An Uncommonly Impressive Debut for David Afkham

United StatesUnited States Mozart, Britten, and Beethoven: Gautier Capuçon (cello), Seattle Symphony, David Afkham (conductor), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 21.3.2013 (BJ)

Mozart: Overture to Don Giovanni
Britten: Symphony for Cello and Orchestra
Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C minor

It was clear from the very first notes of Mozart’s Don Giovanni overture that David Afkham, leading the Seattle Symphony for the first time in this concert, is the real deal. This is the year of the German conductor’s 30th birthday, but he is already widely spoken of as young man of enormous promise, and his performances demonstrated a talent that amply justified that reputation.

The Mozart work was expressive in its slow introduction, and then stylishly fleet, with a lightness of texture and articulation that never degenerated into superficiality. Afkham’s technique was a pleasure to watch, the beat crisp, the left hand—with a particularly eloquent little finger!—not slavishly mirroring the right, but reserved mostly for expressive moulding. And the resultant sound was an equal pleasure to listen to.

One strength evident throughout the evening was the conductor’s ability to draw really quiet playing from the orchestra. This led to some arresting effects in Benjamin Britten’s Symphony for Cello and Orchestra, where Jonathan Karschney, playing first horn here and in the Mozart, accomplished some quite remarkably delicate solos.

The Symphony—deliberately not labeled “Concerto” on account of its highly original form—is a curious piece, not on the face of it very Brittenish. This is gnarly, rhetorical music, texturally fragmentary for much of its length, until the closing Passacaglia warms the emotional temperature. But then, there’s a lot of such introverted darkness beneath the surface in other, ostensibly sunnier, Britten works.

In this piece, much of Britten’s writing for the wind instruments, and even for the strings, in uncompromisingly clangorous, and Afkham responded with appropriately hard-edged attacks and firmly sustained sonorities. The solo part incorporates many telling pizzicato effects, including some where the strings are not so much plucked as tickled. Gautier Capuçon played it all superbly, though visually it was hard to banish memories of Rostropovich from my mind, the piece having been written so much under the impression of the great Russian’s playing and his stage manner.

Then, after intermission, there was the small matter of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, a supreme peak for any young conductor—indeed, any conductor—to scale. Afkham’s account was something of a revelation. It made most performances of the work that one routinely hears seem merely generic. This is a conductor who can read music. “Well, of course he can—he’s a conductor,” you may protest. But it’s astonishing how many conductors, including very famous ones, distort the relationship between the two recurring fermatas in the first movement’s main theme, the second always written longer than the first, and how many also ignore Beethoven’s clear intention (shown in his metronome marks) that the finale should be a little slower than the scherzo.

Afkham got all this right. There was, too, a lightness yet also a seriousness about the performance, often laying bare vistas that made even so familiar a piece sound thrillingly new. The second movement, taken at a very fluent pace, was airy in texture, and the finale, instead of being portentous, actually sang. The string sound, again, was at once light and firm. There were splendid contributions from Ben Hausmann’s oboe and Demarre McGill’s flute, and Zartouhi Dombourian-Eby phrased the skirling upward scales on the piccolo with a rare detached clarity.

Did the conductor add piccolo to parts of the first movement? Perhaps my ears deceived me; but if he did do that, it was a venial sin. Altogether, an uncommonly impressive local debut.

Bernard Jacobson

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