New Kid in Town

Ludovic Morlot launches his Seattle Symphony tenure with dazzling performances—and a daring failure.

The long-awaited arrival of Ludovic Morlot, the Seattle Symphony’s new music director, sold out his gala debut concert last Saturday night at Benaroya Hall. Of the four works on the carefully chosen program, two splashy favorites made the evening festive and showed off the orchestra; one meat-and-potatoes overture demonstrated Morlot’s bona fides in the mainstream old-master repertory; and one highly unusual contemporary work—a terrible piece; more on that later—was a declaration that exploration and novelty will be central to this new regime.

Beethoven’s earnest Consecration of the House Overture is, as his music goes, on the drab side, but Morlot rose to the challenge with a buoyant, crackling performance—gratifying, too, indicating that his future Beethoven (a composer not among former music director Gerard Schwarz’s specialties) will be something to look forward to. (He’ll lead Beethoven’s Third this coming weekend, Sept. 22–25.) Following intermission, Morlot made a case for Gershwin’s An American in Paris as not just a pops-concert tidbit but a major American masterwork—not by bringing it grandeur or weight, but clarity, brilliance, and a heartfelt embrace of both the work’s nostalgia and riotous, picturesque color. The orchestra sounded dazzling—as good as I’ve ever heard them, in fact. The choice of Ravel’s Boléro to close the evening was, it seems, Morlot’s tribute to his new colleagues; its slowly unreeling series of solos in an unvarying tempo shows off the players much more than it does the nearly superfluous conductor. To play the two-bar snare-drum lick that persists hypnotically through the entire piece, Morlot brought principal percussionist Michael Werner to stand front and center, an effective bit of showmanship that Schwarz also liked to use in this piece. Morlot then surprised the audience by leaving his podium and taking a seat among the violins to play for three or four minutes.

The least-known, and for me most eagerly anticipated, piece on the program was a 1980 concerto for cello and small wind ensemble by Friedrich Gulda (1930–2000). A pianist equally devoted to classical and jazz, with an iconoclastic approach to both, his concerto similarly sets various musical styles against one another. The challenge of this game—i.e., “breaking down barriers,” the preoccupation of seemingly every composer under 40, and many above—is to make your music inherently interesting beyond the surprise of the juxtapositions. Let a thousand flowers bloom, I say; the entire history of music is there to be drawn on by composers. But are you speaking eloquently and freely in the languages you choose, or reducing them to a set of mannerisms that limit rather than liberate you? Are you actually writing music, or merely examples of music?

It’s a trap Gulda’s piece fell into, and fell hard. The first of five movements simplistically alternated from one chunk of music to the next, separated by Stravinsky-flavored refrains for the orchestra (reduced here to 18 players). Bland Alpine folksong led to a pedestrian 12-bar blues, punctuated by some very dated-sounding “funky” brass hits. (Think a Joey Heatherton dance number on The Dean Martin Show.) The second movement presented more Austrian pastiche (Gulda was Viennese), ländler tunes fished out of Johann Strauss Sr.’s wastebasket. The third, the most compelling, was a solo cadenza for the cello, which led to the fourth, a sort of elegiac Spanish/medieval dance. For the finale, Gulda time-traveled again—to a 19th-century bandshell, of all places—with a boisterous march decorated with whizzing 16th-note embroidery for the cello, strongly reminiscent of those “Fantasy on Patriotic Airs”–type crowd-pleasers churned out by John Philip Sousa’s lesser contemporaries.

Shrewdly, the cellist on hand—the sugar helping this pill go down—was local favorite Joshua Roman, whose unique combination of intensity and fluency, heat and polish, energy and brains, was fully on display, especially in the magical colors of the cadenza and the finger-tangling finale. But the rest of the piece was stiff, insipid, humorlessly campy, and, honestly, a waste of Roman’s talent, not to mention the orchestra’s. The truly perverse thing about this piece was that if you had dug up, say, an actual fifth-rate bandshell showpiece and suggested it to the SSO, not in a thousand years would they have programmed it, much less on a season-opening gala. So why play a fake fifth-rate showpiece?

That said, definitely the most exciting aspect of Morlot’s arrival is his contemporary-music programming; love or hate the Gulda concerto, it was a courageous choice and a gauntlet thrown down. This weekend comes music by Frank Zappa and Henri Dutilleux; the following weekend, Edgard Varese’s explosive Amériques, nearly a century old but still, with its police sirens and urban grit, a visceral shocker. Added to the American music Schwarz championed, the European voices Morlot is offering will broaden our outlook even more; Seattle Symphony audiences, heeding the organization’s new slogan, “Listen Boldly,” stand to be better-schooled in the richness of the past century’s music than those of any other orchestra in the country.