In his closing appearance as Music Director, Ludovic Morlot placed an emphatic fortissimo ending on an eight-year tenure that has placed the Seattle Symphony on the global map. His innovative leadership and inventive, often risk-taking programming have stirred the musicians to new heights and artistic growth, earning kudos that include multiple commissions and world premieres, recordings on their newly created Seattle Symphony Media (SSM) label, and five Grammy Awards, culminating in being named Gramophone’s 2018 Orchestra of the Year.

In recognition of the Maestro’s unique connection to the city’s community, the audience at this performance sent him off with an ovation that showed him an almost fathomless appreciation and affection.

Maria Männistö, Ludovic Morlot, Ludovit Ludha and the Seattle Symphony © Brandon Patoc
Maria Männistö, Ludovic Morlot, Ludovit Ludha and the Seattle Symphony
© Brandon Patoc

Morlot conducted a program that was just as adventurous as others that have marked his tenure. Starting with Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde was a bold move. His interpretation evoked the French “ni vous sans moi, ni moi sans vous” sensibility of the piece, the Roman de Tristan et Iseut expression of the drama, leaning in to emphasize the composer’s unprecedented use of chromaticism, but with a genteel refinement. Separating the Prelude from the Liebestod by inserting Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande Suite was an intriguing choice.

The two major French works on the program showed that Morlot not only knows this music but was born to it: a perfect way to conclude his tenure with the orchestra. Since Debussy himself insisted on only full performances of his one and only opera, it was up to others to create a suite from it. Romanian-born composer Marius Constant’s arrangement captures the opera’s most heartrending moments and familiar, beloved melodies quite seamlessly, with a minimum of fragmentation.

Morlot created a dreamy, romantic atmosphere and drew a luminous sound from the orchestra, translucent yet veiled in its subtlety, bringing out Debussy’s luxe colors and floating tones and allowing the listener to bask in the shimmering score.

Partly inspired by the poems of Henri de Regnier, as well as various paintings – including James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s series of the same name – Debussy’s Nocturnes survived an aloof audience response at is premiere in 1901 to become one of the composer’s most popular works. The three movements are contrasting in character, yet homogeneous in their Impressionistic ambiance.

With its always arresting beginning, clearly evoked in Stravinsky’s Rossignol, and an ethereal ambiance similar to that of Debussy’s Pelléas, Nuages depicts the unhurried motion of the clouds against the undeniable majesty of the sky. Creating ambiance is one of Morlot’s specialties, which he has consistently demonstrated over his years with the orchestra. He never disappoints in this regard, and this particular interpretation was marked by extraordinary delicacy.

By contrast, Fêtes awakens the senses with dynamic, active rhythms, which fold into and swirl around a festive procession. Morlot transitioned from the mad chaos of the holiday festivities in the Bois de Boulogne to the military-like trumpet march with expansive authority, enabling his musicians to play at full tilt. They reveled in the opportunity, producing rich, exciting sounds passed from winds to strings to brass and back again, highlighted by the energetic rendition of the orchestra's excellent trumpets. The use of the fresh, pure voices of the Northwest Boychoir instead of the usual women’s voices heightened the magic of Sirènes.

Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony © Brandon Patoc
Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony
© Brandon Patoc

Morlot’s great love for the music of Leoš Janáček motivated him to program the oratorio/cantata The Eternal Gospel (Vecné Evangelium). Scored for full orchestra, chorus and soloists, the piece was written about ten years after Janáček’s most celebrated opera, Jenůfa. Based on texts by Czech poet Jaroslav Vrchlický, the work espouses an ardent belief in the power of universal love: an appropriate reflection of the deep fondness between Morlot and his orchestra.

Gospel begins with a concerto-like violin solo, glowingly played by concertmaster Noah Geller. The work presented multiple solo opportunities for him, and for the richly burnished string sound of the orchestra to shine throughout. The piece progresses into operatic phrasings and melodies, evoking the pungent atmosphere so intensely portrayed in Jenůfa, as well as in Janáček’s other operas. Morlot’s sincere interpretation of text and orchestration filled the hall with an almost heavenly light.

Soloists Maria Männistö and Ludovit Ludha’s passionate renderings provided the inspired spiritual evocation required by Janáček’s ample score. Ludha’s voice seemed especially well suited to the range and timbre of the piece, and cut through the huge orchestration effectively. One would have liked to hear more of Männistö’s lovely singing than her few limited phrases.

Morlot, who has been named Judith Fong Conductor Emeritus for his transformational role with the orchestra, will return in two years. There is no doubt that both orchestra and audience alike with await his arrival with fervent anticipation.

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