A Primer in the Romantic Spirit from Seattle Symphony via Good, Old-Fashioned Programming

Posted on November 05, 2016, 9:32 am
18 mins


The Seattle Symphony Orchestra (SSO)’s sixth season with Music Director Ludovic Morlot has so far included a pair of electrifying programs that paired world premiere commissions by composers of today with Beethoven classics—the latter part of an ongoing two-year cycle of the composer’s complete symphonies and piano concertos.

This week’s program follows the conventional scheme of an overture as mood setter, a concerto spotlighting a hotshot soloist, and a big symphonic work—all the creations of ultra-familiar composers. The drive toward innovation in programming is both needed and wholesome, but it’s also interesting to see that the “old-fashioned” approach doesn’t have to be rejected. It can still be fresh and effective on its own terms.

But simply piling one warhorse next to another can easily make for mindless ritual. Thursday night’s performance (November 3) confirmed one of the central tenets of Morlot’s directorship: the importance of thoughtful programming, of encouraging the listener to make connections between pieces that are presented side by side, much as a curator organizes the content in a special exhibition for maximal impact. It’s part of an overall philosophy of wanting to engage with the classics by treating them as our contemporaries—which also means recognizing this experience is going to be the first encounter, for a certain portion of the audience, with say, music by Berlioz or even a Tchaikovsky symphony.

So how do Morlot and the SSO contextualize what they present? This program comprised an early overture by Hector Berlioz, the (only) Violin Concerto by Jean Sibelius, and the Fifth Symphony by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. You don’t even have to know the standard throughline of modern European music history—the story of how Romanticism flourished in the post-Beethoven era and held sway until into the 20th century—to experience how each of these works is desperately invested in communicating with their audience, in pulling the listener aside and saying something that needed urgently to be said. If that message seems to be something as blandly generic as “the triumph over fate” or “crisis followed by resolution,” the reality is actually too thrilling and abundant to be boiled down to that. And even if there were a program or story or painting to go along with the score—and for the Sibelius and Tchaikovsky, there isn’t—this music continues to enthrall today because no synopsis can get at what the details and process of the notes “depict” when they are played in real time.

Moreover, this wasn’t just a program of Romantic favorites carelessly thrown together. The contextualizing I referred to is something that occurs on multiple levels and is geared toward varied levels of audience, from first-timers to aficionados with many experiences with the repertoire. For instance, the juxtaposition of early Berlioz from 1826 (the year before Beethoven’s death) and late Tchaikovsky from 1888 might at first sight seem merely to reinforce the concept of an “evolution,” one of the biases of a linear narrative of music history. But in effect Morlot’s programming interrogates and challenges such notions. To hear these two works played with such intensity on the same evening suggested another way of thinking about “before” and after”: here was Berlioz at the very start of his career already figuring out some of the same rhetorical tools that a composer as different as Tchaikovsky would draw on near the end of his. If you wish to dig deeper, there is also the realization that both Tchaikovsky and Sibelius drew fondly on Italianate lyricism, which poses a challenge to stereotyped descriptions of Russian “melancholy” or “Nordic coolness.” There’s even a layer of reference to what Morlot and the SSO have explored over past seasons, so that they continue to weave a network of new connections and associations for local audiences.

So here were three composers “doing” Romanticism in remarkably distinctive ways, each set apart from the other and from their contemporaries—and yet each score played as if it had just come in from the composer’s studio, commission finished and ready to go. Berlioz’s Overture to Les francs-juges (The Judges of the Secret Court) gave an opportunity to hear another installment in Morlot’s ongoing engagement with a composer for whom he has shown great affinity. One of his most successful interpretations with the SSO in the past season was of Berlioz’s sublime “dramatic symphony,” Roméo et Juliette, aspects of which this early overture anticipates.

Les Francs-Juges was the ambitious young Berlioz’s first major effort in opera and dates from when he was still a student (having defied his father’s wishes to obtain a medical degree and chosen music instead). For his subject, he turned to the then-fashionable fiction of Sir Walter Scott. A friend converted this material into a Gothic drama set in medieval Germany about a young protagonist who confronts a society of “secret judges” and who, after a Da Vinci Code-like twist, is rescued (as in Beethoven’s Fidelio) just as he is about to face a gruesome ritual execution. Berlioz eventually abandoned the project and destroyed most of the score, though he did recycle some of the music in his trailblazing Symphonie fantastique several years later.

The overture comes across as a densely packed tone poem, though the only details of the drama that are really pertinent are the Gothic gloom, an inevitable love object and rivalry, and the final rescue. Morlot brought out both the sense of a young artist discovering his voice and the powerful dramatic instinct that is so central to Berlioz. We heard tantalizing hints of the eccentric genius to come, alongside the astonishing confidence of the twenty-something composer. And, like so many young artists of genius, Berlioz tries to cram too much into his score: the Overture to Les Francs-Juges suffers from overkill, bouncing from one idea to the next and then attempting via climactic counterpoint to literally tie them all together. The same happens with the voices he’s processing, in order to find his own: the muscular morality of Beethoven, the serene lyricism of Mozart and Gluck, generous doses of preceding French composers little heard today but associated with the French Revolutionary period.

Morlot just accepted this almost chaotic overgrowth as part of the terrain, making the most of the score’s spellbinding and even experimental character, which already demonstrates Berlioz’s interest in spatial sound effects. The brass—upper and lower, the entire body—sounded spectacular, with principal trombone Ko-Ichiro Yamamoto leading the section in a passage of oppressive pomposity, representing the hero’s nemesis and the band of evil judges. Climactic moments relied on a kind of stacking effect against churning strings that look ahead to Tchaikovsky at his most emotive. There’s an interesting historical link, too: Near the end of his life, during a tour of Russia, the ailing Berlioz met the young Tchaikovsky. The latter came to find the already legendary composer’s music deeply flawed, but he studied and clearly profited from Berlioz’s famous textbook on orchestration. One of the Russian composer’s mentors tried and failed to convince Berlioz to compose something based on Lord Byron’s dramatic poem Manfred; years later, Tchaikovsky was asked to take up that very project, which resulted in his vastly underrated Manfred Symphony (1885)—a kind of missing link between his Fourth and Fifth Symphonies.

The SSO has been developing an enviable reputation for its Sibelius in recent seasons, under both Morlot and Principal Guest Conductor Thomas Dausgaard, whose conducting takes a markedly different approach (but that’s for another story). Dausgaard in fact led them in a memorable complete symphony cycle in the spring of 2015, which included a performance of the Violin Concerto (with soloist Pekka Kuusisto).

Sergey Khachatryan. Image courtesy of Seattle Symphony.

Sergey Khachatryan. Image courtesy of Seattle Symphony.

Morlot’s soloist is the young Armenian violinist Sergey Khachatryan, a colleague with whom he clearly enjoys making music. He’s chosen Khachatryan to perform in concertos that have programmed alongside John Luther Adams’s Become Ocean, one of the SSO’s most widely acclaimed projects in the Morlot era. At the world premiere of Become Ocean in 2013, Khachatryan played the First Violin Concerto of Shostakovich, and at Disney Hall in Los Angeles in 2015 he gave a stirring account of the Beethoven Violin Concerto with Morlot guest conducting the LA Philharmonic (including the LA premiere of Become Ocean).

Khachatryan gave a deeply compelling, concentrated performance of the highly challenging Sibelius concerto. It was the International Jean Sibelius Competition that put him on the map (in 2000), and he has developed an approach to this work that is profoundly personal and communicative. The visual demeanor onstage of this thin, wiry, ascetic, black-clad violinist corresponded to his no-nonsense approach: inwardly focused on the music, its technical hurdles never a matter of showmanship but a means to intensify the expression. His signature here was elaborately calculated phrasing that goes right to the heart of the matter: whether in his opening statement, carefully building from a state of quiet resignation to impassioned fullness over the first few minutes, or in the transportive slow movement’s melody.

I especially admired Khachatryan’s ability to mold long paragraphs, each variant of the material sounding like an organic outgrowth of what had just been heard, and what was to come. His low register was dark-hued and rich, his musicality unwavering in focus. If the exchange with the SSO was less active— and ever so slightly out of sync at moments—compared, say, to last week’s chamber-like interplay from Inon Barnatan at the keyboard—Morlot helped compensate with expert micro-adjustments of tempo and sustained attention to the symphonic argument of Sibelius’s score. The finale evoked something elemental, even shamanic. Buzzing low strings and the patterns set by Assistant Principal timpanist Matt Decker provided an evocative backdrop for Khachatryan’s solo part. Its absurd demands were never allowed to obscure the vivid urgency of his playing. How does one rate the sincerity of a Seattle standing ovation? If the goal is to coerce the soloist into an encore, the audience failed on Thursday night—yet it’s hard to imagine any element of disappointment after such an exhaustive performance.

Occupying the program’s second half was the Fifth Symphony in E minor by Tchaikovsky, which Morlot noted is intended “to serve as a prelude to a more complete focus on the symphonies of Tchaikovsky in the future”…although, come to think of it, he’s already conducted the SSO in a fair amount of Tchaikovsky to date. It was interesting to hear this in the context of the ongoing Beethoven cycle. After an impressively vibrant Eroica in his opening weeks as Music Director, Morlot remained more or less middle-of-the-road with this core part of the rep: too cautious at times, less architectonically convincing at others. So it’s been a joy to watch his confidence build and to see his Beethoven catch fire of late—in the Symphonies 1, 2, and 8 so far this season, along with the Third Piano Concerto.

Thursday’s Tchaikovsky Five seemed to take off from that level of confidence, but it also showed a problematic focus on local events over the big picture, over the build-up of large-scale tension, which made me wonder how much the conductor in the end buys what the Russian wants to sell. How invested is he in Tchaikovsky’s subtextual narrative of struggle, self-pity and victory snatched from all the suffering, or—as I hinted earlier—is that “triumph over fate” trope even a sensible way to be thinking about what’s going on in this music? While Morlot’s Beethoven is showing more and more an identification with what the music seems to be saying—and an attendant eagerness to convey that—I sensed a layer of skepticism in the Tchaikovsky.

Which isn’t to say the performance was by any means lacking in beauty and excitement. As for those local details, Morlot and the SSO were at their best, a virtuoso sonic machine capable of whipping up a corporate frenzy, and delivering the tiny nuances in dynamics that are Morlot’s way of spicing otherwise bland blocks of repeated material. You heard his admiration for Tchaikovsky’s expert orchestration—in the despairing gloom of the slow introduction, now seeming to echo the Berlioz, and in the blissful flowering of the famous Andante melody, where Jeff Fair brought golden legato to his French horn solo. Tchaik Five is almost a Concerto for Orchestra in spots, with windstorms of strings and elaborate woodwind traceries that featured fantastic work from the entire section: Jeffrey Barker (flute), Mary Lynch (oboe), Ben Lulich (clarinet), and Seth Krimsky (bassoon).

And those details added new polish to a familiar score: again, kudos to Krimsky for bringing out a subtle rhythmic flair to the waltz rhythm dominating the third movement, where the stopped horns sounded particularly arresting—a hard-to-identify threat amid this resting rock of peace, framed by the tempestuous emotional extremes of the outer movements.

For all its epic expanse, in this account the Fifth was most alluring in those imaginative details and least convincing in the stentorian climaxes. The work ends in triumph, but I was most moved by the plunge into the lower depths into which the first movement sinks at the end, in a foretaste of Tchaikovsky’s final symphony, the Pathétique.

Seattle Symphony Presents: Music of Berlioz, Sibelius and Tchaikovsky

Conductor Ludovic Morlot with soloist Sergey Khachatryan

When: Saturday and Sunday, November 5 and 6

Where: Benaroya Hall (200 University St)

Get your tickets and see the schedule here.


Thomas May writes about the arts for a wide variety of publications. His books include Decoding Wagner and The John Adams Reader and he blogs at www.memeteria.com.