Mixing the familiar with some discoveries, the Seattle Symphony offered a pleasingly varied program to open its new season. The event also brought an element of reassurance by evoking welcome memories of a more stable era as former music director Ludovic Morlot reunited with the orchestra. A search to fill the post is currently underway following the unexpectedly sudden resignation midstream of Thomas Dausgaard. Morlot stepped in on several occasions last season for the leaderless SSO and will return for three additional engagements during the one just inaugurated. 

Jan Lisiecki, Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony
© Brandon Patoc

Framed by the usual speeches of encouragement and an after-party in the lobby, the concert itself was briefer than usual but thoughtfully designed and well-paced. Above all, it confirmed that despite the turbulence of the past year, the musicians’ motivation has not suffered: the right match of conductor and repertoire can produce inspired performances. A pity, then, that so many seats were left vacant – the persistence of Covid anxiety?

The concert started with a world premiere commissioned by the SSO from current artist-in-residence Angelique Poteat, who grew up in the region and praises the variety of its natural beauty as an ongoing inspiration. She also directs the orchestra's Young Composers Workshop program, in which she herself began participating some two decades ago. Breathe, Come Together, Embrace celebrates the very actions, biological and social, that were freighted with danger during the pandemic. 

Densely packed with sinuous themes and arresting timbral contrasts, it’s a high-energy piece. Exciting rhythmic structures and plumes of color reveal Poteat’s flair in deploying a large orchestra. Her writing for the woodwinds is particularly lively, reflecting the composer’s dual identity as a clarinetist. What I liked most on this first hearing was her decision to forego the forced optimism of a typical concert opener, populating her composition instead with ambivalent harmonies evoking a more complex exuberance. 

Morlot guided the players through the score’s thicket of sonorities with admirable clarity while also underlining its vivid drama. In the Chopin that followed, he had far less to do as the spotlight shifted to Jan Lisiecki in the composer’s final work for piano and orchestra, the youthful Grande Polonaise brillante, which allots a subservient and frankly not very interesting role to the ensemble. The Canadian pianist justified his lofty reputation as a Chopin specialist, commanding both silky flexibility of line and laser-sharp precision. Aggressive attacks struck a note of defiance that countered the soft poetry of the solo Andante spianato with which Lisiecki prefaced the polonaise.

Noah Geller, Efe Baltacigil and the Seattle Symphony
© Brandon Patoc

Instead of guests soloists, two of the SSO’s own were highlighted in the single-movement La Muse et le Poète from 1909, part fantasy, part double concerto. Saint-Saëns conceived it late in his long career as “a conversation between the two instruments instead of a debate between two virtuosos”. Concertmaster Noah Geller and principal cellist Efe Baltacıgil, gracefully led by Morlot, made the best possible case for a score whose radiant beauty never quite overrides a tendency to ramble. 

A brilliant reminder of the SSO’s glory years under Morlot closed the program. Their rousing account of the Second Suite from Daphnis et Chloé, which Ravel composed around the same time as the Saint-Saëns, balanced sparkling detail with riotous (but controlled) panache. The opening Daybreak scene felt especially fitting as an ode to the hope and promise of new beginnings. Chabrier’s España was presented as a sun-dappled encore to salute the start of Morlot’s new post as music director of the Orquestra Simfònica de Barcelona