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Friday, May 21, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Gifted Prodigies Make A Magical Evening Of Music

Seattle Times Music Critic

------------------------------- Music review

The Seattle Symphony "Light Classics," with Richard Buckley, guest conductor, and Shunsuke Sato, violin soloist; Benaroya Hall, Seattle, last night. -------------------------------

Maybe there is a good-music fairy somewhere up there, waving her wand at the occasional lucky concert. In any case, last night's "Light Classics" concert at the Seattle Symphony was the kind of event that makes concertgoers believe in benevolent powers - with a program, a soloist and a conductor who all conspired to make the audience happy.

It's hard to miss, when you have the debut of a sensational young violinist (Shunsuke Sato); a program of beloved classics (the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, Copland's "Appalachian Spring" and Beethoven's Fifth Symphony); and, most of all, the return of a hometown favorite in conductor Richard Buckley, a former podium prodigy whose longtime association with the Seattle Symphony culminated in the post of principal guest conductor from 1982 to 1984.

Hearing the debut of an outstanding young artist is always a thrill, and Sato is one of the most gifted young prodigies to come along in some time: at 14, he is already a formidable talent who appears poised for a major career.

Sato played the Mendelssohn concerto with a small, perfectly centered tone, and the technical finesse to negotiate tricky double-stops and thorny passagework with ease and accuracy. He is a refined and subtle player, maybe not as demonstrative as some of his peers, but with plenty of artistry in his phrasing and his bow arm.

Buckley partnered him with care, giving him plenty of time and scope, hushing the orchestra so that it did not overpower the soloist. The audience surged to its feet for a standing ovation, and Sato likely will have a lot of new fans when he returns to Seattle this July for a performance in the Seattle Chamber Music Festival.

It has been far too long since we've heard Buckley in Seattle; his departure, after the death of his mentor Rainer Miedel, took him first to Oakland and then on to a string of major international orchestras and opera companies. Clearly delighted to be back with the orchestra, Buckley is still his old expressive self, with expansive and occasionally athletic gestures, a broad sweep of the baton, and a face whose expressions mirror the music. Cuing and cutoffs were emphatic and explicit.

The "Light Classics" crowd was a bit restive and chatty as Buckley led the orchestra in the opening of "Appalachian Spring." Gradually, the ambient sound died away to nothing as Buckley made everyone listen, crafting the quiet, understated performance with a tender delicacy and tight precision. The woodwind solos were first-rate.

Buckley lead a weighty, but by no means pompous, reading of Beethoven's Fifth, making expert use of soft and subtle dynamics. (One glaring exception was the horn section, which overblew to the extent of spreading and splitting the tone in both the first and third movements.)

Phrases of almost magical quiet spun the second movement to its close, but best of all was the whisper-soft diminuendo at the end of the third, leading into the glorious fourth with a highly satisfying surge of drama. The podium prodigy has grown up - and it's great to have him back.

Copyright © 1999 The Seattle Times Company

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