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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 14, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 41
A little ho-hum before the excitement
Arts & Entertainment
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A little ho-hum before the excitement

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Seattle Symphony with baritone Nathan Berg
October 8
Benaroya Hall


After three consecutive weeks of truly exciting concerts, I guess it was time for a misfire. Although the Rachmaninov that filled the second half of this concert was thrilling, the first half was scarcely more than competent.

I have nothing against 'program music'; composers from Vivaldi to Richard Strauss made music tailored to tell a story with great success. But Franz Liszt's 'From the Cradle to the Grave' failed, in this performance, to make any impression at all. Dull, flat, loose, and lacking orchestral interest, the three-part tone poem never got off the ground. Tastes differ, but this work appealed not at all to these ears.

Gustav Mahler's 'Kindertotenlieder' followed, with baritone Nathan Berg as soloist. It was technically a fine job by everyone, but it was short on emotional impact. The brilliant orchestral score came across with clarity and some impressive individual playing, most especially by Mark Robbins on the horn. And conductor Ludovic Morlot was appropriately supportive of his soloist, never swamping his modest voice. Berg displayed a fine technique and musicianship, with nice phrasing and fairly effortless production. But his voice lacked warmth and expression. His stony stance and appearance didn't help. Also, the half-empty house added unwanted hollowness to his sound. In general, the haunting melodies of this extraordinary work were heard, but to little effect.

Is it too much to hope for supratitles in the future for works with lyrics? The program included translations but in tiny print that no one could read in the subdued light.

The 'Symphonic Dances, Op. 45,' Rachmaninov's last work, once again gave Morlot a showcase for his ability to bring out the best in the Seattle Symphony. Apparently it doesn't hurt to have a violinist for a conductor, for the strings have taken on a new luster, first really apparent in the recent 'Eroica,' that somehow surprises my ears as much as any of the other changes from the new music director. This Rachmaninov is full of orchestral riches, and Morlot made the most of all of them. This included, significantly, some very passionate, Russian richness - an element not highlighted in the previous programs. Check that one off the list of talents we were hoping to find in Morlot's music. Perhaps we will also find this kind of warmth in his Brahms, Bruckner, etc.

At any rate, the 'Symphonic Dances' rocked with terrific sonorities, thrilling orchestral tuttis, and lush colors. The waltz section suggested all that delicious darkness that one finds in Sibelius' 'Valse Triste,' while other parts danced with light and power. I kept thinking, 'Wow, this is the Seattle Symphony!' I don't think it has ever sounded better.

I have mentioned how happy the players appear under this new baton. One reason, I'm sure, is Morlot's very consistently clear beat; that's got to make everyone comfortable. For a contrast, if you attend any of Gerard Schwarz's performances this season, watch how his beat varies from fairly clear to something quite different and difficult (for me) to follow. (But I wouldn't miss his Bartók or Shostakovich evenings, which should be excellent.) Differences between conductors is a fascinating study.

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

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