As the new resident conductor of the Monnaie Symphony Orchestra, Ludovic Morlot will be entitled to a much longer interview in the next issue of MMM. In this interview he talks about two composers very dear to him, Beethoven and Schumann, who he has decided to include in the programme for his second full concert in charge of his new orchestra.
The Pastoral Symphony occupies a special place in Beethoven’s symphonies. What do you think of this work? How will you tackle it in order to avoid the clichés?
Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony is, without doubt, along with the Ninth, the most difficult work in the composer’s symphonic repertoire. It is conceived with a romantic form but requires the discipline of a classical interpretation. It has to be, I think, approached like a piece of chamber music with special attention paid to the smallest details of phrasing, articulation, nuance. Nothing can be left to chance in order to be able to add that final touch of magic which makes it so special. As for the clichés maybe we can avoid them by exaggerating them! We know that each of the movements is intended to awaken our feelings and moods by evoking rather than describing the countryside scenes. The storm in the fourth movement makes us feel the emotions only if each of the gestures is exaggerated and, therefore, it inevitably belongs in the world of cliché. It is the same thing with the bird song at the end of Scene at the brook and the Country dancing in the scherzo.
The classic orchestra of the Pastoral is treated with new colours. Does this entail adopting a different attitude to the orchestra? Does the form require a special approach?
The kettle drums only appear after 25 minutes of music, likewise the trombones and the piccolo. This speaks volumes about the world of sound into which Beethoven invites us. Even more than in his other symphonies the first seconds of each of the movements must offer the listener the colours and the energy necessary for him to abandon himself to his different emotions. As to the form, that is the mark of genius in Beethoven. The dancing interrupted by the storm is a romantic gesture par excellence. The finale is the most difficult movement as it remains harmonically very static and in it we have to find the nuances and the most exact phrasing.
Die Weihe des Hauses is not the best known or the most played of Beethoven’s overtures: why did you choose it?
Exactly for that reason! It is a magnificent overture. It predates the composing of the Ninth Symphony and comes just after the Missa Solemnis. Listening to it we witness Beethoven’s incredible contrapuntal writing. Composed for the opening of Vienna’s Theater in der Josefstadt in 1822, it is a celebratory piece which seems appropriate to my new role as resident conductor at the Monnaie. Just for the record, I started my first season as musical director of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra with this same overture.
We often talk of Schumann’s ‘awkwardness’ in his orchestral writing. His Concerto for Violin is not a very popular work: are you aware of that and, if so, in what way?
I love Schumann’s music with a passion and it is true that his Concerto for Violin remains one of his least popular works, perhaps because it is rarely played. I hope, with the help of Thomas Zehetmair and the orchestra, to stir up the Brussels’ audience and convert them to this magnificent work. It’s true that it is more uneven than the concertos for piano and cello but, in spite of that, it’s very moving. I wouldn’t call Schumann’s orchestral writing ‘awkward’. He often writes a sole nuance for the whole orchestra or again a succession of semi-quavers with no break. We can improve the transparency of the orchestra by editing the nuances for each part, inserting phrasings in the middle of the progression of semi-quavers, etc. That is why, rather like Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, you have to interpret his orchestral music in the way you would chamber music or a piece of music for voice.
Have you already come across Thomas Zehetmair at other concerts? How do you work together on a piece like Schumann’s Concerto?
This will be our first collaboration and I am thrilled to share a stage with this extraordinary artist. The work with a soloist follows the same pattern as for any kind of repertoire: exchange of ideas, listening to each other in order to arrive at a coherent reading of the work which is both aesthetically and emotionally satisfying to us both.
How’s it going with the Monnaie’s Symphony Orchestra? Does a programme like this help to create common ground between the conductor and the orchestra?
There is a huge amount of enthusiasm but also a strong feeling of responsibility. I can’t wait to work with the Monnaie Orchestra again after our marvellous collaboration last year in the Mozart, Dutilleux and Britten concert. This concert programme is ideal as it requires great attention to detail. We are taking a risk: it would have been easier to give a passionate rendition of a work by Tchaikovsky or Mahler. But I want to build something long term with the Orchestra. The process of mutual understanding between a conductor and an orchestra is like any meeting between two individuals: you have to be ready to listen to each other in order to establish a common ground which can be used to build a common artistic vision. This programme offers us that opportunity.
Recorded by Benoît Jacquemin