“Tuning Up!” the two-week, nine-concert series of modern American music that kicks off Friday, June 17, illustrates Seattle Symphony maestro Ludovic Morlot’s philosophy of making music accessible to everyone.
Since his appointment as music director of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra six years ago, Ludovic Morlot has shaken things up at Benaroya Hall.
He has not only introduced a striking menu of challenging contemporary work — including John Luther Adams’ “Become Ocean,” which won the SSO its first Grammy — but invited a raft of nonclassical artists such as rapper Sir Mix-A-Lot and Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready to collaborate with his players.
Much of the discussion about Morlot’s programming has centered on audience development, but what about the philosophy driving the music? “Tuning Up!” the two-week, nine-concert series of modern American music that kicks off Friday, June 17, offered a good opportunity to ask the maestro himself. In a candid, wide-ranging and animated conversation in his office recently, Morlot revealed what’s shaping this exciting new era of Seattle’s symphonic life.
IF YOU GO
Tuning Up! Festival
Nine concerts from June 17-July 2, at Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle, except for the June 26 all-Gershwin concert at Marymoor Park. Benaroya Hall concert tickets are $15 and $25; Marymoor tickets are $34.50-$69.50. (206-215-4747 or www.seattlesymphony.org)
“If you think what ‘classical music’ or opera was in the 18th and 19th century,” says Morlot, “it was the pop music of that time. Ragtime at the turn of the 20th century was what hip-hop is today.”
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True dat. But over the course of the 20th century, “classical music” came to mean something quite different — a fixed repertoire of established works played again and again, vaunted as timeless, universal and superior to “popular music.”
Though in Morlot’s eyes there’s still nothing that beats Beethoven, he nevertheless “wants to move out of” this way of thinking about genre. He says he doesn’t even like the term “classical music,” preferring the term “symphonic music,” since classical more accurately describes a period (the Enlightenment of the late 17th and 18th centuries, specifically).
Besides, he adds, playing an established repertoire isn’t classical, it’s “a very romantic idea, really. Nostalgia. Comfort in recognizing the ground that you’ve been on before. (But) think of the older church music. The requiem was written by commission … and it was not planned to be repeated, ever. That was it!”
Even in the 19th century, symphonies didn’t repeat themselves as much as they do now in concert.
“The concept would be: new piece, new piece, new piece, new piece, then a concerto or the songs of someone who was popular at the time — Chopin, say — then a bonbon at the end that people would recognize,” explains the conductor. “ I’m not saying we have to go all that way. But just to find a little bit of a balance.”
Morlot hasn’t just rejiggered the balance between old and new; he has eagerly welcomed artists from other genres, an experience he says has made him — and his players — better musicians.
Watching McCready on stage, for example, Morlot says he realized he was seeing someone “completely transform himself … This is part of how we are going to engage the audience in what we do, to help change the perception that this classical music field is boring.”
But for Morlot, it’s not really a question of choosing between old and new, popular and classical, but finding relationships between them.
“For me the greatest music ever written will always be Beethoven’s music … but at the end of the day, I think I’ll find more entrances into it if I’m opening my canvas,” he says.
The canvas for “Tuning Up!” — which takes its title from an amusing, iconoclastic piece by French-American composer Edgar Varèse — is nothing if not open.
The first concert, “Rhapsody in Red, White & Blue,” features works by Varèse, Charles Ives, George Gershwin, Derek Bermel, John Adams and Duke Ellington.
“This is the roots,” he says. “The American sound for orchestra is music that deals with the elements of ragtime, rhythm, dance and syncopation.”
Morlot takes personal delight in starting with Varèse: “A French conductor leading an American orchestra with a French American title!”
Varèse’s stunningly compact flute piece, “Density 21.5,” transposed for theremin, also appears on a concert called “SPELLBOUND: The Theremin Returns,” which celebrates the warbling electronic instrument popularized in science fiction movies.
“Stage & Screen: From Appalachian Spring to the Red Violin” nods to America’s populist period, featuring works by Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, John Corigliano and Marvin Hamlisch, long associated with the SSO.
The orchestra wades hip-deep into the avant-garde with Morton Feldman’s “Triadic Memories,” a 90-minute solo piano piece Morlot knows some may find challenging but which is also an opportunity, he says.
“You’re sitting in this dark room listening to a pianist and you don’t know exactly what chord is going to be struck next,” he describes. “So after a very short while you just have to surrender. Now you’re alone with yourself. And this is a luxury!”
Feldman’s “Piano and Orchestra” will be played on a multimedia concert with lighting enhancements titled “The Light That Fills the World — A Meditation in Sound & Light,” named for John Luther Adams’ meditative soundscape, along with Julia Wolfe’s 9/11-inspired “My Beautiful Scream,” John Cage’s notorious “4’33” (for which the orchestra is silent), and “The Light,” by minimalist Philip Glass.
Morlot purposefully programmed Cage’s piece right after Wolfe’s: “I thought, I want ‘4’33 Cage’ to be that kind of minute of silence that one will need after that scream.”
Morlot has a way of bringing music to life, even just talking about it. Listening to him describe these concerts was like taking a guided tour of successive rooms in an art gallery. But the best way to experience his fresh take on symphonic music is to go hear it for yourself.