Ludovic Morlot: A French Conductor in Seattle

In 2011, Lyon-born French conductor Ludovic Morlot has been appointed 15th music director of the Seattle Symphony, founded in 1903. Encounter.

Ludovic Morlot (photo : Brandon Patoc)

photo : Brandon Patoc – le chef d’orchestre en concert à Seattle

Ludovic Morlot is punctual. Passing through New York, where he is choosing a new Steinway piano for his orchestra, he is the first to arrive at the French restaurant where he has schedules his appointments. It faces the Lincoln Center, his home base in the Big Apple since his début at Avery Fisher Hall in 2006. « At the time, I was still an assistant conductor for the Boston Orchestra. I received a call from New York, and they asked me to be the replacement conductor for a concert 24 hours later. It was an unheard of opportunity—I had the repertoire at my fingertips,” he recalls before ordering a glass of rosé. “I left France nineteen years ago, but that doesn’t mean I no longer love my country,” he comments, smiling, with a casual attitude that’s infectious. Ludovic Morlot has the gift of putting people at ease, of giving the impression you’ve known each other for ages. It’s undoubtedly one of the qualities that gives him his strength as a leader. However, nothing in his background or his manner predestined his career as conductor, or even as a musician. In his family, only his grandfather was a music lover. When Morlot was six years old, he put a violin in his hands and introduced him to opera. “At first, I studied at the Lyon conservatory, but I felt that to find my own path, to meet the masters who could shape me, to affirm my singularity as an artist, I needed to head out to sea, to look towards America.” He first landed in Montreal, where he studied violin in Vladimir Landsman’s class. Then he spent his summers in Maine, at the Pierre Monteux School. “That’s where, a little bit by accident, I took my first class in orchestral direction and I discovered that I had a certain disposition for conducting an orchestra,” he confides, pointing out that his career as a soloist would not have been nearly as brilliant as his career as a conductor. But the mastery of an instrument has opened many doors for him. “When I was invited to the Lincoln Center for the first time, it was to conduct the Brahms concerto that I knew perfectly, as a violinist.”

Following that concert at the Lincoln Center, Morlot’s career as conductor moved forward in leaps and bounds. First, he held a post as assistant to Sir Colin Davis at the Royal Academy of London. For the entire year, he conducted nothing but opera, an extremely formative experience. Next, a stop at the Boston Symphony, one of the American “Big 5” symphony orchestras, at the side of Seiji Ozawa and then James Levine, who engaged the young French conductor as their assistant. “I didn’t want to become a conductor because of a particular musical vision. It was more because, as a violinist, I had a way of interpreting chamber music that invited others to collaborate with me.” He took his first steps as an invited conductor not only at the Lincoln Center, but also in Chicago. There’s another story there: he was asked to replace Ricardo Muti for a program that he didn’t know. Too risky—Morlot refused. A few hours later, he received a second call, and the offer to compose his own program!

To be able to choose his repertoire, to create durable ties with musicians: this is what seduced Morlot when he was offered the position of musical director for the Seattle Symphony in 2011. “I love working with remarkable musicians. And I enjoy creating a repertoire of composers whose singularity and individuality I appreciate. I adore Mozart in the same way I adore Stravinsky and Dutilleux: because we recognize them from the first measures of their works.”

If Ludovic Morlot claims not to have a preference in terms of periods when choosing music, if he appreciates classicism for structural reasons, he also takes a special joy in discovering contemporary creations. “With Brahms and Beethoven, you have to look for a certain perfection, but also a certain truth that, in the end, can never be attained. But when it comes to contemporary music, we can have answers to our questions—all we have to do is give the composer a call…”

For the rest, we too often forget that in the past, and above all in the nineteenth century, concerts were largely composed of new works, some of which were interpreted by star soloists – Brahms, Liszt, Joseph Joachim… All commonplace for the listener of the time. To give new life to this spirit of creation, the French conductor has created the Sonic Evolution project, a series that offers contemporary pieces—works by established composers like Elliot Carter (who composed for the Seattle Symphony just before his death in 2012) and Pascal Dusapin, but also works by members of a younger generation, like the French composer Yann Robin. The series also includes interpretations by rock or hip hop artists, from Shaprece to Pearl Jam. “If we love Beethoven today, it’s because we’ve heard his music over and over again. I’m convinced that today’s music can have the same legacy, if we give it a chance,” concludes this insatiable pioneer.


© Cécile Balavoine 2016