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Seattle Symphony plays Ravel and Dutilleux

2009-05-10
Ludovic Morlot is in his third year as the music director of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, and in that short time he has created an aura of innovation and exploration around the SSO. Partly this has been through trying to expand the repertoire that they perform, especially in 20th Century music and in commissioned pieces such as John Luther Adams' Become Ocean, which won the Pulitzer Prize this year. Since I've been investigating 20th century classical music in recent years, I've started to become curious about what Morlot and the SSO were up to. I actually tried looking at their website a while back, but was completely baffled by the presentation of various programs and packages. Last weekend, however, the local newspaper had an article about their upcoming show, which was Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé (the complete score) and Dutilleux's Symphony No. 2.

This was practically the perfect program for me. Ravel was one of the composers I started digging into at the beginning of my survey of the 20th century, and Daphnis et Chloé was an immediate favorite. As for Dutilleux, I hadn't heard any of his music, but his name kept popping up in my reading. He died just last year, and he seemed widely considered to be one of the best French composers of the latter half of the 20th century. I found a recording of Symphony No. 2 on YouTube and listened to it on Wednesday to prepare myself a bit, and the dark, brooding sonic world it projected seemed immediately appealing. I had read that Morlot has become a champion of Dutilleux's work, and I knew that the SSO had already released one CD of his music, with plans to release more. So, the program was one piece that I already dearly loved, and another that was a passion project for the musical director. Two French composers and a Frenchman conducting the orchestra. Sounded like a marriage made in heaven to me.

I arrived an hour early at Benaroya Hall -- only the second time I'd ever been there -- and had a martini before I made my way into the auditorium. I'd bought the cheapest ticket I could get, and I was surprised at how close I was to the stage, although a bit off to the side. The woman sitting next to me was very chatty, and she was a font of information about the SSO. She has been trying to learn the violin in her 50s (or maybe even 60s, I wasn't sure), so she had an interesting amateur musician's perspective as well. Meanwhile I had all this stuff I've been reading that I could gabble about. Eventually Leslie Chihuly (daughter of Dale), who's the Chair of the Board of Directors for the orchestra, took the stage to give an introduction, and we also got some comments from a deputy mayor, who addressed the many people who were in town for the League of American Orchestras conference. She explained that Mayor Murray couldn't be there because of the shooting on the SPU campus.

The concert began with the Dutilleux, which was premiered in Boston in 1959. This symphony is described as something of a concerto for orchestra, with a subset of the orchestra sitting up front and playing in a complex interaction with each other and with the full ensemble. My general feeling was that I really liked the opening and the finale, but the middle section felt a bit amorphous and aimless. Now, I don't know if that was because of the performance or because of the music or because I still don't have a grasp of what the music is trying to do. It's not a particularly dissonant piece, but it's quite modernistic and difficult. Thorny music. As Ross Chamberlain noted over on Facebook, where I posted a link to the recording on YouTube, there's a lot of Stravinsky in it. He could also hear Hovhaness, but I'm not familiar enough with Hovhaness to say. The woman sitting next to me, who has been following the orchestra since the Gerard Shwarz days, said that she thought Morlot didn't look as enthusiastic as usual at the end of the performance, and she wondered if it hadn't gone the way he wanted. Well, I'll listen to the YouTube version another time or two when I get the chance to try to get further perspective on it.

After the intermission, in which I chatted with my new friend about atonality and chords, the orchestra returned to the stage in a new configuration and with the addition of a choir. The performance of the Ravel was absolutely glorious. Was it because I'm so much more familiar with the music? Actually, I had never read a synopsis of what the story of the ballet is, and one of the nice things they did was provide descriptions of what would be happening in the ballet on a supertitle screen above the stage as the music progressed. Amongst other things I learned from this was that the ballet includes pirates and nymphs and Pan, oh my! This is just perfect music to me -- dreamy, sensuous, mysterious, atmospheric, restless, shimmering, ever shifting. I've only heard the one recording of it that I have, but hearing it live was really incredible. [Updated to say that actually I've also got a recording of a suite of selections from the full score.] The constantly changing textures and shifting gears of the piece feel trickier when you're watching the musicians do it in real time, and it felt almost miraculous that they were able to pull off some of the tighter maneuvers so deftly. Morlot certainly looked enthusiastic in this piece, and he was clearly feeling it as they reached the orgiastic climax of the "bacchantic Danse générale," to quote the program notes on the finale. The audience rose to its feet with a thunderous ovation as soon as the last notes played, and my chatty friend crowed, "Now that's why you come to the symphony!"

So maybe familiar music just plays better to an audience, or maybe the orchestra played Ravel better than Dutilleux, or maybe Daphnis et Chloé is just a freakishly great piece of music. All in all, it was an exhilarating night at the symphony. Next week they're playing an intriguing program of Brahms, Strauss, and Schoenberg, and the week after that it's the three great early ballets of Stravinsky. Both shows are tempting, especially the Stravinksy. Not sure I'll make it, but I'll definitely be keeping an eye on the schedule in the coming years. Not sure how long Seattle will be able to hang on to this guy, Morlot, who seems destined for bigger things.

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Comments

( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
gerisullivan
Jun. 6th, 2014 07:34 pm (UTC)
What a wonderful, interesting evening. Thanks for writing it up!
randy_byers
Jun. 6th, 2014 07:55 pm (UTC)
Thanks! That's not including the pained picture of myself at Benaroya that I posted to Facebook that prompted Ulrika to quip, "If you take a really stiff selfie, is that a stiffie?"
kalimac
Jun. 7th, 2014 03:43 am (UTC)
That's terrific that you were able to go. I've only been to Benaroya once, for a Baroque concert, and I thought it a good hall.

I've never heard any Hovhaness in Dutilleux, but I may not have been looking very hard.

Now that you have Daphnis et Chloe under your belt, allow me to recommend Le festin de l'araignee (The Spider's Feast) by Albert Roussel. Very much the same kind of thing, and quite interesting. (Roussel's later music goes off in different directions.)
randy_byers
Jun. 7th, 2014 05:07 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the Roussel recommendation, which I'm listening to on YouTube even as I type. His is another name that comes up frequently in my reading, usually with the word "conservative" somewhere in the vicinity. I definitely like the sound world of this piece already.
kalimac
Jun. 10th, 2014 03:15 pm (UTC)
For some foolish reason it didn't occur to me to check this out earlier. But I'm going to be in Seattle next week, and the Thursday performance of the Stravinsky ballets could fit my schedule. Shall we attempt to do this one?
randy_byers
Jun. 10th, 2014 03:28 pm (UTC)
I hadn't realized you were coming up for the wedding, but of course you are. Well, I already had this thought vis-a-vis Rich & Stacy, who will also be in town for the wedding, but I looked at tickets on Saturday and couldn't find anything affordable, much less contiguous. Which is a bummer! Otherwise I would certainly jump at the opportunity.
kalimac
Jun. 10th, 2014 03:41 pm (UTC)
I guess it depends on what you consider affordable. Tickets to top orchestra's aren't cheap, but Seattle is a lot cheaper than the LA Philharmonic, which I've heard a lot more often.

I see lots of contiguous seats for Thursday on the upper tier for $66, but if I go alone I'll probably try to grab one of the last $46 seats on the main floor.
randy_byers
Jun. 10th, 2014 03:43 pm (UTC)
I guess I was spoiled by getting a $31 seat last Thursday, and it was a great seat too. I was shocked how close to the stage I was.
kalimac
Jun. 10th, 2014 04:00 pm (UTC)
You were lucky; that one wasn't the most popularly-appealing of programs. Daphnis isn't Ravel's biggest hit, and the average punter has never heard of Dutilleux. But Stravinsky's ballets ... If it were the Symphony of Psalms (my favorite work of his, but not so famous), it'd be different.

Well, then, I'll look to see if the $46 is still there.
randy_byers
Jun. 10th, 2014 04:08 pm (UTC)
Yes, this has been an interesting lesson in the relative popularity of things. I suppose "Bolero" is Ravel's most popular piece, but while I like "Bolero" just fine (and have heard it many, many times), Daphnis is far more wondrous to me. Interestingly, Stravinsky loved it too and called it Ravel's masterpiece. The audience certainly loved the performance I saw. But as you say, Dutilleux probably attracted practically no one. There were still empty seats in the house, and there probably would have been more if the League of American Orchestras hadn't been in town.
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )

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