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Originally published October 16, 2009 at 12:01 AM | Page modified October 16, 2009 at 6:16 PM

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Q&A: Seattle Symphony guest conductor Ludovic Morlot discusses Prokofiev, Haydn — and more

The search for Gerard Schwarz's replacement as music director and principal conductor of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra kicks into high gear next week with the debut of Ludovic Morlot in Benaroya Hall.

Special to The Seattle Times

Concert preview

Seattle Symphony Orchestra

With guest conductor Ludovic Morlot leading Dvorák and Haydn, 7:30 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Oct. 23; and 8 p.m. Oct. 24. Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $9-$100 (206-215-4747 or www.seattlesymphony.org).

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The search for Gerard Schwarz's replacement as music director and principal conductor of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra kicks into high gear next week with the debut of Ludovic Morlot in Benaroya Hall.

Morlot will lead a program Thursday-Saturday, of Prokofiev, Dvorák and Haydn. Martinù's Oboe Concerto will feature Seattle Symphony Principal Oboe Ben Hausmann.

An international search is under way to find the orchestra's next artistic leader, and guest conductors such as Morlot could be under consideration, both this season and next.

The 35-year-old Morlot is one of the most exciting young conductors on the world stage, praised by New Yorker critic Alex Ross as "a leader with a clear beat and a precise ear."

Born in France and trained as a violinist, Morlot moved to London to study at the Royal Academy of Music. He took up conducting in 1994, receiving a fellowship at the Royal College of Music.

A decade later, Morlot became assistant conductor to James Levine at the Boston Symphony Orchestra. His career rapidly developed, and included appearances with the Cleveland Orchestra, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic and Seoul Philharmonic. He has conducted such distinguished soloists as violinist Christian Tetzlaff, pianist Emanuel Ax, cellist Lynn Harrell and opera singer Jessye Norman.

Morlot's head-spinning schedule this current season includes engagements in Oslo, Tokyo and Denmark, and a tour of Germany with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter.

One need only read a thrilling March 2006 concert review by Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times to get a sense of Morlot's evolving mastery. On a night immersed in drama, Morlot made his debut with the New York Philharmonic, stepping in at the last moment to replace the ailing Christoph von Dohnanyi.

The program, Tommasini wrote, included a "challenging" 1996 score by composer Elliot Carter called "Allegro Scorrevole." Though Morlot had never conducted the piece, he had "extensive experience preparing performances of major Carter works" for Levine.

"Morlot," Tommasini said, "elicited a colorful, persuasive and breathless performance from the Philharmonic players. The beaming 97-year-old Carter looked grateful when he slowly walked on stage to share in the ovation."

A few words with Morlot:

Q: You trained as a violinist, but took up studies in conducting in the early 1990s. Why did you decide to do that?

A: For me, conducting is very much an extension of playing violin. I played chamber music as well as music from the orchestral repertoire, and I like to treat conducting as a team partner with other musicians. Being in orchestras when I was a younger guy, and working with many conductors, I saw what to do and what not to do.

Q: How valuable was your experience as assistant conductor in Boston?

A: Very valuable. I observed Maestro (James) Levine, and I was under pressure to be prepared to the highest level every week. The exposure to repertoire and working with great players prepared me for stepping into different situations and conducting.

Q: Besides a broad knowledge of the repertoire, what does a conductor need to know?

A: Many things beyond music. You have to know how to deal with a group of people. You have to manage time well, and not overtire the players before a performance. Allow yourself to be humbled by the music you're trying to communicate. Always be aware of all those chemistry issues that make a group successful. You take what the orchestra has to offer and develop it with the time you have.

Q: You mention not overtiring the musicians. Have you seen situations in which an orchestra burned out on a piece during rehearsals?

A: I've seen burnout many times. With an experienced orchestra, you have to leave something for the performance. You have to trust that in rehearsal, the players will understand what you want, and then you give them time for it to sink in. It's different for each orchestra. You have to feel it.

Q: You're in great demand everywhere, traveling to different cities and debuting with many orchestras. How do you quickly establish a working relationship with each?

A: It's like meeting a person. You leave the relationship to your instincts. In my first reading of a composition with an orchestra, I try not to get too involved. It's always best to leave it to the other person and find out as much as you can, try to learn about them and then establish a relationship.

Q: How do you decide which offers to guest-conduct you'll accept?

A: I have help from management. I have a few mentors who offer advice. I go to places I don't know. Some are expert in the repertoire. Others are strong on their national music. It's all different chemistry. In America, it's hard to say no to an offer, and in Europe there are many chances to build a strong connection with an orchestra and go back.

Q: Do you prefer working this way?

A: It's draining and not always satisfying. I would like a longer-term relationship to explore with an orchestra. My dream is to have more of a family sense with an orchestra, and not have to start from scratch every Monday.

Q: Your family lives in France. Is it hard to be away so much?

A: That's not so easy, and it demonstrates how one can't have everything. But other people go to work at 7 a.m. and come home at 10 p.m., and they're tired on the weekends. My job is different. When I come home, I can be a part of everything.

Q: Can you talk a little about the program you're conducting at Benaroya Hall? (The bill includes Haydn's Symphony No. 88 in G major; Prokofiev's "Classical Symphony"; Martinù's Oboe Concerto; and Dvoøák's "Legends," Nos. 6, 7, and 9.)

A: Haydn is a great love of mine. Ben Hausmann [Seattle Symphony's principal oboe] was very interested in Martinù's Oboe Concerto. Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1 calls on different skills from the orchestra. Then I thought the program was a little short. I thought about Martinù's Czech heritage, and that led to Dvoøák. I chose three of the "Legends," at three or four minutes each. The concerts will be interesting, and I look forward to them.

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@yahoo.com.

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