Last Night at Benaroya: Throbbing, but No Swooning

Yes, it's perhaps a bit calculated, but I appreciated the programming strategy of Robert Spano, who guest-conducted the Seattle Symphony last night, of making Rachmaninoff more palatable by sweetening it with a little contemporary music: John Adams' Harmonielehre, the concert's second half, made his Second Piano Concerto go down much easier. Kidding aside, I enjoy the critically bashed "Rach 2" when I'm in the mood for it, and soloist Dejan Lazic ensured that.

He played the concerto's knuckle-busting passages with astonishing ease--as everyone does, of course, who dares tackle this piece in the first place. But for Lazic, this ease meant something--he turned it to expressive purpose. It allowed him to play with a celestial gentleness and simplicity, with no swooning, that I've never heard in this work before. The beauty of his approach first struck me in the second theme of the first movement, and climaxed in the cradle-song second movement. Spano played right along, letting a generous amount of air and light into the orchestra; some of the textures here were positively Mozartean.

The fleet, scintillescent finale threw off sparks--sparks from airborne fireworks, not from something grinding against something else. Frankly, this is the way I'd play the concerto if I could; Lazic may have ruined me for anyone else's performance, especially the forced-march-through-molasses approach that's pretty much standard, or so I'd thought. It left me thinking not "What a fantastic pianist!" but "What a fantastic piece!", which of course is exactly what makes Lazic a fantastic pianist.

Spano led off the program with Sibelius' arresting, spruce-scented Pohjola's Daughter, a piece new to me. Especially in its chugging, rhythmically relentless string passages, it pre-echoed a bit Adams' throbbing, soaring quasi-symphony, a major workout for the orchestra. Though in 1985 when Adams completed Harmonielehre, he was in the vanguard of the audience-friendly (or friendlier, at any rate) trend in new music, the piece is still a bit assaultive in spots--a few climaxes make The Rite of Spring sound like The Blue Danube, and there were exoduses from the hall here and there after each of the first two movements. But the 99.3% who remained met the end of the third with thrilled cheers.

The SSO's performance (the first of three this weekend) lacked for nothing in guts, though Adams' light-catching orchestration wasn't yet quite polished to the highest possible gleam. It's their first time with the piece, premiered a quarter-century ago in San Francisco. It got me thinking that at some point in the coming year, as Gerard Schwarz's tenure as music director winds down, I'm probably going to have to ask some sticky questions about the musical legacy of this period in the SSO's history, and about which Seattle-born works might join the repertory as Harmonielehre has . . . Mm-kay, what say we not go there right now? I'd rather relish the memory of hearing a brilliant contemporary work and a brilliant approach to an old one.

Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., 215-4747, $17-$92. 8 p.m. Sat., May 1, 2 p.m. Sun., May 2.

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