With Petrenko, Seattle’s Orchestra Shows Its Impressive Stride

United StatesUnited States Dukas, Sibelius, Prokofiev: Alexis Semenenko (violin), Seattle Symphony / Vasily Petrenko (conductor), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 16.2.2019. (ZC)

Vasily Petrenko (c) Mark McNulty

DukasThe Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Sibelius – Violin Concerto D minor, Op.47

Prokofiev – Symphony No.7 in C-sharp minor, Op.131

Vasily Petrenko’s recent performances with the Seattle Symphony are a good reminder of just how far the ensemble has come over the past decade. Petrenko would have been an unthinkable guest artist 10 years ago. At that time, the group was impressive for its region and competent in core repertory, but only occasionally capable of transformational experiences.

These days, however, the orchestra has achieved national and world renown. At most concerts, music director Ludovic Morlot and myriad global guest artists summon new insights. The orchestra has kept up a vigorous schedule in commissions — largely from emerging composers. An aggressive recording schedule has thrust the orchestra into the consciousness of music lovers near and far. And the accolades continue to pile up. Not long after the group was selected as Gramophone’s 2018 Orchestra of the Year, they celebrated another Grammy Award for their recording of Aaron Kernis’s Violin Concerto.

Against this backdrop of rapid transformation came Vasily Petrenko’s debut with the orchestra. Petrenko burst onto the classical music scene 13 years ago when he became music director of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic — a post also formerly held by Seattle’s music director emeritus, Gerard Schwarz. Shortly after taking up the Liverpool baton, Petrenko quickly embarked on a project with Naxos to record a Shostakovich symphony cycle. More recently, he was named incoming conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra after Charles Dutoit resigned in the wake of sexual harassment allegations.

Even though Petrenko’s choices for this program were standard, the results were breathtaking. Most listeners would immediately recognize The Sorcerer’s Apprentice for its famous appearance in the Walt Disney movie Fantasia. Petrenko steered a performance that was familiar, but fervent, its undulations, colors, and wild expressionism blazing through Benaroya Hall. The conductor’s close attention to the work’s programmatic origins — a poem by Goethe — fully conveyed both the narrative and Dukas’s playful, expressive, and intense interpretation.

Following this powerful opening came a moody reading of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto, which began with unsteady phrasing from violinist Alexis Semenenko. The composer’s works tend to unfold naturally, with ideas building upon one another. In this case, the violinist somewhat lurched from one rhapsodic passage to another, and the first movement lacked coherence and undermined the concerto’s atmosphere. But from the second movement on, he was steady and comfortable. Solid contributions from the orchestra’s woodwind and brass sections supported his elegant playing, and Petrenko emphasized the rhythmic force of the final movement. The heft of the low strings helped to underscore the violinist’s blazing solo work. Virtuosic embellishments are plentiful, and Semenenko tossed them off with technical prowess.

In Prokofiev’s final symphony, Petrenko mustered a dark, burnished sound from the orchestra in the wistful first movement, and eschewing nostalgia in the characterful second. The conductor played up the movement’s contradictions and highlighted Prokofiev’s wry humor. Here again, the woodwinds were exemplary. The final movement typified the orchestra’s discipline, as phrases passed easily through each section. Clarity was maintained throughout — so important with this composer — and Petrenko’s masterful guidance infused the results with Russian bite.

Zach Carstensen

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