Talk about keeping the pressure on: Only last month the Seattle Symphony and music director Ludovic Morlot journeyed to Carnegie Hall for an unusually high-stakes concert and attracted a good deal of press coverage — not least  because one of the works featured had just won the Pulitzer Prize in music (John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean, a Seattle Symphony commission). Thursday night’s all-French programme meanwhile attracted special scrutiny from movers and shakers throughout the American orchestral scene.

This time the ensemble was playing on its home turf at Benaroya Hall, where it welcomed a sizable number of guests in town for the annual conference of the League of American Orchestras. Under the slogan “Critical Questions/Countless Solutions”, some 1,000 participants representing the breadth of America’s orchestral life had flocked to Seattle. Their mission: to brainstorm ways to engage audiences more meaningfully. Ideas ranged from more innovative concert formats and digital initiatives to suggestions for making orchestras “the heartbeats of our cities”, as Morlot put it. 

So here was one of the League’s member orchestras showing themselves in action before an audience containing many of their professional colleagues. Far from being an unnerving situation, it seemed to fuel an exceptional desire to play not just with beautiful, beguiling sound but with sustained conviction.

Maestro Morlot’s all-French programme represented a segment of the repertoire for which he is especially acclaimed — and into which he has persuasively inducted his Seattle players. But the specific items he chose involved a subtle element of risk-taking. The Dutilleux Symphony no. 2 remains more or less a rarity (at least in the American concert hall), inexplicable as I find that fact to be in the case of such an immediately appealing score; and instead of the familiar concert suites, Morlot ventured to present the entirety of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé. Overall, some must have wondered: Would this come across as too much of a good thing — a whole evening of exquisitely orchestrated French music, without palette cleanser, by composers who share a stylistic lineage?

The result was a superb evening of music that sounded as fresh and alert as could be wished — a surefire way to engage audiences. Morlot has been staking a claim for the Seattle Symphony as a premier interpreter of Henri Dutilleux since he began his tenure here. Just this spring the orchestra launched its own record label, and one of its first releases was devoted to Dutilleux (the Symphony no. 1, Tout un monde lointain, and The Shadows of Time). The SSO’s performances of the Symphony no. 2 will eventually be released on the label as part of an ongoing Dutilleux cycle.

Morlot, who became friends with the aged composer after meeting him in 2001, understands that sensual perfection of timbre and sonic weight is essential and yet represents only the exterior of this music. These qualities certainly abounded, but even more impressive was the sensual logic Morlot elicited in this account: the sense of organic interconnections, the metabolism of musical ideas both within a given paragraph and across the symphony’s span. 

There was a Bartók-like hint of mystery in the opening gestures (featuring Michael Crusoe’s sensitive work on timpani and clarinetist Ben Lulich, an auditioner for the principal chair), and the symphony — subtitled Le Double on account of its “twinning” of a chamber ensemble with the larger orchestra — progressed as a sequence of alluringly posed enigmas — even amid the vernacular, jazz-tinted references of the finale. The Dutilleux scholar Caroline Potter, who writes of the composer’s remarkable sensitivity to the visual arts, suggests an affinity between this work and the famous Gauguin triptych Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, which Dutilleux visited in Boston while revising the score. 

Despite the concerto grosso ancestry of Dutilleux’s unusual division of his orchestra, the coloristic effect  of the “doubling” suggesting nothing neo-Baroque but instead conjured a series of eerie aural doppelgängers — a further enhancement of the mysterious aspect of this last work Dutilleux chose to label a symphony.

But the mystery was given a most enchanting clarity by virtue of Morlot's sense of pacing and textural gradation. A similar strategy enlivened his reading of the complete ballet Daphnis et Chloé, the most ambitious work in Ravel's similarly slim catalogue.

Without the aid of the accompanying ballet, admittedly, the score's repetitive elements are mercilessly in the spotlight, but Thursday's performance captured its varied moods with such sparkle and vivacity that I was continually wonderstruck by the wealth of Ravel's orchestral wizardry. It was a nice touch to include a simultaneous projection of the entire scenario, detail by detail, by way of unobtrusive surtitles. The audience could follow as desired and ignore them easily enough to concentrate on the music if they preferred. 

The mercurial jump-cuts from erotic dalliances to marauding pirates to pagan theophanies reminded me at times of the effect of classic cartoon music – which I don't mean in a belittling way but rather as an example of Ravel anticipating a later aesthetic (something which this score may be said to share with the earlier Till Eulenspiegel of Strauss). Morlot drew on all these facets, embracing Ravel's delicious humor as well as his most numinous passages. The wordless Seattle Symphony Chorale (prepared by Joseph Crnko) didn't quite match the precision of attack of the instrumentalists, but contributed significantly to the atmosphere.

As with the Dutilleux, the Ravel afforded a savvy way to showcase the excellence of individual players across all of the orchestra's sections (as opposed to going the safer route of an outside star in a concerto). Whatever strategies prove necessary to keep our orchestrals vibrant and relevant in a challenging new century, Morlot and the Seattle Symphony are clearly on the right track.