How good is the Seattle Symphony? Over the years I've compared orchestras through recordings and occasional travels, but I couldn't pass up the chance to hear three outfits—the New York Philharmonic and the Seattle Symphony led by Gerard Schwarz, as well as the combined forces of the Russian National Orchestra (RNO) and our hometown symphony under Mikhail Pletnev—tackle Tchaikovsky's thrilling Symphony No. 5, all in the last two weeks of March.

So who was better? It's a close call. The NY Phil, led by associate conductor Xian Zhang, was the most consistent; however, I gotta grouse that the opening horn aria of the second movement trembled with a palsied vibrato and just moments later at measure 26, the oboist rushed the last two duplets of the solo. Nonetheless, Zhang's excellent, bullshit-free conducting made my visit to the Big Apple worthwhile.

The combined forces of the Seattle Symphony and the RNO were also satisfying, though Pletnev led the group into a superfluous accelerando around measure 487 in the first movement, inexplicably decelerating about 30 measures later. Two nights later with the Seattle Symphony under his baton, Schwarz did the same thing, but earlier and more expansively. Additionally, in the third movement Pletnev needlessly raced after measure 73, hot-throttling much of the remaining section into a sped-up, spasticated scherzo reminiscent of Mendelssohn. Yet throughout the piece, Pletnev masterfully sculpted sensuous phrases with the strings, even when his manic, fast-forward tempo for the finale's Presto galloped too quickly. Schwarz hit the Presto perfectly, surging faster than Zhang, yet not going as fast as Pletnev, transforming the final hortatory Molto meno mosso into a real release—and a triumph.

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Finally, fans of the avant should investigate three upcoming performances. The Paris-based Quatuor Diotima, named after Luigi Nono's landmark string quartet Fragmente-Stille, an Diotima, serves up a must-hear program of Alban Berg (the Lyric Suite), Anton Webern, New Complexity guru Brian Ferneyhough (String Quartet No. 2), and the UW's Joël-François Durand (Friday, April 14, Brechemin Auditorium in the UW Music Building, 685-8384, 7:30 p.m., $10). Also, Seattle composer Tom Baker premieres The Gospel of the Red-Hot Stars (Thursday–Saturday, April 13–15, Richard Hugo House, 1634 11th Avenue, 800-838-3006, 8:00 p.m., $7.50/$15). Based on a Margaret Atwood poem and hellfire sermons by Cotton Mather, Baker's chamber opera-oratorio chronicles the ordeal of Mary Webster, who was deemed guilty of practicing witchcraft in 1680s Massachusetts. Hanged from a tree and left to die overnight, she survived and went on to live in her community for 14 years. And though I'm unfamiliar with Bulgarian bassist and performance artist Irina-Kalina Goudeva, I plan to check out her Lavarayaha (Sunday, April 16, Brechemin Auditorium in the UW Music Building, 685-8384, 7:30 p.m., free), billed as "A solo spectacle for voice, double bass, electronics, visual effects, acting, and dancing."