Music director Ludovic Morlot once again displayed his admirable programming acumen in last weekend’s Seattle Symphony performances. Commencing with a Prelude is never a bad idea, and Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune provided a scintillating introduction to Hilary Hahn’s glorious rendering of Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto no. 1 in G minor and Sergei Prokofiev’s fiery Fifth Symphony.

Hilary Hahn © Michael Patrick O'Leary
Hilary Hahn
© Michael Patrick O'Leary

To hear a live performance of Debussy’s iconic work is like indulging in the most delicate Parisian croissant: one can rationalize the sinful pleasure with an appreciation of the artistry involved in creating it. To relish in a French conductor’s interpretation of this music is indeed a luxury. Morlot excels in capturing atmosphere, especially in works like this Prélude, where color and timbre are central. His canny interpretation reflected both the finesse of Stéphane Mallarmé's poetry that inspired it and the work’s pivotal role in paving the way toward 20th-century modernism. Batonless to maximize the impressionist effect, Morlot stretched phrases to their achingly beautiful maximum, as only a Frenchman can do.

Hilary Hahn’s playing is more than accurate, dependable and consistent; it is always passionately committed and unwavering, beauteous in tone, and impeccable in the execution of passagework. The Bruch First Violin Concerto is often thought of as less technically demanding than other iconic Romantic concertos such as those by Brahms and Tchaikovsky. Hahn proved the contrary in her revelatory rendering, bringing new vibrancy to the work.

With each phrase and each passage she demonstrated both the concerto’s violinistic difficulties and her absolute mastery of them. Her phrasing was so sharply defined and articulated that every note sounded crystal clear and equally important, even in the most rapid fioritura passages. Her octaves were assured and in tune, almost as if she were playing both notes in unison. Her solid bow arm, mesmerizing to watch, pulled the maximum sound through the triple and quadruple stops, emphasizing both melody and chordal harmony.

In the lyrical, more romantic passages of the early movements, Hahn maintained passion and maximum expressivity and sensitivity, then virtually exploded with energy and virtuosity in the final Allegro energico. From the top to the bottom of the instrument’s range she overcame technical obstacles with ease, showing attention to such details as sustaining the vibrato even on the final, lowest notes of difficult arpeggio passages, while still showing a keen awareness and appreciation of being fully integrated with the orchestra.

From the energy-filled arpeggios of the last movement, Hahn segued seamlessly into her encore, the Gigue from Bach’s E major unaccompanied Partita no. 3 in A minor, giving unstintingly of herself to an audience wanting more and handing over the torch to an orchestra primed to give their all, in the high energy of Prokofiev’s explosive work.

When his Fifth Symphony was premiered in 1945 it was thought of as reflecting both Prokofiev’s disposition upon his return from self-inflicted exile, and the triumph of Russia’s subsequent victory against the Nazis on the front; but its universality reaches deep into the soul of any people. Despite Prokofiev’s protestations against a political interpretation, the aggressive tone of the work still lends itself to the painful undertones of any political climate, the current one included.

The piece never relents, and neither did the maestro’s seemingly limitless vitality. Much of the composer’s musical style in this work reflects an enduring cultural link between its Russian and French characteristics. Morlot proved his mettle, displaying a keen understanding of that connection; not only by programming the Debussy along with Prokofiev’s all-important 20th century piece, but also with his whip-smart interpretation of the latter, melding classicism with modernism, and emphasizing the work’s overall spiritualistic leaning rather than its neoclassic traits.

Morlot mined these characteristics to show the aggressiveness and rich complexity of the piece in tandem with its demands for precision, molding his performance into a compelling listening and watching experience: channeling his ever-present dynamism into an eastern European muscularity while retaining French color and refinement. He emphasized the contrasts between the introspection of the initial Andante, the wittiness of the scherzo-like second movement, the grim melancholy of the Adagio and the bombast of the Allegro giocoso finale.

Throughout, the orchestra demonstrated its virtuosity, especially enhanced by superb playing of the clarinet in its many solo passages. With a Coda that relentlessly moved forward to a climax that was almost too explosive, Morlot and his musicians once again proved they could rock Benaroya Hall to its rafters.