Too much noise; not enough music
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Too much noise; not enough music
by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Seattle Symphony with pianist Barry Douglas
February 7
Benaroya Hall


Having been warned by one professional Seattle critic to stay away from this concert because it was "too loud," I just had to see what she meant. I have never heard a symphony concert that was too loud. A full orchestra can build a huge sound that can be absolutely thrilling IF it is in the service of musical expression. I think the problem with this program was that the musical expression was often missing, leaving instead just noise. It was too often noisy instead of musical.

The evening began with Berlioz' "Overture to 'Béatrice et Bénédict."' To be fair, this went fairly well, with lots of energy and precision. However, there was nothing French about the sound, which was too "fat" and lacking in transparency. It sounded like Berlioz was German!

Then came the witty 'Burleske' for piano and orchestra by Richard Strauss. Sometimes superb recorded performances can ruin a live experience. In this case, Byron Janis' recording with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony had made me love the humor and sublime beauty of this work since its first release on LP. But both pianist Barry Douglas and conductor Gerard Schwarz missed both the wit and beauty, producing instead a lot of noise. Tempi were rushed; the burlesque elements were played without the intended parody; and the beautiful moments of repose between the intentionally overblown climaxes lacked any savor. Brilliant orchestration be damned! To hell with orchestral balances and careful climaxes! The whole thing made the brilliant young Strauss sound like a third-rate composer. (Kudos to Michael Crusoe, who kept his prominent tympani part utterly musical.)

Much more suited to Douglas' temperament was the Liszt 'Piano Concerto No. 1,' which followed intermission. In just such a piece as Strauss intended to parody in his 'Burleske,' Douglas seemed really at home. Here he showed his prodigious technique and showmanship, this time without doing any damage to the music. In an evening turned upside-down, Liszt sounded like a better composer than Strauss! No kidding, I really enjoyed the Liszt, including the infamous use of the triangle, for which Liszt was roundly criticized.

In a concert doomed by superficiality, it was fitting that it finished with Howard Hanson's 'Symphony No. 1.' Even if the music was not totally superficial, it sounded like Hollywood film music. Very pleasant, totally tonal, and heavily over-orchestrated, the work's movements sounded pretty much alike, except for a wonderful funeral march with booming bass drum under the pounding tympani. Every orchestral tutti seemed the same, with the same shrill piccolo capping the messy sound. Needless to say, if this music had much to say, I didn't get it. Was Hanson at fault? Schwarz? Or I?

If this concert confirmed my low estimation of Barry Douglas, after a Meany recital some years ago, you can count on a much higher level of musicality this weekend, when Nicolai Lugansky joins guest conductor Falletta in Rachmaninov's 'Piano Concerto No. 1' along with the Fauré 'Requiem.'

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.