Maestro of mixing it up

Scott Seaton cooks up a spicy symphonic stew

Symphony conductor Scott Seaton rehearses with orchestra for Maestro in the Spotlight.

Symphony conductor Scott Seaton rehearses with orchestra for Maestro in the Spotlight.

Photo by Brittany Waterstradt

North State Symphony, Maestro in the Spotlight, Saturday, Nov. 14, at Laxson Auditorium.

The North State Symphony’s new music director, Scott Seaton, has said more than once that he intends to mix up his programs, juxtaposing the classics with modern fare, the familiar with the unfamiliar. How’s he doing so far?

Quite well, actually, and getting better with each concert. We got a taste of his eclecticism in the September concert, the first of the season, which ranged from Smetana’s lively, joyful “Overture to The Bartered Bride” and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (with the dazzling soloist Alpin Hong) to that popular workhorse of the classical repertory, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.

Tucked into that medley of the old and the not-so-old was a 10-minute work by the modern American composer Michael Slayton called “Fifth Prelude for Orchestra.” It’s kind of a trick piece, one designed to serve as a prelude to any of several big symphonies such as Beethoven’s Fifth. So, although it’s almost brand-new (it had its world premiere in 2012), it sounds rather 19th century.

That’s not the case with Lollapalooza, modern American composer John Adams’ 1995 composition that opened the symphony’s second concert of the season—dubbed Maestro in the Spotlight—on Saturday, Nov. 14, in Laxson Auditorium. As its title suggests, it’s a rhythmic, jazzy tour de force that is unmistakeably modern. Only six minutes long, it felt much longer—in a good way, like a rollercoaster ride that you don’t want to end.

That was followed by the “Third Movement” of Russian composer Dmitri Kabalevsky’s 1948 composition Violin Concerto in C major, performed by 18-year-old Redding resident Brianna Ruiz, the 2015 Young Artist Auditions winner. Ruiz has been playing violin since she was 5 years old and has played with several large ensembles, including as concertmaster for the Shasta Youth Symphony. She chose the Kabalevsky, she said, because it’s joyful and fun to play, and her delight was evident in her confident performance.

This was followed by Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 90 in C major. This was standard-issue Haydn, precise as clockwork, until the trick ending, which had Seaton holding his pose two or three times to make us applaud because we thought the piece was over when it wasn’t. “Fooled you,” he said, smiling slyly.

Afterward, he admitted he had hated Haydn (“he’s boring”) until he heard and saw this symphony being performed, complete with trick ending.

The second half of the program began with the most famous of all waltzes, Johann Strauss Jr.’s “By the Beautiful Blue Danube.” For me, the piece mostly dredged up memories of being forced to attend the Severance School of Dance when I was a teenager, so I was eager to get on to the final work of the night, Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.

In 1961, four years after the stage version of the groundbreaking musical premiered, Bernstein created a single composition based on the play’s songs and dances, something clearly from the theater piece but independent of it.

The result is 22 minutes of amazing music, all of it recognizably derived from the play but at the same time fresh and complete in its own right. Jazz rhythms predominate, and the orchestra’s percussionists got a workout Friday night, let me tell you. It was one of the most exhilarating performances I’ve seen from the symphony.

Following a boisterous standing ovation, Seaton led the orchestra in a reprise of the vibrant, exuberant “Mambo” section of the piece. The result: another standing ovation.

Keep on mixing it up, maestro. You’re on a roll.