Ludovic Morlot’s Bond with the Seattle Symphony Grows Stronger

United StatesUnited States Debussy, Dutilleux, Martinů, and Ravel: Xavier Phillips (cello), Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot (conductor), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 15.3.2012 (BJ)

This well-designed program was devoted exclusively to one side of the two-branched stream that has constituted Western music history through the past century and more. That history, it need hardly be said, has been made by many nations. But stylistically each individual composer has tended to follow one or other of two main channels, related respectively to two historically central national sources. There is the Germanic side, which focuses primarily though not of course exclusively on structure. And Ludovic Morlot on this occasion flew the French flag, under which color trumps form, in offering four works by composers who either are or were French or, in Martinů’s case, chose the French side by virtue of stylistic sympathy and long Parisian domicile.

The program itself amply demonstrated how wide a range of musical manner and content is embraced within the confines of the term “Gallic”: we were treated to sybaritic sensuality in Debussy’s Prélude à L’Après-midi d’un faune, quicksilver delicacy leavened with momentary bolts of lightning in Dutilleux’s Tout un monde lointain, ballroom gaiety shading into the violent disintegration of a world in Ravel’s La Valse, and, in Martinů’s Les Fresques de Piero della Francesca, what might well be called a “teeming canvas” of alternating radiance and dark power, despite the fact that canvas is not what frescoes are painted on.

And so far as the performances are concerned, what the concert most strikingly demonstrated was that Morlot is well on the way to making the Seattle Symphony emphatically his orchestra. Seven months into his tenure as music director, he has, like an expert driver, mastered the controls, and can handle them without needing a sideways glance to see where they are; and the musicians, for their part, are beginning to respond to his demands in a manner not prescribed by tradition or artistic precedent but direct and instinctive.

La Valse, with its nostalgic yet acerbic celebration of the luxury-loving Viennese waltz-culture that was soon to be no more, showed clearly how personal Morlot’s interpretations can be. By comparison with the stunning performance of the work that JoAnn Falletta conducted as a guest a couple of years ago, Morlot chose to emphasize not so much the internal continuity of the music but more the recurring disruptions that presage the death of a civilization–and it was, as much as anything else, the instantaneous orchestral response to his sudden explosive gestures that bore witness to his growing control.

Speaking of control, I might have said that his direction of the Debussy piece indulged in rather more subdivision of the beat than was really necessary, except that his differentiation between contrasted units of pulse served to reinforce the richness of the sonic conception in preference to any supposedly Gallic lightness of texture.

Now 96, Henri Dutilleux writes the kind of music many composers think they are creating. It enacts the same processes lesser men try to enact. But it does so without any dogma, and with the focus and intensity that can come only from the working of a resourceful mind and an uncommonly expert ear. It may be that what until recent years impeded Dutilleux’s popularity at the international level was the sheer independence of his musical thought. Globe-trotting arbiters of taste tend to shy away from what they cannot readily pigeonhole. And just as in politics non-aligned nations often find themselves left not merely alone but lonely, so Dutilleux’s resolute avoidance of stylistic schools and factions tended to alienate those whose minds–like the blasphemous young man in the limerick–move in predestinate grooves.

The theorist’s loss is, happily, the ordinary listener’s gain. Not only is Dutilleux’s music essentially unlike anyone else’s. It is also consistently well-written, shapely, and, in one word, beautiful; Tout un monde lointain, moreover, is one of his most beautiful works, and a considerably stronger one in my opinion than the corresponding work for violin and orchestra, L’Arbre des songes, that Morlot conducted at the beginning of the season.

Given the composer’s insistence, in interviews about his artistic method, on his “careful avoidance of prefabricated formal scaffolding,” it’s a pity that the presentation of a work like Tout un monde lointain (“A whole far-off world”) is often, as in the Seattle Symphony’s program book, saddled with the label “Cello Concerto”–a term that appears nowhere in Dutilleux’s score, whose title and movement-heading quotations are taken from the poetry of Baudelaire. Nevertheless, the solo writing certainly calls for a cellist with not only the musicianship but the technique to tackle concerto-like challenges, and Xavier Phillips has an ample supply of what it takes.

It was of this work that another fine cellist, Lynn Harrell, told me some years ago, with eyes shining, that learning and playing it had rekindled all his fading joy and enthusiasm in making music, and a similar sense of joy–if without any of the preliminary fading–was clearly to be felt in Phillips’s treatment of the work. As in his Dvořák performance here back in 2008, he drew wonderfully warm and powerful tone from his 1710 Matteo Gofriller instrument. He threw off every last spurt of pyrotechnics and cosseted every tender moment with equally impressive command, and the orchestra supported him brilliantly. (I think, by the way, that a little more of the flexible pulse exhibited throughout this concert would be beneficial to Morlot’s performances of the Viennese classics, where, for all their concentration of form, flexibility is no less appropriate.)

The other relatively unfamiliar work on the program was Martinů’s set of three pieces inspired by Piero della Francesca’s Arezzo frescoes. Using a big screen above the platform, Morlot helpfully had Piero’s paintings displayed, and explicated them, before (with the screen sensibly retracted) beginning the performance, which was excellent. In a work whose visual inspiration led the composer to a more demonstratively romantic vein of expression than his familiar somewhat neoclassical manner, the conductor gave full value to each shifting mood, from the heady exaltation of the first movement, to the intermittently dramatic, even threatening, but ultimately peaceful gestures of the other two.

The orchestra, again, provided sumptuous sounds in ensemble, and there were some superb solos, including a particularly hectic one for viola that Susan Gulkis Assadi tackled with uncompromising aplomb and skill. Morlot clearly has a strong sympathy for Martinů’s too often underrated music, so it is good news that one of his first programs next season will include what is probably the composer’s greatest symphony, No. 6, the Fantaisies symphoniques.

Bernard Jacobson