MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Seattle Symphony Continues Its Reunion with Ludovic Morlot

Ludovic Morlot conducting the Seattle Symphony with soloist Jan Lisiecki in Grieg’s Piano Concerto; image (c) Brandon Patoc

Several times during Seattle Symphony’s concert last night, it felt like a time machine had whisked us back a few years to the Ludovic Morlot era. The orchestra reunited with its former music director last weekend on opening night and is continuing the collaboration for the first full concert of the season’s subscription series. And they’ve managed to reactivate something of the chemistry that made their first seasons together so exciting.

You could sense it in the joyful enthusiasm with which they brought to life the opening piece, Tidalwave Kitchen, by Gabriella Smith. For the second time in a row this month, Morlot and the SSO launched a concert with music by a young woman composer inspired by the West Coast’s natural beauty — last Saturday, it was the world premiere of PNW native Angelique Poteat’s  Breathe, Come Together, Embrace. So far as I know, Tidalwave Kitchen marked the first time the SSO has performed music by Smith, who hails from Berkeley and was mentored early on by John Adams. 

In a short introduction onstage, the talented young composer remarked that it was in this piece that she first had the reassurance of arriving at her own voice. Smith wrote it a decade ago, prompted during her student years on the East Coast by intense homesickness for the “beautiful and dramatic landscape of the Northern California coast” where she’d grown up. 

Smith elaborates in her composer’s note on the memories of that landscape that inspired her: “hikes shrouded in fog, tide pooling on the rocky beaches, and sitting by the Pacific listening to the hallucinatory sounds of the ocean, the keening gulls, pounding surf, sizzling of sand and sea foam, drifting in and out of fog and clarity, order and randomness, reality and imagination.” 

The resulting music paints no pretty postcard but is an immersive, sensory-rich orchestral fantasia, unpredictable yet persuasive in its wildly dramatic mood swings. Smith seems to want to embrace the world the way a Mahler born into the 21st century might have set out to do so, using post-Minimalist devices to power up and take flight. 

Fragments of a stable melody (or hymn?) want to coalesce at several points but remain shrouded by the almost-psychedelic haze of Smith’s timbral palette. A raucously festive outburst arrives at the climax, but its brash exuberance spills over into something vaguely ominously manic and then subsides. 

Over the summer, Morlot conducted the San Francisco Symphony in Tidalwave Kitchen, and he elicited palpable excitement from the SSO. It’s one thing to possess the keen musical imagination on display in this music, but Smith also shows a remarkable technical command of the resources of an orchestra, making the piece especially apt as a concert curtain raiser. I hope we get to hear more of her music in Benaroya Hall. 

Morlot will conduct his new orchestra (the Barcelona Symphony) in another piece by Smith later in October. Incidentally: this sought-after composer will be on the panel for the New York Times Events-sponsored seminar A New Climate exploring collective responses to climate change (October 12 in San Francisco).

Raucous, fiery energy likewise abounded in Jan Lisiecki’s account of the competitive folk dancing that drives the finale of Grieg’s Piano Concerto. Returning to the Benaroya stage following his inspired contribution to the opening night concert, Lisiecki approached the familiar concerto from an almost dizzying plenitude of perspectives. 

His variety of tonal colors was spellbinding: the thunderous chords of the massive first movement cadenza thrilled with power and accuracy, while the plaintive trains of the Adagio breathed the poetry of Lisiecki’s most personally inflected Chopin. It was especially nice to hear his rendition of Chopin’s posthumously published Nocturne in C minor as an encore, where he distilled that poetry to its most concentrated essence. I was also struck by the quality of his partnership with Morlot and the orchestra as he responded to the phrasings of individual players, such as the idyllic interlude flutist Jeffrey Barker shaped in the finale. 

The extreme pianissimos Lisiecki drew out of the Steinway foreshadowed the drama whipped up in the second half of the program. Morlot led the SSO in Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony back in 2014 (when it was similarly paired with new music — a piano concerto by Alexander Raskatov). Eight years on, to my ears there is no doubt that his understanding of this music has deepened and darkened. His command of the larger span of Tchaikovsky’s design has strengthened as well. 

The opening lamentation — expressively phrased by bassoonist Luke Fieweger, in one of several outstanding cameos from across the SSO’s ranks — set the terms of the drama as effectively as a memorable establishing shot by a seasoned director. Morlot outlined the long first movement’s disparate sections with a clarity that underscored the emotional polarities of Tchaikovsky’s enigmatic final symphony.

However, I found something lacking in the middle movements. The tricky meter of the second movement waltz came off sounding slack, even a bit sloppy, while the swaggering march in the third movement needed a tighter rein to wield its full irony. But Morlot inspired the most moving playing of the evening in the Requiem-like finale, building by subtraction so that the pitiless subsidence of Tchaikovsky’s conclusion overwhelmed with its negation.

The program will be repeated Friday and Saturday.

Review (c) 2022 by Thomas May. All rights reserved.

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

Ascending To The Stars On Messiaen Trek From The Canyons, Illustrated

Former Seattle Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot returned to conduct Messaien’s ‘Des canyons aux étoiles…‘ (Photos by James Holt / Seattle Symphony)

I reviewed an extraordinary (and rare) performance of Messiaen by Ludovic Morlot and Seattle Symphony for Classical Voice America:

SEATTLE — For their recent reunion, Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony put aside the familiar repertoire to offer a program devoted entirely to Olivier Messiaen’s vast, 12-movement work inspired by the landscape of the American West, Des canyons aux étoiles…. The experience was blissfully unique, reminiscent of similarly rare outings during Morlot’s eight-year tenure as music director (2011-19) that have not faded from memory: a riotous Varèse Amériques early on, the collaborations with John Luther Adams, semi-staged Ravel and Stravinsky — and, indeed, other Messiaen performances, including the orchestra’s first encounter with the Turangalîla Symphony….

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Filed under: Ludovic Morlot, Olivier Messiaen, Seattle Symphony

Morlot and SSO Together Again for Epic Messiaen

Ludovic Morlot conducts the Seattle Symphony in The Mayors’ Concert for Ukraine and Refugees Worldwide earlier this year. (James Holt / Seattle Symphony)

Tonight Ludovic Morlot rejoins the Seattle Symphony for the first of two performances of one of Messiaen’s Des canyons aux étoiles… I spoke to the conductor about the program for The Seattle Times:

A new chapter in Ludovic Morlot’s relationship with the Seattle Symphony is underway.

Now holding the title of conductor emeritus, Morlot has chosen some unusual fare for his concerts on June 2 and 4: the orchestral epic “Des canyons aux étoiles …” (“From the Canyons to the Stars …”) by Olivier Messiaen, which will be presented in a multimedia presentation accompanied by video projections by Deborah O’Grady.

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Filed under: Ludovic Morlot, Olivier Messiaen, Seattle Symphony, Seattle Times

Morlot Leads the Next Chapter in the Seattle Symphony’s Sibelius Adventure

Ludovic Morlot reunites with the Seattle Symphony (image: Nick Klein)

For the second installment in the Seattle Symphony’s Sibelius cycle, emeritus conductor Ludovic Morlot rejoined the orchestra to lead a program centered around the Second Symphony. The occasion inspired some spectacular, edge-of-your-seat playing on Thursday night.

The concert started off with another in the series of commissions of new works from contemporary composers that find a way to “relate” to each of the Sibelius symphonies. In February, when the cycle launched with the Sibelius First (conducted by the talented Ruth Reinhardt), the pairing presented an intriguingly provocative new piece by Ellen Reid. The Puerto Rican composer Angélica Negrón faced the challenge of responding to what is, for many Sibelius fans, the best-loved of the seven symphonies. Color Shape Transmission, the result, offers an imaginatively fresh take on the phenomenon of acoustic space and the orchestra as a kind of mobile aural sculpture. Negrón spins her vast array of forces into a kaleidoscope of mysterious timbres, rapturously sustained clusters, and subtle echo and richochet effects. The impression of a ritual or procession brought to mind the mystery of the Second Symphony’s Andante, with its walking bass and swelling hymn.

I seem to recall that this program had originally been planned to include Sibelius’s Violin Concerto with Isabelle Faust. She was the soloist in Stravinsky’s contribution to the genre instead, but it was a wonderful match and proved captivating from first note to last. Faust displayed multiple personalities, all equally convincing, in Stravinsky’s one-of-a-kind take on the concerto idea: alternately cheeky, heart-breaking, whimsical, and invigorating. Morlot’s tenure with the SSO included some especially memorable encounters with Stravinsky, so it was gratifying to find him shedding light on a different aspect of the composer, tending so carefully to his piquant timbral combinations of woodwinds and soloist; concertmaster Noah Geller matched Faust’s ravishing tone in the duet between both violinists in the Capriccio finale.

But what left the most resounding impression was the epic sweep conveyed by the Second Symphony. In this account, Morlot navigated the SSO through Sibelius’s drastic transformations of landscape with a convincing sense of purpose. Sunlight shifting on the meadows, impending storms, glorious new vistas opened up — the sonic imagery flowed generously, but Morlot shaped its ebbs and flows with architectural understanding, aside from the occasional haze produced by a passing sonic imbalance. He homed in on Sibelius’s use of tension and release to thrilling effect.

In his excellent program notes, Christopher DeLaurenti points out that Sibelius had little use for the political purposes which his work seemed to serve, while at the same time hinting at the Second’s uncanny relevance for the terrible present moment. Its premiere in 1902, he writes, “was welcomed by the Finnish public as a missive of nationalist resilience against their Russian overlords.” He also quotes the composer’s friend and champion Robert Kajanus hailing the Second as “a broken-hearted protest against all the injustice that threatens at the present time to deprive the sun of its light and our flowers of their scent.” Grasping the music’s agonized heroism, this performance invested the final moments of the Second with cathartic grandeur.

The full program will be performed again on Saturday, 9 April, at 8pm. If you need a dose of hope, don’t miss it.

Filed under: commissions, Ludovic Morlot, Seattle Symphony, Sibelius, Uncategorized

Ludovic Morlot to Barcelona Symphony

Nostalgic clip from October 2009, when Ludovic Morlot was rehearsing with the Seattle Symphony

Congratulations to Ludovic Morlot, Conductor Emeritus of Seattle Symphony, who has just been named music director of the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra. His tenure starts September 2022 for an initial four seasons. He succeeds Kazushi Ono.

From the press release:

Morlot will conduct a minimum of eleven weeks a year. Ambitious plans together will include an increased digital presence, CD recordings, international residencies, talent development and youth programs, and a commitment to expand the permanent symphony orchestra size. His appointment is the culmination of a three-year search process, and follows conducting weeks with the orchestra in December 2020 and then again last month.  

Robert Brufau, the Director of L’Auditori, stated that ‘with Ludovic Morlot at the helm, the OBC reaches an international level to defend the role that symphonic music has to play in the 21st century. Morlot has proven his capacity to promote the artistic growth of large groups that, thanks to his leadership, have achieved great success. Modernity and rigour are part of his DNA as an artist, and this is evident in everything he does, from management to the stage with full awareness of the challenges of modern society’. 

Morlot remains Associate Artist of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, and Conductor Emeritus of the Seattle Symphony – an honorary title bestowed on him for the extraordinary achievements of his eight years as the orchestra’s Music Director. 

The public of Catalonia will next be able to enjoy Ludovic Morlot’s artistry in the week of 17 January at L’Auditori, conducting the Barcelona Symphony in works by Bach, Betsy Jolas, Schumann, Carter, and Mahler, with the pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard as guest soloist.

Filed under: Ludovic Morlot, music news

Seattle Opera Returns with an Abridged Concert Walküre

Saturday evening, 28 August, at Seattle Center, starting at 7pm, Seattle Opera returns to performance with a live audience with a “Welcome Back Concert” consisting of highlights from Die Walküre. More than 2,000 people are expected to attend this special outdoor opera performance, which I’m chagrined I will have to miss.

It’s sold out but jumbo screens will allow anyone who strolls down to the Seattle Center Campus to enjoy the performance at various non-ticketed areas.

The cast: Angela MeadeEric OwensAlexandra LoBianco (most recently Seattle Opera’s Tosca), Raymond Aceto, and Brandon Jovanovich. The Seattle Symphony Orchestra will be led by the group’s former leader Maestro Ludovic Morlot.

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

Ludovic Morlot Returns to Seattle Symphony

Watch Ludovic Morlot’s reunion with Seattle Symphony on Thursday 5 November at 7.30pm PT. You can watch the livestream on Seattle Symphony Live* here.

The program includes THOMAS ADÈS/Three Studies from Couperin; DEBUSSY: Danses sacrée et profane; MARTIN/Ballade for Flute and Orchestra; and HONEGGER/ Symphony No. 2.

*Monthly passes to Seattle Symphony Live are $12.99/month  and include a free 7-day trial with no commitment required. 

Filed under: Ludovic Morlot, Seattle Symphony

John Luther Adams: Become Desert

Become Desert by John Luther Adams — one of his most spellbinding and innovative compositions — has just been released. Here’s my review from the world premiere by Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot last year.

It’s a rare concert when a major work of Beethoven gets upstaged. Rarer still when the music responsible for the upstaging is brand new…

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Filed under: John Luther Adams, Ludovic Morlot, Seattle Symphony

Ludovic Morlot Takes Leave of the Seattle Symphony (For Now)

Debussy

Ludovic Morlot at his farewell Seattle Symphony concert; photo (c) Brandon Patoc

A look at Ludovic Morlot’s Seattle Symphony legacy:

SEATTLE — With the elegiac strains of the Mondscheinmusik interlude from Richard Strauss’s Capriccio as an encore, Ludovic Morlot brought his final program as music director of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra to an end over the weekend. Stepping back to let the spotlight fall on principal horn Jeffrey Fair during his incandescent solo was a characteristically generous touch. It reminded me of the moment at the end of his opening night concert in 2011, when Morlot descended the podium to join the violin section during Boléro — music making as a shared undertaking among equals.

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Filed under: Ludovic Morlot, review, Seattle Symphony

Ludo’s Farewell Concert

Strauss & Dvorak ConductingIt’s already here: this weekend Ludovic Morlot is leading his final performances as music director of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. The program is characteristically enticing and original: Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde followed by a suite from Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (fashioned in 1983 by Marius Constant) and the Nocturnes, and a genuine rarity: Leoš Janáček’s cantata The Eternal Gospel, written on the eve of the First World War.

I’ll be putting together some thoughts on the significance of the Morlot era in Seattle soon. In the meantime, it will be a bittersweet occasion tonight, but with the consoling thought that Ludo should be back here with some frequency thanks to his new title as Conductor Emeritus.

Filed under: Ludovic Morlot, Seattle Symphony

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