Benaroya Hall, Seattle
A quiet revolution has taken place since Ludovic Morlot first raised his baton as Music Director of the Seattle Symphony in 2011. Over the past five seasons, he has championed the music of contemporary composers, with exceptional attention to French composer Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013). Morlot’s Grammy award winning CD project to record Dutilleux’s most important symphonic works with Seattle, of which the third disc was released on Aug. 12 on the orchestra’s Seattle Symphony Media label, has raised awareness of this composer, who until now has been relatively little known in the United States. As a result, musicians and audiences alike have begun to develop a keen appreciation of Dutilleux’s esoteric composing style.
The Lyon-born Morlot, who originally trained as a violinist in his native country, followed his passion for conducting at London’s Royal Academy of Music with the legendary Sir Colin Davis and subsequently studied at the Pierre Monteux conducting school in the US. Audiences and critics have delighted in the energetic, richly colored performances of the young maestro, now in his sixth season helming Seattle’s much-loved orchestra. From Beethoven to Berio, Mahler to Messaien, Morlot has covered a wide spectrum of repertoire with élan, elegance and intensity. Symphony President and CEO Simon Woods has praised Morlot for creating a transformation on stage and pushing the boundaries of traditional orchestral programming.
I caught up with Morlot in advance of the orchestra’s September 17 season opening to gain some insight into Morlot the maestro.
EM: After training in London with Sir Colin Davis, you were the Seiji Ozawa Fellow at Tanglewood. Do you feel that that fellowship paved the way for you to become assistant conductor with the Boston Symphony Orchestra?
LM: Very much. Sir Colin was principal guest conductor with the BSO for many years, part of the BSO family. In 2001 immediately after I was Seiji’s Fellow at Tanglewood he invited me to Boston to cover for a few weeks. So I was fortunate to be around him and Colin Davis. This is where I forged my relationship with Bernard Haitink, who became a very strong mentor for me, and also where I first met James Levine. Being his assistant led to really becoming a BSO family member over the years. I could name other ones. Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos was very much part of that family, Andre Previn, John Williams. It was a ten-year journey for me to become acquainted with, and really a protégé of all those people. Therefore it was almost a natural step to be invited to be officially assistant conductor of the BSO. But I must say Ozawa really opened the doors for me, for that relationship with the orchestra. That was still the time where you had live auditions for a conducting fellowship at Tanglewood. It was quite a stretch for me to come from London to audition for that. I frankly didn’t have much hope because I had no connection there. That audition is still very much present in my memory because I felt I was really treated as a musician as opposed to a candidate for a fellowship. I remember conducting Debussy and interacting with Maestro Ozawa at the level where he offered me a position as fellow, saying, “I will be privileged if you would consider coming and studying with me.” I was in my early 20s and suddenly I had this boost of confidence, which has been tremendously important for me to pursue that career, that life. I see those relationships as the ones that really made me believe that this could be something for me to do. Each one of those relationships have been in some way important to create that environment for me.
EM: So those mentorships really gave you the path to jump into conducting.
LM: Totally. It was also through those days and connections that I met Henri Dutilleux, for instance, whom I first met in Boston as we were working on the revision of The Shadows of Time.
EM: Not in Tanglewood but actually in Boston?
LM: Yes, at Symphony Hall. The BSO for me is possibly my most beloved love affair in music. Everybody I know, from Yo-Yo Ma to John Williams, Bernard Haitink, soloists, living composers - everything’s been created there, the. It’s been a very important part of my life.
EM: When did you first become committed to the cause of contemporary music? Did it start at Tanglewood with the Fromm Festival?
LM: Way earlier. As a kid as a violinist way before I started having aspirations to conduct, I was always very curious and interested, not only in performing music I didn’t know, but I would go much beyond that. In Montreal, for instance, being a member of the contemporary music group. In London, actually commissioning with very little money from my friends in the composition department. So I was always very curious to be involved with creativity and the process, because I felt being part of the process I could learn something about finding my own voice. I was always very eager to embrace as many influences as possible. It’s true with my mentors in conducting too. Many of my colleagues would have one or two mentors and their time with those. For me it was bigger. The more I could embrace the influences I received, the more chances I gave myself to develop an individual voice. It worked for me because I became really interested in individuality in musicians. There’s only so much good you can do copying someone who’s already brilliant. It’s an easier path to actually create your own voice and being the best at it. That’s what I’ve been pursuing.
EM: What have been some of your most significant contemporary music premieres that meant the most to you?
LM: A performance that was very important to me was the New York premiere with the New York Philharmonic of a piece by Tristan Murail, a wonderful French composer who was at the time head of composition at Columbia University. I was stunned to know that Tristan had been in New York for ten years heading Columbia University composition department and his music had never been performed at Avery Fisher Hall. So I made a big case for his piece Gondwana, which dealt with the supercontinent. It’s spectral music, which in two rehearsals is very difficult to accomplish with sophistication. But I pushed for this music because I believed it was not only overdue but I wanted to give it a start in people’s vocabulary. In the same program I remember doing La Mer and a piece by Messiaen. That became meaningful because I had to be an ambassador for it, even more so because I had to convince the organization itself that it was an appropriate thing to do. After that performance the New York Philharmonic commissioned a piece from Murail. and he’s always been very grateful for this to have happened. I felt I created this meeting between this amazing orchestra and an amazing composer. When you can play this humble role of creating this, it’s very moving.
EM: Tell us about your association with Elliot Carter.
LM: We met through the Boston Symphony. My debut with the New York Philharmonic was conducting his music. He came on stage, he was present at the performance, so I’ve always been a great ambassador of his music. He wrote his piece Instances for me and the Seattle Symphony, which we premiered in my first season. For years I had been asking him to write something for me and the Seattle Symphony, knowing that I would be coming here. He said he had no time, and I could see he was 97, 98, 99. It would never happen. When he was 102, just the year before he passed, I received in the mail a score called Instances for Chamber Orchestra, with this beautiful dedication to me and the Seattle Symphony. It just came to me out of the blue.
EM: Without warning?
LM: Completely. He’d remembered that I bugged him for so long and I guess when he knew I was starting here he had some acolytes working behind the scenes to remind him of this request. He must have sensed that I was not just saying this, I really wanted a piece of his that we could premiere here. I’ve stayed very close to his music since then. Those are moments that make you very proud in some ways, to have really wanted it so badly. I think for me those two premieres are very specific because of the journey around the process. And the process is as exciting as the performance itself.
EM: That’s a very important way to express your own individuality. And Elliot Carter was a giant.
LM: Sure. And I cannot leave that topic without mentioning Dutilleux, this five-year, three-CD project. There’s always one or two pieces you leave out. This little piece I discovered recently, Muss es Sein, which I will do at some point but I didn’t feel the urgency to include it in the project at this point.
EM: Is it related to Beethoven’s Opus 135?
LM: (Laughs) No, but I’m already looking at programming it along the road. I’m going to give Dutilleux a little break here in Seattle, and focus on different other voices. But when I come back to Dutilleux I’d like to include that little piece. I could program it with the Grosse Fuge, because I think it would be a wonderful counterpoint.
EM: This is perhaps an unfair question, but among Dutilleux’s works that you’ve recorded, can you name any particular favorites?
LM: They’re all very different. But I think I can highlight a few, and I’ll give you the reasons very clearly. As much as I’m fond of the symphonies, they’re not really the pieces Dutilleux was most proud of. He always told me in our conversations that sometimes he felt a little embarrassed at how much he borrowed in his symphonies, the early works, from the 50s. He always felt a little uneasy that you could recognize Prokofiev and Stravinsky (laughs). What I love in his music is how he developed an individual way of moving away from the symphony genre. He created this model of pieces like Métaboles and The Shadows of Time, a succession of movements without a narrative, because he was very interested in that part of the music expression, creating pieces that move from one mood to another, breaking away from symphonic tradition. It reminds me very much of what Debussy was trying to do. You think of Jeux, even Pélleas, La Mer. Yes, underneath is this idea of a three-movement symphony, but it’s already moving in a completely different direction. I’ve felt that Dutilleux’s symphonies came back to something a little too traditional, too 19th century. Debussy was much more of a narrative idea. Jeux describes the ballet element. I think Dutilleux was much more preoccupied with colors. The title of his piece for Slava (Rostropovich), actually defines what his music is all about - time, space and movement. This is maybe my favorite piece of his, because it has this complexity. I love the scoring as well, which is no violins, no violas. I’m a violinist like you are, so it’s a little frustrating not to be part of that, but what he accomplishes in this piece in terms of the tension and colors is beyond anything else he’s written. We also recorded Citations, for oboe, double bass, harpsichord and percussion, which I find tremendously difficult to embark on as a piece of music, but once I really started working on it I think it became one of my favorite Dutilleux pieces. Such an intimate and personal means of expression that I find very powerful.
EM: Yet I find his symphonic works very powerful too.
LM: Of course. The scherzo of the First Symphony is fantastic to perform and I love listening to it as well.
EM: Tell us about Sonic Evolution.
LM: Sonic Evolution is actually evolving. When I first came here we had this idea to make sure that everybody felt invited to experience live symphonic music, regardless of their musical taste. I think in the 80s and 90s, we’ve been guilty of creating this elitist environment for symphonic music. I’m always careful with using classical versus symphonic music. For me classical music has a much more specific connotation of the Enlightenment, that very short period in the 18th century that we call the classical era. I prefer to talk about symphonic music, because it doesn’t pigeonhole music in a box where people feel excluded because they don’t have the experience with or taste for it. I wanted to created a platform where we could embrace all kinds of music. We could say all music is created equal, regardless of individual musical tastes. Most important is to experience a live symphonic performance. As a young boy going to concerts, I don’t remember the music programmed but I remember the experience. I left the concert hall with a new passion. I wanted to recreate this for people who thought they had nothing to do with orchestra music. So we stretch it back to how music was presented two or three hundred years ago. Our subscription pattern programming would be 2% new music, and 98% music people have heard before. I wanted Sonic Evolution to invite new people in the hall, experiencing music as it was presented way back, which means the first half would be new works composed especially for the event - three world premieres, from three composers we asked to be influenced or inspired by some elements of the musical genres that one can experience in Seattle, not limited to classical influence. Grunge, hip-hop, jazz with Bill Frisell - the people who actually make music in Seattle. Recreating or capturing some of the essence of their sound, their political statements, in a piece for orchestra that’s not quoting their songs but something that embraces their whole characteristic. That was the first half. Then, as after you heard in 1805 Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth Symphony for the first time, I decided the end of the concert would always be with a star artist - a great singer or pianist, like later in the century when Liszt would show up as the star of the day in music making.
EM: Like a rock star today.
LM: The ones people listen to on the bus with their earphones, like Macklemore and Taylor Swift. Why not create that second half where we invite those people to collaborate with us. We did Pearl Jam, Mad Season. We invited Sir Mix-A-Lot for hip-hop numbers. Even smaller garage bands from here that I believed in - The Laughing Dogs. When I came here I didn’t know any of those people. By doing this I felt we were sending this invitation to the community to experience symphonic music on a different level. I was also hoping, and it happened, that my musicians and I would also open our minds to what those collaborations could mean for us as musicians, performing artists. It’s been fascinating, because I’ve been invited to experience some of these artists’ concerts here. those people are stage animals, you know (Laughs). Performing artists in the right sense of the word. We can be influenced by this complete devotion, focus, love for that moment of creating for the audience, and the level of devotion to their storytelling.
EM: Something the audience can identify with, exclusive to Seattle.
LM: Here they can connect to it because they feel there’s an emotional power to what we’re trying to establish as a collaboration. When we commissioned Mike McCready from Pearl Jam to write an orchestra piece, that was a huge stretch for him and for us. He was out of his comfort zone. We had to perform with a drum set and a mike on the guitar and a young girl’s chorus. But people could sense that, and fall in love with the process again. When they do this they connect emotionally, and therefore they might want to come back to it.
EM: They respond to it in a big way, as it represents our city.
LM: Yes. In the last five years it was very much based about what we could bring into those collaborations with people in Seattle from different musical genres. This project has grown so much we are exploring something bigger that might resonate with artists outside of Seattle. We’ll see where that takes us. For sure it’s not about growing our audience for subscription base. It’s about creating a new audience, an early memory in their lives. Maybe we’ll allow them 20, 30 years along the road, to say, “Oh, I remember that day I went to the symphony and something happened in my heart. I might give it a try again.” That’s maybe how we can get people to listen to Mozart and Beethoven at the end of the day.
Next, Part 2: Opera vs. Symphony, Losing Sleep Over Programming, and Conductors: the Next Generation
Photos used with permission of: Lisa Marie Mazzucco, Brandon Patoc
Erica Miner can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org