Ludovic Morlot on his Vienna debut, life at Seattle Symphony & more



This month, Ludovic Morlot will make his debut in Vienna, conducting the Wiener Symphoniker in the closing concert of Festival Wien Modern. He spoke to Charlotte Gardner about this debut, life at Seattle Symphony, non-classical collaborations and more. 

We’re speaking as you’re about to travel to Europe to make your debut in Vienna. What are you particularly looking forward to about that, and what can you tell me about your programme?
Well it’s an honour to take part in such a prestigious festival [Festival Wien Modern], and I think the programme is one that very much reflects what I do. There’s the repertoire staple in the form of Ravel’s La Valse, and Ives’ The Unanswered Question which is very dear to me, and then the rest of the programme fulfills the theme of the festival. There’s the world premiere of a new piece for piano and orchestra by James Clarke called Untitled No. 8, with Nicolas Hodges performing on the piano. There’s also a symphony by Schiske, which is 1960s music, very Viennese, and impeccably crafted all at once; the idea behind the whole piece is of a hidden homage to Beethoven, Bach and Bruckner, so there’s a double canon built of the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth, some Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, and the BACH musical motto. We’re also performing the Austrian premiere of a concerto for percussion and orchestra with Victor Hanna, by Olga Neuwirth who is one of the leading Austrian composers today. So as a whole, if we wanted to cover absolutely everything that reflects what I do, the only things missing would be either a vocal element or something completely classical like a Haydn symphony. The spectrum of this programme is very much how I like to think of how one can experience music in a very exciting way.

[Ludovic will conduct the Wiener Symphoniker in the closing concert of Festival Wien Modern on Wednesday 30 November 2016.]

Are you also looking forward to Vienna itself?
Very much. In fact I’ve done something I don’t do very often and I’ve extended my stay beyond the concert for another three days. The musical period that is possibly the most dear to me is that of the turn of the twentieth century: Brahms, Wagner, Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, but also so much more, and not just the music but everything that was going on in Vienna in those days. So to actually be there and make those emotional connections to what otherwise can feel very fictional, just read about in books, is a wonderful thing.

Such a lot has happened since we last spoke three years ago, not least in terms of growth for Seattle Symphony’s international profile. How would you describe the orchestra as it stands today?
Tremendous energy and amazing talent. I’ve been fortunate to be able to hire close to twenty musicians over the past five years, through a combination of positions opening up and creating new positions in the woodwinds and trumpet, and we’ve been able to attract musicians from the top-tier orchestras in the States; my first hire was a cellist who had been second chair in the Philadelphia Orchestra and came to be our Principal, and the same thing happened for Principal Oboe, who came from second chair in the Cleveland. So we’ve had this possibility to really attract super talented musicians, many of them very young, which has helped me in creating this amazing energy, and really given us the feeling of a new team.

You’ve got all sorts of interesting projects designed to get as many different kinds of people as possible through the doors of Benaroya Hall. One notable collaboration with local non-classical musicians was the Sir Mix-a-Lot concert. That particular evening has been much talked about, so extraordinary were those scenes of audience members getting up onstage and dancing, but I haven’t actually heard anyone describe what it was actually like in the hall. How was the atmosphere?
It was fun! Sometimes we kind of think of classical music as being serious, and of course often it is, but there must be a way where as musicians we can get out of our comfort zone and just party once in a while, and that’s what that night felt like. We’ve also collaborated with jazz musicians, with members of Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Guns N’ Roses, and recently had a concert homage to Quincy Jones, who is from Seattle. Such collaborations don’t do any damage to the way we play Mozart and Mahler, and I think it’s exciting from an audience perspective because they’re attracting a different mix of people to come to hear the Seattle Symphony. Yes, they’ve come for Sir Mix-a-Lot (pictured, right) or Mike McCready, but at the end of the day they’re still experiencing what is most important, i.e. the live symphonic setting, and from there we can hope that they’ll want to hear more of us.

Another popular series of yours is the late-night Untitled strand in the grand lobby, which allows people to sit with a glass of wine, text, and wander around. How’s that going?
We’re now going for a strong thematic focus with this series. We just did one based on Polish music which included a world premiere by Agata Zubel based on Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, programmed alongside Lutosławski. The Polish Consul from Los Angeles actually came to that. The next one will be on Russian music.

Your education work has grown in recent years. What sort of work have you been doing?
One initiative I’m especially proud of is Link Up, which is in partnership with Carnegie Hall and invites young school kids to play alongside the symphony orchestra. Then, we’re currently in the process of revamping the whole of our educational space to be much more in line with technology, and to allow us to stream concert hall events. We’ve also really pursued growing our number of community projects, such as playing in prisons, and initiatives that help increase our awareness of issues such as homelessness. So we’re trying to reach out to all groups. This all goes alongside artistic growth and artist excellence, which we mustn’t forget, but I think those two paths of excellence and relevance within the community will always be crisscrossing each other.

Let’s move onto recordings, because the orchestra now has its own recording label, Seattle Symphony Media, which despite only launching in 2014 has already won two Grammy awards. What has it meant for you to have your own label?
Well it’s been many things. Firstly, it’s been an incredible tool to improve the quality of the orchestra, because when you’re in recording mode everyone continuously gives the best of themselves. Then, to have the recognition of the Grammys and to have our music able to be played all around the world has been very important to us. Finally, I would say that creating our own label has allowed us to release recordings that really reflect our programming, because as you might have noticed we haven’t done a complete Mahler or Brahms cycle. Instead, it was very important to me that our recordings reflected the programming going on in Seattle, and I always see this programming as a combination of going to the art museum and the art gallery. In other words, we’re all more comfortable going to the art museum and seeing the Monet, the Renoir and the Picasso, but what I try to do is to always encourage people out of the art museum and across the street into the art gallery to see what new art is on exhibit too, and then to really feel what the relationship between those two spaces can create. So we have Dvořák’s New World Symphony with Varèse’s Amériques for instance. I also really wanted to do the Dutilleux orchestral works. The orchestra hadn’t played a note of Dutilleux’s music before I arrived, but they’ve embraced it in a tremendous way, which has now been recognised through the Grammy award and other prizes.

The other Grammy was for a work you also actually commissioned, John Luther Adams’s multi-award winning Become Ocean. How did that feel? It also prompted Taylor Swift to be in touch?
It was fantastic! When I arrived in Seattle I wanted to have a role commissioning American voices that hadn’t been championed elsewhere, and for them to write symphonic music relevant to the landscape and the environment of Seattle. So who better than John Luther Adams, who had spent his life focused on environmental issues? He was living in Alaska at the time of the commission, which was the perfect entry point for us. As for whether I thought the commission would go on to win him a Pulitzer prize, a Grammy, to be used on the soundtrack to The Revenant….! For me the power of his work is that in a world where we live so fast, doing eighteen things at once, it forces you just to let go, to not listen as if trying to understand it, but instead to let the music transcend your emotions. It’s almost like a 42-minute meditation, and the stories about how people have been touched by it go on and on. The communication with Taylor Swift was a very powerful thing for me. Not because she wrote out of the blue to thank us for the recording and make a gift to the symphony, but because she expressed that she had been touched, and that recording had reminded her of her grandmother taking her to concerts when she was a kid. I think that must be a message to young people, that musicians such as her have also had that experience of going to the concert hall. We at the symphony need to make sure we create the environment where everybody feels invited to make that first memory, because one day it’ll come back when they’re moved by something like that.

Returning to the subject of French repertoire, having been Music Director of La Monnaie, with Seattle you’re now about to do a concert performance of Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges. How important a project is this to you?
I love opera, so bringing opera in concert performance is kind of a natural step for me in the relationship I now have with the Seattle Symphony. Obviously you want to be careful not to create a clash with the city’s opera scene, but I think that there’s repertoire that actually works really well in concert, and we can all really benefit from having that experience of bringing the opera repertoire onto the concert stage.

You mentioned books earlier, and I know you love them. If you could take just one to a desert island what would it be?
My mood changes every day, but one of the great French books for me is Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, so if I had to take one thing maybe that would be it. Or it would be the one that I’m reading at the moment! Just like scores, I try to read the things that help me make all the connections with the things I’m doing at the time.

What about other ways of relaxing? The countryside’s wonderful around Seattle. Do you get out and explore that in your free time?
Yes, in fact I’ve been the proud owner of a little boat for two or three years now, and it’s been a really wonderful thing to be on the water and connecting with nature. Actually it’s not unlike experiencing John Luther Adams’s music; just being on your own for a while, and disconnecting from all the distractions in the world.

Finally, any thoughts for the future?
Well the future should always be full of more new ideas, more excitement about what can be explored, done and accomplished, so the future for me is what the next big idea for the Seattle Symphony is. Then beyond Seattle continuing those wonderful collaborations I’ve been able to nurture with so many great orchestras around the world. It’s been such a privilege to have this life over the past few years, and I just want to be working hard to deserve to have it for as long as I possibly can.

Related links

Ludovic Morlot’s webpage

Seattle Symphony

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