Morlot debuts with charisma, substance

Joshua Roman
Seattle Times

By Bernard Jacobson

Saturday evening was Ludovic Morlot's first Benaroya Hall appearance as the Seattle Symphony's new music director. The gala occasion may have been more about charisma than about substance, but there was certainly plenty of the former in evidence, along with a refreshing absence of high-art stuffiness.

The young maestro opened the proceedings with words of thanks — in notably fluent English — to everyone he could think of, including the often-unheralded stage crew.

At the other end of the program, a fine performance of Ravel's "Bolero" sported a telling touch of showmanship. Here, for a few go-rounds of that hypnotic tune, Morlot exchanged the podium for a spell at one of the violin desks, before stepping up again to take charge of the final volcanic catharsis — and the unwavering way the players, with Michael Werner starring on snare drum, held the pace on their own was indicative of the Seattle Symphony's excellent orchestral discipline.

The most substantial piece of "serious music" on the program was Beethoven's "Consecration of the House" overture. Chosen aptly enough for the start of a music directorship, it received a splendidly lithe and well-shaped performance.

Apt too, and witty, was the selection of Gershwin's "An American in Paris" to inaugurate the sojourn of this Frenchman in Seattle. Morlot found some musical substance in it, and drew appropriately juicy playing from the orchestra at the melodic high points.

The evening's concerto was Friedrich Gulda's for cello, scored for an orchestra of woodwinds and brass with one double bass and a small rhythm section. As a pianist, Gulda (1930-2000) was noted for his stylistically insightful playing of Mozart and Beethoven.

His own compositions, however, stand closer to the world of jazz and pop, so that his concerto was an appropriate vehicle for former principal cellist Joshua Roman, who has been carving out a crossover career. Playing brilliantly, he had fun with the work's freewheeling amalgam of Poulenc-esque zaniness, Respighi-ish nostalgia, Schwertsik-like Alpine evocations (beautifully played by the horns), and manic-Sousanic raucousness.

Wowed again by charisma, the audience clearly loved it, and was rewarded with an encore in the shape of Turtle Island String Quartet cellist Mark Summer's "Julie-O."

Along with the evening's many pluses, there were one or two minuses. Former principal flute Scott Goff retired at the end of last season — his successor, Demarre McGill, made an impressive debut — and concertmaster Maria Larionoff's departure was announced a few months ago.

But unexpectedly, and for undivulged reasons, John Cerminaro also has left the orchestra, after serving with enormous distinction for more than a decade as principal horn. He will be sorely missed.

I hope Morlot will reconsider his reseating of the orchestra when he comes to conduct the major classical and romantic works that really need the violin sections split left and right. And Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony, performed this week, will be the first big test of his interpretive chops.

But in this gala setting, at the very least, he impressed hugely.