It’s good to be surprised at a symphony concert. Too often we’re given the same old pieces delivered in the same old way – but not Saturday night at the Pantages Theater. Following conductor Paul Haas – the second candidate for the Tacoma Symphony’s musical director position – the orchestra pulled out surprise after surprise, from an unprogrammed piece to lushly unified strings in Brahms’ fourth symphony to Haas’ own debonair, rock band-style introductions.
“I like surprises,” said Haas, by way of introduction as the concert began, after laying on the flattery about Tacoma’s beautiful scenery and people – and then proceeded to show us just what he meant. Instead of the first piece on the program (“Strange Attractors,” by Tacoma native Alexandra Bryant) the audience was instead surrounded by a vaguely medieval, vaguely Vaughan Williams-esque soundscape, with woodwinds calling like birds from the stage, the balcony and the back of the audience. It was a piece by Haas himself, who’s a respected composer and also known for unconventional symphonic programming both in New York, where he’s the founding director of Sympho, and Northwest Arkansas, his other directorship position. The blurring and bending of Monteverdi fragments into a dreamlike whole was, in fact, a smart move: It showed off Haas’ composing chops plus his penchant for focusing on the “energy” of a program, and it also gave a soft, approachable opening to Bryant’s rather more awkward, aloof imagination.
“Strange Attractors” was actually premiered in Tacoma in 2010 by the youth symphony. The playing Saturday night was far more skillful, but the piece still sounds like a newly-fledged compositional grad student testing her wings. The wildness of the fluttery, opening motif soon launched into a Stravinsky-like pizzicato, with ominous Bartok brass. And while the unusually-colored wind solos were subtle and strong, the tuttis lacked good orchestration and sounded, despite the players’ efforts, weak.
Then came Stephanie Leon Shames for Beethoven’s symphony-like Third Piano Concerto. Shames does a lot of collaborative and chamber work, and it shows in her highly sensitive interpretations that fit perfectly in this piece where the orchestra is a whole lot more than just the back-up band. Rather than wolfing down the virtuoso runs and arpeggios she invested them with a listen-for-it articulation, reaching deep into the key bed for a wealth of timbre that was commanding if not loud. Her juxtaposition of blurry pedaling and excessively dry staccato was offputting, but her cadenzas were fluidly virtuosic, and her expression in the second movement ineffably sad.
Haas did his best to pull the orchestra into the heights and depths of dynamic that Beethoven requires (and saved Shames after one early entry), and though the ensemble wasn’t tight the spirit was admirable.
But it was Brahms’ Fourth that Haas had clearly put his back into, and under his direction the strings sounded like a completely different orchestra: wholehearted, full-bow playing with impressive sound even from the back of the violins and clear, passionate cello section solos underscored by majestic basses. Unfortunately, Haas didn’t seem to pay as much attention to the wind coloring, but everyone was responding to his deeply emotional gestures and broad architecture, with fine results: a stormy first movement that filled the hall; a lullaby second movement filled with vocal violin thirds and lovely woodwind duos; a fiercely humorous third movement and a threatening fourth with a heart-wrenching flute solo and a mighty finish that drew the usual standing ovation.
Through it all, and in the post-concert Q-&-A, Haas led the audience along like a suavely charming rock star, declaiming Brahms’ love of beauty and reeling in applause and wolf-whistles like a younger David Bowie. With his dramatic movements and Californian, feel-the-love manner, he’s definitely surprised a lot of Tacoma symphony folks. But if he can make all new audience-goers feel like the lady who was still swooning at the Q-&-A, and if he can make the string section sound that big and polished, he’d be an asset to Tacoma’s music scene.
The TSO has finished its season, beginning the 2013/14 one with the third conductor candidate Kevin Rhodes on October 26. The new musical director will be announced soon after the fourth candidate visits in November. For more information, see tacomasymphony.com