Seattle’s University Symphony with Ives, Prokofiev and Nielsen

Ives, Prokofiev, and Nielsen: Jonathan Pasternack (conductor), Elisa Barston (violin), University Symphony, Meany Hall, Seattle, 10.5.2011 (BJ)

Following up on their splendid performance of Shostakovich’s Eleventh in February, Jonathan Pasternack and the University of Washington’s orchestra tackled another challenging symphony on 10 May, and once again emerged with enormous credit. Nielsen’s Fourth (my favorite among the composer’s symphonies, even though the Fifth is widely regarded as his greatest) is a test for any orchestra, with its tricky string writing, formidable solo and ensemble demands on wind and brass sections, a positively virtuoso duel for two timpanists, and with tremendous intensity demanded from all the players throughout.

As with that Shostakovich 11, Pasternack demanded utter commitment from his student instrumentalists, and Nielsen’s symphony packed as potent a punch in this performance as in any I can recall. Nor would the response to Nielsen’s often taxing technical requirements have disgraced a professional ensemble. To cite just one example, the exposed high note for all the violins – marked ffz – that ushers in the slow movement was beautifully in tune, and also lustrous in tone, as was the string playing from beginning to end

Lacey Brown and Brian Pfeifer had a grand time with their timpani duel in the finale. Pasternack overrode the score’s requirement of wide spatial separation for the two timpanists, presumably to facilitate more precise interaction between them; the effect was different from when the drums come at the listener from opposite sides of the orchestra, but it was not at all less thrilling.

The program, ending thus with Nielsen’s celebration of “The elemental Will of Life,” had begun with another, and very different, piece of musical philosophizing: Ives’s The Unanswered Question. It was followed by his similarly mysterious but much more folksy Central Park in the Dark, with which Ives originally paired it under the title Two Contemplations. Both pieces were well played, with assistant conductor Meena Hwang looking after ensemble – or rather the deliberate avoidance of it – at the back of the platform, and Matthew Frost posed the trumpet’s repeated questions with smooth assurance.

Between Ives’s and Nielsen’s explorations of the eternal verities, Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto furnished a virtuoso diversion. Perhaps less astringent in tone than his second essay in the genre, the work begins magically, with some fascinating polyphonic lines shared among the soloist and various woodwinds. After that, I fear, there is something of a decline in the level of inspiration, and some of the violin’s passage-work is fairly prosaic. But the evening’s soloist, Elisa Barston, brought her familiar fine technique and compelling musical imagination to its execution, and her performance, sympathetically partnered by Pasternack and the orchestra, offered considerable pleasure even to a curmudgeon like me.

Bernard Jacobson