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Originally published Friday, June 13, 2014 at 4:27 PM

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Symphony soloist takes on ‘famously difficult’ concerto

A review of the Seattle Symphony’s Thursday, June 12, 2014, concert, featuring soloist Jonathan Biss playing Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto. A preconcert presentation paid tribute to departing principal clarinetist Christopher Sereque.

Special to The Seattle Times


Seattle Symphony with Jonathan Biss

Ludovic Morlot, conducting. Program repeats 8 p.m. Saturday, June 14, and 2 p.m. Sunday, June 15, Benaroya Hall, Seattle; $19-$112 (206-215-4747 or


The Seattle Symphony has moved its focus from France to Vienna in the current subscription program, featuring three composers with close ties to the land of waltzes and Sachertorte and serialism. Music director Ludovic Morlot was on the podium and (briefly) behind the microphone for Thursday’s opening performance.

Following a graceful account of Johann Strauss Jr.’s familiar, lilting Emperor Waltzes (Op. 437), Morlot addressed the concertgoers, as he often does when about to perform a work he thinks they won’t like. With the thorny Schoenberg Piano Concerto looming ahead, Morlot explained that though music lovers are often scared by the name of Schoenberg, the performance would last only 20 minutes, and we should listen to the emotions portrayed in the work.

It took a brave soloist to come out after that introduction, but Jonathan Biss is assuredly that and considerably more. He played with authority, finesse and clarity, although Biss still needed a score and a page-turner. Perhaps it is impossible to perform the Schoenberg Concerto without them; this famously difficult concerto offers unique challenges to the memory. Biss’ performance was warmly received.

The more familiar musical language of Brahms, in his warmly beautiful Symphony No. 2, was the audience’s post-intermission reward. Despite a rocky first-movement start, Morlot got a good but not great performance from the orchestra, which responded to his baton with some beautiful woodwind playing and a generally strong horn section.

This symphony is particularly rich in lovely melodies, not all of which were shaped in a manner that clarified their rise and blossoming and subsiding, and gave them expressive depth. The performance could have benefited from more contrast and vitality.

Orchestra players, even principals, do not always get the attention they deserve over the course of a long career, and that is why it was gratifying to see the preconcert appreciation of principal clarinetist Christopher Sereque, who is retiring at the end of the current season.

Sereque’s section colleague Laura DeLuca gave a speech recognizing his important contributions over the past 35 years, calling his impending departure a reconfiguring of the constellations.

And the audience rose, applauding at length and cheering for this veteran who has contributed so many beautiful solos. It was a heartwarming moment.

Melinda Bargreen also reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM. She can be reached at

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