Bracketed by Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture and Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony, Polish composer Mieczysław Weinberg’s Violin Concerto was the newcomer on the Seattle Symphony’s program Thursday night at Benaroya Hall, with Gidon Kremer as soloist and Thomas Dausgaard conducting. Newcomer to most of us, that is. Weinberg (1919-1996) was deeply influenced by Shostakovich, his mentor. Popular with musicians, but as unpopular with Stalin as was the older composer, Weinberg’s music did not escape Stalinist repression until Kremer discovered and began to champion it years later. He first performed the violin concerto (originally composed in 1960 for esteemed violinist Leonid Kogan) in New York in 2015. Weinberg was a prolific composer, so there is much more of his work for us to hear.

Thomas Dausgaard, Gidon Kremer and the Seattle Symphony © James Holt
Thomas Dausgaard, Gidon Kremer and the Seattle Symphony
© James Holt

This concerto is clearly influenced by Shostakovich. Twenty-six minutes long, its orchestration is dense and the violin busy from the first notes. Vibrant and crackling with energy in Kremer and Dausgaard’s hands, there is little that is melodic in it, but much of interest including Weinberg’s extended use of the muted violin, plucked strings in the orchestra, give-and-take between the two. There are sudden changes of volume, from dramatic chords to the softest whisper and back. The slow movement is the most melodic, with the sorrow one hears throughout much of the concerto more prominent, though with warmer moments. A bouncy cheerfulness, though, and a martial beat characterize the last movement, which ends softly. This is not an easy work to assimilate, and while the audience appreciated Kremer’s brilliant playing, the applause was not particularly enthusiastic. The encore was Weinberg’s Prelude no. 5 for Solo Cello, which Kremer has arranged for violin.

Dausgaard’s often dramatic approach served the Tchaikovsky well. The leisurely portrayal of Friar Laurence with its underlying portent, the tense belligerence of the hotheaded rivals, the shock of death, gloom and grief, plus the rich romanticism describing the love between Romeo and Juliet, were all brought out brilliantly. Cello rumbles, lyricism from the violas, clashing cymbals, crashing timpani and string playing from wild to peaceful eventually brought the whole to an end with huge chords at full forte.

Dausgaard brought the same dynamic approach to the Dvořák symphony, where a slightly more restrained interpretation might have served the music better. Dausgaard drew exquisite phrasing in lovely interludes and little oases, particularly in the softer passages. One could bathe in the cellos’ warm expansiveness and be entranced by the solo flute (Demarre McGill). but contrasts tended to be overly dramatic. Nevertheless, the glorious cacophony, the light fast winds, and complete frenzy made a triumphant ending.

****1