Igor meets Edgard


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.


Listen boldly

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.

Dupree’s Paradise

Auburn Symphony’s Nordic Spring

By Philippa Kiraly

Grieg the Norwegian and Sibelius the Finn dominated last weekend’s concert by the Auburn Symphony. On Saturday night at the Auburn Performing Arts Center what came across most strongly was the host of dark colors those two composers evoke.

Building a portrait with each work they played, the orchestra and conductor Stewart Kershaw brought out those colors and the concomitant emotions to create a kaleidoscopic whole.

They began with Grieg’s “Peer Gynt” Suite No. 1, continued with his little tone poem “The Last Spring, “and followed that with his “Sigurd Jorsalfar” Suite. After intermission, turning to Sibelius, they played his big Symphony No. 2.
Continue reading

SSO “Viola Spectacular” opened Thursday at Benaroya

Pinchas Zukerman

By R.M. Campbell

One often does not know how a particular symphony program comes into being. Take what the Seattle Symphony Orchestra is calling “Viola Spectacular with Pinchas Zukerman.” The first of three concerts was Thursday at Benaroya Hall. Does the idea belong to SSO music director Gerard Schwarz, the soloist or was it a collaboration of the two men? The end result was Zukerman as viola soloist in two works and conductor in one.

Zukerman, as violinist and violist and conductor, in that order, has been plying these waters for several decades. He is now in his early 60s. He has always been a musician of effortless grace, full-bodied technique, a virtuoso in any sense of the word. He was among the first of major instrumentalists to seek the podium. He still plays dozens of concerts every year in a good share of the world. leads his own chamber ensemble, is principal guest conductor of the Royal Philharmonic and guest conducts a fair number of others.
Continue reading

Peter Serkin returns to Seattle for Messiaen and Mozart

By R.M. Campbell

The Seattle Symphony program had plenty of merit — Ravel, Messiaen, Mozart and Brahms — and so did the playing and conducting Thursday night at Benaroya Hall. Douglas Boyd was the conductor and pianist Peter Serkin the soloist. The Scottish conductor is new to Seattle, Serkin is not.

The young conductor has a career that is ever widening, beginning in United Kingdom and expanding to the continent and North America. He is music director of the Manchester Camerata, principal conductor of the Musikkollegium Winterthur and principal guest conductor of the Colorado Symphony and City of London Sinfonia. Little wonder. He demonstrated Thursday in Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin” how he can create vibrant textures, clarity and balance and readily evoke the 18th century along with the 20th. The Ravel had remarkable restraint and balance in which everything had its place. The reading sustained admirable evenness. Ben Hausmann’s oboe solo was notable.
Continue reading

A Requiem or a celebration?

By Philippa Kiraly

Thursday’s Seattle Symphony concert at Benaroya Hall was beautifully designed. First, a world premiere based on Mozart themes, followed by one of the symphonies and one of the horn concertos, and after intermission, the composer’s last work, his Requiem (which was completed after his death and from his notes by Franz Suessmayr). In execution, the program’s first half was satisfying, the second half less so.

Daniel Brewbaker is one of the composers who received a Gund/Simonyi Farewell (to artistic director Gerard Schwarz) Commission, the balance of works being performed at concerts throughout this final season for the conductor. Brewbaker dedicated his “Be Thou the Voice” for soprano and orchestra to Schwarz.
Continue reading

SMCO makes Benaroya debut with concert of German Masterworks

In less than two years Geoffrey Larson and the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra (SMCO) have gone from a pick up ensemble of sorts, with an ever changing cast of musicians, to a core ensemble of 29 musicians that made its Benaroya Hall debut on January 15th. SMCO is an exceptionally talented group of musicians, that deserved it’s billing at the Nordstrom Recital Hall. The wind section is top notch, the French horns surprisingly good, and the string section — usually one of the weakest sections in a community orchestra like SMCO — better than average. Larson, although still learning the art of conducting, is an adroit leader who has a good understanding of musical shape, detail, and each piece’s greater message.
Continue reading