This past Thursday’s Seattle Symphony Orchestra concert featured two very different expressions of love – David Robertson’s Light Forming a Piano Concerto, a “love letter” written for his wife Orli Shaham, the piano soloist of the evening, and Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor, who’s ethereal Adagietto movement is, according to conductor Willem Mengelberg, an ardent love letter for the composer’s wife Alma.
It is difficult to judge a complex new work without the score or any prior knowledge about the work of the composer. David Robertson, who was also conductor of the evening’s performance, wrote in the programme notes that he composed the work with his wife’s formidable pianistic and musical abilities in mind. Certainly, the concerto poses incredible technical hurdles for any pianist who attempts it. The three movements of the work, played without pause, takes the audience through a gamut of moods and emotions. From the restless opening movement (“the uncertain music of their voices”), to the slow movement (“amphorae of the heart”) that obviously forms the emotional core of the entire work, and to the joyous final movement (“Resounding to joy”), Shaham was in complete technical and musical command of the Olympian challenges her husband laid down in this work. The soloist was also very aware of the many interplays between piano and the instruments of the orchestra, especially the horns and bassoon. The middle movement, given a deeply felt performance by Shaham, was indeed a sort of chamber music, with much dialogue between pianist and the orchestral musicians. In spite of the large orchestra the work calls for, Robertson managed to always maintain a clarity of texture, both for the hardworking soloist and in the orchestra texture.
It is difficult for us to imagine that there was a time when the music of Gustav Mahler was found to be strange, vulgar, and downright incomprehensible. Mahler’s time indeed has come, and this enthusiasm does not seem to be going away, as any performance of a Mahler symphony would form the highlight of any orchestra’s season. Last evening, Robertson and the musicians of the orchestra offered us the composer’s Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor, in a performance that left me emotionally overwhelmed.
In the funeral march of the opening movement, Robertson kept up the pace of the march, which resulted in a frightening stillness in the music. Even with the massiveness of the sound, there was always a transparency of texture, and the entire movement was wonderfully paced, with the sound carefully gauged such that the listener felt that there is still something in reserve. The seating arrangement of the string section, with the first and second violins seated on opposite sides of the stage, also gave a different perspective to the texture of the polyphony. There was truly stellar trumpet playing last evening, especially from principal trumpet David Gordon, whose sound really formed the palette of the sonic landscape throughout the symphony.
My only reservation is that the final two triplet figures, played by muted trumpets, did not have more of a far-away, almost disappearing quality to them; as well, the final pizzicato C-sharp by the violas, celli and basses, could have had much more vehemence.
The gigantic rondo which forms the second movement – Mit grosser Vehemenz – was indeed that. There was some truly spectacular playing from all the members of the orchestra. In the long cello recitative based on the main March theme, the orchestra’s cellists played with a palpable depth of feeling that was deeply touching.
In the Scherzo, I have some reservations about the lightness of the sound, a lack of a sense of weight, a pesante as well as dunkel quality in the sound and a little lacking in the cohesion of the logic. Perhaps the conductor’s desire for transparency of texture carried over into this movement? That said, the movement was splendidly played by members of the orchestra, with truly virtuosic playing by principal horn Jeffrey Fair. The pacing of the second Trio, the dialogue between the obligato horn and the celli, leading to a hushed passage by a magically played pizzicato strings, and then a nostalgic waltz, was well paced indeed.
The Seattle Symphony strings played the justly famous Adagietto with a great beauty of sound and sensitivity. Even though the composer marked this movement Sehr langsam, conductors have taken this movement in a range of tempi. Robertson took the music in a somewhat moderate tempo, and paced the movement well, not pushing it to its emotional edge, but letting the music unfolds naturally, and always taking care to maintain the flow of the music.
From the almost rustic opening of the Rondo-Finale to the triumphal brass chorale that ends the movement, Robertson inspired the orchestra to a totally committed, rousing performance, bringing us in the emotional journey from utter tragedy in the beginning to its life-affirming, joyous conclusion. It was not the heart-on-sleeve, hyper-emotional Mahler advocated by Leonard Bernstein, but one that presents the masterful architecture of the composer’s design, as well as a performance that touches our emotions with its sonic splendor and depth of feeling. The end result is a performance that I found deeply moving. The sounds of this majestic symphony resounded in my mind during the long trip back to Vancouver.
Robertson is a thoughtful conductor with deep insights into the music, who invites (often with a smile) rather than commands the musicians to contribute in the collective act of music-making. There was obviously wonderful chemistry between orchestra and conductor. I am quite aware that the orchestra is going through a search for a new music director. Judging from last evening’s performance, I do not think they could do any better than David Robertson.