Review: Osmo Vänskä, Pianist Simon Trpčeski and the Seattle Symphony


I give the Seattle Symphony high marks for creative and adventuresome programming. The March 24 program was a case in point. Two of the featured composers were Russian, though placing Tchaikovsky’s floridly romantic and over-popular First Piano Concerto against Prokofiev’s bitingly austere and rarely heard Symphony No. 6 on each side of the intermission mostly emphasized the aesthetic gulf between them. But opening the program with the sharply contemporary “Of Rats and Men” by Korean composer Donghoon Shin was an instance of odd bedfellows that, through Osmo Vänskä’s presence as the guest conductor, curiously rested comfortably together.

The American premiere of Donghoon Shin’s “Of Rats and Men” turned out to be a bracing way to begin the concert.  Based on two short stories, Franz Kafka’s “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk” and Roberto Bolaño’s “Police Rat,” the work’s two brief and linked movements purport to explore social dislocation through a pair of metaphorical rodents. The work is not narrative driven, relying rather on atmospheric musical effects that strive for a Kafkaesque irony and Bolaño savagery. The harmonies and structure are amorphous, a cushion of string clusters out of which rise pointed wind solos representing the protagonists.

These figures were well defined by Ben Hausmann’s wiry oboe for Kafka’s singing mouse Josephine and Luke Fieweger’s wily bassoon for Bolaño’s edgy Rat Cop Pepe. To my ears, the work’s effect depended too much on obvious instrumental scurrying and squealing that worked against the bleakness of the narrative. Vänskä’s affection for the piece was evident from the rhythmic tautness and chamber-music clarity he pulled from the reduced ensemble.

I wish that tautness and clarity had carried over to the concerto that followed it. Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto is, of course, a romantic and popular work, more so now since the work’s thematic material was inspired by Ukrainian folk melodies. It requires of its soloist a balance between closely juxtaposed thundering virtuosity on the one hand and utmost delicacy of touch on the other.

The Macedonian pianist Simon Trpčeski, returning to Seattle where he had his American debut, is a master of both, whether he is pounding out precise cascades of double octaves or lingering over a subtle melodic phrase. Trpčeski built excitement in the grand and familiar arpeggiated chords that open the work. It was even more impressive in the soft but turbulent passages where his gentleness of tone drove the phrases forward with a keen intensity.

That intensity often led Trpčeski toward a broad freedom in tempo variation even within a phrase. That stylistic ebb and flow suits Tchaikovsky’s mercurial emotional bent but it can be the very devil to accompany.  Transitions between Trpčeski and Vänskä occasionally wavered on the edge. Indeed, the work itself got off to a shaky start with an ungainly crack in the horns during the famous opening motif. At times Trpčeski’s tonal presence was engulfed by the rich cushion of sound generated by the full (perhaps too full?) complement of strings that wrapped about him on both sides of the stage and from which his themes struggled to emerge.

The performance ended with a roller coaster rendition of the finale where it felt that at any moment the coordination between orchestra and the frenetic playing of the soloist might send the whole thing off the rails. It didn’t, fortunately, and the result was uneasily exciting in a white-knuckle sort of way, perhaps not in the way the composer intended. To me, the transcendent parts of this performance were not in popular virtuosic fireworks, but in the elegiac passages in the second movement where Jeffrey Barker’s ethereal flute solo melded exquisitely with Trpčeski’s elegantly echoing reply.

As if to emphasize Trpčeski’s compelling skill in intimate passage work, he chose as an encore to perform a section from Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Trio in A minor” with concertmaster Noah Geller and principal cellist Efe Baltacigil. It was lovely, sublime restorative after the sonic storm that preceded it and, for me, the most magical portion of the program.

I cannot disagree with the audience’s roaring their adoration for Trpčeski after the concerto’s final dazzling cadenza, but I would have far preferred to hear him and Vänskä in, say, Prokofiev’s demanding and equally splendid First Piano concerto instead.  

If I had concerns about Vänskä’s control in the Tchaikovsky, they were swept away by his fine rendition of Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 6, which filled the second half of the program. Conceived as a dark remembrance of the horrors Russia endured throughout the Second World War and composed during a time when the composer was in serious physical decline, it is a daunting work. Originally praised at its Leningrad premiere in 1948, the 6th was quickly condemned as “contrived chaotic groanings” under the feared Zhdanov Doctrine which put future performances and Prokofiev’s very existence in real peril.   

Its three lengthy movements are theatrically somber, harmonically daring, orchestrally dense, and a challenge to hold together. Vänskä, the longtime Finnish conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra, kept these clashing forces admirably balanced throughout, leavening them with a tonal richness and internal clarity that comes from his years mastering Mahler’s similar 6th symphony. The march rhythms were steady and resolute. The brass had bite, their swooping crescendos full of menace, with John Di Cesare’s tuba lending a engagingly grotesque underpinning. The treacherously high string work in the central Largo, reminiscent of the unbearable wailings in Prokofiev’s magnificent ballet “Romeo and Juliet,” had a searing sense of lamentation and loss.

I would have preferred more presence to the exotic piano and celeste colorings in the orchestral texture, and Vänskä’s interpretation could have benefitted from a Shostakovich-like snarl in the bitter dance rhythm. Yet there was an appealingly nervous joy in the Vivace finale, particularly in the hearty punctuations from timpanist Eric Schweikert. The symphony came to a satisfyingly visceral crash in the concluding dissonant chords, which Prokofiev described as “questions cast into eternity.” For Prokofiev, memories of the “Great Patriotic War” were not all grand and glorious.  

Ironically, Prokofiev and Stalin died on the very same day and Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 6 was cautiously reintroduced back into the repertoire. Performances of it continue to be rare. So, it was a great pleasure to hear Vänskä  and the Seattle Symphony tackle this formidable masterpiece in a performance worthy of its grandeur.

Theodore Deacon
Theodore Deacon
Theodore Deacon writes about music for Opera Magazine, was General Artistic Director of the U.W. Opera Department, and has taught music history, stagecraft, aesthetics, opera workshop, music theatre.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Comments Policy

Please be respectful. No personal attacks. Your comment should add something to the topic discussion or it will not be published. All comments are reviewed before being published. Comments are the opinions of their contributors and not those of Post alley or its editors.