Ludovic Morlot impressed again this week with a program that featured the smartly chosen Ameriques of Edgard Varese and Stravinsky’s classic ballet the Rite of Spring. As Morlot pointed out in the open rehearsal earlier in the week — Varese is to Stravinsky the way Beethoven is to Haydn. Ameriques’s homage to the Rite is overt, borrowing themes, rhythms, and mimicking solos. The Rite opens with a bassoon solo, Ameriques opens with a flute solo (bravo Seth Krimsky and Judy Kriewall).
Morlot seems to be focusing the orchestra on the fundamentals of their craft: rhythmic precision, dynamic range, color, and above all else the idea of an orchestra as a musical team. Ear splitting climaxes were a signature of the Schwarz era. Morlot’s climaxes in Ameriques were forceful without being painful to hear.
When the big moments came during Ameriques, there was always room for more sound, more energy. This paid huge dividends at the piece’s conclusion when Morlot pulled a massive, driving crescendo out of the orchestra. Chailly, Boulez, Dohnanyi, none of them in their recordings of the piece, achieve the same humongous sound and none of them match the drama of the work’s final bars.
Some might have thought pegging Ameriques at the end of the program created an anticlimactic concert experience. They would be wrong. The Rite of Spring is a popular piece and its rhythms, harmonies, and violence are part of the vocabulary of most classical music lovers. Putting a popular piece last always leaves the crowd satisfied. Varese’s vocabulary, however, isn’t far removed from Stravinsky. There are enough interesting fragments and repeated ideas to keep the piece interesting. As far as visceral listening experiences go, Varese wins easily. Hearing Varese and Stravinsky side-by-side I couldn’t help but wonder why we don’t hear Varese more often especially placed in the context of more familiar and warmly accepted contemporaries like Gershwin and Stravinsky.
If you like the Rite of Spring shaped by pathos, fury, and romantic fire then Morlot’s view of the piece probably wouldn’t have caused you to riot. Morlot’s performance was perhaps too tame for the piece, but just the right approach for an orchestra playing with the renewed clarity, focus, and shared musical goals of the SSO.
I hope Morlot gives the Rite another go in a few seasons. I’d be interested to hear if the conductor can generate more heat once he and the orchestra are more familiar with one another.