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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, September 30, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 39
Terrific changes at Seattle Symphony
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Terrific changes at Seattle Symphony

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Seattle Symphony with Renaud Capuçon
Benaroya Hall
September 24


Frank Zappa and Beethoven on the same program? And at Seattle Symphony?! And who's this Dutilleux guy, also on this program? I'm not unfamiliar with 20th-century composers, but I'd never heard of Henri Dutilleux until I saw his name coming up multiple times on the menu for the coming season under the Symphony's new music director.

Clearly things have changed at Seattle Symphony. The Stranger said last week that the 37-year-old Ludovic Morlot has 'revived' the SSO, but that would imply that it had been dead. While many concerts under previous music director Gerard Schwarz were indeed deadly, most guest conductors got lively playing from the orchestra; and even Schwarz could be counted on for exciting Mahler, Janacek, and especially Shostakovich. But Morlot and the new executive director, Simon Woods, have not just stirred the pot. They have engaged exciting new players, programmed concerts of surprising excitement, taken concrete steps (free tickets!) to fill empty seats, and above all, they have changed the very sound of the orchestra.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the familiar 'Symphony No. 3, Op. 55' of Beethoven. Not long ago, Schwarz prepared this work for the SSO's trip to Carnegie Hall, and it was a much more detailed reading than Schwarz's usual Beethoven. But if one were to compare that performance with this one, you might not believe it was the same orchestra. Nothing about the many surprising elements in Morlot's first two concerts has impressed me more than how he has changed the sounds, especially of the strings and brass. Everything is more beautiful, with more clarity between the string sections, and with a sense that no one is pushing beyond the volume at which they can make the most beautiful sound possible.

Morlot's approach to the 'Eroica' reminded me of a film I want to recommend most highly. It is a movie of the same name (BBC, 2003), and it dramatizes a fictional first run-through of the work in a lovely salon of a prince's estate. Beethoven (Ian Hart) demands from the startled players (actually The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under John Elliot Gardiner) a level of turbulence with which they are utterly unfamiliar. Reactions from those in the room, especially that of Tim Pigott-Smith, who tries in vain not to be moved, convey the astoundingly revolutionary nature of the work. It is a thrilling experience and a great performance of the symphony. The elderly Haydn appears for the last two movements; his remarks afterwards are perfect!

Morlot's reading was slightly less turbulent and considerably more beautiful. Tempi were brisk, dynamics worked effectively, and balances were ideal. Morlot gave us Beethoven that was spare, aggressive, and grand. Again, the sheer beauty of sound was to my ears unlike I have ever heard from the SSO. (The placement of the sections has changed: first and second violins together to Morlot's left, violas next, and the celli to his right. Horns were behind the violins, and the timpani were at upper center.)

I liked the Zappa piece, 'Durpree's Paradise' from The Perfect Stranger (1983). It was full of playful, jazzy rhythms, complex sonorities, and a tonality that often verged on a lyric 12-tone discipline, á la Berg's Wozzeck. It was, of course, not to everyone's taste - one couple left the already almost-empty third tier, where we sat.

Having been reassured of Morlot's ability with Beethoven, I was equally pleased by the work of composer Henri Dutilleux, as represented here by his violin concerto from 1985, 'L'abre des songes' ('The Tree of Dreams'). Dutilleux will appear on several SSO concerts this season; thus I was actually relieved to hear what a fine composer he is. (At 95, he is still living, but in poor health.) Renaud Capuçon, a strikingly handsome Frenchman, was an ideal soloist. His lovely tone was always audible, despite the large orchestra. Indeed, the orchestral textures were exquisitely transparent, constantly changing, and always attractive. In fact, the constant variety of sounds was a major appeal, never for a moment allowing one's ears to become dull.

Because I loved his appearance here two seasons ago, I looked forward with eagerness to this first season with Ludovic Morlot (pronounced 'Mor-low') as music director; now, after the first two programs of the season, that emotion has escalated to something approaching giddiness. The audiences have certainly been enthusiastic, even if the second concert was poorly sold. One hopes that word-of-mouth leads to larger audiences. I did indeed notice a distinct rise in the percentage of young people attending. That's a very good sign!

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

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