A review of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra’s 2015-16 season-opening concert, featuring plenty for keyboard fans: performances by Jean-Yves Thibaudet, on the Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 5, and piano competition winner Kevin Ahfat.

Share story

Another opening, another show – but this year’s Seattle Symphony Opening Night concert on Saturday night was anything but business as usual.

Yes, there was the national anthem, and some adroit preconcert remarks by symphony board chair Leslie Jackson Chihuly and music director Ludovic Morlot. And there was a typical gala program of assorted musical bonbons, including such familiar pieces as Copland’s beloved “Appalachian Spring.”

What made this year’s opening night special was the ivory factor: sizzling keyboard virtuosity from two exciting sources. First of these was Kevin Ahfat, the winner of the Seattle Symphony’s first international piano competition, which took place last week in a flurry of talent so remarkable that the judges awarded a first prize and two seconds (too close to call, the second prize was shared).

At the gala, first-prize winner Ahfat attacked the last movement of the challenging Barber Piano Concerto in a manner that left no question about his riveting presentation and technical finesse. In a city with a strong contingent of keyboard fans, it’s a coup to have a new competition that helps unveil piano talent of this inspiring level.

Even better news is the fact that pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, an unquestioned master at age 54 and the gala’s featured soloist, will also be the Seattle Symphony’s first artist in residence this season – with a performance lineup that includes a Nov. 8 recital, several concerto appearances, and a chamber concert. (He also chaired the jury for last week’s piano competition.)

On Saturday evening, Thibaudet’s performance of the Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 5 was a revelation for any music lover inclined to dismiss that composer as a second-rate master. The concerto, redolent of exotic themes and motifs, is dubbed “The Egyptian,” recalling the composer’s sojourn in Luxor. Thibaudet gave it a reading that was rich in detail: shimmering shades and textures, but plenty of fireworks in the dramatic octaves and virtuoso passagework. He’s a master colorist and a great communicator, able to reduce a large concert hall to an intimate chamber of intent listeners.

Morlot and his orchestra gave the soloist both support and flexibility, underscoring Thibaudet’s interpretation without overwhelming the solo line. At the concert’s end, Morlot brought back both Thibaudet and Ahfat for a crowd-pleasing encore, excerpts from Saint-Saëns’ “Carnival of the Animals” (including a jokey “Pianistes” that won both laughs and applause).

What a keyboard lineup awaits Seattle music lovers in the next few months at Benaroya Hall: in addition to Thibaudet, the list includes Lang Lang, Andras Schiff, Jon Nakamatsu, and Alexander Melnikov. You can bet there will be piano fans on hand to compare, contrast, argue — and enjoy.