Concert Review: Gerard Schwarz Conducts The Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Alexander Toradze – Pianist

Under the baton of Conductor Laureate Gerard Schwarz, the Seattle Symphony Orchestra gave a concert last night at Benaroya Hall that was a joy and a revelation from first note to last.

The music ranged from the brand new to the altogether familiar. First on the program was the world premiere of Five Sky Interludes by Daron Aric Hagen.  These five pieces are all orchestral interludes from Hagen’s opera Amelia which premiered in 2010, though they would not have sounded out of place a hundred years earlier.  An American composer previously unknown to me, Hagen’s Five Sky Interludes has a distinctly American sound.  It is a dramatic, imaginative piece of music, easily accessible, yet certain to reward repeated hearings.  Having heard these excerpts, I would eagerly seek out the complete opera, and look forward to hearing more of Hagen’s music.

The next piece on the program was Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, featuring the Georgian-American pianist Alexander Toradze.  The Third is the most often-played of Prokofiev’s concerti.  The brilliance of its piano writing and its lush melodic content have made it a favorite among pianists and audiences alike ever since Prokofiev himself gave its premiere in 1921.  I confess to feeling some apprehension prior to this performance: I’ve been listening to this piece, off and on, for forty-seven years.  Surely I’ve heard it all before, right?

My concerns were laid to rest by the opening notes, rising from the first clarinet to greet me like a old friend.  How could I have worried?  Prokofiev is endlessly inventive, and even his best-known melodies retain their originality.  In addition, Toradze has a refreshingly individual approach to this piece.  His performance was studded with unexpected emphases and retards.  Perhaps his most dramatic departure from the routine were the expansive tempi he employed to good effect during the second movement.  The climax to the lyrical central section of the third movement was especially moving.

Overall, Toradze emphasized the dramatic and lyrical as opposed to the virtuosic and percussive.  His approach clearly resonated with the Seattle audience, which gave him an enthusiastic and well-deserved standing ovation.

Following the intermission, Mr. Schwarz led the orchestra in a stunning performance of Shostakovich’s monumental Symphony No. 8.  This symphony was composed in 1943, in the middle of what in Russia is still called The Great Patriotic War.  While it is usually risky to ascribe programmatic intent to a piece of music, it is impossible to separate this symphony from the circumstance of its composition.  At the very least, it was conceived during that horrific time, and it is impossible not to see it as a reflection of that conflict.

Certainly, the scale of the symphony mirrors the scale of the war.  The Symphony No. 8 is a full-blown epic, encompassing many different spectrums of expression: from playful to tragic, lyric to martial, heavenly to hellish.  One must admire Shostakovich’s daring in writing such an ambitious work.  Did he not fear that the critics would scold him for its length?

Personally, I think its length is one of its best features.  Music this personal and profound must be allowed to go its own way and reach its own conclusion.  Throughout all five movements, Mr. Schwarz exhibited brilliant, precise conducting, and the orchestra responded in kind.  The greatest credit, however, must go to Shostakovich himself; I am in awe of what he achieved in this piece.  During the ineffable final bars of the last movement, one particular phrase suggested itself to me, “the peace which passeth understanding.”  The audience’s prolonged ovation was well-earned and certainly to be expected, but it would have felt more fitting just to depart in silence.

I cannot conclude this review without giving you, the reader, an opportunity to see and hear this extraordinary work for yourselves.  What follows is a video of another, earlier performance of this symphony by Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra.  This one took place in 2006, and was originally broadcast on PBS.  [Note: After this post was published, the featured video was deleted from YouTube, probably because of a copyright violation.  In the video below, I present a different performance of this symphony, equally compelling, with Valery Gergiev conducting the Berlin Philharmonic.]

Derrick Robinson