It’s not easy playing without a conductor. It’s even harder when you’re playing the Brahms Violin Concerto, a notoriously tricky work for keeping an ensemble together. So the intense presence and unity of the Northwest Sinfonietta under soloist Joseph Swensen on Saturday night at Tacoma’s Rialto Theater was in itself a very impressive feat. Yet the performance left something to be desired in interest and nuance, and the Beethoven that followed — though exuberant — spoke of too little rehearsal attention.
“(This concerto is) not normally done like this, because it’s incredibly scary,” said Swensen himself after intermission in a “getting-to-know-you” talk, and that admission speaks volumes. Yes, it’s scary doing this piece, which has all the complexity of a symphony, with only a violin and the odd hand gesture to guide you. And yes, it’s an impressive thing, which speaks to both good rehearsing and the Sinfonietta’s increasing abilities to listen hard and play real chamber music. But if the conductor has to tell the audience they need to be impressed, there’s something missing.
That something was the unexpected. From the opening legato (conducted by Swensen with his violin resting on a scarf-covered table nearby), the orchestra took on a lovely open resonance that perfectly matched Swensen’s singing tone, and enabled the chamber group to sound more like the bigger symphonies that would usually play the work. As one they followed Swensen’s forward-looking movement, each stepping up without fuss to leadership roles (a pizzicato bass, a flute melody.) And Swensen himself played virtuosically, with unbelievably fast tremoli in the cadenza and a wild, sweeping energy in the finale. Yet the piece missed many moments that should have had more nuance — sudden pianissimos, charging tuttis — and Swensen’s long notes repeatedly flatlined, going nowhere as his brain very obviously was giving half of its power to simply keeping everyone together.
The overall effect was studied, a performance that experienced musicians knew was unusual but which had much of the audience shifting restlessly by the third movement. Clearly, you can do this work without a conductor, but it needs a lot more experience to do it with the kind of passion and impetus it deserves.
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The other downside emerged after intermission with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4, which was just messy enough (and occasionally out-of-tune) to show which piece had gotten the most rehearsal time. But the orchestra’s increased listening and independence carried over, with melodies passing seamlessly across the stage and sections playing with real unity. It also highlighted some beautiful playing, from the suspenseful opening with tiptoe violins and ominous bass, to a fluid, soaring clarinet solo in the first and second movements and some very tender string moments.
Here Swensen, relieved of the violin that seemed to constrict his musicality, opened up into a force that swept the orchestra through Beethoven’s passion and joy in a way that would have transformed the Brahms. Bouncing on his toes, curling his arm up with flamenco flair, giving percussive inhales and exhales, Swensen also reminded us of that other very useful benefit of a conductor — to give the audience (and orchestra) a visual anchor for the music’s structure and emotion. Taking fiery-fast tempi and bringing out every syncopated joke, Swensen kept the rollercoaster firmly on track all the way to the surprise ending.
The only real disappointment was the number of empty seats in the audience. Yes, there was a Tacoma Symphony concert at the same time in the Pantages Theater. But Tacoma is unbelievably fortunate to have a professional chamber orchestra with the initiative to bring in phenomenal world soloists and tackle challenges like conductorless Brahms. We need the chutzpah to go with them on the journey.
The Northwest Sinfonietta’s next concert is “Ravel and Strauss” on May 13-15 in Seattle, Tacoma and Puyallup. northwestsinfonietta.org.