It’s hard to stop writing superlatives for Seattle Symphony concerts these days. Each week sees another enlightening program, often unusual and new to us, performed by superb soloists and terrific conductors. Seattle Symphony principal guest conductor Thomas Dausgaard was on the podium last Thursday for the first of two weeks of concerts, directing a well-balanced program with a U.S. premiere by Scottish composer Helen Grime, Mendelssohn’s violin concerto with Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto, and Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 3.
Kuusisto played the Mendelssohn with great delicacy. Dausgaard used a reduced orchestra to accompany his violin, from which he drew a sound of extreme beauty with no apparent effort at all; it seemed that the violin was playing itself, that all Kuusisto had to do was touch the strings and the sound flowed out. (This was so clear that this listener found herself asking Who made this violin?, and looked it up in the notes to find that it is a Stradivarius.)
The instrument doesn’t have a big sound, but one that carries, thanks to its purity. Kuusisto used only light vibrato, and his musicianship and technique were evident in the ease with which he executed every note, all the fast runs and the expressiveness of this familiar work.
The audience showed deep appreciation of this less-is-more approach and gave him several standing ovations. He responded with an encore of a Finnish folk song, which he sang, accompanying himself, then translated with plucked strings, encouraging the audience to join in the nonsense refrain. At the end, he bowed, then had the violin make a bow.
Grime’s eight-minute “Snow: No 2 from Two Eardley Pictures” opened the program. The 36-year-old composer follows in the footsteps of predecessors who also have composed music inspired by visual scenes live or in paintings—Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Eardley’s paintings are often of stark Scottish landscapes. “Snow” is a musical description of a blizzard, with the snow swirling and beating down with force, and sometimes abating to a more gentle fall. Twittering high winds begin “Snow,” accented by trumpets, and this alternates with sudden more peaceful harmonies from the strings and equally suddenly rising again to more blasts from winds and brass. It’s an evocative work of substance, well presented by the SSO and worth more hearings to become more familiar with Grime’s musical ideas.
Last season, Dausgaard brought Seattle Nielsen’s fourth symphony, “The Inextinguishable,” which was embraced with enthusiasm by both orchestra and audience. This year, thanks to that response, he has brought the third. Nielsen, Denmark’s greatest composer, has not been heard here nearly as much as other towering Scandinavian composers such as Grieg and Sibelius, and his is a welcome voice. Nielsen’s harmonic and melodic language are distinctive and unmistakable. Like Berlioz, Copland or Bach, one has only to hear a few measures to know who the composer is.
Subtitled “sinfonia espansiva,” this is indeed an expansive, exuberant, work. Dausgaard, himself a Dane, conducted the large orchestra with dynamic energy and without a score, eliciting a rich, tapestried reading from the musicians. In the second movement, Nielsen adds a vocal timbre to the mix with serene wordless singing towards the end from a soprano (Esteli Gomez) and baritone (John Taylor Ward) who sang from the organ loft. Many musicians deserve kudos, but most of all the wind soloists, who did excellent work all evening.