Ludovic Morlot brings his sixth Seattle Symphony season to a close with a bold pairing of Gustav Mahler’s beloved Fifth Symphony and the eerily apocalyptic Requiem by György Ligeti. Concerts are June 22-24.
Saying a proper goodbye is an art.
Ludovic Morlot plans to conclude his current Seattle Symphony season with a lot more than a bang. Mahler’s Fifth Symphony ends with one of the most jubilant, pulse-quickening movements you’ll ever hear. But for the program’s opening half, the SSO will undertake its first-ever performance of György Ligeti’s wildly original and unsettling 1965 Requiem for orchestra, chorus and two female soloists. A setting of just three parts from the Latin Mass for the Dead, Ligeti’s Requiem is a masterpiece of the 20th century.
The juxtaposition of Ligeti and Mahler might seem “a little crazy,” Morlot said in a recent interview. “But going from the Requiem into the Mahler, which starts with a big funeral march, is just one idea.” He points to the orchestra’s mission itself: “What we do at the symphony is not only entertainment. There is a part of it that should be like life, and that includes dealing with issues that are uncomfortable.”
Seattle Symphony: Mahler and Ligeti
With Ludovic Morlot, conducting. 7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 22; 8 p.m. Friday, June 23; 8 p.m., Saturday June 24, Benaroya Hall, Seattle; tickets from $22. (206-215-4747 or seattlesymphony.com).
That impulse to push further rather than take the easy path has yielded some very encouraging results. Morlot will be drawing the curtains on a season that has been remarkable not only artistically but at the box office as well. The SSO’s total number of tickets issued for the 2016-17 season so far (237,102) represents an increase of 5.7 percent over last year, and paid capacity for the Masterworks series has risen from 66 percent in 2013 to 75 percent so far this season. The “Untuxed” series of concerts in a shorter, more casual format, has jumped up 47 percent in attendance over last year.
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Morlot’s pairing of a familiar classic with a challenging novelty reflects an approach that he has made a staple in his six years as SSO music director. Suggesting new perspectives and contexts can provoke fresh insights into the repertoire.
“The Ligeti Requiem of course addresses death, but it’s like a death by accident,” he explains. “This is not a peaceful farewell to life. There’s a sense of extreme fracture that relates to Mahler’s music as well.”
Another connection is the two composers’ sense of multiple identities. “I am thrice homeless: as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew throughout the world,” Mahler famously said. Born in the Romanian-speaking part of Transylvania, Ligeti was from a Jewish-Hungarian family — most of them murdered in the Holocaust — and escaped Communist Hungary after the 1956 uprising.
Ligeti resettled in Vienna and became associated at first with the postwar avant-garde in western Europe. But he loathed all forms of orthodoxy and soon broke with those colleagues, setting out on his unique path. It was during this time that Ligeti composed the Requiem, inspired in part by the work of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder, with their nightmarish but also cartoonlike depictions of end times.
The half-hour-long Requiem opens at the lowest depths — as lightless as the bottom of the ocean — and features dense choral clusters that seem to emanate from an extraterrestrial source. (This may be the most fearsome challenge the SSO Chorale has ever taken up). Stanley Kubrick used a part of the Kyrie from the Requiem and another Ligeti work for the soundtrack to “2001: A Space Odyssey” (which the SSO will perform live with a special presentation of the film on June 30 and July 1).
“It’s no surprise that Ligeti and Mahler have been used so prominently in soundtracks,” says Morlot. “They’ve both inspired visual connections. I also hear a kind of Austrian Expressionism in Ligeti’s writing. If Mahler is associated with the artist [Gustav] Klimt, I think Ligeti would be comparable to [Oskar] Kokoschka.”
Another farewell lingering in the background is the knowledge that Morlot himself will conclude his SSO tenure two seasons from now. “When we rehearse, I work with the players on how we attack a note, how we sustain it and how we release it. You have to know when to release a relationship like this as well. I don’t want to go too long or run out of breath. I hope this relationship will be right where I want it to be when it is time for us to release this note together.”