Not even half over, 2016 has been an unusually painful year, not least for the losses we've sustained in the arts. Yet the Seattle Symphony's final programme of the subscription season conveyed abundant reason for optimism, at least as far as the creative spirit goes.
Like Threads & Traces, This Midnight Hour unfolds in a sequence of arresting juxtapositions, the cumulative effect of which belies the composition's brief duration (about 12 minutes). This is no lightweight "concert opener" but a substantial, richly imagistic score, its implicit, montage-like narrative orchestrated with a high degree of imagination.
Clyne drew inspiration from Baudelaire's "Harmonie du soir" and a brief poem by Juan Ramón Jiménez (in English: “Music — Naked woman running mad through the pure night!”). The latter metaphor seems to be the guiding idea with which Clyne threads together her disparate material, which encompasses stormy music of ominous foreboding and nostalgic melody, gently veiled – all suspensefully crowded into a short space, like a lifetime flashing before a dying person's eyes.
This Midnight Hour starts dramatically, in medias res, with aggressively biting rhythms on violas, cellos, and basses (played at the frog, with heavy accents) – Beethovenian in their fury – that make a brief surprise return at the very end a la Brian De Palma. Sustained notes bleed out at length in contrast to passages of roiling energy, while solo spotlights abut tumultuous ensemble outbursts. Clyne's technique of defamiliarising otherwise "comforting" events (for example, a sweetly melancholy waltz tune) is uniquely captivating: her mesmerising tonal surrealism generates the work's momentum.
It was good to be reassured of the creative vitality of composers at work today, composers who not only have something to say but the technical expertise to say it effectively. In the remainder of the programme, Morlot and the SSO brought further reassurance of how freshly the classics can continue to speak to us as well. To be sure, there are naysayers who would deny Gershwin's Concerto in F from 1925 that status, but pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet's account displayed a wealth of elegant fun and poetry. He and Morlot clearly love this music, and they approached it as a fully organised masterpiece rather than a chain of "pops" episodes loosely strung together.
For example, Thibaudet's entrance had the flirty finesse of a Mozart concerto, toying with expectations for something straightforward and showy. His interplay with Morlot and the SSO musicians was fine-tuned to the nanosecond, as delectable to follow as the most sophisticated chamber music in the making. In the slow movement, with notable contributions from Alexander White on trumpet and Ben Hausmann on oboe, the performance reached an elevated level of reverie. Thibaudet exploded the cliche of the piano as an instrument that must be either lyrical or percussive, exploring exquisite nuances in the finale's rhythmic drive. As a generous encore, he rejoined the SSO for a dazzlingly suave rendition of Gershwin's I Got Rhythm Variations.
Morlot has been taking increasing risks in his Beethoven. His Seventh Symphony resounded with fresh ideas, gravitating toward the wilder, Dionysian side of the equation. It wasn't merely the matter of rhythmic impulse: the bloodrush of the finale had as much to do with the brassy gleam Morlot brought out. If some aspects of the Apollonian grandeur of Beethoven's form were overshadowed – the slow introduction seemed to "bloom" a shade too soon – it made for a bracing, high-energy account that suggested a rejuvenated outlook on the part of the composer. Indeed, Morlot dug into accents with a raw, fierce energy reminiscent of his way with the Eroica. For the Allegretto, which moved at a steady clip without feeling rushed, he managed a superb long-range crescendo, and the third movement's Trio flared with considerable pomp and colour.
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