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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, June 24, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 25
Seattle Symphony: Too much Schwarz, not enough music
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Seattle Symphony: Too much Schwarz, not enough music

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Seattle Symphony
June 18
Benaroya Hall


Usually when you see that Gerard Schwarz is going to conduct Mahler, you can bet on a pretty satisfying and perhaps downright thrilling evening. Same goes for Bartok, Janacek, and above all Shostakovich. But the focus of last Saturday night's performance seemed to be more on Schwarz than on the music. This was, after all, the final performance as music director of the man who led the Orchestra for the past 26 years. Before the music could begin, we were subjected to five or six speeches about his contributions to the cultural scene in Seattle. To this listener, they acted like a wet blanket on my burning eagerness to hear the Mahler.

After the speeches, including one by Schwarz himself, we got five minutes of music (a 'world premiere' of a piece written for the occasion by Philip Glass), and then came the intermission. Although the Glass, 'Harmonium Mountain,' was pleasant enough, it sounded hardly any different from his works of almost 30 years ago, in particular his scores for the Reggio trilogy of films, beginning with Koyaanisqatsi. I like much minimalist music by the likes of Glass, Steve Reich, and John Adams, but I expect an artist to grow and develop as he/she matures. The lack of apparent growth is to my way of thinking not a good sign.

The Mahler 'Symphony No. 2 in C minor' that followed the intermission was a decent performance but definitely not one of Gerry's best. The first movement in particular suffered from some rough patches and less than polished balances. Later on, the off-stage horns were not far enough off-stage; we saw them leave the stage, but they were loud enough to sound as though they hadn't left. The third movement was a delight, with just the right bounce and folksy feeling.

It would be hard to over-praise mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke's contribution to the last movements. Her beautiful voice rang with ample volume in all ranges, and it gave full expression to heartfelt emotions. Schwarz did a beautiful job of supporting her sound without ever threatening to overpower her.

Much less impressive was the singing and appearance of soprano Angela Meade. I have heard Angela both in the Met Auditions here in Seattle and in a most exciting full solo recital in Sarasota this year. She is capable of almost anything from spectacular coloratura pyrotechnics in Rossini arias to luscious lyricism in songs of Richard Strauss. And her voice is as powerful as they come. I am expecting a huge career from this lady. But here she appeared depressed and made little impression. Granted, the soprano has little to do in this work, but we hardly heard her at all! One wonders if she was ill.

In a score full of sonically spectacular moments, none was more impressive than the marvelous Seattle Symphony Chorale, under Joseph Crnko. Their soft singing was incredibly beautiful, with a smoothness and warmth that drew us in. But their loud outburst was no less effective.

Special mention should also be made of the hard-working percussion section. Two sets of tympani joined a huge gong and an effective bunch of branches (played by beating them against the side of a bass drum) joined the usual drums, etc. Mahler indeed pulls out all the 'stops' for the final climax, adding rumbling bass notes from the largest pipes on the organ. As in the choral finish of his eighth symphony, he leaves the audience with no choice but to shout its approval for a genuine thrill.

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

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