My cultural adventure on the West Coast finished with a concert at Benaroya Hall, Seattle with the Seattle Symphony. The highlight was the Rachmaninoff 3rd Piano Concerto with Stephen Hough as soloist but more about that in a minute.
Opening with a bright and breezy rendition of Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” overture, it was immediately apparent that the Seattle Symphony’s new, young music director, Frenchman Ludovic Morlot not only has a good understanding of his orchestra but of American music in general. This should not be surprising as Morlot has spent much time on the East Coast as assistant conductor at the Boston Symphony and Tanglewood. Morlot will, however, have work to do to try and bolster the Seattle Symphony’s sound. Having heard the San Francisco Symphony two nights prior, Seattle lacks the depth and richness that San Francisco has in abundance. That is not to say that the Seattle Symphony is lacking in quality – not at all. It is the difference between a good orchestra and a great one.
The American composer Charles Ives is described in the literature as a “modernist”. The textbooks will tell you that a ‘modernist’ takes a different path from the conventional and so it is with his Symphony No.2. The structure is orthodox to a point in that the five movements are distinctive enough. The work, particularly the final movement, is very much a patchwork quilt of many ideas but quotations from popular American folk tunes, two in particular “Turkey In The Straw” and “Campdown Races” are repeated notably. If you listen carefully enough, measures from Beethoven’s Fifth and Brahms’ First symphonies are also there. But to be honest, if someone had not told me in advance of these, they would be lost on me. You have probably guessed that this is not a symphony I like. For those of you who look forward to hearing the work in the near future, remember that it ends with a massive eleven-note dissonant chord. Strangely enough, there is academic debate as to whether the chord should be lengthened or kept short. Morlot went with the elongated version. I’d have preferred he didn’t.
And so to the Rachmaninoff. Audience gossip on this was animated – there had been good reviews in the paper and some people had heard excellent things about the performances from the last two evenings (this programme had been repeated twice before and would be repeated again the next afternoon). So, we were all holding high expectations. Stephen Hough did not disappoint. Save for one flub which those who know the piece well enough would have spotted, this was nevertheless a brilliant display of pianistic dynamism and bravura musicianship. The legendary technical challenges the ‘Rach 3’ has for any pianist were easily dealt with by Hough and the amazingly fast, almost foolhardy, speed at which he took the piece right from the opening notes, was a challenge for the orchestra to keep up with. Morlot and the Seattle Symphony were up to the task even thought they might not have had the depth of tone that one might hear from other ensembles. But they were secondary to Hough’s performance which deservedly got an immediate standing ovation and very generous applause.
A delicate encore of Mompou was a fantastic way to close an exceptionally memorable evening.