concerts by smaller groups tend not to sell very well.) Second, this large auditorium is better suited for large ensembles (or very large voices like Jane Eaglen's). With rare exceptions, solo recitals and chamber groups fail to make the room sing. The hall comes alive with the full Seattle Symphony playing a Shostakovich symphony, but when Renee Fleming sings here, her coloratura gets utterly confused in the echoes. Baroque ensembles that would sound terrific at smaller Meany Hall get lost at Benaroya. (Seattle's Early Music Guild came into being in no small part to solve this problem by presenting such concerts in smaller venues.)

No more glaring example could be presented than this concert by Les Violons du Roy. First of all, the hall started out only two-thirds full; after intermission it was less than one-third full! I submit that the reason half the audience left at intermission was that this wonderful group sounded thin and weak in such a big hall. Bostridge's voice was of moderate size, but we could hardly hear him in the last row of the orchestra seats. (Ironically, there are fewer confusing reverberations in that last row than in the middle of the orchestra.) Another problem (which I pray will be addressed by our new music director next season) was the lack of supratitles. Even when Bostridge sang in English, no words could be understood, despite his excellent diction and projection.

There is, however, a solution. My guest and I moved after intermission to one of the front boxes of the almost empty third tier. Suddenly Les Violons du Roy sounded warm and full of life, and Bostridge sounded just fine. We were getting the direct sounds reinforced by the immediate reflections off the floor of the stage. How I wish we had been up there from the beginning!

I've left no room for detailed comments on this superb program of baroque music, mostly by Handel, Vivaldi, and their contemporaries. We pretty much missed the first half for the reasons I describe. But I must, like Bernard Jacobsen in The Seattle Times, comment on the extraordinary encore. Indescribably beautiful, Bostridge sang, as Jacobsen put it so well, 'a spine-tingling performance of the desperately grief-laden aria 'Scerza infida,' from Handel's Ariodante, to which Nadina Mackie Jackson's unshakably solid bassoon tone added still more poignancy.' Unforgettable!

The next evening brought guest conductor Hruaa (born in the Czech Republic in 1981) and a concert of great interest. He opened by leading the reduced Seattle Symphony in Bohuslav Martinu's 'Toccata e due canzoni.' This delightful work is rather like a concerto grosso, with a prominent part for piano. The orchestration was fascinating and superbly realized by Hruaa and the players.

Shostakovich's 'Piano Concerto No. 1' is scored for just strings and one trumpet, which has an important concertante role, often playing in duet with the piano. The 60-year-old Vladimir Feltsman looked, except for his white hair and short beard, like someone 30 years younger. His energy and enthusiasm burst forth in his playing. The concerto by the then-young composer abounds with perfect opportunities for Feltsman's talent to shine. Not above a few showman-like flourishes, the pianist lacked nothing and propelled the work like a dynamo. Hruaa was right with him the whole way, making a perfect team. The third member of the team was trumpeter David Gordon, displaying his usual silvery tone and excellent execution. What a fun performance by all!

The second half began with a rather inconsequential but pleasant 'Pastorale d'été' by Arthur Honegger. The following Haydn 'Symphony No. 60, 'Il distratto' gave a much more revealing chance to see Hruaa's musical talents. In short, he satisfied in all regards, especially in expressing Haydn's wit, all within classical decorum and style. We seem to be in a golden age of talented and exciting young conductors!

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

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