Conductor Alastair Willis and cellist Pavel Gomziakov.
By Melinda Bargreen
It takes some creative programming to juggle the Seattle Symphony’s concert schedule with Seattle Opera’s productions – both of which employ the same body of musicians. Usually the Symphony presents smaller-scale orchestral programs (typically with repertoire from the Baroque, Classical, or contemporary eras) with the musicians who aren’t playing the Opera, plus some players drawn from the lists of excellent subs.
This time, it was a Mainly Mozart Series program, an [Untitled] concert, and three Haydn/Tchaikovsky concerts that kept Benaroya Hall full while Seattle Opera was presenting its sparkling “The Daughter of the Regiment.” The Haydn/Tchaikovsky program was of unusual interest, featuring Alastair Willis -- a conductor who earlier held two previous posts with the Seattle Symphony (assistant and associate conductor). The chance to hear the highly regarded cellist Pavel Gomziakov in his Seattle debut may also have been a factor in drawing a good-sized audience to the first of the three programs on Oct. 24.
They were not disappointed. Gomziakov, accorded a Grammy nomination for his 2009 Deutsche Grammophon recording of the Chopin Cello Sonata, gave a splendidly nuanced account of the familiar Haydn C Major Cello Concerto. His subtle bowing created a broad tonal palette, from incisive accents to the softest and most dulcet melodic lines. Rarely do you hear such a wide dynamic range in a concerto soloist; most players are afraid to take the volume down so far, fearing they won’t be heard. Conductor Willis brought the orchestra’s volume down as well, partnering Gomziakov with care and finesse. The airy second movement was particularly fine.
Technique, expressive mastery, a beautiful array of sounds: this is an imposing and important cellist whom audiences will want to hear again.
Willis’ program also offered two familiar serenades: Elgar’s Serenade for Strings (Op. 20), and Tchaikovsky’s even better-known Serenade for Strings (Op. 48). A so-called “Mozart symphony,” the No. 37, filled out the program. (Mozart actually wrote only a brief introduction to a three-movement symphony by Michael Haydn, the younger brother of the more famous Franz Joseph Haydn.) The symphony isn’t bad; there are some charming turns of phrase, but it’s not Mozart.
Willis proved a deft and expressive interpreter of Elgar and Tchaikovsky, scoring lots of points with clarity, restraint and delicacy of phrasing. He drew a rich, full sound from the strings, with incisive attacks and crisp playing (particularly in the final movement of the Tchaikovsky).
Willis has gone on to become the music director of the Illinois Symphony Orchestra, and has guest conducted the symphonies of Chicago, New York, San Francisco, St. Louis and Cincinnati. His appointments at the Seattle Symphony (2000-2003) ended a decade ago, and he has moved on – but it’s clear from this program that Willis is a most welcome returnee.