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Purcell, Bach, and Vivaldi:  Gerard Schwarz, cond., soloists, Seattle Symphony, Seattle Symphony Chorale, Benaroya Hall, Seattle 3.3.2006 (BJ)


It was a program calculated to produce a kind of aural-visual disconnect, rather like watching a ventriloquist at work. Spectacular trumpet sounds were coming from one spot on the platform, while not more than three or four feet away Gerard Schwarz, who before he took to the baton may very well have been the greatest trumpet-player in the history of the world, stood at the conductor’s desk minding his own business, which these days is being the music director of the Seattle Symphony.


If there was anything intimidating about that circumstance for David Gordon, the orchestra’s principal trumpet, his playing gave no sign of it. The program, beginning with a short suite of pageantry pieces from Purcell’s The Fairy Queen in Schwarz’s own arrangement, and including two other trumpet-happy pieces in the shape of Bach’s cantata Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen and Vivaldi’s Gloria in D major, was enough to tax any exponent of the instrument, but Gordon sailed through all three works with stunning virtuosity and musicianship, hitting every note squarely in the middle, and demonstrating an excellent sense of the stylistic demands of this concert in the orchestra’s “Basically Baroque” series. Aside from a Bach organ solo added to the program to mark the death a few days earlier of that major builder of the Seattle Symphony’s stature, Milton Katims, music director from 1954 to 1976, the only trumpet-less piece was a characteristic example of Schwarz’s gift for unearthing interesting rarities. The sinfonia to Bach’s Cantata No. 174, Ich liebe den Höchsten von ganzem Gemüte, which amounts to nothing less than the first movement of the Third “Brandenburg” Concerto with the addition of a few woodwind and horn parts, was being heard for the first time probably by most of the audience, and certainly by me.


The orchestra’s playing for most of the evening was on its customarily high level, though there were a few untidy moments, especially in the Vivaldi. There, they may have been occasioned by a touch of discomfort at what I can only call Schwarz’s rather naughty interpretative view of the music. I am the last person to object to emotion in baroque performance practice. No one can continue to think baroque music unemotional who has ever read the eye-witness account, contained in a letter written in 1709, of a performance by Arcangelo Corelli:


I never met with any man that suffered his passions to hurry him away so much while he was playing the violin as the famous Arcangelo Corelli, whose eyes will sometimes turn as red as fire, his countenance will be distorted, his eyeballs roll as in an agony, and he gives in so much to what he is doing that he does not look like the same man.


But while there is a place – while there are many places for such extravagance of expression - the fast choral sections of the Vivaldi Gloria are not among them. The conductor’s constant tinkering with the dynamics, receding to a melodramatic pianissimo at one moment and reasserting forte at another, seemed to me to have the opposite of their desired effect–they created one variable too many - for Vivaldi in these movements has created his own range of contrasts through harmonic means, and the shifts of dynamic perspective sufficed only to distract from them. Curiously, the second movement, the deeply expressive choral Et in terra pax, where some delicate dynamic adjustments could well be justified, was taken much more strictly by Schwarz. Played and sung splendidly, it was indeed very beautiful, and thus emerged as the most satisfying section of the work on this occasion.


The evening’s solo singers, soprano Julianne Gearhart in both vocal works and mezzo-soprano Carolyn Kahl in the Vivaldi, acquitted themselves creditably. It might be said, if odious comparison be permitted, that Ms. Gearhart, who had the tougher assignment of the two, did not quite succeed in effacing memories of Sarah Coburn’s ravishing work in the Mozart C-minor Mass a few weeks earlier; there was in Ms. Gearhart’s case a certain want of firmness in the line that undermined the music’s effect. But she is a young singer with a sweet and flexible voice, and she demonstrated musicality and technique enough to hold out promise of a considerable talent in the making.


Bernard Jacobson




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