Review: Guest conductor Ludovic Morlot led the Seattle Symphony in an energetic performance, writes Melinda Bargreen.

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Music lovers are always intrigued to find a new guest conductor on their orchestra’s podium: Will this herald a fresh approach, an intriguing style, a real connection with the orchestra musicians?

These and other related questions have more weight, however, now and in the months to come. That’s because a succession of guest conductors this season and next will include candidates for the Seattle Symphony’s future music directorship, when current director Gerard Schwarz leaves that post at the end of next season (2010-11). The summer of 2011 sounds like a long way off, but in the symphonic world, it’s almost tomorrow. It typically takes a long time to find a first-rate music director who meets all the desired criteria and is also free to accept the offered job.

Which brings us to the current Seattle Symphony subscription series featuring the young French-born conductor Ludovic Morlot. While he is not specifically identified as a candidate for the future directorship (the candidate list “remains confidential,” according to the Symphony’s announcement), it is not hard to imagine that this highly regarded and busy maestro is a likely contender.

Buoyant, fast-moving and smiling, Morlot led a smaller than usual symphonic contingent (about four dozen players, many of them substitutes; the rest of the musicians are playing Seattle Opera’s current “La Traviata”) in a short, mixed-bag program of four works by different composers. He used a score but no baton, and Morlot’s quick, snappy gestures and mercurial intensity seemed to energize the orchestra.

The opener, Prokofiev’s “Classical Symphony” (No. 1), found a lot of the players returning Morlot’s smile as they moved past a rather fuzzy opening to the “Larghetto” movement to a remarkably unified and vital performance. Despite Morlot’s spirited phrasing, however, three of Dvorak’s “Legends” seemed like filler, despite their perky charm, for a concert that was bookended by two significant symphonies.

The orchestra’s principal oboist, Ben Hausmann, has consistently played his orchestral solos with such flair that expectations were high for this mainstage/subscription concerto opportunity, and Hausmann did not disappoint. A beautiful, pliant tone; considerable interpretive finesse; and nice stage deportment all contributed to Hausmann’s highly satisfying performance of the Martinu Concerto, a 1955 work full of melodic invention.

The large number of substitute players in the orchestra might not augur well for a unified performance, but Morlot seemed to have no trouble keeping his forces together and engaged for this program. There were some fine individual solos, including those from flutist Robin Peery, cellist Eric Gaenslen and oboist Shannon Spicciati (all of them guest principal players).

The finale, Haydn’s Symphony No. 88, was carefully characterized with lots of dramatic contrasts and stylish accents (particularly in the third “Menuetto: Allegretto” movement). Morlot went for the gusto in a high-energy reading of the score.

Melinda Bargreen: melindabargreen@aol.com; Melinda Bargreen also reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM.