The Seattle Symphony’s opening night gala is always a celebratory affair, but Saturday night's opener brought the festivities to a whole new level.

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Concert review

The Seattle Symphony’s opening night gala is always a celebratory affair, but Saturday night’s opener brought the festivities to a whole new level.

With the recent news that the symphony won Orchestra of the Year at the 2018 Gramophone Classical Music Awards, plus the 20th anniversary of Benaroya Hall, the arrival of two important incoming leaders (René Ancinas, the symphony’s board chair, and president/CEO Krishna Thiagarajan), and the launch of the final season for music director Ludovic Morlot, there’s a lot to commemorate.

The program was a Russian/French affair, opening with Ravel’s colorful and evocative orchestration of Mussorgsky’s famous piano suite, “Pictures at an Exhibition.” It’s one of the ultimate showpieces for orchestra, and Morlot conducted it with an emphasis on the contrasts: huge, powerful statements, overwhelming brass, delicately shimmering textures. This work places every section in the orchestra on display. Among the stars of the performance were principal trumpeter David Gordon and bassoonist Seth Krimsky, although every section put forth spectacular efforts.

After the orchestra’s feisty reading of Khachaturian’s familiar “Sabre Dance” (from the 1942 ballet “Gayane”), piano soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet arrived for a performance of the same composer’s seldom-heard Piano Concerto. Colorful, propulsive, and occasionally cinematic, this difficult work got a high-intensity, impeccably phrased reading from Thibaudet, who was utterly in command from the tips of his fantastic fingers to his glittery shoes.

Adding to the colorations of the score, an otherworldly second-movement passage incorporated the eerie, exotic sounds of the musical saw — beautifully rendered here by Anita Orne (whose classical-saw debut came only last year at the Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival).

Thibaudet, who was the Seattle Symphony’s first “artist in residence” (2015-16), gave the concerto a wonderfully Gallic reading; he’s capable of great keyboard thunder-power, a master of telling details, and an imaginative interpreter for whom no challenge seems too great. He was clearly on the same musical page as Morlot, even when rising to superhuman speeds in the dizzying finale.

A lengthy and enthusiastic ovation brought Thibaudet back to the stage for an exquisitely phrased solo Ravel encore, the “Pavane for a Dead Princess.” It was a reminder of the French origins of both conductor and soloist, and the perfect, serene close to a most promising season-opener.

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Seattle Symphony Orchestra’s opening night gala concert, with Ludovic Morlot conducting and Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano soloist; Saturday, Sept. 15; Benaroya Hall, Seattle.