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The Seattle Symphony Orchestra brought in two guest artists this past Easter weekend. Well, three, in a sense, since one of the pieces in the concert was a premier. But more on that later.

The French conductor Stephane Deneve and British pianist Paul Lewis brought their talents to an appreciative audience that packed Benaroya Hall.

But the praise must be equally shared with the Seattle Symphony itself. They’ve coalesced around the fresh leadership of Music Director Ludovic Morlot, and their honeymoon, after three seasons, is still on. They were on target, following the conductor with verve and energy, and I don’t think it was just with the guest conductor. I noticed this cohesion earlier, when Morlot conducted the Symphony’s lead cellist in Dvorak’s great Cello concerto. The ensemble was tight and focused. I never heard a bad entry from the French horns either night (an all-too-easy mistake to make), which can only be attributed to hard work, caused by dedication and professionalism.

Former conductor Gerard Schwartz has a reputation as being a first-rate conductor, as shown by attention he received from his recent American Symphony Orchestra project. But, in simple truth, he overstayed his welcome with the SSO. At the time of his retirement, morale was low, generating much rumor-mongering, unrest and outright harassment.

Ludovic Morlot came in with a blast of fresh air, rejuvenating the members and building a renewed sense of camaraderie and teamwork. I first noticed that three weeks ago, when I saw the warmth and enthusiasm the orchestra gave to Efe Baltacigil’s breathtaking performance. That same type of support was on display again, not just with the guest soloist, but also when Maestro Deneve recognized individual soloists and sections for their contributions. The Symphony is definitely back and repaying Seattle audiences for their loyalty and patience.

Deneve began the concert with an explanation of the first piece, a US premier of The Death of Oscar, by the Scottish composer James MacMillan. While I certainly appreciated his explanation, I thought Deneve was going on much longer than necessary, until he got to his point: several patrons had commissioned this work, based upon a Celtic legend: the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra (who gave the piece its world premier); the Royal National Scottish Orchestra…and the Seattle Symphony. This was the reason the work was receiving its US premier here. The Maestro was making sure the audience would get the most for its money, and I promised myself to read the program more closely, since I had missed that in the notes.

The piece was short (10 minutes) but efficient, packed with a full range of orchestrations. The piece began with a somber, soft threnody–a song of lamentation for the dead–then swells, as the music flashes back to Oscar’s story, his historic victory over Irish king Cairbre, only to die later of his wounds. The piece moves steadily through the battle, with extensive percussion and brass, to end with a mournful dirge on the English horn. The piece was surprising: fresh, new, and displays a masterful sense of orchestration and composition.

The next piece was Beethoven’s Third Piano concerto. Lewis began with a light, delicate, almost ephemeral touch. This concerto marked Beethoven’s transition from the classical form into the more emotional romantic period, and Lewis handled the expressive passages with ease and confidence. The concerto ended with a bold, emphatic ending, and by then, Lewis had taken us along on his journey, and we were with him the whole way.

The second half was Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony. For this section, the great Steinway was finally off the stage, so we in front could watch the conductor, unhampered. Deneve likewise demonstrated his mastery of the material, and coached fine performances from the entire orchestra. All of the sections were bright, clear, and synchronized. From what I saw, Deneve has a more restrained style, nudging the different voices to deliver. In my opinion, Sergey Rachmaninov was the last of the great Romantic composers and this piece most definitely showed its Romantic roots, especially in the lush Adagio of the third movement, and the orchestra was definitely up to delivering the symphony in all of its complexities.

Although the evening rightly belonged to Deneve, his compatriot, Ludovic Morlot, left his imprint behind. The orchestra which Morlot built was capable and skillful, and they also enjoyed and respected Stephane Deneve as a conductor as well. The audience likewise was wildly enthusiastic about all three pieces (and, as noted before, the Hall was full–an occurrance becoming much more commonplace.)

The Seattle Symphony is on its way to Carnegie Hall next month. This concert proves them more than ready. New York, watch out.

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