The stormy coast of Britain and tempestuous passions of a feisty Russian composer bookended a premiere of a new cello concerto in a program helmed by America-born conductor James Feddeck.

James Feddeck
© Terry Johnston

The Four Sea Interludes from Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, often considered Britten’s masterpiece, set the tone for the evening’s dark, mystical atmosphere. The subtleties of these pieces can reveal either a conductor’s strengths or weaknesses. In this case, Feddeck made a good first impression. His youthful energy proved a distinct advantage in mining the most powerful moments of the work for their inherent brilliance.

“Dawn” brings a huge challenge in intonation to the strings and especially the violins, with its exposed writing high up in their range. The Seattle strings did an admirable job. Feddeck brought dynamic contrast to “Moonlight”, his wide gestures portraying a moving evocation of coastal waves crashing at the edges of the shore. His accurate stick produced the churchgoing crowd’s spikey energies. The Seattle brass anchored the wind-tossed “Storm” with power and heft.

It is not that often that one hears a new work from a currently performing musician. Composer and clarinetist Angelique Poteat is one of the most active performing musicians in her part of the world. Poteat brings a sensibility of the nature and ocean of her native Pacific Northwest to many of her works, while bridging the gap between the classical and rock worlds with music is that is atonal, dissonant and jazzy. Her brand-new cello concerto, written for the orchestra’s principal cellist Efe Baltacıgil and dedicated to him and to former SSO music director Ludovic Morlot, is inspired by her homeland.

In the concerto, Poteat aspires to speak through the solo instrument to uphold the ideals expressed in the arts in order to contrast the uncertainty of the modern world portrayed by the orchestra: a true concerto in the Italian sense. Baltacıgil powered through the virtuoso tour-de-force, with its stratospheric passagework, multiple stopping, dazzling cadenza and interesting Middle East-like sliding between tones, with technique that could only be called sensational.

Poteat writes well for the orchestral instruments and brings out a constellation of sonorities for each one. Feddeck proved an able accompanist for the dense, complicated score, though at times the soloist was covered by the orchestra.

Rachmaninov’s Symphony no. 2 is arguably his most monumental piece, certainly of his symphonic oeuvre and an acid test to any orchestra and conductor. Despite its capacious romanticism, the work has a definite underlying dark spirit within, perhaps because the composer also wrote his Isle of the Dead in the same period. Its performed length can range from 35 to 60 minutes, but for the most part since 1970 it has been performed in its full version, as it was here.

Feddeck’s forte would seem to tend toward more contemporary repertoire: he was somewhat lacking in deep romantic feeling in this prodigiously impassioned work. Nonetheless, he kept impressive control of the ensemble throughout and showed great breadth and dynamic contrast between the Forte and Pianississimo passages.

The final movement is especially a criterion of the virtuosity of both conductor and players. Feddeck and his ensemble gave a crisp yet sensitive rendering, with particular attention to the sweetness of the second melody in the strings, and built up to the emphatic climax with élan.

Altogether the ensemble showed admirable fortitude, even to the last chord of this long and challenging program. The clarinet and violin solos were poignantly played and the Seattle horn section showed impressive strength and consistency. These days the Seattle Symphony is undeniably performing at a level that wholly validates their designation as Gramophone’s 2018 Orchestra of the Year.