When you combine a top-notch chamber orchestra with some of the best landscape music ever written, you’re going to get a fine concert. Add in a superlative violin soloist and some tranquilly beautiful visuals, and the concert just hit the level of the Northwest Sinfonietta’s program last night at Tacoma’s Rialto Theater (repeated this afternoon in Puyallup). Tight, unified tuttis, delicate solos and attention to nuance gave the über-Romantic line-up of Honegger, Mendelssohn, Vaughan Williams and Beethoven (plus slides by Richard Haag) a lush sonority. The only quibble? Torpid tempi – and a complete absence of any soundscapes less than 90 years old.
To open, the orchestra swapped out Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” for Honegger’s “Pastorale d’Éte,” not a great change musically. While the strings achieved a misty calm and the woodwinds some musical birdcalls, the hushed beginning never moved on from a kind of hesitancy, and the lack of energy in the middle rhythmic section made the piece a little directionless. This was also a great opportunity to include a more newly-composed landscape by perhaps an American or Australian composer, as a change from the all-European program.
Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides” overture likewise suffered from lack of energy, with director Christophe Chagnard holding the surging opening section (and its recapitulation) back so much that the cello-bassoon opening melody sounded more like a deep lake than the fierce waters off the Scottish islands that inspired the composition. The second, dotted-note theme was made hesitant rather than heroic, and taking the martial brass section faster just disjointed the overall feel. Yet Chagnard’s crescendi-decrescendi were intensely powerful, and the combination of rich strings and crystal-clear winds was haunting.
Probably the highlight of the evening, however, was Denise Dillenbeck playing the violin solo in “The Lark Ascending” as if it were the last song in the world. Vaughan Williams wrote this iconic work in 1914 as his country was heading into a war that would forever change its rural peace; it’s a swan-song, unbearably poignant. Unlike many violinists who see it as a platform for every technical trick they’ve mastered, Dillenbeck (who played the rest of the concert in her concertmaster chair) gave it a subtlety, honesty and vulnerability, with a rarefied tone that perfectly captured a soaring, singing bird and leading the orchestra into a middle section that acknowledged the composer’s love of folk music. Chagnard and the orchestra supported her with feathery-light tone, including some lovely horn solos and dramatic, unified dynamics.
Finally, Beethoven’s Symphony no. 6, the “Pastorale,” an ode to the Austrian countryside that was on Saturday lifted to new artistic levels by a slow-changing projection of landscape photographs by eminent landscape architect Richard Haag. Matched intuitively to the music by Chagnard and Haag’s wife Cheryl Trivision (even to repeating photographs as a theme recurred, varying them as it varied), the slides accompanied Beethoven’s springlike first movement, ode to a rippling brook, country dance, storm-like fourth movement and final hymn to nature with intensely focused shots of misty forests, lime-green grass, pale shoots and birch trunks, gray river rocks or sunlit tree canopies. Never fast enough to be distracting, the slides added a new layer to the music, giving us the chance to see our landscape both through Beethoven’s passionate ear and the eye of someone who notices the details that create intrinsic beauty.
Sadly, due to the light levels in the Pioneer Pavilion, the slides won’t be part of the orchestra’s Puyallup concert this afternoon.
Throughout, the Sinfonietta played extremely well in tempi that were finally relaxed without being torpid. Light-fingered strings in the first and third movements, dancing oboe and clarinet duets, threatening timpani and trombones in the storm (some Flickr.com lightning images here), rich violas and brass in the finale all created a soundscape that was a delight to hear.
The Northwest Sinfonietta plays “Soundscapes” again at 2 p.m. today at Pioneer Park Pavilion, 330 Meridian Ave. S, Puyallup. The next concert is Bach’s “St. John Passion” on March 14-16. 888-356-6040, northwestsinfonietta.org
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 firstname.lastname@example.org