SEATTLE — A week before its gala and concert with pianist Lang Lang, the Seattle Symphony opened its season Sept. 21 with a dual anniversary concert. To celebrate the 120th anniversary of its founding as well as its 25th year in purpose-built Benaroya Hall, the orchestra invited its former music director, conductor emeritus Ludovic Morlot, to present the same works by Massenet, Schubert, and Wagner that the ensemble performed at the opening concerts of 120 and 25 years ago.
It’s doubtful that the 24 men who performed in the Seattle Symphony’s first concert in 1903 could have envisioned an evolution into a full-scale symphony orchestra whose string section alone numbers 50 musicians. Nor, perhaps, could they have imagined that those many strings would sound as smooth and mellifluous as they did on Sept. 21.
After an opening-night welcome/fundraising pitch from the Seattle Symphony’s president and CEO, Krishna Thiagarajan, the music-making began with a somewhat obligatory, uninspired rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Then came the work that opened the orchestra’s first concert, Massenet’s mythologically inspired Overture to Phèdre. Although it served as a suitable showcase for the beauty of Seattle’s strings and the power of its massed instruments, the forgettable nine-minute composition did nothing to enhance Massenet’s reputation.
Thankfully, Morlot deviated from the historical record by inserting into the program Honegger’s eight-minute symphonic poem Pastorale d’été. Opening with birdsong-like interjections from Demarre McGill’s flute, the music grew lovelier and lovelier until it slowly wound down to its conclusion.
Having proven that some short pieces by graduates of the Paris Conservatoire are worth preserving, Morlot paused to make room for a second fundraising pitch, this time from the symphony’s piccolo player, Zartouhi Dombourian-Eby. As my eyes wandered to the hall’s far too many empty seats — was it even two-thirds full? — I could not help but wonder if the symphony’s lack of a music director (20 months since former music director Thomas Dausgaard abruptly announced his resignation and pointed his finger at orchestral management as the cause) has taken its toll on audience morale. Given the country-wide, post-pandemic decline in attendance at classical concerts and the resurgence of Covid-19, it’s hard to tell what’s responsible.
Next came the high point of the evening — the major work on the Seattle Symphony’s first program — Schubert’s two-movement Symphony No. 8 in B minor (Unfinished). Morlot may have chosen a slightly fast Allegro moderato pace for the first movement’s gracious heart-warming theme, but that made for greater contrast with the profound tragic darkness that cut through the inherent optimism. In the second theme’s recapitulation, the cello section’s gorgeous and warm playing offered but a brief respite from impending doom. As prayerful and hopeful as the second movement began, it soon gave way to the haunting, hushed sadness of Emil Khudyev’s clarinet solo. The dramatic orchestral outburst that followed was even more moving, the playing sublime in its beauty.
Given how eloquently Morlot had conducted Schubert, I had high hopes for the evening’s conclusion: Jeffrey Tate’s concert suite from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. The 48-or-so-minute summary of the main themes from the concluding opera of Wagner’s Ring Cycle ended with Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene, with soprano Alexandra LoBianco replacing 1998’s Jessye Norman.
Alas, the orchestral sections of the suite quickly devolved into a progression of Götterdämmerung’s Greatest Hits that emphasized melody over passion. The orchestra sounded curiously uninvolved in the drama, with themes emotionally disconnected. Loudness replaced triumph, and the transition to Siegfried’s leitmotif was a bit rough. (A few horn bloopers, combined with stray strings here and in other works, suggested that a new music director is needed.) The tragedy of the imminent fall of the kingdom of the gods was nowhere in evidence.
LoBianco started strong but with a vibrato that overemphasized undertones and left her voice sounding less than fresh. Within a few minutes, however, her voice evened out and a glorious shine on top prevailed. She may have lacked the strength of middle voice that makes for a great Wagnerian, but her solidity on top was a joy to experience.
Then came what can only be described as a bizarre desecration of Wagner’s intent. Radiating joyous delirium, our Brünnhilde rode her unseen horse, Grane, into the flames. As both presumably burned up and the flames soared up to Valhalla, LoBianco continued to act silently. When metaphorical sparks flew and Valhalla began to crumble, she stretched out her arms and laughed ecstatically. Even as the Rhinemaidens’ leitmotif reflected their joy at the return of the ring, LoBianco was still at it, distracting from the music and acting out an alternate reality that seemed entirely disconnected from the Ring’s conclusion and Wagner’s idea. Oy vey.