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Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Transition Without Tears At Benaroya Hall

Ludovic Morlot
Photo:  Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

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.

Roger Downey
Born in Canada moved to Peru's altiplano at the age of six; came to the U.S. at 10 to discover that you don't use your feet to dribble the ball. Learned from the git-go that "America" is an idea, not a place.

5 COMMENTS

  1. I agree with Downey that music directors can stay too long. The players and the audience get tired of their taste and style. A bigger problem is that the donors become more wedded to the conductor than to the institution, making a change of music directors seem so risky as to keep putting it off. This certainly happened with Gerard Schwarz. On the other hand, a conductor can move on too quickly, not getting to know the city and the donor community. That said, the Seattle Symphony now has a challenge: new conductor, new general manager, and new board chair. Still, the team of Ludovic Morlot/Simon Woods/Leslie Chihuly, while not a harmonious trio in recent years, did a lot to reposition the Symphony, hire lots of splendid new players, get out of debt, and fatten up the endowment.

  2. All true – but the institution of “music director” at today’s orchestras is a bit anachronistic. Most conduct a limited number of weeks with “their” orchestra, many don’t live where their orchestras are, and many of today’s orchestras’ best ideas and a great deal of their programming come not from the music director but from artistic people within the orchestra. Seattle is certainly an example of that.

    The traditional structure of today’s orchestras begs for a rethink. We might have been better served by appointing an artistic director who may or may not be a conductor. Then appoint a principal conductor who works with the orchestra musically and is responsible for the training and refinement of the orchestra as an instrument. It would give orchestras more flexibility, but more important, it would better reflect the reality of how artistic direction is determined for many of today’s orchestras.

  3. My fellow Alley-cats make good points. I agree with Doug that arts administration hasn’t caught up with the real conditions of arts production in our time, but I’m more than dubious about the specific model he suggests.

    Most of state-supported groups in Europe have an “Intendant” with strong influence over artistic matters as chief administrator, but it doesn’t prevent squalid power struggles and financial instability or noticeably raise artistic standards.

    In North America, vesting top administrators with any more input to the product would only complete the Marketing Department’s takeover of the whole process. Read the patronizing blather describing every event in the SSO’s season-calendar and tremble.

    • But that’s not the model I’m suggesting. I don’t think it’s an arts administration job, it’s an artistic one. As more and more of an orchestra’s artistic work takes place outside the traditional concert format, the job requires someone who thinks with the whole organization in mind. Cleveland and LA Phil (and others) now regularly produce operas. The SSO has all sorts of late night events, community events and initiatives such as the homelessness project. Rarely do you see the music director leading these events. So de facto they are given lesser status and are often not as well connected artistically to the organization. Additionally, in most orchestras administration is deeply siloed, and the music director rarely gets involved in other parts of the orchestra. So there’s a weird schism between the artistic and production sides. Additionally – some music directors are great at training their orchestra; others are better at programming or performance. With an artistic director – perhaps co-equal with the executive director, you’d have someone who’s targeting strengths and building the parts of the orchestra that need it. Being a brilliant conductor requires a very specialized set of skills. Why do they also have to require other non-podium skills if the conductor doesn’t really excel at them also?

  4. Great article and astute comments. I would add to Doug’s line of thought that the top flight artistic VPs, in the case of Elena Dubinets and COOs, in the case of LA’s Chad Smith, are significant driving forces behind the most important projects orchestras put in front of their communities. Certainly neither Persephone or the Goebbels Surrogate Cities would have happened without Ms. Dubinets artistic reach and vision.

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