MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Morlot, Seattle Symphony, and Berlioz: An Explosive Match

High school students discovering the world of Berlioz at a Seattle Symphony rehearsal

High school students discovering the world of Berlioz at a Seattle Symphony rehearsal

Ludovic Morlot is now back from his winter duties as chief conductor at La Monnaie in Brussels (where he just led performances of Janáček’s Jenůfa). And in its most incandescent moments, last night’s program — his first with the Seattle Symphony following the hiatus — blazed with the impatient passion of lovers meeting after an enforced absence.

The players were champing at the bit to whip up the energy of the brief concert opener, Emmanuel Chabrier’s Bourrée fantasque. Despite the nice thematic tie-in of the title, Chabrier’s piano piece felt like a mere diversion from the heart of the matter. The orchestration by the famous fin-de-siècle Wagnerian Felix Mottl layered lavish, high-calorie toppings over Chabrier’s zesty piano piece – frankly, at times, threatening to smother it.

Morlot has a genuine affinity for the music of the Romantics, so there’s a fascinating opportunity in this program to compare his approaches to the subjectivity of Robert Schumann versus Hector Berlioz. The issue of Schumann’s mental illness is by now such a cliche that it was refreshing to encounter a performance so alert to the astonishing mindfulness of his poetic reveries. In other words, what came across in the Cello Concerto wasn’t so much a sequence of “moody,” unsettled and changeable emotions as one lengthily sustained poetic fantasy.

The three chords in the orchestra that launch and unify the piece were shaped with an appropriately evanescent dreaminess, setting the tone for the Concerto’s primarily meditative as opposed to show-offy quality. The soloist, the French cellist Xavier Phillips, was especially memorable in the slow middle section of the three interlocking movements, when his orchestral “doppelgänger” (SSO principal cellist Efe Baltacıgil) engages him in a duet.

Phillips played with an inviting warmth and intimacy well-suited to Schumann’s elaborate lyricism, but the moment when the cello “rouses” the orchestra from the fantasy at the very end of the Concerto sounded underwhelming. Acoustic imbalances with the orchestra — a particular peril of cello concertos, and one reason composers avoided them for so long — were a persistent distraction. Still, there was breathtaking beauty to be enjoyed in Phillips’ sensitive and musically intelligent phrasing.

A good concert then became great in the program’s second half: Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, that blockbuster of Romanticism that flips the bird to the conventional polarities of French/German, Classical/Romantic, fact/fiction.

Too often we hear the Symphonie as a manifesto of its moment in time, a “textbook” of Romanticism with the usual checklist — and the result is a performance that sounds like the epitome of a museum piece (in the bad old sense of museums, before the smart ones started updating themselves).

Young Berlioz in 1832, around the time of the Symphonie fantastique ; painting by Émile Signol

Young Berlioz in 1832, around the time of the Symphonie fantastique ; painting by Émile Signol

Last night it suddenly occurred to me that Morlot’s understanding of Berlioz is of the same category as Leonard Bernstein’s identification with Mahler: apart from all the technical knowledge and even sensibility he brings to Berlioz, it’s as if Morlot internally identifies with this music and so is able to give his interpretations a uniquely compelling stamp.

That’s the only way I could make sense of the 3-D vividness of last night’s performance: colors and textures I’ve never noticed before, for sure, but most of all a sense of what’s at stake with the emotions and obsessions of Berlioz’s score. I found myself grinning with near disbelief at how shocking and still over-the-top parts of it can still sound.

Morlot got the SSO musicians to tap into that sense of conviction. There were memorable achievements from every single section of the orchestra. None of this would have worked without the artistry of Michael Crusoe (timpani), Valerie Muzzolini Gordon (harp), Stefan Farkas (English horn), Christie Reside (flute), Ben Haussman (oboe), Seth Krimsky (bassoon), for example, not to mention the thrilling playing by the strings and brass, particularly in the witches’ “orgy” of the last movement.

This wasn’t the usual colorful story of young Hector going all wild after seeing the actress Harriet Smithson and getting tangled in an insanely obsessive/possessive love attachment – the whole business is really a MacGuffin, anyway — just as it wasn’t the corny 1960s-flavored rethink of an orchestra on an LSD/mushroom/opium-fueled trip.

Morlot understands that Berlioz’s “protagonist” in the Symphonie fantastique is an artist above all else — that the Eros, the drive, the alienation, the hallucinations, all of it, are all components of a universe he imagines into being, not mere triggers of emotions that require expression. And that the entire epic he lays out for us in this score is an “instrumental drama” (the composer’s own phrase) that expertly transforms his musical material to give voice to a radical subjectivity.

I especially like how Morlot refuses to settle for one overall approach — stressing Berlioz’s Classical underpinnings, say, or staying focused on his novel orchestration. He understands the multidimensional character of this score and allows its widely varying facets to come out when they make sense in the dramatic context.

There was a particularly persuasive hint of Beethoven of the Pastoral in the beautifully played woodwind writing of the third movement. (Beethoven cast an enormous shadow over Berlioz at this point in his career.) Some of the “spatial” effects of offstage timpani and shepherd’s pipe anticipate Mahler.

The March to the Scaffold, sardonic as hell, actually helped set the scene for what usually seems an abrupt shift of tone in the Witches’ Sabbath/nightmare finale. And in that fantastic musical phantasmagoria, despite all the humiliations and horrors the protagonist endures, it’s the image of the cocky young artist Berlioz who emerges, dominating and enthralling his audience.

So what is it with Berlioz and obnoxiously intrusive noise in Benaroya? Two years ago, smack in the middle of one of my favorite Morlot performances to date — Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust — a patron’s alarm actually forced the music to a halt for several minutes. Last night someone spoiled the carefully built-up atmosphere by ringing heedlessly away, audible at a good distance. Now that should be a damnable offence.

There’s one more chance to hear this program: Saturday night at 8:00 pm at Benaroya Hall.

(c) 2014 Thomas May – All rights reserved.

Filed under: Berlioz, review, Seattle Symphony

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