Tradition, the composer and conductor Gustav Mahler famously remarked, is all too often used as an excuse for Schlamperei (slang for “sloppiness”) — for simply doing things “the way they’ve always been done.” It’s a temptation classical music institutions such as orchestras and opera companies have always had to guard against:. That's especially true in recent years, when competition for audience attention and investment is fiercer than ever.
Not to worry about Schlamperei in Seattle. Conductor Ludovic Morlot, who recently concluded his first season as the Seattle Symphony’s new music director, has proved beyond any doubt to this critic that he has the charisma and the musical intelligence to recharge the players with a fresh sense of shared purpose and commitment.
After the initial burst of excitement when he first arrived last fall, there was no guarantee that the 38-year-old conductor had what’s needed to keep the momentum going. There definitely were some problems and less-compelling performances. But Morlot has racked up a genuinely impressive list of achievements over the course of his first season. Most importantly, both he and the orchestra seem to be invested in their relationship. Both know they are mutually embarked on a work-in-progress, one with many more steps along the way needed to advance the SSO so that it can realize its full potential.
The players’ revitalized demeanor comes through on several crucial levels. Despite all of the adjustments needed to acclimate to a new personality on the podium during this transitional season (meaning not a lot of weeks when Morlot was actually in town), their core sound has become more refined and alert, teeming with the kind of attention to the inner details of a score that make a performance more than a routine “traversal” of a piece of repertory.
Clearly that renewed sense of purpose is being shored up in invigorating, open-minded but disciplined rehearsals. This is also apparent, on occasion, when these have missed the mark. Instead of the conductor-as-dictator or as patrician coach, Morlot aspires to a collegial consensus with his players.
He’s been refining the strengths of individual sections. Morlot’s skill as an orchestra builder has made an immediate difference through two key hires who have been heard all season: Demarre McGill and Efe Baltacigil as principal flute and cello, respectively. Each contributes a vibrant yet unmannered individual touch, adding real character to their parts every time they’re in the spotlight.
Also joining the ranks this season have been violist Julie Whitton and Russian-born violinist Alexander Velinzon (previously assistant concertmaster of the Boston Symphony). Velinzon came on board just at the end of the season in the pivotal role of the SSO’s new concertmaster. He played exquisitely in Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust and will soon have a chance to make his mark. Several other new members, including another linchpin position, that of principal horn, have yet to be announced. When they are, the conductor’s total new hires will comprise 7-8 percent of the approximately 86-member ensemble.
Well-thought-out programming has encouraged the musicians to stretch themselves and aim for a greater variety of expressive, nuanced gestures. This happens particularly in the finely wrought textures of French music that is clearly one of Morlot’s fortes.
Morlot’s knack for thoughtful programming is a very welcome change. This happens not just within a single program’s context but at times even between different weeks (juxtaposing, say, the cosmic dramas of Berlioz, Richard Strauss, and Holst in the season’s final two programs), which helps encourage an active dialogue with pieces both familiar and new to the SSO repertory.
Even with the finest playing, placing the same old fare on the menu like a random smorgasbord is just another way of giving in to the ritual of Schlamperei. Not that gratuitous warhorses have suddenly vanished from Morlot’s programs (I’m thinking of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto in June). They’re an inevitable part of programming. By the same token, not all of the unexpected novelties merit praise: I could have happily done without Friedrich Gulda’s inane Cello Concerto, performed by cellist Joshua Roman on the season opener.
When Mahler inveighed against a caught-in-a-rut attitude as the enemy of creative music-making, he was hardly rejecting tradition itself. Tradition, after all, in the sense of the great legacy of composers of the past — and values of interpretation that have been patiently refined over time — is at the core of what most orchestras are committed to preserving. The real challenge lies in finding the sweet spot between innovative attitudes and bringing that tradition alive for today’s audiences. Morlot is far from an iconoclast. In recent months I’ve come to appreciate even more how, as an interpreter, he is carefully evolving his understanding of cornerstones of the symphonic tradition.
The area where I find him least secure tends to be the German repertoire, which, not surprisingly, has been underepresented in his programs during his inaugural season. His performance of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony last fall had thrilling verve and plenty of fresh, incisive detail, but the big picture you want to last after a performance remained elusive. Or in his Schubert “Unfinished Symphony” in January — a composer for whom Morlot harbors a palpable affinity — there were ravishing blooms of melody and fascinating touches (extra-long fermatas on the sustained horn notes), yet larger sections lacked that magical touch that makes the parts add up to more than their sum.
It’s a delicate balance to achieve, between tweaking the passing moment of an art that unfolds temporally and crafting a comprehensive, sculptural view of the whole. Most conductors end up veering toward one or the other side of the equation. Mastering the architectonic approach certainly requires lots of experience and multiple rounds of interpreting a given piece. The architecture was especially missing in the Brahms Violin Concerto in March (my vote for the big disappointment of Morlot’s first season). Here the beauty of details (gorgeous woodwind work in the slow movement) just wasn’t enough to substitute for an unconvincing sense of structural coherence. Much of the problem was simply due to violinist Jennifer Koh’s aggressive playing as well, which the conductor uncomfortably tried to accommodate.
Another kind of mismatch happened when British pianist Stephen Hough took the stage in June for Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto. Here was a brilliant soloist with distinctly compelling things to say about the piece, and the performance threw new light on some of the score’s colors, but it never quite added up to an authoritative statement.
Some of these problems may be purely logistical. Seattle has been fortunate to sign the French maestro at a turning point in his career, before he simply became unavailable. His increasing international recognition is already posing practical challenges as to how much time he can spend here. Just this year he began his tenure as the new chief conductor of the prestigious La Monnaie Opera in Brussels (a good thing, by the way, for enhancing Seattle’s reputation at large).
The Brussels post involves a large time commitment there in the winter, and the Rachmaninoff concerto happened to be on a program following an absence of several months. Bernstein’s Candide Overture, which opened the concert and which should be a natural calling card for this orchestra, sounded blurry and uncontrolled, the equivalent of musical jetlag. But the same program included a completely captivating account of the Charles Ives Second Symphony, wonderfully well-rehearsed and with its European models coming through more clearly than I’d ever previously heard.
One of Morlot’s June concerts was, for me, the unequivocal high point of the season and a memorable confirmation of his extraordinary gifts. He devoted an entire program to Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust, leading not only the SSO but its chorus and a lineup of vocal soloists. It’s a fascinating problem piece and has been variously staged as an opera and a concert oratorio. There isn’t even consensus as to its genre, and Berlioz labeled his audacious rewrite of the Goethe source a “dramatic legend.”
Here was everything Morlot has to offer, confidently brought together in a blissful evening of music making that made me wish these events weren’t so short-lived (only two performances) but could be restaged and experienced again at different points in the season. Even a bizarre offstage glitch (a patron’s personal alarm going off in the second half and forcing a brief impromptu intermission) wasn’t able to derail the maestro’s intense focus.
Above all what Morlot demonstrated was his remarkable sense for the inherent drama of a musical score: the drama contained within notes, phrases, instrumentation, all creating the emotional arch of a piece, as opposed to the reductive narratives of program music. Morlot has shown over and over that he has a great talent for telling stories, in that deeper sense, through music. This comes through in the details, the sense of fore-, middle-, and background he paints with the orchestra, but here it cohered into an abundantly satisfying whole as well.
Already this weekend tickets go on sale for the coming SSO season, in which Morlot will have a larger presence, conducting 10 of the regular masterworks programs as well as several other series (family concerts, chamber events, and the ongoing “Sonic Evolution” series). Two not-to-miss events will be the SSO’s first-ever performances of two 20th-century monuments: Messiaen’s lush, sprawling, exuberant Turangalîla Symphony and the moving War Requiem of Benjamin Britten (hard to believe this has never been done here!). There’s also a larger proportion of standard Central European rep, including Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms, through which we can observe the evolution of a young maestro and the continuing refinement of the SSO.