In Seattle, Russian fare never quite takes flight

United StatesUnited States Scriabin, Stravinsky: Juliana & PAVA, Seattle Symphony Orchestra / Thomas Dausgaard (conductor), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 23.11.2019. (ZC)

Thomas Dausgaard, Juliana & PAVA, & the Seattle Symphony (c) Carlin Ma

ScriabinLe Poème de l’extase

StravinskyLe Sacre du printemps

It has been only a few months into Thomas Dausgaard’s tenure as music director of the Seattle Symphony, but even casual listeners can start to pick up certain qualities in his leadership. As a conductor, he excels in rich, late-Romantic works, and imbues this repertory with uncommon clarity, explosive energy, and musicality. He readily takes chances with tried and true symphonic works, and unusually, also willingly explores the underlying source material that inspired many of them.

For his most recent series, Dausgaard paired two Russian works — Scriabin’s Le Poème de l’extase and Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps — with an exploration of the latter’s origins. Scriabin’s opus is one of the supreme examples of late-Romantic orchestral style. Referred to in some circles as his ‘fourth symphony’, the piece is actually more like a twenty-minute symphonic poem. The work is based loosely on Scriabin’s own 300-line text that encapsulates both his unorthodox spirituality and mystical view of his own prophetic gifts. Even if this philosophy is hard to grasp, the rich orchestration, voluptuous phrases, and repetition of ideas are easy for an audience to appreciate.

Daugaard’s enthusiasm helped too. His animated style elicited ravishing orchestral color and exquisite, naturally ebbing phrases. Principal trumpet David Gordon and the orchestra’s brass were particularly excellent. Increasingly, the ensemble shows confidence with lush, enormous works that — based on the evidence of this season — will be a significant feature of future programs.

Before the intermission, the vocal group Juliana & PAVA joined the ensemble for an exploration of the Russian folk tunes that underlie key melodies in Le Sacre, Stravinsky’s most infamous creation. Audiences are familiar with the tumultuous Paris premiere, but they probably less aware of the primitive material that the composer borrowed. Dausgaard encouraged some back-and-forth with the orchestra and the vocalists, matching passages from the ballet with their antecedent folk songs. (Dausgaard used a similar tactic for Sibelius’s Kullervo, pairing snippets of the score with Finnish folk music.)

Hearing Stravinsky’s sketches juxtaposed with Russian folk songs was an interesting experience. But, as with the symphony’s Finnish exploration, the informative exploration quickly became tedious and lasted about ten minutes too long. Given that The Rite is a primal, vulgar ballet packed with energy, the exploration of Russian folk music ultimately became a diversion, dampening the impact of the complete work later.

Listeners of Dausgaard in Mahler, Strauss, and Nielsen would have high expectations for his interpretation. Yet Stravinsky’s masterpiece seemed anticlimactic, perhaps undone by too much thinking. Primitive, undulating passages in Part I — which normally captivate  —obscured the work’s earthy power. Meanwhile, Dausgaard’s roiling, violent Part II throttled the audience. In both, Dausgaard drew out fervent contributions from each section of the orchestra. But even with superb solos from principal bassoon Seth Krimsky and exceptional orchestral playing from the orchestra, cohesion never arrived. Was Dausgaard attempting to channel Currentzis, Rozhdestvensky, or Leonard Bernstein? Perhaps, though he left the impression that he simply could not decide on a point of view. No doubt that, when more decisiveness arrives, the orchestra will be up to the challenge.

Zach Carstensen

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