Heading back to my table after intermission at the Northwest Sinfonietta concert in Puyallup Sunday, I was stopped by a curious concert-goer. She’d outed me. Wasn’t I the reviewer from The News Tribune? Yes, I was. Well, then, how did I write my reviews afterwards? Did I record the whole concert?
Opening my program, I showed her my page of miniscule scribbles, and explained that I reviewed the entire experience: what I saw, what I felt, what the audience did. Recording couldn’t possibly capture that.
Nor, in fact, could it capture the best thing about that concert in Pioneer Pavilion. It was a Sinfonietta that, under Joseph Swensen’s dreamy violin, has finally coalesced into a chamber group that thinks together — and can relax about it too.
Of course, it helped that the program had changed from a tricky Prokofiev concerto to a slightly easier Mozart, accompanied by Dvoràk’s elegantly simple “Romance.” But even as Swenson — so relaxed as to look half-asleep — guided the ensemble through a cloudlike opening and into his own solo, it became audible, visible and tangible that the Sinfonietta trusts this artistic partner.
Swensen’s sweet, birdlike upper tones and hollow, resonant lower ones flowed in long phrases over crystalline winds and perfectly matched string bows. The lilting, French-café tempo worked (though Swensen’s swooping portamenti got tiresome) and a carefully timed ritenuto slowed to a celestial ending.
One of Swenson’s unusual skills is to play a solo line with the architectural long view of a conductor. Another, no less appreciated, is the ability to eschew lengthy podium talks and let the music speak for itself. Swinging happily into Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 in G major, Swensen encouraged the orchestra in a delightfully spatial sound — from far left first violins visually echoed by central winds, or a physical sweep from far right basses around to the horns. (This, dear lady, is why I write, not record.)
Following Swensen’s thoughtful rather than sparkling interpretation, the orchestra could have used more crisp articulation in that boomy hall. But it was a joy to hear this more meditative version: cadenzas played like a bird singing Bach (including an effortless double-stop trill), languid solos in the second movement, a playful third movement with laughing cellos and horns supplying the punchline.
Swensen even gracefully acknowledged the dissonant hoot of a passing train between movements, charming his audience.
After I’d chatted with my new acquaintance during intermission, Swensen swung into the virtuosic “Souvenir de Florence” with the orchestra’s strings, divided into their dense, separate lines. This was clearly the most under-rehearsed piece, and it showed in messy entries not helped by Swensen’s laid-back style. But some highlights shone through: driving violas in the first movement, big magical swells washing the hall, a lush second movement with expressive cellos, a brooding third movement and a final troika that swept along to a dynamic finale (and highly enthusiastic audience response).
An extra bonus of the Puyallup venue are the screens to either side of the stage, which unobtrusively alternate between musician close-ups and the orchestra’s own view of the conductor. And of course, there’s that calming view of the park through the big windows, reminding us — as Swensen did, in his one brief talk — that music is deeply connected to the world, to joy and hope.
All that, dear audience lady, is why I don’t record concerts that I review — and why live performances are what make classical music so special.
Next Northwest Sinfonietta concerts
What: “Havana Heat” March 8-10; “Art for Art’s Sake” March 31-April 2.
Where: Seattle, Tacoma and Puyallup.