As always, Seattle Symphony's Conductor Emeritus Ludovic Morlot chose a thought provoking and unusual program for his first return to the Benaroya stage since 2019. Long enraptured with French Baroque music, British composer, pianist and conductor Thomas Adès channels the 17th and 18th centuries in his Three Studies from Couperin (2006) for chamber orchestra, with his arrangements of the French composer’s Pièces de Clavecin.

Ludovic Morlot conducts the Seattle Symphony
© James Holt | Seattle Symphony

The sparsely orchestrated couplets in the first movement, Les Amusemens, reflect the voices of the harpsichord, with charming Baroque turns, alto and bass flutes adding unusual interest. Next, Les Tours des Passe-passe (Sleight of Hand), focuses on instruments in the upper registers: violins with harmonics and pizzicati to impart quirkiness and delicacy; and Rototoms, 20th-century drums with metal frame and no shell. Copland-like complex rhythmic bites add to the contemporary atmosphere. The final L'Âme-en-Peine (The Tormented Soul), is languid and heavier, with emphasis on the lower strings, alto flute, and bass drum. Morlot underscored the subtle dissonances and elegance of all three pieces with understated gestures and some appealing dance movements on the podium.

Claude Debussy’s Danses sacrée et profane (1904) is written for solo harp and strings. The equivalent of a small-scale concerto, the piece is in many ways the ne plus ultra of harpists. The first Sacrée dance evokes a primeval religious fervor. The second, “Profane”, signifies the opposite of sacrée: sensual or worldly. Seattle Symphony Principal Harp Valerie Muzzolini gave a flawless performance. She displayed the full range of Debussy’s creative instincts for the instrument, such as the shimmering opening chords and open harmonies of the Sacrée section and the spirited figures and technical challenges of the Profane dance. Morlot brought his special magic and intimate understanding of the subtle nuances and textures of this French master to his interpretation.

Valerie Muzzolini performs Debussy's Danses sacrée et profane
© James Holt | Seattle Symphony

Frank Martin had a fondness for the ballade genre, which he initially wrote for one solo instrument with piano, then orchestrated later. His Ballade for Flute, Piano and String Orchestra (1939-41) combines delicate, passionate interchanges with brisker, power-driven music. Principal Flute Demarre McGill played as if born to the piece. His lyrical abilities and impressive virtuosity were on full display, especially in the demanding cadenza. The introspection of the opening phrases was sensitive and plaintive, rendered with a lovely tone, particularly in the upper register. As the piece gained momentum, McGill articulated cleanly, and played around engagingly with the rhythmic complexities.

Demarre McGill performs Martin's Ballade
© James Holt | Seattle Symphony

Most of Honegger’s somber Symphony no. 2 in D major for strings and trumpet ad libitum (1942), which also features beautifully played solos for principal cello and viola, reflects the turmoil of World War 2. With his usual finesse, Morlot brought out the many dynamic contrasts. In the opening Molto moderato, he emphasized the poignancy of the repeated Passacaglia-like repeated phrases in the cellos and brought out the sudden contrast in the upper strings in the Allegro section. The second movement, Adagio mesto, embodies deep sadness. One hears the immense wretchedness and gloom of the war years in the heartbreaking melodic lines of the violins and countermelodies in the lower strings. Morlot accentuated the push and pull of the composer’s profound emotions.

The third movement, Vivace non troppo, provided the opportunity for continuous contrast in its alternating sequences of rapid piano and forte passages. Morlot inspired the appropriate amount of frenzy, poignancy and edge-of-night hopelessness, without becoming overly morose. A last-minute battle cry of hope couched in a Bach hymn was well-played by the solo trumpet, appropriately positioned in the organ loft for Baroque effect. 

This performance was reviewed from the Seattle Symphony video stream