The sides of the stage were bathed in blue and yellow light as Dalia Stasevska strode on stage to conduct the Seattle Symphony in a performance of music by Adolphus Hailstork, Bartók and Dvořák. But first, the diminutive young Finnish conductor, Ukrainian-born, spoke to the audience. She talked briefly about Hailstork’s Epitaph for a Man Who Dreamed: In memoriam: Martin Luther King, Jr and then spoke about the situation unfolding in Ukraine, mentioning that being with the Seattle Symphony the past week had sustained her. Applause followed, as she turned to conduct and the orchestra and the audience stood for a rousing performance of Ukraine’s national anthem. There were surely few dry eyes in the audience and then tumultuous applause. 

Dalia Stasevska conducts the Seattle Symphony
© James Holt | Seattle Symphony

The eight-minute Hailstork work was perfectly atuned to the feeling of the moment, similar to Barber’s Adagio for Strings, though completely different in orchestration and harmonies. This somber, dignified work begins hushed, rising in volume gradually as different instruments join in, unison flutes and tremolo violins first, harp shortly after. It remains solemn, mournful as the sound rises steadily to a crashing double forte from the brass, then coming down to a long final chord. There was a prolonged pause before the audience rose to its feet. Hailstork, now 80, has had a long and distinguished career as composer and teacher, but performances of his work have remained under the radar. It is to be hoped we will now hear many more of his compositions.

Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto followed, with the solo part in the able hands of Pierre-Laurent Aimard. This is a piece with quicksilver work for the fingers almost throughout. Aimard, known for his appreciation of contemporary works, shaped each phrase and section and never just banged his way through. Stasevska’s partnership was exemplary. She and Aimard were in perfect synchrony, noticeably in the many spots where the orchestra and piano had to end exactly together, and never did she allow the busy orchestra to overbalance the piano. A notable part in the second movement comprised a conversation between piano at the front and timpani at the back, the latter guided by Stasevska, and each phrase was impeccably shaped by timpanist James Benoit. 

Dalia Stasevska, Pierre-Laurent Aimard and the Seattle Symphony
© James Holt | Seattle Symphony

The well-chosen program ended with Dvořák’s Symphony no. 9 in E minor, “From the New World”, its cheerful serenity and many melodies just right to follow the serious Hailstork and intense Bartók. Many flowing and unhurried moments, peaceful strings plus joyful happy sections, abounded and the many orchestral solos shone, particularly the prominent and poignant english horn role of Stefan Farkas. The whole work, including the excited anticipation and exuberance of the last movement, was memorably directed by Stasevska. This is a conductor who can elicit the finest nuances with her precise directing, the softest moments often preceding great sweeps of her arms as she gathers in all the musicians while equally precisely bringing out one or another group. Already very well-regarded in Europe, this was her debut in Seattle.

At the finish, the audience surged to its feet with bravos and lengthy applause, joined in by enthusiastic plaudits from the orchestra which gave her a solo bow. She was brought back several times. This is a conductor who would be welcomed back any time here and I heard at least one audience member say she would be a fine choice for our next permanent conductor.