Vadim Gluzman and the Seattle Symphony

March 17 2013

When Vadim Gluzman decided to play the first movement of Ysaye’s “Obsession” sonata as an encore, he ensured that I would not see any person doing anything more perfectly this weekend.

We saw our third Seattle Symphony concert last night. The program was Tippett’s Ritual Dances from The Midsummer Marriage, Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1, and Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Gluzman’s Bruch completely stole the show and was the clear highlight in an otherwise uneventful night.

The concert started with conductor Michael Francis coming out and talking through the Tippett. He started by saying “don’t worry, I only have a few words to say”. Unfortunately, he and I disagree on the definition of “few”. He explained some of the programmatic elements in the piece, including what and who to listen for, and he also tried to explain the overall architecture and structure. In general, I’m not a fan of the need to find “program” in classical music. I think good music allows the listener to generate those thoughts independently; I don’t want to compare the music to some visual or story because the music tells the story already. I will always remember Michael Francis as the guy that spoke for 10 minutes before finally beginning the performance.

As for the Tippett itself, I unfortunately have little to say. I fell asleep for about 15 minutes of the 30-minute piece*. It was a pretty modern piece with interesting blends and melodies. And Michael Francis’ 10-minute intro didn’t help me.

* I consistently fall asleep now, possibly at 80-90% of the concerts we attend. I’m not proud of this, but I’m not doing too much to fight it, either.

Next, Gluzman came onstage to do the Bruch. After a brief intro, the solo violin starts alone with an escalating series of arpeggios. Right from the beginning, I was awed by how wonderful Gluzman’s sound was. He has a very full, rich, sound with a live and wide vibrato. We had seen Gil Shaham perform with the Seattle Symphony a few months ago, and I had a similar reaction to hearing Shaham’s sound. Shaham’s sound is more sweet (I think his vibrato is a little tighter, but it’s hard to tell how the two differ). In addition, Gluzman was not afraid to throw in some portamento here and there, and he reminded me of an old-school Soviet violinist, like Oistrakh or Kogan.


Gluzman wasn’t perfect during the Bruch, but his true virtuoso sound was a welcome break from the typical Seattle Symphony sound. I kept thinking during his performance about how the Bruch really makes the violin look good. The piece is relatively easy (except for the double-stop filled last movement) and it lies well with the hand. It’s also extremely fun to play and is a true “show-off” piece.

Gluzman got an overwhelming reaction from the crowd. He received four standing ovations, needing to come back onto the stage three times after he initially walked off. I actually think the crowd “willed” him into doing the encore - it’s rare for any performer to get called back onto the stage three times.

The Ysaye “Obsession” was a true showcase for him. I came into the concert with the perception that Gluzman had a very “masculine” playing style, sort of like an Oistrakh style with less refinement. He played to these stereotypes for the encore. There was no attempt at nuance for him - he powered through the piece at the fastest tempo that I’ve ever heard for the movement. Along the way, he also blew off some of the dynamics and special effects (such as the ponticello), but the sheer energy and speed that he took overshadowed everything. I thoroughly enjoyed it, as did the crowd.

The Seattle Symphony closed with the Elgar. I’ve been reluctant to write about the performances we’ve seen here in Seattle thus far. I had just moved to Seattle after spending 7 years of seeing the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I think the Seattle Symphony orchestra is a nice second-tier orchestra*, but their sound and level of coordination cannot compare to that of the CSO. The Elgar further supported my view.

* How can you tell if an orchestra is second tier? There are a number of signs. First, you can take a mental snapshot of the orchestra and see if all the strings are in the same section of the bow. This is an easy one - everyone should be following the concertmaster’s lead here, but with the Seattle Symphony, I see discrepancies all the time between violinists at the lower half vs. upper half of the bow. Another way is to look at the amount of bow that everyone uses - is that consistent? Finally, evaluate how the orchestra does with tempo changes. Good orchestras instinctively know what the new tempo is and adjust simultaneously. Second tier orchestras may not change tempos together or they may have periods of tempo instability.

It’s the little things that derail them. At the start of the beautiful Nimrod variation, there was very briefly some slight disagreement amongst the first violins as to what the tempo would be (this is an extremely difficult entrance for the firsts because they set the tempo after a long held note). It looked like the concertmaster, Alexander Velinzon*, wanted to move at a faster pace than the rest of the section. They converged on the slower tempo, and I think Nimrod suffered as a result. It reminded me of those “Adagio” compilation albums that first-time classical buyers get, where the music is slow and maudlin.

* This was our first time seeing Velinzon as the concertmaster. I think he’ll be solid for the orchestra, and he has a great sound from the limited solos we heard.

I will continue to go to Seattle Symphony concerts mainly because they are the only game in town. But I appreciate even more the years I was able to spend in Chicago listening to a truly world-class orchestra.


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