This month Ludovic Morlot initiates his final season with the Seattle Symphony, and, having established a mutually respectful rapport over his eight-season tenure, the departing music director is leaving on a high note. The anticipation of an all-French program with Seattle’s resident French conductor of works by Ravel, Debussy and contemporary French-born composer Marc-André Dalbavie, was almost too delicious to contemplate. Morlot did not disappoint.

Ludovic Morlot © Chris Lee
Ludovic Morlot
© Chris Lee

The maestro considers the timbre of Dalbavie’s music akin to the music of Henri Dutilleux, with whose works Morlot has established a consistent link in Seattle. The composer studied orchestration with Pierre Boulez and is considered a leading voice among the current generation of French composers. He is thought to have inherited the mantle of Olivier Messaien, for whom La Source d’un regard (2007) is meant as a tribute.

Notwithstanding Morlot’s opinion that Dalbavie’s music is becoming increasingly romantic in character, La Source d'un regard displays plenty of dissonance. The piece opens with a 4-note motif, repeated throughout the string section, which eventually becomes a 3-note motif. The sonorities carry through the rest of the orchestra, evolving from meditative and sensuous to forcefully discordant. Though Morlot elicited the best possible playing from his ensemble, which sounded throughout like one richly resonating instrument, the overall impression was thought-provoking rather than compelling. 

Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major fits squarely into everyone’s dream of what 20th-century French music should be. Born the year his countryman Bizet died, Ravel picked up the older composer’s tricolore and carried it into the next epoch. Inspired and influenced by his exposure to the audiences and music of the US, Ravel infused the concerto with jazz elements, most prominently Gershwin’s, and conducted the première of this work five years before his death with the Orchestre Lamoureux in Paris.

Steven Osborne boldly demonstrated the truth behind his oft-quoted description as "one of Britain’s most treasured musicians". He gave a performance that was, from the very first rapid-fire pianissimo triplets of the opening Allegramente, both subtle and virtuosic. Throughout the first movement, he kept his interpretation and his gestures close to his vest, fingers prancing over the keys, glissandi sparkling brilliantly.

Morlot showed his French sensibilities especially in the soul-searching Adagio assai, in which Ravel pushed the envelope rhythmically with its juxtaposing meters between soloist and orchestra. Osborne’s unexaggerated rendition, with its subtle emphasis of the lusciously jarring dissonances, was exquisitely simple and understated. The third movement Presto was more like Prestissimo. Here, Osborne lifted his veil of subtlety and produced an awe-inspiring, breathtaking display of virtuosity, arms lifted when the turns of phrase warranted it, practically leaping off the bench with triumphant glee.

In keeping with the jazz elements of the concerto, Osborne treated the audience to an encore of a piece by Oscar Peterson. It was a delightful surprise, played with the consummate artistry of a brilliant performer who clearly is disarmingly talented in multiple genres.

Claude Debussy’s Printemps, an early work not often heard, already shows the composer’s mastery of orchestration and ability to create an ephemeral, wistful atmosphere. The simpler melodic phrasing precludes the composer’s later, more complex use of melody and harmony. However, notwithstanding Morlot’s keen understanding of the style, and the orchestra’s impressive playing, the piece was far less focused than the composer’s more mature works and felt overly long.

Morlot feels that Printemps pairs perfectly with Ravel’s Second Suite from Daphnis et Chloé. And what better way to end a French program than with this spectacular work? The 1912 Ballet Russes première of this masterpiece was created for legendary dancers Vaslav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina, with set designer Léon Bakst, beloved conductor Pierre Monteux and choreographer Michael Fokine, who adapted his scenario from a 2,000-year-old Greek romantic tale by Longus. Ravel extracted music from the ballet, often described as a symphonie chorégraphique, for his two orchestral suites, the second of which is most often performed. As always, the composer’s mastery in orchestration is at the forefront.

Morlot was in his element in this sparkling, iridescent score. Watching him, and listening to the glisten and shimmer brought forth from the orchestra, one perceives that this music truly does course through his veins.

In each work of the program, particularly in the Daphnis, the orchestral playing was exceptional. The horns, and especially the trumpets, showed stunning virtuosity. The first violin section, led by newly minted concertmaster Noah Geller, whose solo in the Daphnis was sweetly and perceptively played, sounded impressively clear and coherent.