Sunday, November 04, 2007

Cards, Jazz, Dead Lovers, and Spain

Stephane Deneve was in town over the weekend, conducting a series of "French" concerts with the Seattle Symphony. His side kick for the endeavor was pianist Frank Braley. Deneve has been getting considerable praise recently. His current swing through the United States and Canada has been well received, his Naxos debut of  Roussel's orchestral music has been lauded by David Hurwitz and, and even his hometown critics agree the Royal Scottish National Orchestra is sounding better and they generally approve of his work, even on toughies like Mahler's enormous third symphony. Deneve's forte is in French music (who can blame him?) but Deneve's Royal Scottish National Orchestra is playing more than Debussy, Ravel, and Faure. Rota, Tchaikovsky, Mahler (as was mentioned before), and even Corigliano show up this season.

Deneve brought a program of music by Ravel, Debussy, Faure, and Stravinsky. All of them French, with the exception of the Franco-Ameri-Russian Stravinsky. Before going to Benaroya Hall, I conducted an informal survey of opinions of the previous nights' Deneve lead concerts. The complaint, if people had one, was that the music on the program sounded too much alike. Nothing, in my mind, could be further from the truth. Faure's music for doomed lovers doesn't sound anything like, Ravel's live and let live, jazz influenced G major piano concerto. I suppose the names on the page conspired to make concertgoers think what they were hearing was just more of the same.

In any case, the Seattle Symphony sounded good, really good. They clearly liked their leader as well - giving Deneve the orchestra equivalent of a big, sloppy, French kiss at the end of the performance. I can't blame the orchestra for their exuberant embrace of the young Frenchman. His guidance was direct, crisp and unambiguous.  His charisma obvious.  Under Schwarz's tenure, the Seattle Symphony has become an orchestra that can (almost) perform any way you want them to so long as you let them know what you want.

Perhaps the most unusual comment I overheard centered on Deneve's need to move his big, floppy, curly hair out of his eyes so that he can read the score and see the orchestra in front of him. This concertgoer believed Deneve's need to swipe his hair from his eyes was evidence of musical genius and an act laced with subtle, if not secret instructions to the orchestra. I think Ben Haussmann (oboe) and Scott Goff (flute) - both who performed brilliantly through out - must have observed their cues and performed well because of Deneve's frequent repositioning of his hair. Strange.

Braley was equally well received. Braley's fleet playing stands in stark contrast to Cecil Licad's direct and forceful performance earlier this season. Ravel's concerto is remarkable for its unpretentious freshness. Braley luxuriated in the nine minute or so adagio.

The real treat for me was Stravinsky's neo-classical ballet Jeu de cartes (Game of Cards). While cities like Cincinnati honor Stravinsky's birth with mini-festivals, Stravinsky doesn't get heard much in the Pacific Northwest. This particular ballet was new to me. It is similar in style and sound to Stravinsky's other neo-classical ballets and just as enjoyable.

I hope the Seattle Symphony brass take note of this week's performances and bring both Deneve and Braley back to Seattle.

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