Dutilleux Feted in Seattle Chamber Concert

United StatesUnited States  Dutilleux and Ravel: Members of the Seattle Symphony and guests, Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall, Seattle 8.6.2012 (BJ)

One of the most rewarding features of Ludovic Morlot’s programming, in this, his first season at the head of the Seattle Symphony, has been its inclusion of several major works by Henri Dutilleux, a thriving 96-year-old at last report (though admittedly something of a spring chicken compared with Elliott Carter, who is still composing fluently at 103). It was appropriate, then, that one of the orchestra’s chamber concerts should be devoted, with the exception of one Ravel work, to six pieces by the French master. And it was equally appropriate to see the music director, who can presumably be credited with master-minding the evening’s program, present in the audience, along with a good number of orchestra members acting as a cheering section for their colleagues on stage.

Of the latter there were many, for the lavishly cast personnel performing included no fewer than seventeen current members, along with a former one and a guest pianist in the person of Cristina Valdés, a faculty member at the city’s Cornish College of the Arts. Everybody performed beautifully, and the concert was a resounding success, alerting audience members, some doubtless for the first time, of Dutilleux’s outstanding gifts.

By some margin, I thought, the strongest piece on the program was the 1976 string quartet Ainsi la nuit, which was heard after intermission in a performance of thrilling intensity by violinists Simon James and Cordula Merks, violist Sayaka Kokubo, and cellist David Sabee. Despite eschewing any audible means of support in the shape of a harmonic pulse in the traditional sense, this work contrives, by dint of textural means, sonority, varied deployment of counterpoint, and melodic gesture, to create a very real and convincing variety of pace. The instrumental effects, meanwhile, are equally richly varied and ear-catching.

A quartet in a very different vein was Les Citations, a diptych for oboe, percussion, harpsichord, and double bass composed between 1985 and 1990. Here it was Dutilleux’s lifelong preoccupation with sonority that came to the fore, and in a way that was sometimes surprising: while the harpsichord was used more for the percussive potential that resides in its crisp attack than to more lyrical ends, it was percussion, and specifically the marimba (deftly played by Michael Werner), that supplied a good proportion of the work’s melodic interest and tonal luxury, along with some delicious harmonics from Joseph Kaufman’s double bass and the firm oboe line projected by Stefan Farkas.

Cristina Valdés took part in four of the evening’s six Dutilleux works—four, incidentally, that are much more traditional in idiom than the two already mentioned. Discreetly efficient at the start of the program as partner to Judy Washburn Kriewall in the Flute Sonata and to trombonist Ko-ichiro Yamamoto in Choral, Cadence et Fugato, Valdés came more strikingly into her own with an arrestingly eloquent performance of a set of Three Preludes dating from widely separated periods in the composer’s output. Returning later in the evening, she joined Paul Rafanelli in a splendid account of the Sarabande et Cortège for bassoon and piano. The second of its two movements pays no heed to the frequent but not inseparable association of the word “cortege” with funerals, proceeding instead at a witty and rhythmically diverting pace.

The program notes placed some stress on Dutilleux’s supposed affinity with the music of Debussy and Ravel. I don’t hear his music that way myself, but still, it was a pleasure to hear Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro at the end of the program. This was, for me, a renewed encounter with an old friend—I used to hear the piece quite often in my youth, but it seems not to be played much these days. Valerie Muzzolini Gordon presided at the harp with charm and impressive authority, and she was joined by flutist Zartouhi Dombourian-Eby, clarinetist Laura DeLuca, and a string quartet of Gennady Fimimonov, Artur Girsky, Arie Schächter, and cellist Eric Gaenslen in a stylish conclusion to an evening that demonstrated the Seattle Symphony’s notable depth of talent.

Bernard Jacobson