A B-Z of Composers

 United StatesUnited States  Zappa, Dutilleux and Beethoven: Ludovic Morlot (conductor), Renaud Capuçon (violin), Seattle Symphony, Benaroya Hall,Seattle, 24.9.2011

Stravinsky, Gershwin and Varèse: Ludovic Morlot (conductor), Seattle Symphony, Benaroya Hall,Seattle, 29.9.2011 (BJ)

Ludovic Morlot’s first two subscription programs as music director of the Seattle Symphony covered a nearly complete alphabetical range of composers: Beethoven at the beginning, Zappa at the end, and Dutilleux, Gershwin, Stravinsky, and Varèse in between.

Actually, I think the term “composer” as applied to Frank Zappa is a bit sanguine. The art of transition is as central to composition as it is to performance – “composing,” after all, means “putting together” – and while not short of the sort of Invention of which Zappa’s famous band called itself the Mothers, “Dupree’s Paradise,” from The Perfect Stranger, shows not the slightest command of the necessity of getting from one invention to the next – it’s just one mildly attractive damned thing after another.

Opening the first of these programs, Morlot and the Seattle Symphony gave the piece as good a whirl as one could have hoped, and the same may be said of their performance of Dutilleux’s L’Arbre des songes, with Renaud Capuçon as a fluent and sweet-toned violin soloist. Curiously, though the venerable Dutilleux is a thousand times more a creative figure than Zappa, L’Arbre does not seem to me one of his best pieces. Again here, logic and continuity are not compellingly in evidence. But the elegance of the material, and the impeccable refinement of the composer’s ear, make nevertheless for an enjoyable listening experience.

It was a clever idea on Morlot’s part to begin his second subscription program with Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and end it with Varèse’s Amériques, with just Gershwin’s far less truculent An American in Paris to keep the peace between them.

When it was premiered in Parisin 1913, Le Sacre du printemps was immediately recognized as a spectacular bellwether of modernism in music. A few years later, with Amériques, Stravinsky’s near-contemporary Varèse came close to making The Rite sound old-hat. For today’s listeners, Varèse’s even more radical abandonment of such age-old musical preoccupations as thematic development and contrapuntal ingenuity, in favor of instrumental color and sheer textural dynamism, serves to show just how much Stravinsky’s most famous work, for all its iconoclasm, owes to tradition. Nevertheless, there can be no questioning The Rite’s status as a composition of the utmost historical importance. Yet the curious thing about it is that, the better the performance it receives, the less there is to say about it, whereas with the very greatest works – the symphonies, for instance, of Haydn and Mozart, or of Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms – a supreme performance is likely to leave the reviewer desperate for more space to elucidate its profundities.

With The Rite, in other words, the conductor either gets it right or he doesn’t, and Morlot got it triumphantly right. This was a reading of the lithe, refreshingly unpompous variety, along the lines familiar from conductors like Pierre Boulez, Igor Markevitch, and Stravinsky himself, rather than the weightier manner of a Leonard Bernstein. The orchestra, to a man and woman, played splendidly. Carried over from the recent gala opening program, the Gershwin piece too was neatly and perceptively played, and Varèse’s blockbuster lacked nothing in either timbral vividness or dynamic heft, right up to the positively terrifying impact of its closing measures. The near-juxtaposition illuminated the way; whereas The Rite of Spring succeeds in achieving a new kind of purposeful pulse to supplant traditional harmonic methods, Amériques for much of its length consists of not much more than stertorous starts and stops. But in the last few of the work’s roughly twenty-five minutes, Varèse does manage to imbue his essential gestural method with a genuinely propulsive quality, and at this point the composer, with a little help from his friends in the orchestra and on the podium, carried the audience irresistibly with him.

Mission accomplished, then, as least so far as contemporary repertoire is concerned. You will notice, however, that I have left Beethoven for last. To judge from the performance he led on 24 September, I think Morlot’s Eroica may best be termed a work in progress. Here too there was much that was right. Pacing was generally judicious, with a Marcia funebre that started accurately at Beethoven’s by no means draggy metronome mark and accelerated just sufficiently in the middle before reestablishing the main pulse for the reprise.

Surprisingly in view of that excellent judgement, the first movement – again taken at the pace Beethoven prescribed – had been rather seriously lacking in relaxation where that was needed. Playing throughout the symphony was good but not immaculate: an occasional vagueness of articulation, along with a certain weakness of bass sonority (understandable, given how short a time Morlot has had to master the hall’s acoustics), meant that the big moments were a shade wanting in grandeur. In the trio section of the third movement, with John Cerminaro now departed from the orchestra, the horn section sounded efficient rather than thrilling. The new principal flute, Demarre McGill, enjoyed a most impressive debut, and there were plenty of fine solos from his woodwind colleagues. One tiny questionable detail in the slow movement may be mentioned: that excellent timpanist Michael Crusoe is certainly capable of playing softly for the first three short notes of a figure and then mustering a sudden forte for the fourth, but at the point in question the conductor instead took the easier option of having him play all four notes loudly.

Still, the performance as a whole was by no means a bad shot at one of the cornerstones of the repertoire. I wait with eagerness to see and hear how Morlot’s handling of the great classics will deepen. But, for now, he may at any rate be hailed as a highly accomplished exponent of contemporary music in the war-horse category.

Bernard Jacobson