This Seattle Symphony’s live stream program, part of its “Music Unleashed” series, consisted of spirited works by youthful composers and focused largely on the perennially popular violin. The concert opened with an intriguing piece by young American composer Jessie Montgomery. In a year that has highlighted the works of female composers, the New York-born Montgomery is an ideal representative. Not yet 40 years old, widely known for her work Banner, a bold transformation of the American national anthem, the gifted composer and violinist specializes in compositions for strings. 2012’s Starburst for string orchestra is a perfect example of her youthful energy.
Commissioned by the Sphinx Organization, a national association dedicated to transforming lives through the power of diversity in the arts, the piece is only about three minutes in length, yet it captivates. Both harmonious and dissonant, and also atmospheric, it’s filled with sprightly ebullience. With nods to Bartók’s Divertimento for Strings and Stravinsky’s Firebird, the piece also reflects Montgomery’s American roots and the influence of Samuel Barber, especially his Adagio for Strings.
Montgomery gives all of the instruments plenty to do. The piece begins with explosive motifs in the violins, symbolizing the formation of a new star. The understated ending contrasts with the dynamic opening, representing the creation of a new interstellar entity taking its place in the cosmos. Young conductor Lee Mills made sure the rhythmic complexities were well defined with strong, bold gestures. Conducting without baton, Mills gave beats that were precise and dependable, essential with players who by necessity were seated far apart. The ensemble responded with enthusiastic virtuosity.
Mendelssohn’s brooding Violin Concerto in E minor was his last major orchestral work, although the composer was still a youthful 29 when he began to write it. One of the most well-known and oft performed in the violin repertoire and frequently regarded as the proverbial warhorse, the piece is undeniably a masterpiece and proved an ideal vehicle for concertmaster Noah Geller’s technical and interpretive expertise. Geller has been an inspiring and stabilizing presence since his first appearance with the orchestra. It is a very tough transition from orchestra concertmaster to soloist, but he gave an admirable rendering of the multifaceted concerto, with a consistent, sweet tone, sensitive phrasing, and exceptional beauty in the high register. He made full use of the bow throughout, and his glissandi were tasteful, not overdone.
The virtuosic cadenza, uncharacteristically placed in the middle rather than the end of the first movement (many later Romantic composers were inspired to do the same), allowed Geller’s impressive technique to shine, as did the fireworks in the final movement, where he showed no trouble with the brisk tempo and was quite consistent in the fioratura passages. Mills kept up with Geller’s brisk tempi, stuck to him like glue, and was expressive exactly when needed. One would have liked Geller to stretch out some of the phrases, massaging them a bit more.
Only two of Mozart’s 41 symphonies are in minor keys. The first of these, his 25th, is often called the “little G minor”. It is lightly orchestrated, without timpani or trumpets; but the unusual scoring – four horns instead of the customary two – creates a thicker harmonic texture and imparts a stern, stormy moodiness. Mills, again without baton, brought out the Sturm und Drang and the composer’s uncharacteristically melancholy outlook with a clear understanding of the phrasing. The vigorous young maestro made the small ensemble powerful by depicting the storminess of a youthful composer and drawing maximum commitment from his players.