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Schubert, Vanhal, and Mozart:  Jordan Anderson (double bass), Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Rossen Milanov, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 19.2.2009 (BJ)

Schubert: Symphony No.5 in Bb
Vanhal: Double Bass Concerto
Mozart: Symphony No.41 in C, Jupiter, K551

Classical music has many faces, and this attractive program in the Seattle Symphony’s “Mainly Mozart” series showcased three of them. 

The program began with the fifth of the charming symphonies that signaled the teen-aged Schubert’s burgeoning genius, and concluded with a true ending: the so-called “Jupiter” Symphony, the last, and one of the greatest, of Mozart’s 40-plus symphonies. In between came a rarity – a Double Bass Concerto by the Bohemian Johann Baptist Vanhal, a less familiar name, but a legitimate champion of the classical style who studied with Haydn’s friend Dittersdorf.

All three works were given trim and stylish performances under guest conductor Rossen Milanov’s direction. Formerly associate conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, now artistic director of its summer series at the Mann Center, and music director also of New Jersey’s Symphony in C and of the New Symphony Orchestra in his native Sofia, the young Bulgarian gave evidence of his talent in a light holiday program just over a year ago, and this season’s more substantial assignment confirmed his status among the most promising figures in the upcoming generation of conductors. One characteristic in particular, his refusal to allow high notes on weak beats to carry too much stress, reminded me of that great and underrated master conductor, the late Carl Schuricht. (Milanov should perhaps be warned, though, that when Mozart leaves a silent space of five beats, as at one point in the first movement of the 41st Symphony, he means five beats – a touch of haste here had the next phrase arriving just a touch too early, to the detriment of rhythmic stability. As Mozart, I believe, once remarked, the most important part of the music is in the space between the notes.) 

The beginning of the Schubert Fifth served notice at once that this was not to be an evening for mental slumber, or what the Victorians called “rotting.” Milanov set mostly brisk tempos, which imbued the outer movements and minuet with tingling vitality and resulted in a beautifully flowing account of the Andante. This only slow-ish slow movement can drag unmercifully in a performance that subdivides the metrical beats too emphatically, but Milanov made no such mistake.

Mozart’s crowning symphonic masterpiece was played with equal vim and freshness. There was no attempt to signpost the contrast between the assertive and the more “feminine” segments of the opening theme by bending the tempo. Instead, here as throughout the symphony, Milanov was content to let the music speak for itself. It did that magnificently, even if a touch more flexibility might occasionally have been welcome. And the famous finale, with its dazzling switches between fugal textures and simpler ones, was elucidated with rare clarity, strings, winds, brass, and timpani interweaving to majestic and exhilarating effect.

The Vanhal concerto is not of Mozartean caliber, but it’s a pleasant piece, and provided the double bass with a welcome spot in the limelight. Principal bass Jordan Anderson made beguiling sounds on an instrument that challenges any player’s dexterity, and Milanov’s discreet support ensured clarity of balance.

Bernard Jacobson

This review also appeared in the Seattle Times.

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