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Sheng, Wagner, and Beethoven: Gerard Schwarz (conductor), Marcy Stonikas (soprano), Nancy Maultsby (mezzo-soprano), Vinson Cole (tenor), Clayton Brainerd (bass-baritone), Seattle Symphony Chorale, Seattle Symphony, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 29.12.2010 (BJ)


There was a sense of climax about this Beethoven Ninth that was both satisfying and appropriate. Satisfying because the Ninth, with its no-holds-barred choral finale, is a work that must thrill, and this Seattle Symphony performance was truly a thriller; appropriate because it marked the last of Gerard Schwarz’s year-end celebrations with the work before he steps down as music director.

In the first concert of the subscription set that concluded 2010 and began 2011, he surpassed even the high achievement of last season’s Ninth. Schwarz has a mischievous talent for stimulating program juxtapositions. This time, after the pair of little Brahms-based pieces by Bright Sheng that opened the evening, it was Wagner alongside Beethoven. And the performances of the
Siegfried Idyll and the Ninth Symphony revealingly highlighted not just the difference between private and public music—between the piece Wagner intended as an intimate Christmas present for Cosima, and the majestic culmination of Beethoven’s symphonic career—but also the ways both works transcend that difference.

Wagner was not a man capable of avoiding grandiloquence even when wearing carpet slippers. There are ringingly opulent climaxes in this most modestly scaled of his works, and Schwarz’s performance realized them as successfully as the more reposeful passages that surround them. In the Beethoven conversely—the most public declaration you can imagine of the brotherhood of millions-strong humanity—it was the restraint and mystery of the first three movements that set the sheer elan and deliberately unrestrained zest of the finale in triumphant contrast.

The opening had exactly the right feeling of a spring wound tightly but liable to open up explosively at any moment. The scherzo was taken, I think, a fraction less rapidly than in previous years, and if anything gained thereby in rhythmic precision. And at the rapt conclusion of a slow movement that differentiated clearly between the Adagio tempo of the first theme and the slightly faster Andante of the second, the finale burst on us (or would have done but for the interruption of some untimely applause) with all the brilliance of a firecracker.

The orchestral sonority was at once lucid and sumptuous, and the double fugue in the finale had a freedom of gait that was intoxicating, underpinned by the positively volcanic power of the contrabasses’ scurrying figures. With the horn section beautifully on song, the important 4th-horn solo was handsomely played by Jonathan Karshney (presumably a guest musician), Michael Crusoe’s timpani interjections in the scherzo were magisterially clean, and Scott Goff contributed some graceful flute solos. Joseph Crnko’s chorus outdid its former levels of tonal opulence and verbal clarity. The solo quartet of Marcy Stonikas, Nancy Maultsby, Vinson Cole, and Clayton Brainerd, individually polished, also blended exceptionally well. And Zartouhi Dombourian Eby’s piccolo surmounted the concluding jollifications to sparkling effect—the icing, as it were, on a perfectly baked cake.

It will be interesting to see what Ludovic Morlot, Schwarz’s successor as music director, will come up with for his New Year’s Eve celebrations. Somehow I doubt whether he will challenge direct comparison by offering the same Beethoven landmark work.


Bernard Jacobson


A shorter version of this review appeared also in the Seattle Times.


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