This season, Ludovic Morlot brings a special focus to a composer for whom he feels an affinity. Two programs in November feature the music of Hector Berlioz, and early next year the conductor makes his Seattle Opera debut conducting Berlioz’s take on “Much Ado About Nothing”
Ludovic Morlot’s connection to Hector Berlioz goes deep.
When he was 12, his parents moved to a house just a few miles from La Côte-Saint-André, the composer’s native village in the southeastern corner of France.
“I remember them taking me to visit the house where Berlioz was born, in the middle of the village,” Morlot said in a recent interview. “You can see the flute and guitar he played as a kid. On weekends, I used to bike to the places he describes in his Mémoires. The ‘Scène aux champs’ in the ‘Symphonie fantastique’ evokes the gentle hills where he grew up. Nothing has changed there over the past 200 years. ”
Ludovic Morlot conducts the Seattle Symphony in two Berlioz programs
“Symphonie fantastique” and “Nuits d’été” (with tenor Ian Bostridge), 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 2; 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 4; and 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 5. $22-$122. Berlioz’s Requiem, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 9; and 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 11. $37-$122. All concerts at Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle (206-215-4747 or seattlesymphony.org).
In November, the Seattle Symphony’s music director will conduct two programs devoted entirely to music by the 19th-century French composer. The first program (Nov. 2, 4 and 5) features Berlioz’s early breakthrough, “Symphonie fantastique” — a kind of sonic portrait of the young artist at his wildest extremes — as well as the orchestral song cycle “Les nuits d’été” (“Summer Nights”). The soloist for the latter will be the world-class British tenor Ian Bostridge.
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“Symphonie fantastique” — dating from 1830, just three years after the death of Beethoven — represents one of the big-bang moments of Romanticism. It opened up a vast new sense of potential for the modern orchestra. And it is also one of those rare works, like Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” that still manage to sound revolutionary to contemporary ears.
“The minute I started to become fascinated by conducting, Berlioz was a focus for me,” recalls Morlot, who was mentored while a student in London by the late Colin Davis, one of the most exciting Berlioz interpreters of the past half-century. Berlioz himself was an important conductor and also wrote a highly influential study of orchestration.
The second program (Nov. 9 and 11) offers a rare chance to hear a live performance of the “Grande Messe des morts” — Berlioz’s setting of the Requiem, scored for a staggering array of forces. To accomplish that, Morlot will lead an expanded orchestra (12 timpanists alone) plus a chorus of 200: the combined voices of the Seattle Symphony Chorale and Seattle Pro Musica.
“He had this drive to make his ideas larger than life,” remarks Morlot. “It’s not just the size of the forces, but the way the instruments are placed around the space to intensify the drama, the bold harmonies and orchestral colors. That’s why I call Berlioz the ultimate embodiment of Romanticism.”
Berlioz wrote his Requiem in 1837 for a grand public occasion — 73 years before the premiere of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand.” For Morlot, Berlioz represents a link between Beethoven and Mahler. “The idea in the ‘Symphonie fantastique’ to juxtapose the love theme with sounds of nature, with the triviality of a march, with a nightmare fantasy — that’s completely Mahler. In France we actually tend to think of Berlioz almost as a German composer.”
In February and March, Morlot will make his Seattle Opera debut conducting Berlioz’s last major work: the comic opera “Béatrice et Bénédict,” based on Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” Its first-ever production of the opera, “Béatrice et Bénédict” will be the company’s contribution to a citywide celebration of the Bard.
“The music is bolder than anything before, but the means to express it are no longer huge. The orchestra in this opera is so much smaller than what Berlioz had envisioned in those early works. It’s almost classical,” observes the conductor.
Morlot thinks of Berlioz at his core as an opera composer — even in his purely orchestral works like “Symphonie fantastique.” “The relationship between the artist and his beloved here is very operatic.”
For his Seattle Opera debut, Morlot says he especially looks forward to spending extra time with the Seattle Symphony players, who also make up the opera orchestra. “Everything else in the last seven years with them has been about learning to play different scores each week. To be in the pit with my musicians for two months with one score we can refine and polish is such a luxury.”