By Philippa Kiraly, Special to the Sybaritic Singer
Two French composers, Joel-Francois Durand and Marc-Andre Dalbavie, were at Benaroya Hall Thursday night to hear their works played by the Seattle Symphony under Ludovic Morlot; one was a world premiere, the other a flute concerto composed in 2006 which has been well received and performed, though this is the first time in Seattle.
Durand is on the faculty of the University of Washington, but his new work, composed on commission from the Symphony is unmistakably French in flavor. Called Tropes de: Bussy, Durand takes five Debussy piano Preludes as his palette, orchestrating them and gradually transmogrifying them into something different though with fleeting quotes from Debussy appearing and disappearing.
There’s an atmospheric feel to Tropes throughout. Often haunting and usually fairly soft, it has a dreamy, otherworldly sense, partly because there is often no overt rhythm, more curtains of sound which change color with sharper fragments embedded. Yet each of the sections is distinct from the one before. In one part, there’s a sense of quick marching steps which come and go with staccato accents from brass, wood blocks and others dropping in. It’s a jaunty cacophony, alternating with drifting tones.
Another part has high, muffled sounds, very quiet, maybe the footsteps in snow from Debussy which was Durand’s jumping off point in this, suddenly broken by high, piercing and raucous screeches. Later, it goes back to a slithering feel—slipping on snow? At the end comes a brief snippet from Debussy himself playing the piano on a 1912 recording—extremely well remastered.
The whole work is full of these colors, a kaleidoscope though not one which shouts at you. It’s more impressionistic, more subtle than that, and was well received by the audience.
Dalbavie’s flute concerto requires a first-class soloist, and the Seattle Symphony has one, principal player Demarre McGill. Spectacular is not the word as the concerto is not one of bombast, more one of lightness, but the flute comes in within the first measure with runs up and down the instrument at warp speed and rarely stops for the full 17 minutes of the work, the movements of which morph into each other without a break.
While the orchestra is a full partner, not merely an accompaniment to the solo part, it nevertheless never competes but plays at a slower rate, the agile flute like an obbligato role on the top. McGill’s fingers flew so fast it seemed they must get tangled up but of course they never did, and his part fluttered and flew. At times the runs were smooth, at others McGill played with lightly separated notes. In much of it, the flute part gave the impression of butterflies, but towards the end it felt more like hummingbirds as the music hovered or darted in quicksilver manner, sometimes with McGill using a tonguing technique. Trumpets, gongs, bells and other percussion added color in the orchestral part but, as in the Durand, there was a sense of wafting sound with added patches of accented colors.
It was an absorbing experience to hear, and a great addition to the flute concerto literature.
The first three quarters of the program, which began with Ravel’s Ma Mere l’Oye (Mother Goose Suite) was entirely modern French, recognizably so with all three works having the subtlety and nuance which have been a hallmark of French music for the past century and more. The Ravel was the perfect work to start the program, with delicate, colorful depictions of familiar fairy tales. Morlot, who is in his last months as music director at the orchestra, gave us a gift with this program. His love and understanding of his French musical heritage come out in the way he programs French music, some familiar, some not, some new, some not, and how he presents it to us, the audience, so that we can appreciate it.
Mozart’s 40th symphony completed the program. Composed in D minor, it can be interpreted in a dozen ways from pain-filled to joyful. Morlot’s interpretation was anything but morose. It was full of light and cheer, though not elegance: it had more power than that. But it was clear and crisp, most string musicians playing with only restrained vibrato and sometimes none, a fine end to a program which let the audience with plenty to think over and absorb.
Philippa Kiraly has writing classical music criticism since 1980, for several newspapers in northern Ohio and Seattle, magazines, both local and national, and blogs. She is passionate about the importance of independent criticism for the fine arts, an art in itself which is dying with little interest by many publications and no longer a viable career for most. But writing for tickets is always worthwhile!
Pippa is a keen gardener, a keen grandparent, and can get lost in a good book.