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Seattle Symphony: Can it get any better?
Seattle Symphony: Can it get any better?
by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Seattle Symphony with guest conductor Stéphane Denève
Thursday, November 1
Benaroya Hall


Very few concerts are as exciting as what we heard recently from young, French conductor Stéphane Denève and a very animated Seattle Symphony. This big man, with flaring, frizzy hair and a face both homely and loveable, whipped up such a mixture of energy, precise articulation, and dazzling rhythms in Stravinsky's 'Jeux de cartes' that I felt nothing could possibly surpass this opening work. Having long known the piece from superb recordings by the composer and Ernest Ansermet, I nonetheless upgraded my estimation more than a few notches in the Stravinsky canon after hearing this performance of 'Jeux de cartes'.

The meters are among the most complicated this composer ever wrote, yet the players seemed utterly in control of every truncated measure, every unexpected jump the composer could spring on us. Indeed, I have never so enjoyed the sheer wittiness of these three movements. In fact, the players so impressed me that I have raised my estimation of just what they are capable of when stimulated by such brilliance in both the conducting and in the music itself. The combination of technical proficiency and musical expression really made me sit up and take notice!

It's not surprising that the following 'Piano Concerto in G major' by Maurice Ravel was a little overshadowed by the excitement of what came before. Indeed, the Ravel could have used a bit more rehearsal time to help it all come together. The young French pianist, Frank Braley, could not be faulted. He made the virtuoso passages seem effortless. His long, simple solo that opened the second movement was a model of elegance and soaring rhapsody. Balances with the orchestra were perfect. All that was missing was the ultimate level of coherence.

Pour Gabriel Fauré's "Pelléas et Mélisande Suite, Op. 80' seemed like the weak sister among the other works of the evening. Oh, it's sweet and lovely, simple stuff, but not on the same level of genius. The Orchestra gave it its due. It was, I suppose, a kind of palette cleanser, to make way for the brilliance that followed.

Stéphane Denève leapt into the opening lines of Debussy's 'Iberia' with such eager abandon that his love of this music fired the atmosphere. The players responded with everything needed and more. This was the kind of reading that made one realize that the work has more to it than previously thought. I think Debussy would have been very happy to hear it.

One of the Symphony's four new concertmasters, Frank Almond, made his debut and impressed with both his tone and his confidence in his brief solo passages. (Having more than one concertmaster is common practice in Europe but a rarity in the US.)

I remain impressed with the caliber of guest conductors we see with the Seattle Symphony. Stéphane Denève gave us even more reason to catch each of these guests and to hope we see his return soon. The Orchestra members gave him extraordinary applause on one of his bows and clearly loved playing for him.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rod@sgn.org.
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