WASO: Ludovic Morlot conducts Debussy and Rachmaninov

Perth Concert Hall

It’s been a week of French elegance for the WA Symphony Orchestra, with pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet and cellist Gautier Capuçon joining guest conductor Ludovic Morlot for the world premiere of a work by Swiss/French composer Richard Dubugnon.

The Friday night concert attracted capacity crowds eager to hear the international superstars and perhaps keen for an antidote to the grand German repertoire that has dominated the year. The buzz was palpable.

“Thanks for having me,’ Richard Dubugnon smiled from the stage as he introduced his new work. “The other two composers couldn’t make it.”

Debussy and Rachmaninov may not have been there in the flesh but Dubugnon referenced them and a multitude of other composers in Eros anthanatos, his fantasy for cello, piano and orchestra. In the hands of this much-awarded composer the smorgasbord of ideas wasn’t jarring; it was more like a tour through a house of many rooms.  The work was one large movement in 11 sections and opened with celeste and quivering high strings mirrored by the cello and piano. Moments later we were in vigorous polytonality which opened via a cello solo into the brass splats and grinding strings of funk rhythms (a nod to Dubugnon’s background as a string bass player and a child of the 70’s).

Richard Dubugnon
Richard Dubugnon, composer

The work was a fragmented, charismatic exploration as the title suggests of the primordial concept of Eros and its unifying power. Dubugnon took us through room after room of alluring ideas, giving glimpses of the angularity of Prokofiev, the floating harmonies of Ravel and the brassy confidence of Bernstein. Muscular rhythms built into several false climaxes and just when it was beginning to feel tedious there was a glittering flourish and it was over. There were plenty of opportunities in the transparent textures to appreciate Thibaudet’s impeccably clean, silken piano technique and Capuçon’s effortlessly resonant cello sound. The orchestral writing was often exposed and the orchestra acquitted itself well as the third party in the dialogue. The audience response was enthusiastic and long, rewarded by an intimate version of Saint Saens’ The Swan, played with immense delicacy by Capuçon and Thibaudet.

The concert opened with the picture-postcard charm of Debussy’s Images for Orchestra: Iberia. Castanets and strummed strings evoked the world of Spain while the sensual middle movement with its whole-tone harmonies placed us back in the hazy impressionism of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.

Morlot’s even-handed and understated conducting left the Debussy lacking direction but his approach came into its own in the linear melodies of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances. In this nuanced interpretation folk-like winds were embedded in wistful string melodies and spangled percussive climaxes contrasted with melancholic harmonies. In the finale Rachmaninov’s theme and variations around the Dies irae theme was given a swashbuckling contemporary feel.

It was a satisfying end to an evening that showcased the orchestra’s already refined sound imbued with a new lightness and clarity.