The current Seattle Symphony program is an exploration of sensuous textures, shimmering colors, and virtuoso orchestration. Music director Ludovic Morlot, who is on the podium for this pair of subscription concerts, is playing to his greatest strength: the interpretation of repertoire from his native France, in which he clearly excels.
Music lovers don’t often get the opportunity to hear Ravel’s complete “Daphnis et Chloé”; usually orchestras perform a shorter suite from the ballet score (often it’s the much-recorded Suite No. 2), without the wordless chorus that adds so much to the impact of the music. So that the audience could follow the story of the ballet, an overhead screen above the Benaroya Hall stage gave play-by-play details of the swiftly progressing plot: “The earth opens up. All flee.” Occasionally the titles became highly entertaining, as when we read: “In front of the Nymphs’ altar, Daphnis swears his faith on two sheep.”
The Chorale, which owes its success to director Joseph Crnko, did a mostly exemplary job with the demanding choral part (with a few minor blend issues in the tricky a cappella section). The singing heightened the drama of this score so greatly that it will be hard to settle for “just the orchestra” after this.
The program’s opener was the Symphony No. 2 (“Le Double”) of Henri Dutilleux, composed in 1958-59, nearly 45 years after the Ravel work. Dutilleux is an important figure in Morlot’s professional life; the conductor has already recorded Dutilleux’s Symphony No. 1 with the Seattle Symphony, and more explorations of the composer’s repertoire are planned. Dutilleux, who died last year at 97, was a friend (since 2001) and an important influence in Morlot’s musical development.
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The Symphony No. 2 is a significant, impressive work that shows Dutilleux’s skill at creating imaginative and spectacular orchestration — a knack he learned from Ravel, who was an absolute master of this craft. There are hints of the Jazz Age, a final theme that’s eerily similar to the finale of Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” and a shimmering close to the second movement that recalls Respighi’s orchestration in the quieter sections of the “Fountains of Rome.”
The Dutilleux work divides the orchestra unequally into a smaller section of soloists and a larger component of players, and it requires virtuoso playing from most of them, right down to the harpsichord (Kimberly Russ) and the celeste (Joseph Adam) — two instruments you don’t often find in contemporary symphonic repertoire. Some of the evening’s most remarkable playing came from clarinetist Ben Lulich, whose subtly ascending motifs were brilliant.
The large and enthusiastic audience included some 1,000 participants in the annual national convention of the League of American Orchestras, held this week in Seattle. Here’s betting they had a good time at the Symphony program: I swear it on two sheep.
Melinda Bargreen also reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.