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Beyond the Score   - Vivaldi’s Four Seasons: Emma McGrath (violin), Stephen Stubbs (conductor), Seattle Symphony, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 27.2.2011 (BJ)


This was a program dedicated to a single work, or rather set of works, but it fell into two very different halves. I have serious reservations about the multi-media informational proceedings that began the afternoon, but the actual performance of Le quattro stagioni after intermission was a delight in every respect.


Associate concertmaster Emma McGrath, who joined the Seattle Symphony’s roster of musicians last season, showed herself with her account of the solo part to be a violinist of phenomenal talent and taste. Playing on a modern instrument, she nevertheless demonstrated a comprehensive understanding of baroque stylistic demands. Using minimal vibrato, she projected both the musical and the dramatic elements of Vivaldi’s programmatic concertos with such clarity and eloquence as to challenge comparison with such distinguished period-instrument exponents as Carlo Chiarappa and Giuliano Carmignola. On the evidence of this and other performances I have heard from her, I would suggest that there is no limit to the heights her career may reach—the English-born Ms. McGrath is, quite simply, a first-magnitude star in the making.


Early-music specialist Stephen Stubbs was making his debut on the Seattle Symphony podium, but there was nothing in the least tentative about his leadership. Under his direction, the strings of the orchestra (capably supported by Joseph Adam’s harpsichord continuo) played with a cultured directness that perfectly matched the soloist’s approach. Every nuance of the score seemed to have been considered and duly realized. The atmosphere of each season was delineated with telling clarity and winning charm, from the freshness of Spring, by way of Summer’s oppressive languor, to Autumn’s hunting vigor and bibulous harvest celebrations. Principal violist Susan Gulkis Assadi impersonated a barking dog in the slow movement of the Spring concerto as vividly as I have ever heard that comic effect realized. And between the rigors of Winter’s outer movements, the central Largo’s cosy fireside scene, with its melting solo melody backed by the sound of the rain splashing down harmlessly outside, found the pizzicato of the tutti strings—the only part Vivaldi directed to be played loudly—skillfully and picturesquely balanced with the rest of the texture.


All this, then, merited only superlatives. What of the “Beyond the Score” presentation before intermission? Well, let me say at once that I am by no means unreceptive to any creative endeavors to make music more easily approachable for potential audiences not yet familiar or comfortable with it. That is what the series pioneered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and borrowed this season by the Seattle Symphony, sets out to do.


The creative director of the project is the British composer Gerard McBurney (not to be confused with his compatriot, the brilliant director and actor Simon McBurney). Certainly the technical aspect of his project is highly sophisticated—much more smoothly and expertly carried through on the big screen than similar efforts I have seen in the past. It was more what we were actually shown in those images, and the relationship between them and what was happening on stage, that troubled me. Showing little snatches of score, and removing them before it was possible to focus properly on them, was at once annoying and, surely, inappropriate in an enterprise aimed at non-musicians. True, I now know what a lot of birds that I was previously unacquainted with look like—big deal! But the refusal to allow any but a very occasional picture to stand still—scenes were constantly zooming in or out, or sliding off to left or right—is the kind of thing I have always found annoyingly distracting in musical programs on television. Having a rather literal mind, moreover, I was bothered by the considerable difference between the color of Ms. McGrath’s (very beautiful) gown, as filmed live and projected on the screen, and what we were looking at on the stage.


As to the various onstage activities, the frequent tiny snippets of music that the format of the program demanded from the actual performers ended by being more destructive than illuminating. In particular, Maestro Stubbs takes a very sensible approach to the timing of cadences, not steaming through them willy-nilly, but allowing a delicate easing of pulse and a very brief Luftpause, or breathing-space, before the last note—but heard again and again in closely juxtaposed repetitions, the inevitable effect was to make these passages sound mannered. And then the three speakers were to my ears less than ideal. Ruth Richert did what little she had to do well enough, but Laurie Blalik’s declamation was way over-the-top in tone (and her occasional tackling of Italian phrases less than idiomatic in accent), and Steve Reeder, though for the most part inoffensive, really should find out how the word “fantasia” is pronounced. (Oh, all right; maybe it’s acceptable in an English-language presentation to say “fantayzia” rather than “fantazeea”—but the latter sounds so much better!)


Perhaps most of all what I found bothersome about the visual/aural combinations was the sheer multiplicity of images and sounds that was being thrust on my attention. Far more congenial, to my mind, was the “Musically Speaking” series that the Seattle Symphony has retired to make way for “Beyond the Score.” Having the conductor, in that earlier format, simply face the audience and talk about the music was an altogether more human and enjoyable experience than seeing and hearing the program fragmented into sound-and-vision bites. But I suppose this view merely exposes me, in my dotage, as the wrong person to be making judgments about a project designed for a multitasking generation that prefers to pursue its social contacts through keyboards, screens, and telephones rather than by communicating with other human beings face to face.


The latter, happily, was what Ms. McGrath, Maestro Stubbs, and the musicians of the Seattle Symphony did after intermission. And they—and Maestro Vivaldi—did it superbly.


Bernard Jacobson

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