Seattle Symphony's Sept. 15 opening-night concert and gala this year mark the final season of the directorship of conductor Ludovic Morlot, as well as the 20th anniversary of Benaroya Hall.

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It’s always a major event: the festive opening of the Seattle Symphony’s concert season, followed by a gala party.

But this year the opening night is an even bigger milestone. The Sept. 15 concert and gala party mark the final season of the directorship of conductor Ludovic Morlot, as well as the 20th anniversary of Benaroya Hall.

They also mark the welcome return of Morlot’s fellow Frenchman, the illustrious pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, whose season as artist in residence three years ago provided some of the finest music to be heard in Seattle. He will play the rarely heard Khachaturian Piano Concerto, in a concert lineup that also includes the colorful “Pictures at an Exhibition” of Mussorgsky. Rounding out the program will be a familiar bonbon, Khachaturian’s feisty “Sabre Dance.”

“We are spoiled, anytime we can get Jean-Yves to town,” Morlot laughs. “The Khachaturian Concerto is rarely done, but he believes so strongly in it — it’s going to be very special.”

Morlot, who came to the Seattle Symphony as music director in 2011, says he tries not to think too much about the fact that this is his farewell season. “Now it’s really about enjoying the last few concerts that the orchestra and I will share together and to make the greatest music,” he says.

Morlot declined to discuss his future plans, except to say, “I will be making music, that’s for sure. It is important to find the right timing and the right projects, not to rush into anything.” He will be 45 when he leaves his SSO post, an age that he has called “my middle period.” Though he will not say so, it’s always possible that his current guest-conducting lineup might offer some clues to the future: This season, Morlot’s guest engagements include the Bamberg, Detroit, Houston and Melbourne symphony orchestras, and the BBC, Bergen and Netherlands Radio Philharmonic orchestras.

Looking back on his years in Seattle, Morlot reflects on the high points of his tenure.

“I’m really happy about the number of amazing musicians we have hired — 28 new members in seven years. That is a huge accomplishment. We have had a real chance to fashion a sound and an aesthetic together. This creates new challenges for everybody, and artistically it is very rewarding.

“Another thing I’m really pleased about is that we have grown the audience quite a lot. The community has embraced the orchestra tremendously in the last few years. I’m also very happy about the Grammy Awards recognizing our recordings, and the label (Seattle Symphony Media) that we have worked so hard on, which is very successful.”

Not surprisingly, Morlot has felt a strong affinity for the music of his home country, an affinity reflected in the repertoire he has conducted in Seattle: an in-depth exploration of a century of French music, by Berlioz, Debussy, Dutilleux, Fauré, Messiaen, Ravel and several others. His SSO recordings, with a particular emphasis on Dutilleux, have been very favorably received.

And this season’s French accent will continue with a season-long emphasis on Debussy, in honor of the centenary of the composer’s death. Morlot also has programmed works by contemporary French composers influenced by Debussy, including Pascal Dusapin and Marc-André Dalbavie.

“The French repertoire allows us to work on creating different layers of sound,” Morlot says. “Then, when the orchestra plays Strauss and Mahler, their quality of listening is stronger. This changes the way they play. Chamber music also has been an important influence on the way people make music now, embracing the new ideas of others and having an open dialogue on the stage. It’s like the Berlin Philharmonic: yes, they play very well, but there also is the constant challenging of each other.”

Premieres have been an important part of Morlot’s legacy: among the high points are the two award-winning scores of John Luther Adams (“Become Ocean” and “Become Desert”), and Aaron Jay Kernis’ Violin Concerto (with soloist James Ehnes). This season, an impressive lineup of premieres will include a new piano concerto by Pulitzer Prize winner Caroline Shaw, Kinan Azmeh’s Clarinet Concerto, two premieres by Derek Bermel and Joël-François Durand’s “Préludes,” as well as new works by Heiner Goebbels, John Harbison and Chen Yi.

With everything going so well, why leave?

“Because I love them so dearly,” Morlot says of his orchestra musicians.

“I don’t want our music to become any kind of routine.

“I have taken the Seattle Symphony from A to B; maybe there is room for B-plus and C,” he says. “It is not easy to decide when to leave — not too soon, not too late. And always, there are such big thank-you’s for everything.”


Seattle Symphony Opening Night with Ludovic Morlot & Jean-Yves Thibaudet, 5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 15; Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $55-$145 concert only, concert and gala tickets start at $650; 206-215-4747,