The French-born conductor Ludovic Morlot was a surprise choice to succeed Gerard Schwarz as music director of the Seattle Symphony in 2011 – a liaison that appears to be going smoothly. Three months after arriving in Seattle, he subbed for James Levine in the Boston Symphony’s California tour, proving to be a skillful driver of that luxury vehicle.
He returned to the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall Thursday night with a typical Morlot combination, counterbalancing standard repertoire – Beethoven's Fifth Symphony – with something enterprising and contemporary.
In doing so, Morlot commemorated the 97th birthday (Jan. 22) of Henri Dutilleux – now probably the dean of the world’s major contemporary composers – by programming his fascinating, enigmatic “The Shadows of Time.”
The piece is supposed to be a remembrance of the Holocaust refracted by the passage of 50 years, a reference made specific by the inclusion of three children’s voices who sing in French, “Why us? Why the star? [the Star of David].”
Yet it’s not a particularly grim piece; its gliding wind clusters and brass voicings have a sensual elegance and a sheen typical of Dutilleux, and the colorful scoring in general – illuminated with dazzling clarity in this hall – softens any psychological blows.
The Philharmonic’s collective institutional memory was strong enough – having played “The Shadows of Time” previously with Esa-Pekka Salonen (who also coupled it with Beethoven symphonies) in 2005 – and Morlot led with vigor and the ability to relax and shape its curves.
Emanuel Ax often comes around these days with big, finger-busting concertos, but this time, he trotted out Mozart’s less imposingly scaled Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major, K. 503, with a direct, crisp, virile touch and a bit of a swing in the pulse at times, using Alfred Brendel’s erudite first-movement cadenza. Morlot’s distinctly non-period-performance accompaniment got the majestic element while keeping things mobile.
On to Beethoven’s Fifth, a piece so familiar and so often played that someone would have to come up with something extraordinary to make a big impression with it these days. Morlot basically played it through at standard tempos, with no mishaps or eccentric interpretive decisions, good rhythm, unanimous ensemble. It was just fine, though falling short of thrilling.
Los Angeles Philharmonic with Emanuel Ax and Ludovic Morlot: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown L.A. 8 p.m. Saturday. $83-$123. (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com