MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Ligeti-Mahler Program for Seattle Symphony’s Closing Concert

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I spoke to Ludovic Morlot about his remarkable programming of Ligeti’s Requiem with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony to close Seattle Symphony’s season:

Saying a proper goodbye is an art. Ludovic Morlot plans to conclude his current Seattle Symphony season with a lot more than a bang…

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Filed under: Ligeti, Ludovic Morlot, Mahler, programming, Seattle Symphony

Ludovic Morlot To Make Berlin Philharmonic Debut

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Opera star Joyce DiDonato is shown with Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony last September. Morlot and DiDonato will appear together in Berlin later this week. (Carlin Ma)

The Seattle Symphony’s music director has been asked to replace an ailing colleague as guest conductor of this week’s concerts with Berlin Philharmonic — one of the world’s most prestigious orchestras.

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Filed under: Ludovic Morlot, music news, Seattle Symphony, Seattle Times

Ravishing Ravel from Seattle Symphony

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Michèle Losier as the Boy, with Delphine Haidan as the Dragonfly and Alexandre Sylvestre as the Tree; image (c) Brandon Patoc

I was able to catch the final performance (Saturday night) of this week’s Seattle Symphony program led by Ludovic Morlot: a fascinating semi-staged presentation of Maurice Ravel’s one-act opera L’enfant et les sortilèges, combined with a Mozart piano concerto and a bit of orchestral Bizet as appetizer.

The program would have sated most appetites perfectly with the second half alone, the Ravel, so it was a special added delight to have Mozart’s K. 271 Piano Concerto on the bill (the so-called — inaccurately — “Jeunehomme” Concerto).*

“Mozart is absolute beauty, perfect purity,” Ravel believed — in so doing, of course, describing his own aesthetic of perfectionism.  I’m always reminded of the Mozart-Ravel connection whenever I hear Jean-Yves Thibaudet perform the latter’s Concerto in G (as he has done more than once with Morlot).

I can’t say that was the case with the soloist in K. 271, Jan Lisiecki. The 22-year-old Canadian pianist, acclaimed especially for his Chopin, arrived on the scene as a prodigy and already commands an impressive resume of partnering with world-class conductors and ensembles. His performance of the Mozart exhibited some very sensitive playing, but to this taste, overall, left little of a lasting impression.

Well-executed passagework and spirited moments abounded, but I missed a strong point of view about what it can all add up to, as well as the — well, Ravel-like — iridescence that Mozart can evoke with even the simplest of phrases. 

But there was nothing lackluster in the account from Morlot and the SSO. Again and again, I marveled at being reminded of just what an astonishingly original score this pre-Vienna concerto is, composed at such an early stage — particularly the epic flair of the first movement and the window-framed dance interlude plopped right into the middle of a bustling finale.

The unusual choice of the minor key for the slow movement was underscored by the stirring pathos of this reading. Here Mozart is already transforming the keyboard concerto into substitute opera, which made the choice of K. 271 all the more appropriate for the Ravel.

Morlot  intoned the theme of childhood at the start with George Bizet’s Petite Suite from 1871  — a sequence of five numbers the composer orchestrated from a set of 12 miniatures originally written for piano duet (known as Jeux d’enfants and later choreographed by Balanchine). The SSO played with considerable polish, zest, and charm.

Ravel Opera

image (c) Brando Patoc

The semi-staged performance of L’enfant et les sortilèges in the second half of the program has to be accounted one of the season’s highlights. Ravel felt a deep kinship with children and with what he called “the poetry of childhood,” consciously tapping into his own memories of the fantasies of childhood for inspiration.

In fact, I’d say this sensitivity, when combined with his watchmaker-like precision and perfectionism, is among Ravel’s most fascinating aspects. 

Like the Bizet suite, his beloved Ma mère l’Oye (Tales of Mother Goose) actually began as a composition for piano duet (intended for the children of a couple that had befriended Ravel). 

L’enfant et les sortilèges — usually translated “The Child and the Spells” — is the second of the two operas Ravel managed to complete, each consisting of only one act. The first, the rarer L’heure espagnole, premiered in 1911; L’enfant, more prolonged in gestation, was conceived during the First World War and composed several years after. The initial idea was for a ballet, which eventually became a “fantaisie lyrique” in two parts — a fantasy opera, which was premiered in 1925 in Monte Carlo (with the young Balanchine providing choreography).

Both Ravel and his librettist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette — the eminent French novelist known simply as Colette — were both deeply affected by their involvement in the war effort and by the loss of loved ones. This sensibility even seeps into the texture of L’enfant, on the surface such a disarmingly innocent and playful evocation of a child’s unbridled imagination.

The story recounts the “education” of a temperamental young boy (a trousers role, sung by mezzo). After being scolded by his mother, he experiences the aftermath of his temper tantrum: the objects of his rage come to life and confront the boy with the results of his behavior.

Morlot and the SSO enlisted a fantastic creative team for their first-ever presentation of an opera together on the Benaroya stage: director and production designer Anne Patterson, projection designer Adam Larsen, and costume designer Zane Philstrom.

Patterson, whose bio points out that she has synesthesia, conjured an appealingly surreal visual environment — sort of a cross between Lewis Carroll and Sendak in feeling, though with entirely original iconography. Her team conveyed the sense of wonder in Ravel’s music, thankfully steering free of unwanted cuteness or sentimentality, which have no place in this score.

The singers positioned mostly far downstage (though at times elsewhere in the hall), sometimes even occupying a corner of Morlot’s podium. Even within that confined space, with the cast acting in front of both the orchestra and several layers of dangling ribbons that formed a permeable, dreamlike screen, the story was engaging.

Ravel Opera

image (c) Brandon Patoc

Larsen’s beautifully changing light scheme and his projections of the animated objects as transient emanations offered a spellbinding counterpoint to Ravel’s exquisite score.

Philstrom’s large white head sculptures, worn by the objects that come to life, served as emblems to distinguish the very large cast of characters triggered by the boy’s theatrical imagination.

Morlot gathered a distinguished cast that would be just as home with this material in a full-scale opera house production. Especially outstanding were Michèle Losier as the Child, after her initial rampage passing through an enormous spectrum of emotions within the opera’s compact duration, and soprano Rachele Gilmore in the delirious coloratura roles of the Hearth Fire, the storybook Princess, and the Nightingale.

With her rich mezzo, Delphine Haidan morphed from the stern Mother to a broken china teacup (was some of the libretto’s “pidgin”  — offensive to today’s sensibilities — expurgated?) and, finally, a plaintive captured dragonfly.

Colette’s large cast calls for an armchair, a grandfather clock, a shepherd and shepherdess from the wallpaper pattern the feisty boy has ripped up, assorted animals and garden creatures, even the numbers from a math lesson come to life in a kind of Pythagorean nightmare … and much more.

Portraying multiple roles, the rest of the cast was uniformly strong, including sopranos Rachele Gilmore and Soraya Mafi, mezzo Allyson McHardy,  Jean-Paul Fouchecourt (a star of French Baroque opera, hilarious in his turns as the torn math book and the tree frog), baritone Alexandre Duhamel, and bass-baritone Alexandre Sylvestre.

On top of all this, the Seattle Symphony Chorale and Northwest Boychoir (both prepared by Joseph Crnko) were part of the cast as well, at times contributing a subtle wall of sound (with the Chorale positioned upstage behind the orchestra).

It was quite an ambitious array of forces for such a short work, yet not a moment felt superfluous. Morlot had his players basking in Ravel’s delectable score — one of those miracles of remarkably far-ranging stylistic references that transcends being merely “eclectic.”

There were far too many moments of superb musicianship to recount them all in detail — such as Demarre McGill’s (in a welcome guest return) flute solos to the storybook Princess’s lament of what could-have-been (Rachele Gilmore).

Best of all was the loveliness of the garden scene that takes over in the second part. This luminous and stirring music transports L’enfant onto an altogether different plane of magic and perception — childlike innocence as recaptured by the knowing adult’s memory.  And it was utterly stunning on Saturday night.

A downside to this adventure: just a little over a month since Morlot announced his plans to leave the SSO in 2019, the sense of joint accomplishment feels bittersweet, as it must with the knowledge that the clock is ticking away.

____________________________________________________________________________________________* I do wish the music biz would acknowledge the important work of scholars and get rid of the annoying faux-name “Jeunehomme” — and, along with it, the false history that is continually reiterated in program notes.

I’m referring here to the research of musicologist Michael Lorenz, who has brought to light the fascinating figure of this very specific female pianist –Victoire Jenamy (1749-1812) — for whom Mozart wrote this concerto.

The perpetuation of the musty old nonsense about poor “Mademoiselle Jeunehomme” being lost to history is the sort of thing that makes “classical music” appear so sadly out of step with the living, breathing reality. We still have plenty to learn about Mozart — all that is to be known has not been already revealed!

Review (c) 2017 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Ludovic Morlot, Maurice Ravel, Mozart, review, Seattle Symphony

Morlot To Step Down in 2019

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Photo credit: Brandon Patoc

Seattle Symphony’s press office released a statement on Friday afternoon announcing Music Director Ludovic Morlot’s decision to leave that position at the end of the 2018-19 season, after eight seasons with the orchestra.

Maestro Morlot gave the following statement:

I will be forever grateful and proud to have been given the opportunity to help write a chapter in the history of the Seattle Symphony. And what a beautiful chapter it is; thrilling performances played to full houses, the appointment of so many outstanding musicians, three Grammys, a strong list of commissions and premieres, a memorable concert at Carnegie Hall, an upcoming residency at Berkeley, and so much more. I am also extremely appreciative of the commitment that the community as a whole has offered to me at the artistic helm of this extraordinary organization. The decision to step down as Music Director when my contract comes to an end in 2019 is not one I have taken lightly. We are in the midst of a wonderful, stimulating and exciting artistic journey and I look forward to continuing this in the next two seasons. However, I feel that by 2019 the time will be right for me to explore new musical opportunities and for the Symphony to have the inspiration of new artistic leadership.

The news comes as something of a shock and is especially disconcerting to Seattle music lovers, since Morlot’s presence has done nothing less than transform the city’s music scene. His work with the SSO is a model for how to make the institution of an orchestra relevant in contemporary life while maintaining the highest musical standards.

Everyone has kept tight-lipped about whatever new project Morlot has on the horizon. In the meantime, local audiences will be savoring his every moment at the podium more than ever.

What are your favorite moments to date from Morlot’s tenure with the SSO?

The complete SSO press release is here.

Filed under: Ludovic Morlot, music news, Seattle Symphony

Chasing Victory with Beethoven’s Fifth at Seattle Symphony

My Seattle Times preview of this week’s Seattle Symphony program:

Three shorts and a long.

It’s the musical equivalent of E =mc 2 : on the surface, a deceptively simple formula that yields previously unimaginable results — including many Ludwig van Beethoven himself couldn’t have possibly foreseen. In World War II, the Allies equated the Fifth Symphony’s famous motto with the dot-dot-dot-dash denoting “V” in Morse code. The BBC regularly included this “V for Victory” message of hope in broadcasts to Nazi-occupied Europe.

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Filed under: Beethoven, Ludovic Morlot, Seattle Symphony, Seattle Times

A.J. Kernis’s Killer New Violin Concerto at Seattle Symphony

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photo by James Holt

In last night’s Seattle Symphony concert led by Ludovic Morlot,  James Ehnes introduced a brand-new violin concerto written for him by one of today’s finest composers, Aaron Jay Kernis. This was the U.S. premiere; last week Ehnes gave the world premiere in Toronto (a co-commissioner with SSO).

Talk about making a great first impression! Despite — or even because of — its terrorizing challenges for the soloist, this is a concerto built to last: it’s so good and makes such an obviously satisfying contribution that I’d bet at least some of the more interesting virtuosos at work today will be intrigued to take it on.

I sometimes wonder whether we’ve been going through something of a concerto overload in recent years: too many composers relying on the supposedly built-in attractions of a structure that can feature a star protagonist while also benefiting from the color and horsepower of an orchestra (even if the latter is used merely for “atmospheric” painting rather than in a richer, symphonic way).

One of the many things that impress me about this new piece is that Kernis has really thought through the concerto idea and created something substantial and fresh without relying on esoteric novelties — without trying to reinvent the wheel.

In fact, an attempt at abstract description of the piece might make it sound almost old-fashioned, but it’s not. Like Brahms writing for Joseph Joachim (though Kernis himself studied violin as a youngster), he resorts (distantly) to Baroque forms in the outer movements — an intensely felt and gripping Chaconne for the first and a “Toccatini” (his play on the toccata) for the finale — with a soulful “Ballad” doing service as the aria at the center. And the profusion of little cadenza-islands amid the orchestral archipelago also underscores the concerto’s conventional identification with virtuoso prowess.

But Kernis animates all of these conventional elements with a marvelously contemporary spirit. The first two movements have deep emotional resonance, while the finale is so infectiously zippy (and outrageously hard to play) it leaves you with a buzz — a musical martini, as the composer jokes.

He’s often described as “eclectic,” but I don’t think that does justice to the distinctive personality Kernis conveys in his Violin Concerto. True, there are hints of, well, Brahms (in the emotional severity and fatalism of the first movement), Berg, Bach, Stravinsky for sure (in the finale), Messiaen (the wondrous tangles of sound in the “Ballad,” which is also cured with jazz and blues flavors). But instead of a random mishmash, Kernis amalgamates these idioms into a rich, compelling harmonic language and flow of ideas.

One could appreciate Kernis’s score on the level of its orchestral ingenuity alone: such interesting sounds and blends, which paradoxically erase the model of individual “versus” the orchestra — at least over long stretches of the piece. Paradoxically because, on the most obvious level, this concerto it is a virtuoso showpiece in the old school sense.

But with James Ehnes as the soloist, the clichés often signaled by “virtuosity” — mere dazzle, effects without causes — have no bearing. It’s clear that Kernis tailored the piece to display this unmatchable violinist’s musical intelligence, taste, and beautiful sound production above all incredible technical feats he calls for (of which this piece is essentially a violinist’s compendium).

Whether Ehnes was attacking a fearsome passage of double-stop chords with his signature elegance or deftly sprinkling a torrent of precisely placed pizzicati,  it was like watching  a veteran climber scaling a particularly brutal mountain face sans ropes.

But for all the thrills and escapades, the overall impression he left of the concerto — which Kernis has dedicated to Ehnes — was of a rich, many-colored, joyful composition that has something compelling to say, and that resonates afterward.

Again, this is all part of the extraordinary balance Kernis has achieved in his Violin Concerto, overriding binaries of dark/light, intense/carefree, Apollonian/Dionysian, “serious”/enjoyable.

Morlot — a big part of this success in the less obvious task of precision-engineering and calibrating Kernis’s complex orchestral apparatus — was a deeply  sympathetic collaborator in this premiere.

He opened the program with a youthful curiosity by Debussy from a student cantata (the “Cortège et Air de danse” from L’enfant prodigue). The second half brought Beethoven’s Sixth.

Morlot’s account of the Pastoral from several seasons ago has stayed with me as some of his best Beethoven. It’s fascinating to hear him continuing to develop his ideas of this piece. Connections between the movements (even between symphonies) emerged effortlessly — above all in the limber, serenely flowing string lines of the second and last movements, which were reminiscent of his vision of the Ninth’s slow movement at the beginning of the year.

Despite some ensemble untidiness, there was especially delectable work from the winds (Eric Jacobs’ clarinet as beguiling as the voice of Orpheus). Michael Crusoe’s timpani pulsed with dramatic thunder and lighting in a storm movement that sounded like a sketch for The Flying Dutchman: further evidence of the silliness of that persistent cliche about the “placid” even-numbered versus “revolutionary” odd-numbered Beethoven symphonies. Next week brings a further chance for comparison, when Morlot and the SSO close out their two-year Beethoven cycle with the mighty Fifth.

(c) 2017 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: American music, Beethoven, commissions, James Ehnes, Ludovic Morlot, review, Seattle Symphony

Seattle Symphony Is Making Music Matter

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Kinan Azmeh, Ludovic Morlot, and Seattle Symphony; image (c) Brando Patoc

Some thoughts on recent Seattle Symphony programs, now on Vanguard Seattle:

Say goodbye to ivory towers.

So far this month, the Seattle Symphony Orchestra (SSO) and music director Ludovic Morlot have presented three widely varied programs. Two of these addressed red-hot current events that would have seemed surprising in the middle of a “normal” concert season not too long ago.

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Filed under: American music, Beethoven, Debussy, Ives, Ludovic Morlot, Prokofiev, review, Seattle Symphony, Vanguard Seattle

Revolution No. 9

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It was premiered almost two centuries ago. And Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 still feels as urgently needed today as ever.

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Filed under: Beethoven, Ludovic Morlot, Seattle Symphony, Seattle Times

A Primer in the Romantic Spirit from Seattle Symphony

khachatryan-12Sergey Khachatryan. Image courtesy of Seattle Symphony.

My review of this weekend’s Seattle Symphony program with Ludovic Morlot and violinist Sergey Khachatryan is now live on Vanguard Seattle:

The Seattle Symphony Orchestra (SSO)’s sixth season with Music Director Ludovic Morlot has so far included a pair of electrifying programs that paired world premiere commissions by composers of today with Beethoven classics—the latter part of an ongoing two-year cycle of the composer’s complete symphonies and piano concertos.

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Filed under: Berlioz, Ludovic Morlot, review, Seattle Symphony, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Vanguard Seattle

(Prokofiev) x2 + Beethoven 1 + Beethoven 8 = SSO Triumph

 

 

With their first subscription concert  of the new season, the Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot have already scored a home run.

If you’re a fan of new music, you’ll regret missing this; ditto if you’re fan of the core classical repertoire. That in itself gives a good indication of just how remarkable this program is.

Last weekend I previewed Gabriel Prokofiev’s new work, an SSO commission.Having now heard the first full rehearsal as well as the live world premiere of this music, I’m genuinely thrilled by what Prokofiev has accomplished.

Titled When the City Rules, his new composition is a substantial, vividly imagined, and expertly constructed half-hour-long symphonic fantasia inspired by the phenomenon of the mega-city in contemporary life. It’s not program music in the old-fashioned sense of trying to “translate” a narrative into musical terms.

When I spoke to the composer recently, he said he relished the “magical” way in which music can generate images or feelings “without being super-exact”: how it can negotiate a space between pure abstraction and a medium like film, triggering multiple subjective “plots” according to each listener, since the musical images are so “open to interpretation.”

What he does in When the City Rules is to offer a broad suggestive framework for each of the four movements: an overview of the great, looming city and the life of its citizens (think London of today, where Gabriel Prokofiev resides). His “dramaturgy” juxtaposes the big picture with suggested “close-up” moments of characters or particular feelings.

So the first movement, opening with a beautifully sustained atmosphere of layered strings, evokes “the memories that cities hold” but also the modern city’s power; an “Andante Nostalgico” touches on the melancholy associated with cities and the desire to escape to something more pristine; considerable energy and excitement come to the fore in the third movement, which taps into the nervous, ceaselessly busy energy that not only keeps the city going but is a defining trait; and a “Rondo Brilliante” finale replete with echo effects to bring the work to a bracing climax and conclusion.

But it’s no simple affirmation: by then we’ve encountered a matrix of brooding, even oppressive sounds along with Prokofiev’s most animated writing. It’s tempting to work in a sci-fi level of interpretation, of a city becoming conscious of itself and its rulership over mere mortals.

Of course the four-movement pattern just outlined can suggest a more or less classically oriented symphony as well. The point is, there’s no doubt that When the City Rules is a milestone for Gabriel Prokofiev, whether you want to use that generic touchstone or prefer to approach it as a composition sui generis.

This is no mere patchwork of “impressions” or clever soundscape-vignettes, but an ambitiously conceived large-scale piece that works in real time (though I think it could perhaps benefit from a tad more tightening in a passage here or there).

Even though Gabriel Prokofiev first caught the music industry’s attention thanks to his talent for bridging the worlds of classical music and the electronica of the popular dance club scene — his Concerto for Turntables & Orchestra was featured at the 2011 Proms — When the City Rules is, notably, written entirely for acoustic orchestra, with no electronic “bells and whistles.”

And written with marvelous flair and fluency, using its rich palette in a way that makes the orchestra itself embody a vision of the city, both as ensemble and with its prominent roles for particular protagonists (flute, cello, and trumpet, most notably, and, to wonderful effect in the “nostalgic” slow movement, a solo saxophone).

When the City Rules moreover reveals a composer with a convincing sense of where his short, often rhythmic motifs can take us, of where the music needs to “go.” Anyone expecting a one-trick game — or a repeat of Prokofiev’s orchestral rethink of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s classic “Baby Got Back” (which brought another round of viral fame during his last collaboration with the SSO and Morlot, in 2014) — is in for a big surprise.

The masterfully built-up ostinato patterns that play such a key role in When the City Rules distantly recall a trait of his grandfather, Sergei Prokofiev, as does the tone of darkened, sardonic humor and even menace they sometimes conjure. There’s also a hint of 21st-century Sacre Stravinsky in the tracks of jagged rhythms that crunch and pop.

Prokofiev’s ongoing interest in electronic and dance club music remains present as an ongoing feature. “I think those styles work brilliantly in the concert hall,” he told me, citing the pervasive use of dance rhythms in the most familiar classical music. “They just happen to be dance rhythms that are 200 years old.” And from his work DJing, Prokofiev says he has learned techniques of “mixing and cutting something up —  the way dance music will be manipulated to rise up to climaxes.” These are a contemporary version, in one way, of what Beethoven does with his slicing and recombining of short, potent motifs by way of “development.”

When the City Rules  is an extraordinary achievement, but just as extraordinary is the fact that Morlot and the SSO, within a few days of first reading through the score together, have been able to deliver such a gripping and well-polished interpretation of this music for the premiere. Jeffrey Barker (flute), Efe Baltacıgil (cello), and David Gordon (trumpet) added particular flavor with their vividly characterized solo parts.

Any commission is by definition a risk: I’d like to think the generous patrons who underwrote this one (Norman Sandler and Dale Chihuly) realize what a winner they’ve picked.

 

And Gabriel Prokofiev’s piece was only one of the success stories of the program. Grandfather Sergei was also represented, with a performance of his compact but immensely varied and orchestrally eventful Symphonic Suite from his opera The Love for Three Oranges.

Prokofiev was a master composer for the stage, but he endured an absurd amount of bad luck in that arena. This Suite is an example of some of his best opera music being siphoned off into an arrangement for the concert hall. If Prokofiev’s wash of added percussion proved  overpowering in the most vehement ensemble moments, the precision and balance of the strings were especially admirable. The detailed preparation of the Suite as a whole, with its many virtuosic flourishes,  was nothing short of astounding, considering the amount of attention needed to prepare the brand-new score of the evening.

And then the Beethoven: since these reflections have already gone on at length, I’ll have to defer my more detailed impressions until later in the ongoing Beethoven cycle this season. To quickly sum up: it’s thrilling to observe how much more confident and focused Morlot is becoming in his approach to these icons of the classical rep.

This program in particular, framed by Beethoven’s First Symphony and his Eighth, even replicated something of that growth, with Morlot stepping even further out and taking greater risks in his account of the Eighth Symphony, which rounded this abundant evening of music off with a rousing conclusion.

The program repeats Saturday and Sunday.

(c)2016 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

 

Filed under: Beethoven, Ludovic Morlot, new music, review, Seattle Symphony

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