Deneve returns to Benaroya Hall

By R.M. Campbell

When Stephane Deneve made his Seattle Symphony Orchestra debut a few years ago, he was immediately recognized for the talent he was. His return to the SSO podium Thursday night at Benaroya did nothing to change that impression.

His program had multiple virtues: two works because they were little known or not known and one work which was very familiar but sounded freshly minted. Such was Deneve’s vision and talent.

“Neruda Songs” is considered one the most important song cycles of the past decade, both for the subtlety of Peter Lieberson’s music and text of Pablo Neruda, the great Chilean poet. They were written for one of the most respected and admired singers of the late 20th and early 21st century, the mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Lieberson’s wife. Upon his first encounter with a collection of Neruda poems, in 1999, Paul Schiavo recalls in the program notes, Lieberson was determined to set them to music for the seductive beauties of his wife’s voice. The gestation period was long because Hunt Lieberson was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to cancel concerts. At the time these cancellations caused considerable concern with an anxious public. The composer held off until the cancer was in remission. The work’s premiere was in 2005. It was widely acclaimed for itself and for Hunt Lieberson’s contribution. The triumph was short-lived. The cancer returned and the singer died the following year.

It is hard to separate the work from its biographical context. The songs are about the rapture of passionate love and anguish of its loss, or as Neruda writes in the last poem of the cycle (“My love, if I die and you don’t”), “But love, this love has not ended:/just as it never had a birth, it has/no death: it is like a long river,/ only changing lands, and changing lips.” Given the intensity and range of the emotions Neruda suggests, Lieberson’s music is not given to dramatic emphasis. Its inflections are intimate and quietly expressed. They would seem monochromatic if they were in the hands of a less skillful artist than Kelley O’Connor.

She possesses a mezzo of great resonance which she uses with impressive nuance. It can be delicate but then forceful as well. Her Spanish is clear and pays attention to Neruda’s text. Lieberson’s music readily falls in accord. She shades the line, colors the word and makes the most seamless phrases. Her symphony appearance was the first in Seattle. I hope it is not the last.

Deneve was an exemplary partner.

Albert Roussel is not well-known in Seattle. If Deneve returns he just might be. Certainly he conducts this late 19th-century-early 20th century French composer with conviction. The Second Suite from the composer’s ballet score “Bacchus et Ariane” is a full-bodied work that might not sound so compelling in less competent hands. But it did with Deneve. And the orchestra played like a dream.

Orchestras like to perform the ballet score “Romeo and Juliet” of Prokofiev because there is so much for them to do. There are all sorts of glorious solos for winds, brass and woodwind, and the music is rich in personality and color. The orchestra played as well as it ever has for the French conductor, which is saying a lot.

A couple of notes: audiences here, as elsewhere, often clap between numbers of a song cycle in a way they were rarely with a symphony or concerto. Deneve stopped that by holding his left hand high in the air. No one uttered a peep, coughed or turned a page in the program. At the end of the “Romeo and Juliet,” he held both arms high in the air, and again no one moved. It was as it should be — quiet in both instances to let us absorb the music. Deneve is music director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. That is the orchestra of which Simon Woods is executive director. Woods takes over the Seattle Symphony as executive director in May.

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