Cubans Dance with Beethoven

United StatesUnited States Lecuona, Alén and Beethoven: Jennifer Bromagen (soprano), Sarah Mattox (mezzo-soprano), Stephen Rumph (tenor), Clayton Brainerd (baritone), Northwest Sinfonietta, members of Orquestra de Cámara Concierto Sur, Christophe Chagnard (conductor), Seattle Choral Company, PLU Choral Union, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 5.10.2010 (BJ)

Lecuona: La Comparsa (arr. Morton Gould)
Andrés Alén: Danzón Legrand
Beethoven: Symphony No. 9

It would have taken a more than ordinarily determined churl not to be moved and inspired by what happened in Benaroya Hall on the 5th of October under the auspices of the Northwest Sinfonietta. Musicians from Cuba sat down to play together with musicians from the United States – part of an initiative that grew out of the sister-city relationship between Tacoma and Cienfuegos.

The occasion was recognized by the presence of Washington’s Lieutenant Governor, Brad Owen (who took a turn on the podium, to conduct the US national anthem, quite respectably) and of a bevy of consuls and honorary consuls for Spain, Peru, El Salvador, and Mexico. Washington Governor Christine O. Gregoire, moreover, had issued a well-deserved proclamation designating 5 October as “Northwest Sinfonietta Day.”

The music? Well, there could hardly have been a more apposite choice to celebrate the concept of human brotherhood than Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, whose choral finale addresses the subject directly. But also, in honor of the occasion, Christophe Chagnard conducted some pieces by Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona, La Comparsa, in Morton Gould’s arrangement, proving the slinkily seductive gem of the three. And one of the eight participating members of Cienfuegos’s Concert Chamber Orchestra of the South, violist Jesús Manuel Carnero de la Teja, stepped up to conduct a rousing performance of Andrés Alén’s Danzón Legrand.

The Beethoven after intermission had plenty going for it too, though I thought it a mistake to leave the entry of the soloists, the chorus, and even some orchestra members until the midpoint of the symphony – are they not, after all, part of the performance? Certainly there was spirited singing by Freddie Coleman’s Seattle Choral Company, Richard Nance’s PLU Choral Union, and the talented group of soloists named above to be enjoyed. But it might not be unfair to suggest that two simultaneous performances of this summit of Beethoven’s symphonic output were taking place.

Audience involvement is an essential element in any symphonic performance. On this occasion, after two cleanly and convincingly played movements, the rest of the performance seemed to me to split the obvious performer-listener symbiosis in two.

The slow movement was denatured by a lack of weight in the orchestra’s usually cultivated string tone. Much orchestral detail, especially from the horns, was lost in the textural shuffle. Intonation was less than immaculate. And in the intrinsically breathtaking finale, where the big double fugue seriously taxed choral intonation, some of the tempos were so frenetic as to allow neither the singers nor the orchestra time to articulate their parts effectively (except for fine oboe solos by Shannon Spicciati and some crisp work by Wendy Wilhelmi on the piccolo).

As a result, for those in the audience familiar with the symphony, memory and imagination had to fill in the gaps of execution. Newcomers to the Ninth, meanwhile, must wait for another performance in order to experience it fully, though there was enough honest music-making going on, and enough sheer visceral excitement in play, to provide a lot of pleasure, as acknowledged by a rapturous standing ovation at the concert’s end.

Bernard Jacobson

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