As snappy a concert-opener as any American composer ever penned, Frank Zappa's Dupree's Paradise, which opened Saturday night's Seattle Symphony concert, must have surprised anyone who knows only the rude provocations of his rock albums. The passages of gnarly, lurid chaos were inspired by his hero, pioneering avant-gardist Edgard Varèse (whose Amériques the SSO will play this coming weekend; see Ear Supply), but others come straight from a Broadway pit band. In Zappa's sweet/sour style, glitter from percussion, piano, harp, and cimbalom (a sort of xylophone/autoharp hybrid whose strings are struck directly with little padded hammers) gets sprinkled over acidulous, twisted brass and string harmonies. Paradise shows a knack for the ear-grabbing gesture that could have made Zappa one of the great film-score composers of his day.
The piece was yet another of new music director Ludovic Morlot's unabashed gauntlet-tosses; his opening weeks in the post have seen a wealth of unconventional repertory. One of his favorite composers is Henri Dutilleux, for decades (he's 95) one of France's foremost, known for a voice at once uncompromising and beguiling, personal yet clearly carrying on the French tradition of magically nuanced and imaginative orchestration. His Tree of Dreams, an expansive color-scape for solo violin and orchestra, sounded a bit careful, a bit self-conscious in this performance—a drawback in a piece that takes nature and natural processes as inspiration, though not surprising for an orchestra and a conductor still new to each other.
As startling in its day as anything Zappa or Dutilleux ever wrote, Beethoven's Third Symphony (1804) was Morlot's first presentation this season of a large-scale standard-repertory work. A Third, led by Yehudi Menuhin, that I heard back in the early '80s expanded my ideas of what this piece is all about; in that performance, as in Morlot's on Saturday, exuberant joy rather than stormy drama was the dominant mood. Former SSO leader Gerard Schwarz previously made this symphony a Russian novel; gemütlichkeit plus punch, essentially, was Morlot's contrasting approach. He established a lyrical flow in the opening movement that was (and no doubt was set up to be) excitingly disturbed by the syncopations and crunching harmonies that followed—like a series of little electric shocks. This performance also proved how much that sense of electricity and energy depends on cleanliness of texture and tightness of ensemble.
There are problems of sprawl in the Third. The second-movement funeral march and the slow section in the theme-and-variations finale can sink under their own pomposity. Not here; under Morlot's lighter touch, these passages looked back to the geniality of Beethoven's teacher Haydn and ahead to the beatific hymns of his Ninth Symphony. Though I think there is more mystery, a greater feeling of tension and anticipation, to be gotten out of the pulsing transition into the symphony's sudden, torrential coda; the odd pause he inserted right before the toboggan pushed off the top of the hill was not as pregnant as I imagine Morlot had intended it to be.