Conductor Ludovic Morlot made his debut with the Oregon Symphony last Saturday (November 19) at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, leading the orchestra in a program of music by French composers that ranged from quietly sublime to wild exuberance. For the first half of the program, Morlot, Music Director of the Seattle Symphony since 2011, delved into the beautiful subtleties and stately music of Claude Debussy and Ernest Chausson. In the second half he moved into the flashier realm, collaborating with pianist Stephen Hough in a brilliant performance Camille Saint- Saëns Concerto No. 5 (“Egyptian”) before concluding the evening with an stunning interpretation of Maurice Ravel’s “La Valse.”
Hough has made an award-winning recording of all Saint-Saëns concertos under the Hyperion label, and played the Egyptian Concerto with the Oregon Symphony in 2001. So it was perhaps no wonder that he would again give an impeccable performance of the Saint-Saëns with the orchestra once again. Right off the top, Hough fashioned immaculate runs that sparkled with joy and, augmented by the orchestra, created surging phrases that glowed with warmth. In the second movement, he accented the Nubian love song with voicing that sounded as if a woodwind was playing with him. He tore up the keyboard in the last movement, cruising through tricky rhythms and polishing the filigree with élan. After finishing the piece, Hough was recalled back to the stage several times by the audience, and he then transfixed everyone with a simple, quiet encore, Jules Massenet's "Crépuscule ("Twilight").
The orchestra under Merlot’s direction gave Ravel’s “La Valse” a luminous performance with outstanding attention to dynamics and nuances, such as accelerating quickly and slowing down straight away, to give the music a fresh spontaneous feeling. Wonderful glissandos from the strings, gliding woodwinds, cranking contra-bassoon (Evan Kuhlmann), and snappy sforzandos were expressed with a genuine spirit de corps. The instrumentalists kept a keen eye on Morlot, who, conducting the piece from memory, got so caught up in the music making that he dropped his baton and ended up using his elbows, shoulders, and head to accentuate the swirl of the waltz into a riotous finale.
Debussy’s “Cortége air de danse” from his one-act cantata “L’enfant prodigue” (“The Prodigal Son”) received a marvelously intimate performance by the orchestra. Delightfully languid phrasing by principal flutist Martha Long highlighted the delicate nature of the music, making many listeners wish that the piece wouldn’t end so quickly.
Chausson’s Symphony in B-flat Major opened somberly with Wagnerian overtones that were terrifically expressed by the orchestra. After the orchestra broke into a spring-like melody, it seemed that we were clearly taken into the heart of French Romanticism, but the beautiful sonorities of second movement, “Très lent,” were sleep inducing and caused many heads in the audience to bow before being awakened by a glorious brass choir and the timpani. Principal clarinetist James Shields principal trombonist Daniel Cloutier, and principal trumpeter Jeffrey Work deserved praise for their evocative playing in the final movement, which ended in a stately and subdued way that was anticlimactic. It was fun to hear the little snippet of melody that Dvořák may have lifted directly into his Ninth Symphony (Morlot pointed that out in his opening remarks). But Chausson’s Symphony made me wonder about the direction of the piece – where did the music intend to go?
Outside of the Ravel, Morlot conducted with an economical yet evocative style that seemed to connect well with the orchestra and the audience. It would be terrific to get him back with a program that would go beyond the boundaries of his homeland (he was born in Lyon).
PS: After exchanging email with Jim Fullan at the Oregon Symphony, I found out that name of the encore that Hough played. So I've corrected the review to reflect that.