The Center Can Hold: Strong Strauss Surrounded By Weaker Works

Villa-Lobos, Strauss, and Prokofiev: Seattle Symphony musicians and guests, Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 22.4.2011 (BJ) 

At Benaroya’s Illsley Ball Recital Hall on 22 April, works by Villa-Lobos and Prokofiev served as prelude and postlude to a richly rewarding rarity. This was a relatively early work by Richard Strauss that even some very experienced concert-goers were hearing for the first time.

The String Trio by Heitor Villa-Lobos, played with evident devotion by violinist Mariel Bailey, violist Laura Renz, and cellist Bruce Bailey, proved instructive rather than revelatory. This is a piece made up of one idea after another, assembled without much evidence of that essential compositional gift, the art of transition.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of hearing it at this concert in the Seattle Symphony’s Musician Chamber Series was the opportunity of comparing its last movement with that of Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata No. 2, which the orchestra’s concertmaster Maria Larionoff and guest pianist Robin McCabe played with much skill and gusto. Both movements are founded largely on repeated-note figures. But whereas Prokofiev marshals his with a fair degree of variety, his maverick Brazilian near-contemporary hammers away at his rhythmic figures with tedious insistence. The result is a finale almost as banal as that of Schoenberg’s youthful and astonishingly inept D-major String Quartet.

The centerpiece of the program, Richard Strauss’ Violin Sonata, offered by far the evening’s most compelling musical experience. A relatively early work – he was 23 when he wrote it – it is already assured in technique and characteristic in style, looking forward at many points to the rapturous lyrical manner of the composer’s most popular operas, if less fully focused in melodic terms.

It’s by no means a repertoire piece, but it deserves to be, especially if it can be heard in performances as passionate and radiant as the one it received on this occasion. Associate concertmaster Emma McGrath’s artistry and technique are already familiar virtues, but Ben Hausmann’s abilities as a pianist were until now an unknown quantity for this listener. Admired by Seattle Symphony audiences as a gifted principal oboist (and, according to the biographical note in the program, also a composer and published poet who enjoys “yoga, cooking and learning to play the violin”), he displayed finger skills and general marksmanship of a high order.

Admittedly, Hausmann’s muscular, no-holds-barred approach to the keyboard necessitated some adjustments to the instrument’s tuning during intermission. But his was an entirely worthy contribution to a performance that brilliantly illuminated an alluring by-way in Strauss’ musical maturation.

Bernard Jacobson


A shorter version of this review appeared in the Seattle Times.