Sunday afternoon, Ludovic Morlot concluded eight seasons of imaginative programming and fine music-making with the Seattle Symphony. But perhaps the most notable thing about the moment was not the performance but the lack of tension and uncertainty, the atmosphere of good-will attending the occasion.
Seattle has only four principal conductors in the last 65 years, but transitions between them have not been easy.
Milton Katims, the orchestra’s first full-time maestro, reigned 22 seasons, the last half of them over an ever-more fractious and rebellious ensemble and, at the end, a hostile management as well.
Much was hoped from his youthful German replacement Rainer Miedel, but he and the musicians didn’t warm to each other, and his sudden death from cancer at the age of only 46 left the organization again under pressure to find a replacement.
Gerard Schwarz seemed a savior when he took over in 1985. An experienced musician with some notable credits (conductor of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, music director of Lincoln Center’s summer festival Mostly Mozart) Schwartz hit the ground at warp-speed and his momentum (and artful boardsmanship) kept him going for a decade or so, until an accumulation of irritants (narrow repertory, stiff, mechanical performances, arrogance toward the performers and their concerns) brought the pot again to the simmer around him.
Schwarz passed Katims’ record 22 years in the post in 2007, and hung on while disaffection grew (on the board and in the band) until his fist was pried from the baton just in time for the 2010-2011 season and the appointment of a 36-year-old “principal conductor designate” (what?) named Ludovic Morlot.
Morlot’s first significant appointment had been to assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony, but his simultaneous appearance as head of music in Seattle and at Brussels’ de Munt/Monnaie Opera House brought him a new level of attention.
Even more attention followed when he resigned from the prestigious Brussels position after just three years with the statement “I feel that the orchestra and I have not managed to reach a consensus on an artistic vision, and therefore, for the sake of their development as well as my own, I have made this decision to stand down.”
In Seattle, the relationship between Morlot and the players quickly approached love-match levels. Audiences responded with equal enthusiasm to the blooming atmosphere the pairing generated in the concert hall.
That hall, named after veteran SSO booster Jack Benaroya, was Schwarz’s greatest contribution; his gift for high-pressure, long-term fund-raising presented the city with a venue designed specifically for orchestral music. It also exposed in cruel detail how coarse and ragged the ensemble sounded under Schwarz.
Morlot’s ascension to the podium produced almost immediate improvement. Eight years of his gentle refining hand has allowed the players to develop a fairly distinctive “sound,” with features often described as “French”; dark but voluptuous strings, sonorous woodwinds, and blessedly subdued but still bright brass.
The progress continued through Morlot’s last performance at Benaroya (for now; he’ll be back under the label “principal conductor emeritus” (where do they get these titles?).
And for the first time since the mid-1970s, a new conductor steps aboard the podium with no background sizzle of anxiety, gossip, and standing grudges. Thomas Dausgaard is “new” only to the title. Ten years older than Morlot, he was already established in Europe when he first came as a guest to Seattle in 2013.
He’s been second in command here ever since, while enjoying ever more exposure at events like London’s BBC’s two-month summer festival The Proms. (Morlot made his debut there last summer, but Dausgaard beat him by seven years.)
Morlot engaged us with his musicianship but also with his sunny, sincere personality on the podium. Dausgaard is another breed entirely. He’s not a charmer but a commander, and his performances are more stern but also more tensile and secure than Morlot’s.
We have a lot to learn about his talents and his tastes, but no one, not even that restless band of virtuosi he stands before, can have the least doubt of his capacities as an artist.
Are there any lessons to be learned from the SSO’s jagged history? Perhaps one: 20-plus years making music together is almost certainly too long. Even (Toscanini and the NBC Symphony stuck together for 27, but even he needed a break halfway through.
Eight or so, though, seems to hit the sweet spot. Let us then cautiously relax and look forward to eight more enjoyable years with our 116-year-old town band. And peace—it’s wonderful.