A high note

Symphony’s Masterworks series ends with Tchaikovsky’s grand No. 5

Scott Seaton, conductor and artistic director of the North State Symphony.

Scott Seaton, conductor and artistic director of the North State Symphony.

Photo by Sesar Sanchez

North State Symphony: As Fate Would Have It, Saturday, May 12, Laxson Auditorium.

North State Symphony Artistic Director and conductor Scott Seaton is a teacher and a showman as well as a musician. He does all he can, musically and otherwise, to engage his audiences and help them appreciate symphonic music.

Like his predecessor, Kyle Wylie Pickett, he offers free preconcert discussions of each program. He goes a step further, however, by hooking up a projector to YouTube and showing video snippets of other musicians playing the pieces the North State Symphony will be playing in just a few minutes.

Saturday evening (May 12) in Laxson Auditorium we saw a snippet of, for example, the late Jacqueline du Pré attacking the dirge-like opening chords of Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor, with a young Daniel Barenboim, her husband, conducting. Another snippet featured the late, great Leonard Bernstein conducting Tchaikovsky’s monumental Symphony No. 5 in E Minor.

In both cases, Seaton explained the dynamics of the pieces—what the composer was trying to say and how he went about it—in a way that prepared audience members for the live performances. He also used it as a way to introduce his guest cellist, Evan Kahn.

Seaton often uses the program’s intermission, after the audience has reassembled, to talk about the concluding piece—in this case the Tchaikovsky symphony—using the orchestra to illustrate his comments. Saturday evening he paid particular attention to the symphony’s opening motive, explaining that it represents a kind of fatalistic self-doubt and depression that had led Tchaikovsky to believe he no longer could compose. Then Seaton had the full orchestra play a snippet from the fourth and final movement, in which that same troubling motive has been transformed into joyous optimism. “Watch for it,” he told the audience.

The evening’s program, called As Fate Would Have It, began with a delightful warm-up piece, the Russian composer Mikhail Glinka’s “Overture” to his opera Ruslan and Lyudmila, which premiered in 1842. The opera is rarely performed these days, but the spirited “Overture” is very popular.

In his notes to the North State Symphony’s concert program, Theodore Bell points out that Glinka wrote of finding inspiration at a dinner party, where “the clattering of knives, forks and plates made such an impression on me that I had the idea to imitate them on the prelude to Ruslan.”

“Overture” lasts only four minutes, but it’s so lively and fun that one wishes it lasted longer, especially when played with such sprightliness.

It was followed by the Elgar cello concerto, featuring guest soloist Kahn. A native of Los Angeles, Kahn now lives in San Francisco and performs with several Bay Area chamber and orchestral groups, including Symphony Silicon Valley, where he is principal soloist.

He acknowledged during the preconcert discussion that this was the first time he’d performed the Elgar concerto since high school. That didn’t seem to limit him, however, as he offered a rhapsodic but precise take on this sometimes melancholic but always moving mainstay of the cello repertoire. He received a well-deserved standing ovation.

As good as the concerto was, the Tchaikovsky symphony was the star of the evening. Seaton had warned that it was big, both in sound and number of musicians, and he wasn’t fooling. For Seaton, it must have seemed like they were wrestling a Russian bear to the ground.

In his program notes, Bell describes the symphony well, writing that it is “characteristically evocative with large, emotive contrasts blended together with brilliantly nuanced timbres and swept along in a graceful, perpetual motion.”

Seaton is an athletic conductor, one who uses his full body as well as his arms and baton to drive the music forward, and this symphony was a workout. The result was an altogether magnificent performance by conductor and orchestra alike. It too garnered a standing ovation and was a perfect finale for the season.