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Updated Friday, November 2, 2012 at 01:31 PM

Remarkable violinist, conductor were masterful pair at Seattle Symphony

By Philippa Kiraly
Special to The Seattle Times

From her first notes, it was clear that Arabella Steinbacher is a violinist not to be missed. Playing Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto with the Seattle Symphony at Benaroya Hall Thursday night, the young musician from Munich, Germany, showed both intelligence and nuance in her interpretation. It was her tonal beauty, however, that set her apart.

It had depth that never got lost in the exigencies of the moment, with a honeyed warmth maintained even in staccato runs, which had plenty of energy and character but never sounded scratchy. Long notes bloomed. No doubt some of the sound quality could be attributed to her Stradivarius, but that sound has to be drawn out of the instrument, and she was masterly at this. Steinbacher uses big bow strokes, and there are places in the Tchaikovsky where this can result in steely sound, but not with her.

Guest conductor Neeme Järvi gave Steinbacher excellent support in this familiar work, using a slightly reduced orchestra, which applauded her as enthusiastically as the audience at the end.

Throughout the concert, which also included a Suite from Tchaikovsky's "The Snow Maiden" and Prokofiev's Symphony No. 6 in E-flat Minor, the Estonian Järvi, now 75, conducted with economical movement. He indicated his wishes precisely to the orchestra, but while maintaining complete control he often allowed the orchestra to play with very little direction. It's a compliment to our orchestra that this famous conductor did not seem to need to direct every moment.

Järvi extracted "The Snow Maiden" Suite from the original incidental music Tchaikovsky wrote for an elaborate stage show in Moscow. It's not one of Tchaikovsky's great works, but the five excerpts are worth an airing, particularly the charming Entracte to Act 1 with its clarinet duet, and the lively finale.

The Sixth Symphony of Prokofiev was the heavyweight of the evening. Not his most familiar work, this powerful symphony is a troubling portrait of post-World War II feeling in Russia. It goes from rude staccato brass blasts to shrill winds, interspersed with gentler sections. Disquieting combinations of sudden discordance with brief serenity, then an organized cacophony and a feel of relentless bewilderment, are brilliantly portrayed by the composer and were superbly presented by Järvi with the orchestra.

Oboe, clarinet, bassoon and flute have prominent roles, ably executed, also the low brass, particularly the tuba. It's an important work, one that bears witness, as do many of Shostakovich's works, to a time that should not be forgotten.

The performance deserved strong applause, and got some of that, but the work is not one to receive adoring adulation. It's too strong, too unsettling. Järvi himself did receive considerable applause, especially from the orchestra. Orchestras often consider conductors to have feet of clay, but not this one.

ADDITIONAL PERFORMANCES

Seattle Symphony Orchestra

Noon Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $19-$112 (206-215-4747 or www.seattlesymphony.org).

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