Updated: A new baton at the SSO, a marriage in early music

The Symphony taps a rising French star, Ludovic Morlot, to succeed Gerard Schwarz. Early Music Guild and Seattle Baroque get hitched. Good stuff!
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Ludovic Morlot, newly named music director of the Seattle Symphony

The Symphony taps a rising French star, Ludovic Morlot, to succeed Gerard Schwarz. Early Music Guild and Seattle Baroque get hitched. Good stuff!

Two bits of very encouraging musical news in Seattle this week. The Seattle Symphony has managed to snare a hot young property, the French-born, London- and Montreal-trained conductor Ludovic Morlot, to succeed the retiring Gerard Schwarz after next season. And there's good news on the early music front as well, with finalization of a smart merger of Seattle Baroque Orchestra with the Early Music Guild.

I didn't catch either of the two guest appearances by Morlot with the SSO, but a quick scan of reviews from other cities shows plenty of raves for the range of his repertoire, his unshowy but powerful conducting style, and a glittering roster of many of the world's top symphonies where he guest conducts. (His next conducting dates this summer are with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Rotterdam Philharmonic, Mostly Mozart in New York, and the Boston Symphony.) He comes out of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, where was assistant conductor under James Levine, 2004-07, a famous launching pad. Morlot has signed a six-year contract with the SSO.

Updated material: A quick survey of Crosscut music critics also produced positive comments. They noted his energy, his connection with adventurous music, how well liked he is by the Symphony musicians, his smarts. Daniel J. Wakin, writing in The New York Times, calls Morlot "one of the few prized conducting properties in circulation," after so many rising stars have recently landed posts at major orchestras.

Morlot's rapid rise has been aided by a lot of good luck, notably being asked to substitute at the last minute for important conductors suddenly unavailable or indisposed. His breakthrough came in 2006, stepping in at the New York Philharmonic and mastering an obscure and difficult work by Elliott Carter. Morlot's April engagement with the SSO, also last-minute, was bedeviled by the Iceland volcano, which delayed his arrival to the day before the concert. He crammed in two rehearsals on the day of the performance, and came through just fine.

The appointment is a mild surprise. The Seattle Symphony is known for moving very slowly on big decisions, and the search committee got a late start, which limited the time to audition candidates by having them guest conduct the orchestra. But here was a fast, early decision with no short list or leaked names. That the orchestra joined the movement to young conductors, rather than brand-name maestros, is also both welcome and a bit unexpected. (Thanks, Gustavo Dudamel!) On the other hand, Schwarz, a rising American star at the time, was 38 when he got the Seattle job, and Rainer Miedel, his predecessor, was 37. Another surprise is the SSO's willingness to risk a music director who has no previous experience running an orchestra, but this might signal a welcome respite from a music director who ran nearly every aspect of the Symphony.

The early appointment means the Symphony won't miss a beat between the time Schwarz steps down at the end of next season, his 26th, and Morlot takes over. That will avoid more treading water for the orchestra, which has been its mode for the past five years or so. It badly needs some new blood and ways of looking forward without all the turbulence of the recent years, and there's nothing like an exciting new conductor to create that.

It's also good tidings for early music in Seattle, one of the city's great strengths. After years of nudging from donors, two fine groups are merging, combining staff costs and creating a single new board, with members from both groups. Gus Denhard, the Early Music Guild executive director, will hold that post for the merged entity, also called Early Music Guild. That leaves purely musical matters in the hands of Ingrid Matthews and Byron Schenkman, the violinist and keyboardist who founded Seattle Baroque Orchestra in 1994. Now the two organizations will do a common season of 12 concerts, with the common venue of Town Hall Seattle.

Such mergers are forever being proposed but are quite rare. It happened because Denhard, a fine lutenist, and Matthews are on excellent professional terms, and Matthews was eager to be free of the administrative and fundraising duties of a small arts organization. Gradually the boards — usually the stickiest part of these mergers — were brought along. The formal merger begins tomorrow (July 1).

It's not widely enough appreciated what a seminal organization for music in Seattle the Early Music Guild has been in its 33 years of existence. Each season it brings from around the world some of the top early music groups ("early music" refers roughly to music before 1800). EMG has incubated many other groups, including the Seattle Baroque Orchestra. And it does workshops, smaller concerts, and educational programs of very high quality. It has recently started doing full-bore baroque operas, with another one, or rather a double bill, coming up next season at the Moore, in partnership with the Seattle Theater Group.

Only a few other cities in America, notably Boston and Berkeley, have as rich an offering of early music programs as Seattle has. This is good for audiences and it also means enough of a critical mass of musicians and employment to draw such musicians to move here.

In troubled times, arts groups naturally think of saving money and expanding awareness through mergers. For years, Peter Donnelly of ArtsFund urged such a course on the Seattle Chamber Music Festival and the (now defunct) Northwest Chamber Orchestra. Intiman and the Seattle Rep recently had some tentative talks about combining some aspects. Tough to do, so hats off to EMG and SBO for getting hitched.


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