All my early musical education took place outside major urban centers, and it was just dumb luck that I had access to the amenities I did: a public-school system with a strong string program, a local library with a large record collection, and later, in East Lansing, Michigan, a rich menu of touring musicians stopping by the Wharton Center for the Performing Arts. Orchestras were especially well represented. In the four years I was there, I got to hear first-class ensembles from near (Detroit, Pittsburgh, Washington, DC) and far (London, Paris, Prague, Warsaw)—experiences just as important as any classroom work.
St. Petersburg Philharmonic
Benaroya Hall, October 21
Seattle Symphony with Keith Lockhart
Benaroya Hall, October 29
Then I moved to Cincinnati, and later Seattle, two cities that considered themselves, or were forced to be, orchestrally self-sufficient. Now Seattle has Benaroya, and the Seattle Symphony can bring in touring orchestras, just because the hall's not booked to the bursting point as the Opera House was. I was thus very hungry for something new when the St. Petersburg Philharmonic came last week—as was the audience, judging from the orgasmic reaction it gave (to the slight puzzlement of the players, I gather).
Solidity, depth, firmness, focus—these were the hallmarks of the SPP sound, most breathtaking in Anatol Liadov's Enchanted Lake, a study in pastel pianissimi. The most obvious difference between its playing and what we're used to here was in the horn section, most apparent in the solo passage in the slow movement of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony: a lighter tone, a bit more "nasal," with a pronounced vibrato. The rest of the brass were stirring but unbeautiful. The winds, in this romantic Russian repertory (the program also included a second Liadov tone poem and two suites from operas by Rimsky-Korsakov), were mostly used for solo splashes of brilliant color, and they played appropriately brightly and vividly. The strings sounded luscious—no shrillness up top—just what you'd expect from players trained in the "Russian violin school," in a land where string tone is practically a matter of national identity.
Conductor Yuri Temirkanov's Fifth was a surprise: stern, emphatic, not at all indulgent (not even the slow movement). Tempos were brisk overall, even headlong in the finale, though he played freely with them. The waltz movement was given a breathless, continually rolling rhythm, as if Temirkanov wanted to distinguish this poetic waltz-evocation from the literal waltzes-for-dancing in Tchaikovsky's ballets. (Now it's time to complain about the program. The SPP had announced The Rite of Spring, and I can't think of a bigger comedown than to move from that to the Tchaik 5, a piece that includes some of the most banal moments in the standard repertory, that appalling graduation-march tune in the finale first among them.)
And, since we're all thinking the same thing, I may as well address the question: How does the home team stack up? Simply put, if the SPP is a world-class orchestra, then so, at its best, is ours. Next time you hear the SSO, try to listen without succumbing to the if-it-were-any-good-it'd-be-somewhere-else syndrome that still seems to hang like a poison-gas cloud over Seattle's arts.
Something else that Benaroya makes possible that will add freshness to our classical goings-on is the possibility of bringing in more and better guest conductors for the SSO. We're darn lucky, I hasten to add, that Gerard Schwarz conducts here as often as he does—lots of orchestras have to make do with a music director that jets in once a month at most. Still, any new musical perspective will only improve the orchestra. It's not the hall as such that enables conductor visits, it's the scheduling change. When the SSO played on Mondays and Tuesdays, a conductor would have to be here Wednesday to Wednesday, thus eating two weeks out of his day-planner. Now that it plays on weekends (like everyone else), we can get people who couldn't commit for a two-week stay but can for one.
Take, for example, Keith Lockhart, the young (38), energetic, in-demand conductor of the Boston Pops and the Utah Symphony, who led a Halloween concert last week. The most notable change he brought was in repertory. A true novelty on the program was Three Hallucinations, a striking and gorgeous work woven from John Corigliano's film score for Altered States. It's a showcase for the most outr頯rchestral effects he could devise, with postmodern hymn quotations oozing from a mistuned piano among all the creepy, swirling chaos. Also, an excerpt from Deems Taylor's Through the Looking-Glass was a very tasty introduction to a composer unknown to me; it whetted the appetite for the SSO's concert performance of Taylor's opera Peter Ibbetson coming in April.