Ludovic Morlot is that rarest of musicians, a conductor at once humble and self-confident. Among a crop of rising music directors, he stands out for the breadth of his intelligence, his innate musicality, the diversity of his repertory, his commitment to audience expansion and – perhaps most important of all – his common touch as signaled by his unusual approachability.
At 38 (still young in the world of conducting, where eminences often thrive well into their eighties), Morlot has secured two plum positions notable for their differentiation. Last season, he succeeded Gerard Schwarz as music director of the Seattle Symphony. And this season, he assumes the position of chief conductor at La Monnaie/De Munt in Brussels. That symphonic-operatic divide is no coincidence, for Morlot has strong feelings about how the two forms diverge as well as complement each other. “The fact that today I can have that diet between the two almost equally is exactly what I’ve been dreaming of,” he said over a hearty lunch of heirloom tomatoes followed by steak in Chicago in early June. He was in this capital of the American Midwest to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, with whom he has enjoyed a warm relationship since his debut there in 2006, when he replaced an ailing Riccardo Muti. “It’s also nice to have two completely different rhythms,” he added. “With opera, you can be for six weeks in one place,” as opposed to just a week, or less, for most symphonic programs.
Morlot cites “growth” as the “driving force” of his career. “I’m not 40 years old yet,” he said. “But even though I’m super-busy, I must keep in mind where I want to be 20 years from now. Conducting opera gives me time to think. I can be more reflective. Time isn’t so much your enemy in that configuration. All that time you spend with the singers – people who challenge you with different issues – helps force you to think. It’s not only the score that you’re dealing with. When you prepare a symphony program, you know you have only that limited time to make it what it is. That is it. You cannot really change you mind halfway through rehearsals of a Brahms symphony. You can only do that when you come back to it the next time. But opera is totally different. It’s silly if you don’t take the opportunity to learn from this singer or that director or that lighting designer. In the opera, you have time to try out an idea, leave it or take it, argue about it. And this meets the growth pattern I seek. So this is for me the real attraction of the position in Brussels. It’s selfish I suppose, all this attention on growth.”
There are, of course, other reasons to find opera enticing. “The more risks you take, the more sublime it can become,” the conductor said. “This is the beauty of opera or theater. It can exceed what you were expecting. There is always that unknown thing. You put all the things together that should work, and then there’s always the possibility of that little extra magic. With symphonic music, you work hard toward your goal and know what you get from that hard work.”
The conductor’s experience at La Monnaie/De Munt, where his initial contract runs five years, roughly parallels the pattern of his appointment in Seattle: near-immediate rapport with the musicians followed swiftly by an offer to take the helm. “I had done a concert with Monnaie, not an opera,” Morlot recalled. The orchestra at Monnaie was worried I had not spent much time conducting opera. But I had conducted opera in Paris and Lyon and many of the players came to hear me conduct the Concertgebouw in Brussels. It’s always great to start this kind of relationship when it’s the orchestra, not just management, who’s eager to close the deal.” Though Morlot does not equate symphonic and operatic conducting, neither does he consider the endeavors mutually exclusive. “Ultimately, it is a different thing to conduct operas and symphonies,” he said. “But I’ve worked enough with singers and feel confident in the pit. One learns on the spot, too. I don’t believe in this idea of ‘He’s a wonderful opera conductor, but he can’t conduct symphonies.’ That cannot be. Bernard Haitink does both. Georg Solti did both. Rafael Kubelik conducted opera as well as concert music, as did Herbert von Karajan. Any musician at that level will do both.”
Naturally, the conductor is looking forward to many of the tasks associated with being chief conductor, including influencing reportoire and casting decisions in the house. But Morlot also has other things on his mind, and here again his plans for Brussels echo the Seattle situation, where he has spearheaded efforts to expand the orchestra’s outreach, with a particular emphasis on attracting young people.
“One of our big challenges in Brussels is that we have to build audiences for our concerts,” he said, noting that the 1100-seat house is virtually always filled for operatic performances. “It’s very difficult to perform concert music in this space when you have so many outstanding visiting orchestras. I’m trying to program so that our concert series will be appealing not just to people in Brussels, but also to others who will travel to hear a particular piece. I want to offer something unique, and I want to include the wonderful chorus. We might even consider operas in concert.”
Beyond creating programs that are in and of themselves compelling, the conductor intends for these concerts to relate to La Monnaie/Da Munt’s principal fare, so that there is, in effect, a dialogue between the operatic and the concert programming at the house. “Like the Opéra Comique in Paris,” he said, “I want to try to create a real connection between what’s going on in the opera house and other artistic endeavors associated with the period. Let’s say you’re doing Janáček’s “Jenůfa,” so maybe then you do Mahler symphony or something by Martinů. We would embark on a whole musical journey of the music around Janáček. It’s very important for me to build something so that the audience from the opera would come to the concerts as well. I really like what they do at the Opéra-Comique. It’s presented as a whole. You hear Mérimée being read at the same time that “Carmen” is running. This curatorial approach I find much more fulfilling. We do not want to compete with orchestras that play 200 concerts a year when we do only seven.”
Perhaps surprisingly for one who thinks so deeply about such things, Morlot – who was born and raised in Lyon, France – did not come from an especially musical family. “It for sure wasn’t something they were pushing for,” he said. “I began studying the violin at age six, more through my grandfather’s will than my parents’. He loved singing and opera, and I spent a lot of time with him during vacations and even living with him for a while. He would play recordings for me – he had these great stereo speakers – and try to make me guess who composed whatever was playing. I got tremendous musical curiosity and education from that experience.”
The conductor’s older siblings were also playing instruments at this time, but by the time Morlot got serious about his musical studies – when he was 12 – his siblings had abandoned their instruments. “I was living with my grandfather then,” the conductor recalled. “He took me took me to my first opera, ‘Lohengrin’ in Lyon. I was sitting right behind the conductor. It’s a small opera house. And the fact that I remember that must mean it was a decisive moment in making me believe that conducting was something I was interested in. From then on, I studied the violin more seriously.”
At age 19, he left France for Canada – specifically, Montreal – to study violin. In the summers, he journeyed to the United States to attend the Pierre Monteux School in Maine, whose alumni also include the conductors Lorin Maazel, Neville Marriner and David Zinman. After earning his B.A. in violin performance at the Université de Montréal, Morlot returned to Europe, having been accepted into the master’s program in conducting at the Royal Academy of Music in London. “There was a struggle for me whether it was going to be violin or conducting,” Morlot said. “But at the end of my time in London, I was invited by Seiji Ozawa to Tanglewood,” the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer home. “After that, I went back to Europe to assist David Robertson in Lyon. And then the Boston Symphony suggested I audition for James Levine, so it was back to Boston. It was one thing leading to the next. There was also the one-year Norman Del Mar Conducting Fellowship at the Royal College of Music, specifically for opera.”
A Frenchman studying music in England in unusual, but Morlot maintains that the experience was pivotal in shaping his development as an artist. “That’s where I discovered my passion for working in Anglo-Saxon countries,” he said. “What attracted me to London was the wealth of musical offerings there. Prague and Berlin and Munich, of course, have this, too. But Paris has never been such a place. France in general has never been such a musical country. It has cinema and theater and dance – everything else, but the classical music tradition is not as strong as in many other European countries. I find that’s not true in London. You go to the Philharmonia and hear this richness. Or you go to the London Symphony Orchestra and hear more virtuosity. And this is also true for opera and contemporary music and Baroque music. I’ve never attended so many concerts as during those four years in London. I wish I had the time to do that now.”
His audition for Levine yielded a big break, his appointment as the Boston Symphony’s assistant conductor, from 2004 to 2007. After that, the invitations to conduct major orchestras began pouring in, and Morlot accepted as many as he could. “Because you don’t want to get married until you’ve dated as many girls as possible,” he said jokingly. “I wanted to do as many debuts as possible. There’s a lot of energy when you’re with a new orchestra for only a week, but it changes when you’re asked back. The relationship deepens. Rotterdam is one example that’s striking to me. From day one, the orchestra wanted more and more from me, so our rapport has been growing to a higher level every time I return.”
Morlot refers to his appointment in Seattle as “a dream come true,” the announcement in June 2010 coming less than a year after his debut with the orchestra in October 2009. “There was a thirst for a new era,” he said. “It was the same in Boston when Levine succeeded Ozawa. I know it will take some time to put my stamp on Seattle, but there’s a real possibility to do so – through different energy, different repertoire. I feel I can really create there. In places where there’s a new leader every three or four years, change is too cautious. You can’t do much in that time. That’s why I insisted on my first contract in Seattle being six years, instead of just three. I need three or four years to decided whether we’ve accomplished what we set out to. And the same is true in Brussels.”
The conductor and his family – his wife, Ghizlane, and two their daughters, Nora and Iman – may have set up house in Seattle, but that doesn’t mean his feelings for European life have abated. “I love working and living in Seattle, but I need my shot of Europe. I grew up there, after all. So this is what is great about Brussels now. I will keep an apartment in Brussels from September, and that’s very important for me, because it’s such a change when you are home as opposed to a hotel room – not to mention that you can leave some luggage. And something like finding your espresso machine in the morning, that can be your best friend!”
Morlot’s responsibilities in Brussels are less numerous than those he faces in Seattle, but that doesn’t mean he give any less thought to their execution. “We have only seven concert programs on stage in Brussels,” he said. “I wish I could do all of them, but I cannot right now. This way you can really shape the orchestra, so that’s an aspiration for me. Much as you can convey when rehearsing in the pit, it’s important to do concerts as well.” He has committed to conduct two productions a year at La Monnaie/De Munt and as many concerts as his schedule will allow (at least two per season). “My goal is at least half of them,” he said. “I want to do two operas and four concerts. I would love to do more, but it would be not reasonable. And I want to be there from day one with the operas; I want to be part of the whole process. Otherwise, you might as well not have any staging. I want to participate in auditions, which I take very, very seriously. You have this ability to shape an orchestra very quickly that way. I take it quite seriously. And even though I don’t, of course, have the last word on casting and internal issues, I’m always in full conversation with the intendant, Peter de Caluwe, and can help him plan things and form a family of guest conductors. So it’s an ongoing dialogue as well. We even have a series of chamber music, which I want to get involved in programming.”
Such bold ambitions are characteristic of Morlot, whose energy seems boundless and whose enthusiasm, especially in person, is infectious. Clearly this is a conductor on the rise, but not one motivated by unalloyed ambition so much as by an obvious love of music and its power to enrich and enliven. Rather than resting on metaphoric laurels, he seems poised to continue questing, reaching for greater understanding and illumination. “People in their seventies and eighties who claim they are still learning, those are the real artists,” Morlot said. “Learning new repertoire when you’re 82 is what it’s all about. You must always be in this spirit. Wasn’t it Muti who said, ‘You stop beating time when you turn 60’? There’s some truth in that. You may reach that level, but you don’t live there. It’s the start of a completely different path of growth. Like composers, first you lean the craft and then you rise above it, with the craft still there. We conductors do something like that, too. That curiosity is vital. ”
David Mermelstein writes about classical music for the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post, as well as for BBC Music magazine and MusicalAmerica.com. He contributed to the latest edition of “The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians” and is the co-author of the “American Tradition” chapter of “The Cambridge Companion to Conducting” (2003).