A review of Thursday's Seattle Symphony concert, a program of Tchaikovsky, Sibelius and Mussorgsky.

Concert review |

From the first elegant phrase, you knew it was going to be a special performance.

Solo cellist Efe Baltacigil wafted the opening line of Tchaikovsky’s tricky “Rococo Variations” into Benaroya Hall, and the Seattle Symphony audience was his: hooked on a performance so sublimely natural, so easily virtuosic, that you couldn’t wait to hear what he’d do with the next phrase.

A warmly expressive player of infinite subtlety, Baltacigil joined the Seattle Symphony as principal cellist last year, and ever since, music lovers have worried that he’s too good to stay. (Last month he made his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle.) He has incredibly nimble fingerwork, and his bow control is phenomenal, but most impressive of all is his apparently effortless musicianship. Each variation was lovelier than its predecessor. Not surprisingly, the ovation afterward was heartfelt and lengthy.

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On the podium was a partner thoroughly worthy of his soloist: Danish conductor Thomas Søndergård, in his Seattle debut. Søndergård gave Baltacigil lots of support and plenty of expressive room, carefully shaping the orchestra’s sound so it didn’t overwhelm the soloist.

Søndergård is riveting to watch. He conducts as if it were an Olympic event, throwing himself into the music with tremendous energy and sweeping, incisive gestures. The musicians’ response was electric, with the players apparently inspired by the swoop of the baton and the conductor’s expressive phrase-shaping left hand.

Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” was appropriately colorful, but the Sibelius Symphony No. 1 showed Søndergård at his most engaged — interpreting every bar, never merely beating time. The conductor’s affection for this great score was obvious in every measure. The orchestra has never sounded more energized.

There are two more chances to hear this wonderful program.

Seize one.

Melinda Bargreen also reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM. She can be reached at mbargreen@aol.com.