Since its founding nearly 111 years ago, the Seattle Symphony has presented many festive opening-night gala concerts — but it is safe to say that no previous such event ever featured a baritone in what looked like a bumblebee costume.
It was all part of “An Evening in Paris,” Saturday night’s (Sept. 13) lighter-than-air opening concert launching the fourth season in the tenure of French-born music director Ludovic Morlot. Short on substance but long on charm, the program wafted its way through Erik Satie’s “Gymnopédies” and Léo Delibes’ ballet music (from “Coppélia”), to selections from Jacques Offenbach’s “Orphée aux enfers” (“Orpheus in the Underworld”). The program also included two showpieces for the evening’s soloist, violinist Gil Shaham.
From the stage, the genial Morlot explained that he deliberately programmed “no Debussy, Ravel, or Berlioz,” focusing instead on “music we hear seldom, of another time.” The least-familiar music on the program was probably the 1928 opener, a six-movement “Suite Symphonique: Paris” of Jacques Ibert.
The Suite also gave the audience plenty to see, as well as hear: a 13-minute silent film produced by filmmakers Matt Marshall and Ghizlane Morlot (the conductor’s wife), featuring delightful period footage whose themes relate to the titles of the six short Ibert movements. Displayed on a large screen above the stage, the film was a collage of moving images of cars, trains, workers, schoolgirls, cafes — vignettes of all kinds. As the opening piece of the concert, this treatment of the Ibert essentially reduced the music to a soundtrack, but its novelty and eye appeal charmed the audience.
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Shaham, the star of the evening, gave expressive and virtuosic accounts of Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Havanaise” and Pablo de Sarasate’s “Carmen Fantasy.” Not all the details were in place (especially some of the harmonics), but the sheer virtuosity of his speedy thirds near the end of the Sarasate drew smiles from many orchestra members. Shaham returned to the stage for an unusual encore: a jazzy Stéphane Grappelli/Django Reinhardt version of “La Marseillaise” called “Echoes of France,” performed with the Symphony’s principal double bass Jordan Anderson and guest violinist Michael Nicolella (both excellent).
And about that insect: In the program’s Offenbach finale, baritone Charles Robert Stephens and soprano Alexa Jarvis donned wings (and, in Stephens’ case, a beelike costume) for a humorous and buzzing “Duo de la mouche,” or “Fly Duet,” from “Orpheus in the Underworld.” The ever-popular “Can-Can” from the same opera brought down the house — or perhaps we should say “brought up,” since happy audience members leapt to their feet for the kind of ovation that augurs well for the start of the season.
Melinda Bargreen also reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.