A new chapter in Ludovic Morlot’s relationship with the Seattle Symphony is underway.
Now holding the title of conductor emeritus, Morlot has chosen some unusual fare for his concerts on June 2 and 4: the orchestral epic “Des canyons aux étoiles …” (“From the Canyons to the Stars …”) by Olivier Messiaen, which will be presented in a multimedia presentation accompanied by video projections by Deborah O’Grady.
Although his tenure as music director drew to a close three years ago, Morlot already has been back to Benaroya Hall earlier this season to lead four additional programs that had not originally been on his schedule — a consequence of COVID-19-related cancellations and the void left by the sudden resignation in January of then-music director Thomas Dausgaard.
Thanks to this unexpected turn of events, SSO audiences have had an opportunity to hear Morlot’s latest thoughts on some of the most gripping works in the repertoire, including the darkly fatalistic Sixth Symphony of Mahler and Sibelius’ adventurous Second.
Morlot, 48, undertook both at various points during his eight seasons here. But there is no question that conductor and orchestra are in very different places than they were before the pandemic. Poised to begin his new post as principal conductor of the Barcelona Symphony in September, Morlot has been invited to return to Benaroya for three programs in the coming season, including for the opening-night concert. He shared some thoughts on this latest collaboration with the SSO. (This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)
What have you felt about returning to the podium in Seattle? Does the interaction feel very different from when you were here as music director?
It does feel different. There’s much more freedom in the music-making when you come in as a guest. And I still find characteristics in the orchestra that we built together. For instance, when I did the Sibelius Second Symphony recently, I could sense that the players had accomplished a journey with this piece since I did it with them the last time. It felt like a very warm relationship, and they were comfortable bringing me suggestions about it that were not mine.
One of your signature initiatives as music director was to introduce the music of Olivier Messiaen to the SSO repertoire. You led a memorable account of the exuberant “Turangalîla” Symphony early on, in January 2013, that actually helped define the “Morlot era,” and you’ve also recorded two rarely done pieces of his on the SSO’s in-house label. What for you is special about “From the Canyons to the Stars …”?
It’s a great celebration of the Western landscape in Utah, including Bryce Canyon, but also incorporates birdsongs from all over the world — not just the American national parks but from Japan, Hawaii, Australia, Africa. And Messiaen built the piece around a very different sonic experience than the one associated with a conventional orchestra. The percussion is especially important — soloist roles for the xylorimba and glockenspiel as well as for the piano and horn, the four protagonists of the piece.
Messiaen was commissioned to write “Canyons” in the early 1970s for the upcoming U.S. bicentennial celebration. Did you think it was necessary to visit the spots that inspired Messiaen in Bryce Canyon National Park?
I used the pandemic to spend some time there, mostly in Bryce. We also drove through Zion National Park and of course went to visit the mountain that was named after Messiaen in Utah. These incredibly colorful monuments seem to emphasize his synesthesia [a condition whereby one sense stimulates other senses at the same time, such that chords can evoke specific colors, for example]. But I think even more important than the nature and the birdsongs is the spiritual side of Messiaen’s aspirations, especially in these later years of his life: the symbolism of the journey from where we are into the stars. It’s a glorification of God in all his creation. This is a side of his visions that I didn’t always feel as connected to as I do now.
What makes this music sound so different?
It’s not about the kind of structure we might be used to but involves a lot of collage. For instance, he layers the rhythms of many different birdsongs on top of each other. The challenge is to capture the bigger essence and colors of the message, beyond the details. These are just the starting point toward something bigger in “Canyons.”
As you mentioned, Messiaen experienced synesthesia and “saw” rich color combinations in chords. What do you think Deborah O’Grady’s videography can contribute?
Deborah’s images bring you the memory of those spaces, rather than just showing you what they look like. It’s a bit like Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony, where the main thing is not the brook he was walking past, for instance, but something that inspires the memory of that moment. Her images evoke what you might have experienced being in those spaces: the silence of the desert, which is really about the emptiness of the soul. This is what the incredible horn solo you hear in the opening suggests to me, rather than just a physical place in the desert. I think we live in an era where people connect to these more spiritual messages.
What’s the best way for listeners to take the plunge into this very unusual music?
This is one of those rare occasions where I’d invite people to prepare themselves by just listening a little bit to how Messiaen’s music was inspired by birdsongs: pieces like the “Catalogue d’Oiseaux” or “Chronochromie.” Listen to how he integrates these songs into his vocabulary, especially with piano and percussion. Then it becomes easier to abandon yourself to the more spiritual messages of his music.