Monday, February 04, 2008

In the shadow of a giant

The pre-concert lecture for the recent Seattle Symphony concert was titled "In the shadow of a giant."  The title, an obvious reference to Brahms' First Symphony.  Brahms labored for twenty years on his first symphony.  His creativity gripped by the belief that he could never surpass, let alone equal, the achievement in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. 

However, the title could have been extended further to include the two other composers on the program.  Claude Debussy labored to break free from Wagner, Liszt and the rest of the music mainstream.  In a larger way, Debussy resided firmly in the long cast of the Twentieth Century and the avant garde music scene that was erupting around him in Paris.  Arnold Schoenberg's place in the continuum of music is more obvious.  A pupil of Zemlinsky, Schoenberg emerged from the post-Romantic world of Mahler seeking to extend and differentiate his own music from an extensive German musical tradition. 

While this past weekend's program wasn't exactly revolutionary, it was different enough to cause me to wonder what things might be like at Benaroya Hall if Schwarz ever left.  Debussy's practically unknown Symphonic Fragments from The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian and Schoenberg's better known, Transfigured Night filled out the first half of the concert.  Ingo Metzmacher's approach to both was expansive and deliberate.   

In Transfigured Night, Metzmacher drew out ravishing solo playing from Susan Gulkis Assadi and quarter time concertmaster Frank Almond.  I wonder what incoming Milwaukee music director Edo de Waart thinks about Almond's part time gig and Schwarz's experiment? 

But, Almond and Assadi weren't the only ones deserving of credit.  Metzmacher pulled out of the Seattle Symphony strings an exceedingly fine performance that could have only come from a conductor with a keen understanding of Schoenberg's music.     

Metzmacher's Brahms was a aurally delicious way to end the concert.  Brahms struggled for two decades to finish his First Symphony and the obvious tension in the piece from struggle to triumph had critics to comparing the work to Beethoven's Ninth. 

Sunday's performance demonstrated the power of a controlled performance.  Metzmacher's command of the physics of the piece and orchestra created a tightly coiled sensation for the entirety of the work.  Most people probably prefer their Brahms on the wild, unrestrained side.  Perhaps, even a little opulent.  I should know, that's usually how I like my Brahms.  The only problem with highly emotional, overflowing, and unrestrained Brahms is that it leaves you worn out by the end.

Metzmacher's approach had my ears begging for more when the final notes were played.  Nearly the entire time, I was hoping for a Bacchanal to erupt.  However, Metzmacher's restraint peaked my anticipation and had me more engaged in the composer's symphony than I had been in a long time.          

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