Orchestra conductors are all about timing: Giving the downbeat, starting the music, cuing the musicians, and giving the final cutoff.
For Ludovic Morlot, the timing is right for a departure from the Seattle Symphony, where his eight-year music directorship comes to an official close June 13-23 with two programs of music he loves best: works of Debussy, Janacek, Strauss and Wagner. But unlike the career path of the typical major-orchestra music director, who usually moves on to a new orchestra directorship after departing, Morlot is looking at a variety of different musical activities — from symphonic and opera guest conducting to working with young musicians.
“It is quite unusual, I recognize, for a music director to leave one orchestra and not go straight to another,” the 45-year-old Morlot said in a recent interview at his Benaroya Hall office. “I am actually very happy about this. It is a lot about being able to reflect and to plan.
“You know, I’ve never been much of a career guy. I’ve never been driven by anything except growth. For me what is important is going to bed every night feeling I have learned something new. It’s wonderful to come back to a beautiful orchestra, but it’s only good if you know you can push them to the next level.”
Morlot can look back with considerable pride on the impact he has made here, even in a time period that was much shorter than that of some of his predecessors. During his tenure, the orchestra’s community outreach broadened with experimental series, such as “Untuxed” and “(untitled),” and collaborations with such nonclassical artists as Mike McCready of Pearl Jam and rapper Sir Mix-a-Lot.
Dmitriy Lipay, the Symphony’s Grammy-winning recording engineer and producer, says that Morlot “brought new vision and new repertoire to the orchestra. Every season there was new music, new commissioned pieces. He was very flexible, and I brought in my own ideas. The timing was good. We established the new label and could decide what to record. And the orchestra was ready for this; we were already very experienced in doing recordings.”
Playing the French music that Morlot particularly loves, in the style required by the music, has made a change in the Symphony, Morlot believes.
“The orchestra has a new sound, with more transparency. Before, they have had a very rich sound, in terms of the unity of all the layers. I have worked to achieve more individuality into all those layers now, and French music has helped. Orchestras that play more vertically, let’s say more in German harmony concept, tend to forget sometimes the inner voices, to give an inner life to those voices. The musicians are more versatile now; they have the instinct and are more spontaneous on their own initiative.”
A major reason for these changes, Morlot explains, is the fact that more than 30 new players have joined the orchestra during his tenure, including several principals. Five new “associate principal” (second chair) positions also have been created in this busy orchestra that also plays for Seattle Opera. “If a principal always plays with the same second, they understand each other without having to speak,” Morlot observes.
Any unfulfilled hopes for his Seattle Symphony tenure?
“Of course,” he replies. “I would have loved to get the orchestra on the road. The time will come; the timing of my tenure just did not coincide with the time that the organization felt really strong about committing to touring. And I would have loved to see a summer presence for the orchestra here, to create free concerts for the community and its visitors.”
Among Morlot’s post-Seattle plans will be some time working with young musicians, including the National Youth Orchestra of China, with which he will tour in Europe. He also will work with students at the Royal Academy in London (where Morlot studied) and the Yale Philharmonia. He’ll remain based in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife and two daughters, 16 and 13.
“L.A.’s working magic for us,” he said. “It’s a wonderful base, and it has been very easy for me to commute to Seattle in the last two years. The family is really happy down there.”
And yes, eventually there will be some guest-conducting in Seattle. But not yet.
“In any relationship, there are a lot of waves,” he says of his time here. “We all know how when you fall in love, you start at that magnificent height in the relationship that you know will decline in the morning. You want to make changes, which will lead inevitably to a drop in the relationship or misunderstandings. But then there’s that moment when people realize what is happening is absolutely wonderful, and the curve starts going up, and it is much stronger than when you started. I think you need to get out of the place before it goes down again.
“I think I timed it pretty well: The orchestra and I are in an amazing place at the moment, not only gone way back up, but having created much more intensity and much more understanding. It’s the right time to leave at this inspiring time for the orchestra. I am very happy for [music director designate] Thomas [Dausgaard] to build from this time on, because the orchestra is in a wonderful place, and the opportunity is there for it to sound better and better, every day.
“Just like in music: Timing is everything. I love that feeling of turning the page to the next chapter. And I will still be here in Seattle, a little. There is a certain way that the orchestra is breathing into a downbeat, and for a while, there will be a little ghost of me saying, ‘Breathe.’ It’s inspiring to know that I have been a part of that.”
Ludovic Morlot’s final Seattle Symphony concerts as music director:
7:30 p.m. June 13, noon June 14, 8 p.m. June 15: Ludovic Morlot, conductor; Mary Lynch, oboe soloist. Wagner, Prelude to Act III of “Lohengrin”; Strauss, Oboe Concerto; Debussy, “Jeux”; Strauss, “Till Eulenspiegel”; Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $22-$122; 206-215-4747, seattlesymphony.org
7:30 p.m. June 20, 8 p.m. June 22, 2 p.m. June 23: Ludovic Morlot, conductor; Maria Männistö, soprano; Ludovit Ludha, tenor; Seattle Symphony Chorale. Wagner, Prelude and Liebestod from “Tristan und Isolde”; Debussy, “Pelléas et Melisande” Suite; Debussy, “Nocturnes”; Janácek, “The Eternal Gospel”; Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $22-$122; 206-215-4747, seattlesymphony.org