With the seemingly boundless D major chord that ends Mahler's Third Symphony as final benediction, the departing audience encountered a series of suspended chimes in gentle tintinnabulation: part of a recent installation in Benayoya Hall's grand lobby by Trimpin, Seattle Symphony's composer-in-residence.

Ludovic Morlot © Chris Lee
Ludovic Morlot
© Chris Lee
Trimpin's Above, Below, and In Between, an interactive, 'kinetic' sound sculpture that was activated by the crowd's motions, supplied ideal accompaniment to reenter the 'real world' for listeners who had just been borne aloft by Mahler's symphonic cosmos. Here, in another form, was the universe set to music, an array of inanimate objects pulsating with the life of sound.

The Trimpin made for a magical transition, underscoring the aura of wondrous enchantment that emerged as the central focus of Ludovic Morlot's interpretation. This was Morlot's first time leading the Seattle Symphony in Mahler's Third, the final programme of his fourth season with the orchestra. (The SSO had not undertaken the work since 2007, though they played the Third in four different seasons during preceding music director Gerard Schwarz's lengthy tenure.)

Morlot's previous encounters with Mahler symphonies in Seattle (the Fourth and the Sixth) have been decidedly mixed. Overall, this first (of only two) performances of Mahler's most epic symphonic canvas showed a marked advance in confidence, along with an impressive facility for conveying the vast array of timbral contrasts so essential to the trajectory of the Third.

Morlot motivated the musicians to shape an admirably cohesive and thrilling ensemble in the stormiest passages of the immense opening movement (designated 'Part One' by the composer). At the same time, he afforded ample space for the score's signature extended solos. In both aspects the performance succeeded as a sort of 'state of the union' demo of the SSO's current high level of playing.

Principal Jeff Fair led the pack of eight horns with determination, and Ko-ichiro Yamamoto brought an eloquent note of solemn elegy to his monumental trombone solos, the second of these adumbrating the longing for the human voice that becomes a sub-plot of the first three movements (leading up to the actual entry of the voice to sing Mahler's setting of Nietzsche's Zarathustra poem in the fourth). Across the work, concertmaster Alexander Velinzon contributed warmly expressive solos - sadly marking the end of his time with the orchestra, since he will return to the Boston Symphony in the fall (a serious loss for the SSO). 

Indeed, at various points I wondered whether this Third betrayed too much polish -- particularly in the first movement. Morlot seemed to benefit from his recent work conducting Charles Ives in delivering the great intruding march passages with maximal clarity of texture and tempo, but what went missing was the sense of chaos threatening, of the frightening aspects of Pan's awakening that are only just held at bay. Similarly, the echoes of this panic in the third and sixth movements should have felt more terrifying -- as if what had been gained by these respective points were on the verge of being forfeited.

What stood out was Morlot's loving attention to the enchanted innocence of Mahler's soundscape: the blossoming of the second theme in Part One, the fragrant trimbral combinations and grace of the second movement, the beautifully prepared boys' and women's choirs in the fifth -- their 'bimm-bamm' refrain revealed as a variant of the oscillating cradle-motif that pervades the Third. 

Morlot refused to short-change the inner movements (especially the second and third), dwelling respectfully on every detail and eliciting a well-judged effect in the third by having trumpeter David Gordon positioned at the back of the hall for his 'posthorn' solos. In the Nietzsche movement, Mary Lynch's arresting rendition of the oboe's upward glissandi resembled the calls of a mysterious bird, evoking memories of the woodwind cries from the first movement. As the soloist, mezzo Christianne Stotijn impressed with the warmth of her voice, though she failed to impart the oracular urgency of Mahler's setting.

In short, for all the massed sonorities and scale of the Third, it was the chamber intimacy and detail of many passages that proved most captivating in this account. The ethereal string chorale that opens the final movement -- Mahler's evocation of the force of love crowning the Third's 'chain of Being' -- might have been produced by a string quartet, and each of the movement's tolling climactic points was rendered with a clear-eyed lucidity. In general, this was a view of Mahler's epic less as a metaphysical struggle for the light than as a concatenation of moments of wonder, each valid in itself.