A Frenchman in Seattle Portrays an American in Paris

United StatesUnited States  Beethoven, Gulda, Gershwin, and Ravel: Ludovic Morlot (conductor), Joshua Roman (cello), Seattle Symphony, Benaroya Hall,Seattle, 17.9.2011 (BJ)

This was Ludovic Morlot’s first Benaroya Hall appearance as the Seattle Symphony’s new music director. The gala occasion may have been more about charisma than about substance, but there was certainly plenty of the former quality in evidence, along with a refreshing absence of high-art stuffiness.

The young maestro opened the proceedings with words of thanks – in notably fluent English – to everyone he could think of, including the often unheralded stage crew. At the other end of the program, a fine performance of Ravel’s Boléro sported a telling touch of showmanship. Here, for a few go-arounds of that hypnotic tune, Morlot exchanged the podium for a spell at one of the violin desks, before stepping up again to take charge of the final volcanic catharsis, and the unwavering way the players – Michael Werner starring on snare-drum – held the pace on their own was indicative of the Seattle Symphony’s excellent orchestral discipline.

The most substantial piece of “serious music” on the program was Beethoven’s Consecration of the House overture. Composed to honor the re-opening of a renovated theater, this was a sufficiently apt selection to inaugurate a music directorship, and it received a splendidly lithe and well-shaped performance. Apt too, and witty, was the choice of Gershwin’s An American in Paris to inaugurate the sojourn of this Frenchman in Seattle; Morlot found some musical substance in it, and drew appropriately juicy playing from the orchestra at the melodic high points.

The evening’s concerto was Friedrich Gulda’s for cello, scored for an orchestra of woodwinds and brass with one double-bass and a small rhythm section. In contrast to his distinguished classical piano-playing, Gulda’s own compositions stand closer to the world of jazz and pop. His concerto was thus an appropriate vehicle to feature a return engagement for former principal cellist Joshua Roman, who has been carving out a niche for himself in the crossover field.

Persistently square in its rhythmic structure, the piece shows no sign that its composer learned anything about varying phrase-lengths from the Mozart concertos to whose performance he used to bring so much stylistic insight. Still, Roman, playing brilliantly, reveled in the concerto’s wildly freewheeling amalgam of Poulenc-esque zaniness, Respighi-ish nostalgia, Schwertsik-like Alpine evocations (beautifully played by the horns), and manic-Sousanic raucousness. Wowed again by charisma, and charmed by some byplay with funny hats, the audience clearly loved it, and was rewarded with an encore in the shape of Turtle Island String Quartet cellist Mark Summer’s “Julie-O.”

Along with the evening’s many pluses, there were one or two minuses. Former principal flute Scott Goff retired at the end of last season – his successor, Demarre McGill, made an impressive debut – and concertmaster Maria Larionoff’s departure was announced a few months ago. But unexpectedly, and for undivulged reasons, John Cerminaro also has left the orchestra, after serving with enormous distinction for more than a decade as principal horn.

He will be sorely missed. A wonderful concerto soloist, Cerminaro is perhaps even more wonderful as leader of an orchestral horn section. I doubt whether, now in his early 60s, he is a likely candidate for another permanent principal post – but any top orchestra in need of a guest principal for a season or two would be well advised to rush an invitation in his direction.

I hope Morlot will reconsider his reseating of the orchestra when he comes to conduct the major classical and romantic works that really need the violin sections split left and right. And Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, at the upcoming subscription set, will be the first big test of his interpretative chops. But in this friendly gala setting, at the very least, he impressed hugely.

Bernard Jacobson


A shorter version of this review appeared in the Seattle Times.