Listen boldly. This is the new motto for the Seattle Symphony. In only two concerts with his new orchestra, Ludovic Morlot is challenging audiences to do exactly that.
Last weekend he began this season’s survey of Henri Dutilleux’s orchestral music with the composer’s violin concerto — Tree of Dreams. Violinist Renaud Capucon made his Seattle Symphony debut with a performance of the concerto that was painted with vivid orchestral colors uncommon for Seattle’s orchestra.
But, the night’s closing piece — Beethoven’s ground breaking Third Symphony — was the most memorable piece on the program. In part, this has to do with how foreign Tree of Dreams and Frank Zappa’s Dupree’s Paradise are to audiences (including myself). They are seldom played and seldom recorded. Pierre Boulez’s recording of Zappa’s orchestral music is only available as an import and to my knowledge there are only two recordings of Dutilleux’s concerto. Both pieces are rare in the concert hall. I won’t try to guess how rare. Juxtaposed against the Eroica Symphony, these two pieces underscored how revolutionary the symphony truly is, even today.
Morlot’s Beethoven was memorable for another, more important reason. In very little time, Morlot has turned the SSO into an orchestra that plays with clarity, precision and color. Morlot’s interpretation missed the grand arc of the piece. His focus on details, perfectly executed solos, controlled dynamics, and a plethora of orchestral colors I don’t usually associate with the Austro-German symphonic tradition made up for any interpretative oversights.
It may very well be that Morlot is making the calculated decision that before he can start imposing his own artistic license on Beethoven his orchestra needs to brush up on the fundamentals. I will be listening closely to see how his style develops over the rest of the season.
Paul Schiavo’s program notes have always bothered me. They are either too topical, too obtuse, and always dull. Schiavo’s note for Dupree’s Paradise was especially bad. I am not sure someone should get an author credit for a program note that block quotes paragraphs from Zappa’s memoir. Schiavo’s original contribution to the edification of anyone who read the note was limited at best. If as an audience member I am expected to listen boldly, then I expect Schiavo to write boldly. This season is filled to the brim with pieces that are hard for audiences to hear and comprehend. Schiavo can do a lot by providing a road map for audiences.