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Review: Masterworks of Shading, Nuance and Light at Seattle Symphony

30th September, 2018

The season’s all-French second Masterworks program at Seattle Symphony was sheer pleasure for the listener, who could bask in subtle changes in harmonic colors and light which throughout threaded the concert at Benaroya Hall Thursday night.

It began with one of the newer French composers to come to the fore: Marc-Andre Dalbavie, born 1961, the title of whose “La Source d’un regard” can be translated variously but could be “The source of a glance.”

It’s anchored by very long slow notes which act as the lingering, shimmering effect of melodic lines above, such as the four notes at the start. Moments come in different instrumental colors, shadings and volume, but all through there are gentle draperies of sustained sound underneath somewhere. A sudden agitated section with loud high trumpets, later other brass and at times sudden bangs from the drums comes in but not for long. The general effect is one of shifting colors, enhanced by the absence of vibrato which made all the colors more immediate, brighter. The 16-minute work was absorbing to hear as played with insight from music director Ludovic Morlot and the SSO, leaving one feeling bathed in light.

There’s no doubt the origins of “La Source” stem from a French composer, so it was no wrench of gears to turn to Ravel and later Debussy in this program.

Scottish pianist Steven Osborne joined the orchestra for Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major. This may be his first performance here, but let’s hope it won’t be his last. The Scots have for centuries had a close connection to the French and there was no doubt as to Osborne’s understanding and inside feel for the concerto. He played with exquisite shading and nuance, closely in tune with Morlot and the orchestra, his hands often caressing the notes from the keys yet with all the sudden huge mood swings from softer to loudest and back.

It was notable that he brought the most energy to loud notes in the way he lifted his hands off the keys rather than the force with which he hit them. It’s a sunny, cheerful piece, with hints of jazz, almost with a Stravinsky-esque start (think the carnival atmosphere of Petrushka), and Osborne brought all of that out. The long piano soliloquy at the start of the second movement rippled like a gently dreaming river, in Osborne’s hands continuing serenely as other instruments joined in, particularly flute, mostly as comment, and a complete contrast to the last very fast light movement.

Osborne after much applause, returned for an encore, announcing, “This is a really fun orchestra to play with!” It was “My Foolish Heart” by Bill Evans (or as he put it, “95 percent Bill Evans, five percent Steven Osborne”).

The rest of the concert continued on this very high level of beauty, realized so well by the orchestra under Morlot. Early Debussy came next, his Printemps from 1887. The sense of burgeoning life came through clearly from hushed beginnings to lush life under Morlot, with principal viola Susan Gulkis Assadi’s offering a long sensitive solo. There was the same sense of quietude at the start of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe Suite No 2. In his hands both these works made one think of the outdoors on a spring morning.

Both Ravel and Debussy emphasize flutes for melody and accents and through this concert both principal flutist Lamarre McGill (Dalbavie and Daphnis) and assistant principal Jeffrey Barker (Debussy and the piano concerto) played with fine nuance and lovely shading, as well as with the fierce energy required by McGill toward the end of Daphnis.

 

30 September 2018
Philippa Kiraly / The SunBreak