MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

The Seattle Symphony’s Electrifying Eroica

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Ludovic Morlot

The title of my  review is actually only part of the story of last night’s  performance by the Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot. The program — which I recommend highly as one of the highlights of the season to date — will be repeated Saturday and Sunday. The Beethoven alone would be enough to justify my enthusiasm, but let me get to the other parts of the story first.

Also worth the price of admission is the chance to hear the mellifluously named French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet in Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto and the relatively rare Three Places in New England of Charles Ives.

I suspect some of the remarkably palpable energy the players manifested last night has to do with a sense of anticipation regarding the 2016 Grammy Awards coming up Monday: the SSO nabbed three nominations for the second volume of their ongoing Henri Dutilleux series on the in-house label (including for Best Orchestral Performance).

What was particularly striking in the Ives — deeply challenging pieces, despite the sudden appearance of fragments of folk Americana that momentarily give the illusion of familiar reference points — was the refinement of detail within the most opaque, thickly laden textures of this score. The boisterous energy Morlot summoned for the famous clashing marches of the second place (“Putnams’ Camp”) was all the more startling on account of that refinement — a trait that reminded me of how the conductor searches for the right detail, le ton juste, inside one of Dutilleux’s intricately wrought orchestral canvases.

It was fascinating to hear the Ives so soon after last week’s rendition of Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia. You couldn’t help comparing the method of intrusive quotations, unprepared and free-associative, and wonder at the American maverick angle that leavened Berio’s European avant-gardism. Both composers resort to a collage aesthetic that seeks to replicate the complexity and porousness of musical memory — free of irony and mind games.

Indeed, at times Morlot elicited a curious innocence and tenderness from Ives’s decidedly unsentimental memory-soundscapes. Those qualities also came to mind in the Bartók concerto. On the surface this piece can almost be read as a kind of regression or longing for simpler procedures, a revocation of the composer’s Modernist street cred.

But Bavouzet’s enchanting, subtle interpretation had a cleanness of focus that suggested a mature master taking stock and paring away the inessential. Bartók knew he was dying when he composed the Third Concerto, and in this score the musical past returns not by way of collage and quotation but as acts of allusive, loving homage (above all to Bach and Beethoven — and of course to the rich loam of folk culture that Bartók accessed in a way so unlike the Romantics).

This was especially effective in the profoundly stirring central movement (“Adagio religioso”), where the pianist gave exquisite weight and voicing to Bartók’s harmonies and crisp, wonder-evoking articulation to the birdsong. Bavouzet — who had an opportunity to study with the pianist who premiered this work, György Sándor — projected winning charm along with a clear sense of purpose in the outer movements.

He returned for a most unusual encore (playing, incidentally, the new Steinway recently purchased for the SSO): three of the Notations by a 19-year-old Pierre Boulez, composed right around the time Bartók was working on his final concerto. Bavouzet played with Zen-like presence, or like a curator displaying a set of particularly rich gems, holding them up to glisten and sparkle in the light. This week’s concerts are being dedicated to the memory of the late Boulez.

So on to the Third Symphony of Beethoven. Morlot chose this work for his very first subscription concert after stepping to the podium as the SSO’s music director in September 2011 (pairing it on that occasion, curiously enough, with Dutilleux and a Frank Zappa piece Boulez himself had conducted).

Certain aspects echoed what lingers in my memory from that performance: above all, the historically informed performance touches that conferred a certain athletic fleetness and sharper focus. These were even more apparent — and more paradoxically “radical” in brushing aside the dust from overfamiliar passages — without determining every contour of the conductor’s approach.

I’d say that’s evidence of an increased confidence and interpretive vision Morlot is bringing to this score. The hammer blow chords at the end of the first movement’s exposition, for example, were genuinely shocking, while the use of a solo string quartet to voice one of the variation passages in the introductory section of the finale underscored the idea that textural transformations are just as crucial to Beethoven’s thinking as the thematic/harmonic ones that usually command attention.

Above all, the sheer energy of collaborating with the SSO on moment-by-moment decisions in the score gave this performance the stamp of authenticity that really matters, resulting in an electrifying Eroica. Not all those decisions worked: some of the rhythmic articulations of the Funeral March were sloppy, and the volcanic whirlwind that should launch Beethoven’s extraordinary finale (is there anything about the Eroica that isn’t extraordinary?) sounded curiously listless. But Morlot and the SSO sustained an edge-of-your-seat intensity across the work’s epic span, liberating it from any trace of the routine.

And Morlot inspired much fine, indeed heroic, solo work from the players, including Mary Lynch’s achingly expressive oboe solos (a key leitmotif of the Eroica) in the Funeral March and Jeff Fair’s fearless, flawless spotlights in the famously fear-inducing trio of the Scherzo.

Really, what more can you ask of a symphony program?

–(c)2016 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Bartók, Beethoven, Ludovic Morlot, pianists, piano, Pierre Boulez, review, Seattle Symphony

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