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Bold Listening: Morlot and the orchestra take on Mahler together

Seattle Symphony Orchestra's Ludovic Morlot in action

In a culture of iPods and instant access to just about any conceivable type of music, hearing an orchestra perform live is about a lot more than the endurance of tradition. It’s the gateway to an experience that can’t be ripped or downloaded or clicked on — an experience all the more memorable thanks to its irreplaceable, one-time-only nature.

Ludovic Morlot, now in the middle of his second season as the Seattle Symphony Orchestra’s music director, understands the special excitement this experience can generate for audiences and the musicians onstage alike. "The slogan we’ve adopted — ‘listen boldly’ — applies to us as well,” he explains. “Whether it’s new works and commissions, parts of the canon that have been neglected, or core repertoire, so many things can be improved by encouraging the players to listen to each other.

"The acoustics of Benaroya Hall allow you to make adjustments by listening closely.”

In his inaugural season, Morlot managed to create considerable buzz by applying his sensitive, detail-oriented focus to music by such compatriots as Henri Dutilleux and Hector Berlioz, presiding over a concert performance of the latter’s The Damnation of Faust that was a standout not just of the season but of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra’s playing in recent years. But this year, along with several important novelties, Morlot has been turning his attention more and more to familiar works and composers. This week brings one of the most-anticipated programs of the season as the SSO and their new conductor make their first foray together into the world of Mahler’s symphonies with a performance of his Symphony No. 4.

Mahler has by now arguably replaced Beethoven and the other Viennese classics as the gold standard by which orchestral excellence is measured. Yet Morlot perceives a clear sense of lineage. “I want us to do Mahler from the approach of having played Haydn, of nurturing the details,” he points out. Instead of performing a hyper-romantic, “noisy piece,” he envisions playing Mahler in such a way that his music “becomes a kind of Haydn symphony with added winds and brass and so on.”

The idea has been to elicit the best from these musicians by carefully building up, step by step, a newfound sense of confidence from their interpretations of Mahler’s predecessors. “We’ve been addressing issues of vibrato, articulation, bowing, balance, etc. in the classical pieces from earlier this season.”

And to judge by the liveliness and unfussy clarity of their recent performances of Haydn and Mozart, Mahler’s Fourth in particular should benefit. Morlot explains that he chose this work as their first excursion into Mahler’s cycle together on account of the score’s chamber-like dimensions. With its gentler contours and textures, the Fourth — written around the turn of the last century — is the least “epic” of his symphonies. It also has a reputation for being his sunniest, friendliest, most optimistic work, ending with a simple song of innocence that depicts a child’s vision of heaven (to be sung by soprano Donatienne Michel-Dansac).

The choice of works to complement the Mahler also demonstrates a key strength of Morlot. Intelligent and thought-provoking connections between the different works on a concert are by now a hallmark of his programming. As the concert proceeds, we learn something new from the ways in which each piece serves to comment on the others.

Also included will be a modernist classic by Alban Berg, one of the first to appreciate the true significance of Mahler’s creative achievement. His Violin Concerto from 1935 (which will feature soloist Veronika Eberle) was in fact partially inspired by the premature death of the daughter of Mahler’s widow Alma by her second marriage. And along with the biographical links, both works are rooted in imagery of death and the afterlife, while the solo violin is accorded a special role in Mahler’s Fourth as well. To establish the Requiem-like aspect of Berg’s Violin Concerto further, Morlot will also include a rendition of Bach’s treatment of a Lutheran chorale that makes a ghostly appearance in Berg’s music to signify the consolation once offered by religion.

Strange as it may seem given the reputation of Mahler’s Fourth today, the first critics to hear it (in 1901) expressed contempt and bafflement. They condemned Mahler’s music as “complicated and incomprehensible,” as full of “unfermented ideas, strange cacophonous images.” For all their remarkable originality, Mahler’s first three symphonies had reaffirmed the basic pattern established by Beethoven, a pattern that made the symphony into a metaphysical journey depicting a struggle from darkness to light. But the Fourth suddenly changes tack by ending with an enigmatically sweet lullaby and a regression to childhood. In a sense, that strategy even seems to question the majestic drama of Beethoven’s Ninth (in which Morlot will lead the SSO at the end of December). In place of the latter’s transcendent choral finale. Mahler substitutes a simple song whose folk-poetry combines “roguishness” with “the deepest mysticism,” as Mahler described it, so that “everything is turned on its head.”

This was especially what seemed to irk those early critics. The Fourth has a “happy ending,” but it concludes with a barely audible note dissolving deep in the bass. And on the way there, we encounter all sorts of odd juxtapositions that are never quite resolved. The musicologist Mark Evan Bonds compares the way audiences may have originally heard the Fourth to how people first reacted to John Cage: They couldn’t tell how seriously to take what they were hearing.

There’s a good deal of humor that consciously invokes the spirit and manner of Haydn, making the connection Morlot emphasizes with that classical past especially fitting. At the same time, the score encompasses surrealism in its Scherzo and a serene slow movement that ranks among the most beautiful music Mahler ever composed. The amazing transparency and colorful blends of his orchestration, meanwhile, call for the kind of chamber music-like close listening to each other that Morlot has found to be so central to his modus operandi with the SSO.

It will be especially interesting to hear what new angles the conductor brings to Mahler. The SSO performed (and recorded some of) Mahler’s entire symphonic cycle in Benaroya Hall under conductor laureate Gerard Schwarz. What differences might we expect to hear? Morlot’s approach to classic repertoire so far has emphasized detail and nuance, the full dimension of orchestral textures, over any kind of “personal” stamp. It’s a way that encourages close listening all around. “I try to create an environment where the musicians can make the best of themselves,” he says. “Along with whatever musical decisions I bring to the mix, making music is about communicating that sense of trust.”

If you go: Ludovic Morlot leads the Seattle Symphony in Mahler’s Fourth along with music of Bach and Berg on Nov. 29 at 7:30 p.m. and Dec.1 at 8:00 p.m. at Benaroya Hall, 200 University St. Tickets $19 to $87, online, ticket office, or 206-215-4747.

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