Stepping out onto the Benaroya Hall stage with a cheery wave to his fans, Joshua Roman made a welcome return to the orchestra in which he once occupied the principal cello chair. Roman was a mere 22 then; now 30, he has gone on to a solo career that encompasses many directions, including composition and conducting.
Also among those directions: collaborations with the composer Mason Bates, whose Cello Concerto — in its world premiere — was the centerpiece of this program. In a remarkable feat of memory, Roman played the complicated solo part of this 25-minute work without a score, sounding perfectly at ease with the brand-new music.
Bates’ history in techno music is evident in the strong rhythmic pulse of the concerto, which culminate in a fast-moving “Leger” finale that starts off as a high-spirited jig and moves on to passages of phenomenal dexterity.
Composed in an audience-friendly tonal language with lots of intriguing percussion effects underlying the cello’s more lyrical voice, the new three-movement concerto relies rather heavily on a rising six-note theme that is stated in the opening and used frequently thereafter. There’s a sense of constant motion in that opening movement; it’s almost pictorial, like a John Williams film score. Bates is more convincing writing for percussion than for orchestral strings, but the orchestration wisely gives the soloist plenty of room to breathe (it’s easy for an orchestra to overpower a lone cello).
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Attractive and tonal, featuring a first-rate soloist, this was a premiere that an audience could really appreciate, and the standing ovation was so enthusiastic that Roman finally returned for a solo encore, the Prelude movement of the first Bach Cello Suite (the G Major). Its elegant, understated simplicity was a reminder — if one were needed — that Roman hasn’t forgotten the classics.
Conducting a world premiere, particularly a concerto, poses substantial challenges for any conductor. It was impressive to see the 28-year-old guest conductor Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla’s commanding take on the new Bates work, where she was so much at home that she glanced only occasionally at the complicated score. A bundle of barely suppressed intensity, Grazinyte-Tyla was an energetic whirlwind on the podium, not only in the concerto but also in the two Russian works that surrounded it: Prokofiev’s jaunty, colorful “Lieutenant Kijé” Suite, and a suite from Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty” (which the conductor compiled from the complete ballet score).
With a range of gesture that was both artful and expressive, Grazinyte-Tyla was riveting to watch, swooping her baton around her body, and cueing her players by thrusting an arm upward in a Statue-of-Liberty pose. The Lithuanian-born conductor is clearly a fast-rising star: this season she is both assistant conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and incoming music director of the Salzburg Landestheater.
It’s also clear that she is still learning, particularly in terms of orchestral balance: the orchestral accompaniment was too dense to allow an English horn solo through (in the Tchaikovsky), and brass chords drowned out key woodwind melodies. There were some uneven entrances. But Grazinyte-Tyla also sculpted some remarkable phrases and galvanized the orchestra with her tremendous energy.
The evening started with a heartwarming tribute to the orchestra’s bass clarinetist Larey McDaniel, who is retiring after an impressive 55 years in the Seattle Symphony clarinet section. Delivered by fellow clarinetist Laura DeLuca, the farewell hailed McDaniel’s many talents (from educational chamber-music tours to fine-art photography) and drew a warm ovation from the audience. It was a great community-building moment, uniting the orchestral “family” with the family of concertgoers on the other side of the podium.
Melinda Bargreen also reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.