Explorer Morlot Links Boulez and Mahler in Seattle

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The Seattle Symphony and music director Ludovic Morlot perform in Benaroya Hall. (Ben VanHouten)
The Seattle Symphony and music director Ludovic Morlot perform in their home, Benaroya Hall. (Ben VanHouten)
By David Gordon Duke

SEATTLE – Ludovic Morlot, the Seattle Symphony’s “new” music director, is now into his third season with the organization, yet there is still a feeling of courtship rituals playing out amongst conductor, orchestra, and audience. Morlot, who succeeded Gerard Schwarz (music director from 1985 until 2011 and best known for his lavish commitment to American composers), has shown a penchant for 20th-century European composers: Works by Varèse, Messiaen, and Dutilleux have already been featured on his programs.

Seattle Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot. (Sussie Ahlburg)
Seattle Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot. (Sussie Ahlburg)

For a pair of subscription series concerts on Nov. 7 and 9, Morlot decreed it time to explore the work of Pierre Boulez. A flashing neon sign on the roof of Benaroya Hall could not signal “Under New Management” with greater clarity.

Morlot’s audacious pairing of Boulez’s Notations I–IV with Mahler’s Sixth Symphony actually makes spectacular artistic sense, emphasizing Mahler’s role as a proto-Expressionist and demonstrating how connected he was to the world of Schoenberg and beyond. (And, on a purely practical basis, both works demand extravagant orchestral forces.) All things considered, how exemplary it was to have Boulez’s work included on a mainstream series, rather than ghettoized in a limited interest new-music program.

Pierre Boulez. (Matt Dine Photography)
Pierre Boulez. (Matt Dine Photography)

Morlot’s way of explaining the value of Boulez’s work couldn’t have been better. Without any condescension or resorting to overly technical language, Morlot made his case for the quality and inspiration of the music. Beyond a fairly substantial introduction, the actual performance prefaced each of the little pieces for very large orchestra (under reconsideration since 1978) with earlier incarnations of the music Boulez created for solo piano in 1946. The strategy paid off: Morlot’s charming way with Boulez’s ultra-fastidious style invited the audience to participate in the composer’s re-compositonal process.

The subsequent well-received performance of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony was energetic and dramatic, presented with conviction and delivered with unflagging enthusiasm. Given Seattle’s long-standing romance with the music of Wagner, it might have been assumed that a work like the sprawling Sixth Symphony would be no particular challenge for either instrumentalists or audience. Yet in a number of significant ways, the reading was flawed.

Ludovic Morlot conducting the Seattle Symphony. (Ben VanHouten)
Ludovic Morlot conducting the Seattle Symphony. (Ben VanHouten)

Though the Sixth has a good deal of nihilistic bombast, it also contains extended moments of breathless tenderness. The upper strings were prepared to deliver pianissimos as emotionally shattering as triple fortes; winds and brass, unfortunately, were not. All too often, parts for featured players became opportunities for solo excess. Blend suffered, and subtlety was jettisoned.

Morlot’s game plan was to drive through the work, encouraging players to emphasize, and glory in, its tremendous tragic power. But the strategy may have been too single-minded: A wealth of detail was skated over in the service of the grand trajectory.

Tackling a work of such size, complexity, and inherent contradictions is an important step towards establishing a Morlot/Seattle Symphony Mahler style. It won’t happen overnight. Considering the rewards in store, this imperfect but still impressive performance marks a project of crucial importance for an orchestra finding its new voice.

The Seattle Symphony’s season continues through June. For details, click here.

David Gordon Duke contributes reviews and essays to The Vancouver Sun and the American Record Guide.  He is academic co-ordinator at the School of Music, Vancouver Community College and also co-teaches a graduate seminar in music performance at the University of British Columbia.