The Seattle Symphony in Nature


What I most appreciated about Seattle Symphony’s recent performance (April 28) was how beautifully balanced and unified it was in theme and stylistic approach. Its program of Salina Fisher’s mesmerizing Rainphase, Benjamin Britten’s dynamic Four Sea Interludes from “Peter Grimes,” and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ haunting Sinfonia Antartica (Symphony No. 7) all stemmed from their composers’ aims to suggest nature itself through imaginative use of melodic contours and orchestral color. 

None of these works is “symphonic” in the traditional sense of working out motifs in a progressively structural manner. But each creates “soundscapes” that effectively evoke ideas of rain, fog, wind, and the sheer terror of a forbidding environment.

It is a tall order for a conductor to mold these aural images together while driving them forward and keeping the audience’s interest. This the guest conductor from New Zealand, Gemma New, did brilliantly, with a fine ear for balancing orchestral texture with dramatic flow. Her baton style was well suited to the task –  full of broad and fluid motions that often had her criss crossing her arms while teasing out nuances, very redolent of that old wizard Stokowski at his flamboyant best.

New’s expressive beat was at its best in the opening piece Rainphase, composed by fellow New Zealander, Salina Fisher. This musical description of a rainstorm, from first drops to downpour, recalled Beethoven’s similar passage in his Pastoral Symphony but with a shimmering, impressionistic aura full of glistening string glissandos and col legno tappings (using the wood rather than the hairs of their bows). Particularly striking was the composer’s imaginative use of percussion, especially the bowed cymbals and swirling brush strokes on bass drum that added an underlying feel of wafting air currents. 

Little motifs are discernable, but they were largely subsumed in the velvety miasma of the orchestral texture. This rich cushion of sound could easily have mushed into a soporific “white noise,” but New kept the gentle tension flowing, building carefully towards a rich, shimmering deluge that eased back comfortingly into a quiet, satisfyingly ambiguous ending. It is an exquisite, tranquil portrait of a shower that, at a compact 10 minutes, felt just long enough.

Like Fisher’s piece, Britten’s Four Sea Interludes that followed are full of innovative onomatopoeic nature effects. Culled from his operatic masterpiece Peter Grimes (which, alas, Seattle Opera has done just once its 60 seasons), the invocations of fog at dawn, glittering Sunday morn, moonlit waves at night, and raging tempest over the sea are the brilliantly dramatic connecting tissue that sets each scene of a tragedy in a small English borough. 

Britten extracted them from the drama and rearranged their order to give a semi-symphonic shape for the concert hall. A conductor needs to find a way to show how each of these segments logically lead one after another. Conductor New needed to allow a bit more space between these sections to settle each distinctive tint before moving on to the next contrasting scene. Nor did New’s sweeping beat, apt for the Fischer, suit Britten’s leaner, edgier timbre and rhythms. 

New captured the melancholy of the flute and violin seabird flutterings and the undulating harp and clarinet arpeggios in the opening “Dawn” winds, but off-beat bell clamor of horns and winds at Sunday Morning and the braying elemental terror of the brass during the Storm lacked that needed edge of punch and precision. Was it the sheer size of the string section spread across the stage that dampened the rhythmic sharpness of Britten’s more acerbic sound, something that the closeness and reduced numbers of an opera’s pit band might have overcome? 

It was a connection to dramatic historic events that shaped the performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia Antartica, which was the sole work after intermission. The musical material that was the foundation of this work, designated as Symphony No. 7, came from the composer’s background score for the 1948 film Scott of the Antarctic (with a superb John Mills in the title role) which told the story of the heroically disastrous 1913 Terra Nova Expedition to the South Pole of Captain Robert Falcon Scott.

Not surprisingly, the Symphony pulled out all the dramatic stops. Before each movement the popular Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd read, with engaging nobility and humor, excerpts from Scott’s celebrated journal of the event. Stunningly beautiful photographs of the actual event by Herbert Ponting were projected above the orchestra, perfectly timed to follow the rise and fall of the music with a bit of Ken Burns-ish zooming and panning. It was dazzling to watch and movingly presented. The audience clearly and rightfully loved the show.

But did this “show” serve Vaughan Williams’ purpose in composing the work? Vaughan Williams had started composing the music before the film was completed, with strong feelings that he would use the material later in another form. And while themes and orchestral effects from the “film score” are recognizable in the “symphony,” they are ultimately separate works. The composer did include superscriptions for each movement in the score, one from Scott’s diary, the rest from Shelley, Coleridge, Donne, and Psalm 104, but he made clear that they were only to be printed in the program and then contemplated by the audience as the music played. 

In this performance those movements were interrupted by Gruffudd’s amusing recitations of Scott’s delight over local wildlife, and the photo of the great explorer communing with an inquisitive penguin was a delightful distraction. But it was a distraction, and I struggled throughout to refocus my attention back to Vaughan Williams’ extraordinarily innovative score. 

New’s interpretation of the score, when I could concentrate on it, was very fine. Her pace of the opening and concluding marches perfectly tempered the heroic tread of the main theme with the modal melancholy of its rising melody. The eerie combination of Li-tan Hsu’s piano, Valerie Muzzolini’s harp, and Mike Werner’s xylophone emerged with icy clarity. The nostalgic poignancy of Mary Lynch VanderKolk’s oboe solo in the third movement was profoundly heartbreaking. 

I would have preferred that the unnerving vocal melismas that frame the symphony had come from a distance — backstage or the upper tier — as Vaughan Williams had indicated, but Jennifer Bromagen’s soprano solos were so solid and pure-toned that the effect was magical. Too many of these impressive orchestral moments were overshadowed by the narrative and visual spectacle that loomed over it. If you really want the story, rent the film. 

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.


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