Saturday’s Seattle Symphony 2021-22 season-opening concert was supposed to be the long-awaited “back to nearly normal” event, after a mostly online season for 2020-21. But then came the fast-spreading delta variant of the coronavirus and the visa travel restrictions that have kept music director Thomas Dausgaard back home in Denmark, instead of in Benaroya Hall. (Dausgaard appeared briefly in a filmed message to the Saturday audience.)
Despite the setback, the music goes on. Fortunately, the Seattle Symphony found a conductor nimble enough to step in for Dausgaard in the opening night program: Xian Zhang, music director of the New Jersey Symphony and the conductor who launched the “Seattle Symphony Live” streamed concert series a year ago.
And what a conductor she is! The incredibly dynamic Zhang led the responsive orchestra in the world premiere performance of Reena Esmail’s “RE|Member,” plus two of the most colorful war horses of the symphonic repertoire: Strauss’ “Don Juan” and Stravinsky’s “Firebird” Suite.
The surprise of the evening, for this listener at least, was the Esmail piece: evocative, imaginative and surprisingly powerful, it featured a large screen above the stage, and a film of principal oboist Mary Lynch playing a wistful and evocative solo. The orchestral music rises to a big statement and trumpet motif, then fluttering downward passages for the winds — and then Lynch herself rises from her seat in the orchestra to play a duet with her filmed self. It’s beautiful, moving music.
There were a few surprises in the mighty performances of the Strauss and Stravinsky that followed. The Strauss “Don Juan” was exuberant, with a powerful, eager energy that underscored the sheer beauty of the melodies. And the “Firebird” Suite, which was earlier featured at another important SSO milestone (the 1998 opening of Benaroya Hall), unfolded almost magically in an unhurried reading of great impact. Kudos to Zhang for her inspired leadership.
Saturday’s audience was sparse, limited to about 350 gala attendees, who normally would have dined in Benaroya Hall after the concert. COVID-19 restrictions do not allow food service in the hall, however, so the post-concert dinner was moved off-site. (The symphony keeps strict COVID-19 protocols, requiring masks in Benaroya Hall at all times, and proof of full vaccination or very recent negative test results.)
With the mask and vaccination requirements in place, the symphony is planning for full audience capacity this season. Those who prefer to watch and listen at a distance have the online option: livestreamed concerts will be broadcast in real-time on Seattle Symphony Live and will then be available for on-demand viewing for the following week. Among the concerts slated for streaming are those considered season highlights: premieres, commissions, family concerts, and special performances.
The symphony is also holding a free-to-all 12:30 p.m. live Sunday concert, at which the Esmail premiere will be repeated — along with George Walker’s “Lyric for Strings,” and the “Alla siciliana: Allegro vivace” from Amy Beach’s Symphony in E minor, Op. 32, “Gaelic.” Tickets are no longer available online but some tickets will be released and made available at the door.
Don’t forget those masks and vaccine cards!