It’s been easy to get caught up in the honeymoon spirit as Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony work through their first stages of bonding together. But now that they’ve already entered month two of the young maestro’s inaugural season, some distinct patterns are beginning to emerge and the news continues to be extremely encouraging.
Foremost are a newfound focus and sense of motivation from the musicians that, happily, have been carrying through from one concert to the next; these show no signs of petering out. Whether playing familiar classics like the Beethoven's Eroica and Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring or novelties (even ones of such dubious quality as the Gulda Cello Concerto featured on the season’s opening concert), the SSO and Morlot seem hell-bent on getting back to basics in the best sense of the term: reconnecting with the impulses and drive that made them want to devote their lives to this kind of music in the first place.
And, by reconsidering the orchestra’s layout on the stage, back to basics in some specifically technical ways as well. Reverting to the more-conventional clockwise arrangement for the strings (for the time being, at least) — with first and second violins together on the conductor's left rather than split on either side, as Gerard Schwarz preferred — Morlot has been encouraging better focus from this section, which is the backbone of so much classical orchestration. He’s also established a powerful throughline, with timpanist Michael Crusoe positioned upstage directly opposite the podium. (Morlot likes to compare this to the axis of a butterfly, with the rest of the ensemble like wings gracefully spreading out on either side.) Overall, the result has been to reinforce ensemble unity while also giving individual players the reassurance to make expressive forays.
Another Morlot trademark has been unusually well-conceived programming content. For all the buzz about his wanting to stir up the scene to attract a hip new audience, the French maestro is hardly an iconoclast. In fact, his eclectic tastes embrace a decidedly conservative reverence for classic repertoire. What makes this so fresh is Morlot’s knack for evoking cross-references among different pieces, even between separate programs. I’ve found myself latching onto hitherto unsuspected connections and contexts as each performance progresses: all part of an ongoing musical conversation that has a way of bringing the past to life with thrilling relevance.
This has been especially apparent in the SSO’s two most-recent concerts. In the first of these, Morlot anchored his choices around The Rite of Spring, boldly making this pivotal work of modernism the concert’s premise and starting point rather than its destination. We’re fast approaching Rite’s 100th anniversary — the score is now older than Beethoven’s Ninth was when Stravinsky composed it — yet Morlot refused to treat it as a dinosaur (pace Disney’s Fantasia).
The musicians avoided any sense of the routine, taking nothing for granted, including, most gratifyingly, the cliché that Rite is all about the “liberation” of rhythm. Indeed, what I found most resonant in their playing was the image of archaic, alien memories awakened that the woodwind phrasings in the opening section evoked — their strangeness underlined — as well as the layered and ritualistic mystery of the stacked chords which Stravinsky uses to set the scene in Part Two.
A good deal of modernist music that once sent audiences packing was eventually domesticated through its role as an accompaniment to a story line (usually as the scoring for horror films or thrillers), but Rite marks a fascinating exception to that rule. Although Stravinsky actually composed this music for a ballet scenario (it was at the Ballets Russes premiere in Paris that the notorious riot forever associated with Rite occurred), the piece quickly became famous on its own terms, as heard in the more abstract setting of the concert hall.
Morlot paid attention to the score’s internal echoes, not just to its exciting narrative momentum. He had the SSO broaden its gaze beyond the easy payoff of Stravinsky’s fauvist, “savage” rhythms; these were but one component of a performance that sometimes suggested the timbral poetry of Ravel.
Meanwhile, Edgar Varèse’s soundscape from the 1920s, Amériques, was presented as a “response” to Stravinsky, with the idea of trying to replicate something of the disorienting effect that wore off long ago from Rite. An American in Paris served as the interlude between the two, its own cheerful familiarity helping to set the Varèse in even greater relief. Morlot had chosen Gershwin’s tone poem for his season-opening concert, so it was an added pleasure to notice the micro-refinements and buoyancy of the SSO’s latest reading.
Following Gershwin’s suave urban landscape, Amériques, with its small army of percussion players added to the orchestra, came across as particularly absurdist in its rejection of all the familiar narrative cues of Western music. And yet, right there in the first measures, were Varèse’s riffs on the motifs that begin The Rite of Spring, with a hint of Debussy’s dreaming faun to boot. The rumbling directionlessness of the piece elicited some reactions of nervous twittering and even giggling (especially prompted by the siren that gets periodically cranked). But if anyone felt cheated out of a more visceral, seismic Rite,, Morlot satisfied that urge with the shattering sonic wave he had the SSO unleash in the final seconds of Amériques.
Each of Morlot’s first three programs was designed to bring some particularly innovative aspect to the fore. I’ve also enjoyed some of the cross-references (musical and biographical) across these different concerts, such as Ravel and Gershwin, Frank Zappa and his idol Varèse. But this week’s concert (repeating this Saturday night, Oct. 8) took a more somber turn by juxtaposing three works that reflect on mortality. Each of the pieces is by a familiar composer: Liszt, Mahler, and Rachmaninoff.
To pay homage to the upcoming 200th anniversary of Franz Liszt’s birth (October 22 being the exact date), Morlot characteristically avoided one of the more obvious choices. Instead, he opened the program with the composer’s final tone poem: the retrospective Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe (“From the Cradle to the Grave”). This product of Liszt’s late period, which dates from the 1880s, comes decades after the barn-storming Romantic intensity (and occasional excess) of his best-known orchestral works. In retracing this allegorical journey of a life, Liszt acknowledges his earlier self in a middle section of storm and stress, only to abjure it in framing stretches of pared-down asceticism. The SSO’s better-focused string fiber really paid dividends here, with clear, poetically shaped lines. (Violist Susan Gulkis Assadi and cellist Efe Baltacigil made notable contributions in leading their respective sections.)
The gently rocking, simple musical idea that frames the Liszt meanwhile turned out to provide a touchingly ironic entrée to what followed. It’s understandable that Morlot decided to make his first impression as a Mahler interpreter in Seattle in a somewhat understated way: with Kindertotenlieder instead of one of the symphonies. After all, Schwarz had some remarkable triumphs with his Mahler (often at the climax of the season), leaving a formidable legacy when it comes to this repertoire.
But it also made beautiful sense internally. The program unfolded as a series of works in each of which the composer uses music as a vehicle to contemplate the transience of life. Mahler even seemed to be picking up some of the threads from Liszt with his toned-down, rarefied scoring. Mahler’s settings of Friedrich Rückert’s poems can in fact be treated as a kind of symphony, but Morlot emphasized the intimacy of his chamber-like writing, the songfulness of his melodic lamentation.
It didn't fully succeed. The balance between the ensemble and bass-baritone soloist Nathan Berg was off; he seemed especially strained at the top of his range, although as a dramatic presence Berg made a powerful impact by suggesting a kind of post-traumatic shell shock. There was exquisite playing from the woodwinds (in particular flutist Demarre McGill and oboist Ben Hausmann and harpist Valerie Muzzolini), yet the performance failed to satisfy overall. What was missing for me, amid a fabric of moving and poetic details, was the moment that pulls all these threads together — above all in the final, luminous resolution of the storm in the last song (“In diesem Wetter”). Instead of interpretive restraint, I wanted more profile from Morlot, more active shaping of the music’s inner drama.
The most satisfying playing came with the concluding work, Symphonic Dances, which also marks Rachmaninoff’s swan song as a composer. A sort of unofficial Fourth Symphony, Dances elicited the evening’s most varied palette of orchestral colors. It also felt more narrative in its sweep, more “programmatic,” than Liszt’s tone poem (inspired by a drawing) and Mahler’s song settings.
“All the world’s a dance” was the conviction that emerged from Morlot’s interpretation of the score, in which Rachmaninoff reviews his entire life as a composer and writes an advance check on his own requiem. In the ominous march of the first movement, for example, Morlot allowed the famous alto sax melody to bloom like a poignant memory trying to foil time. He masterfully built suspense with his use of rubato in the middle movement waltz, while the “Dies irae” chant that erupts in the brass near the end of Symphonic Dances had
a proudly defiant quality. What a striking contrast it made with the morbid self-castigation of Mahler’s protagonist (who mourns the death of his children).
The playing was fierce and focused throughout.
The question now is whether the SSO will be able to maintain this momentum. After this week, Morlot has only two more appearances in October before he returns to helm the orchestra in January. Coming up later in October is a one-night-only program of world premieres (“Sonic Evolution”) and a reprise of The Rite of Spring as part of the "Beyond the Score" series that introduces audiences to masterworks (with Steve Reeder as narrator). After that we’ll have a sequence of guest conductors, while Morlot returns to his old stomping grounds to lead the Boston Symphony for several weeks, including a tour to California in December, filling in for the ailing James Levine.
If you go: An additional performance of this week’s Seattle Symphony program can be heard on Saturday, Oct. 8, at 8 pm. Ludovic Morlot will also lead "Sonic Evolution," a special program devoted to new music, on Oct. 29 at 7:30 pm. Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., 206 215-4747.