Seattle Symphony's 'Festive Holiday Encores' gives familiar favorites a new gloss

Christopher Seaman
The Seattle Times

By John Sutherland

When playing a program of mostly brief, mostly familiar music, the challenge is keeping it all fresh, and that challenge falls primarily on the conductor. Fortunately, guest conductor Christopher Seaman, outgoing music director of the Rochester, N.Y., Philharmonic, has embraced that task with great musical energy and precision as he leads the Seattle Symphony this week in "Festive Holiday Encores."

The program, which launched Thursday night and continues through the weekend, is sometimes related to the holidays but is always festive.

It begins with one of several Russian works, a great opening barnburner, Glinka's Overture to "Russlan and Ludmilla." At Thursday's performance, Seaman milked this crowd-pleaser beautifully. There are so many runs of quick notes interwoven through this piece, and they all fell into place effortlessly, whizzing by like ornaments on a well-engineered wheel.

The scale of the orchestra shrank to chamber size for the Vivaldi Viola Concerto in G minor. Susan Gulkis Assadi rose from her normal chair at the head of the viola section to take the solo spotlight. Seaman conducted from the harpsichord, complementing the impeccable musicianship from Assadi that Seattle audiences have known for years.

The music officially entered the holiday phase with three very familiar dances from Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker." It was the final work of the first half, though, that provided the first real entrée after a procession of delicious appetizers: Paul Dukas' famous masterpiece, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice."

This work battles visual overfamiliarity more than any of the other classics on the program; after the well-known treatment by Disney, it is difficult for audiences to listen to it without mouse ears. It is a great credit to Seaman and the symphony musicians that they brought new clarity and richness to this piece. It is well worth hearing live, whether or not images of bucket-carrying broomsticks fill your head as you do so.

The second half included selections from Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel," a deep, worthy opera that is more familiar by name than by music to most people, before returning to Tchaikovsky.

The suite from "Swan Lake" gave an apt anchor to the conclusion of the program, as the Dukas had in the first half. The Hungarian Dance (the penultimate movement) had such a dramatic finish that Seaman wisely pre-empted the applause with clear hand signals. The climactic Valse was the perfect end to this program: extremely familiar, yet bursting with energy, freshness and surprise.