Monday, January 22, 2018

Ludovic Morlot, Part 2: The Next Chapter

Lisa Marie Mazzucco
INTERVIEW: Seattle Opera

McCaw Hall

Erica Miner: With regard to the Seattle Symphony, I’m so sad that you’re leaving us. 

Ludovic Morlot: I just felt it was the right timing. It’s hard, a few years ahead of time, to decide what that is going to be. I always had in my mind, coming in, the kind of journey I wanted to have with the orchestra. I thought by the time we reach 8 years it will feel very good about what’s been happening. I wanted them to keep being challenged at the best possible level. The same for me. It was a beautiful chapter and I prefer to leave it with that kind of feeling. When all feel we are growing together, it’s amazing that it can inspire the next chapter as well. With Thomas (conductor designate Dausgaard) they’re now all engaged in what they want to learn and be better every day. If that’s a part of my legacy it’s a beautiful one. Inevitably at some point the journey can start fading. I didn’t want to reach that, but instead to leave it on a high level. 

EM: Can you talk about your next chapter? 

LM: Not really, but I can tell you that making music in Europe is important for me. I’ll be 45 when I leave the Seattle Symphony next year. It’s a good time for me to be spending more time in Europe. I’m now in a place in my life where I’m in no rush. I want the next thing to be right - feel right. I’m not anymore in that space where I want to jump on any opportunity. I want to take the time, sit back, contemplate what that would mean for me and for my life, and then make a move. I guess it’s my “middle period” coming up. 

EM: You don’t feel the need to take on another music directorship yet? 

LM: Artistically it would be a beautiful thing. You can have a vision, grow week after week with the same instrument, same orchestra. By the same token, you want to make sure all the players - and I’m not only talking with me on the stage - are people you can work with and everybody is on the same page. This is also what I’m looking for. Somewhere I can have a team that is completely supportive, collaborating. That’s as much a priority as the level of the orchestra. It’s the whole picture, part of the environment where you can be the best musician you possibly can be. It can be difficult to find, but that’s what I’m trying to create for myself. It’s not so much about the prestige of the move - prestigious is nice, but for me it’s more important to see what kind of journey I can have. As far as opportunities, I hope I can make the right call. 

EM: Change is exciting, but also scary. 

LM: It is. Feeling comfortable is the enemy of music. When I was in Berlin with the Philharmonic in May, I worked with the concertmaster, Daishin Kashimoto, on a documentary from Japan. He kept saying that phrase that is so simple but true: No risk, no fun. The minute you go to work as an artist and it feels a little bit of comfort, something is not quite right. 

EM: That’s why musicians have to be so brave. 

LM: Sure. You start learning about yourself when you get out of the comfort zone. You don't want to be completely vulnerable all the time, but you want to allow yourself to open some windows to vulnerability so you can learn. That’s why I find it fun to collaborate with musicians of different genres; completely out of my comfort zone, and we learn something along the way. It adds layers - not only musicianship but to our beings, and that makes us better artists. My decision to move on next season is part of that dynamic. Still feeling on the edge and in danger. I think my performances will be enhanced by that feeling. 

EM: After Béatrice et Bénédict here in Seattle, do you anticipate doing more opera in the future?

Benedict costume Deborah Trout

LM: I love opera. it’s always been very important to me. In the same way, I think a musician is only complete when he plays onstage, in the pit, chamber music, it’s valid for us, too, as conductors. Working with the voice is very constructive and enjoyable. But I sometimes feel a little frustrated by working with an opera production, that it can take more time than is needed to do justice to the music and the play or whatever it is. I think there’s a future for me doing more opera in the context where either the productions are very simple and the main focus remains on the music and the story. Or even in concert performances. I have a great time doing those. First of all, you rehearse in a much more thorough, intense way musically. And the performance is more satisfying musically; the singers are right there and there is real collaboration between the dialogue, the music and the voice. 

EM: Does that apply to which productions you’ll choose? 

LM: I think I’ll be more careful about what productions I’ll embark on because I want the music to remain the thing that drives it, not the production itself, the theatrical part of it. I have to find a balance that sometimes has been misbalanced. I find many companies now are more interested in what people will say about the production than creating a beautiful environment for the music. I’ll be careful with committing to productions where the director has his focus on the right place. It’s not always the case. That’s become something more important to me, having done productions that have gone in all directions. I only felt happy working in the pit when the director really was working alongside me and the music, not like two different bodies trying to compromise on everything; that happens too often. But I love opera very much, so I’d be very sad if that dynamic prevents me from being involved with that repertoire. 

EM: Is there any particular repertoire that you would opt for?

Brandon Patoc
LM: I’m quite fussy when it comes to opera repertoire. I’m not a bel canto guy. As much as I enjoy it, I don’t feel I have to perform it. I would love to conduct Wagner in my life - Tristan, of course, but also Lohengrin and Parsifal are very important works for me. A few Verdi would be nice. Falstaff, Don Carlos, Otello. I love conducting in the language I understand, so French opera is very important for me. I’ve done Pelléas but would love to do it again. Ravel, Massenet. Chabrier is a composer I’m very interested in. He wrote a lot of operas that are never played. Then some of the Slavic repertoire - I love Janáček. I’ve done Jenůfa but I’d love to do Cunning Little Vixen, which I’m doing a suite of here, House of the Dead, Katya - any Janáček really works for me. Martinů wrote 14 operas - The Greek Passion, Julietta. In concert I’m thinking Bluebeard, Erwartung. And always Mozart. 

EM: Any Strauss? 

LM: I’m a little more on the edge with Strauss. I would love to do Elektra. I like Rosenkavalier very much. I have more difficulty with Salome. For me sometimes Strauss is a bit too schizophrenic. I’m not eager to do Capriccio or Frau Ohne Schatten. It’s wonderful music but not for me. I like to do something I really feel a connection to. I like Berg. I would love to do Wozzeck and Lulu, especially Wozzeck

EM: Wozzeck is more accessible. And Lulu is so hard to play. I really feel sorry for anyone who has to sing it. Or conduct it. 

LM: [Laughs] I get very moved by Wozzeck. It’s such beautiful craft; the form of each of the scenes is so perfect. It feels like a real joy to me to study the score. I love Puccini, I’m a good audience for it, but I’m not dying to be in the pit for that. 

EM: Puccini affects me deeply, but Verdi I can’t love enough. On a musical level, nothing compares. Don Carlo, Falstaff… 

LM: And Otello is amazing. Very dramatic. I love Traviata but I’d be okay if I didn’t perform it. Don Carlos is one of those I’d have something to say about. And of course, I must not forget Berlioz. I hope I can find a place to do Les Troyens, Cellini and more. I really would love to do the big Berlioz. The language gives me another reason to do it. 

EM: That makes perfect sense. All the Italian conductors who came through the Met were organically one with that repertoire. Like Pavarotti was. 

LM: The mastering of the language. I love Czech music and feel a real affinity with it, but I don’t know the language. When I did Jenůfa I surrounded myself with a team of Czech speakers, so it worked out, and I had a wonderful time. But doing it I always felt a little short of mastering the language, that maybe I wasn’t the best person to be doing it. So, it’s a bit problematic for me. 

EM: Do you feel the same about the Russian repertoire? 

LM: I think it’s a little easier. Usually you just go with Russian singers. It’s also true for the Czech. If you have the right singers, you can survive. But some languages I would stay away from the repertoire just because I have no relationship with the language.

Brandon Patoc
EM: How would you explain your affinity for Janáček? 

LM: What I like with Janáček and I’ve learned from spending time with those speaking it, the rhythms are so complex because they’re the rhythm of the language. Spoken Czech sounds very much like the music. It actually changed my mind about how to play Dvořák. At first, I was taken by his beautiful melodies but actually it’s really fashioned after the Czech language, too, just like Janáček and Martinů. The big lesson for me was when I conducted the Czech Philharmonic in Dvorak’s 7th Symphony. They played it like they speak it, with such articulation that it changed my perspective of this music. It was really fascinating. One of my teachers, Charles Mackerras, adored this music. He got me the bug for it. When you see him doing Cunning Little Vixen - it’s such a world of fantasy. So, unique. That’s my feel for it. We’re doing some Janáček next year. I’m going to do a big focus on Debussy, for the century, and Wagner and Janáček around that idea. In the same way, Pelléas is difficult if you don’t speak the language. It’s so full of subtleties, theatre, poetry. The rhythms in Pelléas are so natural to the French spoken language. I think Janáček is as well. Once you get into that with Janáček and you understand exactly how the text is being spoken, it makes complete sense. 

EM: I look forward to hearing that. It’s fairly rare to hear just orchestral Janáček. 

LM: We’ll do the suite from Cunning Little Vixen and a beautiful piece with solo violin that I adore, The Eternal Gospel. The notation is very difficult in Janáček. That’s what I learned doing Jenůfa. Once I had people speaking the text to me, I found my own understanding of the notation. It’s not like, triple-dotted-16th and 64th, it’s [emphasizes syllables], kind of two different things. It’s about what story he’s telling. 

EM: It goes back to what you were saying about not being in your comfort zone. You can’t play Beethoven’s Rasumovsky quartets forever. 

LM: Well you can, but when you do you should never feel you’re in your comfort zone. It’s what I tell my students when I do Beethoven’s 5th. I try to remain very open to something I hadn’t thought of yet. There’s nothing wrong with playing the same repertoire over and over, as long as you push the envelope every single time. What I don’t like is, “Oh, another Beethoven’s 5th.” It should feel like a gift, an opportunity. That’s very important, as a musician. To have the curiosity of trying to see another perspective. 

EM: I know that feeling. Thank you so much, Maestro. 


Photo credits: Liza Marie Mazzucco, Brandon Patoc, Deborah Trout 
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

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