For the past week, Benaroya Hall has been the scene of a “Russian Spectacular” — a series of Slavic-accented Seattle Symphony programs led by conductor laureate Gerard Schwarz. Friday night’s concert, the second one devoted solely to the music of Shostakovich, proved spectacular indeed in every respect: the orchestra, the soloist, and the conductor.
The concert spanned Shostakovich at his jolliest, and at his most grimly uncompromising. The brief Festive Overture of Op. 96 may have been written partly as an expression of the composer’s joy at the death of his tormentor, Joseph Stalin, but the rest of the program was almost unremittingly serious.
The evening’s soloist was the young cellist Julian Schwarz, born in 1991 and currently a student at the Juilliard School. He also is the son of the conductor, but his performance of the difficult Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1 made it clear that this engagement was considerably more than an act of nepotism: This is a cellist who deserves to be heard on his own merits.
Those merits are substantial, and they include a stellar technique, a dark and burnished tone quality, a secure sense of intonation, and a passionate intensity of interpretation. The concerto’s heroic technical requirements, including extended passages in harmonics, were negotiated with apparent ease and accuracy, and it was evident that much thought and musicianship had gone into the details of interpretation. The performance was accorded an enthusiastic standing ovation.
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Bleak, powerful, and chilling, the Symphony No. 11 represents Shostakovich at his most uncompromising, as he depicts the events of the work’s subtitle (“The Year 1905,” when imperial troops slaughtered peaceful protesters in the St. Petersburg Palace Square). Dark, moody, and unsettling, the Symphony No. 11 is full of moments of impending doom, terrifying eruptions of percussion “gunfire,” menacing crescendos, eerie calm, and rhythmic martial passages. Gerard Schwarz developed each section with great patience and an inexorable forward momentum, drawing virtuoso playing from the orchestra (there were, however, some brass intonation issues). Stefan Farkas’ English horn solo was exceptionally fine. It was a thrill to hear this work, which truly deserves the term “spectacular,” performed at this level, and the audience left no doubt about its delighted reaction.
Melinda Bargreen also reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.