Those of you around back in 1998, when Benaroya Hall opened, probably recall a special event that became a tradition those first few years: the “Day of Music,” the Sunday after the Seattle Symphony’s Saturday-night gala concert, in which the hall was thrown open to everyone for free performances by the orchestra itself and dozens of smaller local ensembles.
Well, this weekend, to mark the return of something like a normal concert season after two disrupted ones, the Seattle Symphony Orchestra is again offering a double season opener, in what will hopefully become a revival of the tradition. Sunday’s free orchestral concert, at 12:30 p.m., will combine highlights from Saturday evening’s opener with two additional pieces. It’s a perfect opportunity to sample the orchestra, if Saturday’s gala, or any SSO concert, is financially out of reach — which is why it’d be a thrill if music director Thomas Dausgaard intends to make this an annual thing once again, to reach as many music lovers as possible.
As second violinist Elisa Barston puts it, “There really is no substitute for the give-and-take between musicians and audience. We inspire each other; communication with our listeners is everything in music. It will be an absolute joy and a blessing to feel that connection with our audience again after such a long hiatus!”
Hang on — did we say “something like normal?” Because Dausgaard won’t be on the podium. COVID-related work-visa issues are keeping him out of the country. Though he had guest-conducted the SSO often prior to his directorship, which began two full years ago, for obvious reasons, he has yet to solidly establish himself as the orchestra’s public face. Sunday’s offerings were to include a Q&A with him, a highly regrettable missed opportunity to help build the sort of prominent presence his predecessor, Ludovic Morlot, had. Filling in as conductor (with, as of press time, no program changes) will be Xian Zhang, music director of the New Jersey Symphony. If her name sounds familiar, it’s because she led the group just about a year ago, in a program of Mozart, Beethoven and Still to open the “Seattle Symphony Live” streamed concert series.
Dausgaard has already put his mark on programming, though, opening the 2021-22 repertory considerably to music by women composers and composers of color. Two such gems are on the menu for Sunday’s free concert. Pulitzer Prize winner George Walker (1922-2018) was featured on the SSO’s most recent CD, released in March: his Sinfonia No. 5, his final work, completed in 2015. Sunday we’ll hear his captivating 1946 “Lyric for Strings,” his most often-performed work. Long-breathed and deeply emotive, it’s a cousin to Samuel Barber’s well-known “Adagio for Strings” (the two composers shared a teacher at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute).
The pathbreaking Amy Beach (1867-1944) was America’s most accomplished and prominent Romantic-era female composer, and Zhang will lead the second movement of Beach’s “Gaelic” Symphony (1896): a study in contrasting moods, alternating lilting, gently expressive sections and scampering, quicksilver ones. The standard-repertory work completing the program is a beloved orchestral showoff romp, Strauss’ “Don Juan.”
But the most anticipated work will be a repeat of Saturday’s world premiere by the SSO’s composer in residence, L.A.-based Indian American composer Reena Esmail. Her seven-minute “RE|Member” was intended, from the first, as a welcome-back piece — for 2020-21. It’ll be all the more poignant delayed a year.
“What was supposed to be excitement and possibility now carries so much more weight,” Esmail says on her website. “Imagining those first sounds [the audience] will hear gives me so much hope.”
Adding influences of Eastern color (drones and pitch-bending are frequent elements) to directly soulful lyricism has brought Esmail’s music a unique voice that’s made her one of today’s busiest composers. A woman conductor leading a brand-new work by a woman composer is still noteworthy and surprising for its unusualness — a rarer event than it ought to be. On the other hand, that Zhang and Esmail are becoming familiar faces in Benaroya Hall, spotlit in this free showcase, is a heartening indicator both of a slowly increasing gender equity in the orchestral world and of the SSO’s future plans.