The SSO's Hot Streak

Schwarz and his orchestra have been on an end-of-season tear.

In his new-music choices, Gerard Schwarz has always seemed torn between favoring a few composers—making them familiar, thus less scary, to Seattle Symphony audiences—and casting his net wider for variety. But this past month, the last of the 2008–09 season, he found an ideal balance, presenting a model of what the SSO's contemporary-music programming should be.First, Schwarz chose to premiere the Cello Concerto by David Stock. The piece had been slated for a 2005 premiere by the Pittsburgh Symphony, but was canceled and never rescheduled until the SSO picked it up and performed it May 28–31, with James dePreist conducting. Pittsburgh's loss—it's a fantastic piece.From the somber throb of the opening straight through, the concerto is relentlessly dark and glowering, even in the fast passages, with '50s film-noir touches that make it sound almost like a lost soundtrack by Bernard Herrmann or Leonard Rosenman. Stock was lucky, too, to have popular cellist Joshua Roman on hand, who can not only play anything but sell anything; the long cadenza, with his agile left hand scampering spider-like up and down the instrument, was electrifying. With all the talk in recent decades about the need for composers to write with an audience in mind, not many have figured out that you do that by giving an audience something to listen to, not something that ambles passively past the ears without leaving a trace. It's like getting a stuck car out of the snow: Put a little sand under the wheels and you'll gain traction; put a little grit in your music and it'll stick in our heads.Aaron Jay Kernis' Third Symphony, which Schwarz commissioned and conducted on June 25–26, sets verse by 11th-century religious poet Solomon ibn Gabirol for orchestra, chorus, and three soloists. The work's forefathers, in terms of harmony and orchestration, are Samuel Barber, Ned Rorem, and, a generation earlier, Howard Hanson. Most compelling are its vocal/instrumental interplay—Kernis can adroitly fashion an ever-shifting accompaniment, always something going on, that doesn't swamp the voices—and its skillfully built choral climaxes. From one such climax (very John Adams in its insistent, perpetual-motion string writing and metal percussion glinting and striking sparks), the soprano, Hyunah Yu, emerges with the line "The skies, which make me think of your Name," surrounded and supported by an organlike halo of sound—the symphony's loveliest moment.Kernis gives extra urgency to Gabirol's call for divine mercy, in the "Supplication" movement, by setting it for both tenor and baritone (Paul Karaitis and Robert Gardner)—not singing together, but echoing and interweaving with each other. Even cleverer is Kernis' solution to the problem of ending the piece—how to make its exaltation sound fresh compared to the countless previous choral/orchestral pieces that end exaltedly: glissandos for the baritone, sliding from one note up to the next, which bring the closing bars a startling lift.Charismatic soloists help modern works go down smoothly, and the SSO brought violinists Leila Josefowicz and Midori for concertos by Thomas Adès (on June 11–14) and Alfred Schnittke (the following weekend), two fascinating composers outside Schwarz's usual circle of favorites.Brit prodigy Adès, at 38, has been widely active for nearly 20 years already, acclaimed for his striking musical imagination and mastery of instrumental color. His 2005 Concentric Paths, played by Josefowicz with fierce commitment, moves from shimmering broken-chord passagework—sort of a funhouse-mirror take on Vivaldi—clad in chiming, almost synth-sounding colors, to convulsive, shuddering full-orchestra chords (in a movement based extremely loosely on Bach).Schnittke's concerto, his orchestration for strings and harpsichord of a 1963 violin sonata, came at a time when Soviet composers were pushing against socialist-realist strictures, battling not just to give Western avant-gardisms a try, but to do anything they damn well wanted. Schnittke created an icily beautiful, translucent piece, combining with a delicate, precise hand harsh special effects (harpsichord note-clusters, bass string-slapping) and luminous harmoniousness of a kind hardcore '60s modernists would never countenance.In standard repertory, June heard the SSO, at times, sound as good as it ever has. Conductor David Robertson paired the Adès with Stravinsky's ballet The Firebird, taking tempos on the dreamy side of moderate, but always beautifully paced and never logy—an interesting alternative to Schwarz's brasher way with this popular score. For those who missed that brashness, Schwarz led Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony the following weekend; in the Scherzo, especially, the orchestra was on fire, giving an exhilarating, headlong performance that could be Exhibit A in defending Schwarz against charges of podium micromanagement. To close the season last weekend, Schwarz chose Gustav Holst's The Planets, a piece I like to listen to every, oh, seven years or so to see if I still can't stand it. I still can't. But it is a piece the SSO can wow a crowd with, the brasses' oomph compensating for a little tremulous tentativeness from the women of the SSO chorus.gborchert@seattleweekly.com

 
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