Danish Conductor’s Debut: Insight, Imagination and Sheer Skill

United StatesUnited States Musorgsky, Tchaikovsky, and Sibelius: Seattle Symphony, Thomas Søndergård (conductor), Efe Baltacigil (cello), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 7.10.2012 (BJ)

Musorgsky: Saint John’s Night on the Bare Mountain
Tchaikovsky: Variations on a Rococo Theme
Sibelius: Symphony No. 1

There are performances in which it seems, to put it bluntly, that nothing happens. It is a delight to hail what Thomas Søndergård achieved, in his Seattle Symphony debut concerts, as the diametric opposite of such non-events, including the travesty of Beethoven’s Second Symphony I once heard in which the rhythms chugged along devoid of any real pulse, and a Mahler Sixth, led by a very famous conductor, where themes meandered past without a smidgen of dynamic shading or expressive point.

By contrast with the perpetrators of such dismal exercises in dreary futility, this 43-year-old Danish maestro might well be described as “the real thing.” To every line and every paragraph in the three works on his program, he brought an unerring sense of artistic purpose, and the result was a concert at once inspired and inspiring.

With enormous physical elan, Søndergård wields a superb technique. His beat is clear and fluid, and his left hand, which clearly knows what his right hand is doing, consequently refrains from confusing duplication, instead concentrating properly on expressive shaping and dynamic emphasis.

But technique is only the beginning – the bedrock of interpretation. It was the vividness of instrumental tone-color, the rhythmic life, and the resourceful interplay of exuberance and restrained withdrawal the conductor drew from a clearly energized orchestra that made Musorgsky’s Saint John’s Night on the Bare Mountain, at the start of the program, so much more persuasive a piece than it usually sounds. (It helped that this performance was of the original version, innocent of the cosmetic prettifications that Rimsky-Korsakov, with the best of intentions, foisted on the music in the edition he prepared after the composer’s death.)

The principal work on the program under review was Sibelius’s First Symphony. Here too Søndergård’s combination of insight, imagination, and sheer skill fashioned a performance as powerful, dramatic, coherent, and downright beautiful as any I can recall hearing. The music itself is far better than many composers have managed in a first attempt at the symphonic form: in it you can hear, as it were newborn, characteristic Sibelian ideas that would be expanded in more polished but not necessarily more cogent form in the more often played Second Symphony.

Much depends, for a successful performance of No. 1, on how well the clarinet solo at the start is played. In these lugubrious and Tchaikovsky-ish lines, Christopher Sereque’s artistry was beyond praise, and from there to the work’s satisfyingly epigrammatic conclusion this was a performance of rich expressive character and brilliant execution. The first movement’s relatively unconventional structure was firmly delineated. The Andante was flawlessly paced, the scherzo – with incisive volleys from timpanist Michael Crusoe – buoyant and colorful, and the episodically built finale held together to good purpose.

Speaking of Tchaikovsky, the program’s concertante work was that composer’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, and here, along with sensitively nuanced support from Søndergård and the orchestra, we had the further pleasure of a soloist who stands on the same superlative artistic level as the concert maintained throughout. Efe Baltacigil, who was born in Istanbul, has been the Seattle Symphony’s principal cellist since the autumn of 2011. In this first major solo appearance with the orchestra, he showed himself to be an artist of phenomenal gifts.

The Rococo Variations can come across, and too often does, as a musically inconsequential – even a vulgarly sugary – piece. Baltacigil played it like chamber music, relishing the delicacy of many passages and also interacting charmingly with his orchestral colleagues, and the result was something of a revelation. His tone, while warm and impeccably focused, is not the biggest sound you will ever hear a cello produce – I wonder, by the way, what instrument he plays – but it is a tone that seems to hint at myriad levels of sound and meaning beneath the mere surface of the line.

What emerged was, to reverse the familiar phrase, a deeply rewarding esprit de jeu. Great music-making, then, in all respects.

Bernard Jacobson