Comme ci, Comme ça: Seattle Symphony Delivers Three French Works

Claire Biringer
Posted on December 14, 2015, 12:56 pm
8 mins

Seattle Symphony’s winter line-up includes all the usual players: a yearly Handel, Beethoven’s 9th on New Year’s Eve, their annual Holiday Pops concert. And yet, Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra snuck in one unassuming non-holiday program on December 3-6, choosing an all-French program (much like their season opener) featuring one of the more modest Requiems of the classical repertoire—that of Gabriel Fauré.

Ludovic Morlot. Photo by Sussie Ahlburg.

Ludovic Morlot. Photo by Sussie Ahlburg.

French music from the turn of the twentieth century tends to be delicate and subtle, a soothing contrast to bombastic Austro-Germanic masterworks (think Beethoven, Mahler). You can almost see a meticulous tug-of-war in Seattle Symphony’s programming, in the midst of a two-year Beethoven cycle, which bows to the German-saturated symphonic canon, but is yet led by a French conductor whose love of his nation’s more understated composers is evident in the tenderness with which the symphony performs them. Morlot’s insistence on keeping the French identity of the Symphony alive is especially obvious in the holiday season—the overstimulation, cheery tropes, consumerism, all with a Bing Crosby and Beethoven backdrop–and in so doing, he reins in our fervor and makes a much-needed space for Debussy’s naturalistic swells and the heavenly lightness of a French In Paradisum.

The program began with Debussy’s Danses sacrée et profane, a piece for orchestra and solo harp. Seattle Symphony Principal Harpist Valerie Muzzolini Gordon exquisitely handled the melodic phrases amidst Debussy’s wash of lush exploratory harmonies. The composition is one movement in two main sections, moving from an atmosphere of serene reverence, through a chromatic transition to conclude with variations on a lilting Spanish-inspired, triple-meter dance. That Debussy composed this around the time of his symphonic masterpiece La Mer is no surprise: The orchestra provided a swelling oceanic backdrop to Gordon’s dance-inspired melody, and the piece came to a sweeping, glissandi-filled conclusion.

Seattle Symphony Principal Harpist Valerie Muzzolini Gordon. Photo by Yuen Lui Studio.

Seattle Symphony Principal Harpist Valerie Muzzolini Gordon. Photo by Yuen Lui Studio.

Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi was slated to follow the Debussy piece on the December 5 performance, but due to the incapacitation of featured soprano soloist Jane Archibald, Ravel’s La Valse was substituted (to disappointed exclamations from the crowd). Morlot and the Symphony attacked La Valse with vigor, diving into the circus-like waltz and perfectly accentuating the piece’s registral and dynamic range. Though the performance did not exhibit the same amount of polish as the Debussy­–most likely due to the hasty substitution–the orchestra was exuberant and rhythmically precise, and obviously having a ball. On a program whose composers tend towards the sweet softness of tender instruments like the harp and violin, La Valse provided the perfect opportunity for the brass section to blare amidst the composition’s tongue-in-cheek cacophony.

Seattle Symphony Chorale joined the SSO onstage for the final work, the Fauré Requiem, along with baritone soloist Nicolas Cavallier and substitute soprano soloist Cyndia Sieden. This seven-movement setting of the Mass for the Dead eschews the typical fire-and-brimstone of canonic Requiems (think Mozart’s Dies Irae) and instead offers a more repentant, reassuring tone to the peaceful Latin texts (Lux Aeterna, Pie Jesu, In Paradisum, etc.)—plenty of light, peace and eternal rest, apt for Fauré’s tender and colorful musical vocabulary.

Because of the subtlety of Fauré’s compositional style, the Requiem is a work that demands the same type of nuance and emotion in its performance. While the Symphony orchestra infused each note with intention, passion and precision, the Chorale was not able to harness the beauty locked within Fauré’s simplistic and stripped-down choral writing. The effect, when done with purpose and sensitive phrasing, can be spiritual and positively haunting, reminiscent of chant and stunning in its refusal of more operatic passages. Instead, I found myself distracted by the imbalance between the choir’s sections and the lack of strength in their solo passages. Though the Chorale did muster some stunning moments, it was at the few points of fullness and filled-out harmony, more akin to how one would perform Mozart or Verdi’s Requiem. It is obvious where the Chorale’s comfort zone is, and their lack of versatility was detrimental to the performance.

Similarly, Cavallier and Sieden were unimpressive; Cavallier’s weighty baritone, though achieving a few gorgeous lows, was not able to achieve the sensitive expressivity needed for the soloist’s passages. Cavallier’s résumé boasts many operatic credits, including several productions of which I am quite fond (Seattle Opera’s 2014 Don Giovanni, for instance), and his tone lends well towards the Figaro’s and Giovanni’s for which he is best known. However, these roles are a far cry from the subtle reverence of Fauré. Seattle-based soprano Cyndia Sieden, though more versatile and sensitive in tone than Cavallier, appeared meek in both her stage presence and phrasing capabilities (though after the uninspired singing from the Chorale, Sieden’s opening leap in the Pie Jesu was breathtaking).

Despite the vexing imbalance in performance between the choral and symphonic sides of the Fauré, the piece did come together thanks to Morlot’s expressive leadership and the precision of the orchestra. It paled in comparison to the quiet unassuming beauty of the Debussy and La Valse’s exciting raucousness, but altogether, the program provided an opportunity for introspection while reasserting the ensemble’s current Francophile identity.

It often seems the Symphony’s true talent lies in their perfections of the smaller orchestral gems, rather than polishing the larger canonic works. To corroborate this belief, in the past week, Seattle Symphony received three Grammy nominations for their second Dutilleux album and a $50,000 donation from Taylor Swift, who was inspired by their performance of John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean­. Morlot and the Symphony do fabulous work with the unrepresented and underperformed works. Check out their upcoming performances of lesser-known works, like John Adams’ Scheherazade.2 (Untuxed on March 18) and their Celebrate Asia program (January 31).

Claire Biringer
Claire Biringer is a Seattle-based music lover, educator and writer. She holds an MA in Music History from University of Washington, where her primary research involved contemporary opera and its social implications. She enjoys using music and writing to build communities and broaden minds.

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