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Prokofiev, Martin, Dvořák, and Haydn: Ludovic Morlot, conductor, Ben Hausmann, oboe, Seattle Symphony, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 24.10.2009 (BJ)

France seems to be producing some remarkably talented young conductors these days. Almost exactly two years ago, Stéphane Denève, music director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, made an impressive Seattle Symphony debut with a program highlighted by a superb performance of Images, from Debussy’s Ibéria. This time it was the turn of Ludovic Morlot, who has been widely admired in both European and American musical centers, and who brought a beautifully designed program running from Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, by way of Martinç’s Oboe Concerto and three of DvoÍák’s Legends, to Haydn’s Symphony No. 88.

Unfussy of gesture, and conducting without baton, Morlot showed himself to be a true leader, bringing both dynamism and subtlety to bear on the music, and drawing some particularly refined playing from the orchestral strings. This being one of the weeks when many members of the orchestra were doing duty a few miles further north in the Seattle Opera’s Traviata production, several of the principal chairs were occupied by deputies or guests, but nothing about the results demanded any leniency in critical judgement. Indeed, Susan Carroll led the horns to splendid effect, contributing several superb solos of her own, and the gorgeous theme of Haydn’s slow movement was seductively delivered by guest principal cellist and oboist Eric Gaenslen and Shannon Spicciati.

This Haydn fully justified its place as conclusion of the program–it’s always a pleasure to encounter a Haydn symphony, not summarily disposed of as a sort of inconsequential curtain-raiser, but at the end of the evening, where the composer’s greatness has the opportunity to make its full effect. Morlot led a performance both sprightly and sensitive. It was essentially an interpretation informed by modern concepts of “historically informed” performance practice. The minuet, for instance, was taken at a healthy, one-in-a-bar clip, duly relaxed a touch for the delicious trio, which made it the more surprising that the repeats in the da capo were not observed as is the best contemporary practice. But without more than the tiniest holding back of tempo, Morlot did manage to make the main minuet theme’s final return something of a real event, and he was to be equally successful in managing the wonderful, witty transition that repeatedly postpones one of the thematic returns in the finale.

Both here and in the Prokofiev, where a nicely leisurely tempo for the first movement enabled the subordinate theme for once to live up to its “con eleganza” marking, Morlot was consistently stylish and expressive. He supported the Seattle Symphony’s excellent principal oboist, Ben Hausmann, eloquently in Martinç’s finely crafted concerto for the instrument, and brought ample warmth to Nos. 6, 7, and 9 of the DvoÍák Legends, unpretentious music that certainly deserves an occasional hearing to round out our picture of that composer’s wide-ranging genius. Altogether, then, a highly accomplished local debut, and one that makes me eager to renew and extend acquaintance with Ludovic Morlot’s abilities.

Bernard Jacobson


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