Andrew Crowley
Stephen Hough reprises his performance of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto no. 3 during Saturday and Sunday's concerts.
Seattle Symphony, with pianist Stephen Hough

Benaroya

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Seattle Symphony: Blinded by the Light

Andrew Crowley
Stephen Hough reprises his performance of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto no. 3 during Saturday and Sunday's concerts.
Seattle Symphony, with pianist Stephen Hough

Benaroya Hall, Thursday

Additional performances: 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday.

Ludovic Morlot is ending his inaugural season as the Seattle Symphony's music director as he began it, with good doses of music from both his homelands, original and adopted. (Next week's grand finale is Berlioz's fantastical, uncategorizable The Damnation of Faust.) It's always fun to hear Bernstein's Candide overture--the opener of Thursday night's concert (repeated Saturday and Sunday)--in full orchestral regalia: gold epaulets and brass buttons rather than the usual theater-pit black. From the rear of the stage came extra-explosive volleys of percussion, like teenage boys lighting off bottle rockets at the back of the classroom.

Charles Ives finished his Symphony no. 2 at age 27, as he was transitioning from the Europe-aping techniques learned in his academic studies to a style more personal, more American. Into a sturdy base of Dvorak and Tchaikovsky he snuck folk-tune fragments, from "Turkey in the Straw" to "Reveille"--melodies that start as quotations but veer off in unexpected directions. One lesson Ives hadn't yet mastered was basic attention-holding; the symphony opens off-puttingly with a few minutes of gray string counterpoint, and thereafter the gloom too infrequently disperses. But the buried half-quotes keep your ear engaged; between each glimpse of folk tune and the next, you feel like a bear waiting by a creek for salmon to swim past. Morlot kept the stream flowing smoothly; first-chair cellist Efe Baltacigil contributed a ravishing solo in the finale; and the symphony's boisterous final minute at last gave the orchestra and Morlot something to show off in.

You know how it feels when you're driving in the black of night, and suddenly an oncoming car with its brights on FLASHES in your face and then is gone? There were aural moments like that in Stephen Hough's performance of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto no. 3 on the concert's second half. (Sometimes I literally winced. It was awesome.) Hough took as a starting point the nonchalance of the opening theme, a clean tune in plain octaves. Demure phrase endings sounded as if the piano was slipping back under the orchestra from where it had emerged. But from there he could turn up the impact, as needed, to delicate sparkle, then chilling intensity, then blinding brilliance. It wasn't a heart-on-sleeve performance--but then, starlight and thunderstorms aren't "emotional" either. Morlot did much the same with the orchestra, building climaxes like bolts of lightning--no, like being hit by lightning.

*****

SEATTLE SYMPHONY Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., 215-4747, seattlesymphony.org. $17-$125. 8 p.m. Sat., June 16, 2 p.m. Sun., June 17.

 
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