Seattle Symphony Takes a Space Trip
July 18, 2012
United States Ligeti, Strauss, and Holst: Women of the Seattle Symphony Chorale, Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot (conductor), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 12.7.2012 (BJ)
Billed as “An HD Odyssey,” this program could be seen as beginning a new age of space exploration for the Seattle Symphony. Or perhaps not.
Adding visual elements to orchestral music is a risky business. It can sometimes add to the fun—but there is surely something inherently perverse about the idea of illustrating Holst’s suite The Planets with depictions of the said heavenly bodies. The NASA-derived visuals projected on a screen above the orchestra at the Seattle Symphony’s final concerts of the season were handsome enough, but they had nothing to do with the music, which is concerned with the Zodiacal and mythological associations of the planets: the purview is astrological rather than astronomical.
Aside from that, the pacing of the pictures clashed with that of Holst’s musical invention. His seven movements cover a wide range of tempos and rhythms; that variety, however, was stultified when, as each movement began, yet another big round thing commenced its stately progress across the screen.
Ludovic Morlot conducted with obvious commitment to the artistic matter in hand. There was plenty of fine playing to be heard, along with moments when the maestro seemed to be distracted and the orchestra’s focus, in consequence, to be weakened.
The first half of the program was clearly designed to reinforce the space-exploration message. The two works it comprised, Ligeti’s Atmosphères and Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, both featured—if in the latter case only fragmentarily—on the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick’s celebrated 2001: A Space Odyssey. Morlot ran the two pieces together, which was quite an effective idea. But though Ligeti’s piece was strongly played, the Strauss lacked the last degree of concentrated eloquence, and its ending came across as a touch prosaic, with little control exercised over the supposedly triple-piano woodwind dynamics—difficult, I know, but you need to get closer to ppp than this.
Altogether, then, despite the fascination of the music programmed, the concert could not be rated one of Morlot’s most successful. Still, it should not be allowed to deflect attention from his achievement in this, his first season as music director. He has given the Seattle audience some admirably creative programming, and many fervent, polished and even brilliant performances. Gerard Schwarz was a hard act to follow, but Ludovic Morlot has shown himself to be up to the challenge.