Seattle Symphony Music Director Ludovic Morlot joins orchestra musicians in "Bolero"; greets young music lovers; on the podium. Photo credits: from left: Ben VanHouten; Mary Langholz; Ben VanHouten.

Seattle’s New Sound Garden: Questions for Ludovic Morlot

In his first few weeks as music director of the Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot: tossed out the first pitch at a Seattle Mariners game; conducted an opening-night concert at which he also slipped in among the strings to play the violin for Ravel’s Bolero; presided over a day of free music by richly diverse local groups; and led three world premieres, commissioned by the Seattle Symphony, inspired by local music icons Jimi Hendrix, Nirvana, and Quincy Jones. Morlot has only been in the job a couple of months, and already he’s taking an only-in-Seattle tack that seems custom-tailored for the Emerald City.

Sure, tossing out the ceremonial first pitch at a ball game is something lots of American music directors do, but Hendrix and Kurt Cobain in an orchestra hall? Morlot makes it all sound like a natural fit. He’s determined to connect the orchestra with its hometown in multiple ways, and he and Executive Director Simon Woods, who arrived in spring of 2011, have launched a host of new initiatives that bring the music to the people. In a way, they are extending the innovative thinking that characterized Gerard Schwarz’s 25-year tenure as music director.

But the new team is making their own mark with adventurous programming that balances the modern (lots of Dutilleux) with the traditional and that links up with Seattle’s idiosyncratic local culture. In November, Morlot joined a new group of noted Seattle writers, actors, and others as part of an artistic collective serving as a “think tank” for the city’s vanguard Intiman Theatre. The orchestra’s Hendrix/Nirvana/Jones works were composed by William Brittelle, Cuong Vu, and Vladimir Nikolaev—all of them familiar to local audiences—and the concert also featured the popular local band Hey Marseilles, which performed a world premiere by Seattle composer Phillip A. Peterson.

Seattle Symphony Executive Director Simon Woods and musicians welcome Ludovic Morlot to his first rehearsal as music director. Photo: Larey McDaniel.

And everyone is invited: several free ticket initiatives make concerts eminently accessible. Adult ticket-buyers can bring along a young person aged eight to eighteen—for free. Another program offers free tickets to four different community groups.

Born in Lyon, France, the 37-year-old Morlot trained as violinist, and studied conducting at Royal Academy of Music in London and the Royal College of Music. In the U.S., he has a long relationship with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, serving as a 2001 Conducting Fellow at Tanglewood and from 2004-2007 as assistant conductor at the BSO. He is a regular figure on the podiums of the major orchestras of Chicago, Cleveland, New York,  Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia, and has conducted opera companies and orchestras throughout Europe. This fall, he is spending three weeks with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, leading two subscription weeks in Boston and a West Coast tour to Los Angeles and San Francisco. Seattle isn’t his only gig: in 2012 assumes an additional post as chief conductor of Theatre Royal de la Monnaie, the prestigious opera house in Brussels, Belgium.

Robert Sandla: What attracted you to the music directorship of the Seattle Symphony?
Ludovic Morlot: For starters, the musicians of orchestra—I think we all felt a special rapport from the first meeting. But ultimately, the whole thing attracted me: the city, the environment in the concert hall, the response from the community. After working with the Seattle Symphony the first time, I instantly wanted to go back. The second visit made an even stronger impression. What I felt instantly is that this is an orchestra that behaves like a chamber music group—they really listen to each other. This relates, I think, to the fact that this orchestra also plays the opera season [with the Seattle Opera], so they perform together a lot, in different circumstances. Sometimes you find with orchestras that also play for opera that they are listening to each other, working together to make the final product. The Seattle Symphony musicians have a spirit of making music together that is something I identify with as a music leader. That quality was strong and obvious from day one.

Sandla: Did you know about the orchestra or the city of Seattle before actually working with them?
Morlot: Prior to my first guest-conducting there, I knew little about the orchestra or the Pacific Northwest. For me, that region was completely foreign. But when I starting guest-conducting in 2009, things started moved quickly because I was very curious about the orchestra and curious about organization. Coming after Gerry Schwarz, who had been at the orchestra for 26 years and who had been very involved with the community, I realized that I had to make Seattle a home if I were to take this job. The orchestra needs to be an artistic focus for the community. And it was very clear to me that I would have much better impact for the work, for the orchestra, and for the community if I could become part of the community. So my family and I are making our home there. It’s a great city and region, and I really fell for that beautiful place.

Sandla: What makes Seattle … Seattle?
Morlot: Seattle is a city with a unique identity. The orchestra musicians already have a wonderful spirit and are playing beautifully, and you can tell that they want to push that even further. Everyone is very hungry for that. Plus, the support of people of the community. Seattle has a very active cultural scene, with all kinds of art and music. It’s different from any other place. Think about Seattle’s music scene—what happened there in the 80s, the grunge scene, what’s going on now. It’s a very active musical scene, in every genre. It’s the kind of city where we came up with a tag line that says, “Listen boldly,” and it fits.

“They were coming to hear live world premieres of pieces that had been commissioned by us, played by us, with the composers right there. It’s what going to a concert 200 years ago must have been like, when people were excited to hear new pieces being performed for the first time, with the composers in the hall.”

Sandla: The Sonic Evolution concert in October really put the focus on some Seattle music icons. But as a European classical-music guy, did you know about Nirvana, Hendrix, Quincy Jones?
Morlot: I did know about them. And it was great to celebrate their work. But what’s important about this project, and what I always emphasize, is that even though it celebrates those artists from Seattle, Sonic Evolution is about commissioning young composers to write original works inspired by their musical legacy. This is not about an orchestra playing Hendrix tunes. We commissioned musical pieces for symphony orchestra that use techniques that pay homage to those artists. I made it clear that I did not want to hear any quotes. Instead, we wanted symphonic works with a completely different approach. The composers came up with stunning, really completely original scores. We also worked with a local band, Hey Marseilles, that has a big following.

Sandla: The response?
Morlot: Wonderful. We had many, many young people attend who had maybe never stepped into our hall before. They were coming to hear live world premieres of pieces that had been commissioned by us, played by us, with the composers right there. It’s what going to a concert 200 years ago must have been like, when people were excited to hear new pieces being performed for the first time, with the composers in the hall. People from Pearl Jam came. Alan White from YES came. And we had many people who don’t usually show up for what we do. It was very interesting. Beyond paying homage to those Seattle artists, we created a commissioning project that attracted new audiences to experience live symphonic sound.

Sandla: Was there a larger, long-term aim?
Morlot: If you have the guts to walk into a concert hall as a kid or when you’re in your twenties, there’s no reason to be intimidated to do so 20 years later, when you become a subscriber or music-lover. It’s important to understand that projects like this are also, in some ways, investments for the future. We want orchestral music to be a part of life and to be part of the experience of a community.

This is very important to me. The concert hall is not a bunker in downtown exclusively for classical music or for people who already know what is to be performed. Live orchestral music can take you on an emotional journey, an emotional experience, and everyone is invited for this. You can come to hear Eroica or to hear Frank Zappa. In a way, there’s something about the experience of hearing live music that goes beyond specific works. The first concert I went to as a kid, I have no recollection of what I heard—Brahms, Beethoven, I don’t know. But I remember the emotions of listening to live symphonic music. The musical interests are so wide here in Seattle that we have to make it a mission for the symphony to give this experience to as diverse an audience as possible. And the more we work to diversify the audience, the more we can be diverse in our programming and music.

Seattle Symphony Music Director Ludovic Morlot addresses the ball with his baton at a Seattle Mariners game. Photo: Ben VanHouten.

Sandla: Is that why you wound up on the pitcher’s mound at the Mariners game?
Morlot: That was fun. But it’s part of the same kind of mission—to be able to bridge our organization and our city. We should have visibility with the whole community, and it’s tremendously helpful to make those bridges. I see my mission as two-fold. One is that, like every music director with a new orchestra, artistic growth is a primary concern. That is something that the community is not necessarily able to witness behind the scenes, but they should be able to take great pride in quality of our work. And our second mission, which I am very involved in, is that we have many new initiatives for the community. Free tickets for young people. The Family Connection program. The Community Connections program. Inviting people who are in post-prison programs to come to the symphony. Creating bonds with university music schools. All of this is going on.

Sandla: And how are things going?
Morlot: Some of these programs are very new, and it takes a little while for people to know about all this. But already we have a fair amount of young people coming in. It’s fabulous for longtime subscribers to see young faces in the hall.

“The musical interests are so wide here in Seattle that we have to make it a mission for the symphony to give the experience of live music to as diverse an audience as possible.”

Sandla: These aspects of your approach sound very American. Is there a difference between how American and European music directors view their jobs?
Morlot: I think American music directors have to be the face of the organization. One of the key reasons for that is the fundraising system. In Europe, with all the state subsidies, it’s much easier for a music director to appear and disappear once a while. Here, it is very urgent not only to come up with a vision but to find partners to support your work and your connection with the community. In cities the size of Seattle, with such a vibrant cultural scene, one has the opportunity to make things happen.

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