Arts & Culture

Northwest Sinfonietta brings together local composers, cellist in concert highlighting best of what chamber orchestra should be

It can’t be often that two local composers come onstage at an orchestra concert to introduce two (almost) brand-new works — many ensembles simply don’t give new music that kind of support. But the Northwest Sinfonietta does, and in its smartly-programmed concert in Tacoma’s Rialto Theater on Saturday night it proved that not only can it play Mozart with panache and skill, it can play Sam Jones and Greg Youtz with both passion and intelligence.

The Mozart part was no surprise. Playing this 18th-century composer with period grace and unity has been a trademark of the Sinfonietta since its beginnings nearly 25 years ago, and founding director Christophe Chagnard is playing some more for his final season. On Saturday night the “Paris” Symphony (no. 31) was exactly as Mozart should be: perfectly-agreed dynamics, tight ensemble, sharp articulation with light attack but big sound. Chagnard led his team with a minimum of gesture but full feeling, and dancing tempi that allowed every flourish to shine. Only some harsh tone from the first violins marred the sound.

But it was what came before that really transformed the Mozart, and showed how much we need living composers as well as long-dead ones. Greg Youtz’ “Wolfgang at the Gates” — given its world-premiere this weekend — gave a short but deep dive into Mozart’s head as he was writing the “Paris” while juggling work issues and the death of his mother, and it made a brilliant prelude to the symphony. After quoting the symphony’s opening, the Tacoma-based Youtz began to deconstruct every theme in the work, pairing triumphant strings with a dark, doom-filled timpani, ominously held celli/bassi minor seconds, and wary diminished chords. Changing meters, inserting sudden gaps or spreading out the violin backbeat until it became a hesitant stutter, Youtz gave a movie-score version of what was happening in Mozart’s life while he was trying to write this cheerful work. Even a quote from Mozart’s rival Gluck makes it in there, plaintive in clarinet and flute. Not everything works: The repeated violin notes get a little stagnant, and some of the ideas need to be more developed. But the Sinfonietta played it with great intelligence, highlighting the quotes and disparities, and with fine playing from timpanist Matthew Drumm.

The best part, though, was hearing the “Paris” straight afterwards, when all the sudden modulations, delayed cello notes and pauses take on a whole new meaning — darkness underneath the joy.

In the first half, after excerpts from Gluck’s “Orfeo” (a crisp, punchy Overture, a serene “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” with delicately mournful flute and a spookily biting “Dane of the Furies”), came Sam Jones’ Cello Concerto, played by Seattle prodigy Julian Schwarz. Written several years ago for Schwarz, the piece was only getting its second concert hearing, and Jones (like Youtz) came onstage to introduce his own piece, giving some useful explanation of the very personal writing that went into it. Though it used more or less the same Mozartean scoring, Jones’ writing couldn’t have been more different in sound — Mahler-like orchestration with Shostakovich-type harmonies, bleak in a sparse minor-major key and evolving from the initial dramatic minor-second motif.

But if Jones isn’t exactly inventing a new musical voice, he’s certainly contributed a concerto that cellists (and audiences) will love. The scoring is delicate enough to let the cello express softly and personally, exploring deep sonorities with bassoon or double bass accompaniment; and with a mood that goes from agonized in the first movement to furious whirlwind in the last, a kind of Eastern European hoedown with xylophone accents. Schwarz took charge of the work (as he should), with passionate tone and some beautifully vocal high notes, which made up for the rather rosiny-scratchy attack of the fast passages.

In all, a concert that thoroughly deserved its lengthy ovation, and which exemplifies the best of what a contemporary chamber orchestra should be.

The next Northwest Sinfonietta concert will be “The Three Divas” on Feb. 20-22, 2015. For more information see northwestsinfonietta.org

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