Requiem Of Fright Resolved Into Joy By Seattle Forces

The Seattle Symphony and music director Ludovic Morlot performed works by Ligeti and Mahler to end their season.
(Photo courtesy of the Seattle Symphony)
By Jason Victor Serinus

SEATTLE — Music director Ludovic Morlot aimed for a whopper closing to the Seattle Symphony’s season in Benaroya Hall by pairing two massive works, Ligeti’s Requiem (1964-1965) and Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 (1901-1902), on June 22 and 24. In doing so, he not only provided a clear window on his work with the orchestra to date, but also moved from darkness to light in a manner that turned T.S. Eliot’s oft-quoted pronouncement, “This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper,” on its head.

György Ligeti (Marcel Antonisse/Anefo)

An extremely popular conductor, Morlot has worked hand-in-hand with Seattle Symphony president and CEO Simon Woods to revitalize the orchestra. Among his success stories are programs such as the [untitled] series, which attracts a significantly younger-than-average crowd to late-night lobby performances of contemporary works.

Morlot has spent six seasons refining the sound of a band that, under former music director Gerard Schwarz, was criticized for being overly “muscular.” Undoubtedly in response to such criticism, Morlot has repeatedly emphasized color-differentiation, soft playing, and dynamic contrasts by challenging his players with a host of tough assignments, not least of which have been the complete orchestral works of Dutilleux, many of Ives’ most subtle creations, Stravinsky’s major ballets, and Berio’s blockbuster Sinfonia. His surprise announcement, made two months ago, that he will leave his first major directorship position for parts unknown at the close of the 2018-2019 season, came as a major shock to music lovers who have eagerly embraced his community-based initiatives and new-to-Seattle repertoire choices.

In the concert’s introductory video – the Seattle Symphony occasionally prefaces concerts with short video explications rather than live comments – Morlot used shots of iconic paintings by Kokoschka, Munch, and others to his illuminate his thesis that Ligeti’s is a requiem of “fright.” Citing the composer’s history with Nazi and communist oppression, Morlot intentionally linked Ligeti’s setting of portions of the Catholic Mass for the Dead to Mahler’s journey in the Fifth Symphony from dread to exultation.

Seen on June 22, the Ligeti performance was tremendous. Filling the entire rear of the stage, the Seattle Symphony Chorale, directed by the symphony’s associate conductor for choral activities, Joseph Crnko, dispensed its closely pitched lines with aplomb. Balance between sections was superb, resulting in a clarity not often experienced in music of such complexity.

The chorale’s deepest basses growled with a strength that would make many a Russian bass envious, while the sopranos and mezzo-sopranos eerily completed the lines of the two soloists – soprano Audrey Luna and mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy – as though their voices were one. The contrast between the unearthly, youthful timbres of the highest voices and the underground rumblings of the lowest was matched by the differences between the astounding Luna’s weirdly colored, stratospheric screams of horror and McHardy’s more plush albeit equally wide-ranging sound. It is hard to imagine two finer soloists in this music.

Morlot’s handling of contrasts between instrumental groupings and dynamics was equally masterful. Mirroring the effect of soloists and chorus passing lines one to the other, orchestra and voices blended so seamlessly that it was often impossible to separate the two. As a unified statement of artistic intent, the performance was a triumph.

Ludovic Morlot

The Mahler, while satisfying on many levels, was not as successful. Morlot’s slow tempo for the first movement’s Trauermarsch (funeral march) produced music a mite too lyrical and consoling to fully convey Mahler’s despair and dread. Had the lowest lines been given more weight, the march might not have seemed so lazy, as though the orchestra was trudging through notes without fully feeling their import. (A flubbed trumpet entrance didn’t help matters.) As much as the movement’s occasional swirling screams seemed a Ligeti precursor, the second half’s animated passages wanted for more of the stormy vehemence that Mahler mandates.

The endings of Mahler’s movements, at least in this symphony, are crucial to their emotional impact. In this instance, the pulse of the final notes was ideal, and signaled that it was time to shift to a very different emotional space.

In the scherzo that followed, Morlot’s tempo and approach were far more appropriate for an extended section that Mahler composed as a bridge between the suffering of the symphony’s opening movements and the exuberant affirmation of its close. Nonetheless, both here and in the finale, Morlot occasionally lost sight of which orchestral lines were central to Mahler’s argument. The section in the scherzo where concertmaster Cordula Merks, principal second violinist Elisa Barston, and principal violist Susan Gulkis Assadi briefly joined together was especially rewarding, their mellifluous tone helping to clear the air of the sorrow that had come before. Many minutes later, however, the movement’s end lacked the punch necessary to bring us all the way through.

The Fifth’s Adagietto is so beautiful that, on one level, it is hard to quibble with such a carefully wrought performance. Nonetheless, it must be noted that, while Morlot has made great strides in coaching the violins how to increase in volume without becoming unduly noisy and harsh, their full-out playing lacked the silkiness that would have taken the performance over the top.

Also absent, both here and in the finale, was that almost imperceptible build-up and release of tension that makes the transcendent bursts of light in the Mahler of Bernstein and other great interpreters so memorable. All the notes were sounded perfectly, but the spark that leads to revelation was not to be found. Despite plenty of requisite animation, Morlot could only partially compensate for the missing magic.

Jason Victor Serinus writes and reviews for Seattle Times, San Francisco Classical Voice, Stereophile, American Record Guide, Opera Now, Listen, Bay Area Reporter, and many other publications. He whistled Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” as “The Voice of Woodstock” in an Emmy-nominated Peanuts cartoon. He resides in Port Townsend, WA.