A composers obsession; a conductor’s challenge: Berlioz’s hallucinatory Symphonie Fantastique is a wild ride for both performers and listeners. Everything about this 50-minute symphony is over the top, including the size of the orchestra (right down to a pair of tubas and two harps) and the scope of the work (five movements instead of the usual four).
Despite all the drama and the elaborate scoring, the Fantastique is not easy to put across. It has plenty of brilliance, especially in the exquisitely swirling dance of the second movement and the relentless energy of the March to the Scaffold, but there also are pitfalls in sections that can sound chaotic and repetitious. Despite some beautiful solo playing from Stefan Farkas (English horn) and Ben Hausmann (oboe), the third movement sometimes sounded slack and enervated in Thursday’s Seattle Symphony performance in Benaroya Hall.
Conductor Ludovic Morlot emphasized dynamic contrasts and went for the drama, bringing the good-sized crowd of concertgoers to their feet after the wonderfully raucous finale of the Berlioz. Considerably less fantastique was the audience member’s cellphone (located on the main floor) that rang five times in the middle of the symphony. After all the warnings in Benaroya Hall to the contrary, leaving a phone unmuted during a symphony concert is unconscionable.
The program opened with a picturesque trifle, a seldom-heard Felix Mottl orchestration of Chabrier’s original piano piece Bourée fantasque, that offered plenty of style and not much substance. Sometimes it is not coincidental that a relatively little-known piece has remained obscure over the years. Morlot went on to conduct an unusually rewarding concerto performance, featuring the Paris-born Xavier Phillips in the Schumann Cello Concerto. Phillips, an international prizewinner who first appeared with the Seattle Symphony in 2005, reinforced his strong earlier impressions again with a beautifully focused tone and remarkable technical finesse. His accurate fingerwork, subtly lyrical bowing, and solid musicianship made the Schumann a consistent pleasure to hear. Phillips was well-partnered by Morlot and also by the orchestra’s principal cellist, Efe Baltacigil, whose duet passages with the soloist were perfectly judged.
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Morlot announced from the stage the dedication of the Schumann Concerto performance to Gladys Rubinstein, who died last month after several decades of generous philanthropy (alongside her late husband Sam) to the Seattle Symphony, Seattle Opera, and many other arts and civic groups. The dedication, made in the spirit of Robert and Clara Schumann (another arts-loving husband-and-wife team), was a particularly apt one.
Melinda Bargreen also reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.