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David Diamond, Samuel Jones and Brahms: Ko-ichiro Yamamoto (trombone), Vadim Repin (violin), Seattle Symphony, Gerard Schwarz, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 2.4.2009 (BJ) 

David Diamond: Rounds
Samuel Jones: Trombone Concerto, Vita Accademica
Brahms: Violin. Concerto

For the Seattle Symphony and its public, this was not so much a concert as a celebration. Local resident Charles Staadecker and his wife Benita had made the laudable decision to celebrate 25 years of marriage by commissioning a new work as a gift to the community. The result, premiered Thursday, was the third in resident composer Samuel Jones’s series of concertos for brass instruments.

After the Tuba Concerto, written three years ago and just released on a Naxos CD, and last season’s Horn Concerto, it was the turn of the trombone. Partnered by his colleagues under Gerard Schwarz’s alert direction, principal trombonist Ko-ichiro Yamamoto gave a performance of sparkling virtuosity and impressive musicianship, deploying a tone that ranges easily from assertive strength to a quite remarkable delicacy.

The concerto is a dramatic form, its plot traditionally concerned with the relationship between the individual and the many. In this regard, the opening of the new work’s central Romanza was especially satisfying: rather as Beethoven did in the
Largo of his Triple Concerto, Jones begins his movement with a brief orchestral passage, whereupon the soloist immediately emphasizes his artistic primacy by picking up the theme thus tentatively advanced and amplifying it in lyrical fashion. But Jones also took the one/many topic a step beyond the metaphorical. Responding to Mr. Staadecker’s wish to have the work pay tribute to his alma mater, Cornell University, the composer cast the solo part in the role of the student – any student – as he enters academe, and devised a score that chronicles the developing interplay of student and college. Though the subtitle is “Vita Accademica,” Jones notes that the subject is not so much academic life as student life, so that, not surprisingly, the atmosphere of the concerto is more light-hearted than that of its predecessors for tuba and horn.

Academicism is sufficiently served by some highly skillful inverted counterpoint, and by beginning the third movement with a Bachian two-part invention. But the music also incorporates tunes that recreate the atmosphere of student songs, scoring that includes chimes to evoke the carillons popular at Cornell and other schools, and even a rowdy (and bibulous) football scene featuring a comical duet between the trombone and a sober expostulating tuba, adroitly played on Thursday by Christopher Olka.

Only time can reveal whether the new concerto is a piece for the ages, but it was certainly enormously enjoyable, and the audience clearly loved it. There is something endearing about the spectacle of an eminently respectable 73-year-old composer unstuffily taking on the coloration of carefree youth, and managing to do so without any compromise of artistic integrity.

The concert opened with a dashing performance of Rounds for string orchestra by Jones’s predecessor in residence, the late David Diamond. This is one of Diamond’s stronger works, and so a fitting vehicle for Gerard Schwarz’s characteristic staunchness in championing the music of composers he admires. 

Rather unconventionally, the program ended with a second concerto – Brahms’s for violin. The brilliant and intrepid soloist was 37-year-old Siberian-born Vadim Repin (who incidentally opted for Heifetz’s relatively unfamiliar cadenza). I thought the Seattle Symphony’s string tone in the majestic opening ritornello was a shade thin, but from that point on the orchestral playing was splendid, with taut ensemble, well-balanced tuttis, and, in the slow movement, a subtly phrased oboe solo from Ben Hausmann. Repin’s performance showed a welcome willingness to take risks in the interests of musical truth and dramatic vividness, yet the clarity of his articulation and the richness of his sound never seemed for a moment threatened. Finally, in response to the evening’s second standing ovation, Repin master-minded an instant rehearsal and performance of Paganini’s technically breathtaking Carnival of Venice. It was a suitably upbeat conclusion for an evening that nicely combined musical depth with playful humanity.

Bernard Jacobson

Note: a shorter version of this review appeared in the Seattle Times.

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