Jonathon Heyward returns to the Seattle Symphony to lead impressive performances of Salonen and Dvořák

United StatesUnited States Smetana, Salonen, Dvořák: Nicolas Altstaedt (cello), Seattle Symphony Orchestra / Jonathon Heyward (conductor). Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 1.10.2022. (ZC)

Conductor Jonathon Heyward and cellist Nicolas Altstaedt © Z. Carstensen

SmetanaThe Moldau

Salonen – Cello Concerto

Dvořák – Symphony No.7

The most recent Seattle Symphony concert was once envisioned as a matchmaking session between rising maestro Jonathon Heyward and an orchestra in search of a new leader. In 2019, Heyward had made an impressive debut with the SSO. With youth on his side, a resume of lauded concerts and a taste for interesting repertoire, rumors swirled that Heyward could be a good fit. But after his return to Seattle had been planned, the Baltimore Symphony announced that Heyward would succeed Marin Alsop as its music director.

That may have changed the calculation behind Heyward’s return to the podium but not its tone or temper. As in his debut program with the Seattle Symphony – which blended Haydn and Holst with a new work by Hannah Kendall – Heyward mixed the familiar with the novel. In this case, the latter took the form of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Cello Concerto, performed with aplomb by German cellist Nicolas Altstaedt.

‘A bit like a comet’s tail’ is the way Salonen describes the opening movement and his enigmatic description of the piece contrasts sharply with experiencing it live in concert, where energy radiates off the stage and fills the performance hall. Set in three movements, the structure is familiar enough but belies a special intricacy that must be heard to be believed. An energetic opening movement precedes an introspective middle section that is rich with melodic lines for both the solo cello and the flute accompaniment. The fast-paced final movement is more reminiscent of many of the standards in the cello concerto repertoire.

The work oozes with Salonen’s distinctive musical mode of expression, which seems to draw heavily from the opulence of the late Romantic tradition. And yet, the concerto is a modern composition with modern sensibilities. The most apparent of these flourishes is Salonen’s careful deployment of recorded bits of music during the performance. In the second movement, short fragments played by Altstaedt were recorded ahead of time and broadcast on cue through speakers at the front of the stage. The effect is mesmerizing, creating overlapping waves of sound that give the impression of multiple cellists playing at once. These and other dramatic features imbue the work with curiosity and personality and, hopefully, ensure that it will be no stranger to performance halls around the globe.

The bookends of the concert were Smetana’s Moldau and Dvořák’s Symphony No.7, and both pieces were finely shaped with immaculately crafted phrasing. Heyward’s attentive care boosted the orchestra’s inner voices without sacrificing its heft, coaxing out an appealing, glowing sonority.  In fact, I can’t remember a time when the orchestra has sounded so three-dimensional. In recent years, the Seattle Symphony has vacillated between performances that seethe either with intensity or cool, analytical precision. Heyward’s skill at the podium served as a welcome reminder that nuance and energy are possible with the right music director.

If Heyward’s conducting lacked anything, it was momentum. Smetana’s work evokes a flowing river, while Dvořák’s Seventh – arguably his most ‘Brahmsian’ symphony – propels forward with Czech energy. With no rhythmic vitality, Heyward’s vision for these works bogged down in execution. But he is young enough that his conception of masterpieces will no doubt evolve with time.

The SSO’s season is off to a strong start with the help of musical partners like Heyward. He will soon be with the Baltimore Symphony where new adventures await, and audiences there will get to appreciate how his interpretations evolve and develop. In the meantime, I hope the Seattle Symphony brings him back for future engagements, regardless of who permanently takes up the post at Benaroya Hall.

Zach Carstensen

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