To open the new year, Seattle Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot chose a standard work, Beethoven’s Ninth, prefaced with an unusual one by French composer Olivier Messaien. Considered a masterpiece of French 20th-century repertoire, Messiaen’s Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine is infrequently performed in the US. Leonard Bernstein was one of its leading proponents in this country; in fact, at certain moments the piece, with its widely scattered syncopations and echoes of phantom sounds emitting from the orchestra and chorus, brought to mind Bernstein’s Chichester PsalmsTrois petites liturgies is not what one would call “easy listening,” nor is it simple to play and sing, but scheduling it in the first half of the program before the intermission almost guaranteed a heightening of audience anticipation for the main event in the second half.

Ludovic Morlot © Chris Lee
Ludovic Morlot
© Chris Lee

The atmosphere of Messaien’s work is decidedly spectral – one could almost picture the music as part of the soundtrack for a Tim Burton film – and in some instances the tonalities were reminiscent of Puccini’s use of pentatonic scales in Turandot. Morlot’s extensive expertise and knowledgeability of the music of contemporary French composer Henri Dutilleux seemed to infuse his handling of Messaien. He maintained a balance between the delicate colors and transparencies of the choral melodies and the constantly varying rhythms, and the Seattle Symphony musicians responded with attentiveness and enthusiasm to Morlot’s energetic leadership.

Performing on the ondes Martenot, Cynthia Millar showed expertise and assurance. One of the first electronic instruments to appear during the second and third quarters of the 20th century, the ondes lent an otherworldly sound to what was already a ghostly atmosphere. Millar, considered a master of the instrument, brought attention to its eerie, macabre qualities while still integrating her sound seamlessly into the orchestration, clearly showing her passion for the instrument and for the detailed skills that comprise its techniques.

Providing an even more significant contribution to the performance was gifted pianist-composer and rising star Michael Brown. Notwithstanding the technical demands and often-ferocious difficulties in the piano writing, Brown played glitteringly and with dazzling proficiency, demonstrating a keen understanding of the contemporary idiom that he undoubtedly utilizes as a composer. From both an audience and a reviewer’s point of view, the Northwest Boy Choir were the stars of this part of the evening. That these young boys were able to master the difficult dissonances and numerous high notes required in the score, not to mention prolonged singing and Sprechstimme in the always-difficult French language, was an astonishing accomplishment.

After the Messaien, Beethoven’s Ninth provided a pleasurable opportunity to anchor in a more familiar reality. Despite the fact that this work invariably tops practically every “listener favorites” list, each hearing of the piece brings new revelations to the mind and the ear: for instance, the distinctly operatic nature of the slow movement that binds it to the sublime Act I quartet from the composer’s only opera, Fidelio.

For the choral section of his performance, Morlot chose an outstanding quartet of operatic soloists, who sounded equally harmonious together and individually: Mary Elizabeth Williams, Rinat Shaham, Kenneth Tarver and Jonathan Lemalu. Williams, winner of Seattle Opera’s “Artist of the Year” award for the 2011-12 season, has a beautiful, powerful and unquestionably operatic voice; yet she used it with a subtlety and agility well suited to the oratorio style. Israeli-born mezzo Shaham also showed vocal beauty and versatility befitting both the opera and concert stages, though unfortunately at times her lush voice was somewhat lost in the crowd of onstage participants vying for the audience’s attention.

Tarver is known in operatic circles for his performances of bel canto repertoire, and indeed his voice has the lightness appropriate for those roles. Nonetheless, he spun his tones so nimbly that he was for the most part clearly heard. Lemalu showed impressive command in his all-important first entry of the vocal soloists’ role in the choral section. At times he sounded a bit forced and unfocused, but the authoritative power of his voice never faltered.

Overall, the concert was satisfying but perhaps too stimulating. To hear a live rendering of a piece as fascinating as Trois petites liturgies was without doubt a welcome opportunity. However, with every one of its 35 minutes requiring intense concentration, it made for a very long performance coupled with Beethoven’s magnum opus. That said, Morlot’s command of, and insight into, the French repertoire is impressive; and after experiencing his rendering of Messaien’s mystical work, the anticipation of this season’s L’enfant et les Sortilèges is indeed enticing.