Classical & More
Meet the New Maestro: Ludovic Morlot brings youth and fresh sounds to SSO.
“HIS FRIENDS CALL HIM LUDO.” The casual introduction by the Seattle Symphony staff got more than a few laughs back in January, as a concert hall full of subscribers imagined addressing their new conductor Ludovic Morlot like he was a golf buddy. What next, happy hour with the maestro?
Perhaps. After a quarter century under the musical direction of Gerard Schwarz, a taskmaster who often commanded the symphony as a general would an army, the orchestra has decided to rebrand itself with an affable 37-year-old Frenchman as its poster boy. He is our answer to the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s firebrand at the baton, 30-year-old Gustavo Dudamel, who since 2009 has re-energized the Phil with his crazy afro and singular, boyish exuberance for bringing music to the people.
The same can be said of Morlot, who speaks so lovingly of classical music, you can practically hear a flute trill when he opens his mouth. “Going to a concert isn’t an intellectual experience. It’s an emotional journey,” he said. Morlot’s journey started in Lyon, when he first heard the violin at his grandfather’s knee at age six. “My grandfather was a prisoner during the war and he picked up the clarinet and the violin. He loved the music so much I started playing.” Morlot studied the instrument at the University of Montreal and conducting at London’s Royal Academy of Music before he stepped in as an assistant conductor for the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 2004 to 2007. Known for his unostentatious style and high energy—the kind that lifts him onto his tiptoes on the podium, and leaves him with a permanent bounce to his step—Morlot was quietly making a name for himself in the U.S. After he performed successfully as a last-minute substitute conductor for the New York Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony, high-profile guest stints started rolling in: National Symphony in Washington, DC. Rotterdam Philharmonic. London Philharmonic Orchestra. Tokyo Philharmonic.
And of course the Seattle Symphony, where he made his debut in October 2009, but left his mark in April 2010 during “the volcano concert.” An eruption in Iceland choked the sky with ash and delayed outbound flights across Europe—including Morlot’s. He didn’t arrive until the day before the concert and started rehearsing the morning of the show. “I’ve never had that experience before,” he said. “It was really amazing how the orchestra could reach that performance level in 24 hours.” He was smitten. “I think I made a little joke, saying: After a meal with someone, you know instantly if you want to have that second meal. It was very much love at first sight.”
The feeling is mutual—so far, at least. An early New York Times interview of the orchestra found him “a thoughtful, intuitive musician with a good sense of phrasing and a collaborative manner.” Symphony board chair Leslie Chihuly gushed that he’s “playful, serious, intense, explosive.” But what of the fears? After all, he’s a first-time director filling the shoes of the man who built Benaroya Hall. Could Morlot’s extensive international schedule, including his other job as chief conductor of Belgium’s La Monnaie opera house, turn him into an absentee parent? “I want to keep guest conducting,” he said. “You can’t possibly tour with your whole orchestra as much as you can guest conduct, so it would be very prudent for me to export myself as the musical director of Seattle Symphony as well.” It’s not uncommon for music directors to divide their time among other houses. (Schwarz led the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra from 2001 to 2006 and served 17 years as music director for New York’s Mostly Mozart festival.) And Morlot sees it as a win-win to have a presence in Europe. “That might also make it possible for me to bring the Seattle Symphony to Europe at some point soon.”
Morlot will conduct 17 concert programs this season, and even more as his six-year contract continues. In the meantime, the Great French Hope and his family—wife Ghizlane and daughters Nora, eight, and Iman, five—will relocate permanently to Seattle. The girls will continue their violin and cello lessons, which they started at an age when most children are watching Dora. “I don’t want to push [the girls] but I think [music] is such a beautiful language. It’s sad if you actually speak it and don’t share it with your kids.”
As for the music Morlot will share with Seattle: He’ll open the season on September 17 with a program that winks at his French roots (Gershwin’s An American in Paris, Ravel’s Bolero), gives the symphony’s former lead cellist Joshua Roman a prominent solo (Gulda’s Concerto for Cello and Wind Orchestra), and metaphorically cracks a champagne bottle on Morlot’s tenure (Beethoven’s Consecration of the House Overture).
But expect to see the best of the new collaboration during the fall Masterworks series, when Morlot conducts Beethoven’s Eroica symphony on September 26 and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring on September 29 and October 1. The edgiest addition to the lineup is the new Sonic Evolution series, featuring local chamber pop band Hey Marseilles in concert with the symphony on October 18, and young composers commissioned to create work inspired by local music legends Jimi Hendrix, Nirvana, and Quincy Jones, among others. “We’re living in a time when we need a concert hall to be open to as many people as possible. Great music is great music, no matter the genre,” Morlot told the predominantly white-haired crowd of subscribers last winter. “I promise this could be quite explosive.”
“Change is good,” whispered the woman to my right. In the back of storied Benaroya Hall, someone whooped. —Laura Dannen
Updated September 2, 2011. The end date for Seattle Opera’s production of Carmen is October 29, not 19, and mezzo-soprano Malgorzata Walewska was a standout as Azucena, not Azcuna, in Trovatore, as stated in the September 2011 issue.