Seattle conductor Ludovic Morlot at the helm of the L.A. Phil for 'Become Ocean'

11.13.15
Los Angeles Times

Ludovic Morlot is trying to find the right balance. At the moment, that's the balance of the three mini-orchestras (brass, winds and strings) of the L.A. Philharmonic, rehearsing John Luther Adams' Pulitzer Prize-winning symphonic work, "Become Ocean."
 
The stage at Walt Disney Concert Hall has more depth than at Benaroya Hall in Seattle, and Adams' piece thrives on the subtleties of texture and harmonic blend.
 
"Each orchestra has its own length of waves," explains Morlot, "starting from nothing, building up to a higher dynamic, and going back to the piano dynamic. By the magic of numbers, there are three times in the piece where the three orchestras reach their maximum dynamics at the same moment. Harmonically, it clashes and provides some real complexity in the colors."
 
If Morlot sounds like an expert on "Become Ocean" — which the Phil will perform for the first time this weekend, in two matinee programs — it's because he helped bring it into the world.
 
Morlot commissioned the 42-minute piece in 2011, when he was Seattle Symphony Orchestra's freshly appointed music director designate. He gave the work its world premiere in June 2013 in Seattle, the performance captured in the album release on Cantaloupe Records. The Pulitzer jury called it "haunting … evoking thoughts of melting polar ice caps and rising sea levels," and the New Yorker's Alex Ross deemed it "the loveliest apocalypse in musical history."
 
"I really believe in the power of this music," Morlot says. "I could say almost surprisingly, because it's not the kind of vocabulary that I've grown up with. The whole piece is a big meditation on tides of existence."
 
He witnessed an interesting phenomenon when he took it to Carnegie Hall last spring. "The audience is a little puzzled as to how to listen to it. It really starts working after 10 or 15 minutes, when they decide not to pay attention and understand it, but just let it come to them and experience it viscerally. The minute you give up is usually where the audience gets really quiet."
 
"Become Ocean" is one of about 35 works Morlot has commissioned since he took the mantle in Seattle. Composers have included Sebastian Currier, William Brittelle, German sculptor/sound artist Trimpin and Elliott Carter, who dedicated his final orchestral work to Morlot ("who has performed many of my works so beautifully"). Morlot's aim has been to crystallize the orchestra's identity through the new music it programs and invests in and to give the entire city a more balanced musical diet.
 
"It's invited not only younger audiences but from completely different backgrounds," Morlot says. "That's why I mix and match. In some concerts you might hear Beethoven and Dutilleux … or Beethoven and John Luther Adams. Our tagline is 'Listen boldly,' and I don't just say that for the conservative audience, to give new music a try. I use 'listen boldly' the other way too, because I think it's very important for people that think they don't like classical music to actually give it a shot. I mean, imagine what a gift it might be to hear Beethoven's Fifth Symphony for the first time in your life if you're 45."
 
Seattle has responded. The box office for subscription concerts has seen a 10% bump since 2012, and tickets for [UNTITLED] consistently sell at 80% or more. "Nearly everyone thinks orchestras need to do more to reach new audiences," says former Seattle Times music critic Melinda Bargreen. "Morlot is putting that belief into action."
 
He is relentlessly optimistic about symphonic music. "The orchestra is the heartbeat of the city, so you cannot just let that go. It's just a matter of what pace you set for the city you live in. And the pace might be 35 beats a minute, or 180. But a city cannot live without that heartbeat."