Pete's Blog

Peter Serkin in Seattle

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I went to hear Peter Serkin last night in a subscription concert with the Seattle Symphony. For my money, no other major soloist equals Serkin at communicating the freshness and emotional truth of the 20th-Century modernist repertory. And he's one of the few major artists (which is to say an artist who appears as a soloist with provincial orchestras in places like Seattle) who routinely programs modernist music for middle-of-the-road audiences. This involves some strategy, of which last night's concert was an interesting example. The program opened with Ravel's "Le Tombeau de Couperin," then continued with Messiaen's "Exotic Birds," with Serkin, followed by Mozart's Rondo in D Major, K.382, also with Serkin, the Fourth Symphony of Brahms coming after intermission. At first glance it seemed that the Ravel (French but not too French, modern but not too modern) was intended to prepare the audience for the rigours of "Exotic Birds," with Mozart offered as a reward afterwards, and the Brahms ensuring that nobody left before the end. But it turned out there was more to it than that. The Messiaen was bracing, full of color and verve, and certainly benefitted from its placement after Ravel's pretty pastels. Serkin was plainly exhilarated afterwards, racing around the orchestra to shake hands with various section leaders, reveling in applause that was, if not exactly tepid, certainly no more than polite. Then came the Mozart. The Rondo in D, according to the program notes, was written to substitute for the last movement of an existing concerto before its Vienna debut. It is not part of the concerto's standard score but is sometimes played by itself, as it was on this occasion. It is, it turns out (I had not heard it before), a simple, not to say simple-minded, copybook theme and variations, with little of Mozart's trademark emotional depth or Olympian powers of invention. It seems to me that Serkin (who, one assumes, was responsible for programming his part of the concert) wanted to show the piece in an unflattering light compared to what had gone before, as a way of making his case for a favorite composer by playing a second-rate work by everyone else's favorite composer. Of course, the Mozart received loud cheers, as did the Brahms, which was glossy and forgettable. The concert was promoted with the banner legend "Serkin plays Mozart!" Closer to the truth (and certainly more interesting for this listener) might be the phrase "Serkin trashes Mozart to boost Messiaen!" And good for him.

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