Seattle Symphony picks an intriguing program

This weekend's season opener focuses on just one composer. Why it works.
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Ludovic Morlot

This weekend's season opener focuses on just one composer. Why it works.

Wrapping up Thursday night's all-Ravel program with “Boléro,” Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony demonstrated complete mutual trust — an ingredient essential to giving this ultra-famous piece its spark. However familiar it is, Ravel’s sequential spotlighting of soloists makes it a dangerous enterprise. The music itself seems to dramatize the issue, with its slinky, head-worming tune twisting about but straitjacketed into a monomaniacal lockstep rhythm. How to find the right but unpredictable balances, to weigh the individual voice against the ensemble?

It was certainly no coincidence that Morlot chose the same piece for the opening concert of his inaugural season as SSO music director two years ago. Regular concertgoers have been able to notice the results of his methodical work with each section, addressing nuances of attack, phrasing, vibrato — and all the other complex matters of technique required to translate the hieroglyphics on the music page into persuasive music-making. Despite occasional faltering in a few of the solos, this was a mesmerizing “Boléro,” its arc thrilling, and spiked with a touch of menace: That psychotic breakdown at the end for once made sense.

If you have the opportunity, I strongly encourage trying to hear this concert. (An abridged program, without the piano concertos, is being played tonight, and the whole thing is repeated Saturday night.)  It’s a case study both of Morlot’s gifts as a musical communicator and of the wonders he’s been accomplishing with the players and the overall SSO sound.

Ravel is obviously in the French maestro’s blood, but the playing here isn’t just a showcase for the “transparent clarity” of French music — that vague cliché that often gets trotted out, as if Ravel and Debussy were interchangeable. The most impressive achievement of the concert was the astonishing spectrum of personalities and even characters Morlot and the players disclosed from this one composer.

The opening piece, “Alborado del gracioso” (“The Clown’s Morning Serenade”), in fact resembled something more psychedelic than transparent. One Morlot signature is his very large dynamic palette, from scarcely there (but audible) plucked whispers to full-throttle explosions of sound, but each meticulously in place. Bassoonist Seth Krimsky’s fantastic solo in the middle had the variety of an actor’s monolog.

This entire program involves continual workouts for all of the orchestra, which is massive in most of the selections. In the “Rapsodie espagnole,” the range of timbres and colors conveys a cinematic quality — not in the sense of cheap soundtrack music, but of a very busy camera that moves in and out of the crowd. Morlot relished the expertly placed dissonances of Ravel’s score, as if they were a spice. His instinct for Ravel’s colorful orchestration goes beyond surface, too: The radical simplicity of “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (which, he later pointed out, is not tragic and has nothing to do with dead princesses) found pathos in the way phrases decay — with especially beautiful playing by Jeff Fair — even while the underlying dance progresses.

Last night also served up both of the Ravel piano concertos — in themselves emblems of diametrically opposed traits in the composer (though both were composed more or less simultaneously). Music lovers couldn’t wish for more than to have Jean-Yves Thibaudet as the soloist (back from his appearances last season as the piano soloist for Messian’s “Turangalîla” Symphony).  A Ravel authority who studied with the student of one of Ravel’s close colleagues, Thibaudet — like Morlot, he also hails from Lyon, France — knows that power and the dramatic gesture don’t have to come at the expense of sensitive musicianship.

The wartime darkness and cynicism he probed in the Concerto for the Left Hand made a fascinating contrast with the perky lucidity of the Concerto in G. Both involve substantial roles for the orchestra, which was on fire in the former but under-rehearsed for the second. Ravel’s preoccupation with how we perceive time also emerged as a theme — whether in the yearning for vanished childhood innocence that’s a subtext of the Concerto in G or the obsessively repeated, almost-Minimalist patterns of “Boléro.”

Thibaudet – and Morlot, for that matter – also made a telling contrast with the featured pianist of the opening night concert last Sunday, Lang Lang, who closed that event by performing as the soloist in Sergei Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto. For all his phenomenal talent, the Chinese pianist unabashedly emphasizes that the point is his interpretation, what he is doing to the music. Thus we had enjoyable moments with Prokofiev’s funhouse neo-Classicism, some dreamily woozy rumination, and pulse-pumping keyboard wizardry — but it didn’t quite manage to add up to more than the given moment, to build a coherent picture.

Thibaudet played in intimate rapport with the SSO; when Lang Lang wasn’t playing to the audience, it was to himself. For me, Thibaudet’s was the memorable way to make music, but Lang Lang unquestionably was the favorite on the applause-meter. Frankly, the whole prospect of a star soloist at the opening concert strikes me as a bit perverse, though it’s obviously savvy as a box office draw. The event is meant to celebrate the SSO – “this heartbeat of our city,” as Morlot put it on opening night – yet the confetti streams down, so to speak, for the guest artist. The concert actually concluded with an encore solo by Lang Lang: a heavily mannered, often quite beautiful, and defiantly unidiomatic rendition of a Chopin nocturne.

If you go: Ludovic Morlot leads the Seattle Symphony in this week’s all-Ravel program tonight, Sept. 20, at 7:30 p.m. (without Thibaudet) and Saturday, Sept. 21, at 8 p.m. (full program). There will also be a Free Day of Music this Sunday, Sept. 22, starting at 11 a.m. (no tickets required). All events at Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., 206 215-4747.

  

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