Masters of their instruments

Rostropovich thinks aloud; Sheppard wears his heart on his sleeve.

A musical milestone was reached last week at the University of Washington Symphony concert in Meany Hall—a significant event in the careers of those involved and a testament to an admirable longevity and the preservation of a hallowed tradition.

University of Washington Symphony

Meany Hall, December 8

Seattle Symphony

Benaroya Hall, December 10

I'm speaking, of course, of my 1,000th concert hearing of Beethoven's Egmont Overture, which opened the show. Neither as thrilling as the Leonore Overture no. 3, or as visceral as Coriolan, or as charming as Prometheus, Egmont nevertheless gets played about as often as Beethoven's dozen or so other overtures put together. The reason still eludes me.

The concert also happened to be a celebration of the centennial of the founding of the UW Symphony. The anniversary was downplayed. There were only a couple of photos and a brief bio of founder Aubrey Levy in the program, rather than any sort of historical essay or commemorative gala booklet. No out-of-the-ordinary programming, either (nothing from the 1898 inaugural concert, no works by UW composers past or present—interesting ideas come easily to mind).

Any performance, however, by UW artist-in-residence Craig Sheppard must rank as an event. He was the soloist for Brahms' grand Piano Concerto no. 2. Sheppard makes any composer he plays sound like a specialty of his, but his Brahms went beyond even that. To this concerto, and to the A Major Intermezzo he chose as an encore, he brought rhythmic freedom without artifice and lyricism without treacle; he also beautifully clarified Brahms' intricate inner textures.

The UW Symphony has been impressive in operatic work over the past year—Die Fledermaus, Falstaff, Hänsel und Gretel—but I hadn't heard it on stage for a couple of seasons. It's a different group, of course; constant personnel changes are the inescapable downside of college orchestras, with a complete turnover every four or five years. Any continuity is largely due to the conductor. Peter Ëros is in his 10th season at UW, and what he provides the musicians, logically enough for an academic institution, is a thorough grounding in Central European traditions. This includes a firm, warm, rich string tone, the most notable aspect of the orchestra's sound. It has a generous string contingent, tight and well-balanced for its size. The evening's high point, after Sheppard's gloriously heartfelt performance of the Brahms intermezzo, was the cello solo that opened the concerto's slow movement; Ching-Tzy Ko's solo playing, and the support from the rest of the low strings, were equally sublime.

The remaining work on the program, Hindemith's adorable Symphonic Metamorphoses on a Theme by Weber, showed off some nimble playing from the other sections. But I wouldn't have minded hearing the brass a bit higher in the mix, though, in the march finale.

Haydn is the most intellectual of composers, because his thought processes, more than any other composer's, are on the surface—you sense his playful, artful, decisionmaking brain behind every note you hear. Cellist Mstislav Rostropovich made this clear when he played the C Major Concerto in a special Seattle Symphony concert last week. He had an almost improvisational way with the work's details—an extra-crisp staccato here, a sudden dynamic shift there—quicksilver surprises made possible by his effortless technique. So spontaneous was his approach that the performance felt like a conversation (just the four of us: Rostropovich, the listener, the orchestra, and Haydn)—not a speech or a sermon, a poetry recitation or a display of gymnastics. That's precisely the essence of Haydn: that sparkling, thinking-as-you-go quality, the freshness that makes his every compositional decision both unexpected and logical, just because each point is argued so convincingly.

I didn't know this was also the essence of Tchaikovsky, at least of the Variations on a Rococo Theme. Quite unlike his violin concerto or the piano concertos, the Variations are too slender to work as a barnstorming piece, and an introspective, elegiac approach just makes them sound mawkish. What Rostropovich did with them seems so obvious in retrospect: He took a cue from the 18th-century pastiche melodic material, the seed from which the piece grows, and played the work with the same qualities of wit and persuasion and personable elegance that he brought to Haydn. The only place, in fact, that Rostropovich seemed to feel a shade uncomfortable was in the whizbang closing variation: The music's just so unnecessarily aggressive. He then offered as encores two movements from Bach's cello suites, a bourreé in C and a powerfully profound saraband in D Minor.

Gerard Schwarz led a nice performance of Haydn's early Symphony no. 14 to open the concert, and a fine reading of Dvo(breve)rák's Serenade for Strings later on. Not perfectly polished, perhaps, but marvelously paced. I know Schwarz started his career as a trumpeter, but I'm curious to know if he had any string experience before that—a couple of years of violin lessons, maybe, somewhere along the line. He has such a way with romantic string music—the subtle, idiomatic pushing and pulling of tempo comes so naturally to him, as if he were to the bow born.

 
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