Tuesday, September 17, 2019

A New Beginning

The Seattle Symphony opened its new season this past Saturday under its new music director, Thomas Dausgaard. When Ludovic Morlot announced his departure from the orchestra, the organization settled on a relatively safe choice in Dausgaard, who was already known to the musicians and the city as Principal Guest Conductor.
Saturday’s concert seemed to vindicate that choice, as the chemistry between conductor and orchestra was readily apparent.

Dausgaard looked to his Danish roots, and opened the concert with Carl Nielsen’s Overture to Maskarade. The musicians responded well to Dausgaard’s direction and played this uplifting music with great verve as well as a bright, open sound.

The choice of engaging pianist Daniil Trifonov was probably the guarantee for a full house for the performance. The soloist’s vehicle was Rachmaninov’s rarely played Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor, Op. 40. If anyone could be a champion of this “orphan” of a work of the composer, it would be Trifonov. The artist gave a barnstorming reading of the concerto, identifying totally with the Rachmaninov idiom as well as the brooding, dark colours of the music. He played the outer movements with a real sense of the propulsive quality of the score. In the second movement, he gave the music a feeling of eerie stillness, yet keeping its forward momentum. Unlike some of today’s “star” pianists, Trifonov really does live up to his reputation. His effortless pianism as well as, even by today’s standards, stratospheric technique are truly astounding. 

By the time Rachmaninov wrote this concerto, he had been living outside of Russia for some time. He had been exposed to musical influences such as Jazz – he especially admired the piano playing of Art Tatum - and film music. This work (and this is by no means a criticism) betrays an eclectic mixture of styles, even though it still retains Rachmaninov’s unique harmonic colours and brooding melancholy. Trifonov navigated the shifting moods of the work very successfully, and infused the concerto with a sense of coherence and organic unity.

I was looking forward to the orchestra’s performance of Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, as it had been a long time since I heard the composer’s youthful tone poem. The famous opening section was well played, and filled with tension, although I did feel that the trumpets could have sounded a bit more “distant” when intoning the famous C-G-C rising motif. Benaroya Hall’s beautiful organ sounded resplendent under the hands of Joseph Adam, particularly with the big C major chord at m. 19. 

The Seattle Symphony strings played the theme at m. 35 (Mässig langsam, mit Andacht) with great warmth and beauty of tone. Concertmaster Noah Geller soared with his violin solos, and the clarinet solo at m. 194 (sehr ausdruckvoll) had a beautiful quality and was very movingly played. The celli and basses achieved a real pianissimo– not only the sound, but also the pianissimoquality - playing the rising motif at m. 201. The strings again shone at m. 230 (allmählich etwas weniger langsam) with the richness and beauty of their tone. The orchestra achieved a lovely shimmering in their playing of the etwas lebhaftersection at m. 252. 
On the whole, I thought that Thomas Dausgaard’s reading of the score was very successful. He infused the music with a tension that I did not find (as much) in his last Strauss outing with Eine Alpensinfonie, well played as it was. Only in the ending of Zarathustradid I feel that there could have been more of a sense of enigma, of mystery.

The Seattle Symphony’s upcoming  season is filled with many ambitious projects, no doubt showcasing the talents of its new music director. I hope that Dausgaard’s tenure in Seattle will be a long and fruitful one. I was certainly happy to have had the opportunity to return to beautiful Benaroya Hall and enjoyed the performance by this wonderful orchestra.

Patrick May