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Friday, November 18, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Classical Music Previews

Gothóni looks to future, Smedvig returns

Seattle Times music critic

Ralf Gothóni is an idealist in pragmatist's clothing.

The Finnish conductor, pianist, festival director and composer is in town briefly for this weekend's concerts with the Northwest Chamber Orchestra, of which he is music director. It has been a week in which he hit the ground running and never really stopped, with rehearsals and orchestra auditions and meetings, but this is the life Gothóni knows and loves. He is a man who adores music and who has a philosopher's soul about his favorite art form: "What are we here [on Earth] for? We are not here to make streets and drive cars on them. We are here for culture."

At the same time, he is familiar with the adaptations and accommodations he must make in order to make that culture happen, including lots of travel and jet lag — and interviews.

"I'm very happy with the Chamber Orchestra," he reported this week in a short break between rehearsals and auditions, "and the way we understand each other. It is difficult because I am away from Seattle a lot, but I am happy with how quickly the players and I get back to our understanding. They are very motivated to get to that place where we have that wonderful feeling of being one with the music, where every piece sounds like a new piece when we play it."

Gothóni would like to see the financially troubled orchestra expand — here's the idealist talking — from six programs a year to about 30, adding a few more string players for good measure. That is unlikely to happen, he concedes, in the present economic climate, but he has his hopes.

"Marketing is very important in the concert world," he says, "but the main thing is what happens on the stage, not how big the audience is."

This spring, Gothóni will lead the orchestra on two ambitious tours: first to the Gilmore Festival in Michigan and then to the Naantali Festival of Finland, where the NWCO will become the first American orchestra in a long string of distinguished international ensembles. The festival is run by the cellist Arto Noras, a longtime Gothóni friend who has appeared with him as soloist here at previous NWCO concerts.

Certainly Gothóni's own career has had an international focus; he has held conducting posts in Europe and has founded a music festival in the Forbidden City. During a 1986 tour of China as a pianist, he had to play into microphones because of the audience, which was chatting, drinking Cokes and chomping on popcorn, wandering in and out of the hall — a surreal experience, Gothóni says.

"In the last 20 years, the piano world has changed," he remarks.

"For one thing, China has 80 million piano students. Recitalists no longer play into microphones. In fact, the best pianists in terms of technical ability are all from Asia now."

Here in Seattle, Gothóni is focusing on giving the audience the greatest variety possible in his programming. This weekend's program certainly bears out that philosophy. It offers a nod back in time (Respighi's "Ancient Airs and Dances"); Schoenberg's challenging chamber arrangement of Mahler's moving "Songs of a Wayfarer" (with German baritone Konrad Jarnot); and a dash of trumpet. The latter is supplied by trumpeter Allen Vizzutti, who is heard in the Shostakovich Concerto No. 1 (with pianist Archie Chen) and in his own "Andante and Capriccio for Trumpet and Strings."

Start times are 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday in the orchestra's regular Benaroya Hall home, the Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall. The Northwest Chamber Orchestra has a very liberal educational policy: Youths under the age of 18 are admitted free to all concerts when they are accompanied by a paying adult. For tickets and information, visit www.nwco.org or call 206-343-0445.

Band concert with a plus

This weekend's "sleeper" event is a rare return to the Northwest by trumpeter Rolf Smedvig, who plays a 2 p.m. concert Sunday with the Tacoma Concert Band in a "Milestones" program recapping highlights of the band's past 25 years.

Smedvig, who checked in with The Seattle Times recently online while on a flight from Hong Kong to Taipei, is certainly one of the most successful of Seattle's musical natives — first as principal trumpet with the Boston Symphony, later as founder of the Empire Brass Quintet and an international soloist.

"This year the Empire Brass will visit eight countries," Smedvig typed in a message that also had real-time photos from the air and a portrait of his three cute children.

"When I'm not with the Brass, I am doing solos and some conducting now. I was recently appointed director of brass for the Simon Bolivar Orchestra of Venezuela. Currently I am developing a series, 'What's This,' for the cable company NTDTV, and we have been filming the first installment, 'Classic Western Musical Instruments.' It's part of a series of films that will also be in DVD and book form, introducing children to instruments with descriptions and real pictures and real performers."

Smedvig's Tacoma concert is in the Pantages Theater; for tickets and info, call 253-584-0616 or visit www.tacomaconcertband.org.

Melinda Bargreen: mbargreen@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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