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Thursday, February 7, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Fresh Life For Elgar's `Gerontius'

A musical premiere always carries with it a sense of excitement in discovery.

Yet there is excitement in rediscovery, too - in the process of breathing fresh life into a neglected composition of beauty and power.

That's what the Seattle Symphony will be doing Monday and Tuesday when music director Gerard Schwarz leads the orchestra, chorale and three distinguished soloists in Edward Elgar's ``The Dream of Gerontius.''

Schwarz calls the work ``one of the choral masterpieces of this century,'' citing Elgar's skill in the setting of text and writing for the voice. Schwarz hasn't been a particularly enthusiastic proponent of British music in the past, so his championing of this score carries extra weight.

So should the fact that the symphony has signed Vinson Cole, Katherine Ciesinski and Erich Parce as soloists. All first-rate singers with a string of successes at the Metropolitan Opera and other leading companies, these also are unusually intelligent and musical singers. Though Ciesinski hasn't appeared with the symphony since 1984, Cole and Parce are well-known to Seattle audiences through operatic and choral engagements; Parce sang in last December's ``Messiah'' here, and Cole returns to Seattle Opera's stage next month in ``Anna Bolena.''

When Elgar chose to set Cardinal John Henry Newman's poem about the soul's journey in the afterlife, he believed he was producing the greatest music of which he was capable: ``I have written my own heart's blood into the score,'' he wrote to a friend. The work's disastrous premiere in 1900, however, dashed Elgar's optimism and his faith, when an unprepared and underrehearsed chorus and orchestra came repeatedly to grief in the work's more difficult sections. He was so crushed by the performance that he wrote, ``I always said God was against art & I still believe it. . . . I have allowed my heart to open once - it is now shut against every religious feeling & every soft, gentle impulse for ever.''

Elgar even dreamed of suicide (``I really wish I were dead over & over again but I dare not, for the sake of my relatives, do the job myself''). Instead, life brought him vindication for ``Gerontius,'' which was recognized as a great work during his lifetime, and Elgar went on to compose other music.

And, fortunately, the Seattle Symphony has substantially more time than the one-day rehearsal before the premiere of ``Gerontius'' at the Birmingham Festival - when Elgar rose in fury to berate the chorus for singing the music ``as if it were a drawing-room ballad.''

For ticket information, call the symphony's box office, 443-4747.

A Solberg celebration

Get out your Guinness Book of World Records next week, when Seattle clarinetist Tom Solberg will celebrate his 88th year of membership in the American Federation of Musicians. Solberg, whose 100th birthday is Feb. 17, joined Local 184 in Everett as a 12-year-old in 1903, switching in 1918 to Seattle's Local 76.

For many years a member of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Solberg also played such venues as local theaters and the Frederick & Nelson Tea Room. He performed in the Nile Temple Shrine Band for 40 years, and has made musical friendships with generations of local and national artists.

Chet Ramage, president of Local 76, has announced plans to honor Solberg at the general meeting next Tuesday. For information, call 441-7600.

Music and cathedrals

More music of religious inspiration is on tap this weekend, when St. James Cathedral hosts two evenings of Great Music for Great Cathedrals at 8 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday. James Savage conducts the 55-voice Cathedral Choir, the 12-member Women of St. James Schola, and the Emerald City Brass Ensemble in cathedral music of the past 10 centuries, including portions of the medieval ``The Play of Daniel'' and an Ave Maria by Munich composer Franz Biebl.

Organists Howard Hoyt and Ivy Reed will play all four of the St. James organs, from a 12th-century replica with handbells to the 1926 Casevante organ. Vocal soloists will be Nancy Zylstra, Lisa Cardwell, Louise Marley, Paul Karaitis and Norman Smith. Early arrival is recommended, because there's no reserved seating; for information, call 622-3559.

First-rate pianists

Coming dates will offer performances by two first-rate pianists: Neal O'Doan, who plays with the Seattle Philharmonic Orchestra this Sunday at 3 p.m. in Meany Theater, and Jeffrey Siegel, who performs a President's Piano Series recital in the same hall on Wednesday.

O'Doan, a University of Washington faculty member and one of the Northwest's best resident artists, is set to play Strauss' Burleske for Piano and Orchestra and Chopin's Concerto No. 2 in F Minor with the Philharmonic, under the direction of Nico Snel, who also will conduct Mozart's Symphony No. 38 (''Prague'') and Still's ``Afro-American Symphony'' (623-7983).

Siegel will provide commentary as well as music in his recital program, called ``Keyboard Conversations: Passionate Piano Music of Clara and Robert Schumann, a Love Story in Music.'' Included in the program will be a Mazurka and Romance of Clara (Wieck) Schumann, and Robert Schumann's Novelette and the Op. 17 Fantasia in C Major, with a newly discovered alternative ending (543-4880).

Quink at Meany

The Dutch vocal quintet Quink performs Saturday at 8 in Meany Theater, as part of the Ladies Musical Club International Recital Series. This highly regarded group performs everything from 16th-century madrigals and 19th-century art songs to contemporary close harmony. Their superior recordings promise an intriguing live performance (728-6411).

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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