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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, April 8, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 14
Organ power used well at Seattle Symphony
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Organ power used well at Seattle Symphony

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Seattle Symphony and Chorale
March 31
Benaroya Hall


All too often at the Seattle Symphony we get a program with a mixture of well-rehearsed, beautifully played works sitting cheek to jowl with others that sound like noisy read-throughs. Such was the case at Thursday's concert, led by Gerard Schwarz.

We began with a beautiful, seldom heard 'Schicksalslied' ('Song of Destiny') by Johannes Brahms for chorus and orchestra. The Seattle Symphony Chorale sang with luscious tone and blended very well with the orchestra. A friend who knows the work well felt the middle section lacked some force and bite, but overall found it very well presented. It's not a long piece. There was a text printed in the program, but no supratitles to read. One can hope that the new leadership next season will see the organization brought into the modern age with supratitles for vocal works.

The main reason I attended this concert was to hear two works that can be heard really well only in a live performance. The orchestral complexity, added to the extreme use of the organ pedal notes, takes Richard Strauss' 'Also sprach Zarathustra' beyond the limits of most home sound systems. Its use in Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey pushed even most theater systems into distortion. (I saw it 13 times in theaters!) This time the opening pedal note (16 cycles per second, if I remember correctly) was loud enough to be felt physically & too loud to blend with the orchestra. In fact, a lack of proper balances plagued the whole performance. Despite the excellent playing of each section, the brilliant contrapuntal writing of Strauss was most often a loud mess, with each orchestra section fighting to be heard over the others. There was no tension or arch. Despite some momentary thrilling noises and the spectacular trumpet of David Gordon, this was the most boring 'Also sprach Zarathustra' I have ever heard.

The lack of orchestral polish in the Strauss could not have been more starkly contrasted by the lovely sound of the organically balanced and beautifully shaped playing in the other organ-featured work of the program. Camille Saint-Saëns' famous 'Organ Symphony,' the 'Symphony No. 3 in C minor' was clearly well-rehearsed, and its sonorities, while less complex than Strauss', were realized with a warmth and finish that was a delight throughout the work. Once again there were moments when the organ pedal was too prominent, but generally Joseph Adam chose effective registrations and played with his usual aplomb.

Both Strauss and Saint-Saëns made the difficult job of writing for the combination of organ with orchestra seem natural and deceptively easy. Of the few other composers who attempted it, I can think of only Handel, Poulenc, and Félix Alexandre Guilmant who succeeded brilliantly. Other worthy composers like Alan Hovhaness tried (in a special commission from the Seattle Symphony) and failed to use the organ well in the orchestral context.

Before the 'Organ Symphony,' we were treated to a short but delightful work commissioned by the SSO from David Schiff (b. 1945) to commemorate Gerard Schwarz' farewell season. Scored originally for solo trumpet, horns, percussion, and strings, the composer and Schwarz decided to have the work played here by the entire trumpet section, passing off the solos among the four trumpeters. This worked very well. The piece, both jazzy and Latin in character, was light and a lot of fun.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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