By Jason Victor Serinus
SEATTLE – While there are no absolutes regarding programming, a few guidelines might come in handy for music directors planning their farewells. If you’re going to end your last, very personal program with a relatively unknown guilty pleasure, make sure it isn’t unknown for good reason.
In the case of Ludovic Morlot – who of his own volition completed his eight-year tenure as music director of the Seattle Symphony with performances of some of his favorite works by Wagner, Debussy, and Janáček on June 20 and 22 – that final work was Janáček’s rarely programmed cantata, Věčné evangelium (The Eternal Gospel), for chorus, orchestra, and two soloists. A setting of verses by Czech poet Jaroslav Vrchlický, The Eternal Gospel uses Christian theology to, in the words of program annotator Paul Schiavo, “set forth a vision of a new era in which peace and universal love define the human condition.”
Hey, what’s not to like? Well, as it turns out, plenty. First, Vrchlický and Janáček entrusted their vision to the 12th-century prophet Joachim da Fiore (tenor Ludovít Ludha), whose obsession with evil and decadence led him to repeat, over and over and over again, a stentorian condemnation of the Roman wolf, hangmen of Byzantium, and all enemies of Christendom. As much as the imagery struck a contemporary chord, the Prophet’s constant obsession with evil suggested that he was not the right person to usher in a New Age of Peace and Love. Equally as dismaying, while Ludha maintained his laudably forceful, even, and declamatory tone without over-emphasizing the hectoring aspects of verse and music, he was unable to warm his delivery when singing of the triumph of love and the human spirit. It all sounded the same – far too much of something that wasn’t very good to begin with.
In the cantata, the Prophet receives inspiration from an angel (soprano Maria Männistö) who plays a secondary role in the cantata. Männistö, whose rather thin lower range rises to a moderately sweet but not particularly radiant top, decided to play her act to the hilt with transported looks, outstretched arms, and all manner of affectations that would have left many an audience at a drag parody in stitches. When your music is over the top to begin with, by all means resist the temptation to send it to the moon.
Given that translations projected above the stage laid bare the meaning of words and gestures, the ultimate effect of The Eternal Gospel on an audience that had already showered Morlot with loving applause was a curious one. Instead of breaking into a roar, the audience remained silent for several seconds. Morlot’s failure to make the cantata’s ending clear suggested that he also failed to convince.
The concert got off to a much stronger start with an exploration that separated the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde with Marius Constant’s Suite from Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Morlot’s motivation for melding these two works about transgressive love, with only a momentary pause between Prelude and Suite, was to illustrate that as much as Debussy may have denied the influence of Wagner, Wagner’s long shadow is nonetheless apparent in at least some of Debussy’s large-scale compositions.
Morlot’s experiment was as convincing as his skill in bringing out the darker foundation of cello, bass, and brass lines in Wagner’s Prelude. Given the exceedingly loving touch that he coaxed from the symphony – the strings sounded uncommonly silken, and tuba principal John DiCesare’s brief contribution was quite moving – the rendition touched the heart. Debussy’s frequently lighter and more ambiguous waves of emotion also impressed with their grace, distinguished by contributions from concertmaster Noah Geller and principal cello Efe Baltacigil.
Where Morlot faltered, however, was in his orchestral version of the Liebestod. In the absence of a vocal soloist, the melody line called for greater emphasis. Morlot also shortchanged Isolde’s final orgasmic build-up to her release into death by failing to metaphorically explode into the climax. Instead, he sounded as if he was holding back to avoid disturbing the neighbors. Kirsten Flagstad, Birgit Nilsson, Waltraud Meier, and Nina Stemme would have had none of it. The performance did nothing to change the impression that Morlot’s strengths lie in French and new repertoire rather than German high Romanticism.
Happily, the conductor was entirely in his element in Debussy’s Nocturnes. “Nuages” was one gently billowing whisper, “Fêtes” an animated expanse whose soft ending was abetted by the muted colors of Morlot’s touch and the Benaroya Hall acoustics, and “Sirènes” notably smooth and seductive. Although the first sopranos of the Northwest Boychoir were a bit brighter edged than ideal, the performance was lovely.
At the start of the evening, Seattle Symphony President & CEO Krishna Thiagarajan announced that Morlot will return to the orchestra as conductor emeritus in 2021. Even as Seattle Symphony-goers wished him well on the next wing of his journey, their applause showed that they eagerly await the return of a conductor who, in his own words, conceived his final concert as “a journey of love, sharing, reflection, and celebration.”
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.