The Nov. 4 Seattle Symphony concert featured the debut of David Stock's "Blast!" and masterful playing by pianist André Watts on Beethoven's "Emperor" concerto.
Thursday’s Seattle Symphony concert featured not just one but two world premieres. James Yannatos’ “Ritual Images” was originally composed 36 years ago, but music director Gerard Schwarz was conducting the first performance of a recently revised version, and he prefaced it with one of the Gund/Simonyi Farewell Commissions created to honor the coming end of his tenure as music director.
It’s hard to know quite how new Yannatos’ revision of his “Ritual Images” may be, since my inquiries failed to discover how it differs from the original. Responding to the work as it now stands, however, I found its evocation of American life by way of a collage of cultural and musical images fitfully fascinating but ultimately unconvincing. When Charles Ives did this kind of thing, the controlled chaos he created was illuminated by the man’s sheer charm. But in “Ritual Images,” aside from a few witty touches, and one or two moments when the strings blossomed briefly into lyricism, charm was lacking, and so the total effect remained essentially chaotic.
David Stock’s “Blast!” opened the evening in more rewarding fashion. Stock, a former Seattle Symphony composer-in-residence, commands a style where apparent simplicity coexists with a high degree of technical sophistication. His 4-minute salute to Maestro Schwarz seems just as straightforward a celebration as its title suggests — yet the seemingly straightforward rhythms contrived to cheat expectation at every turn, and the result was great fun.
The orchestra played with gusto, and principal trombonist Ko-ichiro Yamamoto in particular had a ball with his jazzy slides. Debussy’s “La mer” was equally well done: Schwarz properly refrained from any attempt to romanticize this supremely unromantic seascape without figures, and the bass parts dramatized the sense of threat that underlies the ocean’s surface even at its most ostensibly tranquil.
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An evening of somewhat curious stylistic juxtapositions came to a nevertheless satisfying climax with Beethoven’s so-called “Emperor” concerto. The nickname is inauthentic, but André Watts does indeed rank as a sort of emperor among American pianists. It must be more than 40 years since I first heard him in the flesh, but his ability to produce tone at once incisive and singing even at the top of the keyboard has scarcely diminished over that span. This was a characteristically sensitive and sensible performance, free from any hint of self-indulgence at moments where many pianists pull the tempo about, and the audience responded with a well-deserved standing ovation.
Bernard Jacobson: firstname.lastname@example.org