SSO Delivers Stellar Stravinsky, Shostakovich

Thursday night, Benaroya Hall saw the Seattle Symphony’s first performance in 32 years of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 4, paired with his compatriot Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms.” Both works were composed in the 1930s and are different in every way, except that each composer was a master of musical coloration, and both works use a plethora of wind and brass instruments.

“Psalms” is tightly composed, taking not much more than 20 minutes to say plenty. Stravinsky includes voices singing in Latin, and in this performance SSO music director Ludovic Morlot chose to have the Northwest Boychoir trebles on risers one side of the stage, and the men of the SSO Chorale on the other. In between, the big wind and brass sections—minus clarinets—sat across the back, two pianos and percussion at the left, with cellos and basses—no violins or violas—to the right.

The first two sections are quite brief: the first had the sense of prayer, anxious and beseeching, which befit the words from Psalm 38 (helpfully given in the program), the second, with words from Psalm 39, sounded more serene, calmer, including a long and beautiful section with just a few winds, particularly the flutes. It grew gradually with more instruments to a feeling of gathering community. Morlot did a masterly job of bringing out the emotions Stravinsky portrayed. Many groups perform this with women’s rather than boys’ voices but it made a difference not just to the timbres but to the sense of the work.

The last movement, far longer, includes the entire Psalm 150. This is a wildly joyful psalm, but Stravinsky chose to make it more somber, more solemn, as if the awed singers are making a serious commitment to disseminate the need to praise God, even though they get quite excited about it. The low strings anchor the performance.

Morlot married the many elements into a complete and moving whole. The winds and brass became the most prominent instruments in the work and did a superb job, notably flutist Jeffrey Barker.

The concert, and perhaps this work in particular, was dedicated to the memory of Dr. Alexander Clowes, a major symphony supporter in word and deed who died last June 7.

Shostakovich’s symphony could not be more different. It’s a fairly early work, written in his late 20s, and owes a debt to Mahler, whose influence is pervasive throughout.  Big, brash, sprawling, bumptious, very much a work of youth, the composer was completing his symphony when his opera Lady Macbeth of Minsk was panned severely by the Communist Party. Possibly fearing that he might be banished to Siberia (if not worse) for this work, he withdrew it and it didn’t receive its premiere until 25 years later.

Everything about it is unusual as symphonies go. Sixty-five minutes long, it has two large outer movements with a tiny one in between. The startling opening has a shrill and persistent xylophone, short sharp beats, continuing with brass blasts and more. There’s no real shape to the first movement but it is fascinating in its changes, colors and ideas tumbling over each other to get out. The entire work has Mahlerian glimpses to it, though the work is in no way derivative. It sounded at times exhilarating, pulsing with energy, the sound of the cuckoo joining in, sometimes dance-like, rarely peaceful, occasionally total cacophony, with subtle changes in mood and colors. Shostakovich uses the winds extensively but particularly the bassoons. Principal Seth Krimsky’s work was prominent throughout and he received a well-deserved solo ovation at the end. Morlot rang the gamut from quiet moments to a Benaroya floor shaking with the furor from the stage, one of the only fortissimos this loud this critic has ever heard him demand from the musicians.

It’s a work no orchestra not first class should tackle. The Seattle Symphony and all the wind extras who came into join it did splendid work, bringing unflagging energy and skill to this long work. Morlot directed brilliantly. At the end, the orchestra would have awarded him a solo bow, but he refused, turning to giving credit to many solo wind and brass players and bowing only with the whole orchestra behind him, to great applause from the audience.

The concert is performed again on Saturday night.