This concert by the Minnesota Orchestra under guest conductor Ludovic Morlot presented a program of music by Ravel and Prokofiev. It wasn’t billed that way originally, but upon opening the program booklet, concert-goers were confronted with the news that Dutilleux’s The Starry Night had been replaced with Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye suite.

Ludovic Morlot © Lisa-Marie Mazzucco
Ludovic Morlot
© Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

It was a disappointing substitute. Charming and idiomatic as Ravel’s suite is, it’s a poor alternative to the inventive, involving Dutilleux work, which receives precious few airings in the concert hall. Moreover, considering Maestro Morlot’s championing of Dutilleux’s music – including an acclaimed series of recordings with his Seattle Symphony – one of the attractions of this concert was to have the chance to experience Morlot and Dutilleux together.

As for the Mother Goose substitution, it was a serviceable presentation of Ravel’s score, but little more than that. The opening Pavane sounded tentative, including some rather unusual breaths taken in the woodwind lines that came across as awkward. The third movement (Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas) was exquisitely done. The Conversations of Beauty and the Beast started off well, too, before another questionable interpretative choice was made in the form of the contrabassoon making far too much of the “beastly” dialogue. Of course it’s supposed to sound coarse and crude – but that’s already embedded in Ravel’s score. To play it so “over the top,” as was done here, ended up making the players sound like they’re merely bad musicians.

Pianist Lise de la Salle joined the orchestra for Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major. Ravel’s two concerti were composed at nearly the same time; the G Major is the more extrovert, infused as it is with jazz idioms and harmonies. From the famous whip-crack that opened the piece, one knew that this performance was going to emphasize flash and dash. And yet … in the first movement De la Salle and the orchestra seemed to encounter some problems with balances. There was also a surprisingly large number of trumpet notes that were off-key or missed entirely, which got in the way of enjoyment. Moreover, I was struck by how heavy the bass line on the piano sounded – in some cases drowning out the treble so that nearly all that was left was “grumble and rumble”.

Fortunately, things improved markedly in the second movement Adagio assai, in which De la Salle’s piano solo was beautifully presented. Morlot and the Minnesota players provided dreamy accompaniment, inducing a trance-like atmosphere which is always the mark of an extraordinary performance of this movement. The final Presto was a thrilling romp despite a few ensemble glitches here and there, along with the intrusion of several more of those trumpet bloopers.  Morlot kept the proceedings moving along crisply right up through the emphatic final chords. On balance, this was a creditable performance of the Ravel concerto, but not an outstanding one. As an encore, De la Salle treated the audience to Liszt's arrangement of Schumann’s song Widmung. It was a winsome rendition, played with finesse and feeling.

Following intermission, the Minnesota players tackled Prokofiev’s Symphony no. 5 in B flat major. Arguably the composer’s most famous symphony – certainly on par in popularity with his Classical Symphony – the work’s World War II-era creation represented a statement of affirmation in the face of the stark privations faced by the Russian people.

This is the second time I have seen this symphony performed by this ensemble. The first time was decades ago when the then-named Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra performed it under Stanislaw Skrowaczewski. Just a few years prior to that, Antal Doráti had made a recording in Minneapolis that remains a reference standard even today, more than a half-century later. Happily, this evening’s performance more than lived up to those esteemed forerunners. In the sonata-like first movement, Morlot presented the two contrasting themes and development beginning lyrically, but then culminating in a spectacularly fierce coda with brass and percussion going at full throttle. In the quicksilver second movement Allegro marcato, the Minnesota woodwinds and brass had the opportunity to shine with contrasting colors arrayed against incessant accented string phrases.  Percussion touches (tambourine, snare, woodblocks) provided just the right degree of ornamentation.

In the third movement Adagio, Morlot emphasized the nostalgic aspects in the opening melody, but there was an undercurrent of “unsettled angst” that was brought out very effectively by the strings and high woodwinds, ultimately leading to an anguished climax (with great Minnesota brass here) before settling back to resigned quietude. The Allegro giocoso final movement was terrifically exciting, sounding positively manic at times. Morlot’s final orchestral flourish placed a true exclamation point on this extraordinary symphony, sending the appreciative audience out into the night on a high note.