The Seattle Symphony lit up Benaroya Hall with their 2015-16 Season opener on Saturday, September 19, with a savvy program featuring only American and French composers. This programming gives a nod to the fusion of cultures embodied by the Symphony this season, as the organization takes on Ludovic Morlot for his fifth year as conductor and introduces renowned pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet as this year’s Artist-in-Residence.
A glamorous and highly enthusiastic audience greeted the orchestra, who began Saturday’s program with a grandiose rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner, per American symphonic tradition. The concert remained within American boundaries until intermission, with Morlot and the Symphony following the national anthem with Bernstein’s Overture to Wonderful Town, performed with breakneck speed and raucous enthusiasm. Originally functioning as a preview of the themes and songs to come in the ensuing musical, the 1953 piece follows a gleeful mashup of ‘30s jazz and pop styles. Smoky lyrical melodies contrast with tongue-in-cheek fanfares with little transition, evocative of an extremely distracted but perfectly synchronized big band. The piece was executed with flair and a touchingly palpable sense of joy; our Symphony’s passion for collaborative music-making is never more evident than on opening night, when the need to definitively share one’s art is finally granted after the summer hiatus.
Canadian-born Kevin Ahfat, the just-announced winner of the Seattle Symphony Piano Competition, joined the Symphony in a victory lap for the second piece of the evening. Demonstrating remarkable finesse and precision, Ahfat featured the celebrated American composer Samuel Barber in a rendition of the final movement from his Piano Concerto Op. 38. A bold choice in repertoire, Barber’s concerto perfectly highlighted Ahfat’s sense of musical style, as his fingers both hammered and glistened over the keys in his performance of the breathlessly challenging movement. Ahfat is poised to become one of the young heirs of the classical piano realm, with a bold, boundary-pushing, millennial style matched by refined execution.
Aaron Copland’s Suite from Appalachian Spring closed the first half of the evening; despite Morlot’s charming spoken introduction to the piece, it stood as a safe and unremarkable performance. Originally conceived of and performed as a contemporary ballet in the mid-1940s, the piece—to me and to everyone else in the hall, judging by the audience’s coughs and rustles throughout the eight continuous movements—falls flat without the visual stimulation of choreography and the quaint storyline meant to accompany the music. The symphony evoked Copland’s Americana imagery of wide-open landscapes and idyllic homestead living with fabulous balance and seamless execution, but the score is not enough to capture the imaginations of a forward-thinking modern audience, and the first half of the concert came to a lackluster end.
Enter Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Camille Saint-Saëns. The second half of the concert infused Benaroya Hall with Romantic French Orientalism. The history and the appropriation behind this style is unfortunate, but putting that aside it is lovely, replete with Middle Eastern scales and “exotic” flair, with all the excess of Romanticism—equal parts ferocity and sensuality. Morlot and the Seattle Symphony instantly rid the hall of any post-intermission lull with the fiery intensity of Saint-Saëns’s Danse Bacchanale, originally a ballet sequence in the opera Samson et Dalila. Painting a French portrait of Scheherazade-like enchantment, complete with a fabulous musical culmination almost single-handedly accomplished by the fury of the percussion section, the Symphony’s performance was riveting and rousing, a French mirror of the Bernstein piece that opened the concert. In fact, it is easy to draw programmatic parallels between Danse Bacchanale’s furious and undulating intensity and the theatricality of Bernstein’s lively Wonderful Town Overture; the short attention-grabbing nature of each one is the perfect way to start a program and set the tone for the upcoming set.
Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 5 (the “Egyptian”) closed out the program, and featured Thibaudet in an exquisite interplay with the Seattle Symphony. Gliding onstage to roaring applause, the fluidity with which Thibaudet composes himself is evident in both his composure and his superb performance; the keyboard transformed into a seascape beneath the waves of his fingertips, and the oceanic voyage evoked in the Egyptian Concerto came to life. Though all three movements were individually dazzling, the ominous suspense, rhythmically disjointed passages and wary “cricket” chirps of the second movement were especially captivating, while the third movement wound through several energetic themes before ending with a rousing fanfare français. All moments of the piece were technically and sonically stunning, but the sheer force of the “Egyptian” is overwhelming; though the audience was astounded by the performance, I felt as though they were also shell-shocked by the length and density of the piece.
As if in perfectly-timed reaction to this, Morlot, Thibaudet and the Symphony brought Ahfat back on stage to join them in a jaunt through Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals finale, a programmatically appropriate encore whose duel-piano scoring and earworm of a main theme ended the night with a shot of cheerful orchestral levity.
The evening continued with the Seattle Symphony Opening Night Gala at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel, in honor of longtime Seattle Symphony donor Ann P. Wyckoff. The Symphony raised an unprecedented $785,000 through their silent auction, an impressive 28 percent increase from last year’s Gala. Proceeds will benefit the Symphony’s programs for music education, mentorship and community engagement. In all, Seattle Symphony’s Opening Night was a rousing success—a touching celebration of the French and American collaboration, the power of music-making, and young musicians like Kevin Ahfat and the many others who will benefit from the Seattle Symphony patrons’ generosity.