The Seattle Symphony has been stirring up lots of attention of late. Its recent 'Sonic Evolution' team-up with the hip-hop legend Sir Mix-A-Lot* elicited much silly pontificating by would-be cultural gatekeepers across the internet – the vast majority of whom complacently passed judgement without having actually been present for what was essentially a fun, one-off experiment.

Ludovic Morlot © Chris Lee
Ludovic Morlot
© Chris Lee


In any case, such cranky jeremiads have only distracted from the real issue. The SSO is showing all the signs of being on the verge of a breakthrough moment in its history. Indeed the past few months have brought the ensemble far more exposure than usual (an appearance at Carnegie Hall, a concert for the League of American Orchestras, the launch of an in-house label): its appetite for new challenges seems unstoppable.

So it's hardly surprising that music director Ludovic Morlot is concluding the current season with an all-out marathon of orchestral virtuosity. The programme of Stravinsky's three pre-First World War ballet scores for the Ballets Russes in their entirety lasts close to three hours and, out of necessity for the players, requires two intermissions. It drew what appeared to be a close-to-packed house.

No matter how well we think we know this music, the opportunity to hear the young Stravinsky's three iconic ballets back to back is bound to prompt new perspectives. And Morlot's deeply sensitive interpretation of the uncut, sumptuous score for The Firebird (1910) did precisely that – all the more so since, only two weeks before, he'd led the SSO in the complete Daphnis et Chloé, also for the Ballets Russes, which was premiered in 1912, the year between Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913).

Moments of uncanny similarity to the Ravel (above all in the joyous layering-on variations of the very final scene) evoked thoughts of the larger aesthetic at work in Serge Diaghilev’s ambitious productions. The late-Romantic roots of Stravinsky’s world seemed to coexist with rather than contradict his modernist badge of honour.

One of Morlot’s most impressive strengths is his feeling for music’s spatial depth, his ability to draw out the polyphonic layers of colour and incident in a given passage in a way that clarifies without compromising their richness.

As in their recent account of Daphnis, the SSO played with exquisite polish and delight in the variety of tonal gradation. You could sense how closely they’re listening to one another, building on or responding to the phrasing a colleague had just produced. The performance moreover gave a de facto demonstration, seemingly, of the entire possible range of this ensemble in their home. Listeners stifled their coughs to appreciate some spectacularly tapered pianissimos.

For Daphnis, Morlot had used surtitles to discretely recount the scenario moment by moment. For The Firebird, the longest of the three Stravinsky ballets (and not far behind Ravel in its duration), there was no need. Morlot’s fluid pacing of events contained all the dramatic excitement needed and brought home just how much we lose out by encountering this ballet as it usually is in the suites, shorn not only of so much music but even of some of its orchestration (which Stravinsky later deemed too excessive). The lovely music for the intercession of the princesses, for example, enhances the contrast with the ogre Kashchei’s menace.

The playing in Petrushka overall tended to be somewhat less focused than in Firebird. What seemed to dominate was the context for the puppet-play, the tumbling surround of carnival barkers, dancing gypsies, and walking bears. Morlot had a way of letting us settle in to a given close-up so that Stravinsky’s sudden cross-cuts became all the more surprising. In fact, the score’s technique of transitionless montage actually seemed more radical than the revolutionary aspects typically attributed to The Rite of Spring.

And when, after a second intermission, the time arrived for that landmark, Rite frankly did sound drained of some of its power. Perhaps this is partly from overexposure after all the centennial Rite rites of last year. Certainly the musicians could be forgiven for suffering fatigue after such animated playing in the other two ballets. But I found this account a good deal less bouleversant than when Morlot led his orchestra in Rite nearly three years ago (on his very first subscription concert here).

It was intriguing to be made freshly aware of Rite’s cousinage to the other ballets — especially, in this case, to Firebird, whose "Infernal Dance" actually seemed more seismically unsettling. To his credit, Morlot allowed passages that are sometimes short-shrifted as 'transitional' to blossom with all their mysterious colours, particularly in the details of the intertwined woodwind writing within the introduction to “A Kiss of the Earth” and in the hallucinatory textures opening the second part.

Yet even if the programme as a whole lost momentum by this final act, in general it proved that the SSO has reached a new level of confidence and technical refinement in its playing. Anyone who worries that rethinking the orchestra's role in its community and its programming philosophy will cause it to abandon its core artistic mission has little grounds in this case for worry.

 

*'Shaking Booty with the Seattle Symphony?' at Thomas May's blog Memeteria.

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