SSO tributes Shakespeare in a concert dedicated to the night featuring tenor Mark Padmore

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Mark Padmore. Photo: Marco Borggreve
Mark Padmore. Photo: Marco Borggreve

Yesterday’s Seattle Symphony Orchestra concert featured the appearance of tenor Mark Padmore and the singers of the Seattle Symphony Chorale in works of Mendelssohn, Britten, Szymanovski and Tchaikovsky. Several of references to Shakespeare contributed also to commemorate the anniversary of the British writer.

Mendelssohn composed his Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 21 when he was only 17. The Shakespearian theme inspired the young Mendelssohn to create a sound and monumental piece, which was served by the SSO in an expeditious way.  Mr. Morlot imposed a vivid and full of life pace to the orchestra whilst the strings responded with an impressive exhibition of accuracy, bouncing between the most turbulent moments to the finest delicacy. The only reason for reproach was the lack of balance between families in the orchestra. For instance, the flutes sounded too loud in comparison with their colleagues. 

Benjamin Britten’s Nocturne, Op. 60 is a fascinating song cycle for tenor and seven obbligato instruments in which we can enjoy many examples of the English composer genius. He included brilliantly the powerful poems of Shelley, Keats or Shakespeare among others in the vocal line, probably taking into account the vocal skills of Peter Pears (Britten’s partner and the tenor who premiered the piece). Britten opened the Nocturne with Shelley’s Prologue of Prometheus Unbound, ‘On a Poet’s lips I slept,’ introducing an oneiric atmosphere. Here the voice gets accompanied by the rhythmic phrases of the orchestra. As in a hallucination, Mr Padmore addressed without problems a score that challenges the voice since the beginning, highlighting the text. The second song, the Kraken, deploys the mysteries of obscurity and its creatures. The bassoon, played Seth Krimsky, made us dream (and fear) that creature hidden under the apparently calm surface of the seas. The third song brought the focus back to the orchestra, in a much more contemplative mood. Mr Padmore achieved the required restraint in the tender phrases of Coleridge’sEncinctured with a twine of leave’s, underlined beautifully by the harp. The fourth song, Midnight’s bell from Middleton‘s Blurt, Master Constable proposes a dialog between the voice (imitating the disturbing sounds of the night) and the dissonances of the French horn. The fifth song, accompanied by the timpani is even more perturbing. The sixth song combined Owen‘s poem “The Kind Ghosts” with the English horn. We really enjoyed the legato style of Mr Padmore. After the playful seventh song “Sleep and Poetry”, with flute and clarinet, the Nocturne concludes with a Shakespeare‘s sonnet, with all the obbligato instruments. Ludovic Morlot combined wisely the Shakespearian lyricism with Britten’s colors. London-born tenor Mark Padmore was amazingly precise and expressive. His voice runs easily along a wide register featuring a flexibility that is almost a miracle in a grown up singer. His philological and elegant approach to the text and his clear diction revealed all the beauty of the poems and made understandable the connections between music and text. The result was a profound musical experience, responded a bit coldly by the audience. 

Szymanovski‘s works are commonly considered as challenging and hard to understand. Although his style is certainly less attainable than some of his contemporaries’ (Stravinsky, Kartok…). In the Symphony No. 3 ‘Song of the night’, also dominated by a nightly mood, the composer of King Roger integrated the human voice (tenor and choir) in the orchestral discourse. For Szymanovski the night is a space of solitude where it’s possible to contact the deepest roots of our humanity. It is during those moments of darkness and extreme loneliness that our fears and hopes appear with a stronger certainty. In such atmosphere, Szymanowski allocates continually the voice in the boundary between body and soul, dreams and reality. There’s no space for sophistication: the symphony proposes an outgoing and natural spirituality but at the same time describes the idea of life as a path of endless meditation. Maestro Morlot understood perfectly such approach and offered a riveting version, full of life. 

To close this interesting and ambitious program, the SSO performed Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture. It was the last reference to Shakespeare and introduced for the first time in the evening the idea of love, also closely link to the night. More conceptual than descriptive, the overture is one of the most modern works of the Russian composer, who chose to follow a schematic pattern. The most Tchaikovsky-like melody appears at the end of the piece. It’s a famous and easy tune, very nocturnal as well, as anticipating the dramatic end of the two lovers. It’s an exercise of abstraction, an intelligent proposal which plays with the triangle love-madness-dream. The performance of the SSO was not too close to the style of the composer. Mr Morlot aimed for a more dense and abrupt version, somehow closer to the Impressionism than to the Russian Romanticism.

Carlos J Lopez