After a volcano-induced scramble, Seattle Symphony sits down to a program of Verdi, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven with substitute conductor Ludovic Morlot on the podium.

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Concert Review |

Ludovic Morlot’s conducting was exciting even before it started. Malcolm Lowry wrote a novel titled “Under the Volcano,” but this concert might aptly have been called “After the Volcano.” The Seattle Symphony management was scrambling to cope with the potential non-arrival of its conductor (already a replacement for Roberto Abbado) and soloist. The solo work was dropped from the program, and a substitute conductor was lined up for at least the first of the three concerts scheduled.

But then Morlot, rumored to be a strong possibility for the music-director post, managed, late Wednesday evening, to get here after all. Orchestra members played their part by agreeing to provide a surely unprecedented three services (two rehearsals and the concert) on Thursday.

With so little rehearsal, a conductor has already succeeded if he brings the ship home safely, and Morlot did that with few moments of untidiness. The orchestra, of course, must share the credit. No one played badly, and there were notable contributions from principal clarinetist Christopher Sereque in Verdi’s “Forza del destino” overture and Tchaikovsky’s “Francesca da Rimini” fantasy, and from principal oboist Ben Hausmann in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

There was much to enjoy. Given Beethoven’s alleged comment about “Fate knocking at the door” in his symphony, “The Force of Destiny” made an appropriate curtain-raiser, and the Dante-esque associations of “Francesca” fitted right in. The Tchaikovsky, a compelling piece last played here in 1983, was suitably stormy. Morlot got most of the symphony’s interpretative details right, timing dynamic contrasts accurately, differentiating between the lengths of held notes at the beginning, and letting the finale open out majestically after the tense transition from the scherzo.

Compared, however, with his impressive debut here six months ago, I found these performances disappointing. There was nothing remotely personal about Morlot’s straight-up-and-down Beethoven. Orchestral tone throughout the evening was a shade harsh, with little warmth, and with a certain toylike quality to the big brass incursions. And the reseating of the orchestra, cellos and basses displacing second violins on house right, was surely a retrograde step in stylistic terms. Let us hope it was not a portent for the future.

Bernard Jacobson: