Sunday, November 18, 2007

The triumph of the human spirit: Saint Saens, Sibelius, Prokofiev, but not Beethoven

Prokofiev and Shostakovich resumed their friendly rivalry Saturday night with dueling concerts. While the Seattle Symphony was reprising Shostakovich's 11th Symphony, a titanic work most recently heard last year when the Kirov Orchestra came to town. A few blocks east , Alan Shen and the plucky Puget Sound Symphony Orchestra performed Prokofiev's fifth symphony, a symphonic tribute to the intertwining of triumph and tragedy.

An all volunteer orchestra, the Puget Sound Symphony performs three times. This aspect accounts for the unbelievably low ticket price. For five dollars in advance and eight dollars at the door, people got to hear live classical music. The orchestra's preparation and performance cycle consists of eight weeks of once weekly rehearsals followed by a concert. The fall concert last night marked the start of the orchestra's ninth season.

Conventional wisdom might lead you to believe attendance would be sparse and the performance, at a minimum would be bad and at worst disastrous. On both accounts, conventional wisdom is wrong.

The concert began fifteen minutes late. The delay was caused by a seemingly never ending supply of people streaming into the hall. They just kept coming. One after the other. It is hard to know whether people were drawn by the practically free ticket price or the opportunity to hear friends and family perform. At the end of the day it may not matter much. The hall was filling up and it was filling up with young, old, middle aged, green haired and pierced people. Who says classical music is dead?

Other orchestras would have shut the doors and began on time. Not this one. Off to the side and clearly elated, Alan Shen watched carefully as each new person found a seat. After suffering through years of pretentious, concert hall etiquette, It was refreshing to shelve unnecessary stuffiness for at least one night.

With everyone settled, Shen came forward, thanked everyone for coming, and began to talk about the program for the evening and the season. This evening, Saint Saens first cello concerto, Sibelius' Finlandia, Beethoven's overture to Creatures of Prometheus, and Prokofiev's aforementioned fifth symphony. Shen admitted there was no overarching theme for the Saturday's performance or for that matter the entire season, but that didn't stop him from making one up on the fly. The theme Shen came up with? The triumph of the human spirit. In a relaxed manner that seems to be this band's style, Shen said the theme only applies to 75% of the program. Tongue in cheek, Shen said the theme was both a dollar extra and a bargain.

Let me just say, the performance was not without problems. At times the orchestra struggled to hang together as a group. Sometimes individual sections struggled together. Wrong notes were played. Town Hall's smallness and unforgiving acoustics didn't do the orchestra any favors either. There was, however, plenty to cheer. The strings were surprisingly good. the cellos and basses hummed in Finlandia and the violins galloped in the Prokofiev. The woodwinds were nimble and the brass were generally strong. Kai Chen, the soloist for the evening, gave a better than average performance of the Saint Saens. The orchestra was a sympathetic partner.

The audience appreciated the effort of the orchestra and rewarded them with excited applause.

I gather most of the people who came out to hear the PSSO weren't expecting a perfect performance. Given the relaxed nature of the evening, I have to think they knew they weren't hearing one of the world's best orchestras. I do think they expected to have a good time and hear competently played classical music. In this regard, the orchestra delivered.  Really, shouldn't classical music be enjoyable?

The orchestra is probably as good as most civic, small town and regional orchestras. More important the entire concert was fun. Alan Shen's nervous charisma and self deprecation was well received by the audience. The members of the orchestra responded to each other and to their leader. There is indescribable attraction to music performed by people who are performing out of love for the music and performance rather than a paycheck.

Last night was the second time in the last few years I heard an orchestra perform Prokofiev's fifth symphony. The last time was April 2006 with the Seattle Symphony and visiting conductor Mstislav Rostropovich. The PSSO's performance reminded me a lot of that Rostropovich lead performance. Like last night, the Seattle Symphony and Rostropovich had a good time, each obviously enjoyed the task at hand, and the results, while not perfect, were unquestionably enjoyable.

As long as the PSSO continues to enjoy performing and improves with each performance, I have no doubt they will continue to entertain growing audiences.

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