Familiar thrills

The SSO and Marilyn Horne infuse old standards with new magic.

WITH HELP FROM the Seattle Symphony, the Northwest Chamber Orchestra, and other visiting ensembles, Benaroya Hall's giving us a good dose of Copland this season. (The year 2000 is his centennial.) This is more than welcome; greater 20th-century composers may exist, but none better as a role model. Copland was an inspiring teacher and energetic new-music advocate; he displayed a questing and imaginative spirit his entire career, absorbing new musical developments into his personal voice in a way that was more than mere bandwagon-jumping, and approaching each new work with irreproachable straightforwardness, honesty, and integrity—whatever its genre or style or level of "seriousness."

Seattle Symphony Orchestra

Benaroya Hall, September 18

Listening to Gerard Schwarz lead the Seattle Symphony in two excerpts from Copland's ballet Rodeo on the Symphony's season opener, my admiration was renewed. The "Saturday Night Waltz" and "Hoedown" are colorful, sentimental, and "popular" in every sense, yet there is not an atom of cheese in either one—this is music of the highest aesthetic and craftsmanly order.

The soloist for six selections from Copland's Old American Songs was mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne, making her final Seattle appearance before her retirement at the end of the year. She also chose three French bonbon arias from Thomas' Mignon and Saint-Sa뮳' Samson and Delilah, and treated us to two encores: Stephen Foster's "Beautiful Dreamer" (with a murmuring orchestral accompaniment of softest eiderdown) and the "Habanera" from Carmen.

Just how much visual realism is necessary in an opera production is a source of debate in this film- and TV-driven era—how important it is to cast singers that look like their roles vs. making the singer's voice and the audience's suspension of disbelief primarily responsible for creating character. Horne as Carmen, even in this four-minute music-bite, was a strong argument for the latter. Here was a well-cushioned 65-year-old grandma bringing a gypsy seductress to life, slyly relishing every syllable and capturing an audience of 2,800 Don Jos鳠under her spell. You heard, and you believed. At the final chord, with a flick of her wrist, she decapitated the rose she'd been toying with—a delicious diva moment.

More than just glittery party music, the chugging, driving Overture for a City by SSO composer-in-residence Samuel Jones that opened the concert had a little grit in its gears. Listening to the languorous, swaying-palms second theme, you might guess the city in question to be Havana or Buenos Aires—it was actually Saginaw, Michigan, whose orchestra commissioned the piece in 1964.

To close, Schwarz chose Ravel's Bol鲯, in a performance with a bit of the theater he likes to indulge in: The snare drummer who plays the dance rhythm underlying the whole piece was brought front and center, joined at strategic moments by two other snare drummers downstage left and right. This performance was another Rodeo-like epiphany, every bar of the warhorse newly captivating in its exhilarating compositional inventiveness and mastery.

This opening gala program may not have been so exciting on paper, but everything worked marvelously in performance—the whole evening was fresh and vivid and revelatory and fun. It was pleasurable in the special way a dinner with close friends can be; while you've spent a lot of time with these people over the years, for some reason one charmed night the food is spectacular, the wine flows, the conversation crackles, you talk until three in the morning, and you realize afresh exactly why these are your favorite people in the world. Such is the feeling I got from the SSO's Copland and Bizet and Ravel last Saturday; here's hoping the orchestra can keep it up all season.

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