Seattle Symphony under Stéphane Denève: firing on all cylinders

The young French conductor coaxes a thrilling and revelatory performance.
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Stéphane Denève, music director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

The young French conductor coaxes a thrilling and revelatory performance.

The stimulation of going on tour is one way orchestras can reinvigorate their energy and sense of identity. But another way which can jumpstart that much-needed process comes from the input of a savvy guest conductor. This past weekend's subscription program featured a return visit by French conductor Stephane Deneve and the sheer, well-crafted of their music-making drew delighted smiles from the Seattle Symphony Orchestra – not to mention a raptly focused audience response.

The 36-year-old Denève, who also heads the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, has found himself in high demand on the international circuit in the past few years. The reason is simple, given the kind of instant but lasting first impression he makes. And he played to his strengths with a program of mostly French music, inspiring the ensemble to give an unusually satisfying performance. It was thrilling – and a revelation – to hear the SSO capable of getting inside the music with such vibrancy and nuance.

They opened with a bit of neoclassicism that Stravinsky wrote for Balanchine's American Ballet company in the mid-1930s, Jeu de Cartes. Familiarity with the original scenario (which personifies the cards played in three hands of a poker game) was unnecessary to enjoy the musical gambles Denève took with the piece. This was no tamed Stravinsky, the guy who, according to textbook explanations, had shifted his style a la Picasso from the primitivism of the early modernist ballets to copping snarky neoclassical attitudes. Sharp, knife-like attacks and shockwave accents suggested more of a continuum with the composer's past.

Denève understands how Stravinsky constantly pulls out the carpet from under us, his pseudo-quiescent cadences refusing to let our ears rest easy. In lieu of smooth transitions, the score jump cuts from one preoccupation to another without giving a damn. The sudden infiltration of an English horn changes the stakes for a moment, and then we're back into a madcap dash of reverse roulades, turning Tchaikovsky on his head, along with a through-the-looking-glass musical reference to The Barber of Seville. Under Denève, the orchestra dug into the score's off-kilter rhythms, savoring its polytonal bite and brash dollops of brass. Occasional rough edges only added to the authenticity of the musicians' excitement.

The program's obvious standout was a deeply felt, gorgeously phrased account of Ravel's Piano Concerto in G, free of the barest hint of routine. Orchestra and soloist, French pianist Frank Braley, were mutually attuned to each other in conveying this concerto's astonishing poetry. Braley's sensitive tone had a guileless, elegiac radiance in the slow movement, while he brought flair to the work's animated rhythms.

Here was a neoclassicism altogether different from Stravinsky's, attentive to Ravel's combination of Mozartean poignancy and Gallicized blues. Valerie Muzzolini kept us in enchanted suspense at the harp's sudden intervention in the first movement, like a wind-swept lyre in a Shelleyan ode. Denève encouraged breathtaking felicities of balance: you could hear Braley's ultra-pianissimo intertwine with a layer of orchestral filaments, while he dovetailed to exquisite effect with blooming wind solos (the SSO's principals in fine form) in a heartbreaking Adagio. I've rarely heard a Benaroya audience so dumbstruck.

Fauré's suite from his incidental music to Pelléas et Mélisande (hardly the greatest of the musical responses to Maeterlinck's wondrous play, if the most often performed) became an essay in subtly shifting colors. The strings maintained a luminous blend of fine shadings. Denève excelled at bringing out Fauré's crepuscular melancholy, and he shaped foreground and background like a film director, finessing how a solo trumpet or flute line would emerge from the mass and then folded back into it. In the musical chairs of SSO's rotating concertmasters, Frank Almond played with soulful, honeyed tone. Denève coaxed a miraculous shimmering final chord at the end of Mélisande's threnody, like smoke trailing skyward.

Denève is tall and demonstrative on the podium, frequently sweeping fingers through a shock of frizzy hair. His manner is never dictatorial but precise and collaborative. He made Debussy's Ibéria – the second tone poem in his trilogy of musical travelogues, the orchestral Images – more than a mélange of "local color" by closely calibrating the changing weights and densities of Debussy's orchestration.

The SSO responded with warmth and passion, even if the ensemble had its frayed, blurry moments. No matter – the rapport between the orchestra and Denève inspired some of their best playing of late. And it's encouraging to witness what happens when the chemistry is right.


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