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Seen and Heard International Concert Review



Schubert and Mahler:  Gerard Schwarz, cond., Seattle Symphony, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 25.06.2006 (BJ)


First, the good news. Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony ended their subscription season with a Mahler Seventh Symphony that set the rafters ringing and brought the audience to its feet in a vociferous and thoroughly well-deserved ovation. The Seventh has always been regarded as a problem work, but it did not seem like that in this thrilling performance.


My bench mark for the piece has long been a performance conducted by Jascha Horenstein in London back in the 1960s. Revisiting it now in recorded form – it is available on a BBC Legends CD – I find it still immensely compelling. Horenstein was a greater Mahlerian than almost any of his most famous mid-20th-century contemporaries. But Schwarz on this occasion surpassed him. Quite apart from the sheer splendor of the orchestral playing, in which regard even the New Philharmonia under Horenstein was no match for the Seattle Symphony on its current form, it seems to me that Schwarz captured the impulsiveness of Mahler’s score to better effect than Horenstein with his more monumental approach.


This paid dividends especially in the finale, which is routinely cited as the biggest problem area in the symphony. Schwarz’s first movement, enhanced by his insistence on using a real tenor horn for that instrument’s important solos, laid the utter craziness of the music bare much more startlingly than most performances I have heard. Themes and instrumental ideas careened wildly at the listener from all angles, nevertheless held together by the conductor’s iron grip. In retrospect, it was this pervasive unpredictability, established from the symphony’s very beginning, that ended by making the finale sound perfectly coherent. In such an apparently irrational cosmos, the last movement’s constant lurches from one theme to another and one tempo to another seemed quite unproblematical.


With the finale thus redeemed, it was the second Nachtmusik, which immediately precedes it, that emerged as perhaps the symphony’s only real weak point, although, by integrating the mandolin and guitar parts more seamlessly than usual into the orchestral texture, Schwarz did make the movement more consistent in style with the rest of the work than it often sounds. In both of the Nachtmusik movements, the orchestra’s horn section, led by John Cerminaro, achieved prodigies of smooth articulation and sheer solidity; the sforzando accents at the start of the first Nachtmusik were superbly delineated. Good string playing throughout was highlighted by stylish solos from principal violist Susan Gulkis Assadi and guest concertmaster Jonathan Carney. The woodwinds were unfailingly incisive both as groups and in solos, timpanist Michael Crusoe and the percussion section offered equally trenchant work, and principal trumpet David Gordon and his colleagues in the heavy brass capped all this with their characteristic bravura.


No such glory might have been predicted on the strength of the other work on the program. Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony was skillfully shaped, and had its beautiful moments, but it plumbed no especially illuminating depths. Nor, unfortunately, could such a triumph as the Mahler Seventh prepare at least this listener for the brouhaha that erupted in the local press on the very next day. A substantial number of the orchestra’s players, it seems, are unhappy with Schwarz’s artistic leadership, and a survey outlining their concerns is on the point of being published. Accusations and counter-accusations are flying between the musicians and the orchestra’s board. And executive director Paul Meecham, a gifted administrator (and a valued friend since he served as my deputy when I was Director of Promotion at Boosey & Hawkes Music Publishers in London in the early 1980s), has resigned with effect from the end of his three-year contract in December.


I find it deeply saddening that an artistic partnership capable of reaching pinnacles of the standard represented by this last concert should be endangered by such squabbles. I cannot lay claim to any special knowledge that could suggest a fair apportionment of blame. From what I hear, it is more the length of Schwarz’s tenure – he has led the orchestra for 21 years – than any particular transgression that has set him and some of his musicians at loggerheads. It is after all pretty well inevitable in the orchestral world, a place not exactly short of strong egos, that a relationship so protracted would foster its share of antagonisms. My guess is that, if the recent three-year extension of Schwarz’s contract had been arrived at and announced with more consultation between board and orchestra, this latest clash might have been averted or at least mollified. Boards of directors in charge of American orchestras are not, in my experience, very good at that sort of sensitivity. But this, I stress, is speculation. While we wait through the summer to see how the situation will play out, the Seattle Symphony’s many friends can only console themselves with recollections of a concert that no one who heard it is likely ever to forget.


Bernard Jacobson



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)