MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Still Fresh: Morlot and the Seattle Symphony Embark on a New Season

SSO: Opening Night Gala with Ludovic Morlot and Piano Competition winner Kevin Ahfat. Credit: Brandon Patoc Photography

SSO: Opening Night Gala with Ludovic Morlot and Piano Competition winner Kevin Ahfat. Credit: Brandon Patoc Photography

I imagine some people are doing a double take when they realize Ludovic Morlot has just started his fifth season helming the Seattle Symphony. Well, it is hard to believe we’re almost a decade into his tenure: his approach to me feels as fresh as ever. But with the added benefit of confidence accruing. (Here’s another double take: this is the orchestra’s 113th season.)

Saturday evening’s season opener certainly had several Morlot trademarks: a lovely pairing of American and French composers that showed off the health and vigor of the musicians, along with a like-minded peer in the guest artist for the second half.

The performances also overturned a couple of pesky clichés. One is the matter of non-native-born Americans supposedly having a hard time with getting across an authentic feel for the “American” sound — meaning in this context primarily the jazz-inflected rhythms of such popular 20th-century composers as Leonard Bernstein.

Morlot was perfectly at home in the Overture to Wonderful Town and inspired a deliciously stylish reading from the players, complementing Bernstein’s warm lyricism with brash joie de vivre. Instead of over-emphasizing them, Morlot let Lenny’s meter shifts propel the music with an elegantly giddy, light-as-air verve.

The artistic high point came with the orchestral suite Copland fashioned from his original chamber-orchestra score for Appalachian Spring. Here was a touching example of Morlot’s fresh perspective. My reaction was similar to what I felt when he gave us the same composer’s Lincoln Portrait for the concert opener in 2012.

Copland’s suite sounded as if it were being sung in a single tender breath. The performance featured another Morlot trademark: mindful, deftly balanced timbral blending and well-judged phrasing that allowed a particular gesture to reverberate with maximal impact (as right after the final tutti variant of the “Simple Gifts” tune). The result made this music sound so much richer and affecting than you might expect from an aging chestnut. Contributions from the winds were particularly lovely, including guest clarinetist Frank Kowalsky.*

Opening Night Gala

Opening Night Gala Credit: Brandon Patoc Photography

The piano dominated the rest of the program. I have mixed feelings about the prominence given to guest artists at a symphony orchestra’s opening concert: it often seems to decenter the musicians we should be celebrating and enjoying, making them secondary as the spotlight is turned over to a “star.” (And, yes, I get the necessity of this to stir up donor interest and create buzz.**)

But Jean-Yves Thibaudet was the perfect choice to fill the star role. Not only are he and Morlot natural artistic partners: he plays with the orchestra with genuine empathy and give-and-take. In addition to which, Thibaudet will be coming back several times this season in his role as artist in residence with the SSO.

So it was a treat to hear them join together for the fifth of Camille Saint-Saëns’s piano concertos, also known as “the Egyptian.” (Saint-Saëns wrote it while staying in Luxor and also alludes to music he heard in Egypt.) The second cliché that got overturned: the formula that composer X writes difficult music for the soloist whose “virtuosity is not an end in itself, but a vehicle for [fill in the blank with some “higher” purpose].”

Well, not so much in the Saint-Saëns. The virtuosity called for is often over the top, a vestige of the composer’s Lisztian side, and many stretches are exactly for the sake of virtuosity, period. But what fun when played by an artist of such refined taste and intelligence. Thibaudet truly dazzled and charmed, even eliciting a note of dreamy mystery in the Andante, with spirited collaboration from the orchestra.

The concerto was prefaced by the Danse Bacchanale from Saint-Saëns’s opera Samson et Dalila, extending the “Orientalist” theme (and pinpointing one source of Hollywood’s musical orientalism). Much of it is wonderfully trashy, sequence upon sequence, but Morlot had a way of making it sound better than it is.

The piano figured in the middle of the first half as well, when the young Canadian-born Kevin Ahfat took to the keyboard to play the final movement from Samuel Barber’s Piano Concerto. Ahfat had just been announced as the winner of the Seattle Symphony’s inaugural Piano Competition. Along with a $10,000 cash prize, the victory nets him a future performance with the SSO next season.

I had to miss the competition itself, so this was my first time hearing Mr. Ahfat, but he instantly made a powerful impression. I liked the choice of the too-seldom-heard Barber, and though this movement really exhibited only one side of his artistry — a very extroverted, showy side — his playing brimmed with personality and flair. If he can just grow out of the Juilliard mode of exhibitionistic technique-centrism…

To close the concert, Morlot pulled a shtick a la Itzhak Perlman, having Thibaudet come out (joined by Ahfat on another keyboard) for a pretend audition as they embarked on a humorously awkward account of “Les Pianistes” from Saint-Saëns’s Le carnaval des animaux, bringing the curtain down with the finale to the same suite.

*Although the “official” Seattle press has ignored this news, principal clarinetist Ben Lulich has been appointed “new acting principal clarinet” of the Cleveland Orchestra but will perform at some of the SSO’s concerts this season (where he’s technically on leave for the season).

**According to an SSO Tweet, $785,000 was raised for education and mentoring at the post-concert gala:

–(C)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Ludovic Morlot, piano, review, Seattle Symphony

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