Seattle Symphony audience learns to expect the unexpected with performances of Tchaikovsky and Beethoven

United StatesUnited States Tchaikovsky, Beethoven: Ray Chen (violin), Seattle Symphony Orchestra / Ludovic Morlot (conductor). Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 6.11.2021. (ZC)

Ray Chen (violin), Ludovic Morlot (conductor)  and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra (c) James Holt

Tchaikovsky – Violin Concerto in D major, Op.35

Beethoven – Symphony No.3 in E flat major, Op.55 (‘Eroica’)

The Seattle Symphony is almost two months into the 2021/2022 season, and audiences are slowly returning to Benaroya Hall, navigating a new world of vaccine mandates and masking requirements. As part of that new normal, we have come to expect the unexpected: visa backlogs have scrambled schedules for guest artists, and conductors, including our own Thomas Dausgaard, have been stranded abroad. This week, Michael Sanderling was supposed to conduct Shostakovich’s Symphony No.11 and Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with soloist Ray Chen. Sanderling is considered a Shostakovich specialist, and his recent traversal of the complete symphonies with Sony bears this out.

But Sanderling had visa troubles and never made it to Seattle. Fortunately, Conductor Emeritus Ludovic Morlot was available to fill in. The orchestra managed one performance of the original program on 4 November, most memorably with Chen and concertmaster Noah Geller switching instruments mid-Tchaikovsky due to a string break. But an unexpected personnel hiccup forced Morlot and the orchestra to make another change hours before this concert, replacing the Shostakovich with Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony. With no time to rehearse, the orchestra would need to perform the piece cold, relying on muscle memory and years spent beside their former maestro.

Before the ‘Eroica’, Ray Chen joined the orchestra for Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, a venerable masterpiece for orchestra and soloist. Chen’s virtuosic skill, silky tone and mastery of phrasing is exactly what you want for the piece, and Morlot knows how to shape an orchestra’s sound to complement a soloist.  Nevertheless, the spectacle that I had expected with a concerto of this magnitude was missing for me. Could it be the Tchaikovsky is played out and a tad too old-fashioned for 2021? I wonder how Chen would fare in something less routine – Bartók, Shostakovich, Ligeti, MacMillan or even Francisco Coll’s newer concerto would do. Any of these would have showcased Chen’s virtuosity, challenged the audience and set up the program’s original second half Shostakovich or the Beethoven replacement as well.

In general, Morlot is not my favorite conductor of Beethoven: his interpretation and execution can come across as too neat and tidy. However, this isn’t always the case. Of all the Beethoven symphonies Morlot has conducted with the Seattle Symphony, the most effective performance, at least to my ears, came in 2010 when he stepped in at the last minute to lead the orchestra in a rugged, profoundly passionate Symphony No.5.

That was until this ‘Eroica’. Beethoven’s big leap forward from the classical style, as it was known, is not an easy piece to love or perform. It is a bit long, unbalanced, rambles through too many ideas, and can feel disconnected from movement to movement. Back in 2011, the first time Morlot conducted this work in Seattle, the performance was cool and crisp. But this one, almost exactly 10 years later, was the opposite and much better.

The musicians attacked the work with abandon. The low strings powered the performance, winds bubbled above the fray and French horns gleamed, especially in the third movement. All the while, musicians and conductor were making sense of Beethoven’s disjoined ideas in real time, giving it a freshness and musical salience that cannot be achieved in rehearsal. Even though the it was unpolished, it pulsed with all of the musical possibilities Beethoven flung upon the world when the ‘Eroica’ was debuted in 1805.

So much of the music we experience is sanitized to the point of being a meaningless artistic expression. With their visceral performance of Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony, Seattle musicians and their conductor demonstrated the enduring power music can have in the right circumstances. I hope the lucky audience will remember this experience for a long time to come.

Zach Carstensen

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