Seaman steps in to conduct a complicated program

11.23.09
Christopher Seaman
Vancouver Sun

By David Gordon Duke

For his much anticipated performance with the VSO, Sir Andrew Davis put together a program of conservative works from the turn of the last century, compositions that explore the byways -- some might say backwaters -- of post-Wagnerism. In the event, Sir Andrew couldn't make it, and it was up to Christopher Seaman, music director of the Rochester Philharmonic, to lead the orchestra through Davis's chosen program of Delius, Strauss and Elgar this weekend at the Orpheum.

Delius's The Walk to the Paradise Garden from A Village Romeo and Juliet proved a sophisticated curtain-raiser, pretty music stuck somewhere between Wagner and Debussy in style. Richard Strauss's Brentano Lieder, six luscious songs in high Late Romantic idiom, followed, with American soprano Celena Shafer as soloist.

Shafer has a clear, penetrating voice, coquettish and pert with plenty of agility. The Brentano songs provide her with a well-chosen vehicle. Always an astonishingly gifted craftsman, Strauss paces his soloist magnificently, upping the stakes incrementally until the penultimate number ('Amor!') unleashes effect after effect. Though throughly enjoyable, the performance seemed, at least on Friday, a trifle cautious, and marred by Ms. Shafer's tendency to confuse mugging with a more convincing facsimile of theatrical engagement.

The central work on the program was Elgar's First Symphony. Long gone are the days when Elgar's prestige assured regular airings of his major works. Indeed, recent VSO attempts to revive his music seem to be jinxed: Sir Andrew's absence this year, Ben Heppner's abandoning the title role in the Dream of Gerontius in mid-concert a few seasons ago.

The VSO audience had a natural sympathy for Christopher Seaman, stepping in at such a late moment to deal with a complicated and singular program.

He needed no special considerations, and more than demonstrated he has plenty of ideas of his own about Elgar.

In a time when we, probably rightly, value Mahler and Bruckner more than Elgar, Seaman's reading was a powerful reminder of the sterling worth of the first great British symphony, a work which given half a chance is still rich and impressive. Demonstrating a fine ear for detail, Seaman's performance was fuelled with deep emotion and an edgy intensity.

I don't normally comment on audience reactions, but in the split second of silence between the final note and the deserved ovation, I heard a voice from several rows behind me blurt out "Wow!"

Pretty much my reaction, too.