Orchestra conductors like to open and close seasons with a big musical bang, but some programs detonate more reliably than others. (Beethoven's Ninth is an easy sell, and makes a satisfying racket even in an unmemorable performance.)
All credit to the Seattle Symphony's freshman music director Ludovic Morlot for taking a substantial risk in programming the final subscription concert of his first season on the SSO podium. Hector Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust can be a fizzer of a piece in the right hands and under the right circumstances, but rather a wet firecracker when the components aren't mixed just right.
Part of the problem is the composer's fault. In every version of the story I know based on Goethe's play, the protagonist is a pill, indifferent to anyone's interest but his own. Berlioz's is a particularly repellent portrait, and any sympathy the audience feels for him depends on the tenor singing the role making the character's endless self-justifying declamation acceptable through beautiful singing and sensitive variation in tone.
Richard Leech is a veteran of the French repertory. In his performance Thursday he sounded like one. Love, lust, despair, exhilaration all came out in the same tense stentorian bark. As a result British baritone David Wilson-Johnson would have had to sing facing upstage with a bag on his head not to demolish Leech vocally and theatrically in the role of Mephistofeles. His chewy, idiomatic French diction was in itself a joy to hear.
The third principal vocalist, Romanian mezzo-soprano Ruxandra Donose, performed tastefully in the small but essential role of Marguerite, but I can't believe her somewhat colorless sound was what the composer had in mind: not when h e wrote such plangent obbligati to her big scenes for solo viola and English horn.
Fortunately, Wilson-Johnson wasn't alone in the zest and flair department, The massed men of the Seattle Symphony Chorale and Vocalpoint! Seattle did not produce a single discernible French sound all evening, but since they were impersonating peasants, soldiers, drunken students and demons, their somewhat raw but enthusiastic sound made them more than satisfactory co-conspirators. Cheers for to their director Joseph Crnko for his coaching.
But coaching isn't enough to produce a performance, and here Maestro Morlot earned his title. I'm sure that many in the audience were there in part to hear what our new music director could do in the core French repertory, and if they were like me, they weren't just reassured, they were blown away.
It's hard to fail with famous orchestral party pieces like the march of the Hungarian janissaries and the intoxicating, menacing twitter of the spirits in Marguerite's guilty nightmare. The test of a Berlioz conductor is when the composer goes all broody and contrapuntal, with all the brilliant colors on his palette fading to melancholy shades of gray. Morlot more than maintained the music's energy in these passages, supporting Donose in Marguerite's long lament for lost love with sound as textured as matte black velvet.
Texture appears to be a touchstone for Morlot. At volume levels from whisper-soft to brazen, he maintained a control of instrumental balance which allowed a constant variation of the sonic surface, with threads of string and wind sound emerging into prominence and fading again while never breaking the dramatic flow.
With hardly an exception, the orchestra played with a precision of attack and command of phrasing that I have rarely heard in Benaroya Hall. These are precisely the qualities that Berlioz, and the French repertory overall, require.
Please, M. Morlot, let's hear your principal violist Susan Gulkis Assadi in the solo party of Berlioz's characteristically odd symphony-concerto Harold in Italy? How about some Chabrier, Chausson, Dukas, Fauré, all composers whose genius wilts without devoted cultivation of pure sound? And although purists will be revolted at the idea, how about some Rameau? The French penchant for pure sensuality of sound didn't begin with Berlioz, let alone Debussy.
Speaking of Debussy: The SSO marketing department bills the September 20th opening concert of next season “Morlot Conducts Pines of Rome”: All very well; but I'll be there for Berlioz's delirious Roman Carnival overture, Martinu's Fantasies symphoniques, and Debussy's Nocturnes: all works which make the four movements of Respighi's tone-poem sound as crude as circus posters.
Note: the concert is repeated Saturday, June 23, at 8 pm at Benaroya Hall. Tickets at www.seattlesymphony.org.