The Seattle Symphony’s current program vividly evokes the sea in its first half, with works by Sibelius and Britten. The second half, featuring Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2, had nothing to do with the sea, but everything to do with presenting the orchestra at its best.
The symphonic repertoire is full of music that evokes aquatic environments, from Handel’s “Water Music” to Debussy’s “La Mer” and John Luther Adams’ “Become Ocean.” The Seattle Symphony’s current program, unveiled Thursday evening in Benaroya Hall, vividly evokes the sea in its first half, with Sibelius’ tone poem “The Oceanides” and Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes” and “Passacaglia” (from the opera “Peter Grimes”).
This is repertoire that music director Ludovic Morlot and the orchestra will present in an upcoming tour of California and Nevada, along with the Sibelius Symphony No. 2 and the award-winning “Become Ocean” (which the SSO commissioned and premiered in 2014). The tour also will include the stellar pianist Jeremy Denk and Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto (as well as Adams’ new “Become Desert,” which will be premiered here March 29 and 31).
Judging from Thursday evening’s performance of the Britten and Sibelius “sea” works, and the Sibelius symphony, the SSO should be poised to make an excellent impression on California audiences.
This is an orchestra that deeply understands Sibelius, a fact that was made clear in a 2015 Sibelius Festival that is still recalled with reverence by local music lovers. In the seldom-heard “Oceanides,” Morlot and his players colorfully evoked the legendary sea creatures of the title, with the wind soloists as the seabirds and the low strings providing the rolling waves.
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Even better was the more complex Britten work, where excellent solos from all the principal winds and from violist Susan Gulkis Assadi created not only a nautical atmosphere, but also recalled the darker world of the opera’s plot and protagonist. The performance brought to life the shimmering nuances of the score, along with Britten’s masterly depiction of a relentless gathering storm.
The final work on the program, Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2, had nothing to do with the sea, but everything to do with presenting the orchestra at its best. What a great piece this is! Crammed with beautiful melodies, picturesque episodes and grand statements, the Second Symphony challenges every section of the orchestra to excel individually and collectively. Morlot gave the wind soloists plenty of free rein for remarkably expressive solo work (oboist Mary Lynch and flutist Jeffrey Barker were among the many standouts).
In the last few bars of the Sibelius symphony, when the minor key transforms into the major and it sounds as if the sun has come out, the orchestra played exultantly enough to remind even the most jaded audience member: This is why we go to concerts and don’t just sit at home in front of the stereo speakers. This is our reward for buying tickets, dressing up, fighting traffic, battling the rain. Now it’s worth it.
Seattle Symphony presents Sibelius Symphony No. 2, with Ludovic Morlot, conductor; Thursday, March 22; repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 24, and 2 p.m. Sunday, March 25; Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; 206-215-4747, seattlesymphony.org