Collaboration and experimentation: Ludovic Morlot at the Seattle Symphony

Steven Winn examines Ludovic Morlot’s new vision for the Seattle Symphony.

Ludovic Morlot, the ebullient new 38-year-old music director of the Seattle Symphony, is making waves in his city, creating fresh pathways of connection between the orchestra and its community.  According to a recent admiring piece in the New York Times, Morlot hopes to make the Symphony “central to Seattle’s cultural scene, open-minded and with a taste for collaboration and experimentation.”   Plans for the 2012-13 season include a series of 10 p.m. Friday new-music concerts (open-endedly dubbed [untitled]) in the lobby of the orchestra’s Benaroya Hall home, with drinking and mingling encouraged; the premiere of John Luther Adams’ ambitious “Become Ocean,” an especially apt fit for this water-oriented place; and a collaboration with the Intiman Theater, one of the leading lights of a theater-rich town.  The season announcement came at City Hall, after a free concert attended by Mayor Mike McGinn and lots of children.

In another news story, Morlot expressed his enthusiasm for the orchestra’s Symphony Untuxed concerts.  As he told the Seattle Times, “We want to be very casual and invite everyone to come as they are.”   That may be especially important in this city, where Northface jackets and REI hiking boots are for many a standard dress code.  Morlot is taking care to take a full measure of his new city.  He threw out the first pitch at a Seattle Mariners baseball game.

His inclusive, everyone-into-the tent moves chimed with what Morlot had to say in a San Francisco American Orchestra Forum roundtable, with members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, in December.  In a theme he returned to several times, Morlot mentioned the importance of  listeners’ formative first exposure to a symphonic orchestra concert.   Even when an orchestra plays a war horse like the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony, he pointed out, “there will always be someone in the audience hearing that for the first time.”

Explaining a bold imitative to offer free tickets to all Seattle Symphony subscription concerts for anyone ages 8-18 when accompanied by a paying adult, Morlot said, “We have this vision that that first memory is a huge investment for us.”  While that investment might not pay off right away – “You come back to it when it’s the right time in your life” – Morlot believes that “if you have that first memory early on, then there’s not that kind of barrier of intimidation that prevents you from going back to it.”   A hundred or more Seattle children take advantage of the free-ticket offer at every concert, the music director said.

Morlot has gotten a fair amount of media attention for his border-crossing programs.  He paired Beethoven with Frank Zappa in one concert and has commissioned works inspired by three pop music legends with deep Seattle roots – Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix and Quincy Jones.  But Morlot, a French violinist and gifted conductor who served as the Boston Symphony Orchestra assistant conductor from 2004-07, is no innovator for innovation’s sake.

Morlot rooted the potential for real change in communication.  “It’s crucial for us, for me as artistic director,” he said at the roundtable, “to open an ongoing discussion and conversation with the players and with the management.  The more I can exchange ideas with them and I can hear from them, the quicker I can actually feel that I can move this organization.”

– Steven Winn





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