When a conductor picks up a microphone to address the audience about the music they're going to hear, the audience can be pretty sure of...

When a conductor picks up a microphone to address the audience about the music they’re going to hear, the audience can be pretty sure of one thing: They aren’t expected to like the piece.

By the time guest conductor Michael Stern had finished telling Thursday’s Seattle Symphony audience about Varèse’s “Intégrales,” it’s a wonder they weren’t fleeing the hall en masse. With Stern’s every phrase (“A certain weird clarity,” “An assault on the senses”), the impending work loomed more ominously. When the downbeat finally came, and the small wind ensemble plus a whole armory of percussion began to play Varèse’s chaotic motifs and random-sounding outbursts, no one could say we weren’t warned.

The evening’s main attraction was the cellist Lynn Harrell (who has for decades been one of the leading soloists on his instrument), playing a relative novelty: the Victor Herbert Cello Concerto No. 2. Deeply romantic and quaintly charming, the seldom-heard work lacks the musical depth of the best cello concertos, but the repertoire is not so extensive that cellists can afford to ignore the more minor gems. Certainly Harrell gave the piece a tremendous run, lavishing on it his great tonal range — from the assertive passages of the allegro movements to the velvety, soft-focus tone with which he played the slow, dreamy middle movement.

Stern, who is music director of the Kansas City Symphony, proved an able accompanist in the concerto, but he made most of his musical points in the program finale, the Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 3. This is a work he clearly loves, and he urged the Symphony forward in the swoony romantic melodies and the chirruping little figures that seem to be the hallmark of most Rachmaninoff works. Balances were not always ideal (the orchestra section with the melody didn’t always emerge from the neighboring sections), but most of the solo work was very nicely done, and the Rachmaninoff proved a sweet dessert after the acerbic opener.

Melinda Bargreen: mbargreen@seattletimes.com