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THOMAS MAY on the arts

Stairway to Heaven: A Major Seattle Symphony Premiere

Pascal Dusapin; photo by Bénédicte Tondeur

Pascal Dusapin; photo by Bénédicte Tondeur

It says a lot for Maestro Ludovic Morlot’s growing clout in the international music world that he secured the U.S. premiere of Pascal Dusapin’s violin concerto for the Seattle Symphony. That event took place on last night’s concert. Quick tip: the program will be give two more times – today, Friday, at noon and Saturday at 8 pm – and it showcases some of the finest, most stimulating, and downright beautiful music-making Morlot and the orchestra have accomplished together. You’ll kick yourself if you miss it.

So what’s the big deal about Pascal Dusapin and his violin concerto? He’s arguably the most significant French composer of the first post-war, post-Boulez generation, and his omnivorous curiosity has encouraged a refreshingly unpredictable and fascinating range of projects – and a free-spirited avant-gardism (which was emphasized, to ironic effect, in a recent, oh-so-French contretemps involving aesthetics).

Reputations are one thing, too easily hyped, but Dusapin’s music is genuinely riveting, original without straining to be so, challenging in a way that rewards close listening. And his new violin concerto strikes me as a major work and new addition to the repertoire – and possibly a milestone in Dusapin’s career. Titled Aufgang (German for “ascent” as well as the more concrete “staircase”), it had its world premiere earlier this year by the West German Radio Symphony Orchestra of Cologne. This is the composer’s first concerto for the instrument and was written for Renaud Capuçon, though reviving sketches for a violin concerto Dusapin had previously begun but set aside.

Renaud Capuçon; photo by Darmigny

Renaud Capuçon; photo by Darmigny

Capuçon proved himself a passionately committed advocate for the work, which starts off red-hot with outrageously difficult demands – and soon reveals such virtuosity not as grandstanding but an integral component of Dusapin’s almost expressionistic intensity. Aufgang is built around a metaphor of the soloist as a visionary, a seeker who attempts to guide the (very large) orchestra toward enlightenment. Against a dramatically changing scenario of resistance, in which the violin becomes “trapped” and experiences a kind of panic, it eventually steers the others “to the heavens and the light” (Dusapin).

Conjuring luxuriant sounds from his Guarneri del Gesù from 1737 – which in a sense makes a “homecoming,” having been acquired from local collector David Fulton’s prize array of strings – Capuçon understands the powerful vocal impulse of Dusapin’s writing. He persuasively inhabits the role assigned to him, with its strategic exaggerations of register at both ends.

There’s plenty of drama, with a first movement that outlines the attempted ascent. The orchestra stirs to action, like water coming to a boil. The middle movement features an arresting passage for solo flute – beautifully played by Melanie Lançon – that hints at shakuhachi improvisation, while Dusapin’s interest in jazz emerges in the finale. A signature technical challenge of the piece has the violinist strain into the instrument’s absolute stratospheric upper limit: Capuçon made it suggest an otherworldy yearning.

There’s also much to attract the ear (and eye) in Dusapin’s clustering of colors and sonic illusionism. He occasionally plays a decoy game whereby the violin seems to be emitting pitches actually produced elsewhere, as by bowed crotales. Morlot’s thorough rehearsal paid off by balancing such countless expressive details against a bird’s-eye view of the whole concerto.

Aufgang is a dense score that invites multiple hearings to unpack its richness, but that doesn’t prevent it from engaging a listener encountering it for the first time – especially in a performance this compelling. It also makes me all the more eager to hear Morlot’s engagement at his other big gig – the opera company La Monnaie in Brussels – to premiere Dusapin’s new opera on Kleist’s Penthesilea, to be unveiled in 2015.

High school students attending SSO rehearsal for this week's program

High school students attending SSO rehearsal for this week’s program

Morlot opened the program with the SSO’s first-ever (how can that be?!) rendition of Tapiola, that enigmatic capstone to Sibelius’s career. He brings a very personalized touch to his Sibelius, by way of Debussy: accents and splashes of harmonic layering that somehow recall the seascapes of Debussy within Sibelius’s icy, elemental immensities.

The concert’s second half was given over to the Sixth Symphony of Beethoven – and this account by itself should command attention from anyone interested in where Morlot’s collaboration with the SSO is heading. I’ve had mixed reactions to their Beethoven together to date – an incisive, fresh Eroica back in the first season, and a disappointingly featureless Ninth last year – but felt completely rejuvenated after this marvelous take on the Pastoral.

Morlot and the players discovered a new specific gravity for this score, treating it essentially as chamber music, but without the sometimes-fussy attitude of the authentic performance movement. Instead, the entire symphony flowed onward as unselfconsciously as the brook Beethoven evokes in the second movement (which, come to think of it, resembled Morlot’s approach to the sublime Adagio of the Ninth last year, also in the same key of B-flat).

Tastes that prefer old-fashioned Beethoven playing may disagree, and purists will complain of some of the liberties taken, but Morlot’s emphasis on the Edenic rapture of the entire Pastoral – not just the brook scene – kept the audience spellbound, as did the deliciously characterful contributions by all of the woodwinds in particular. I’ve seldom heard the SSO strings as whole blend so transparently and effortlessly. The storm of the fourth movement for once seemed about more than “effects,” with fierce, electrifying tremolos.

In pointed contrast to the momentum governing the performance overall, Morlot decelerated the finale’s last minutes, as if to underline a reluctance to take leave of Beethoven’s blissful landscape, leaving it etched in memory.

(C) 2013 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Beethoven, composers, new music, review, Seattle Symphony

9 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. John Marcher says:

    Damn, Tom, this is an outstanding review. Your description of both Dusapin’s concerto and the Beethoven makes me really wish I could attend this concert and regret the fact I can’t.. If I were writing about the Seattle arts scene I might be inclined to just give up after reading this.

  2. Joel Grant says:

    I attended yesterday’s concert. I won’t say a word about the Dusapin piece as I (obviously) heard it for the first time yesterday and have no frame of reference for it. But I do want to comment on this:

    “I’ve had mixed reactions to their Beethoven together to date – an incisive, fresh Eroica back in the first season, and a disappointingly featureless Ninth last year – but felt completely rejuvenated after this marvelous take on the Pastoral.”

    I could not agree more. I loved Maestro Schwarz’s interpretation of the Ninth and faithfully attended every year, buying extra tickets beyond my subscription.

    But last year’s experience with Maestro Morlot left a bad taste in my mouth. I came away disappointed. But I loved what he did with the Pastoral yesterday (11/15/2013) and have hope for this year’s Ninth.

    I am going to attend on 12/28/13 and 1/4/14 and have hopes for better performances.

    • Thomas May says:

      Hi Joel – thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment. Regarding the challenges of conducting Beethoven’s Ninth, I would note that even conductors with decades of experience – even Beethoven experts at the pinnacle of a distinguished career – have been known to fall flat here. As with the stock market, past success is no guarantee of same in the future. One thing I know I can generally count on from Maestro Morlot: that I won’t encounter any sense of the routine, of merely going through the motions.

      • Joel Grant says:

        I appreciate your comment. I was in Chicago for a Ninth with Maestro Solti and it was a peak experience. I am very much looking forward to the Ninth this coming December and January. The years roll by, do they not?

  3. Harrison Ryker says:

    Tapiola was played by the Seattle Symphony during the Katims years. The conductor was Jussi Jalas.

    • Thomas May says:

      Thanks for your comment, Harrison. The statement that this was the SSO’s first time performing “Tapiola” was made during the post-concert discussion. It’s intriguing to think of Sibelius’s own son-in-law (i.e., Jussi Jalas) conducting it with the SSO musicians – what’s the precise date for this performance, and where did you find the documentation for that? At present SSO makes no comprehensive digital catalogue of its complete history of performances available, so it’s impossible to fact check these sorts of claims (and hence my puzzled qualifier “how can this be?” – since it does indeed seem strange a work of this stature would never have featured on the programs).

    • Thomas May says:

      Update: I checked with the Seattle Symphony library and they have no record of Jalas as a guest conductor. If you do have specific information please share it.

    • Harrison: Speaking of the Katims’ years, Geoffrey Hewings passed along a great story about an end-of-season review on KRAB. Would love to hear from you.

      http://www.krab.fm/KRAB-Letters-and-Things.html

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