Seattle Symphony Opening Night—Festivities, But No Tchaikovsky

United StatesUnited States  Smith, Gershwin, Bernstein, and Copland: Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot (conductor), Joshua Bell (violin), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 15.9.2012 (BJ)

In many parts of the world, orchestras begin their seasons by simply beginning their seasons. Orchestras in the United States, by contrast, tend to make a song and quite frequently also a dance about it.

The Seattle Symphony is no exception to the American pattern. It ushered in its 2012/13 season on 15 September with not just a festive concert but a preceding cocktail part and a following dinner, complete with speeches. Yet there was something refreshingly unusual about the occasion.

Yes, there was a star soloist on hand for the concert. But Joshua Bell had not been brought in just for the bling-bling factor—he was actually here to play, not the usual Tchaikovsky (or you name it) violin concerto, but a 20th-century work of substance. Many in the hall were surely hearing Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade after Plato’s Symposium for the first time, and they had every reason to enjoy the experience.

Bernstein himself was a rare combination of showman and philosopher, and his five-movement Serenade turns meditations on Plato’s seminal contemplation of the many forms of love to brilliant concertante effect. Bell commands a comparable blend of the dazzling with the profound, and he played the piece a treat.

Both here and in the Symphonic Dances from Bernstein’s West Side Story at the end of the program, Ludovic Morlot, inaugurating his second season as the Seattle Symphony’s music director, crafted a very convincing impression of an American conductor, facilitating his players’ realization of the music’s often teasing rhythms as if he had them in his very bones. That fine music critic (and composer) Virgil Thomson used to argue that what makes American music American is its use of additive rhythms—fives and sevens, rather than the regular twos, threes, and fours of the European classical norm. But listening to these performances I had the distinct feeling that the music’s American-ness resides above all in its persistent nervous energy, which was masterfully captured.

Rounding out the official program, along with John Stafford Smith’s The Star-Spangled Banner, were Gershwin’s Cuban Overture and Copland’s Lincoln Portrait. The text of the latter was delivered by former Washington state governor Daniel J. Evans, whose voice, diction, and dignity made a strong impression.

There were also a couple of additions to the program. Bell—not merely a brilliant violinist but just about the most relaxed-seeming soloist you are ever likely to see on stage—offered an encore in the shape of an arrangement of “New York, New York” from Bernstein’s On the Town, introducing it with characteristic charm. And to end the evening—dinner aside—Morlot led a fervent performance of “One,” from A Chorus Line, in tribute to the orchestra’s recently deceased principal Pops conductor, Marvin Hamlisch. Like the rest of this highly enjoyable concert, it showed the orchestra in fine fettle, promising much for the more serious artistic challenges that the music director has lined up.


Bernard Jacobson