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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, March 23, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 12
A French evening falls a little short
Arts & Entertainment
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A French evening falls a little short

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Xavier Phillips with the SSO
March 17
Benaroya Hall


This all-French concert was, surprisingly, not the most successful of conductor Ludovic Morlot's programs since he became music director of the Seattle Symphony. Although the performances were more than fine, the placement of Bohuslav Martinu's 'The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca' between works by Dutilleux and Ravel made the heavily over-orchestrated Martinu suffer by comparison. After the exquisite orchestrations of Debussy and Dutilleux, the Martinu sounded over-blown, over-loud, and messy. Indeed, the opening moments came almost as a shock: so noisy!

The program began with an ideal reading of Debussy's 'Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.' Demarre McGill immediately seduced us with the slinking lines of his golden flute. As the sections of the orchestra gradually joined in, the delicacy and blending of the sounds couldn't have been more beguiling. Balances were perfect throughout. Debussy's special harmonies and French sensuality made for a terrific beginning of what looked to be an exciting evening.

Skillful orchestration continued to please the ear as Morlot led soloist Xavier Phillips and the orchestra in Henri Dutilleux's Cello Concerto, 'Tout un monde lointain.' Twenty-seven minutes long, the work runs through five 'movements' without a break. Likewise the cello is singing almost the entire duration. Phillips, regarded by the 96-year-old composer as the ideal soloist for this work, was indeed the master of both his 1710 Matteo Gofriller cello and of the many challenges of this exceedingly complex piece. Even though my ears failed on first hearing to understand what the composer might have been saying, the constant variety of interesting textures and rhythmic changes kept me interested. So skilled was the writing that the large forces never swamped the cello sound. The audience responded with great enthusiasm, especially for the soloist. Conductor Morlot prefaced the Martinu with a short lecture on the frescoes (shown during his talk on a large screen above the orchestra) that inspired the composer. I very much appreciate when an artist can offer such articulate help when presenting seldom-heard works, but this time I failed to make much connection between the frescoes and the music that followed. I found the work, as indicated earlier, a weak point in an otherwise engaging concert. Even though both the Martinu and the Dutilleux employed large orchestral forces, the latter was translucent and articulate, whereas the Martinu was bloated and hard to penetrate.

With Maurice Ravel's 'La Valse,' we were back in the hands of an orchestral master, and Morlot knew how to make the most of the piece. Beginning at the threshold of hearing, this sophisticated work wove its webs through sonic changes that danced delightfully through buoyant ecstasy to something much darker and more menacing. The SSO sounded resplendent and powerful. A glorious way to end a concert!

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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