As a historical moment, the Northwest Sinfonietta’s first concert under a new, internationally-rare leadership model was somewhat tucked away beneath the end-of-season announcements and a celebration of Taiwanese American Heritage Week. But Saturday night’s Sinfonietta concert in the Rialto (others this weekend in Seattle and Puyallup) took a few steps down a new path of musician-driven chamber music – even if those steps were at times wobbly.
Because after the delightful experience of watching new conductor Eric Jacobsen play in perfect synch with his brother, violin soloist Colin Jacobsen, it became apparent that Tacoma’s professional chamber orchestra needs a lot more practice in driving itself.
Eric Jacobsen comes in as the first of three “artistic partners” who’ll rotate over the orchestra’s next season (the others are David Lockington and Joseph Swenson). Young and energetic, he comes from a quartet/indie-chamber-orchestra background in New York, used to working with musicians who play together a lot and make independent decisions on a regular basis.
The Sinfonietta, on the other hand, is a group that has played together precisely four times this season, with only four rehearsals per program. That’s not a lot of time for a group to cement the kind of balance between initiative and trust that’s the hallmark of ensembles like the Australian Chamber Orchestra, which the Sinfonietta is looking to emulate.
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Over the weekend, that lack of time showed clearly. Because for all Jacobsen’s poetic gestures and innate musicality, the Sinfonietta’s playing ranged from confidently expressive to downright messy and even hesitant.
After some not-so-inspiring verbal introductions, the program began well enough with two Taiwanese folksong arrangements, in honor of the local Taiwanese-American community. Played with sincerity, their light textures and lyrical melodies came with a slightly 1940s feel, whether the nostalgic harmonies of “Green Island Serenade” or the Wild-West-film-score instrumentation of “Springtime Hills.”
Next up was Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, played by Jacobsen’s brother Colin as a last-minute substitute for Seattle soloist Mae Lin, recently injured in a bicycle accident. With an old chestnut like this, a soloist has two choices — play it the same way everyone always has and sound like everyone else, or do something innovative. Colin Jacobsen chose the latter, giving the early-romantic lines a straightforward interpretation with the air of a storyteller and the same lyricism. Connecting intensely with his brother, the orchestra and the audience, Jacobsen combined a clear, singing tone with gutsy articulation and honest open strings, driving the tempo for a mostly-responsive orchestra.
Very refreshing was the second movement, taken at slow-waltz speed like the last dance of the night in a romantic movie. Suddenly the phrases, freed from the usual glacially slow tempo and resultant forced tone, became breathing entities, the dynamics ebbing and flowing. And while the orchestra failed to keep up with Jacobsen’s whiplike third movement, it was still a joy to hear the Puckish spiccato and slicing arpeggios, as the two brothers moved in complete musical synchronization to epitomize the chamber instinct this orchestra hopes to cultivate.
Things were different for Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, though. Despite the pleasing sonority of the different seating pattern (stereophonic basses and timpani, firm inside celli and violas) the first movement was hesitant, with messy strings and out-of-tune winds. Lower strings gave a lovely hushed yet implacable opening for the second movement, followed by smooth wind lines and passionate tuttis, but the presto of the third movement sounded a bit restrained, the interjecting chords played as if the musicians were expecting something to go wrong. By the fourth movement everyone had gotten the groove with punchy timpani, fierce strings and military winds, even hitting that slightly manic enjoyment that Beethoven demands — but it took a while.
Eric Jacobsen is a fine musician and leader, encouraging a period-style touch that dovetails phrases and conducting the whole thing from memory (and without a podium). But his minimalism in rhythmic precision doesn’t help an orchestra that is only just moving on from 24 years of the same conductor, and with only 12 hours of rehearsal for a few weeks every year. For the Northwest Sinfonietta to achieve the heights of international greatness it’s promising, something has to change.
The Northwest Sinfonietta’s next season begins on Oct. 16-18. Information: northwestsinfonietta.org.