Ludovic Morlot, new music director of the Seattle Symphony, has moved into town and is preparing for his first appearances. Here, he shares his thoughts on the symphony's season and his approach to music.
Before the interview even gets started, Seattle Symphony director Ludovic Morlot has a question: Why does The Seattle Times, like some other newspapers, group its classical-music coverage with its dance, theater and other fine-arts coverage? Shouldn’t it be in with the jazz, rock, folk and hip-hop?
After all, it is music.
“I’ve always been interested by all kinds of music,” Morlot says. “I really appreciate that there’s great music and not-so-great music — and that’s the distinction that I’d like to see, rather than just keeping the classical music in a little bunker somehow.”
Morlot’s query is an indicator of the restless, energetic nature of the conductor who will take the stage as the new music director of the Seattle Symphony at Bumbershoot on Sunday in an unusual “Symphony Untuxed” concert, followed by the orchestra’s traditional opening-night concert and gala on Sept. 17.
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In an interview last month, the 37-year-old Frenchman held forth in lightly accented English for more than an hour on his new hometown, his musical passions, his plans for the symphony and his eagerness to trade in his peripatetic existence as a guest conductor for something more settled here and in Brussels, where he’ll be chief conductor at the city’s famed La Monnaie opera house.
Although it wasn’t a condition of his accepting the post, Morlot recently moved to Seattle with his wife and two young daughters, settling in Seattle’s Washington Park neighborhood.
“I’m still at that stage where I’m discovering everything,” he says. “The sheer physical beauty of the place is really striking right away. “
While he will still accept the occasional guest-conducting gig, he seems relieved to concentrate his energies on two organizations, not just because it makes things easier on his family life but because, he says, “one is more creative and more focused when you don’t have to deal with too many flights, too many jet-lags, too many new relationships.”
One strenuous guest-conducting gig has stayed particularly vivid for him: his appearance with the Seattle Symphony in April 2010, when a little thing called Eyjafjallajökull delayed his arrival here until late on the night before the performance. The Icelandic volcano also prevented the scheduled soloist from getting here, necessitating a change in program.
“The orchestra,” he recalls, “very exceptionally agreed to do two rehearsals that day with a performance that same evening of Thursday, which is really unheard of. … I must say it was quite nerve-wracking. Because putting a program together on one day, regardless of how many hours of rehearsals you have, is quite difficult.”
While the Symphony’s 2011-12 season was already in the planning stages when Morlot came on board, he has nevertheless had a strong hand it.
“All my programs,” Morlot says of the concerts he’ll be conducting, “are completely mine.”
That includes the introduction to the symphony repertoire of works by French composer Henri Dutilleux. “My choice,” Morlot says, “because the orchestra’s never played his music, and I sensed from my appointment that people had expectations to hear more French music.”
Morlot became close with Dutilleux during his association with the Boston Symphony, which, under Seiji Ozawa, commissioned pieces by the French composer.
“You hear half a minute of his music,” Morlot says, “and you know that’s Dutilleux. I love when you hear that kind of strong identity in a musical voice.”
The first Dutilleux item this season is Sept. 22-25; his violin concerto, “The Tree of Dreams,” will be performed by Renaud Capuçon.
Another conspicuous presence on the 2011-12 roster is Schubert, represented with three symphonies (Nos. 3, 5 and 8) and selections from “Rosamunde.”
“I think Schubert is not played enough,” Morlot says. “At least in the context of symphony orchestra seasons. … So mainly it’s just to catch up with it.”
One unusual feature of the new season is that the Symphony won’t, for the immediate future, have a composer in residence. Morlot has asked current composer-in-residence Sam Jones (“remarkable throughout his tenure here”) to remain as head of the Young Composers Workshop.
The reason for the change, Morlot explains, is that he felt it was more interesting for the audience to explore “a more diverse vocabulary” rather than a single contemporary composer’s voice. “But I’m not excluding that that might be coming back at some point.”
Among the new voices: British composer Oliver Knussen, who will be conducting his own violin concerto, performed by Leila Josefowicz (Nov. 17-19).
“It’s a marvelous piece that I’ve had a chance to conduct already,” Morlot says. “Actually I’m quite envious. I would have loved to do it here. But he’s doing it wonderfully well. He’s a great composer.”
Perhaps the most unexpected item on the program in the next few weeks is Frank Zappa’s “Dupree’s Paradise,” recorded in its orchestral version by Pierre Boulez in the early 1980s.
“Listen, I don’t think we’re going to be playing Frank Zappa’s music every season,” Morlot says. “The idea when you start somewhere — as much as do the music you love — is to send some kind of signals and messages. And I always believe strongly in two things in programming. One is to balance the known entities with the unknown, so that you always create for the audience some kind of comfort but also some kind of sense of adventure.”
His other belief about programming is that juxtaposing the new and the old can shed fresh light on the old. When you program something as familiar as Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 on a bill with Zappa and Dutilleux, he says, it has a different “proportion,” he feels, than when it follows, say, a Beethoven piano concerto. Not only does it become more powerful, he finds, but it becomes more modern as well.
While conductor laureate Gerard Schwarz had a special interest in the American composers of the mid-20th century, Morlot is fascinated by “that pocket of time from 1870 to 1930. … I enjoy performing Stravinsky and Debussy as much as I love Mozart and Brahms, and also the repertoire Gerry’s been nurturing: Strauss, Mahler, Shostakovich. Anything that’s driven by the rhythm and the folk elements in music.”
Still, he feels it would be “a little pretentious” to say he wants to focus on one specific vein or era of classical music. “I’m still at that time where I want to open as many windows as possible. Not only to decide what I like best, but maybe what I can serve best as a performing artist. And that’s not for me to decide.”
Morlot plans to continue the Symphony’s busy recording schedule, and there’s also talk of exploring touring possibilities.
Morlot is well aware of Schwarz’s fundraising, community-rallying activities, the crowning achievement being the building of Benaroya Hall. Morlot, too, has a dream of creating “a summer place or a summer academy” where young people, including whole families, could attend concerts.
That’s a dream for the future.
“My first concern,” he emphasizes, “is to focus on artistic excellence. First of all we have to get to know each other and produce wonderful music-making. All the rest will kind of be born out of this, I hope.”
He specifically intends, he says, “to use that marvelous instrument we have with the orchestra and the concert hall and make it one. … The way I work with the orchestra is not very dissimilar to what the old masters conducting were doing, which is: Half of the orchestra is string instruments. I think it’s very important for me to conceive every piece of music as an extension of a string quintet. … Once you create that wonderful strong element within the strings, everything else is even more free to go.”
There’s a planned emphasis on open rehearsals, too, creating opportunities to hear music in different spaces besides the symphony hall’s main auditorium. The first of those opportunities comes up on Sept. 18 with a “Day of Music,” an all-day event presenting music on stages in and around Benaroya Hall for free.
Most of all he wants people not to be intimidated by the words “classical music.”
“I think it’s super important that people that don’t feel they know anything about the music or what we do are not worried about it. I can’t emphasize enough that we’re making music for the people. … I mean, without an audience we are nothing.” As for the symphony’s future in such a shaky economy, he’s sanguine that quality musical goods will lead to financial viability.
“I hope our music-making is going to be so infectious that it’s not going to be an issue here,” he says. “Difficult times economically are the most interesting ones artistically because in order to survive you have to be even more creative. I think I see it as a plus rather than a minus. … The more difficult it is, the more daring you have to be.”
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org