Despite twists of fate, Seattle Symphony delivers

By Philippa Kiraly

It’s the hall mark of a professional orchestra that when unexpected obstacles threaten to overcome a concert, musicians rise above them and achieve a high level of performance anyway. This week the Seattle Symphony rose to the challenge and triumphed.

I’ve been at a performance elsewhere where the lights went out and the orchestra performed in the pitch dark—music it knew well, granted. I’ve heard firsthand about a travel performance where the musicians’ trunks didn’t arrive, and they played borrowed instruments in borrowed clothes (Moscow), and another where the stagehands didn’t like Americans and made the musicians dress and warm up on the loading dock ( Paris).


This week, it was the Seattle Symphony’s turn (and probably that of just about any other professional music event expecting performers from abroad).

The conductor had already been changed three weeks ago. No problem; Ludovic Morlot was available and contracted to come, the program altered accordingly, with Verdi’s “La forza del destino” Overturereplacing “Berlioz’ “Roman Carnival” Overture. So far so good.

But then the Icelandic volcano erupted.

The orchestra management held its collective breath. Both Morlot and solo cellist Xavier Phillips were in Europe. Would they get here?

Early Wednesday, word came that Phillips couldn’t make it. He was to play Dutilleux’ large concerto-like “Tout un monde lointain,” with the orchestra for three performances starting the following night as well as give a recital at Benaroya Friday.

What to play instead? This was to have been the heart of the concert, the rest of the program built around it. It’s not a work in every cellist’s repertoire, so even if management could have found a cellist who could come, the likelihood of this concerto being in that person’s repertoire was small.

With Morlot, the orchestra’s new vice president for artistic planning, Elena Dubinets (who made it back from Spain the day of the eruption) , chose Tchaikovsky’s orchestral tone poem, “Francesca da Rimini,” because Morlot had conducted it several times last fall, and the orchestra had the parts and score in its library. The musicians had not played it since 1983, and only a few of today’s musicians were in the orchestra then.

Again not a problem if there’s the usual rehearsal time. American orchestras are known for their ability to work up something new to them in very short order.

However, Morlot did not manage to reach Seattle from where he was stranded in Copenhagen until 24 hours before the concert.

The musicians had one rehearsal with Alex Prior, the 17-year-old conductor

hired in January to backstop visiting conductors, and changed their schedules to make it possible to have two rehearsals Thursday with Morlot before the evening’s concert. Two rehearsals and a concert in one day are a lot for any musician.

Fast forward to the concert itself.

It was superb, with thrilling performances of the Tchaikovsky and the Verdi, and despite a bit of raggedness at the beginning of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 (there was likely no time to rehearse something they all knew so well), a performance full of vitality there.

An energized Morlot, 36 this year, communicated his dynamism to the musicians. From the first three chords of the Verdi, there was an immediate feeling of fear and panic, and just when it seemed too much, the atmosphere would change. The performance carried this listener with it, leaving a sense of withers wrung at the end.

Then there was more in the Tchaikovsky, another intense piece. While both these works (and the Beethoven as well) are about the blows that Fate delivers, “Francesca da Rimini” is darker, more ominous, with scurrying downward runs emphasizing the downward pull to Hell. There are reminders in the music of Berlioz’ witches’ sabbath movement from Symphony Fantastique in the frenetic dotted rhythm and the swirling feel with w hich Tchaikovsky imbues much of this..

Morlot gave both works colorful interpretations, full of drama and life. The orchestra played superbly, sounding clean and transparent in the midst of urgency, the many wind solos beautifully shaped.

Beethoven’s familiar Fifth came almost as a relief in its orderliness, his music on its way to becoming romantic from classical but a far cry from the let-it-all-hang-out angst of the other two works. Morlot’s interpretation was on the brisk side in the first movement, but he gave time for the slow movement to bloom, brought out the worry in the third movement plus the vacillation in the last leading to the transcendant joy with which the symphony ends.

Last month Prior won 6th place out of 300 applicants and 12 selected competitors in the International Gustave Mahler Conducting Competition.

Remaining performances Saturday at 8, Sunday at 2. Tickets, $17-$100 at 206-215-4747 or seattlesymphony.org.  Phillips’ recital Friday is canceled.

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