Seattle Symphony's French Revolution

Joshua Roman
Wall Street Journal

By David Mermelstein

Musical chemistry can occur unexpectedly, spurring curious unions. Take the situation at the Seattle Symphony, where on Sept. 1 Ludovic Morlot became the organization's 16th music director. Mr. Morlot, a 37-year-old native of Lyon, France, first led the ensemble less than two years ago, in October 2009, when the nearly 100-year-old orchestra was looking for a successor to Gerard Schwarz, whose tenure began in 1985. 

Mr. Morlot conducted a second series of concerts in April 2010 and by June of that year was appointed music-director designate. Since then he has moved with impressive speed to put his stamp on classical music in this mellow but sober maritime city. Already apparent is the orchestra's new Gallic slant. Five of Mr. Morlot's first six programs (one of them a children's concert) include pieces by French composers. And though most of the works by Hector Berlioz, Frédéric Chopin, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel featured this season are in no way unexpected (except, perhaps, in their number), scores by André Jolivet, Francis Poulenc, Edgard Varèse and Henri Vieuxtemps come as something of a surprise. Certainly no other U.S. orchestra is paying as much attention to 95-year-old Henri Dutilleux right now; three of his orchestral works (as well as seven chamber pieces) are scheduled between the start of the season and June.

But the changes extend beyond programming. In May, Simon Woods arrived as the orchestra's executive director, and he and the new conductor appear to share a commitment to increasing the orchestra's community engagement in bold ways—including free admission for youngsters to more than 50 symphony concerts this season, so long as an accompanying adult purchases a ticket to the same concert.

Mr. Morlot even filled some vacancies in the orchestra before his official start date, as Mr. Schwarz let him judge auditions during the transition. Thus four new musicians—including principal flute and principal cello—were on stage when Mr. Morlot gave the downbeat for his first concert as music director, a gala at Benaroya Hall last Saturday. (A new concertmaster will also be joining the orchestra relatively soon, but the conductor is not rushing that process.)

The gala concert and two free programs with the orchestra the following day revealed much about Mr. Morlot's leadership style and how he interacts with audiences. The music performed at the gala was mostly typical fare—Beethoven's "Consecration of the House" Overture, George Gershwin's "An American in Paris" and Ravel's "Boléro." But the program's centerpiece, Friedrich Gulda's Concerto for Cello and Wind Orchestra (1980), with local favorite Joshua Roman as soloist, was anything but business-as-usual. An irresistible five-movement pastiche that gave fresh voice to old forms by incorporating funk riffs and march music into its fabric, it offered the young and exuberant Mr. Roman a showcase for his effortless virtuosity and appealing sound. In the cadenza, part of which is improvised, the cellist interpolated quotes from "La Marseillaise" and "Boléro," in tribute to the new music director.

To conduct the concerto, Mr. Morlot changed from white tie and European-length tails to more casual attire: a Nehru jacket and a skullcap—the latter offered to him onstage by Mr. Roman, who was also wearing one in the fashion that was Gulda's trademark. Such gestures of informality, especially on such an occasion, were unmistakable signs that Mr. Morlot is serious when he says he wants to be "more aggressive about outreach," which he proclaimed that night from the stage.

And he reinforced his regular-guy appeal while cementing a bond with the orchestra when he left the podium midway through "Boléro" to pick up a fiddle and join the first violins for a spell, leaving Michael Werner on the snare drum as de facto leader. He made similar, if less showy, inroads on Sunday during the symphony's Day of Music, a free event in which various types of music were performed throughout Benaroya Hall and its precincts. (The first such day occurred in 1998 to celebrate Benaroya's opening, but after two annual iterations, it was revived only once more before this past weekend. Mr. Morlot mentioned privately that he hopes to make such events much more common.)

Mr. Morlot is not a showman in the Leonard Bernstein or Gustavo Dudamel mode, nor does he evoke awe à la Riccardo Muti. He is a less attention-grabbing figure. James Levine and Colin Davis stand among his mentors, and an unfussy flair for detail and transparency similar to theirs informs Mr. Morlot's interpretations. Such qualities were apparent in his measured but supple reading of Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" during the Day of Music concerts. He can also be forceful without being blunt, as he proved in performances of "An American in Paris" and "Boléro."

On a technical level, it was a pleasure to bask in the glow of the orchestra's warmly tuned brasses. The woodwinds, too, evoked character without sacrificing precision. The strings, though, could use greater sheen, and the percussion section lacked vigor at these concerts. But Mr. Morlot should have no trouble effecting improvements while burnishing high standards. (In addition to his work in Seattle, he begins a five-year contract in January as music director of Brussels's La Monnaie opera house.)

Mr. Morlot was assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony from 2004 to 2007, and the ensemble has engaged him to replace James Levine on its tour of California in December. Those dates afford music lovers on the West Coast further opportunities to assess this rising talent. But Seattleites needn't fret that their new music director might be scouting a more prominent perch. Mr. Morlot eschewed a standard three-year contract in favor of a six-year commitment here—yet another indicator that though the bond between Mr. Morlot and the Seattle Symphony is young, it is already strong.