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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, September 23, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 38
Expecting the unexpected at Seattle Symphony
Arts & Entertainment
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Expecting the unexpected at Seattle Symphony

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Opening night at Seattle Symphony
September 17
Benaroya Hall


Free tickets to Seattle Symphony concerts for kids and seniors? The conductor putting down his baton and 'sitting in' with the first violins? The guest soloist finishing his work and then 'sitting in' with the rest of the cellos? Judging from Ludovic Morlot's first week as the new music director of the Seattle Symphony, one should expect just about anything in his first season.

The charismatic little guy from France, along with the equally charming new executive director, Simon Woods, most recently from Scotland, have set out to bring the SSO emphatically into the 21st century. Among other moves, they have initiated programs to deepen relations with the community, fill the woefully empty seats at concerts, and generally create an atmosphere of excitement and innovation. These changes are in matters of appearance as well as substance. Morlot, for instance, does not wear white tie and tails when conducting. He obviously enjoys opportunities to speak to the audience. Stuffiness has clearly been banned!

Morlot exudes energy and enthusiasm. While less a dancer on the podium than, say, Leonard Bernstein, he nonetheless moves a lot, bouncing, vibrating, and often lending emphasis with a wild kick of his left foot (without any noise). He seldom rests on both feet. He uses a baton and sometimes uses a score, other times (as in Ravel's 'Bolero') not. He gets not only enthusiastic response from his players but also lots of smiles. Everyone seems to be having a good time.

'Music is emotion,' he said at a luncheon last week following a rehearsal open to the press and other arts leaders. He pooh-poohs as 'nonsensical' overly serious study of descriptive material before hearing the music, preferring his audience to let the music work its magic without a lot of programmed expectations.

I welcome Morlot's emphasis on the emotional content of music, as well as the personnel changes in the orchestra itself. We have a new principal flute, the tall and handsome Demarre McGill, who to my eyes appears to be the only African-American besides principal timpanist Michael Crusoe. New principal cello is Efe Baltacigil. And gone is John Cerminaro, leaving his position as principal horn open. Hopefully, his replacement will not chop up beautiful, lyric melodies (think Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony, slow movement) with inappropriate accents and a bloated tone. A new concertmaster has yet to be appointed.

At Wednesday's open rehearsal, we walked in on Gershwin's 'An American in Paris.' As I walked down the aisle, I thought, 'Uh oh, this isn't good. It's all loud and lacks clarity and punch.' Turns out it was a first run-through, with no interruption by Morlot. As soon as he started refining individual parts of the piece, his ideas seemed to invade the whole work, so that everything sounded better. He seemed always to get what he wanted, even if it took multiple tries. Very soon, all the praise I gave Morlot for his performance here two seasons ago seemed justified in what we were hearing. Loudness gave way to great use of dynamics, clear delineations of lines and orchestral sections, and lots of punch!

Space doesn't allow me a detailed report on Saturday's opening concert. (Actually, we missed the opening Beethoven 'Overture to 'The Consecration of the House' because I failed to notice the start time was one hour earlier than all other Saturday concerts.) Notable was the delightful banter between Morlot and soloist Joshua Roman (looking dashing with short hair and a stylish mustache!). Morlot asked him about the large black beanie (topped with a bright red something) Roman wore, at which point the cellist pulled an identical beanie out of his pocket for Morlot to wear. Roman explained that Friedrich Gulda (the great 20th-century pianist who wrote the concerto about to be played) often wore outlandish outfits at concerts, once even performing in the nude! Gulda wished to banish stuffiness and to meld all kinds of music, using costume to shock people out of their passive state.

Suffice to say that the Gulda work (for cello and wind orchestra) accomplished the composer's aims to delightful effect. Embracing jazz, pop, and classical forms and rhythms (a double bass, guitar, bass guitar, and small percussion sections completed the instruments), the piece was a delight from beginning to end, with lots of technical demands that Roman polished off with ease. The house erupted at the end, and was rewarded with a solo encore: Mark Summer's 'Julie-O.' The cello was tastefully amplified for the concerto but not for the encore.

The second half gave us the Gershwin plus Ravel's 'Bolero.' Each was totally satisfying and fun. David Gordon's trumpet put on quite a swagger in the Gershwin. Morlot seemed to say, 'These guys don't need me,' as he abandoned the podium to play violin during the Ravel, during which Roman joined the cellos. Much more playful than your usual SSO concert, without sacrificing an ounce of musical merit.

Because of the promise of Morlot's gifts and a more interesting variety of works than usual, I have undertaken to review more than half again as many SSO concerts than I did last year. I advise anyone interested to take the plunge!

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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