The Seattle Symphony has a new music director and his name is Ludovic Morlot. The announcement came over my iPhone in an email during a meeting late this afternoon. I scrolled and skimmed my way through its contents and began to count the hours until I could sit in front of a computer to write. My editor at City Arts asked me in his own email “what do you think?” I punched out a vague answer while driving (don’t text and drive!) to which he responded “you are an enigma.” The truth is I have been processing the choice for a few hours now. My opinions about Morlot are as enigmatic as the man who becomes music director designate next year. The choice of Morlot is as tantalizing as it is ordinary. There is tangible promise in the choice but also uncertainty. But, when all is said and done, the choice is wise for what the orchestra wants to become.
By choosing Morlot, the SSO is the latest orchestra to pick a relative youngster for their top artistic position. Not even a month ago, the Philadelphia Orchestra snatched the French Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Before that, the LA Philharmonic and New York Philharmonic grabbed young music directors in Gustavo Dudamel and Alan Gilbert. If the Morlot selection were made four years ago Morlot’s age, a mere 36 years old, might have raised eye brows. Today, in the orchestra world young is the new old, until old is the new young again. When Morlot takes the helm in 2011, he will be only a few years older than Schwarz was when he came to the SSO.
If Morlot isn’t raising eyebrows because of his age, in some quarters tonight and this week, as journalists and pundits process the selection, there might just be a few people wondering how the SSO landed a new music director who is as familiar with America’s and the world’s best orchestras as Morlot. Morlot is no slouch; he is a catch. A surprising choice given he had never conducted the SSO until last fall. He conducts the Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, New York, and Philadelphia with regularity. Europe’s top orchestras know him too – he makes his debut with the vaunted Dutch Concertgebouw Orchestra next year. Even though Morlot is still a rising talent, he will bring significant cachet to Seattle.
Beyond cachet, it is hard to know at this early stage what else Morlot brings as music director. Morlot has expressed a routine, perhaps even obligatory interest in contemporary music and music education. Both are state by conductors so frequently these days they don’t impress as easily as they once did. Whether he has a vision to remake music education in Seattle is less important than whether or not he can conduct. If local reviews are to be believed, Morlot knows what he is doing. Surprisingly, successful music directors aren’t always successful conductors. Reviews from other quarters have been positive even if they all can’t be described as enthusiastic. For all of his talent Morlot remains a work in progress, and until now he hasn’t had an orchestra to call his own. Conducting an orchestra like the Chicago Symphony for a series of concerts once a year is a different task than conducting an orchestra in as many as thirteen subscription weeks for six years (the maximum number of weeks he will conduct and the length of his initial contract.)
As a jet-setting guest conductor (which is what Morlot has been since 2007) he wasn’t responsible for developing or maintaining an orchestra. Morlot, however, will bear responsibility for cultivating the SSO’s playing, building its sound, and improving its stature when he takes the helm in 2011. What Morlot is able to achieve on these points will determine whether he is successful in Seattle and can move the ensemble up the orchestra food chain.
At this stage in his career, Morlot is more or less a repertory blank slate. I can’t think of one composer or musical period I would identify him with. He seems perfectly happy to mix up programs and shuffle through diverse collections of pieces. Morlot lined up Prokofiev, Haydn, and Martinu for his SSO debut. This is exciting for someone like me who has heard hundreds of concerts, and would gladly prefer something new rather than the same old Brahms. When the same old Brahms is programmed, as it no doubt will be, we will be hearing Morlot’s Brahms — Something we haven’t heard before. Familiar pieces with a fresh coat of paint can be exciting too.
Both Morlot and the orchestra stand to benefit from this new musical marriage. Morlot will get his own orchestra – a good one at that – to demonstrate his mettle leading a band full time. The Seattle Symphony gets an artistic leader who can and should be able to improve the orchestra’s quality and stature. Plenty of good press should follow the SSO through the summer as the Challenge 2010 campaign swings into action. The sentiment on Facebook from SSO musicians is glowing, positive, and excited. Performances under Schwarz have from time to time suffered because of low morale among musicians. When Morlot arrives it is a good bet musician will be eager to accept Morlot’s leadership. Let’s hope Morlot’s leadership can guide the Seattle Symphony to a place of artistic excellence desperately sought by so many in Seattle’s classical music community.
One last additional thought…
Hiring Morlot as music director should make it easier to attract a top-notch executive director. Something the orchestra hasn’t had since Paul Meecham.