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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, January 27, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 04
Olari Elts inspires Seattle Symphony
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Olari Elts inspires Seattle Symphony

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Maria Larionoff with the Seattle Symphony
January 21
Benaroya Hall


When many members of the Seattle Symphony are absent while performing at Seattle Opera, the programs at Benaroya are planned for works that use smaller ensembles, most often consisting of the players not at the Opera. In the past, we tended to get baroque-through-Haydn and Mozart works. Last week's concerts changed all that with an evening whose highlight was a work less than 15 years old.

The program did indeed start with Haydn, but this was no ordinary Haydn. Olari Elts, the 41-year-old Estonian conductor, uncovered a Haydn that I have never heard before, even though 'Symphony No. 86' is one of my favorites, whose familiar themes have at times been 'earworms' which entertain (and finally annoy) my poor brain. Looking like a nerdish high school boy, his manner was all business. But flowing from this super-serious demeanor came a musicality and warmth that filled the Haydn with constant surprises. These were not self-indulgent ideas, superimposed on the unsuspecting composer; instead they were brilliant insights that opened up musical sentences I never knew were there.

Most amazing was the response Elts got from the players. Even though rehearsals were cut short or lost because of the winter storms, I have never heard more detailed playing from the SSO. Varied dynamics, exquisite phrasing, and flexible tempi all seemed utterly natural but entirely new. Tension suddenly gave way to lovely repose. Ensemble was perfection despite the many changes in tempo, and balances were eloquent, revealing instruments with a clarity that delighted my ears. Elts' gestures couldn't have been clearer. He didn't always beat time, yet his beat was sharp, and his cues were clearly given. No movement seemed wasted or unanswered by the players. This Estonian is clearly a master of extraordinary gifts. His Haydn alone was more than worth the price of admission.

It will be easier to understand the sublime beauty of the work that followed if you know the musical language of Arvo Pärt. Highly tonal yet utterly modern, this almost minimalist style has an emotional, perhaps spiritual quality. The 'Concerto for Violin and String Orchestra, 'Distant Light' by Latvian composer Peteris Vasks certainly reflects such a musical world. To Pärt's palette Vasks adds considerably more variety and more rhythmic thrust. Though there were periods of extreme repose, with almost no discernable rhythm, he nonetheless included a peasant dance, a short waltz, and other lively sections. There was, in fact, not a dull moment. And the quiet, sometimes hymn-like passages had an ecstatic beauty that might evoke tears.

There are already three commercial recordings of this work, and it's easy to see why. For one thing, it offers the soloists no fewer than three long cadenzas in which to show nearly every skill. Maria Larionoff, the former concertmaster of the SSO, was more than an able proponent of Vasks' 'Concerto.' The considerable virtuosic demands were well under her control, and her tone was rich and beautiful. Elts and Larionoff worked together effortlessly. And there were certainly no signs of the shortened rehearsal periods in the way the orchestra accompanied the soloist. This was a gripping and gorgeous performance.

The single work after intermission was Mendelssohn's lovely 'Symphony No. 4, 'Italian.' Perhaps here was where the shortened rehearsal period showed, or perhaps it was just that Mendelssohn was not as great a composer as Haydn. At any rate, the performance was just fine but lacked the great attention to detail that we heard in the Haydn. Tempi were well chosen, and the work moved along with pleasing vitality and grace. But I heard nothing new or particularly interesting. A little disappointing after such delights in the first half. Nonetheless, I would jump at the chance to hear this conductor again.

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

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