McTee, Gerswin and Tchaikovsky in Seattle

McTee, Gershwin, and Tchaikovsky: Leonard Slatkin (conductor), Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano), Seattle Symphony, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 22.4.2011 (BJ)

There are masterpieces of undisputed greatness, and then there are works that have been too highly regarded over the years. Another way of designating the two categories might be: works that I happen to like, and works that I happen not to like.

Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony made the transition from the latter category to the former several decades ago, which is just another way of saying that I grew up. But wherever you stand on the matter, I doubt if there could be much disputing the highly favorable light in which this popular repertoire warhorse appeared when Leonard Slatkin and the Seattle Symphony played it the other day.

All the emotional range of the work was revealed in this eloquent performance, but so was all its symphonic cohesion, for Slatkin was at pains to emphasize the essential unity that undergirds its many characteristic, and often stunningly sudden, changes of mood. Thus what Tchaikovsky is too rarely given credit for – his mastery of form – was realized in equilibrium with his melodic charm and expressive range.

The orchestra was in fine fettle, whiplash sharp in ensemble, and there were beautifully phrased solos from all of the woodwind principals – Scott Goff, Ben Hausmann, Christopher Sereque, and Seth Krimsky – and from John Cerminaro in the luscious horn theme of the slow movement, while Michael Crusoe dispatched the important timpani part with aplomb. Other outstanding solo work was to be heard from frequent guest principal cellist Eric Gaenslen at the start of the program, which began with a substantial novelty in the shape of Double Play by Cindy McTee, who now lives in Texas but was born in Tacoma, in 1953.

Roughly 18 minutes long, and framed, as its title suggests, in two sections – The Unquestioned Answer and Tempus Fugit – the work was commissioned by the Detroit Symphony and premiered last year under Slatkin, who is that orchestra’s music director. I enjoyed the first few minutes a lot, tone ebbing and flowing with alluring color and a welcome freedom from nervous haste. But as the Ives-inspired first section and the more jazz-related second one continued, I found that pleasurable expectations fell somewhat short of being met in what followed. The faster passages were a little lacking in harmonic pulse – and, though the comparison may be unfair, Ms. McTee’s rather clotted writing for the massed brass choir had none of the airiness and transparency that Tchaikovsky draws from those same forces.

In the program’s centerpiece, the Gershwin Piano Concerto, Jean-Yves Thibaudet was a fluent and often brilliant soloist, and the orchestra under Slatkin supported him well, though there was a percussion rhythm at one point that didn’t seem quite to click. It was interesting to read in the program note Gershwin’s statement that, after accepting a commission for the work, he promptly acquired “four or five books on musical structure to find out exactly what the concerto form really was!” – interesting but also perhaps a shade revealing, in that his understanding of the genre was far from being profound or instinctive. And it didn’t really gain much from the educative effort, for almost all of the most musically satisfying effects and melodies in the work are assigned to the orchestra, which is surely a reversal of the concerto principle. It was left, then, to the supposedly structurally challenged Tchaikovsky to show us what musical form is really about.

Bernard Jacobson