Concert review

Are we there yet?

It’s almost back to normal at the Seattle Symphony, with a Saturday opening-night concert that nearly felt like the pre-COVID era of yesteryear. It may not exactly be “business as usual” in Benaroya Hall, but we’re getting closer, as the orchestra and the region’s music lovers negotiate the lingering issues of live concerts in our time.

On Saturday evening, a smaller-than-usual Seattle Symphony audience — 1,200 in a hall that accommodates 2,500 — gathered for what proved to be a stellar opening-night concert, with many attendees staying on for an optional/extra post-concert party in the hall’s lobby. (This was quite an improvement over last year’s meager group of 350 concertgoers who were allowed to gather in the hall for the 2021 opening night concert, when COVID-19 restrictions were considerably tighter.)

Advance warnings to patrons (online and by mail) addressed the orchestra’s 2022 public health concerns clearly: masks were “strongly encouraged” and audience members were required to sign a waiver absolving the Symphony of “the risks associated with contracting an airborne illness at a concert venue.” Many in the audience, and some of the orchestra players, nonetheless dispensed with the masks. More cautious or vulnerable music lovers may want to investigate the Symphony’s continuing “Seattle Symphony Live” online presence. The opening night concert was livestreamed on Saturday evening, and the program is viewable free on demand through Oct. 1 at live.seattlesymphony.org.

On the podium for Saturday’s concert was former SSO music director Ludovic Morlot, whose eight seasons here in that role included a substantial representation of new works (and also of French repertoire, a natural fit for the French-born maestro). Recently named the principal conductor of the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra, Morlot was tapped to guest-conduct Saturday’s Seattle opening night after the unexpected resignation in January of SSO music director Thomas Dausgaard. (Morlot will conduct three Seattle programs this season.)

Saturday night’s opener was a world premiere by the orchestra’s 2022-23 artist in residence Angelique Poteat: “Breathe, Come Together, Embrace.” Poteat’s new work in three contiguous sections is extremely accomplished and vividly picturesque, with a wide palette of tonal colors and lots of contrasts — all artfully unveiled by Morlot and the orchestra in a subtle, vital premiere.

Piano soloist Jan Lisiecki brought a superbly soft touch and clarity to Chopin’s “Andante spianato and Grande polonaise brillante,” with huge dynamic contrasts and a mind-boggling technique that made this challenging showpiece sound easy. Morlot’s careful attention to balances was crucial to the success of the performance.

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The big surprise of the evening, though, was the seldom-heard Saint-Saëns “La muse et le poète,” featuring two orchestra principals — concertmaster Noah Geller and cellist Efe Baltacigil — in spectacularly good performances. Geller’s eloquent violin and Baltacigil’s superbly expressive cello were ear-opening reminders of the caliber of talent within the orchestra.

And another such reminder came right afterward, as Morlot led a glistening, supple account of Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloë” Suite No. 2. This score shows Morlot at his best, with his command of orchestral textures and balances. The orchestra’s Jeffrey Barker dazzled the ear with his exquisite flute solos. Morlot responded to the final ovation with an encore, Chabrier’s colorful “España.”

With music-making of this quality, and the concert season finally underway again, it’s a great time to be in Seattle.