Beethoven delivered with spirit

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An all-Beethoven program is usually quite a draw — especially with two soloists who just happen to be married to each other.

Conductor/pianist Ralf Gothóni and his violinist wife, Elina Vähälä, the two soloists of the weekend's Beethoven concerts at the Northwest Chamber Orchestra, are likely to be important figures in Seattle's musical life for some time to come, because Gothóni is the orchestra's music director designate.

Fortunately, as yesterday's concert made clear, they also are likely to make some remarkable contributions.

Gothóni is a musician of great vitality and imagination, and yesterday's audience could almost feel the raw energy pouring from the piano bench as he played and conducted the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3.

The approach was on the rough-hewn side; this was the Beethoven of storms and tempests, not the Beethoven of the drawing room.

Gothóni also devoted a lot of time to the lovely solo lines of the Largo movement, drawing out the passages with considerable sensitivity before stampeding right into the final Rondo.

The concerto's only drawback was the apparent difficulty of cueing the wind players (all excellent) when the pianist was busy at the keyboard.

Entrance after entrance found the winds at split-second odds with each other and the soloist, and sometimes the pianist and orchestra didn't arrive at crucial chords together.

Vähälä, a Grace Kelly look-alike who cut an exceedingly glamorous figure on the stage, took over as soloist for two Beethoven Romances for Violin and Orchestra. She is a patrician, confident player with a big, smooth tone that poured out the long-lined melodies with true beauty.

The high-spirited finale, Beethoven's Symphony No. 1, was vividly pictorial in an almost opera buffa style, full of wit and humor.

The third movement was particularly effervescent; Gothóni drew out the long tease of the finale's opening, as the violins inched forward note by note, to great effect.

As the last sparkling phrases emerged, it was clear yesterday that the orchestra is playing better than ever — a wonderful augury for the future.

Let's hope that his jobs in London, Beijing, Scandinavia and elsewhere allow him sufficient time for a Seattle music directorship that can make a long-term and positive difference here.

The Northwest Chamber Orchestra

"Beethoven" with Ralf Gothni, conductor/piano, and Elina Vhl, violin soloist; Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya Hall, yesterday afternoon.