Tianyi Lu leads the Seattle Symphony in well-honed performances of Strauss and Mendelssohn

United StatesUnited States Fisher, Mendelssohn, Strauss: Arabella Steinbacher (violin), Seattle Symphony / Tianyi Lu (conductor). Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 16.02.2023. (ZC)

Tianyi Lu conducts the Seattle Symphony © Brandon Patoc

Salina Fisher – ‘Tupaia’
Mendelssohn – Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op.64
StraussAus Italien, Op.16

At just twenty-two, Richard Strauss made the bold decision to shift his compositional focus away from traditional forms such as symphonies. Around the same time, heeding the advice of Johannes Brahms, Strauss traded in his cold, North-European surroundings for the temperate climate and impetuous lifestyle of Italy, where inspiration struck.

It was there that Strauss composed Aus Italien, which broke away from the two conservative symphonies he had produced to date. Each of the piece’s movements is programmatic, foreshadowing many of Strauss’s future works, including Don Juan, his first ‘hit’. However, Aus Italien still adheres to a traditional, symphonic structure in four movements, with the tone and temper of the German symphony.

Yet, Aus Italien is neither a tone poem nor a symphony. It is a musical missing link of sorts, connecting the old with the new, and it was the work that conductor Tianyi Lu featured in her recent visit to the podium with the Seattle Symphony. Lu is the latest in a series of guest conductors to visit Seattle, many of whom, like her, are in the early stages of promising international careers. In 2020, Lu won first prize at the Sir Georg Solti International Conducting competition, and engagements in Norway and the United Kingdom soon followed.

Lu’s Aus Italien brought out the best in this piece, with poised, pleasing, rounded phrases. I was reminded a few times that not so long ago the Seattle Symphony had the reputation of being a reliable Strauss and Wagner orchestra – maybe not with the same heft or muscle of European counterparts, but definitely with the bravado necessary to stir the audience. It was a pleasant reminder.

In the first half of the program, Lu paired Mendelssohn’s familiar Violin Concerto in E minor with ‘Tupaia’, a recent composition by her fellow New Zealander, Salina Fisher. ‘Tupaia’ draws from the legacy of the eponymous Tahitian navigator who explored the Pacific, mapped islands and facilitated contact with Captain James Cook. Much like Debussy’s La Mer and John Luther Adams’s Become Ocean, Fisher’s work captures the essence of the sea and sky with undulating string figures and sparkling percussion, albeit without overt sea or wave motifs. It was a pleasant surprise. Both the piece and the composer were new to me, and it left me thinking of all the ways oceans, rivers and nature could be incorporated into a season-long exploration.

Violinist Arabella Steinbacher joined Lu and the orchestra as soloist for the Mendelssohn concerto. This work hardly needs an introduction: justly famous, it is packed with melody, continuously flowing over the stage’s edge. Steinbacher played with immaculate care and an always discernible, delicately delivered solo line. She felt every moment and, with the direction of Lu and support from the orchestra, it was great to hear this masterpiece bookended by less familiar works.

The concert had been high on my list for Aus Italien alone. But Lu’s skill at the podium made the whole evening memorable. With the Seattle Symphony still searching for a conductor, I can’t help but wonder what she could do with the orchestra on a permanent basis.

Zach Carstensen

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