If in his first concerts with the Seattle Symphony last fall, music director Ludovic Morlot staked his claim with unconventional programming and an enthusiasm for the modern, his return last week, after a few months away, focused on a couple of works from the very center of the standard repertory. He still had plenty of surprises to spring, however.
With half the orchestra on Attila duty at McCaw Hall, Beethoven's Seventh Symphony was played with a smaller-than-usual contingent at a free concert last Wednesday in City Hall's airy atrium. I'm convinced Beethoven sounds best this way: When the wind/string balance is tilted in favor of the winds, the overall sound is beefier and more colorful. In the first movement, for example, the composer at one point sets flute and oboe alone in treacherous dialogue with the entire body of strings; the moment really popped out, bright and balanced, with 27 string players rather than the usual 50-plus. Epitomizing the performance's tightness and vigor were this movement's two closing chords, with the impact of a fist. Morlot has the Seventh scheduled again for April 2013; I hope he again uses a slimmed-down orchestra.
Morlot's taste for fast tempos set the Seventh's ferocious finale on fire; he never lowered the temperature for a second--need it or not. Still, I wished he were occasionally more of a lingerer. He kept Beethoven's full-throated second movement pressing forward, bringing it a compelling hint of emotional unsettledness. In this movement's coda, though, the pace yearns to slacken. The music seems to lose itself in distracted reminiscence, with the main theme wandering around the orchestra in two-bar fragments. It wasn't until Saturday's concert that I got an idea why Morlot declined to loosen the reins here.
Unexpectedly, and fascinatingly, his Saturday-night Benaroya Hall performance of a symphony written only 11 years later, Schubert's "Unfinished," came from another planet: broad Romantic climaxes, floaty tempo nuances, dreamily fading phrase endings, transitions that seemed suspended in time. (So spacious, in fact, was Morlot's handling of Schubert's first movement, labeled Allegro moderato, that it came out roughly the same tempo as his second, Andante con moto.) Easily the least Beethovenlike "Unfinished" I've ever heard, it seemed to exemplify a view of the two contemporaries as antitheses that dates back to Schumann (recently re-explored by musicologists discussing issues of gender and sexuality). Dramatic vs. lyrical, punchy hooks vs. songlike melodies, constructivist vs. ruminative, goal-oriented vs. drifting through a succession of pleasurable presents: Morlot's Beethoven and Schubert stood at opposing aesthetic poles in a provocative take on these two warhorses, especially when heard back-to-back.
The other main event of the week, preceding the Schubert on Saturday, was the unveiling of an enjoyable new work, a commission from Nico Muhly, probably the most active American composer of his age (30). So Far So Good opens with dark string chords in Britten-flavored harmonies, comforting yet hinting at something slightly ominous. Before long, a trombone and snare drum interrupt harshly, as if trying to break in from outside. Soon after comes a shining, Copland-like trumpet aria. The mood changes with a chugging wind passage; and from then on the music seems to triangulate among these moods: consoling, agitated, mechanistic (though the work, 17 minutes long or so, is a lot more diffuse than this schema would suggest).
Muhly's glinting, chiming orchestration moves along grooves very familiar to anyone who's heard any new instrumental music of the past 20 years. John Adams has basically ruined this kind of sound, which has become his trademark, for any other composer; it was hard to hear Muhly's sparking high violins and splashes of metal percussion without thinking of his older colleague. Beguiling though it all was, the piece's ending came as startlingly, bafflingly arbitrary--and suddenly the meaning of the title became clear. It sounded as if Muhly had broken off composition at some random point, evaluated what he'd written, then jotted down the flippant title. Maybe he intends to write a persuasive ending someday, and retitle it—So Far, So Much Better?