If you’re not a Puyallup resident, you might be forgiven for thinking of Pioneer Pavilion as just a big, breezy venue for the Farmers’ Market and other noisy events. But this year it’s also been a regular classical music hub – the home of the Northwest Sinfonietta, who in addition to Seattle’s Benaroya Hall and Tacoma’s Rialto Theater, have established an appreciative audience in Puyallup. Last weekend’s concert proved that not only does Puyallup love the Sinfonietta, but their music sounds pretty good in the Pavilion. It’ll also sound good on their just-announced Cuba tour next January.
The 40-odd tables were full last Sunday for a concert featuring 20th-century classics with unusual twists. The great part about the Pavilion is the cabaret seating, where you can chat with your neighbor over chardonnay and strawberries (though hopefully not actually during the music) and be inspired by the park just outside the light, airy pavilion. The orchestra is easy to see on a raised dais, and while the many windows suck up the string sound a little, the overall effect is just fine.
Before the music, however, the orchestra had some big news: a nine-day concert tour of Cuba next January. The ensemble will spend two days in Havana followed by a week of concerts, educational workshops and side-by-side playing with the local symphony in Cienfuegos, a sister-city of Tacoma. The tour isn’t just fun for the group – it’s a sign that things are getting better, economically.
For this final concert of the season, the Sinfonietta chose some well-known pieces in less well-known arrangements. Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” was in a chamber-ensemble version by a student of Arnold Schoenberg. With just single strings backing the woodwind solos by flute, oboe and clarinet, with piano and occasional percussion, the sound sometimes felt a bit far away in the cavernous building. Darrin Thaves opening flute solo (that famous evocation of Pan) was unremarkable by the time it reached the middle of the hall. But the rest of the playing was excellent – lyrical legatos, beguiling dynamics and precise rhythms held together by conductor Christophe Chagnard.
Then it was into the roaring ‘20s with Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” – not the big, fat orchestral version, but the original big-band commission, with a sturdy brass and sax section balancing the piano weight. Kevin Morton was a little too polite for the sliding clarinet opening, but Judson Scott’s trumpet was much jazzier, and Chagnard kept the tuttis swift yet broad.
Piano soloist Joel Fan bubbled over with his usual energy, the manic syncopation balanced with contemplative runs. Most folk had stopped chatting by this time, though it’s a pity about the couple coming in with a scrape of chairs during the magically quiet cadenza. Fan was quick with an encore: Ernesto Nazareth’s ragtime tango “Vem ca, branquina.”
After an intermission in the sunshiny park, the orchestra brought out a piece that deserves to be heard again and again: a chamber arrangement of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Chinese/Australian composer Julian Yu. Inspired by a show of paintings by the composer’s recently dead friend, it’s a piano piece that most people know in Ravel’s smoothly-orchestrated version. By incorporating Asian timbres and textures, and by facing the Russian composer’s often-dark harmonies head-on, though, Yu has created a piece that’s as different from Ravel’s as a suspense film is from a Broadway musical. From the first “Promenade” movements led by a solo viola (Heather Bentley) sounding remarkably like a Chinese erhu accompanied by delicate woodwind, it was obvious that these “Pictures” were something really different. In “Gnomus,” a marimba solo with staggered brass and string entries brought the painting’s wooden toy to spooky life.
In “The Old Castle,” a cello plays Ravel’s saxophone solo, the dissonant harmonies overlaid like eerie echoes in a stone ruin, and some scary horror-film effects (violin harmonics, sul ponte tremolo) that Ravel would never have dared to do. “Tuileries” adds the mocking laugh of a xylophone to the children’s play, with a muted trumpet playing the ominous, threatening melody.
Through it all Chagnard kept good control, bringing out the cacophonous entries of “The Market at Limoges” and “Baba Yaga,” and highlighting the dissonances of “Catacombs,” moving through the unusual “Great Gate of Kiev” – triumphant brass gradually replaced with cascading glockenspiel and piano and sounding more like an Asian temple than European architecture – with a delicate touch.
Maybe there’s not quite as much rich aural texture as in the Rialto Theater, or as much pin-drop magic as at Benaroya, but a Sinfonietta concert in the Pavilion is just as charged with a community that obviously loves classical music.
The Northwest Sinfonietta has just completed its 2010/11 season; the next season begins in October. www.nwsinfonietta.org