Melinda Bargreen | 15 AUG 2019
Ludovic Morlot’s eight seasons as Seattle Symphony music director (2011-19) will likely be remembered for two important repertoire directions: premieres by the American composer John Luther Adams (“Become Ocean,” “Become Desert”), and contemporary works of Morlot’s French countrymen, particularly Henri Dutilleux. The symphonic language of Dutilleux – with some interesting transformations – is a clear influence in this new Seattle Symphony recording of three concerti and an orchestral piece by Marc-André Dalbavie (b. 1961).
Dalbavie’s style goes beyond the evanescent and delicate textures one might expect, creating in these four works a sonic world of considerable diversity and complexity. The orchestral piece, “La source d’un regard” (2007), was composed as a tribute to Olivier Messiaen (the title refers to one of Messiaen’s most famous works, “Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus”), and a four-note motif from the Messiaen sounds in an opening series of vigorous statements in various orchestral sections. It pops up again elsewhere, amid the swirling colors and massed chords that gradually resolve and dissolve again. Dalbavie creates chord clusters from which a single note emerges and is leaned on, joined by more voices until a motif spirals upward. Halfway through the piece, there’s a change to more propulsive effects: louder, more brass, furiously active strings that subside, gradually winding down. String choirs introduce a more romantic element, then drums and brass follow the descending motif. The last minute of the work culminates in big brass and then silence.
That’s a lot to happen in 16-plus minutes, and it gives an idea of how slippery this music is to categorize. The same can be said for the three concerti that follow on this recording: the Oboe Concerto, with soloist Mary Lynch; the Flute Concerto, with Demarre McGill; and the Cello Concerto, featuring Jay Campbell. Two of the soloists – Lynch and McGill – are Seattle Symphony principals with distinguished resumes; the cellist, Jay Campbell, is an award-winning soloist and chamber player.
Dalbavie doesn’t make things easy for them. The concerti require all sorts of effects; multiphonics, extended techniques, and notes that stretch the normal compass for the wind instruments.
The Oboe Concerto opens with a scurrying motif hurtling downward in triplets, and frenetically energetic writing for the soloist with arpeggios that speedily ascend and descend throughout the instrument’s entire compass – like the rise and fall of some particularly tumultuous seas. A calmer section follows in which a repeated questing motif is answered by chords in the orchestra, gradually growing more agitated, and the finale brings a speedy ascent to the very top of the oboe’s range. Lynch, a skilled and adaptable player with a beautiful tone, makes the listener wish for more lyrical writing that would show off the expressive subtleties she draws from her instrument. She makes the most of the many colors of the Dalbavie score – trills, flutters, huge intervalic leaps, subtle variations in tone quality and emphasis, and strength at both extremes of the compass.
The soloist in the Flute Concerto, Demarre McGill, launches the performance with the almost frenetically active arpeggios rolling up and down the instrument’s compass. (Fast triplet figures seem to be one of Dalbavie’s recurring motifs.) After an orchestral response of majestic chords leads to the flute soloist again, a serenely lyrical passage with an angular melody line is answered by the brass. The flutist’s more tranquil progress is underlain by the edgy brass menace beneath the solo line.
McGill, a widely lauded artist who earlier performed this concerto in Seattle to warm acclaim, has a beautiful tone as well as speedy fingers. This tone is displayed to best advantage in a lovely and desolate section of the concerto, about nine minutes in: McGill plays the same note (an F-sharp) at least a dozen different ways, allowing us to appreciate the subtle beauty and variability of his sound.
A return of the opening up-and-down figures leads to a cadenza-like section where McGill plays further motifs around that same F-sharp. There’s some elegant flutter-tonguing, and a chance to marvel at the depth and strength of McGill’s lowest octave. The last section, with speedy arpeggios of extreme difficulty, ends with a final downward rush, with both soloist and orchestra hurtling down the scale as they suddenly disappear into silence. It’s the opposite of what you expect: the anti-bravura ending.
Flurries of scales up and down in the orchestra herald the entrance to the Cello Concerto, then soloist Jay Campbell plays dying-away glissandi on plucked notes. Gradually a motif starts up in the orchestra, leading to lots of scalar passages for the cello: up and down and always returning to a low D, over and over. Finally, after about 6-plus minutes of this, there is a quieter section, again repeating that D as a constant touchstone. More lyrical statements from the cello, while massed tone clusters in the orchestra form and invade, and we’re back to the D again.
Dalbavie gives us some lovely and contemplative lines from the cello against evanescent massed accompaniment figures in the orchestra, showcasing the soloist’s beautiful tone. A measured, stately cadenza starts on the low C and wanders the same angular path up and down; gradually massed, quiet chords from the orchestra intercede and retreat. There’s a spacious feeling, as if the players had all the time in the world. Soon the cello is on the move again, this time with intrusions from the orchestra, entering instrument by instrument. Another fresh start from the solo cello, again starting from the low C, and this time displaying Campbell’s lovely, opulent tone in searching passages that rise and fall, until the orchestra in a high state of agitation intercedes, with the winds flying around like flocks of surprised birds. More cello solo passages are built around arpeggios from the low C, up and down, going on perhaps a little longer than the material can sustain interest. The finale brings a shift to D minor and a big orchestral entrance with lots of massed chords.
Dalbavie is a superb colorist, and he manages to keep the scores just tonal enough for the comfort of today’s symphonic audiences while moving in more adventurous directions. There is a certain sameness of gesture: an inordinate fondness for speedy triplet figures in all three solo instruments, and – in the case of the wind players – a sense that he’s trying to push the soloists with so many technical challenges that the music gets lost. For the brave (especially the wind players), these concerti will probably become audition pieces, with which the auditioner can play the new-music card and show off superior technique all at once. For the listener, I find these pieces work much better separately, as they probably would be programmed in concert, than listened to all at once. ■