Conductor Emeritus Ludovic Morlot continued his tradition of innovative programming with works both enchanting and inventive

By: Jun. 05, 2023

On May 19, 1886, Camille Saint-Saëns conducted the premiere of his Symphony No. 3, Op. 78, commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society in England, nicknamed the “Organ Symphony” for the instrument’s prominent role. Saint-Saëns was one of many composers, Berlioz and Wagner among them, who were in thrall of Franz Liszt, to whom the Organ Symphony was dedicated.

Seattle Symphony Conductor Emeritus Ludovic Morlot continued his tradition of innovative programming with works both enchanting and inventive. Included with the Organ Symphony were Claude Debussy’s early cantata, La Damoiselleélue (The Blessed Damozel); Correspondances for Soprano & Orchestra by Henri Dutilleux; and La Barque solaireperformed by its composer, French organist Thierry Escaich.

La Damoiselle élue, for soprano and mezzo-soprano soloists, 2-part female chorus, and orchestra, dedicated to Paul Dukas, premiered in Paris in 1893. Based on a lyric poem after Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Damoiselle was Debussy’s entry in the Prix de Rome and his first orchestral work to be performed, which he described as “a little oratorio in a little pagan mystical note.” Morlot’s interpretation was true to both characteristics which, along with the sensuality and ethereal atmosphere that he elicited from the orchestra, embodied the delicacy, grace and audacity that some critics had welcomed from the composer.

The voices of soprano Jane Archibald (the Damoiselle) and Mezzo-soprano Sarah Larsen (the Récitante) worked beautifully with the transcendence of Debussy’s lush score. Morlot created a shimmering, heavenly sound, especially from the strings.

While music director of this orchestra, Morlot championed Dutilleux’s music and recorded numerous of the composer’s works on the Grammy-winning, in-house record label Seattle Symphony Media (/article/BWW-CD-Review-Seattle-Symphony-Morlot-Pay-Homage-to-Henri-Dutilleux-20160811). The combined effort resulted in several recordings released between 2014 and 2016.

Correspondances (2003), a 6-part song cycle for soprano and orchestra with texts by Rainer Maria Rilke, Prithwindra Mukherjee, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Vincent van Gogh, stands out for its Debussy-like sensuousness: more dissonant, highly challenging technically for the orchestra, but as Impressionistically atmospheric as La Damoiselle élue, with elements of Berg and Schoenberg. It is one of Dutilleux’s most thought-provoking works, and a star vehicle for the soprano.

Jane Archibald

Gong I, the brief 1st movement (Rilke), establishes an atmosphere of mystery and introspection, allowing expressiveness for the soprano and rich timbres for the orchestra. Movement 2, the highly rhythmic Hindu-inspired Danse cosmique, begins stealthily and further along evokes some of the declamatory solos from serialist works such as Berg’s Lulu, with subtle references to Messiaen. Archibald negotiated the leaps and flourishes adeptly, her top notes sparkling against the large orchestration.

After an enigmatic Interlude featuring an intriguing solo accordion juxtaposed with a virtuoso tuba solo, the next movement, À Slava et Galina, follows with Solzhenitsyn’s touching letter of gratitude to Rostropovich and his wife and muse, Galina Vishnevskaya. A Bergian narrative, beautifully rendered by Archibald, unspools against a mysterious Scriabin-like violin solo and virtuoso passages for the winds, ending with Archibald’s beautifully hushed tones. A piccolo solo introduces movement 4, Gong II, in which the soprano weaves a sinewy melody against a ghostly orchestral background.

The fifth movement, de Vincent à Théo, provided a golden opportunity for Archibald to show her star power. She outdid herself, building upon increasingly difficult passages to interpret the lively, rhythmic energy of this movement, until the final, spectacular high note.

Despite the work’s elusiveness, mystery and profound sadness, Dutilleux himself expressed joy at having the work premiered at a late juncture in his life, age 88. With his deep connection to the composer, Morlot was in his element conducting this highly complex score, bringing out the orchestral voices prominently, yet supporting the soprano’s most demanding moments.

Benaroya Hall’s 4,489-pipe Watjen Concert Organ is considered one of the finest in America. Escaich, recognized as one of the most important French composers of his generation and a uniquely talented organist, was the perfect artist to bring out the magnificence of this superb instrument.

Thierry Escaich

 Escaich’s works are characterized by their rich harmonies and driving rhythmic energy. The symphonic poem La Barque solaire shows the influence of Ravel, Messiaen, and, appropriately for the program, Dutilleux. The work is a wild ride, a virtuoso tour-de-force for the organist, with its hugely dissonant, rapid-fire passagework and ever-accelerating velocity, as if on its way to a far-off galaxy. Escaich showed himself master of what he has written, with forceful, impressive technical command. Morlot ably kept up with the pace, controlling the challenging technical demands of the score with impressive skill.

Saint-Saëns guaranteed his immortality by writing his unique Organ Symphony, which Morlot recorded with the orchestra in 2014 during a live performance along with three works of Maurice Ravel. Morlot’s captivating live rendering of the work guaranteed a dazzling cap to this all-French evening.

Morlot started the 1st movement Adagio with gentle introspection, combining an atmosphere of mystery with expansiveness. The tempo of the Allegro moderato was quick and urgent, with Morlot demanding ever increasing passion from the players.

The Poco adagio 2nd movement was exquisitely delicate, the strings and winds perfectly balanced. The transparency Morlot evoked from the strings created a magical atmosphere. The following Presto was spirited, aggressive yet subtle, always moving forward, paving the way for the Maestoso 4th movement.

Escaich, who has performed the Organ Symphony internationally, showed he could adeptly transition from the extreme modernity of his own work to the high romanticism of Saint-Saëns: deeply reflective in the somber Poco adagio 2ndmovement and truly majestic in his final, last movement hurrah. Morlot carried out the tradition with a majestic final finish that pleased the audience—and not unlikely, the composer himself.

This was a hugely demanding program, and Morlot and his musicians together produced an awe-inspiring accomplishment. Kudos to the maestro for familiarizing the audience with some unique, rarely heard works juxtaposed with a time-proven favorite.

Photo credit: Nick Klein


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