Thursday, August 25, 2016

Ludovic Morlot: Musical Individuality and the Heart

INTERVIEW: Ludovic Morlot

Seattle Symphony
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: [email protected]

Friday, August 12, 2016

Barber's Noirish Vanessa Triumphs in Santa Fe Premiere

Anatol (Zach Borichevsky) enters Vanessa's door

Santa Fe Opera
The Crosby Theatre, Santa Fe

Samuel Barber’s first opera, Vanessa, began life promisingly in 1958, debuting to rave reviews at the Metropolitan Opera. Some critics regarded it the greatest American opera to date and it soon earned a Pulitzer Prize. But a poor subsequent reception at the Salzburg Festival prompted Barber’s revision, after which changing musical tastes and the culture wars of ensuing decades left it neglected. 

If one knows only the Barber of his exquisite Adagio or nostalgic Knoxville, Summer of 1915, the muscular score and bracing theatricality of Vanessa will come as both a surprise and a revelation. Santa Fe Opera General Director Charles Mackay accounts it an “unquestioned masterpiece of the mid-twentieth century" and this reviewer agrees. On July 30, in the sixtieth anniversary year of the company (a span of time equivalent to the life of this work), Mackay gave Vanessa its company premiere. It was worth the long wait.

Anatol (Borichevsky) and Vanessa (Wall)
The setting is an unspecified "Northern" country with the period feel of an Ingmar Bergman film or Hollywood melodrama of the 1940's. Its noirish libretto was penned by Barber's life partner, Gian Carlo Menotti, and teems with a psychological verisimilitude influenced by their own long and complicated relationship. Quasi-Freudian undercurrents involve trade-offs between an individual's unshakable ideals and the world's compromised realities. 

The action opens with a still beautiful Vanessa anticipating the return of her lover Anatol after a two decade absence. Awaiting his return, she has lived in a kind of suspended animation, with the mirrors covered to stop time. When Anatol's son, also named Anatol, arrives, he announces that his father died long ago

Soon enough Anatol's wandering eye and caddish behavior set off a crisis in the household, as both Vanessa and her niece Erika fall for him. The latter’s brief affair ends badly, but a smitten Vanessa abandons her isolation to pursue life with the much younger man in Paris. A disillusioned Erika takes on Vanessa’s previous hermetic posture, ordering the mirrors to be covered again. Observers of the goings-on include the silent Baroness (Vanessa's mother and Erika's grandmother) and a tipsy, kind-hearted Doctor, who reveal their own poignant perspectives on life and love.

The Doctor (Morris) and Vanessa (Wall)
Under James Robinson’s direction, Allen Moyer sets the scene in a claustrophobic, time-stopped home of monochrome whites and grays. In later celebratory scenes, with friends, family, and lovers, the set expands in a flood of light and pastel costume colors. The mirrors uncover briefly, only to shutter again as Erika takes on the hermetic role from a departing Vanessa. 

Vanessa's emotional state moves from eerie waiting to eerie giddiness, a mental detachment from common sense that could limit audience empathy. Fortunately, Soprano Erin Wall finely gauged her role's journey and portrayed it with dignified conviction, never overplaying or making character into campy caricature. From her early "Do not utter a word, Anatol" she established just the right tone for the psychological safety-zone in which she dwells.

Erika (Virginie Verrez)
The role of Erika traverses a wider arc, from supportive niece to a predator's victim, later from failed interventionist to a dweller in her own twilight. One is reminded of the relationship of Mrs Havisham and Estella in Dickens' Great Expectations. (No wonder Maria Callas refused to create the role of Vanessa when she saw the arc of Erika's character.) 

In her first act ariamezzo soprano Virginie Verrez established Erika's vulnerability in the wistful "Must the winter come so soon?", followed immediately by the sharp expressionistic thrills of "Listen ...They are here" as Anatol arrives at the door. Sweet-voiced but strong-willed, Verrez made the most of her journey of many moods in the evening's stand-out performance.

Tenor Zach Borichevsky's Anatol was a proper cad, but not so much an evil one as an unsympathetic victim of behavioral fate to exploit female vulnerability. Bass-baritone James Morris, luxury casting as the Doctor, made the most of his role as the personification of empathetic wisdom when sober and old fool when drunk. Mezzo-soprano Helene Schniederman was an anchor of muzzled propriety as the Baroness who sees and knows all but utters nary a word. Bass-baritones Andrew Bogard and Andrew Simpson were, respectively, the Major-Domo and the Footman.

Conductor Leonard Slatkin’s precision-primed orchestra announced the arrival of a great work at the instant of its downbeat. Bracing brass and whistling woodwinds set an icy mood as the drama unfolded. In the revised three-act version mounted here, Vanessa's inspiration and dramatic tension never floundered.

The complex expressionistic score is an extension of the kind of advanced writing in Richard Strauss's Elektra and Hollywood's psychological thrillers, of which Bernard Herrmann's Vertigo is the exemplar. Yet the sound-world in Vanessa is unique, an object lesson in the integration of melody, harmony, orchestral color, and the kind of vocal writing that is a lost art in many works today. One marvels at the craftsmanship. 

Though it was composed in the middle of the last century, there are those still living who remember Vanessa's 1958 premiere. For the rest, hearing it with fresh ears today, one need no longer be concerned with the stylistic vogues that had consigned the work too soon to its decades-long obscurity. Indeed, since Vanessa's composition, several musical styles have come and gone.   The once dominant atonal school in America’s universities eventually passed into its own historical niche. Minimalism was born and, under composers like John Adams, matured into a more eclectic idiom. The Neo-Romantic style of a David Del Tredici made what had become old new again. In fact, today’s eclecticism provides aural space for audiences to listen for quality more than style.  

Samuel Barber made of Vanessa a masterpiece beyond style.

Erika (Verrez) and Governess (Schneidermann)

SFO company premiere. Performance reviewed: July 30, 2016. 

Photos by Ken Howard

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Star-Lost Lovers at Santa Fe: Wherefore art thou Romeo?

Ensemble in tomb scene of Roméo et Juliette at Santa Fe Opera

Santa Fe Opera
The Crosby Theatre, Santa Fe

Gounod's Roméo et Juliette finally received its company debut at the Santa Fe Opera, a mere century and a half after it first broke hearts in Second Empire Paris.

No other Shakespeare play has inspired so much music. While Gounod's score erases no memories of treatments by Berlioz (symphony), Tchaikovsky (tone poem), Prokofiev (ballet) and Bernstein (musical), all of which are among their composers' greatest works, credit Gounod for the tale's most successful operatic incarnation.

With its libretto graced by the deft stage reduction of Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, the action focuses on the young lovers, giving them sumptuous solos and duets. If the work has a weakness, it may lie in its predominant sweetness. Shakespeare's depiction of destructive male competition is one of the elements that makes the tragedy of trampled tenderness so wrenching. Smoothing the play's rougher edges, as here, can lean the drama toward flaccidness.

Solomon Howard (the Duke) and Ensemble
In its maiden production at Santa Fe, designer Ashley Martin-Davis provided sumptuously plush and brightly-colored costumes, but reduced background atmospherics to a single dark statement. A curvilinear, floor to ceiling bank of steel-gray mausoleum crypts (the Capulet family vault) formed the Cinemascopic backdrop for the entire evening. In Gounod's version of the story, the rapprochement between the feuding Montagues and the Capulets comes before the action begins, so beginning with the crypt makes sense. But by this rendering's last act tomb scene, the mausoleum had become routine. So the death of the two lovers was highlighted with banks of skulls on the crypts near Juliette's tomb.

Raymond Aceto (Frère Laurent) and Ailyn Pérez (Juliette)
Gounod’s melodic gifts found their best champion this evening in the Juliette of soprano Ailyn Pérez, who animated the work’s emotional center. Perfectly portraying Juliette's passion and innocence, her plangent vocal delivery and bright, comely stage presence elevated the production from its grim setting. Here is a vocal and dramatic star worthy of the most famous tragic heroine in Western art.

At the performance this reviewer took in, understudy tenor Joshua Guerrero, in an ill-fitting costume, substituted at the last moment for an ailing Stephen Costello. Credit is due him from a grateful management, but winning audience hearts would have to be postponed to another day. Guerrero held his own vocally, though his wooden acting provided no dramatic counterpart to Pérez's radiant Juliette. Amatory chemistry, where wert thou? As the designated understudy, Guerrero's task was not just an obligation, but an opportunity.

Beth Miller (dancer) and Emily Fons (Stéphano)
Director Stephen Lawless handled the scenes of the two lovers sensitively and moved the large ensemble cast well. He also inserted a couple of less successful identity-twisting gimmicks in secondary characters. Raymond Aceto’s otherwise splendid Frère Laurent was reimagined as an apothecary, adding virtuosity to his potion-making abilities but sacrificing some of his spiritual warmth. Likewise, the page Stéphano (a marvelous Emily Fons, who owns the trouser roles at Santa Fe) was assigned extra fussiness to her aria, as s(he) becomes also lead dancer in a campy trio of swishy young soldiers. The routine's insertion here seemed incongruous, as if it belonged to another opera.

Ailyn Pérez (Juliette)
As coached by fight director Rick Sordelet, Elliot Madore’s Mercutio and Cooper Nolan’s Tybalt exuded masculine power and skillful swordsmanship, as did the ill-fated Paris of Thaddeus Ennen. Tim Mix’s Capulet was a warm father figure and Deborah Nansteel a sympathetic, honey-voiced Nurse Gertrude. Solomon Howard's cavernous-voiced Duke was earthshaking. Nicola Bowie's choreography enlivened the ball scene dances and various acrobatics.

Susanne Sheston's choral forces gave powerful voice to the family feud and its reconciliation. The performance greatly benefitted from the sensitive orchestral persuasions of the Opera's Chief Conductor, Harry Bicket, whose extra duty that evening kept his Roméo right on cue, at least musically.


Performance reviewed: July 29, 2016. Photos by Ken Howard

Morlot Part 2: Opera, Symphony, and the Next Generation


Seattle Symphony
Benaroya Hall, Seattle

EM: Do you feel equally passionate about opera and symphonic music, or do you lean toward one or the other?

LM: I love it all. It’s a very different agenda. Opera is something that you control much less as a conductor, a leader, a Kapellmeister. I very much agree with Christian Thielemann when he wants to call himself a Kapellmeister as opposed to a conductor. Kapellmeister has this resonance that we’re still musicians doing this as leaders or coaches as opposed to just an administrative role. In some ways opera puts you more into that skin. Conductor sounds very dry to me (Laughs). What I find extraordinary in opera, which I never experience in a symphony performance, is that when all the elements align wonderfully well something is being created at a level where you can just marvel at seeing this unfold so beautifully and naturally. You know you have a very small part in this ultimately, because it becomes exponential to what you’ve injected into it. I find symphonic music, because of the pattern of how we work - opera unfolds over five, six weeks of work when a symphony production is around four, five days if you’re lucky - really is much more dependent on what you as a leader can inject into the performance. There’s less time for all the different ideas to merge, and create this cohesive result. So I find opera much more satisfying when it works, but incredibly frustrating much of the time, because a lot of things don’t click for the same reasons that they can click. It’s not all dependent on you. A singer doesn’t show up on that day, or the chorus has to dance around 15,000 miles away from you or the orchestra. All kinds of things happen that can create a lot of frustrations. Ultimately when it comes to the music itself, opera and symphony, no big difference. The operas I love usually have this very strong orchestral craft. But I love the voice. The human voice is ultimately the only thing we can say we try to recreate as beautifully as we can with a violin, a flute, so I think possibly to work with the voice is much more natural and instinctive.

EM: I was so gratified to learn that you’ll be doing Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortiléges, which I first performed as a student at Tanglewood with Leinsdorf and then at the Met. It’s an exquisite, enchanting work, and close to my heart. What made you decide to program it with the Symphony this season?

LM: Ravel of course is a very special composer for me. I started talking to Seattle Opera because we wanted to have a bit of a platform to do opera in concert. So I went straight to Aidan Lang ( because I wanted to make sure if we do this we do it in a way that invites their audience to cross to the other part of town and encourage that adventure of people being curious and not feel like it’s one thing or the other. Our orchestra plays at the Opera, in the pit, so it’s very important for me to be able to capture some of this artistry and craft they have on stage. Ultimately I find opera performance is always more satisfactory in a concert performance musically when it comes to the artistry. Everyone hears one another better, emotionally you can gain in having productions, so I find it interesting to explore opera in concert. Ravel was not something Aidan was contemplating having in the opera house for some time. I felt it was the right move to start with this rather than with a big romantic opera. We’ll have it semi-staged somehow but I didn’t want it to be too complicated. I wanted to focus on the interpretation. It’s also one of my very fond memories of studying with Ozawa. My first summer as a Tanglewood Fellow, I was assistant on the Ravel double bill at the opera there. Seiji conducted L’Heure Espagnole and Robert Spano did L’enfant et les sortiléges. I was assistant on both. It brings great memories.

EM: Do you feel your affiliation with the University of Washington as Affiliate Professor of Music and Chair of Orchestral Conducting Studies integrates with your work at the Symphony, and what are your goals with the program?

LM: It’s a little selfish for me, a position like this, I’ll tell you why. I’ve never really believed that conducting was something you can teach. I think you can create this mentor-protégé relationship with young artists who you think have a voice and have talent. But I’m not a fan of the “traditional” conducting course where you conduct in front of a mirror and pianos. I wanted to be involved with a conducting program only if it could actually involve a real liaison and collaboration between the institution I work with, the Seattle Symphony, and the University program. The selfish point is that my only aspiration to teach, to be involved with conducting students, is because it’s a wonderful asset to learn about myself. By trying to help someone develop as a conductor I’m constantly facing a mirror. It’s like what you do with your kids at home. The minute you tell them to do this or that, you have to be pretty serious about what you’re actually trying to establish. Therefore you have to ask yourself that question - why would I be so convinced about he or she doing or not doing that when I didn’t even contemplate it for myself. This relationship from teaching is incredibly valuable for my own sake as a growing artist because I take it very seriously as what I feel I offer them I must contemplate for myself. This is in that sense a role I feel very privileged to be establishing here. I have a wonderful teaching partner, David Rahbee, who I invited from Boston to be involved as director of the orchestra program, which is very linked to the conducting program. We created together an orchestra on campus that meets weekly, where the conducting lessons take place. I wanted the conductors to be able to conduct a full size orchestra, not pianos or quartet. It’s all about creating a sound, and when you conduct pianos you don’t create anything in terms of sound. It becomes very technical and mechanical. Once we could create that platform for them to work with a live orchestra weekly, then I felt this the kind of conducting program I’m interested in. Of course the wonderful thing of doing side-by-side between the Seattle Symphony and the University orchestras is the great appeal of my own work with the young musicians. This partnership with David, creating this kind of environment, has been very strong and exciting.

EM: This season you will be conducting the Vienna Symphony Orchestra for the first time. That must be very exciting.

LM: It is. It’s mainly new music, so there will be two commissions in that concert. Also classics like Ravel’s La Valse and some Ives, which I’m really fond of.

EM: Vienna and Ives - how interesting.

LM: It’s hard to define what will be the right program making your debut with an orchestra. I’m always being driven making those program decisions. It felt quite right to be approaching that debut with new music combined with the great masterpiece of Ravel. La Valse is very special to me. Of course it’s this great homage to Vienna, but as Ravel was writing it the war broke out. When he went back to the piece, not being able to finish it so graciously, it becomes war music, this kind of ugly, violent piece. So I think it’s interesting to do in that context with this orchestra. I’ve conducted quite a bit in Germany, but not in Austria. I’m eager to make my Vienna debut.

EM: I’m always a bit envious of conductors being able to decide on programs. It must be such an adventure.

LM: Oh, I lose sleep over programming. You can ask my family, my wife. I’m a maniac. The only frustration in getting to do eleven, twelve programs a year here is that it’s so difficult to narrow it down to those. Not only pieces of music I want to do but combinations of them that I want to explore. It’s fascinating. I have full books at home with programs. I could live for 600 years and still be unsatisfied about it (Laughs).

EM: I know the feeling. I can’t live long enough to write all the stories I want to write. Do you encourage your children to learn instruments, or do you just want to give them a love for music?

LM: Until they started school they were backstage at the Opera. They grew fond of not only the music but the whole business around it. As very young toddlers they would visit the costume department, the lighting would have an effect on them, or if someone started dancing somewhere. So they developed this as a language. I don't’ have any other aspirations for them but for music to be another language, so that not only they can communicate with that emotionally, but they appreciate it as something that leads to so many good things that can happen in their lives. Now that they’re moving into their teenage years they’re maybe a little less drawn to performances, but they once in a while not only enjoy but ask for it. That first memory I was telling you about has been very well founded. They also play instruments, violin, cello, sing in choruses, play piano at home. Clearly there’s a desire to be curious about and have music in their lives and will remain so at some level. That satisfies me very much. I have no special aspirations beyond that.

EM: Most importantly, they enjoy the experience of music.

LM: And the social element, kids in the neighborhood to play chamber music with. You can always debate about making music your life and profession. I find it’s more important they connect to it. If something leads them to be ambitious it would have to be their choice. It would be completely unnatural having music in the house that it wouldn’t become natural for them. That’s why I mentioned the language element. We speak French at home. I don’t see any other way for them to embrace the fact that French is part of their lives. Same with the music. And opera too.

EM: Children are the future audiences.

LM: And we’re being very condescending to them, saying, we’re going to have to play Peter and the Wolf for you 200 times before you can move to the next stage. It’s one of the most exquisite scores, a masterpiece so sophisticated it’s not for children but for everybody. My idea of how to engage the young people is to erase all the intimate dating factors about a piece, to come to it at the same level you and I do. That’s why I think new pieces and commissions and premieres are a really wonderful introduction for younger generations because they don’t feel they have a lack of knowledge or experience with it. They feel completely fresh, open minded as to what it can be. It translates more the environment or sound they’re used to. So it’s actually a better entry point for them. They will come to love Brahms and Beethoven as well but it sometimes is not the best entry point.

EM: Some music that will make somebody older cringe, kids are totally open to. Their ears and minds are not corrupted yet.

LM: They are a step ahead of where we are. If they don’t have this interactive, digital touch where they can control it, it’s like 1,000 years old already. Music is no different. If they identify with it emotionally because it’s what they taste everyday around them it becomes a very natural step for them, and they will push it further. As opposed to trying for them to embrace tradition and moving into this, they should come from the other way, back to tradition. It’s the same way in Sonic Evolution. If they see electric guitar in the middle of the orchestra, it’s not alien to them. It’s, why not. Even a DJ triggering sound effects, mixing with live violins and cellos, is no bother for them, and why should it be. As for us we have to digest it.

EM: I applaud you for all you’ve done so far.

LM: It’s courageous but I think if in my position I don’t make it happen it never will. We love our audience but we need to grow it. We don’t need to comfort the one we have more than we need to encourage a new one to come in.

EM: So admirable, Maestro, and it’s been such a pleasure speaking with you. I can’t wait to see you perform on September 17th (

LM: Thank you so much. 

Photos used with permission of: Lisa Marie Mazzucco, Brandon Patoc
Erica Miner can be reached at: [email protected]