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By Rosemary Ponnekanti
If the full house at Benaroya Hall last Saturday night was expecting something new from the Seattle Symphony’s brand new director Ludovic Morlot, they certainly got it. The young Frenchman opened the SSO’s 2011/12 season and his own reign as artistic director with the kind of energy that promises an exciting new era for the orchestra: contemporary music, creative twists and an honest informality that backs up Morlot’s mission to reestablish the SSO as an orchestra for the whole city.
Beginning, appropriately enough, with Beethoven’s Overture to “The Consecration of the House” (written for a new theater opening, but just as good for a season opening), Morlot showed his classical chops in a rendition that was firm but not martial, energetic but not rushed. Savoring every harmony, rhythm and dynamic like sips of fine wine, Morlot seemed to revel in the golden brass, crystalline strings and bell-like winds, while the orchestra was quick off every mark.
Joshua Roman, former SSO principal cellist, came back to an obviously adoring crowd as soloist, after a rather talkative 15 minutes by Morlot. Backing Roman for Gulda’s cello concerto were the winds and brass, plus drum kit, electric guitar and bass – the 20th-century Austrian composer was as equally fond (and proficient at) jazz as classical, and the concerto’s five movements skipped through style after style like a tour du monde as well as tour de force. Whether twelve-bar blues, Schubertian andante, oompah waltz, Renaissance villanelle or marching band with virtuoso cello obligato, Roman and Morlot were having a blast on the podium, wearing matching fezzes in homage to Gulda’s eccentricities.
But apart from the clever, semi-improvised cadenza, which took in everything from street tango to the Marseillaise, the concerto didn’t highlight Roman’s subtlety of tone and emotion as much as his encore, the finger-pickin’ “Julie-O” by Mark Summer.
After intermission came Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” and Ravel’s “Bolero,” two chestnuts given a new perkiness by Morlot (now changed back from tie-less gray suit to tails.) Like fast cuts in a film, the conductor danced over the well-worn melodies with swift enthusiasm, pulling and pushing the orchestra like taffy and bringing out the sheer whooshes of traffic noise. And the orchestra responded with excellently soupy bassoon and trumpet solos, and the entire violin section grooving to the syncopation.
For the “Bolero” Morlot brought his snare drummer to the podium – a move often done in rehearsal but brilliant in performance, as the insistent beat takes the literal forefront over the familiar melodies. Here the stand-out soloists were a delicately teasing flute, liquid oboe d’amore and pointy E-flat clarinet – with an embarrassingly out-of-time sax nearly wrenching the whole thing apart.
As Morlot pulled the usual conductor trick of lowering the baton halfway through, he followed it with something more unusual – walking down to play violin for the seconds. The musical tapestry expanded with admirable control until Morlot picked up his stick for the inexorable finish.
Not only was the audience obviously delighted with this short but ebullient new director, but it seems – from a season peppered with modern and crossover works, a new free ticket system for youth and the plainly relaxed enthusiasm of the orchestra – that the rest of Seattle will be too.