Olari Elts Impresses in Return Engagement

United StatesUnited States Adams, Liszt/Adams, and Shostakovich: Olari Elts (conductor), Alexander Melnikov (piano), Seattle Symphony, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 30.1.2014 (BJ)

Adams: The Chairman Dances
Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No. 2
Liszt/Adams: The Black Gondola
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 9

Given the repertoire of this concert, it would have been inappropriate to expect the Estonian conductor Olari Elts to demonstrate the kind of subtle structural mastery that a symphony by, say, Brahms demands of its interpreters. Nevertheless I would wager, on the basis of an evening that marked a welcome advance on his debut here two years ago, that he would be fully able to meet such demands. Everything that the relatively straightforward Adams and Shostakovich scores required of him, he did with an impressive combination of clear beat, eloquent gesture, and expressive intensity, and the Seattle Symphony responded with precision and evident enthusiasm.

 Whoever it was that had the idea of putting the two pieces together, prefacing Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony with John Adams’s The Black Gondola turned out to throw a fascinating new light on the symphony. (Why “Black” Gondola, by the way? The title of the Liszt original effectively orchestrated by Adams is La lugubre gondola, and any number of possible translations of the adjective would be more appropriate than the somewhat irrelevant “Black.”) What the juxtaposition highlighted was the emotional transformation that the slowish second movement works on Shostakovich’s otherwise light-footed score, for it exploits a vein of impassioned, almost morbid introspection closely akin to the characteristically exploratory feeling of the late Liszt piece.

 Elts drew richly burnished tone from the orchestra’s eloquent strings in both pieces, and the brilliance of Shostakovich’s fast movements, by turns skittish and saturnine, benefitted from the contrast with the Moderato’s inwardness. There were stellar contributions from Seth Krimsky, Christie Reside, and Christopher Sereque on bassoon, flute, and clarinet. Zartouhi Dombourian-Eby’s piccolo also enjoyed a spectacular work-out, and in the first movement Ko-ichiro Yamamoto had fun with the trombone’s insistence on a mindlessly repeated little two-note figure that constantly threatens to interrupt the proceedings. Altogether, the performance vividly underlined the character of that first movement as, not the calm before the storm exactly, but rather the brave face that Shostakovich put on until he could ignore the demons no longer—a phenomenon of the Russian soul in the Soviet era that can be recognized by anyone who has happened on the unexpected parodistic humor of such a book as The Gulag Archipelago.

 The Chairman Dances, conceived by Adams in advance as part of his opera Nixon in China, emerged as one of the stronger elements in that rather over-rated work. Elts handled its fitful rhythmic dislocations effectively, and he was equally persuasive in support of the soloist in Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto. Here Alexander Melnikov, in his Seattle Symphony debut, impressed with crystal-clear finger-work, well-focused tone throughout, and suitably insouciant phrasing in the finale’s hectic dash to the finishing-post.

Bernard Jacobson