The Seattle Symphony has experienced a Danish invasion on its podium in the past several weeks – first with conductor Thomas Dausgaard, in a cycle of all Sibelius' seven symphonies that positively riveted the Benaroya Hall audiences. Those March concerts were succeeded only a week or so later by two performances of a very fine program featuring another Dane named Thomas – Søndergård, this time – on April 2 and 4. If these concerts didn't have the "wow" factor of Dausgaard's electrifying Sibelius, the program of Szymanowski, Chopin, and Prokofiev still offered many musical rewards.
Chief among those was pianist Ingrid Fliter's performance of the second of Chopin's piano concertos, the No. 2 in F Minor. This virtuoso piece – the score is a positive forest of black notes – emerged under Fliter's fleet fingers with a beautiful transparency, clarity, and evenness. The opening of the second movement, a Larghetto, was almost magically delicate. Elsewhere in the score, Fliter demonstrated a tremendous variety of phrasing and articulation, all in service of the music, which was by turns powerfully assertive or as soft-focused as a floating cloud. Only a very minor, almost unnoticeable lapse in the final movement suggested that Fliter is actually mortal.
She's certainly not a household name, though Fliter's Gilmore Artist Award credentials (she won in 2006) tell music lovers that this Argentinean pianist is admired for her artistry as well as her competition-winning fingers. Here's hoping she will be back in Seattle soon.
On the podium, Søndergård was a supportive concerto accompanist, and an assertive leader in the Szymanowski "Concert Overture" and Prokofiev Symphony No. 5. One rather odd quirk of this former timpanist was his habit of aiming the majority of his conducting activity directly at the violins, no matter what was going on elsewhere in the orchestra. He turned to his left to conduct them even when the celli had the same melody two octaves lower, or sometimes when there were significant solo passages elsewhere in the orchestra.
The 45-year-old maestro, who has held conducting posts in Norway, Wales, and Scotland, gave the seldom-heard Szymanowski piece a terrific energy in all its upward-swooping lines (some of them reminiscent of Richard Strauss' tone poems).
In the Prokofiev Fifth, Søndergård was clear about what he wanted from the orchestra – music on a grand scale, with huge contrasts and sharply characterized lines, and a propulsive energy in the fast movements that got positively raucous in the final Allegro giocoso.
After Dausgaard and Søndergård, local music lovers may well conclude (with apologies to "South Pacific") that for symphony programs, there is nothing like a Dane!
The submission deadline for KING FM's Young Artist Awards Competition is 6am on Monday, April 6, 2015. Enter here.
The first time I was asked to join the judging panel for the Classical KING 98.1 FM Young Artists Awards Competition, I accepted – with a few misgivings. Would I have to listen to performance after performance of widely varying quality? Might there be lots of “not quite ready for prime time” talent? Many well-meaning and hopeful but unready young players?
Imagine my surprise and delight when I heard an array of performances so excellent that it was excruciatingly difficult to single out the finalists. The level of talent was so high that hearing these gifted, excited young musicians practically lifted me out of my chair. I went back again and again to watch the video clips of the best ones, in a quandary of indecision. This one was so technically polished – but that one was so lyrically inspired! Or how about the one whose obvious nerves almost obscured a fleet-fingered finesse that still managed to shine through in the performance?
For listeners, it’s a simple matter: outstanding young performers thrill music lovers and give them hope for the future of the art we all love. Especially in a field where there are perpetual warnings about the “greying of classical music,” it is heart-warming to realize that the ranks of great performers are constantly being renewed. (And on that former subject: four decades ago, when I started reviewing classical events in Seattle, a common lament here and elsewhere was that the classical audience members were mostly middle-aged and older, and soon there would be no one left in the concert halls. Wrong!)
Here are a few more reasons – besides the entertainment and inspiration of the audiences! – that young artist competitions are important.
1. Young musicians need goals. Knowing that a competition lies ahead, in which one’s musical mettle will be thoroughly tested, is an inspiration to practice diligently and to make the most of one’s talent.
2. Competitions are wonderful practice for live performance, and help to promote a valuable skill set: learning to focus, learning to control nerves, learning to truly master the competition music and to present oneself confidently.
3. Matching up one’s talent against the achievement of others is a great motivator (“I’ve got to practice really hard so I can be as good as this fine player, or better!”).
4. Competing alongside gifted peers is also an excellent way to take stock: How am I doing? Have I improved? Am I reaching a level where my goals of a life in music are possible? How do I stack up against other musicians my age? This is the best possible way to find out.
5. Competitions can give a young player excellent feedback. It’s one thing to hear what your teacher thinks; what about comments from judges and other people who hear your performance?
6. A young artist competition teaches musicians how to audition, and gives them practice for those upcoming college/conservatory auditions. You’re already performance-ready on your competition repertoire, and that can be a huge advantage.
7. Finally, the competition can make you famous! Winners of Classical KING FM’s fourth annual Young Artist Competition will not only perform live on the radio (which means not only the local listeners but also your great-uncle in Tokyo or your college friend in Iceland can also tune in via www.king.org). They’ll also have several live performance opportunities around the area (last year’s winners were heard in recital during the prestigious Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Summer Festival).
So performers, on your marks – and listeners, get ready for a new array of talent. Let the fourth Classical KING FM Young Artist Awards Competition begin!
Seattle is in the middle of a veritable Finn-fest this week and next. And for fans of Sibelius’s music, it’s a wonderful time to be in this city, where all seven of the Finnish master’s symphonies are being performed through March 28 by the Seattle Symphony under the dynamic direction of Thomas Dausgaard.
Classical KING FM 98.1 listeners will get a huge Sibelius bonanza, too, on March 29 when all the composer’s symphonies will stream in a 24-hour marathon on the Symphonic Channel. Don’t forget to tune in!
But that’s not all. In celebration of Sibelius’ 150th birthday, three generations of the composer’s family have been in Seattle for this festival of “Luminous Landscapes: The Sibelius Symphonies”-- including pianist Ruusamari Teppo (Sibelius’ great-great-granddaughter), who has been performing in seven “Jewels of Sibelius” chamber programs in area schools.
In Benaroya Hall, Dausgaard – the Seattle Symphony’s principal guest conductor – has been lighting a fire in the orchestra, whose players seem unusually inspired by his tremendous enthusiasm and his fresh interpretations of this repertoire. The opening concert, featuring Sibelius’s first two symphonies and the majestic symphonic poem “Finlandia,” was met with rapt attention, standing ovations, and loud cheering.
In an interview after the first of the Seattle Symphony concerts on March 12, Dausgaard discussed his long-term fascination with Sibelius ever since discovering the Finnish master’s music as a teenager. So deep is his knowledge of the seven complicated symphonies that he will probably conduct all three concerts without a score. Dausgaard has made an extensive study of the folk and church music influences on Sibelius’ compositional style. He has even seen the stove in which the composer, whose pen grew silent in last years, burned the manuscript of what would have been a final, eighth symphony.
The “Luminous Landscapes” programs are resonating in new ways with Seattle audiences. A March 13 repeat of the opening March 12 concert featured a stirring innovation: a performance of the “Finlandia” in which members of the Seattle Symphony Chorale were joined by an estimated 200 Nordic audience members – several of them in folk costume – to sing along the anthem whose melody is at the heart of this work. (The melody is one of Finland’s most beloved national songs, and has been sung in several languages; in English, it is most commonly heard as the hymn “Be Still My Soul.”)
Audience members were at first surprised and then thrilled by the “surround sound” of the hymn resonating through the audience. What a wonderfully innovative and inclusive development in a festival that is now Seattle’s cultural “talk of the town”!